Tag Archives: movies

The Venus Flytrap: Kabali As Political Text, In The Right Context

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Growing up – as a Sri Lankan Tamil with an Indian passport who lived in Malaysia for 17 years – there was only one representation of that last country in Tamil cinema. Kollywood’s stars would shoot song numbers there, dancing in front of arbitrary things – pink buses, for instance – and architectural landmarks. It would infuriate me to watch, back then. How could filmmakers promote, touristically and aspirationally, a nation that held people of Indian descent under institutional subordination and cultural indenture?  When the Kabali poster appeared, I thought it would be one more such glorification.

By the time I learned what it was really about, most tickets were sold out. By some movieland miracle, I found myself seated at a theatre with two friends, one of whom had ecstatically called after his first viewing the previous day to say, “You have to watch it. I never told you or asked you about this, but when we first met I heard from my contacts in Malaysia how you had narrowly escaped detention under the Internal Security Act for fighting for Indian rights there.”

In 2007, after two years of tracking illegal temple demolitions and personal struggle to remain in Malaysia, I wrote that any nation that operates on a system of racial superiority and inferiority, as Malaysia does through its Constitution, is under apartheid. The term has now come into parlance, but at that time no one had ever publicly declared it. This attracted the ire of the said government. I was 22, briefly (I thought) in India; I could not go back.

What came first: ethical compass or compassion? I remember exactly when my politicisation deepened. June 2006: a photograph of an Indian gardener whose daughter had died of meningitis at a National Service camp. There was no clear-cut systemic element, no reason for activism. But I looked at that forlorn image and saw in his futility the burden and spiritual fracture of generations of disenfranchisement. It changed me, and my life, forever. Kabali reminded me of the pathos of that photo.

Kabali makes no sense to an Indian audience unaware of diasporic challenges. Around me, the theatre clapped raucously at random bits, but not for the political touchpoints. Me? I wept copiously. Because to those who know, the code is obvious. We know why the antagonist is played by a non-Malaysian actor with an accent so wrong he doesn’t even pronounce the slur “keling” correctly. We know why Kabali agitates against British and Chinese men, but not the Malay-run government. We know why the temple demolitions are in flashback and not in true chronological context. We know the name “Tiger” is an unflattering (thus accurate) allusion to Eelam.

The Malaysian release has a different ending, with Kabali submitting to authoritarian pressure. Like every compromise (and there are many) made in this film, it was worth it. Because if Pa. Ranjith hadn’t made them, it simply couldn’t have been released there.

And there is where it is most needed, among people who deserve to see themselves in truthful, powerful pop cultural lights. The political coding may be deep, but so is the healing that art makes possible.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 28th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Going There And Going Back

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When I tell people that my favourite film is Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También, they do not understand. They do not understand how this coming-of-age story about two Mexican boys could be the film that I love the most; what could I possibly see of myself in it? But it is true. It is the one film that I can slip into seamlessly, without knowing when or where or if at all I will cry, without expectation, without the hyper-attentiveness that jades so many of our viewings of the films we think of as panaceas, as personal religion.

Like all great stories, this one lends itself to many perspectives. There is its strident sociopolitical commentary, the subtle, powerful and altogether unusual rendering of the female gaze in a manner devoid of fanfare, and of course, the pain, comedy and sensuality of lust. But those are a deconstructionist’s ways of approaching a film that is all these things but in its essence, far more. Ultimately, all that remains are the teenagers, Julio and Tenoch, and Luisa, the woman who lets them spirit her away to look for a secret beach that they invent spontaneously as a joke.

In one way or another, not one of them returns to the city. The journey changes them all. One finds absolution. The others slip back into their lives, disconcerted to find that it does go on, that memory is a broken record but the passage of time is rarely so sentimental.

Like anyone who has ever been on a highway in the wee hours of dawn, under a sky so bruised, so dark like a heart, I am enamoured by the quintessential romance of the road trip. The self suspended between someplace and someplace else. I feel geographical attachments viscerally. Some of the most poignant moments of my life have been in the infinite silence of this suspension.

Poignant because happiness is a thing of hindsight. Julio and Tenoch have no idea that this trip – this joke, this cheap thrill of whisking this attractive older woman off in their car in aimlessly hedonistic pursuit – will contain so much. They do not know while it happens that they will see joy for what it is only in the wake of devastation, and that perhaps it will never again be so uncomplicated, so complete.

We come so far, we cut so deep. And then we flee the scene, retreating back into life as we believe we know it. But whether we choose this or not, we become like the monk in the Japanese poem made famous by Elizabeth Gilbert who stands atop a mountain and watches the world unfurl before him, all its secrets within his sight. And like the monk we return to the marketplace, to ordinariness, forever carrying the mountaintop under our robes.

And above all else, this may be why Y Tu Mamá También resonates so deeply with me: I cannot name my favourite scene. There is no one sequence so conspicuous in my mind that it outshines the rest, and this is why it feels so much like life. The experiences that shape us most are like mirrorballs, catching the light at different angles, revealing different facets at each one. We spend the rest of our lives turning them over and over, always finding something startling. We spend the rest of our lives trying to understand those moments, to encapsulate them somehow in anecdotes or inspired art. We spend the rest of our lives trying to go back.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: In The Mood For Nostalgia

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I once lived in a house that had only one article of art on its living room walls: a smallish framed poster from Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love. In retrospect, it was almost a mockingly ironic statement for that home, but that’s another story altogether.

It was some years before I finally watched the film myself, and when I did, I appreciated all those things that others have spoken enough of – its simmering sensuality, its restraint and its canonical status as a paean to impossible love are but examples. But I will confess: there was nothing I adored nearly as much as Maggie Cheung’s cheongsams.

When I think of the word “exquisite” I think of Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient, her fine hair and features glowing in the desert in that other magnificent story of impossible love. When I think of the word “elegant” I think of Maggie Cheung in that blue cheongsam with the roses, telling the husband of the woman having an affair with her own not to get an apartment where they can meet and, clandestinely, write. From scene to scene, carrying with delicate grace a different cheongsam in each one, she held me transfixed. But the blue one – that’s the one I want.

Although they look nothing alike, in my mind, the cheongsam is like the saree, a garment about which I am passionate. Both are explosively sexy in their sheer subtlety. They burn slow. They smoulder. The cheongsam obscures even the clavicle, but observe Cheung’s voluptuousness of hip as she climbs up and down stairs and try to tell me honestly that it doesn’t mesmerize you more than a cornucopia of cleavage.

Maggie Cheung in In The Mood For Love is like a Shanghainese print advertisement from the 1930’s come to life. I’ve always had a love for those. Like Hindu calendar art, they are astoundingly gorgeous kitsch that few people seem to care about. Beautiful women with little roses in their hair and willow-like grace selling beer, soap and other assorted irrelevances; I wish the artistic value of these ads survived alongside their motives in the modern world.

I don’t think I will ever have a poster of that film on the walls of any house I live in again. But I will have those old prints. And when I do I will think not just of how pretty they are, but of every association they connote: bazaars I wandered in looking longingly at frames, knowing that there were no homes or walls in them that were mine enough then to place them on, people I knew, films I loved. I will dream of China.

We travel to run away. We travel, like Tony Leung in the same film, to whisper our secrets into the souls of buildings and trees and hope they never escape into the lives we return to. And sometimes we cannot travel at all, because the places we yearn for exist only as either memory or mirage, and so we watch.

Perhaps one day I will go to China to find myself a blue cheongsam with roses on it, because you can be anyone you want to be where nobody knows you. I’ll sit in some café deliberately evocative of a bygone Shanghai and think of the incandescence of my friend the poet-countertenor Cyril Wong singing Chinese opera in a small theatre in Jakarta last year. I’ll be as embarrassingly strange and guilty of wanting to possess the exotic as Nat King Cole’s heavily-accented rendition of Quizas Quizas Quizas, yes, but at least I won’t deny the heartbreak beneath wanting any of it in the first place.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

A Little Live-Blogging

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I’ve seen Julie Taymor’s Frida maybe 25 or 30 times, for what I assume would be obvious reasons.

I’m watching it right now on the World Movies channel. There’s a good deal of expected censorship, and some quaint re-subtitling, like “fucking revolution” becoming “stupid revolution” (the expletive inaudible). Cutely enough, some expletives, like pinche, are not translated but kept in the subtitles.

But what took the cake, so far — and we’re only at the part where Alejandro comes to tell Frida he’s leaving for Europe — is when “vagina”, in a purely medical sense, gets subtitled as…

elsewhere.

Update: OMG! “I’ve always wanted a man with melones bigger than mine” (one of my fave lines from the film, because, umm, it happens to be a preference of mine too) becomes… “I’ve always wanted a man who was better than me”.

!!!

Hmm. I think I’ll post up an old article I wrote on my weakness for chubby men soon…