Sunday, May 29, 2005

Rushdie and Atheism

Salman Rushdie has an interesting article in the Toronto Star, written with his (characteristic) wit and candor. In response to books published by some scientists who argue that athiesm's hostility to faith is responsible for the rise of creationism in America and that "Not believing in God is no excuse for being virulently anti-religious or naïvely pro-science," Rushdie points out (correctly, I think) that such a gesture can be real only if reciprocated. And clearly, that is not forthcoming. In his words:

Such a truce would have a chance of working only if it were reciprocal — if the world's religions agreed to value the atheist position and to concede its ethical basis, if they respected the discoveries and achievements of modern science, even when these discoveries challenge religious sanctities, and if they agreed that art at its best reveals life's multiple meanings at least as clearly as so-called "revealed" texts.

No such reciprocal arrangement exists, however, nor is there the slightest chance that such an accommodation could ever be reached.
That said, arguments like this are invariably of the I-would-do-it-if-he-could variety; you know, the ones when you want a kid to stop fighting and he won’t do it because he claims the other guy keeps hitting him. Just look at all the arguments whether the American media has a liberal bias or a conservative one. Eric Alterman of the Nation has been screaming himself hoarse about the media’s conservative bias. Paul Krugman keeps saying it time and again in his NYT columns. And Andrew Sullivan, in his blog keeps reiterating the opposite. Me? I take refuge in Daniel Okrent’s NYT column as the public editor. Speaking for the NYT, he says that “the paper is the inevitable product of its staff's experience and worldview, and that its news coverage reflects a generalized acceptance of liberal positions on most social issues”. Amen to that. (And a generalized acceptance of liberal positions is inevitable, no?)

But back to the atheism question. Who is undermining whom? I believe that the so-called resurgence of the religious right is a rear-guard action. No, I don’t mean to minimize its significance. True, it’s a pretty big movement and it won’t be easy. But that’s what it is: the dying gasp of an institution that has been forced inexorably away from public life. Look at the debate raging in Kansas on Intelligent Design. (I wasn’t even aware of the damn thing till some time last year…). I won’t go into the scientific basis for ID (except that it is not falsifiable and hence not scientific). But the very fact that people who support the introduction of ID in schools come from the religious right tells us something. That in order to oppose “godless” evolution, the religious right has come to support a theory that is as far removed from creationism as can be. Except for some vague allusions to a Designer what does ID really have in common with the Book of Genesis? Isn’t it highly significant that the debate in Kansas is on Intelligent Design and not on creationism? We should be rejoicing, not moping!

Once the religious right is seen as a dying force (albeit a powerful one even in its death throes), the question remains: how do we deal with it? For the life of me, I have no idea. As always in a democracy, we could perhaps strike a balance. Stand firm on the issues that are genuinely important (abortion, the study of evolution, church-state separation) and maybe, giving in on the less important ones (such as the public display of the 10 commandments)?.

ps: I was only going to blabber on about movies in this blog. But then I thought - what the hell? Whats the use of having these thoughts if I don't vent 'em? :)

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

In the first twenty-odd minutes of Only Angels Have Wings, director Howard Hawks pulls off a miracle. With barely a shot of a flying plane, or the pilot’s point-of-view, he creates a scene, which in its intensity, is more than a match for any special-effects action extravaganza that I have seen.

A young woman has just arrived in a South American port on her way back to the States. This is the time of the birth of aviation, before the First World War. The port has a small air-base which uses propeller-driven airplanes to ferry cargo to and fro. The hitch? A mountain which needs to be flown over and which often gets obscured by fog. The woman is befriended by two pilots, who’re clearly in need of some feminine company. She takes a fancy to one of them, a handsome all-American type; even his name is Joe. He asks her to have dinner with him; she agrees but he has to make a flight and a thick fog has settled in. He promises her he’ll be back soon and takes off; she stays with the crew and the head of the station. But the fog is too much; he cannot reach his destination; the captain asks him to come back and land; but now the airstrip is almost invisible. The crew on the ground try and give him directions by simply listening for the sound of the engine and using their intuition to judge where he is; Joe almost crashes while landing; the captain asks him to stay up till the fog lifts; Joe says he wants to land; after all, there’s a pretty girl he wants to have dinner with; he tries landing again, crashes and dies.

All of this happens in the first twenty-five minutes and it is breathtakingly orchestrated. In complete and supreme control of his material, Hawks introduces the early days of flight, unsafe, and without the instruments that are so indispensable to flying today; the early pilots, pioneers all, who risked death every time they flew and who did it, for the money, for the adventure, for the sheer joy of flight, who knows why! Best of all, he constructs a scene of a plane crashing with barely an aerial shot, where the reactions of the onlookers take us right into their heads (and hearts) and the tragedy that results feels exactly as it would have felt to someone in the situation: disconcertingly sudden, strangely disorienting, and suffused with the kind of sadness that is known rather than felt.

But Only Angels Have Wings is not a sad film. It is a film with a heart of gold, which knows that its asset is its heart of gold and its belief that adversity brings out the best in men, which tries charmingly to put up a tough exterior, but only so much so that it’s golden heart comes through. Do I sound cynical? If I do, it’s unintentional because I genuinely loved this film. It is a superlative example of populist film-making; a film without pretensions to profundity; helmed by a director who knows exactly what he wants and populated by actors who know exactly what their director is aiming for. It works brilliantly.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

What would one know? It turns out that the great Ram Gopal Verma is a fan of Ayn Rand. His heroine, Reva, in Naach is a female version of that supreme egotist - Howard Roark. Reva spends most of Naach being insufferable sure of herself, gazing stony-faced at her
lover Abhi or dancing through her steps with a kind of pouty defiance that is supposed to stand for artistic satisfaction but is clearly Antara Mali's failed stab at icy eroticism.

Naach may not be a loony call to individualism as Rand's FountainHead is. It is however Ram Gopal Verma's confessional: where he tells us what drives his work and the constant compromises that he's forced to make working with the Bombay film industry. His critique of Bollywood films is on the dot (and I agree with him on almost everything here): that Bollywood plots are frozen in the boy-meets-girl mode, that we have embraced mediocrity in the way we refuse to experiment even within our framework, and that we lack a small-scale independent movement that can offer a reasonable alternative to the commercial mainstream. The three main characters, offer, at different points, Verma's thoughts. Abhi is Verma's pragmatic side, willing to make compromises to get things done. Reva is what he'd like to be (but thankfully, is not) - uncompromising, unbending, and rigid.

Of course, Verma himself has succeeded in the same industry while retaining his own rough edges although I grant that his status is nothing like whats accorded to upstarts like Karan Johar, Aditya Chopra or old hands like Subhash Ghai (at whom Verma makes a pointedly cheap dig. Whats cooking, Ramu?) or Yash Chopra. Yet Verma has made commercially successful yet highly ndividual films himself. He has made musicals like Rangeela, Daud and Mast, gritty
crime-tales Satya (his masterpiece and one of the best films ever) and Company, and low budget experiments with horror (Bhoot, Raat, Kaun). Granted that there were elements in all these films where he compromised. For instance Satya was conceived as a realist
songless film. Yet when Verma did decide, out of commerical pressure, no doubt, to add songs to he narrative - he arrived at a way to make the songs merge seamlessly with the narrative which akes Satya even more of an artistic triumph. The two songs in Company are hip and stylish - in sync with the movies tone. This, I argue, has always been Verma's greatest contribution. He has orked within the Bollywood genre even as he has successfully tinkered with it. For instance, with his distinctive use of music, he has worked with composers from A. R. Rehman to SAndeep howta - none of whose work is in any way traditional.

Given how personal Naach is, its suprising that it is Verma's weakest film to date. The narrative is flaccid; it proceeds languidly almost like a tableux, but never really becomes interesting. Quickly sketched conversations fade into each other and the characters have no life beyond the artistic. Its a sign of how much I expect from Verma that I took Naach's different "look" for granted. Verma uses hues of blue and black; its a welcome sight to watch a film from Bombay that doesn't bombard us with reds, maroons, yellows and pinks. But Verma's fixation on Antara Mali's body does get a bit too much at times. The camera roams her body in boringly fetishistic detail; boring because Mali and her director concentrate too much on being sensous rather than imply being. In a deeper way, the problem is Mali herself. She's a competent actress but she has always relied on physicality to convey her characters. Reva, on the other hand, is the quiet artist who is supposed to be seething inside (creatively, of course). Mali's acting choices are correct; she underplays but she just cannot convey the artistic turmoil that is raging inside Reva's head. (I'd have preferred Sushmita Sen myself). We are supposed to go into raptures when Reva dances but beyond capturing certain zen-like demeanor and a performer's reflexes, she never comes close to reaching that kind of transcendent grace that at least her director thinks she does. Ultimately this is Naach's weakest link: the dances that Reva creates are as bad (or as ordinary) as the ones she hates. What could be more damning for a movie that celebrates dance?