Category Archives: poetry

Ozymandias was problematic

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46565/ozymandias

With the recent uproar over statues, I’m now beginning to wonder who Ozymandias was? We he an Egyptian Pharaoh? Was he an Assyrian or a Persian? Maybe he was my distant ancestor Genghis Khan?

And was Percy Shelley really making a timeless statement about the way the passing of time destroys the memory of great men? Or was he just another white Englishman rejoicing in the “erasure” of ancient cultures not Greek or Roman?

I’m going to have to rate this poem as “problematic,” especially if Ozymandias was a person of color.

A High School English Teacher Grades Famous Writers

E. E. Cummings (B-) “Edward. You should a good deal of creativity and independence of mind but spelling conventions exist for a reason.”

Shakespeare (C+) “Bill. I really liked some of your work, especially the play about the failson who has a thing for his mom and the two young lovers but you tend to take it a little over the top sometimes and just out and out make up words. I’m only being so hard on you because I think you can do better.”

Mark Twain (F): “Mr. Clemens. We do not use the N word in this class. Please resubmit.”

Rimbaud (D): “Monsieur Rimbaud. We really don’t need to know about all the drugs you’ve done. If you want to start a punk band, start a punk band. This is high school.”

Victor Hugo (C+): “Victor. You show some potential and have some interesting stories but you consistently run over the word count limit. You can probably get away with it here but it’s going to hurt you when you get to college.”

T.S. Eliot (F): “Mr. Eliot. You’re not as clever as you think you are. We naive old Boomers have this little program called Turnitin. You have clearly plagiarized much of your ‘poem.’ Putting in footnotes doesn’t excuse it. Please see the Vice Principal. He will arrange a conference with your parents.”

Jonathan Swift: (D): “Ooo. Real edgy about eating babies. Get off the Internet and grow up. This is a class, not shit posting on 8Chan.”

John Milton: (B+): “Pretty good poem, if a bit long. But as my mother used to tell me, mixing politics and religion usually just leads to bad feeling. Next time try to find a more neutral subject.”

Emily Bronte( A-): “We all love the bad boys, especially when we’re young. But see your sister’s paper for a warning. They’re usually hiding something unpleasant in the closet.”

Samuel Beckett: (F): “Some of us are still waiting for the point Sam. Did you even read the instructions?”

Emile Zola (D): “I’m not really interested in your politics. Do better.”

Mark: (A-): “Absolutely terrific story about a poor boy who grows up to be a great teacher and spiritual adviser. Can the subaltern speak? You’ve proven that against the Roman Empire he can. I loved the imagery of the three crosses and that scene where he chases the money changers out of the temple. Terrific writing. But I can’t help but think you got a bit lazy with the ending. What? They kill him and then he just gets up and walks? Reminds me of a bad TV show where the screenwriter resolves the plot by saying it’s all a dream.”

Charles Bukowski (D): “I know you may not want to hear this but you’re actually a privileged white male. You got that unionized job at the Post Office and some better qualified person of color didn’t. Stop being so self-indulgent.”

Noam Chomsky (F): “Right. It’s all the media’s fault. How is that working out for our current President. Fake news. Fake news. And where did you get most of your examples. From the media, of course.”

Phillip Roth (A): “I liked the book about the Nazis taking over New Jersey but the one about the boy jerking off borders on sexual harassment. But I guess I better give you an A because if I don’t you’ll go whining to the ADL.”

William Faulker (D): “I honestly didn’t understand half of what you wrote. And much of it is borderline ableist and racist.”

Karl Marx: (C): “Lazy political writing. You ignore the intersectional complexity of our patriarchal and racist society to concentrate on class. You seem to have gotten most of your idea of what a proletarian looks like from a Springsteen album.”

The Robbers (1781)

If France gave us the greatest revolution, then Germany has given us the greatest revolutionaries, not only Luther, but Karl Marx and Ludwig Von Beethoven. In 1771, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a short epistolary novel called The Sorrows of Young Werther. The revised edition would come out in 1787, only two years before the storming of the Bastille.  A few years later, in 1792, the French Revolution would enter its most radical phase, culminating in the first, and hopefully not the last, red terror.

Ten years earlier, a 19-year-old cadet at the Karlsschule military academy in Stuttgart named Friedrich Schiller was deeply immersed in the plays of William Shakespeare. At some point, probably after reading Richard III, he thought to himself “hey I bet I can write something like this.” Then he sat down and did just that. It was a lot like a similar 19-year-old in the 1980s or 1990s picking up a guitar, playing Stairway to Heaven and saying “hey maybe I can be a rock star” but with one important difference. Schiller was not only a genius, he was a genius open to the collective passions of the age. Over the next few years, he would not only write one of the greatest works of German Romanticism, playing Eddie Vedder to Goethe’s Kurt Cobain, he would predict Robespierre and Marat, Georges Danton and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, for if ever a work of literature could be called “revolutionary” it is The Robbers by Friedrich Schiller. But don’t take my word for it. In 1792, the French National Convention had written a letter making Schiller an honorary citizen of the French republic.

Interestingly enough, Schiller had also written the National Convention a letter asking that they spare the life of King Louis XVI. While that may at first seem a bit surprising, it’s well in keeping with his exploration of revolution, and of its consequences, in The Robbers.

Karl Moor, the plays hero, and his brother, Francis Moor, its villain, represent two sides of modern man, the duality of the human soul under capitalism. Karl, good looking, moody, rebellious, the romantic outcast, embodies a lot of the same qualities that the Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg attributes to herself for being on the autism spectrum. He cares little about convention. He dreams of a more heroic past. He detests “the law,” rank and hierarchy.

Francis, on the other hand, is rational, calculating, diplomatic, the perfect capitalist. “He is a fool,” he thinks while rationalizing to himself his plan to steal his brother’s inheritance, and his girl, “who takes any view that is contrary to his own interest.” The result of this unresolved contradiction, of their father’s inability to mediate between his two very different sons, is disaster, violent revolution, fire, brimstone, death and damnation, the French Revolutionary Terror in a five act play.

But what made the young Schiller a genius was not so much his ability to express the passionate rebellion of youth, but the regrets of middle age. Karl, returning to his family estate, from which he had been banned by his gullible father at the urging of his treacherous brother, looks upon the landscape of his childhood and suddenly realizes the happy future he’s lost. He’ll never get married or have a family with his beloved Amelia. He’ll never grow old watching his children and then his grandchildren take his place. He will live the rest of his life as an outcast and a rebel, a damned soul wandering the earth, never knowing peace or contentment, a son rejected by his father.

The golden age of boyhood lives again in the soul of the outcast. I was then so happy, so wholly, so cloudlessly happy—and now—behold all my prospects a wreck! Here should I have presided, a great, a noble, an honored man—here have—lived over again the years of boyhood in the blooming—children of my Amelia—here!—

Schiller, Friedrich. The Robbers (p. 81). Kindle Edition.

As we near the end of the human species, extinction by global warming, it’s worth meditating on what we’ve lost. The French Revolution and the Enlightenment opened up the possibility of a world transformed through human reason, a society free of hierarchy, exploitation, superstition and ignorance, but it was not to be. Over the course of history, Francis Moor prevailed over Karl Moor, self-interest over the urge for a better, more noble, more poetic world. The Industrial Revolution, which began at about the same time as Schiller sat down to write The Robbers, could have freed us from poverty and back breaking labor. Instead it gave us environmental devastation. The French Revolution and the industrial Revolution could have given us democracy. Instead it gave us capitalism. There’s nothing much to do at this point — for we will not rebel against our own extinction — but mourn what could have been.

Springsteen is Langston Hughes Turned Inside Out

I found this interview rather interesting, especially this line.

“In my songs, the spiritual part, the hope part, is in the choruses. The blues and your daily realities are in the details of the verses.”

https://www.npr.org/2019/03/26/706566556/bruce-springsteen-born-in-the-usa-american-anthem

In Langston Hughes’s poem Let America be America, the (ultimately hollow) patriotic cheerleading is in the verses. The recognition of the USA’s white supremacist history is in the chorus.

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/let-america-be-america-again

In Born in the USA, as Springsteen points out, the dark, negative energy that came out of the imperialist war in Vietnam is in the verses and the affirmation of “America” is in the chorus.

Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up

Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A., born in the U.S.A.

https://genius.com/Bruce-springsteen-born-in-the-usa-lyrics

Interestingly enough, the far right has never tried to appropriate Langston Hughes.

John Keats Died at 25

I didn’t understand Keats when I was 25. I was too strong, too healthy, too oblivious of my own mortality to understand the poetry of a man dying of tuberculosis. But now in middle age I finally understand what he felt when he saw the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum and fell into despair at the thought of the arc of history, something he could understand but never experience.

On Seeing the Elgin Marbles

My spirit is too weak—mortality
   Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
   And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
   Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep
   That I have not the cloudy winds to keep
Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
   Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
   That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—
   A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

A Man Called Ove: Celebrating the Use of Space in Swedish Cinema

What are we beyond our memories? It was just after having a petty argument with the florist, an ignorant teen as she was that Ove first exposes the dimensions of his existence. Grieved by the death of the only love of his life, Sonja, we see him dissipating his space by magnifying his trivialities. A man that knew no work than the one that involved car engines, we see a reflection of unfaithful involvement with life in his disturbed yet deliberate movement. Who is this man; one may ask. There are blatant contradictions in his existence. Who is this being who dejects life and then lives only to uphold every law of it? We get our answers, unwoven thread by thread, in Hannes Holme’s A Man Called Ove.

The most fascinating element of this film is the use of space. We not only see the characters associating meanings to a particular space but also get metaphorically represented by it. For instance, the movie hardly shows us panoramic view of the entire space. Mostly, we are kept in the ‘guarded’ and ‘restricted’ space of Ove’s residential colony, his home and during the latter part of the film, his car. The only instances of open space with elements of movement and divergence come in the flashback scenes from Ove’s childhood and adulthood when there were present, reasons for him to escape linearity. This contradiction in the use of space in the representation of past and present tells us about the importance of life in the eyes of this weary old man called Ove. After the death of his wife Sonja, his life has lost any motivation to move beyond the linearity and hence the only space he restricts himself to is the restricted and regimented space of his residence. Moreover, it is only during his budding friendship with Parvaneh that we see the open space of a restaurant or the city road being brought back to his life (Interestingly he relates such openness with the time he used to have with his wife).

Image result for The Man called Ove

It is hard to deny the metaphorical use of space in the narrative of the film. The one that strikes the most is the train station. It is this space where we see intertwining of Ove’s past, present and a probable future. It is this space that stands for the very nature life; which is nothing but a mosaic of losses and love, of things being built and destroyed. So much so that the moving train almost felt like the ruthless movement of life itself. We are introduced to this space time and again to emphasise on the philosophy that life cannot be contextualised unitarily. It is the semiotic nature of everything that life offers us that makes it beyond every degree human comprehension. One baring example of this can be the scene from Ove’s mother’s funeral.

Lastly, I’ll take this discussion on memories to the use of strong representational symbols. And the one that struck me the most was the cat. Like every morning of life, this cat kept on showing up on Ove’s door, every time more undesirable than before, even after his constant shooing off. As the movie progresses, we can see the changing relationship of the cat with the protagonist that ran parallel to the change in perspective on life that he had. It is when Parvaneh tells him that it is you that have to take care of this cat that I see a bell being rang in Ove’s head telling him that his life shall be engineered by his own volition.

Even though there existed a beautiful sub-narrative that talked about inclusivity and diversity (the fact that Ove became friends with an Iranian refugee and a gay man) it is the natural display of empathy that inspired the screenplay. The very idea that we can delve into each others’ hearts while not being patronising at all speaks volumes about the most important common denominator that we share – humanity.

Image result for The Man called Ove

The Avant-Garde, Zeenat Aman

za1.jpg

The cinema of the 70s is often termed as an era that marveled the art of pop culture reorientation. A decade that immersed itself in the chaos of coming of age screenplay and ever inspired music ensemble, the flights of imagination was anything but predictable. It was during this period that Hindi cinema saw the rise of its one of the most ground-breaking actress, a gifted performer and a formidable fashion icon – Zeenat Aman. The characters that she adorned were unafraid of juxtapositions and oozed liberation that was rarely seen in the public eye. From being an adultress in Dhund (Obsession) to a cheerful prostitute in Manoranjan (Entertainment), Zeenat Aman redefined narratives of gender roles in not only Hindi cinema but also in the entire urban Indian society. A former Miss Asia Pacific (1970), she was the first South Asian woman to win this coveted title. Even though her acting skills were second to none, Zeenat Aman had sealed her name in the history of Indian cinema for her unparalleled contribution in revolutionizing the use of fashion in Hindi movies.

The looks adorned by the lady swing across the spectrum of avant-garde fashion. She had never ceased to reinvent herself and often pushed the boundaries of artistic expression by her V-neck hem slit evening gowns or her infamous Boho looks. This post is a tribute to some of the most foresighted, coming of age and classical fashion statements of the woman that charmed the 70s and cemented her position in the pop culture.

  1. The Boho Chick

Related image

Dubbed as her first block-burster hit, Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971) paved the way for Zeenat’s towering success. What began as a role received by fluke, later unraveled into a timeless performance that got her the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress, and most importantly, her perennial place in the pop culture.

Image result for zeenat aman in dum maro dum

Playing the role of a girl separated from her family who subsequently slips into drug addiction, the character of Janice was unconventional for her period but beheld potential for a memorable performance. And for the visionary as she was, she delivered, and delivered with utmost excellence.

Image result for zeenat aman in dum maro dum

2. The Girl with a Guitar 

When Zeenat Aman held a guitar to belt out a soothing lullaby for her lover in Yaadon Ki Baraat (The caravan of memories), she gave us a melody of a generation. The climatic progression of the music with the innocent smile decorating her face, Chura Liya Hai (Now that you’ve stolen my heart) is the musical beauty of the highest order. Apart form its melodious supremacy, it was this long white gown that etched Zeenat Aman in every man’s heart for years to come. Complementing that look with a choker necklace, she added one more feather to her overtly decorated hat of fashion laurels.

3. The Femme Fatale 

Related image

Although, every song of Zeenat Aman has been a masterpiece in its own right, there is one song that not only concreted her as a superstar but also reflected her ideas of empowerment through sexual liberation. In Laila Main Laila (Laila, I’m Laila), a song that has been subsequently covered by a dozen singers and actresses, Zeenat Aman unleashes her femme fatale and explodes into the space where she adheres to no boundaries, rising above the artificial constructions of gender roles.

Image result for zeenat aman in Laila

In Aap Jaisa Koi (Someone Like You) and Don, she takes her seduction to next level and amalgamates it with her impeccable acting skills to deliver the critically acclaimed performances as a cabaret dancer and a villain respectively.

Image result for zeenat aman in Don Related image

Zeenat Aman had metamorphosed into a multi faceted performer who freed herself from the fear of being judged for her decisions. She pushed the limits of visual representation in Hindi cinema and became an icon for all the actresses that followed. Apart from her mounting commercial successes, she was critically well received for her depiction of a rape victim in Insaaf Ka Taraazu (The Scales of Justice). She was translated as a visionary, an artistic maverick, and a farsighted actress for her coming of age role of a cheerful hooker in Manoranjan (Entertainment). With more than half a ton movies on her name, Zeenat Aman was and will always be the first and the most beloved diva  of Hindi cinema.

za2.jpg

From Renee Smith to Sita Devi: Retrieving the Forgotten Enchantress of Silent Era

sd4

Indian cinema had birthed a fair share of visionaries even before the beginning of what later came to be termed as the Golden era. Under the reigns of the British Raj, certain Indian artists thrived upon the offerings that colonial engagements with art had to offer and used the political situation of the period to engage cinema in a dialogue of cultures. The dialogical development of cinema, with silent movies relying heavily on scenic photography and camera angles, what unraveled on the big screen involved not only the oppressed lot making a statement but also the privileged lot participating in the process. The emancipating nature of art drew many budding filmmakers to garner the global recognition of not only Indian art but also Indian culture in general by using films as language. In this democratising activity of filmmaking, one of the most celebrated manufacturers was Himanshu Rai who dared to look beyond the logistical restrictions of his space to harness a global outlook. However, this post is not about him but about an unsung actor, who despite not being biologically involved in the cultural milieu of the subject matter of her work, adorned many characters in a number of such experimental films. Though, she was born as Renee Smith in an Anglo-Indian family, the cinematic history would remember her as Sita Devi.

The silent movie era of Indian cinema had a brief but eventful affair with German collaboration. Though much has not been written about her, Sita Devi’s momentary presence in Indian films can be seen in these very collaborative projects. When Himanshu Rai joined hands with a Bavarian film company Emelka, a film named Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia) was released in 1925 which was generously budgeted and was directed and produced by Himanshu Rai himself who also appeared as one of the actors. This very film had the young Renee Smith (Sita Devi) playing the character of Princess Gopa, who is decorated quite intricately with the cultural symbols of Buddhist ritualism. This was her debut film, and thanks to her blossoming presence on screen, she became an overnight star. She later went on to work under the banner of Madan productions but could never repeat the success she garnered in her very first film.

sd1

Renee went on to do two other films with this Indo-German collaborative project, which seemed more like a trinity now, that were also classified as period dramas showcasing the grandeur of Indian culture. Interestingly, these three films spanned three different religions (Buddhism, Islam and Christianity) rightly spanning the diverse cultural fabric of the country.

The artistic outlook of Renee Smith and her respect for the art of cinema can be traced from the diversity of roles she played in this trinity and also the distinct nature of each of those characters. Despite sprouting as a star in her very first film, she did not hesitate to play the ‘other woman’ in Shiraz (1928) and a villain in Prapancha Pash (Throw of Dice, 1929). Despite the social perception of that period for such roles and the impact it had on the careers of the actors who played them, Renee chose to explore the shades of her artistic capabilities rather than fearing social stigmatization.

sd2.jpg

The short filmography of this illustrious actor involves many socially unconventional roles in movies such as Bharat Ramani (Enchantress of India, 1929), Bhrantri (Mistake, 1928) and Kal Parinaya (Fatal Marriage, 1930). Despite not being culturally relatable to the majority of the population, the success of Renee Smith established itself upon her ability to immerse herself in the complexities of her character, reaching the finest degrees of method acting. She came across as an exotic representation to many of her contemporary directors, but that only worked towards constructing a strong narrative around the creative credentials of this effervescent actress.

With her films being showcased in German and English to the elite cinematic audience of Europe, including the royal family, a couple of Renee’s films were also immortalized for global audiences with German translations (Das Grabmal einer großen Liebe and Die Leuchte Asiens). It is hard not to mention the famous rumour of the period which said that Renee’s sister Patty was often used as her double in some of the sequences. Renee Smith has been unfortunately forgotten by the repositories of Indian cinema. In her short yet colossal montage of work, Renee aka Sita Devi has displayed the full dimension of her artistic prowess and the lengths of her creativity. I hope the reading of this post will only generate more discussion on this wonderful actor, getting her the rightful place in pop culture, something she so unequivocally deserves.

sd3.jpg

Picture Credits: British Film Institute

Revisiting The Oeuvre of Bazaar-e-Husn

There aren’t many works of cinematic art that become cinematic in their own right. The legacy of these works transcends what is projected on the screen and venture into the arenas of popularity that was quite unintended by the creator itself.

Pakeezah, a Hindi Cinema classic that took almost 15 years to complete, is one such movie whose legacy is unparalleled and finesse unmatched. The fervour around the film was as much due to the stories that revolved around each and every person associated with it as the climactic plot of the film itself.

The journey of making Pakeezah is no less of an odyssey for its director Kamal Amrohi and the lead actress Meena Kumari. They both were in the romantic company of each other both during the commencement and the conclusion of the film, however, going through a judicial separation and an alleged extra-marital affair in between. As much as I would love to delve more into the depths of this theme, the main focus of this work is rather centred upon one of the most intelligently designed sets from the movie – Bazaar-e-Husn.

Translated as a ‘fair of beauty’, Bazaar-e-Husn reflects the budgetary prowess of Pakeezah’s production. Often termed as a perfectionist, Kamal Amrohi had to shed almost a million rupees to build a perfect settlement for a desired reality of erstwhile Muslim royality.

mk5

The set for Bazaar-e-Husn took six months to complete with over 600 men working on it. A publicity material for the film described it as:

“There is nothing make believe in this set. Dozens of genuine shops from the various parts of the country were bodily shifted to the set to lend it the authenticity it demanded. These shops remained on the sets for more than a year involving a payment of huge compensation to their owners. Nothing so fantastic was ever attempted or achieved in a single film.”

Despite involving investment of such magnitude, the set has only been used for just one dance sequence in the entire movie. Since the plot of the movie shifts from Delhi to Lucknow, the only display of Bazaar-e-Husn that we get to see is during the opening mujra of Sahibjaan in Inhi Logon Nai. Despite having such a brief presence, the choreography of Inhi Logon imbued with the charm of Meena Kumari, makes the scenic experience of the establishment quite unforgettable.

In the only dance sequence where the glimpse of Bazaar-e-Husn is shown, we can see the flavour of the tawaif (courtesan) culture of Delhi in its maturity. As Sahibjaan (Meena Kumari) is performing her teasing dance number, we can see a lot of motion behind her that manifests itself as daily routine at such establishments. We can see parallel mujras being performed at other courts and commodities such as betel nuts, ornaments and fruits being sold. Despite the commotion in the streets, one finds it really difficult to take his eyes off from the leading lady and take a moment to ponder upon the life at Bazaar-e-Husn. However, as a myriad of vivacity and vividness, Bazaar-e-Husn not just beautifully merges with the choreography of the mujra but goes on to enhance the aesthetics of it. It provides it with a context that paints a picture in the viewer’s conscience which is like a medieval portrait of a desired escape.

mk4

Apart from the monetary shelling, a lot of artistic capital also went on to contribute to the making of this enchanting establishment. Hundreds of dancers were specifically trained for months just for the picturization of that brief mujra sequence of Inhi Login Ne. This not only gives us a glimpse of Kamal Amrohi’s traits of perfection but also goes on to expose his tremendous respect for the art that he intended to pursue.

If Pakeezah was Amrohi’s dearest creation, Bazaar-e-Husn would undoubtedly be his most vivid fantasy. As the making of the movie saw no signs of completion, and while being intertwined in a personal turmoil, Amrohi never shed a single shade of doubt on his brainchild. In an interview which he gave to Time Magazine for the project that he had penned, directed and also intended to act in, he said –

‘Jab tak Pakeezah khatm nahi ho jaati, tab tak mujhe maut bhi nahi aayegi’

(Even death is waiting for me to finish Pakeezah)

mk1

Pictures: National Film Archives of India