Thursday, March 09, 2006

I Spik Gud Inglis

When it comes to being lucky, few things can match being borne into a Gujarati family. And if you are brought up in Gujarat and have studied in a Gujarati School; than you are definitely lady luck’s chosen one. Simply because being a Gujarati bestows upon you several privileges. If you study in a Gujarati school you have some special facilities which are not available anywhere else on this earth. First, you are always good at mathematics. However, the definition of mathematics here is limited to Subtraction, Addition, Multiplication and Division. It doesn’t include spiritually depressing elements like trigonometry, algebra and calculus. (Frankly speaking, there was a period of 6 months in my life when I seriously believed that Calculus was a Greek guy; probably brother of Herculus). Second, you never have to enervate your body, mind and soul in scorching heat under the name of physical training (PT), and you can keep your mind fresh for dealing with tough mathematics (refer to the definition given above). Once an innocent classmate asked me “Why the class is called ‘PT’, in which we just run here and there?” I answered “Because it is dedicated to PT Usha.” (Don’t laugh!! See the GK).Well, you could see the problem here. It was my lack of knowledge of the English language; that didn’t allow me to blossom the way I deserved. Well, you would ask me that as per national education policy (Do we have one?); education of sports is a must. Agreed! In fact, we did study sports officially. Even took exams. But only written exams. Hence, without ever having played football, we knew all the rules, number of referees, height and width of the goal post and transfer fees of David Beckham.
However, life in a Gujarati School is not all roses. There is one weak element which haunts me even today, and that is English. Learning English is something that doesn’t come naturally to us. The reason is simple. Gujarati has its roots in Sanskrit. Moreover, it has heavy influence of Farsi and Arabic. So! We are too far from English that has highly unscientific Anglo-Germanic roots. An English teacher of mine used to pronounce Creature and Minoture (Probably in the story of Icarus) as crietyur and minotyur. Thanks to my ever circumspect reliable Gujarati genes, I had keenly observed, with profound academic interest, posters of than recently released horror cine classic, 'Hungry Vultures', on public toilets (written in Devnagari script also, for its target audience!); I brought to my teacher’s attention the potential error in pronouncing ‘ture’. Needless to say, he kicked me out of the class, blaming that I was discussing things out of syllabus and distracting the class. Yes, welfare is a bigger priority than knowledge in Gujarat. The environment around me was also very influential. Gujarati kids, along with tummy and tobacco also inherit some intelligence. Hence, in their childhood they create their own pronunciations, their own vocabulary. Some of our neighbors used to say that they liked Errotizments on TV. I was under their awe, until I discovered that the real word was Advertisements. Another biggest thing that plagues our development in English language is that we assume some English words to be Gujarati, and eventually try to translate them back to English. Some of my classmates believed that Sauce (as in Tomato Sauce) is a Gujarati word. Hence, when they went to US, in the supermarkets they started asking, “Please give me a tomato sausage.” Till recent past, I thought that Rickshaw was a Gujarati word. Once at Gandhi Ashram I bumped into some foreigners. They asked me, “How could we go to the Airport?” I wanted to tell them that they should take a Rickshaw. But my ignorance and creative gujarati genius made me tell them, “You should take the three-wheeler taxi.” They preferred walking. So original!!

Due to our relative disadvantage in English, we are also discriminated against. In several jobs, Swamies, Chopras and Chakroborties, score over us, just because they fake some weird accent. You may not believe but even in sports, we have to face discrimination due to English. Once I joined a Cricket Academy (Of course, run by a non-Gujarati; Gujarati would believe only in theory, e.g. Parthiv Patel). However, I was kicked out of it because of English. Why? Well, because, I believed that Coach is past tense of ‘To Catch’. (Too much of knowledge). Gujaratis know the art of saving money. They apply this to language also. In English, in thousands of words, we needlessly attach an ‘h’ to an‘s’. But gujaratis respect the identity, completeness and self-sufficiency of an ass (‘s’). Hence they avoid pronouncing ‘h’. E.g. Siris Sah of Sahpur has a su sop (for puritans – Shirish Shah of Shahpur has a Shoe Shop). Once a thankless non-Gujarati professor of ours, dared to ask a classmate, Sasank (technically Shashank) to speak loudly 5 times, “She sells, sea shells at sea shore”. Sasank, a true Gujarati, loudly pronounced “Se sells se sells at si sor” for 5 times. The professor now speaks only Korean, when in Gujarat. Sasank was so proud of his achievement! However, the same Sasank was left clueless, when he was denied a US Visa for “Using abusive language at the Visa office”. Actually, the lady visa officer asked him about his favourite English author. Unfortunately, the only name that came to his mind was ‘Shakespeare’! However there is one thing, I have never quite understood, i.e. why we Gujarati tinker with the breadth of the pronunciation? E.g. 'hotel' becomes 'hawtel' and 'board' becomes 'bawrd'. But the reverse happens with tall (toll) and stall (stole). Once my friend Golwala, who has a sweet mart (sweets are staple food of 90% Gujaratis, the rest live below poverty line), introduced me to Pravin from Dhrangadhra, “This is Pravin, he rapes snakes in my shop.” What was he doing? Combination of Harmesh Malhotra (The director of Nagin and Nigahein) and Gulshan Grower (A bollywood actor who has over 100 rape-scenes to his credit, in his illustrious movie career)? I recovered my senses when I was told that his real occupation is to wrap snacks in the restaurant. My friend from Rajkot once told me that he lives in raw house; I wondered why he didn’t live in a finished one? Well, it was a row-house (typical word used in India for a number of houses constructed adjacent to each other in a row) and not raw house.

Another peculiarity of our English is that we change original words because we fall in love with them. Out of sheer love, we cajole these words, which at times is jeered at by ignorant non-Gujarati puritans. E.g. while getting pampered by a Gujarati – Smart becomes smarty, proud becomes proudy, wide becomes widy, side becomes sidy etc. In an engineering school in Modasa, once a student arrived late. When the professor asked him the reason, he said that he had some psyche problems. After detailed investigations it was unearthed that his bicycle had a flat tier. But you know, bicycle is cycle and cycle is cyckie, which we took as psyche. Ah! The Gujarati Creative Genius!

Well, Gujaratis may not be great at English. Their pronunciations may not be perfect. But than the whole world speaks English with the native accent. The only problem is that we somehow magnify this issue in India and especially in Gujarat. It’s unfortunate to see that some Gujarati kids, just to show that they speak English, try to speak even Gujarati with an English accent. But this becomes a matter of debate time and again. If students who study in Gujarati school are not good at English, than its not because they can’t learn English, rather it’s because they are taught in a wrong manner. In our schools we are indoctrinated with a sense of inferiority in terms of English language. We are always told that English is a ‘tough subject’; nobody tells us that it’s an ‘easy language’. My trivial experience with foreign languages has made me believe that Gujarati is a very 'complete language'. Proper knowledge of Gujarati can help us grasp other languages better. Not only Gujarati is one of the sweetest languages but as I mentioned before, technically as well as literally it is one of the most complete languages. Gujarati has a wide array of cerebral, dental, guttural, labial and semi-vowel sounds, which is not so easy to find in other languages. Literally it is a complete language because it can accommodate such wide and vivid forms of poetry such as Ghazal (Mariz), Geet (many ……), Haiku (Snehrashmi), Sonnet (Kalapi), Nazm (Mariz), Meter less (Suresh Dalal) etc, etc? Other than poetry, Gujarati is a unique language where various literary experiments like poem-dramas (Nhanalal) and Harmonika (A unique combination of poetry and prose by Madhu Rye) have been successfully carried out. I just want to convey a small message to all the education-reformists of Gujarat; ‘We shouldn’t worry about speaking English like The English, we should rather worry about speaking Gujarati like The Gujarati’.

(The positive features of Gujarati language that I have highlighted above are found in many other languages. I talk about Gujarati, because it's my mother tongue and hence I assume the right to speak with authority. The point is not that Gujarati is superior to any other language, rather that it is not inferior to any other language. For that matter, no language is inferior to other languages.)

Monday, March 06, 2006

Water - A Review

At times, we watch movies, with a purely masochistic inclination. We watch the movie, because we predict that it will hurt, it will cause pain, it will provoke thoughts and it won’t let us sleep. But we do it because we seek pleasure in that pain. For similar reasons I watched Water by Deepa Mehta, and well! I got what I wanted; pain, disturbance, thoughts and of course pleasure.

Did I like the movie? It’s difficult to answer. I can say that movie disturbed me and there were moments when I really regretted having watched it, but than I should also say that if I happen to direct a movie someday, I would like to make a movie like Water. Water is purely a director’s movie. At times, directors use deceptive scripts to leave a deep impact on the viewer’s mind. In a deceptive script, you lead the viewer to believe in one storyline and force him to predict the progress of the story and suddenly thud him with a shock. Shyamalan did that in Sixth Sense effectively. It is easier to do that in a thriller or suspense. But Deepa Mehta does it wonderfully in a social drama. She disappointed big time in Fire, but this time she has done a brilliant job.

The movie starts with an 8-year old Chuiya becoming widow. She isn’t even aware as to what being a widow means? She is sent to a separate Ashram. There are 14 women who live in this house for Hindu widows, an old, forlorn two-storey house. These widows are forced to live a life of social alienation and poverty. The women are sent here to expiate bad karma, but more often than not, to relieve their families of financial and emotional burden. She hates almost everyone here. She lives in the constant hope that her mother will come to take her. However, she makes good friends with a young beautiful widow Kalyani (Lisa Ray). Another important character in the Ashram is that of Shakuntala (Seema Viswas), who is not brave enough to question traditions but also is not dumb enough to surrender to taboos, she treats Chuiya with a parent-like affection but also maintains a strange distance very typical of the place. And there is Madhumati (Manorama), an unchallenged leader of the Ashram. Madhumati’s only friends are her pet parrot Mitthu and the pimp eunuch Gulabi (Raghuvir Yadav), who not only keeps Madhumati supplied with ganja, but also with the latest gossip. To survive, the two also indulge into a side business; Gulabi helps Madhumati to prostitute Kalyani (Lisa Ray) and ‘sending’ her to the houses of the elite of the city. A fresh graduated lawyer Narayan (John Abraham) accidentally meets Kalyani at the ghat and immediately falls in love. Kalyani, also attracted to Narayan, cannot get him out of her mind and starts refusing to oblige Madhumati and her `clients.' Meanwhile Narayan ponders how he can arrange a clearly forbidden meeting. Narayan finds a way to meet with Kalyani and during a covered buggy ride through the British section of the city, declares his intent to take her away to Calcutta. Kalyani returns to the widows' house and whispers the secret of her wedding plans to Chuyia, who is thrilled at the prospect of a wedding feast where one can eat as many sweets and forbidden food as one desires. Chuyia unfortunately blurts out the couple's secret to Madhumati, and all hell breaks loose at the house for Hindu widows. Suddenly Kalyani's resistance to being ferried across the waters by Madhumati's pimp makes sense. Not only has Madhumati lost a source of income, but also the disgrace of a widow's re-marriage will doom them all to seven lifetimes of being re-born as jackals. Madhumati menacingly enters Kalyani's isolated hovel, throws her to the floor, shears her long black hair and locks her up until she `comes to her senses'. Shakuntala, over the protests of the other widows, unlocks the door to Kalyani's room. It's a quiet act of rebellion that leaves everyone speechless. A liberated Kalyani walks out of the house, Madhumati's booming voice following her. Kalyani bathes in the ghats, washing away the cruel face of her tormentor, and walks to the small deserted temple where Narayan is waiting for her. Narayan tenderly explores her sheen hair and in a whisper asks her once again if she will marry him. At this point, the movie seems to be heading towards a very clich├ęd bollywoodish fairytale-like climax. But no! This is not ‘memoirs of the geisha’. This is where the beauty of direction comes to life. The director forces you to predict the climax. And than the story takes a turn, as does the boat heading towards Narayan’s home. Why? What happens next? Well, I shouldn’t reveal the story. What follows next is shocking, touching, thought-provoking, extremely painful and cinematically brilliant.

Water, caught itself amid grave controversy in the very early stage of the shooting. It’s true that the story has some shocking elements, but I didn’t find it offending Indian cultural. Rather, I found it to be a very good story and brilliantly executed in one of the finest movies of recent times. Some of the scenes really leave a deep impact on you. Throughout the movie, there are many dialogues criticizing Gandhi and his ideology. But these dialogues are put in such a wonderful context that it in a way conveys the tremendous impact that Mahatma Gandhi had on the social, political and even religious psyche of the masses. In fact, in the climax, Gandhi’s teachings emerge as an alternative to tabooed concept of religion. Overall, it’s a story of introspection. It’s an attempt to look for our own weaknesses and our own problems.

So far as performances are concerned everyone has done an excellent job. The young girl Sarala who plays Chuyia is brilliant. Manorama, a crooked vamp of yesteryears gives one of her best performances. It is difficult to imagine anybody else in that role. Lisa Ray has lots of limitations as an actress. But here, her role is written in such a way that she really fits the character very well. In fact, her roll is so well written that it’s difficult not to fall in love with the character. John Abraham has an important character and he does a very good job too. However, I do feel that he didn’t do enough homework on his diction and accent. His Hindi sounds a bit ‘metro-ish’ and doesn’t carry either clarity or feel of Hindi spoken in Hindi-belt during 1930s. Veterans Wahida Rehman and Kulbhooshan Kharbanda also shine in smaller roles. Raghuvir Yadav is superb as ever. He sings a thumari in one scene while taking Kalyani to a ‘client’ and that sounds so melodious! However, Seema Viswas steals the show. Her role is the most complicated and challenging and she is just awesome.

Water is not without limitations. Movie was shot in Sri Lanka. Outdoors even though beautiful, have a tropical Kerala-like look and it is hard to accept it as Varanasi. Moreover, at the Ghat they show South Indian marriage ceremony taking place. I have never been to Varanasi, and it’s difficult to say how many south Indian marriages used to take place at Ganga ghat of Varanasi in 1930s. When Kalyani leaves the Ashram and meets Narayan, there is a symbolic scene where widows are shown playing Holi inside the Ashram. The scene has a strong symbolic impact but somehow I didn’t find it consistent with the rest of the movie. However, the biggest letdown of the movie is the last slide. After a fantastic climax, a slide appears where it is written that still in India there are some million widows and many of them are maltreated. This piece of information is completely unnecessary and kills the impact of the subtlety of the script. Whatever, the point that director wants to make, is already made with the movie in the strongest possible manner, and the extra piece of reinforcement actually spoils the spirit.

Well, finally this is a very good movie. I strongly recommend all of you to watch it at least once.