Finding Fellowship

LOTRFOTRmovieA couple of weeks ago, I realised it had been nearly 15 years since The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring came out. This had two effects: one, it made me feel incredibly old (didn’t help that one of my friends looked at a picture of Arwen and said ‘Oh, her! That movie came out when we were kids, man’) and two, I just had to go rematch it and marvel at the fact that despite its age, the movie’s effects and such are still top notch. All those Elves and Men toppling off cliffs for no apparent reason at the beginning—good stuff.

I can safely say that watching the first Lord of the Rings movie was one of the hallmark moments of my life thus far. I’d like to believe that it will always be an important point, one that biographers will research painstakingly, hunting down the man (or his descendants) who ran the ‘VCD/DVD’ rental place from which I borrowed it, my school friends who were treated to my first squealing impressions of it, possibly paging through my middle school diaries to find out what exactly I had written after watching it (I should find those before they fall into the wrong hands). It will be a chapter all on its own, titled with the appropriate Unworthy headline: ‘Girl watches a movie. What happened next changed her life.’

Basically, I really liked it.

No, that’s an understatement. I loved it. I watched the Fellowship of the Ring (henceforth referred to as FOTR) on my lonesome on a sunny evening in Hyderabad, a pirated VCD (three of them, to be precise) spooling out its secrets and inviting a 12 year old me to Middle Earth (I actually watched the movie in 2002, you see, missing the hype in December). I was still reading the books, and had just about trudged into The Two Towers, so some of the characters who popped up perplexed me. Plus, I was really sad they’d cut out Tom Bombadil, since I genuinely enjoyed the chapters about him.

Well, I was 12 years old and he was the only vaguely childish character in the book. You can’t blame me.

Aragorn_in_Forest

What did I love about it? Everything. Sure, some of the characters were not how I had pictured them, and there was no Old Forest or beauteous Glorfindel, and Gollum was way creepier than I had anticipated, but I was awestruck by the fact that someone had taken this world, so lovingly build by Tolkien, and converted it to such beautiful film. The settings, the costumes, the fights—everything screamed labour and detailing, and had evidently been put together by people very much invested in making as great a Middle Earth as they could. I couldn’t believe that someone took this book seriously enough to do that, and it gave me so much hope.

Because The Lord of the Rings was the book that made me fall in love with fantasy, irrevocably. I had read Harry Potter, of course, and was up to speed with the books, but Harry Potter was still, for me, a school story, with the added bonus of magic. It was only in Book 4 or 5 that Rowling dramatically upped the stakes and it became a Hero’s Journey/Epic Quest/Fantasy novel. But LOTR, right from the get go, from that first map and that intro to Hobbits, I knew this was a serious look into another world.

And the movie basically told me it was cool to like something like this. I lived in Hyderabad, India, where I didn’t know anyone else who was seriously into the kind of 1716995-mulanbooks or movies I liked. I’d grown up watching Disney princesses, and hadn’t been able to make the switch to Shah Rukh-led Bollywood blockbusters that so many of my peers had. I just couldn’t be absorbed by mundane romance the way I had been by 2 dimensional
heroes and heroines, battling witches and viziers and wrapping things up with true love’s kiss. I was still figuring myself out, and in strutted FOTR in all its Weta-workshopped glory, showing me that there were movies for my kind out there, and they were being made with loving attention to detail.

It’s a little uncool now to say that a movie based on a book brought you into a world and made you a lifelong denizen, but that’s what FOTR did for me. It was after watching this movie that I dived headlong into finishing my book, determined to beat my uncle’s record of seven readings, determined to live and breathe Middle Earth, just like those who had made it come to life. After LOTR, I moved on to more ‘adult’ fantasy, Wheel of Time, American Gods, A Song of Ice and Fire, asking friends to mail them to me from the US when I couldn’t find the books anywhere (yeah, I’m super hipster. I read Game of Thrones before you could find the books in India. Deal with it.). I joined discussion forums and websites, and found a community, people with whom I could discuss these books and others and go crazy dissecting theories and fan art and everything else that makes a fandom amazing. It happened at just the right time, 13 going on the rest of teenager-dom, and it’s never stopped.

Frodo

There are those books and movies that change your life, and I can safely say that LOTR and the FOTR movie feature in that short but strong list for me. They jumped in and told me it was okay to want magic and wonder even when you’re supposed to be a cynical teenager, that it was possible to build a life around those things. And I can only be glad that this community of fantasy lovers, always so supportive and wonderful when I was younger, has continued to be around, and has indeed grown. Who woulda thunk you’d find Martin on every other bookshelf in certain circles? The world can change in good ways.

The Tearling series: Book 1 and 2

A couple of years ago, I remember sitting in the lobby of my then-workplace, paging through a copy of The Bookseller. An article caught my eye; it was about a just-released book, part of a series, that had already been tapped for a major movie. It had even snared the attention of Emma Watson, who was already in talks to play the lead character. As far as I remember, the article called this new series (fantasy of course), a ‘female’ Game of Thrones, which basically meant that the main character was a woman (though there are plenty of female ‘main’ characters in Game of Thrones and thousands of women love it, so I have no idea what the writer meant by this rather reductionist statement). The article also mentioned that it was a sureshot bestseller, as things tend to become when Emma Watson is associated with them.

emma watson

And why not, because she’s classy as hell.

So finally, three years after reading that article, I picked up the series. They are the Tearling books: The Queen of the Tearling and The Invasion of the Tearling by author Erika Johansen. What were they like? A mixed bag, to be honest, but I can’t deny that I see the cinematic potential and I did enjoy them, more often than not.

The-Queen-of-the-Tearling-Queen-of-the-Tearling-1-Erika-Johansen-681x1024The first book, The Queen of the Tearling, starts off quite dramatically. Kelsea, a lonely foster child, is retrieved from her home with the elderly Barty and Carlin by a posse of Queen’s Guards and taken to the Keep in New London, the capital of the Tear. Now that she is 19, Kelsea  has come of age and must assume her rightful place on the throne left vacant by her mother, that is, if she can live long enough to reach it. Assassination attempts by hawks, mercenaries and sundry others turn out, however, to be the least of Kelsea’s problems. The kingdom she’s inherited is riddled with corruption and violence, and as an idealistic young woman, Kelsea sets out to right its wrongs, but she ends up ruffling more than a few feathers along the way, most notably those of the mysterious and terrible Red Queen of neighbouring Mortmesne.

The series is rather slow to start with. The Queen of the Tearling, indeed, is really just one long journey towards the Throne, and dealing with one specific problem of the kingdom (I won’t spoiler it by telling you what it is), but things really begin to look up in the second book. This might also have to do with Kelsea growing on me as a character. In Book 1, she seemed far too much like the breed of heroine who’s come in vogue since Katniss Everdeen: surly, lonely and with a healthy disrespect for authority. I found it hard to warm to her, especially since it seemed like every second thought of hers was regret for how ‘not pretty’ she was. But she really sinks into your blood in Book 2, and I ended up embracing her. In fact, I disliked the increasing jaunts away from her, into the head of a new character who seems set up as an originating figure, an explanation for the mysterious ‘Crossing’ that brought all these people to this world in the first place.

I won’t deny that the mythology and origin of this world is a little muddled. It’s obvious that the Tearling books are set in our world, or one very much like it. Characters refer to 02 The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansenmedical supplies and equipment being ‘lost’ during this Crossing, they read Rowling and Tolkien and other ‘real world’ books, and the new character quite obviously lives in a dystopic USA. Book 2 seeks to explain the connections and the reason for all these ‘real world’ objects, but it left me feeling more than  a little confused. Apart from that, there is another question: if all these people came from the US, why are most, if not all, the characters white? There is one black man in the Tear, and he is a rarity, as he himself knows. The neighbouring kingdoms of Mortmesne and Cadar are obvious parallels to France and some sort of Orientalist Arab fantasy, which can be explained away as fantasy staples, but again, if you have a bunch of people emigrated from America, a land notorious for its melting-pot-status, why, precisely, are they overwhelmingly white?

That being said, the lack of ‘diversity’ in the manner in which I understand it does not make the books any less enjoyable (as I’ve tried to explain, the fact that I’m mentioning it is only because the origin story for the land left me feeling a little confused). Johansen’s strength is in writing the fantasy segments; when she moves into Atwoodish dystopic territory, my attention began to flag. I hope Book 3 brings a lot more of Tear as it is in the present, and more of the kickass Kelsea that I’ve grown to like. Oh, and I’ll definitely watch Emma Watson play her. She would absolutely slay in this role.

We need to talk about Jasmine

I grew up quite the Disney kid, as I’ve mentioned before. And so the news that Emma Watson, everyone’s favourite book loving leading lady, is signing on to play Belle in Disney’s revamped Beauty and the Beast was quite exciting. I mentioned this development to my mother, whose response was a world weary sigh and the following question:

‘Why do they want to ruin all the animated movies?’

Being the sassy twenty something I am, I retorted with, ‘Because they have to make the movies more obviously feminist.’

Then I sobered down and added, ‘Also, to make money.’

The conversation made me think, though, about the need for ‘feminist-ifying’ Disney heroines. When I was a kid, watching all those classics like ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Pocahontas’ for the first time, I never really thought about what kind of social codes or behaviours they were prescribing. Now, with all the revamping, they’re coming under some heavy fire and re-examination, so of course I jumped on the bandwagon and went back and rewatched an old favourite: ‘Aladdin’.

I’ve always had a soft spot for this movie. There are two reasons for this, both of which are pretty superficial:

Aladdin was my first crush, and continues to be my favourite Disney prince of all time. 

Someone once told me that I looked like Jasmine.

I warned you—superficial reasons.

Anyway, the rewatch (which took place in September 2014, to be precise, in chilly Chicago, in the company of one of my best friends) made me realize something: Disney already had a fiery, feminist princess, way before Mulan entered the scene. And that princess was Jasmine.


aladdin-disneyscreencaps-com-1391What’s in a name:
‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Little Mermaid’—what do all these classic Disney princess movies have in common? They all include/refer to the female protagonist (the ‘princess’) in their title. Aladdin’s Jasmine is the only one of the original line up to not enjoy that privilege. She is also, notably, the only female character in her movie. Apart from the denizens of a brothel who show up once (during the song ‘One Jump’), and a little girl at the fruit market, Jasmine seems to be the only woman in Agrabah. Or the only woman who’s important enough to be part of the titular hero’s story anyway. She has no female support system, and her only friend is a tiger trained to dismiss troublesome suitors.

Sticking it to the marriage market: When we meet Jasmine, she has just cast off the unwanted advances of yet another conceited princeling. It’s not the first time this has happened—her father has been foisting suitors onto her for a while because the law says she ‘must be married’ to ascend the throne. ‘The law is wrong,’ she says, and all her jasmine pissedactions seem to suit her words. Even when ‘Prince Ali’ shows up, impressing the Sultan with his grand entrance, Jasmine remains unmoved. ‘I am not some prize to be won!’ is her melodramatic exiting line. You go girl.

The existential angst: There’s no question that Jasmine feels ‘trapped’. The movie is full of symbols of her seeking the freedom she lacks—freeing the birds in her garden, jumping over the walls to see what awaits her on the other side, even, at one point, declaring that maybe she doesn’t ‘want to be a princess anymore!’. I suppose you could pin this down to poor-little-rich-girl angst, especially when you contrast it to Aladdin’s desire to find a place/security in his street rat world. Also, when she breaks out of the palace, Jasmine very obviously has no idea how to function in the ‘real world’, nearly losing her hand for her naivety. But she’s a fast learner, and picks up quickly enough.

Smooth playa: Jasmine remains unimpressed by ‘Ali’s’ grandiose display. Jasmine is also a keen observer and can tell quickly that ‘Ali’ is not who he says he is, and is bold enough to confront him about it—‘Why did you lie to me?’, she demands after their romantic ride. Also, look at this bit from ‘A Whole New World’, where Aladdin rolls an apple off his shoulder and Jasmine catches it: it’s obvious she’s figured out who he is.

aladdin and jasmine marketapple

OMG: Remember how Megara is such a big deal in the Disney pantheon because she uses her sexuality unashamedly? Well Jasmine did that LONG before her. Jasmine
jasmineseduces Jafar, distracting him in order to let Aladdin get about his mission of ‘making things right’. Jasmine knows what she’s got and she ain’t ashamed to flaunt it. If you don’t think this is a big deal in a kids’ movie…well. I really don’t know what to say. Of course, it could also be said that, as the only ‘exotic’, Eastern princess in her time, Jasmine was unfairly sexualized in a manner that her fellow ‘white’ princesses like Aurora and Snow White were not. But at least she owns her sexuality, and uses it to achieve her ends on her terms.

aladdin-1992-07-g

At the end of the movie, Aladdin is promoted to ‘suitable’ status because of his exploits, and Jasmine agrees to abide by age-old conventions and get married, so maybe this is a bit of a cop out. I’m looking forward to the rework that Disney will no doubt get down to making, where Jasmine is the real heroine (let’s face it, she’s a lot more fun than Aladdin) who makes her way in a man’s world, maybe picking up a street rat or two on the way.

But only if she wants it, of course.

Aladdin-disneyscreencaps.com-2570

Confessions of a Thranduil Fan

Confession 1: When I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time, I did so without reading The Hobbit. As a result, I had no idea of Bilbo’s journeys, no clue who the hell Gollum was, or get any of the allusions the characters made (especially in The Fellowship of the Ring) to the adventures chronicled in that book. Nonetheless, I enjoyed my first brush with Tolkien immensely, and closed the covers quite satisfied with my foray into Middle Earth.

Didn't get half of that, but i liked it!

Didn’t get half of that, but I liked it!

Confession 2: That first journey into Middle Earth was not entirely without some annoyances. The number of songs in the book threw me off a bit. I didn’t understand why these people, who were supposedly going off on a dangerous quest, spent their energy singing ridiculous songs about leaving home or, even worse, sometimes singing in another language. The Elves particularly irritated me in this regard.

Confession 3: Being someone brought up on tales of tiny elves, like those that helped the shoemaker, I was meandering through LOTR picturing tiny people whenever ‘elven’ characters showed up. This may account for my confusion when presented with descriptions of Legolas the Elf ‘standing tall above’ Frodo and shooting down a Nazgul, or even trying to figure out how on Middle Earth Arwen could be seen as a likely candidate for the hand of the human, Aragorn. I confess that this might have made them look more irritating to me.

Seriously, do you ever stop singing?

Seriously, do you ever stop singing?

Confession 4: This sort of fits into the earlier point, but it stands out so clearly in my literary memory that I just had to allow it its own space. Remember that part where they’re all struggling up Caradhras in Fellowship, getting snowed under by a terrible storm, and Legolas is the only one jumping around and making sly digs at their unfortunate inability to walk on snow? And then he runs off to ‘fetch the sun’? I thought he was such a b*tch. If I were in the Fellowship, drowning like the hobbits in all that snow, or toiling under the weight of packs and weaponry like the others, I would have hated him so much right then, rubbing his privilege in my face.

Plus, he was a total know-it-all sometimes.

Plus, he was a total know-it-all sometimes.

The point of all these confessions is to set the stage for this, the ultimate one: When I read The Lord of the Rings I had a very definite image and impression of the Elves. They were weird, not very likeable people, and I thought they tended to lord it over the others with their unfair advantages. Obviously perceptions changed as I read on, and once I had seen the movie adaptations. I became an ardent Elf-fan–possibly spurred on, like most girls my age and older by Orlando Bloom’s undeniable gorgeousness. I learned Sindarin and attempted Tengwar, and The Silmarillion became, and remains, my favourite Tolkien book.

But the impression lingered, only fostered by the The Silmarillion. I thought the movies were not entirely true to text in their presentation of the Elves. All of them were depicted as beautiful, gracious, skilled in some particular way. But none of them reeked of the raw danger and slight unhinged-ness that was my overriding impression of them. Come on, are you really telling me that immortal beings with a crazy past have no sort of otherworldly neuroses that make them seem downright weird to those less in tune with the music of the spheres?

Enter Thranduil

I'm so fancy.

I’m so fancy.

And so I was pleasantly surprised by Lee Pace’s Thranduil. I thought that, unlike all the other Elves, he came loaded with a sense of dark charisma. With a sense of history, of the woes of Middle Earth that the Elves, especially the older Sindarin and High Elves, have been witness to.

The Silmarillion is a history mainly of the Feanorian and High Elves, but it does make brief allusions to the Sindar. Before the Noldor returned to Middle Earth, the Sindar dealt with the ‘darkness’ of Morgoth all on their own, in the days before ‘days’, before the moon and the sun were set in their place in the sky. They have always had to fend for themselves, never had the Valar to shelter behind. As a result, they have a certain defiance and pride that is missing in the Noldorin, or manifested differently. They are known to be more secretive, less trusting of outsiders, especially non-Elven folk, and act first and ask questions later. Certainly, that’s what happens many times in The Silmarillion, with characters like Eol and even Thingol being great examples. Defend your boundaries before you help others—that is their logic.

Thranduil perfectly personifies this brand of Elf in The Hobbit movies. He is twisted by his time in Middle Earth, has learned a lot by living through the early wars of Beleriand, and is probably one of the few remaining Elves who can remember an Age before men. He even mentions having faced ‘the great serpents of the North’, no doubt a reference to the wars around Angband—Morgoth’s northern fortress, where he unleashed his dragons.thranduil snow

Thranduil, more than any of the other Elves, came layered with history and a sense of remotenesss from the present. Galadriel too has lived through a lot, and played a great role in the shaping of Elven history, but somehow, this wasn’t communicated to me over the course of the movie. But a few minutes with Thranduil acting weird and unpredictable and I was convinced that this was someone who had dealt with more sh*t than Thorin could ever imagine. ‘Do not talk to me of dragon fire!’ indeed.

And the weirdness, the flouncy hand gestures and rather ‘androgynous’ behaviour that he displays: perfect. The Elves are not human. They are a completely different species. They don’t subscribe to the codes of behaviour and ‘manliness’ that we do. Just look at the fact that it’s completely normal for them, in the movie-verse at least, to have a female head of the Palace guard. Besides, all these weird gestures and eye-rolling and utter disgust he displays for the lowly, dwarven folk just fits in with the image I had of the Elves as, sometimes, being downright annoying and rubbing their superiority (both physical and ‘cultural’) in others’ faces. Hence the whole ‘A hundred years is a mere blink in the life of an Elf. I can wait.’

hehe gif

Thranduil freaked me out; he came with a sense of raw power and charisma that only Galadriel overtly displays. Thranduil thrilled me because he was undeniably beautiful, but in a way that was remote, unreachable, utterly inhuman. He was deadly, he was devoid, seemingly, of emotion and compassion, reacting to protect his own before extending his arm to shield others, and overall, layered with an aura of loss and history that, I think, Tolkien describes best after all. The following lines were used by him to describe Frodo’s impression of the Lady of Lothlorien, but I think they work as well for Lee Pace’s Thranduil:

‘Already she seemed to him, as by men of later days Elves still at times are seen: present and yet remote, a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time.’

with retinue

Keep on Keeping On

Epic fantasy heroes share many traits. Many of them are orphans, cast aside at some point or the other by their fellows/society, entrusted with a burden that few believe they really have the strength to bear, lose mentor figures at crucial moments of their quests and, finally, despite all odds manage to pull through and show everyone, both bad guys and good, that they were the right ones for the task after all. A glance a pop culture shows many heroes with these traits: Harry, Rand, Arthur, Egwene, even Disney’s Aladdin and Mulan.

Must set reminder to discuss the latter two at some point.

Usually, these heroic struggles lend themselves very well to onscreen adaptations. With the killer combination of angst, adventure, morals and good looks, what’s not to love in these movies? Harry thus gets a new, far less pasty look with a searingly blue eyed Daniel Radcliffe, racially ambiguous Katniss becomes America’s sweetheart Jenn Law, and Legolas, such a minor character in the Tolkien trilogy, gets to steal hearts in five different visits to Middle Earth. You could say that in some cases, Legolas’s for instance, the movies do a lot to bolster a character and make him more ‘palatable’ in some ways. In other, arguably more important ways, cinema is less kind.

What I think most important about a fantasy hero’s journey is his or her ability to just keep going. This is quite possibly the least glamorous trait any hero has, but it is, in my opinion, the most important, and what really sets them apart from their fellows. Often, this ability to carry on is most severely tested in circumstances unappealing, or downright boring, to a spectator.  The example that jumps to mind is that of Frodo from Lord of the Rings. Compared to Aragorn’s mad rush through the kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor, Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom is plodding, slow and dull. I know many people, myself included, groaned every time the camera cut away from Aragorn and company to the Ringbearer(s). That walk through barren, grey lands, and the import of his ability to just carry on through it didn’t translate well. Let’s face it: the only time we were ever even the slightest bit interested in Frodo was when Shelob nearly got him and Sam proved his ‘bodyguard’ skills. frodo and sam

Yet, when I read the book, I found the ‘war scenes’ most dull. It’s a curious paradox isn’t it; action sequences in literature rarely inspire as much excitement as their renditions on screen, while long, insightful bits like Frodo and Sam coming upon a stream of water in the middle of the Plains of Gorgoroth are axed summarily from screenplays for being ‘extraneous’. But really, could anyone else in that book have done what Frodo and Sam did? No, I think. The supreme quality of the hobbits is tenaciousness, stubborness, an unwillingness to let go of the world, or reality, or habit, or what have you. Frodo and Sam are dogged figures, and in the Middle Earth’s hour of need, doggedness and sheer persistence, not genius and flashing swords, are the saviors.

harry deathlyThe same thing applies to Harry. Harry’s greatest moral crisis in the entire series is not, as might be expected in Order of the Phoenix, whether or not to commit murder. Surprisingly, he seems fairly cool with that (and doesn’t even end up really ‘killing’ Voldemort himself). No, Harry’s biggest dilemma comes when he finds out that his idol and trusted mentor hid things from him his entire life. The notion that faultless Dumbledore might not in fact have been as white as his beard sears Harry for a time, almost paralyzes him in the woods. Perhaps this prepares him for the knowledge that Snape later delivers to him, that he was always intended as a sacrifice. Despite this betrayal, Harry carries on.

I had a bit of a problem with this. To me, Harry seemed a very passive hero. Surely, I thought, he could have fought it, he could have acted a little human and seemed less accepting of Dumbledore’s final plan. He sort of numbly walks out to meet his death, not even reflecting on the idea that his headmaster had planned his end with such cold clarity.

And then a friend pointed out to me that that, really, is what makes Harry Harry and a hero in this context. Harry never really does things because he wants to. He never does things because he knows they will work out. He operates on sheer instinct, in conflict situations and with people, and he fights Voldemort more out of an innate sense of justice than anything else. Unlike Hermione, Harry does not rationalize his decisions. Unlike Ron, he does not strategize and think ahead. He just closes his eyes and does what he thinks needs to be done, and if that involves sacrificing himself as intended by a man he considered his closest guide, then so be it.

That’s persistence again, for you. Hard to translate on screen, especially when you have the explosions and cooler stuff going on in Hogwarts.

Finally, Rand. The Wheel of Time books have not yet been brought to the screen, but given the burgeoning of fantasy, sci fi and superhero franchises, they probably will be soon enough. Unlike these guys, Rand is an almost all-powerful hero. He is smart, good looking, very well connected, has the world backing him as he goes into battle, and can handle immense amounts of the Power, a trump card in his universe. But none of these are required, or of any help, in his ultimate face off with the Dark One. What pulls him through here is, sure enough, a conviction that he is right, that his struggle is necessary, that he must pull through. Egwene, too, wins over her competitors for the same reason. both have an iron will, complete faith in themselves, and so they succeed where others falter under weights they deem unendurable.

How would you put this on screen though? Usually a hero’s angst phase is captured in a series of workout sessions, some photogenic brooding, dramatic soundtrack and indications of time passing (like a montage of the seasons, calendar sheets falling to the floor, sand dripping through an hourglass, etc). How can you take something as downright boring as the idea of ‘doing your duty because nothing else occurs to you’ and make it sexy?

It’s hard to sell. And it’s even harder to put into practice. Maybe that’s why there’s an entire book devoted to just that basic tenet, and people worship the man who supposedly declaimed it. And maybe that’s why we salute and make fantasy heroes out of those who not only abide by that tenet, but do awesome things like save the world through their adherence to that one rule. Being a hero is hard, and at times, deadly boring. After those doldrum struggles, perhaps an encounter with a deadly foe served to ‘break the monotony nicely’. Trust Sirius Black to have the perfect phrase at hand.

Revenge Wears Prada

Do you remember the time when Andrea Sachs told her draconian boss (yes, the one played by Meryl Streep) to ‘Fuck off’ in the middle of a Parisian fashion show?

Yeah, I was sure you did. If nothing, you can recall Anne Hathaway throwing a cellphone into a fountain after a one-night-stand-gone-bad with the Mentalist guy.

Apparently Andy’s abrupt departure didn’t sit too well with Miranda, and ten years later, she’s about to serve her former junior assistant some cold revenge.

BLACK_RevengeWearsPrada_Cover_gl_4apr13_pr_b_320x480

‘Revenge Wears Prada’ is the saga of said comeback. Andy and her new BFF Emily (the same girl with the plush British accent in the movie) run a luxury wedding magazine called The Plunge, are married to rich and handsome men and live in style on the Upper East Side. Andy’s husband is Max Harrison, the CEO of a media company, and he’s everything she (or her female readers) have ever dreamed of. Everything looks perfect, except, of course, it doesn’t last.

Enter Miranda Priestly, now Editorial Director of Elias Clarke (and not just Runway). She makes Andy and Emily an offer for The Plunge and all hell breaks loose, with Emily and Max raring to go for it and Andy resisting with all the strength she can muster. Will Miranda win out, as she usually does, or will Andy manage to be the one who gets away for a second time running? You’ll have to RAFO.

I really enjoyed this book. I read the prequel a few months ago (refer to my post, Strapping on that Prada), and found it, while not the most elegantly written of texts, refreshing, entertaining and surprisingly thought-provoking. While the ‘revenge’ here seems a little too long-boiled (meaning, it takes forever for Miranda to enter the scene, and even when she does, she’s annoyingly brief), and hardly the most earth-shattering, the world that Weisberger recreates is arresting enough to compensate for the glacial pace of the storyline. Plus, we get to meet old favourites like Lily, Alex and the ever-flamboyant Nigel and see where the decade has taken them. There’s even a short encounter with, dare I say it, the oh so sexy Christian Collinsworth.

Andy’s journey in Revenge is obviously very different from her experience in the first book. Here she’s an established editor, one who has definitely arrived on the New York fashion scene, handling her own team of (and I snorted here in understanding) entitled young twenty-somethings. Despite her success however, she remains a relateable, girl-next-door type of character, one who cannot dress well enough to impress Emily, who is not ‘posh’ or ‘appropriate’ enough for her snooty mother-in-law, who prefers to snooze under the covers rather than head out to the gym. A jarring difference from the first book is the shifting of perspective–where Devil stuck in first-person, Revenge is told from a third person limited perspective, namely Andy’s.

To put it simply, Revenge does not accomplish much as a story, but what it does do is take your mind off things for a little while by presenting you the world of the rich and famous, replete with fairytale weddings, jilting actresses and closet-fuls of designer clothes (and designers). So if you want a fun and fabulous read, please do go ahead and get your hands on it. Let’s all pretend to be more glitzy than we really are. At least for a couple of days.

That’s Not All I Am

‘My voice sounds all tinny and fake. Like I don’t come from anywhere.’

Image

Riz Ahmed and Kate Hudson in TRF

And with those words, The Reluctant Fundamentalist stole my heart. Stole my heart so thoroughly that I didn’t mind seeing it twice in the space of two days.

I will be honest. I haven’t read the book and hence, cannot compare it to its cinematic adaptation. What I can do is give you my take on the movie and you can decide whether or not it is worth the same investment I made (twice).

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (based on the novel of the same name by Mohsin Hamid) is a Mira Nair film. That means it has lots of beautiful, sweeping shots of cities around the world and a pensive young man looking plaintively (and quite stunningly) for his roots. As you might have guessed by now, I am comparing TRF to The Namesake for both are, at their core, different versions of the same story. One, of course, is more politically charged than the other but when you look at their cores, they’re both about young men adrift in an adopted world that has suddenly and inexplicably turned alien and/or hostile, and it takes soul-searching (and father-finding) to set things on a new path. In TRF, Changez has it harder than Gogol ever did–not only is his name a strange sound on the lips of Americans, he happens to be of the wrong ethnicity at a completely wrong time.

Born into a culturally rich but economically parched family in Lahore, Pakistan (which, in the movie, looks suspiciously like Delhi. I wondered aloud about this and the innate similarities between India and Pakistan until my colleague assured me that they had indeed shot bits of the movie here in Delhi. Romanticism bust) Changez (portrayed by my new celebrity crush Riz Ahmed) makes the move to ‘where the money is’, the United States of America. Right after a magna-cum-laude graduation from Princeton, he joins the prestigious firm Underwood Samson and rises quickly in the ranks under the mentorship of his boss, Jim Cross (played by a deep drawling Kiefer Sutherland). He meets and falls in love with a ‘boho’ photgrapher-artist, Erica (a brunette Kate Hudson). During an assignment to Manila, he sees the news report on the WTC attack and knows that his life has been inexplicably, fundamentally changed. Nowhere, no one, he realizes, is ‘safe’ for him any longer.

Changez narrates his American dream to a foreign correspondent in Pakistan, Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schrieber). Bobby has come to him in the hope of information on the kidnapping of an American citizen. The question we are posed at the beginning of the film is whether or not Changez has anything to do with the kidnapping. The question at the end is a little bit bigger, and seems a lot more complex.

That’s all I’m going to tell you of the ‘plot’. What I can do now is tell you why you should see it.

TRF takes a complex, human story and weaves it seamlessly against the larger fabric of the War on Terror, the rise of fundamentalism as a political force/tool in South Asia and questions of identity. It uses one man’s story to encapsulate the confusion, loss and anger of a huge swathe of people affected by the events of 11 September 2001, and the manner in which the event has shaped lives in its aftermath. In the movie, Changez constantly asserts his individuality in the face of an official America that doesn’t seem to care: ‘Yes I am a Muslim. Yes, I am a Pakistani. But that’s not all I am.’ Despite his repeated claims, he gets taunts of ‘Osama’ and ‘Saddam’ and is taken into police custody at least twice, simply because he belongs to a certain community.

In a striking scene, a Turkish publisher talks to a wondering Changez about the janissary boys of the Ottoman empire, young Christian boys who were kidnapped from their homes in the opposing kingdoms and raised as soldiers for the ‘mighty Muslim army’. Once trained, the boys were sent back to their original homes to destroy and kill. The publisher, Nazmi Kemal, pauses significantly at this juncture and asks Changez ‘How old were you when you went to America?’ Upon hearing the answer he smiles sardonically and says, ‘Ah. Too old to be a janissary.’ The implication and parallel however, are very clear, fitting in and forming an echo to Changez’s early pronouncement on his own inability to recognize his voice, which sounds, to him, as though it’s speaker doesn’t ‘come from anywhere’.

The music of the movie is wonderful, and the acting great. It doesn’t hurt that Riz Ahmed is extremely easy on the eye, and can carry a scene with confidence (and his beautiful face). Literature afficionados might recognize Pakistani novelist Ali Sethi in a blink-and-you-miss-it role as a college student in Lahore. I thought it was him at first glance, and my hunch was  confirmed by the credits. It was fun to see him outside a Jaipuri tent, without his trademark scarf.

There have been movies, there have been novels and songs and plays about 9/11, but there is something special about TRF. If you want a movie that makes you think, that provides you good visuals coupled with good acting (although I didn’t really care for Dwayne Wright, who seemed to me the stereotype of the African American with his witty one-liners), go watch this. It’s about America, it’s about Pakistan, it’s about modern day janissaries, but that’s not all it’s about.

Darken her skin for me!

I don’t know why, but I always thought of Egwene al’Vere (from the Wheel of Time series) as dark-skinned. Perrin too, despite a great deal of fan art that would argue otherwise. When people are described as ‘dark-haired’ and ‘dark-eyed’, I suppose the postcolonial in me automatically jumps to the conclusion that hey, here’s a (western) fantasy character I could impersonate!

It was such a taken for granted thing for me–that Egwene is dark-skinned. I was so convinced of this (for no apparent reason, except for the aforementioned ‘dark haired’ and ‘dark-eyed’ thing), that I was surprised, shocked even when people exclusively mentioned white actresses when they filled out their fantasy cast lists for a Wheel of Time movie. When I searched ‘Egwene al’Vere’ in the Google image search, I found no artwork that depicted her as brown skinned either. I wondered if I was just delusional, if I had missed something in Jordan’s descriptions.

But when I went back and checked, I realized that I hadn’t missed anything. Yes, Rand and Mat both have hair and eye colouring that is typically associated with white skin, but Egwene, Perrin, Min and Nynaeve’s ‘dark hair’ and ‘dark eyes’ could belong to someone of a darker hue. I suppose this was my subtle response to the ‘white until proven otherwise’ rule that governs much of mainstream (Western) fantasy–I refused to bow down to it. Unconsciously.

Which is, I guess, really the best way to do it.

Does my thinking of Egwene as not white matter a great deal? Not really–I don’t think it changes the way I view her, or Perrin, or Min for that matter. All it did really was give me hope that I could play her if and when a movie series or a miniseries based on the books made it to production. After all, I missed my chance to waltz around with Daniel Radcliffe in ‘Goblet of Fire’. I’ve never quite forgiven my parents for not buying me a ticket to London the minute auditions for Parvati and Padma Patil were announced. The resentment has become a cornerstone of my self-actualization or lack thereof.

But is Egwene being coloured a political statement? Would it mean anything if she were? That’s a question to keep in mind when next you read the Wheel of Time.

Strapping on that Prada

Image

Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway in the movie.

Two posts in one day! This is a record for me.

What brought it on? Simple, I read ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ (by Lauren Weisberger) and realized I am not doing anything with my life. While the writing could have been improved, and the book’s narrative zipped kind of confusingly between timelines, I really enjoyed my time with it. It was easy to imagine myself in Andrea Sachs’ shoes, not only because I’m also 23 and at a first job, but also because I too often pause and wonder if ‘four years of deconstructing and diagramming novels, plays, short stories’ were for, well, this.

Also, I totally want to write for the New Yorker some day. And I know it’s a long, long climb.

But what the book has really done for me is to sort of push me into realizing that I have to work really, really hard to get anywhere, and especially to get to the pinnacle and definition of success I harbour in my head. I’ve been feeling rather uninspired these past few weeks, and not being at my bright and sparky best. It’s made me feel guilty, which is good, since guilt indicates that I care about being brilliant and am not content with just churning out what’s expected of me. I don’t want to just be good at what I do, I want to be exceptional.

I understand that everyone goes through periods of disillusionment and withdrawal at their jobs, especially the first one. But how long can that phase last? And, more importantly, isn’t it up to me how long it goes on? Yes, I may not have what it takes to be the best in this field (and I don’t think I can possibly be, yet), but shouldn’t I try anyway?

I watched the wonderful ‘Prada’ movie for the second time a couple of months ago, and saw so much more of myself in it than I had at the age of 19 (which is, I think, the age at which I first watched it). Of course, that’s thanks to the new angle that my freshly minted professional life brought to bear upon it. I saw people and situations from my own life in it, as usual. Most self-centred literature enthusiasts tend to do that, don’t they?

Though I must hasten to add here that my own boss is an amazing woman whom I completely adore. That was one aspect of Andrea’s life I do not and do not wish to have familiarity with.

Strange that a book I picked up for ‘light reading’ should have this sort of introspective effect on me. I think a few months of blogging have sort of changed my outlook on books though—I’m constantly thinking of what I can say about them, what makes a book and its characters, its story, important and relevant to me. In ‘Prada’, I found a companion for metro rides and lunch hours, a break from the depressing and nightmare inducing world of Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’. I also found a person who reminded me of what I need to do.

I need to get somewhere, and I need to bloody well work hard to make sure that happens. Thanks for the reminder, Andrea Sachs!

An Expectant Traveller

I have a confession to make.

I am a little apprehensive about watching ‘The Hobbit’.

I blame it on the reviews I’ve read recently, which highlighted the plodding nature of the film, the repercussions of Jackson’s controversial decision to shoot at 48 frames per second,  the screenwriters’ absurd decision to stretch a slim book for children into three 2.5 hour long visual extravaganzas. Very few people had anything close to unqualified praise for the movie, with most lingering over one, if not all, of the ‘flaws’ mentioned above.

This is, I suppose, only natural, given what the reviewers are measuring Jackson up against. He steered a large and (what could have been) lumbering ship titled ‘The Lord of the Rings’ safely into the seas of commercial success, even picking up cargo at the Award ports. The movies didn’t satisfy all the purists – I’m not exactly the most rabid purist out there, but even I resent what the movies did to my favourite character, Faramir- but they did attract both fans of the books as well as a more ‘mainstream’ audience. ‘The Hobbit’, the reviewers say, goes overboard to please the purists, and as a result, alienates the larger section of the audience by lingering far too long on obscure bits of Middle Earth mythology that most of them do not care for.

‘So?’ one of my (Tolkien purist) friends asked. ‘Finally, there’s a big movie made for us!’ He has a point. Why not use the multitude of resources available to make a movie that will satisfy the cravings of a very dedicated band of readers? Jackson himself, a passionate reader of Tolkien, must appreciate the scale and depth of the author’s work- why else would he linger so long and lovingly on each bit of dialogue or pebble on the road to the Lonely Mountain.

I’m reminded, suddenly, of Thomas Gradgrind from Dickens’s ‘Hard Times’, and his espousal of Utilitarianism. The greatest good for the greatest number- that is the doctrine that propels most commercial enterprises. Rather, the greatest good comes from satisfying the greatest number. Hollywood, though it runs on art and creativity as well as economic lobbies and other, less personally enthusing, factors, is also utilitarian. So is the publishing industry. It’s the way of the world today- how do you survive if you can’t make a large number of people happy and thus secure some kind of commercial strength?

Hence the blow-up if a man uses millions of dollars worth of equipment, talent, time to produce a movie that does not connect with or inspire an equal number of people to spend their hard earned money. ‘Art’ and ‘Independent Cinema’ use much less, do not impose on the big production houses to fund their risky little ventures- Jackson’s problem was that he got too experimental and literal for the kind of category (financial and entertainment-wise) he was placed in.

I might hate ‘The Hobbit’ movie. I enjoyed the book (I actually liked it more than ‘The Lord of the Rings’ on my first read, but that may have been because I was completely lost when I read LOTR, and missed out on a whole lot of references to the earlier book), and have been looking forward to its adaptation for  a while now. But I think the main reason why I liked ‘LOTR’ in its movie form was because I was able to dissociate the books from what was happening on the screen. The movies were different enough, imagined Middle Earth differently enough from my own conception of it, that I didn’t even try to measure them against what I had read. If ‘The Hobbit’ movie is an attempt to literally transcribe the book onto the screen, performing the same ‘suspension of association’ might just be impossible.

Oh well, I’ll take my chances. The alternative is too stupid to even contemplate.

And what can I say- I do want to see Orlando Bloom as Legolas again.

Image