Category Archives: Titles

I AM THAT by Nisargadatta Maharaj

“I am That”, as its apt subtitle says, is a collection of talks with the great Indian mystic, and has gems of wisdom strewn across almost all its chapters.  Here’s one I discovered in Chapter 5, on a renewed journey along it’s profound pages, that expounds the value of avoiding contradictions in thought and action –

  “…life and light must not quarrel; behavior must not betray belief. Call it honesty, integrity, wholeness; you must not go back, undo, uproot, abandon the conquered ground. Tenacity of purpose and honesty in pursuit will bring you to your goal.”

iamthatbookcover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

True life wisdom, really. And not as easy to follow at all times.

 

 

Akira Kurosawa: Something Like an Autobiography

Among Japanese film makers, no one is perhaps as universally known as Akira Kurosawa.

“Something like an Autobiography” is an account of the legendary director’s early life. It is only a partial account, encompassing his childhood, adolescenct years, the early years of his film career, up to the point of Rashomon. Nonetheless, the book benefits anyone keen for understanding the man behind such remarkable films as Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Rashomon, and Dersu Uzala among others. Kurosawa’s films were – Stuart Galbraith IV writes in the introduction to his book “The Emperor and the Wolf” – first and foremost, deeply humanist pictures, films which effortlessly transcend cultures and centuries. Something like an Autobiography helps one understand the evolution of the artist Kurosawa, the influences that shaped his vision.

It comes as no surprise that Kurosawa’s family (on the father’s side) was of Samurai descent. It was his father who took the boy Akira (and the rest of the family) to the movies, and was thus instrumental in the director’s early exposure to the medium. Though, he says, that his contact with movies at an early age had nothing to do with his becoming a film director, his father’s progressive outlook helped nurture his interests.

“Looking back and reflecting on it, I think my father’s attitude toward films reinforced my own inclinations and encouraged me to become what I am today. He was a strict man of military background, but a t a time when the idea of watching movies was hardly well received in educator’s circles, he took his whole family to the movies regularly. Later in more reactionary times he steadfastly maintained his conviction that going to the movies has an educational value; he never changed”.

In primary school, after a somewhat reluctant kindergarten and a slow start, AK grew under the influence of Mr. Tachikawa, the teacher in charge. Under him, AK enjoyed his art classes and became really good at drawing. He cherished Mr. Tachikawa’s progressive and innovative approach to education during the conservative Taisho era (1912-1926) as “the rarest of blessings”. During this time, he also befriended Uekusa Keinosuke, perceived, much like himself, as a “crybaby” — who eventually became a famous writer. Their friendship lasted a lifetime and they collaborated in the screen writing of more than one of AK’s films. AK’s brother, Heigo, elder to him by four years, also helped nurture his intelligence in school, with his abrasive diatribe gradually evolving into silent appreciation and brotherly protection. But the talented Heigo, once grown up, developed a rather nihilistic outlook towards life, and eventually committed suicide. He was a narrator in the silent film era, whose job became redundant, along with the rest in his profession, with the onset of sound.

In his school years, Akira Kurosawa excelled in the arts – including Japanese calligraphy, which his father encouraged him to learn – laying a strong foundation for the artistic sensibilities that he would eventually portray on celluloid.

“I had applied myself only in the subjects I liked, such as grammar, history, composition, art and penmanship. In these areas no one could surpass me. But I couldn’t make myself like science and arithmetic, and only very reluctantly put enough energy into these subjects to stay a shade above disgrace.”

Before entering the world of film at twenty six, Akira Kurosawa dabbled in painting, joined the Proletariat Artists’ League and even contributed in the publication of underground communist newspapers. In 1935, he was hired by P.C.L (Photo Chemical Laboratory) film studios after a grueling series of tests. The act of joining the film industry was almost serendipitous, but Kurosawa realized that the course of his life until that juncture had aptly prepared him for it.

“It was chance that led me to walk along the road to P.C.L. and, in so doing, the road to becoming a film director, yet somehow everything that I had done prior to that seemed to point to it as an inevitability. I had dabbled eagerly in painting, literature, theater, music and other arts and stuffed my head full of all the things that come together in the art of the film.”

It was in P.C.L that he met Yamamoto Kajiro, his mentor. AK was deeply grateful for being able to work with Yama-san, whom he called the “best teacher of my entire life”. Yamamoto Kajiro paid a lot of attention to his assistant directors, giving them crucial responsibilities to shoulder, seeking their opinions in serious projects, something that instilled confidence among his assistant directors, made them try their sincere best in order to live up to the directors’ expectations. He encouraged AK to script writing, and from him AK learned the value of being able to objectively edit one’s footage.

“The film that Yama-san had labored painfully to shoot he would cut o pieces as if he were a total masochist.

The art of the cinema has been called an art of time, but time used to no purpose cannot be called anything but wasted time. Among all the teachings of Yama-san on film editing, this was the greatest lesson.”

From Yamamoto Kajiro, AK also picked up vital lessons in handling actors and in sound dubbing.

AK’s short temper was well known. But his frank admission of that trait is also a sign of sincerity. It was something that landed AK in trouble on some occasions, and had Yama-san worried of his protege to the extent that he extracted a promise from AK of not losing his temper while working for other directors.

AK got his first break as a film director in 1942, with Sugata Sanshiro – the story of a “rowdy young judo expert.” It was based on a novel that he himself identified, instinctively, as a great movie potential. He wrote the screenplay himself, seeking Yamamoto Kajiro’s advice with the finished script.

The rest of the book, from thereon, follows his filmography – The Most Beautiful, Sugata Sanshiro Part II, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, No Regrets for our Youth, One Wonderful Sunday, Drunken Angel, The Quiet Duel, Stray Dog, Scandal, and Rashomon.

AK married actress Yaguchi Yoko (real name Kato Kiyo) in 1945, in the month of the release of Sugata Sanshiro Part II..

Kurosawa and Mifune

Drunken Angel (1948) was his first project with Toshiro Mifune, an alliance that eventually produced a tremendously successful repertoire – including Rashomon, Seven Samurai, High and Low, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, and Red Beard among others (a total of sixteen films). Of Mifune, AK says-

“Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three feet. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express….And yet with all his quickness he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities.”

Rashomon (1950) was a groundbreaking film, which propelled Kurosawa (and Japanese films) unto the international stage. The experimental narrative added a new dimension to the world of cinema. The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Miyagawa Kazuo’s cinematography was flawless, including the much acclaimed scene in the forest with the camera moving between light and shadow of the trees, occasionally pointing directly at the sun (something rarely ever attempted before).

Artistry, in any field,is the search for and expression of truth as revealed to the creator. In the case of Kurosawa, the scrupulous honesty of his films, one becomes aware, is really a trait of the man himself. In fact, the reason for his reluctance to continue his biography beyond Rashomon was to avoid any contradiction between his quest for truth and the human “trait of instinctive self-aggrandizement”. In his own words –

“I think to learn what became of me after Rashomon the most reasonable procedure would be to look for me in the characters in the films I made after Rashomon. Although human beings are incapable of talking about themselves with total honesty, it is much harder to avoid truth while pretending to be other people. They often reveal much about themselves in a very straightforward way. I am certain that I did. There is nothing that says more about its creator than the work itself.”

This candid closing paragraph from the epilogue I think essentially summarizes the significance of art forms like literary fiction, painting and film making, not only to the artist during the process of creation, but also to the aficionado or connoisseur in the enjoyment of the end product.

Funniest Tintin snippet, ever?

My three year old son has realized the quite American way of emphasizing his speech with a trailing “ever” –

I don’t like this food ever…

I don’t want to take a nap ever..

and so on. Along the “ever” line, I decided, while re-reading several of the Tintin comic books this summer, to choose my favorite funny sequence from the lot. Somehow, it was easier than I imagined. There’s a particular scene from Seven Crystal Balls, the bumbling Captain Haddock running amok backstage, that has never failed to amuse me, often to laughter, and this time too was no exception. The pièce de résistance is Haddock’s bewildered expression staring at the tongue wagging cow mask after crashing into a timpani. Hergé’s artistic ingenuity accomplished so much without sparing a lot of words!

Ah, a late lunch on a warm, lazy afternoon (no harm pining for it amidst the drab Pacific Northwest fall), then curling up unmindful with a Tintin – one of the small pleasures of life I have enjoyed this summer.

King’s Ransom by Ed McBain (or, High and Low by Akira Kurosawa)

HighAndLow In the fifties, Ed McBain wrote a rather nondescript book, a crime thriller which had all the cliches and ingredients of a potboiler – wooden, flat characters mouthing banalities, the stereotype business tycoon, the tough cop etc. etc. There was, however, a distinct complexity to the plot, which though the author could barely leverage, but which the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa recognized and transformed into a far more potent and profound film. King’s Ransom, the book, became High and Low, the film. But apart from the basic plot, the difference between the quality of the two, if one could reasonably compare the contents of two differing media, is vast.

King (or Kingo, in the film), a shoe company executive, gets a ransom call from a kidnapper for an astronomical sum. But the kidnapper bungles. He mistakenly picks up the chauffeur’s son, the same age as King’s own, and who was dressed in the son’s outfit while playing cops and robbers outside the King mansion at the time of the kidnapping. But the kidnapper is unrelenting, and wants King to pay up all the same. King is aware of the stakes. He has bet his life’s fortunes, including his house, to secure majority stake in the company so he can oust his adversaries and take control, a deal that must be sealed within a few days. Paying the ransom would mean losing the opportunity. Not only that, he’d be thrown out himself, facing obscurity and financial ruin, a fact he tries to desperately make his wife understand. But nothing, to her, is more valuable than a boy’s life.

Kurosawa fully utilized this conflict to create a riveting drama of plot and character. While sticking to the basic premises of the original story, here are some of his master touches that transforms an ordinary book into an extraordinary film:

  • Gondo Kingo (King) is torn between the choice of saving a boy’s life or protecting his own (and family’s) interest. If he pays, he is a hero to his wife and the public, but loses everything he has worked his entire life for. Kurosawa adds a human touch to the ruthless tycoon image crated by McBain, when Kingo eventually agrees to pay. Gondo, played convincingly by the redoubtable Toshiro Mifune (Rashomon, Seven Samurai), transcends himself by this heroic act. This is the single most powerful aspect of the film, a dimension that Kurosawa invokes and the book neglects.

  • The criminal mind is explored far more thoroughly in the film. It adds a socio psychological aspect to the motive. The original Japanese title of High and Low is “Tengoku to Gigoku”, the literal English for which would be—Heaven and Hell. Heaven is where, at least from the miscreants low lying slum, the rich live in their beautiful villas on a hill, insulated from the sufferings of the world, the atrocities of the weather (the stiflingly humid Yokohama summer in the film or the barren cold of a mid-western autumn in the book).

  • Investigation and detection: This is where the book miserably fails and film soars to new heights. From the tracing of telephone calls, the ingenious bullet train sequence where money changes hands (I have a video clip at the end of this piece, that I could not resist adding*), to the eventual trail and pursuit, all are brilliantly conjured in the film. The book does little to grab the reader— the thug sort of falling into the hands of the cops in an insipid ending.

The end results underscores the fact that there is little correlation between the quality of a film to its original source. One could make a terrible movie out a literary masterpiece or sculpt a gem out of an inconsequential potboiler.

*Unfortunately removed due to copyright issues. But here’s an excellent recap from NY Times Critics’ Picks – 

Maximum City by Suketu Mehta

MaximumCity

I would disagree with those that have classified Maximum City under “Description and Travel”. A typical book of travel is mostly an outsider’s perspective. Here, the outsider’s perspective notwithstanding, is a lot more – nostalgia, and a sincere attempt to contextualize and understand a culture one has left behind or never known in the past despite proximity.

What begins as a vent for frustration while readjusting in the home country after a long absence, emerges gradually into a study of characters which are by no means ordinary, in the backdrop of a city pushed to its limits. The main sections of the book close in on the lives of gangsters, politicians and cops(Power), bar dancers and film personalities(Pleasure), a family of billionaire Jain renunciates in transition, among others(Passages). In Mehta’s own words –

“In Bombay I met people who lived closer to their seductive extremities than anyone I had ever known”.

Mehta is drawn into their lives in an ineluctable way, drawn to self-discovery.

“…I followed them closer to my own extremity, closer than I had ever been.”

The writing is thoroughly contemporary, clear and even across its vast length. But it could have been been concise in parts without losing its essence. Parts of the gangsters’ and bar dancers’ lives appear repetitive, in all possibility because one has already had enough to move on. Then there are sections that are sedate, reflective, philosophical even, as the book matures into its later phases, as his awareness of the city and empathy for its inhabitants grows. The closure, ending in an epiphanic vision in a crowded Bombay street, is simply brilliant, one of the finest pieces of writing I have read in a while. But what keeps the reader arrested, despite the length, despite the cynicism of an outsider, is the tenacious pursuit of understanding, of assimilation, the genuine search for meaning in chaos. This is where Mehta abundantly succeeds.

Rating: 4/5

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

unaccustomedearthAn alternative title to Unaccustomed Earth could very well be-“The distraught lives of Bengali Americans”. It is no secret that Lahiri writes about Bengali Americans, their travails and search for identity. It was the prevalent theme in the much vaunted “Interpreter of Maladies.” It was the same theme expanded into a novel in “The Namesake.” In “Unaccustomed Earth”, she continues down the beaten track.

 

Somerset Maugham’s characters were mostly English. In the preface to “The Razor’s Edge”, he was somewhat hesitant, having chosen to write about Americans:

 “I don’t think one can ever really know any but one’s own countrymen. … I do not pretend that [the characters] are American as Americans see themselves; they are American seen through an English eye.”

 

Rohinton Mistry’s characters are middle class Parsis in Bombay. Thus it is only natural that Lahiri’s characters are Bengalis. But it doesn’t end there. Lahiri’s characters are Bengalis in New England. More specifically, Lahiri’s characters are Bengalis who grew up in the Boston area, often tied to academics, references to MIT, Harvard, Boston not infrequent. Also, there are two kinds of characters in Lahiri’s works – isolated, second generation children of immigrants torn between the past and the present, and disenchanted, first generation parents out of place in a society they had chosen but are unable to reconcile with. Wait, there’s a third kind – quiet, judicious Americans observant of their lives. And in “Unaccustomed Earth”, she digs deeper into this pattern, at the risk of being repetitive to the extent of regurgitation.

 

This is not to ridicule her writing. Her prose is meticulous, uniform, chiseled to perfection. She is particularly gifted in turning out melancholy stories that are poignant without being sentimental. To me however, most of the stories in this collection lost their resonance, simply for the fact of having read all her earlier works. The quality of her writing is not nearly enough to lift the book beyond the monotony of repetitive themes. Yet two stories stand out, signaling what Lahiri, as a serious, thoughtful artist, is capable of.

 

 

Unaccustomed Earth is a two part book, the first, larger portion devoted to five different stories in the same flavor, of which the opening story is truly extraordinary. Part two, Hema and Kaushik, is a novella, which, if surmised as a sign of things to come in the future, bears the promise of newness.

 

The title story is based in Seattle. Being a Pacific Northwest resident myself, scant references to its landmarks were gratifying. That of course in not the source of the story’s ingenuity. What Lahiri captures beautifully is the landscape of three very different generations – father, daughter, and grandson. We find an estranged, septuagenarian father pulled by the novelty of a relationship with another woman after the passing away of his wife, and drawn to sharing the joys of his only grandson at the same time. The pain of seeing children drifting away is powerfully expressed in a father’s rumination.

“He remembered his children coming home from college, impatient with him and his wife, enamored of their newfound independence, always wanting to leave. It had tormented his wife and, though he never admitted it, had pained him as well. He couldn’t help thinking, on those occasions, how young they’d once been, how helpless in his nervous arms, needing him for their very survival, knowing no one else. He and his wife were their whole world. But eventually that need dissipated, dwindled to something amorphous, tenuous, something that threatened at times to snap. That loss was in store for Ruma too; her children would become strangers, avoiding her. And because she was his child he wanted to protect her from that, as he had tried throughout his life to protect her from so many things.”

 

The story does not ponder upon life and death but merely touches them in passing. Yet Ruma’s awe in her son, and the deep loss she feels in the absence of her mother, manage to evoke something profound.

 

“With the birth of Akash, in his sudden, perfect presence, Ruma had felt awe for the first time in her life. He still had the power to stagger her at times-simply the fact that he was breathing, that all his organs were in their proper places, that blood flowed quietly and effectively through his small, sturdy limbs. He was her flesh and blood, her mother had told her in the hospital the day Akash was born. Only the words her mother used were more literal, enriching the tired phrase with meaning: “He is from your meat and bone.” It had caused Ruma to acknowledge the supernatural in everyday life. But death, too, had the power to awe, she knew this now-that a human being could be alive for years and years, thinking and breathing and eating, full of a million worries and feelings and thoughts, taking up space in the world, and then, in an instant, become absent, invisible.”

 

It is portals such as these that elevate the story above its predictable, cloistered theme. Lahiri’s unencumbered prose touches a reader in the recognition of the universal, in way that is simple and powerful.

 

 

 

“Hema and Kaushik”, as the title suggests, is a love story, but one quite unconventional. It begins in the manner of many of her narratives-Hema’s first person reminiscence of her childhood, when Kaushik and his parents put up in their home upon their return from India. There’s a notable difference, in the inclusion of the second person, addressed to Kaushik. A trend breaker-I cannot recall her having used it earlier. But there’s more.

Chapter two of the three section novella shows a totally different point of view-with the adolescent Kaushik now in the first person, as we discover the upheavals in his life in progression. The concluding segment then switches to third person universal, where the principals in their adulthood, having grown up to be very different individuals yet similar in never having found the love of their lives, temporarily converge before the final, heartbreaking end. The final epilogue, barely a page, returns to Hema again, her realization of a permanent loss. The shadow of Kaushik in her life is obliterated by fate, as she herself steps into the mundane, by choice.

 

Here is a writer breaking out of the mould, with the freshness of an experimentation that is both controlled and assured. I can only hope that it is a harbinger of change-at least in narrative style if not themes, for it may lead to other things. It is about time.

Behind the words

I have just begun reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Unaccustomed Earth”. The back cover caught my eye. It is not that I haven’t seen her picture before, and was caught unaware by the fact that she is good looking (quite photogenic too). But the way photograph has been rendered, she could pass for a model, or a film star. While only a fool would buy a book based on an author’s looks, there is no denying the fact it has become increasingly common to flaunt it if you’ve got it, and perhaps even if you haven’t. So what if JL was a buck toothed hag with a De Niro mole on her nose and about as photogenic as a crow? I am sure that the photograph would be either missing or much subdued. What I am not so sure of is whether this is a phenomenon chiefly pertaining to women writers. Perhaps.

Nonetheless, one must learn not to take blurbs on book jackets seriously. The photograph merely makes up for the missing ones, and enhances the rest. One shouldn’t unduly bother with correlations between their fulsome promise and the quality of the actual writing, which, in this case, is surprisingly high.

 

jhumpalahiri

 

A writer of the caliber of JL needs such accoutrements only for those who have not experienced her earlier works, most notably “Interpreter of Maladies” – a gem of a collection. I admire her unornamented style, very much contrary to the glitzy marketing snapshot, but equally, if not more, arresting. She’s a shining example of what talent and a good writing school degree can do to someone with luck. The luck factor is of course required for winning fame and recognition, awards. And her good looks are only a part of her good fortunes.