Monday, February 28, 2011

Leave them alone ...

Long, long ago (which is another way of saying 1995 or thereabouts), there used to be people who took a conscious decision to drop out of society. They wanted to seek the ultimate truths in life, or maybe just hated the society of their fellow men. (There’s a third category of people who seem to disappear from normal society –engineering students. But they don’t really qualify because they eventually build their own worlds.) In India, this used to be a commonplace occurrence. Having led a full life, raised children and performed his duties towards his family and ancestors, the Indian man was expected to become a kind of sedate hippie and head for the hills to contemplate the eternal mysteries (such as, what is the right answer to a woman who asks “Does this make me look fat?” Have you noticed that there weren’t too many stories about women who pushed off for the Himalayas? Why should they, they’re the ones asking the questions, it’s the men who have to come up with answers!) This renunciation is not entirely unknown in modern India. Some men still close up their rooms, shave their heads, don the simplest robes and set out on the spiritual quest. Whereupon wise neighbours nod to each other and say “I knew his credit card bills were too high.”

The Western world has its share of recluses. Paradoxically, we only know about the ones who are famous, such as Greta Garbo who “just wanted to be left alone”. A recluse who is not already famous is by definition invisible, at least until he buys a 72-ton Abrams tank over the counter in, say, Wisconsin and goes on a shooting spree. Especially in the USA, some of the most famous authors have chosen to stay out of the public eye. J.D. Salinger, who died a year ago at the age of 91, had not allowed himself to be photographed or interviewed since the 1950s. He went even further in that he did not publish any of his works after 1953, though he continued writing throughout his life. In effect, he removed not only himself but also his defining talent from public view. This, I must confess, is entirely beyond my comprehension. A latter-day literary lion, Thomas Pynchon, also chooses to keep his life private, but at least he continues to publish novels. He has this option because his work is highly valued; a newly published author has to give up her anonymity during the book launch tour, the interviews, the Page 3 appearances.

Fame can be a bitter addiction, but there are some very public examples of stars who went private. If Hollywood (or more correctly, New York, where she lived for 40 years) had Greta Garbo, Ballygunge Circular Road has its own mystery. Roma Dasgupta’s last screen appearance was “Datta” in 1976. Forty years on, her mystique obviously has not waned; all of Bengal’s media ran amuk when she was admitted to Woodlands in 2009 even though nobody outside her family really knows what she looks like now. Of course, inaccessibility makes a star’s aura more enduring. But let’s be clear about one thing – whether it’s Garbo or Salinger or Suchitra Sen, none of these celebrities has abjured modern civilisation or even the urban milieu. (Garbo, for example, was known to go shopping and take long walks in Central Park, safely hidden behind oversized sunglasses.) All they have done is severely limit their social interactions so as to protect their privacy. They are still islands in the stream, just very inaccessible islands.

In fact, they reinforce John Donne’s most famous line. They cannot survive without the support systems of modern civilisation. It’s a question of economics, not philosophy. Getting away from it all is very tempting (No Rakhi Sawant! No ICC World Cup!) until you realise it also means doing without home delivery, pedicures and group mails. This brings out the difference between (a) recluses, who limit their social interactions e.g Howard Hughes, who spent most of his last years in a curtain-enclosed penthouse in Las Vegas (b) hermits, who go off into the wilds and survive on their own without a phone, laptop or ATM card (I’m not sure which of these two categories would include Bobby Fischer) and (c) exiles, who want to live in society but for some reason cannot, such as most women’s mothers-in-law or Robinson Crusoe. Boo Radley, the mysterious neighbour in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, is probably more of an exile, forced to withdraw from society. His creator, Harper Lee, is closer to being a recluse, since she did not choose to become a public figure despite the acknowledged brilliance of her only novel.

We should also be clear that a recluse or a hermit is not always a misanthrope. They may not bear any hatred for the human race, just dislike its company. We all have days like that, when we’d rather be just left alone. Not because we want to wipe out the neighbourhood, but because we want to enjoy the weather. Or soak in some music. Or just spend the day with a book and a thermos of tea. The recluse just wants this state of affairs to last forever. This may seem strange at first, but remember within every extrovert there’s an introvert screaming to get out.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The sincerest form of flattery

I could start with Shakespeare, but frankly, it’s a lot more fun to pull out “Tezaab”. Remember 1988 and “Ek do teen”? Rake the ashes of your memory a little more and you’ll find Anil Kapoor as Munna, sitting at a plank table with his knife stuck into it. Did we find it unusual that he gestured with his left hand? He, along with a couple dozen other aspiring stars of the day, (some of whom still hover on the fringes of our TV screens – Sudesh Berry, Mukesh Khanna et al) spent his screen time delivering killer lines with slightly pursed lips, waving his left hand about, standing with his hands on his hips, dancing stiff-legged like a racehorse with stiff fetlocks. All punched out of one mould and torn apart by the critics for it. You can’t blame them; they grew up watching the “one-man industry”, the ultimate superstar, they didn’t know stardom could come in any other form. Their ultimate accolade was “Tu toh Bachchan ban gaya!”

But here’s the rub. In 1982, a bootleg video from Pakistan did the rounds. It was called “Copy Cat” and it consisted of scenes featuring Yusuf Khan aka Dilip Kumar inter-cut with footage of … three guesses? Yes, got it in one – Amitabh Bachchan. The similarities were unmistakable. Dilip Kumar was to Bachchan as the Big B was to an entire generation. But Yusuf Saab was not the only “inspiration”. The 1971 cult film “Dirty Harry”, and Clint Eastwood’s gait as he walks towards the bank robbers to deliver the most famous line of the ‘70s. Very familiar, if you play it in split-screen with Vijay Kumar walking across a smoke-filled mining site, lighting dynamite fuses from his beedi. Yes, “Trishul”. Or even the inspired riff on Chaplin, talking to his mirror image after getting beaten up in “Amar Akbar Anthony”.

So do we dismiss the most enduring star of Indian cinema because he borrowed from all over? Or do we give him credit for a graceful synthesis of the most striking features he found? If we take the former view, the Big B is no more than a screen version of Kavya Vishwanathan. (Remember “Opal Mehta” in 2006, when we briefly basked in the reflected glory of an Indian origin girl not only getting into Harvard but writing a bestseller before she was 18? And the subsequent disappointment when she was labelled a plagiarist?) For that matter, Aamir Khan, now a byword for versatility, spent the first 12 years of his career subtly copying Rajesh Khanna. Who in turn blatantly copied Dev Anand. Who spent 30 years trying to be Gregory Peck …

Where is the fine line between “inspiration” and “imitation”? Or, in the recorded arts, outright plagiarism? One of my favourite stories is the row that Vishwa Bharati University created over the tune of “Chhnoo kar mere man ko”, a Hindi song from a Hindi film where the song sequence was coincidentally shot in Calcutta. Of course it was a direct lift from “Tomaar holo shuru” and Vishwa Bharati, as the guardians of the tradition, went all huffy about it, even threatening to sue Rajesh Roshan. Only to be deflated by an interview where RD Burman ingenuously mentioned that the Great Bearded Bard had taken the tune from an old Scottish folk song.

RDB knew what he was talking about. His genius lay not only in his creativity but in the way he hungrily devoured music from all over the world. Consider this eclectic list of songs that he copied or adapted from – “Tera mujhse hai pahle ka nata koi” from “The Yellow Rose of Texas”, “Tum ho mere dil ki dhadkan” from Procol Harum’s “A whiter shade of pale”, Sholay’s “Mehbooba” from a Greek hit by Dennis Rousso, the title song in “Kasme Vaade” from “Sesiya Hamba” by Ipi Ntombi. Would I then agree that that very modest musician Anu Malik is, as he claims, every bit as great as RD Burman? Excuse me while I die laughing!

And now for the Bald Bard who recreated the English language. What’s common to “Love’s Labour Lost”, “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Tempest”? They are the only plays that Awld Will wrote with his own original plots! Every other one of his 37 plays – that means the other 33 – is based on someone else’s story. Shakespeare, after all, was writing the jatra of his day and milieu. He followed the same reasoning as Bollywood directors today – if you “adapt” something that’s already successful, you’re not guaranteed a hit, but you stand a better chance of making some money.

There are some cases where perceived plagiarism may be no more than the persistence of memory. After all, given the 5000 years of recorded history, of musical traditions, of poetry and myth, the chances are low that we can come up with a creation that is altogether new. Why, even our beloved Guv’nor, Thomas Stearns Eliot, has been accused of lifting the refrain of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” from a line by Madison Cawein (the “Keats of Kentucky”). Should we believe it? And if we do, where is the difference between TS Eliot and Kavya Vishwanathan (or for that matter Dan Brown)?

In the translation. In making something new from something familiar. In adding one’s own special bits of genius to a piece of gold until it sparkles like a solitaire. In the final analysis, have you added more than you’ve borrowed, have you given more than you took? The truth, my friends, lies in the telling.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The country of the blind

Some of my closest friends now hold dual citizenship. In every case, the second loyalty is to the third most populous demographic group in the world, one with more inhabitants than the USA, Indonesia, Brazil, Bangladesh or Russia and less than only China and India. I’ve visited this realm. Correction – I visit it. Quite often, if not regularly. It’s a strange and wondrous place; I’m yet to see tangerine trees and marmalade skies there (or, alas, a girl with kaleidoscope eyes), but it does have pink cows that give instant strawberry milk shake. It has its problems, such as the sudden and mysterious outbreaks of minor physical violence in the form of “pokes”, but all in all it is a peaceful place despite the apparent lack of productive economic activity. Its external relations are exemplary. Since it places no restrictions on citizenship or indeed on loyalty, its denizens also inhabit other countries of the same sort and they all seem to get along famously.

The major problem, of course, is that the real world intrudes so often. Surely we’d all be so much happier if we lived forever after in the-world-that-Mark-built? Hours and days on end spent “liking” each other’s status messages, notes, comments, photographs. Sharing long-forgotten musical masterpieces by the likes of The Monkees or Anuradha Paudwal. Uploading photographs of our vacations, our families, friends, parties, pets, food, bowel movements. There must be enough economic production on Farmville and enough governance in the form of Mafia Wars. Surely this is the state of enlightenment the poet envisaged when he wrote “Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake”?

In the beginning, of course, there was Orkut. Mr. Buyyukkokten’s (I kid you not, that is his name!) creation in the dim and distant past (2004) was very important because it started the social phenomenon of “fransip”. Before Orkut, young men – sensitive, caring, intelligent, young men of luminous charm with great social skills – had little opportunity to “mek fransip”. Their options were limited to circling on their motorbikes round women waiting at bus-stops. Or making, through pursed lips, sounds that could have come from a flatulent duck but were actually meant to indicate deep mental processes. Once they discovered Orkut, their great creativity and sensitivity found its rightful outlet. These young men could then demonstrate their intelligence and charm by repeatedly “scrapping” young women’s profiles and, as a follow-up, posting photographs of their own pelvic regions. Strangely enough, Orkut went into decline despite these wonderful features. (A quick tip for Facebook users who have migrated from Orkut – if a woman sends a man a “friend request”, said request does not have a sub-text that reads “I want to have your babies”. Seriously. Take my word on this.)

Then, of course, the heavens shook, lightning flashed, John Williams composed his grandest music ever with bass notes that could make continents vibrate, and Facebook was created. (This scene was edited from “The Social Network”.) Mark Zuckerberg is undoubtedly one of the most influential men of the 21st century. After all, they didn’t make a movie about Mahatma Gandhi till 32 years after he died; Zuckerberg has a movie about him before he’s 32! And while it may not show very nice things about him, it has been nominated for the Oscars. There is absolutely no truth to the report that Mark sent copies of the issue of TIME magazine – the one with him on the cover - to David Fincher and Jesse Eisenberg with a handwritten note that said “Nyaaah nyaaah nyaah!” Now if I could only figure out why I can’t upload clips from that film to my Facebook account …

Before my friends on Facebook denounce me as a hypocrite, I would like to clarify that I have a Facebook account. With friends. And status updates. And even albums. In short, I am a citizen of Zucker-burgh. And I have no doubt that the very concept of Facebook is awesome in its simplicity. It is such a convenient means not only to keep in touch with one’s friends and relatives but also to build networks. To create fora for discussing matters of great importance and relevance. To mobilize opinion on issues that matter. For example, President Mubarak has made the first peace offering to the Tahrir Square protesters. Not only has he posted pictures of the gathering in his “Friends” album, he has even sent friend requests to the ones in the front rows. (For the first time, Facebook invites were delivered in person. By large policemen.) Besides, the team at Facebook are active on social issues. They now propose to set up Amber Alerts to help search for missing children. Only pessimists and Republicans would say that half those children wouldn’t have been missing if their parents had logged off from Facebook and spent more time with their children in the first place.

In any case, social networks are here to stay. How will the world recognize the creator of the largest network? Hard to say, but we have one hint – the White House may soon announce the first virtual First Pet. In the meantime, wait for the inevitable merger of the larger social networks, viz. MySpace, Twitter and Facebook. Coming soon – My Twit Face.