The Advisory Boar
Another year, another screening of National Awards winning films at Siri
Fort auditorium in Delhi, and another special-effects award going to a
big-budget Rajnikant film directed by S. Shankar:
Hassath and I weren't able to watch it when it was released last year,
and welcomed this opportunity to continue my stunted education in Tamil
cinema. Despite having more than twice the budget of
Sivaji, however, Enthiran
does not live up to that standard. Sivaji was set in an instantly
recognisable place and time, with real social concerns underlying the
action. Enthiran is set in an ambiguous future, and takes a humanoid
robot "with feelings" through the same tired cycle of creation,
awareness, competition, corruption, and redemption that any sci-fi fan
could predict in their teens.
As the good Dr. Vaseegaran, Rajnikant doesn't have much to do—his most
adventurous acts are to program a "worm" to demagnetise the robots and
later to extract a "red chip" (which looks like a Doom 2 keycard) from
the robot to render it harmless. As the robot, he tackles some "I will
only do exactly as you say" situations, and goes on a special-effects
rampage through Chennai. Thin fare indeed for a larger-than-life hero
like Rajnikant, but he handles it with his usual aplomb. He is at home
as a force for either good or evil; as a triumphant scientist or a
resentful robot thwarted in love.
The film is not without its thoroughly enjoyable moments of absurdity,
including a memorable scene in which the robot has a conversation with
the mosquitoes of Chennai. Where Sivaji was full of Rajnikant
in-jokes, Enthiran has little tips of the hat to other films, from the
borg cube in the opening titles transforming into a Matrix-like green
screen, to the Mask-inspired scenes later in the film.
But no amount of humour, not even the lightsaber scene, can rescue the
film from its heroine, Aishwarya Rai. One has to watch the other actors
carefully to figure out what she's feeling, because she sports the same
expression of wide-eyed consternation throughout the film. Seeing her as
a fembot "rapper girl" in one of the songs (also quite disappointing,
unlike the catchy songs in Sivaji) was so disturbing that one
couldn't help but applaud the Chennai cops when they raked the robot's
getaway Mercedes with submachine-gun fire, unmindful of the heroine's
presence beside him (well, it's true she wasn't wearing a seatbelt).
The one bright spark in the film is
as the evil Dr. Bohra. Even as an urbane academic, he radiates menace
and intelligence, and brings alive a relatively minor supporting role
equipped with only the weak dialogues the script allows him. Another
performance that deserves mention is the cameo by
Mani as Pachaimuthu, a vettukathi-wielding yokel who is
easily adopted as a boyfriend "for the day" by the ditzy Aishwarya,
but not so easily gotten rid of.
Did I enjoy watching Enthiran? Yes. Do I want to
suicide and donate my kidney to Rajnikant? No thanks.
Hassath sat through the whole day's screenings at Siri Fort, but Ammu
and I joined her at 1600. We sneaked into the auditorium early, to get
seats for the Enthiran screening at 1700, and caught the tail end of
looked like an outstanding film (and won six awards, including best
director, best actor, best screenplay, and best editing).
I think I'll try to find a copy and watch all of it.
One of my most enduring memories of Kurosawa's
Sanjuro (a sequel of
sorts to Yojimbo) is
of Mifune's sardonic smile as he explains to a group of well-meaning but
clueless young men that they're looking for corruption in all the wrong
places. The other is of a cheerful bit of bird song, repeated throughout
the film; and, indeed, in many other Japanese films by Kurosawa, Masaki
Kobayashi, and others. I'd always wondered which bird was singing.
I posted to the naturerecordists list a couple of years ago, describing
the call: a loud, fluty (fwEEEE) whitch-chit-chew. It was quickly
identified as the Japanese Bush Warbler Cettia diphone by someone
in Hawai'i (where it is apparently a very successful invasive species).
I learned later that the long, subdued whistle followed by an explosive
jumble of notes is typical of a Cettia warbler's song; but I had
never seen or heard one when I first watched Sanjuro.
I assumed the species was common in Japan (given how often its song
featured in films), but once it was identified, I stopped thinking about
it. There seemed little chance that I would ever hear it live (although
C. d. cantuarians may occur as a vagrant to North-East India),
and little else about the song to hold my attention… until now.
I had the opportunity to spend two days birding around Delhi with Mark
Brazil (author of Birds of East Asia) this week, and one of the
many subjects we discussed was Cettia diphone. To my delight,
Mark told me that there was much more to the song of the Uguisu
than I had imagined.
In Japan, the Uguisu's song is very well-known, and it pervades poetry
and literature as a symbol of the spring revival; signifying rebirth,
hope, and an end to the hard (winter) times. It is also called the
"spring bird" and "poem reading bird", and its call is traditionally
transcribed as "Hō ho-ke-kyo". In poetry, the bird is associated
with the ume (sour plum) blossom, and is as evocative of spring
as the cherry blossom. (Aside: the Uguisu's droppings are even powdered
and used to lighten the skin, since they contain guanine.)
Its position in Japanese culture is comparable to that of the
Nightingale in western Europe; and the bird's name used to be translated
into English as "Japanese Nightingale", though it does not sing at
night. (The only bird I can think of whose call is similarly well-known
in Indian poetry is the Koel, whose incessant, plaintive song in early
summer has also led to comparisons with the Nightingale.)
There are many other Cettia warblers in India. I've seen the
Grey-sided Bush Warbler C. brunnifrons both in its wintering
grounds and nesting near the tree line in Kumaon, but not heard its
song (yet). Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler C. fortipes is also
relatively common in the mountains, and other species may also occur.
Now that I know something of what I have to look forward to, I always
keep an ear out for them.
I may never hear Cettia diphone singing, but its song has brought
me much joy.
Last week, Hassath took me to the Siri Fort auditorium to watch my first
Sivaji, The Boss.
I didn't know what to expect—this was my first Tamil film. I knew what
an iconic figure Rajnikant is in Tamil cinema, and Hassath had told me
that the best way to watch his films is in an inexpensive local theatre
in Tamil Nadu, so that the enthusiastic and vocal participation of the
audience adds to the experience.
To my surprise (because I have never heard much Tamil), I was able to
understand quite a lot of the dialogue and even some of the songs. The
grammar and many words were recognisably similar to Malayalam, which I
do speak. A happy coincidence, because the subtitles were awful. Bajji
(an Indian dish) was rendered everywhere in the dialogue as
(an Indian dish).
Sivaji is a rich software engineer who has returned to Chennai from the
USA with the dream of providing free education and medical care to all.
He is stymied at every turn by a corrupt system intent on extracting its
pound of flesh, let down by the law, and driven to bankruptcy by his
powerful and well-connected opponents. He retaliates the “Lion's
way”—by blackmailing the same people into giving him half of their
black money (i.e. undeclared income), then turning them in to the income
tax officials anyway. He then launders the money and uses it to fund the
universities and hospitals he wanted to open.
I've been reading about early Soviet cinema, and I stumbled across
and Nikolai Shpikovsky's 1925 short film
The twenty-minute comedy tells of the estrangement of a couple over the
man's obsession with chess during the 1925 tournament held in Moscow. So
engrossed is he in playing both positions on his chessboard that he is
hours late to a meeting with his beloved, who sends him packing; but no
matter where she seeks solace, she cannot escape chess in the time of
"chess fever". (I had no difficulty understanding the film without the
Russian intertitles, but I found
The film is notable for an appearance by the great Cuban chess player
José Raúl Capablanca
(who was then the reigning world champion, though he placed only third
in Moscow), and it also features footage of actual game play from the
There are even some cute kittens tossed in.
What does this mean?, asked Hassath, pointing to «La
Hora de los Hornos» in an article about documentary films.
The hour of the… something.
And just like that, a flood of memories swept me twenty years back in
time to the Argentinian pampas, which I had experienced time and again
through Gerald Durrell's marvellous writings. I remembered the story of
a tough gaucho moved to tears as he recounted how he—in a moment
of uncharacteristic sentimentality—rescued a small bird whose leg was
stuck in the wet clay with which it was building its nest. The bird,
once freed, perched a few feet away and poured its heart out in song, as
if to thank the enraptured cowboy.
The bird's name, Hornero, was what triggered a memory so vivid
that, just for an instant, I could almost smell the clay and feel a
dry, dusty wind stinging my cheek.
Horneros, named for
the resemblance of their round clay nest to a horno, an old
wood-fired oven. Ovenbirds.
Furnaces. That's it. The Hour of the Furnaces.
Hour of the Furnaces is a 1968 documentary by Fernando Solanas
and Octavio Getino about the struggle against neo-colonialism in
Argentina. The title quotes Che Guevara who, in turn, was quoting the
nineteenth-century Cuban revolutionary leader and poet José
Marti: "Now is the time of the furnaces, and only light should be seen."
The film is in three parts, and is 260 minutes long. Hassath, who has
seen it, recommends it highly.
My treasured collection of Gerald Durrell's books is long gone, given
away over the years; and now, I have a film to watch that will teach
me very different things about Argentina. But it will also always remind
me of a small brown bird celebrating its freedom with a song.
The James Beveridge Media Research Centre at the
Jamia Millia Islamia University in
Delhi offered a summer course on "Film and the Historical Imagination",
conducted by Ranjani Mazumdar (an Associate Professor of Cinema Studies
at JNU). The course ran on alternate
working days for the two weeks between July 27–August 7, and comprised
five illustrated lectures followed by film screenings, with the sixth
morning reserved for a round-table discussion. Participants were charged
INR650 for admission.
Quoting from the invitation for applications:
Film is an archive of sensations, of emotions, of images and of
sounds. As a powerful recorder of life and its events, Film lends
itself to organizing not just historical knowledge but also commenting
on the nature of historical narration. This two week introductory
course on Film and the Historical Imagination will map the specific
ways in which history and ideas about the past get constructed through
the medium of cinema. Issues related to questions of evidence, memory,
historical catastrophe, nostalgia, myth and heritage will be discussed
and analyzed in relation to world cinema.
Hassath remembered attending and liking Ms. Mazumdar's lectures during a
film appreciation course at FTII
some years ago; this course sounded interesting too, and the schedule
and charges suited us perfectly (we would not have been able to attend
if either had been notably different). We applied for admission, and
were both accepted (to my considerable surprise, since the course was
advertised as being for "graduate students and media researchers").