Sunday, July 26, 2009

Quick Bites

Frost/ Nixon:

A riveting watch. The Watergate affair and Richard Nixon obviously have a hold on public imagination more than 30 years after the actual event. 28 hours of what must have been in reality quite a boring interview has been cut down into 2 hours of suspenseful grilling. Frost is the light-weight British talk show host who gets to interrogate Nixon, 3 years after he resigned from the post of American President. Frost is seeking to make his reputation in American television and Nixon is looking for some form of redemption in the public eye (and a whole load of money in the bargain). It is a verbal duel between a playboy charmer and a dour stonewalling ex-president. Frost, and it seems the whole of America, is looking for some admission of guilt from a man who escaped impeachment by resigning. Nixon is bent on not caving in. The first few parts of the interview go Nixon’s way – Frost comes across as the insubstantial TV personality, unable to get through to a seasoned politician who looks like he is exonerating himself in the public eye. The turning point is a drunken call at night from the President before the final session. It gives Frost the impetus to do some more digging and get to Nixon at the last port, eliciting from him some form of admission of guilt, not too significant an admission, but certainly more than anything he had given before or since. It is an excellent script, there is a superb sense of drama and timing and great acting. Michael Sheen (he played Blair in The Queen) as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon are both excellent. There are apparently historical inaccuracies (the phone call apparently did not happen and the last interview was carefully scripted by Nixon’s team, says his biographer), but as a piece of cinema, I found it enthralling.

Revolutionary Road:

Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio re-unite after Titanic in a Sam Mendes movie about angst in suburban America. Immortal lovers in their first film together, Kate and Leo now encounter a marriage, kids and an everyday life that saps illusions, dreams and even love. Sam Mendes revisits his American Beauty milieu, this time in ‘50s America.

Frank and April Wheeler meet in a bar, fall in love, get married, have kids and move to a nice suburban house on Revolutionary Road. April had dreams of becoming an actress, dreams that are pretty much thrown out of the window after a disastrous local theatre performance. Frank works at a job he does not like very much at Knox Business Machines. The Wheelers know this life is not what they want, a mundane existence where a house in the suburbs, a car and kids is the American dream. They have not bought into it. They decide to get out of the rut by moving to Paris, where April would work to support Frank as he discovers what it is he wants to do. It is to be their brave move, the move that makes them different from everyone else, that establishes their specialness. But of course it is not to be. As they see their lives descend into the routine of thwarted ambitions, adultery and a third kid on the way, they know there is going to be no Paris, no out.

The slow disintegration of their marriage and their lives and their inability to retain what is inherently special about them is heart breaking. The last breakfast scene where April serves Frank with a smile that has all her shattered dreams behind it, takes something out of you. This film is as emotionally wrenching as American Beauty was. I definitely need to read Yates’ book now.

On a related topic, here is David Foster Wallace’s inspiring commencement speech at Kenyon College.

He talks about finding meaning in mundane existences (the lot of most of us). It is a different matter of course, that Wallace later killed himself.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Stranger to History

Aatish Taseer

Taseer is the son of Indian journalist Tavleen Singh and a Pakistani businessman-cum-politician Salman Taseer. He grows up in Delhi with his Sikh mother and her family after his father abandons her mother and his infant self in London, studies in a boarding school down south, goes to college in America and works as a reporter in London with Time, before embarking on a quite ambitious book at the age of 27.

Stranger to History is an account of Taseer’s travels through the Islamic world in a quest to dig deeper into his Muslim heritage. This journey is the consequence of a harsh critical letter from his father accusing him of betraying his Islamic legacy when he writes an article about radical Islam in Britain. The book is a record of his impressions as an outsider (with an insider’s name and background – Islam considers him Muslim because his father is) of a world that is quite the ‘other’ for the rest of us. Taseer fuses this record of a journey with glimpses into his personal story – his on-off relationship with his father and his Pakistani family, growing up in a Sikh family with an absent Muslim father. The result is a book tasting of searing and brave honesty.

Taseer’s first stop in the book is Turkey. Having just finished Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul, Taseer’s Turkey seems familiar. It is a unique country in the Islamic world – a Muslim country whose founding hero bans the veil and where today Muslims live ‘in a Muslim country with a sense of persecution’, where ‘the link to the great Islamic past and the cultural threads to the larger Muslim are proscribed and broken’, where its ‘secularism was dogmatic, almost like a separate religion.’ He meets radical Muslims here, like Abdullah, who are hoping to revive the glorious Islamic past (the Caliphate which Ataturk destroyed) in a country that is so desperately trying for acceptance in the liberal western world. In a way, Turkey is the reverse of the rest of the Islamic world Taseer visits – elsewhere, the glorious Islamic past is the only history remaining.

Syria, under the closed, autocratic regime of Assad provides Taseer a look at a society where a mosque is the only place for people to congregate and discuss politics. He describes the foreigners flocking to Abu Nour, the Islamic university and mosque drawing people from all over the world, from Norway to Mali to Indonesia. Here, he masquerades as a Pakistani and learns how to pray. When the Danish embassy is attacked following the publication of the cartoons depicting the Prophet, Taseer learns how it feels to be in the midst of a crowd ready to kill and be killed for a cartoon published in a faraway country. He writes “The offensive cartoons could not have been understood Islamically. The democratic rights and interlocking institutions that protected them were outside the faith’s compass… the cartoons came from places that considered it an achievement for religion to be able to take a joke.”

And as Taseer travels through Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan, it is this point he keeps discovering. A literal Islam could not explain a modern day world – of democracy, of religion as personal and not political, of human rights and gender equality. And a cultural Islam (a more local, hybridized form, taking into account variations of culture) that could be a bridge is more and more in retreat; as Islam becomes more global, more homogenous. Yet he finds traces of this in the unlikeliest of places – in Iran, where Khomeini’s revolution wiped out a glorious pre-Islamic history and where today, he finds people resurrecting that awareness, voicing that sense of loss. Iran is a bit of a revelation – he meets a Hare Rama Hare Krishna follower, women who defy the cultural edicts, a rising undercurrent of rebellion. The Islamists are no longer the revolutionaries overthrowing a corrupt Shah; instead they are the establishment. But he is forced to leave Iran in a hurry, hounded out in his attempts to get below the surface of dissent.

Pakistan is almost a homecoming for Taseer, as he makes his way to his father and his current family. He discovers the family and a new country, yet neither his father nor his new country can make him feel as if he belonged. He finds a country whose basis is more the rejection of India than the assertion of Pakistan. The absence of a middle class was really the difference between the two countries, Taseer comments. And here again, he sees a rejection of a cultural Islam that could have bound the two nations and an assertion of a bare-bones Islamic tradition. That really then is Taseer’s discovery in all his travels. That cultural Islam is giving way to a narrower, literal religion, out of sync with the rest of the world. That this narrowing also comes with a miraculous “transfiguration of one’s culture and history, by either a profession of faith, or an inherited profession of faith.” And “what would it take to believe in a history like that?” he asks. It is clear what Taseer’s views are. Of his own roots, he says “ meant the possibility of a different education, of embracing the three-tier history of India whole, perhaps an intellectual troika of Sanskrit, Urdu and English. These mismatches were the lot of people with garbled histories, but I preferred them to violent purities. The world is richer in its hybrids.”

The unsatisfactory parts of the book are his excursions into his personal story – that of trying to find an absent father and not connecting with him when he does. At these points, you want to tell him to move on, to continue his observations of the world around him and discard the autobiography. The writing is average. It is what Taseer has to say rather than how he says it that makes this book a really fascinating read.