Sunday, 25 January 2009

Sancharram - feminist filmmaking from Kerala

On my weekend trip to Jyväskylä I found Ligy J. Pullappally's film Sancharram - The Journey (2004). Pullappally is an US-based lawyer-filmmaker from Kerala, with a long background in feminist activism. In the year 2000, she received a letter from a Kerala college student asking for help in coming out as a lesbian. There had been sad cases of queer suicide in the province. In 2004, she returned to her home village to film Sancharram. The film is also a tribute to a young lesbian couple, the other party of which killed herself.

Sancharram is an indie film, made with a modest budget, with local Malayalam-speaking actors. Contrary to Bollywood, its music and dance scenes do not celerate couplehood and fulfilled love. The actors fill their roles almost quietly, without exaggerating any emotion. Nature engages in further dramaturgy than the people. There are some scenes that use the common Indian cinema codes: rain and thunder symbolize sexuality, the women play with their destiny at the edge of a steep cliff - but these episodes are not overdone.

I cannot compare Sancharram with Deepa Mehta's Fire (1996), a film I haven't yet seen. Fire caused violent outbreaks in and around cinemas all over India. What I gather from other reviews, it seems Fire was rather bold and graphic in the depiction of love scenes; Sancharram on the other hand engages in minimalistic poetic play, alluding more than showing. It is difficult to imagine that the film could offend someone as a love story or a portrayal of sexuality. One can easily watch this with children. If I were to choose one focus group to watch this with, I would show it to teenagers. Not as a film depicting exotic India, Third World or cultural differences, but as a universal story about love and boundaries. Cannot remember any good coming-out-of-closet film from Finland. Yet similar responses to queerness happen here on a daily basis.

Some points worth noting:

*Historical time. Because the film has been made with a low budget, it looks like the time frame is from 1970s to 1980s. It shows ancient cars and fashions that could be from earlier periods. There are no computers or mobile phones. But the characters discuss recent film stars like Shahrukh Khan and Rani Mukerji. This makes me guess the story happens from 1990s to early 2000s.

*Malayalam language. So refreshing, if one has mainly watched Hindi films. I can actually recognize some words, as I have listened to this language for years at my friends' place.

*Grandmother figure. She sees the two girls being intimate in the backyard, yet doesn't interfere. It looks like Delilah's falling in love with a girl isn't such a scandal historically and culturally at all. All scandal is based on what the neighbours think, what the church says, not on how the family members feel between themselves. Delilah's mother unsuccessfully uses the grandmother as a blackmailing device ("you choose her or your granny", implying the granny will die if she hears the news). Her bond with the grandmother is so deep not any love relationship could destroy it. If anyone has seen the Swedish film Hus i helvete, in which a young Iranian woman struggles for her independence through becoming a porn star, you will automatically grasp this grandmother-granddaughter complicity.

*Everydayness. Of course, the film is a visual treat especially for those of us who haven't been to Kerala. Nature speaks for itself. But Pullappally doesn't make a spectacle of the local village life. It shows quite realistically the everyday life of a multi-religious village, where Hindus, Christians and Muslims gossip about each other across communal divides. Kiran and Delilah also belong to different religious communities, but this dimension is downplayed. Delilah's Christianity is shown with more detail than Kiran's Hinduism. Kiran comes from a cultured cosmopolitan family, which has moved to the mother's ancestral home from Delhi. Basically, the two girls are like any village girls. Also other girls shock their parents by eloping with their loved ones. Pullappally shows that also heterosexual love affairs cause chaos in the community. The film is open-ended and leaves the audience to think of a possibility that the two women may even stay together in Kerala. If not in the village, then in some bigger city.

*School scenes. This makes me think I am truly looking for an Indian version of an ethnographic film on everyday school life, in the style of the French Être et avoir.

I would like to think of Sancharram as a call for honest discussion about homosexuality in Indian, or local Kerala society, or any given society. The way Pullappally shows young girls falling in love can make even the most homophobic viewer to acknowledge that queer folks have always existed in all societies. She is not portraying the girls' parents as homophobic monsters who feel disgusted by the daughter's sexual behaviour, but as parents worried about the community's response and the girls' futures, their possibilities to support themselves without a man. The film opens up a space where these different pressures, but also different empathies and sympathies can be discussed.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Knockout Fiction: Adiga's White Tiger

Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger (2008), which recently won the ManBooker prize, is a novel straight from India's gutters. Its most powerful episodes smell of shit. People have important political conversation while defecating together in a row in the slums of Delhi. And the dialogues work.

I picked up The White Tiger for academic reasons. I'm trying to write something about the materiaist/realist turn in Indian postcolonial fiction (in English). I heard about Adiga's victory in the ManBooker competition in the autumn; however, I was suspicious of any Indian piece of writing with the word "tiger" in the title. There are many such titles in my shelf already. Enough of Asian tigers.

The protagonist, The White Tiger of Bangalore, is an entrepreneur with a shady past. He begins telling his story in correspondence with His Excellency Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, who is soon visiting his city. The narrative strategy is one of the innovative points in this novel: gradually, the White Tiger becomes less formal and more chummy with his addressee, engaging in direct man-to-man talk.

I enjoyed most Adiga's way to pick and mix advertisements, political slogans and other "found" items. This is not new in postcolonial writing, but not everyone knows how to do it grippingly. Adiga surely does. The most ironic borrowing is the price list from "Jackpot" English liquor shop, with separate columns for first, second and third rate whiskies (and in small print: ask for cheaper varieties at the counter). The servants often pick up the alcohol for their masters from such shops. They might learn to drink the third rate or below themselves, while carrying the first rate status symbol bottles.

The White Tiger goes through his academy of entrepreneurship while working as a driver for a returned migrant businessman and his wife, Pinkie, who is betrayed by her husband by his promises to return to the US. The couple divorces, after which the husband starts living a wild bachelor life. The White Tiger is disgusted by the boss's behaviour, observing his ways from a viewpoint of moral superiority. Most of the working days are spent waiting in front of the Parliament and luxury hotels, while Mr. Ashok Sharma delivers bribes to the politicians.

From the outset, I thought the whole story might be too crudely realist to be enjoyable. But the novel turned out to be politically informative and funny at the same time. As a reader, I enjoyed hanging out with the White Tiger and his streetwise driver colleagues outside the fancy hotels of Delhi, spitting paan on the pavements, rather than knowing what exactly happened inside the walls of the Sheraton. The upper caste, upper middle class characters are made somehow redundant, Adiga tells about them just enough. No more is necessary.

If I were to give one keyword or key concept to describe The White Tiger, it would be complicity. To tell the story solely from the servant's point of view is a knock-out strategy, because very rarely do we find university-educated authors writing in English with the imagination to cross the caste-and-class divide. The servant is fully complicit in the master's plans, desiring his lifestyle and at the same time feeling superior, every day boiling up with more rage.

This is a very plain novel with nothing frilly, nothing decorative or "extra" in it. For instance, Indian village life (named as The Darkness) is not portrayed to reveal the foreign reader its richness, but Adiga mainly discusses the corruption of the schoolmasters and doctors. Boys never get the school uniforms they are being sent in aid packages; there are several hospital grounding stones in a single village but none of them materialized.

Adiga uses the metaphor of egg shells when portraying the lives of the rich, protected in their SUVs. The eggs are cracked for short moments, then sealed again. The Westernised élites like to listen to European pop to calm down their nerves in the worst traffic jams. I can never listen to Enya or Sting with a straight face after reading The White Tiger. Not that I'd be missing out on much upon such musical erasure.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Sodexo sucks

It makes me very angry to think that there's a Sodexo restaurant on our Tampere Uni campus. I only discovered the global connection of Sodexo to UK deportation centres last autumn, when I was doing some background study for my forthcoming novel. I ended up reading for a whole month about mass deportations in the EU.

Sodexo runs Britain's largest deportation centre at Harmondsworth near Heathrow Airport. It's been constantly in the British media for bad treatment of inhabitants and even suicide cases. I know we should have started complaining about this years ago, but such is life in the peripheries - we hear the bad news always somewhat belated.

The food at the local Sodexo restaurant is awful, so I know many people boycott it for mere reasons of taste. But this makes me think seriously about our common European futures: how many years will it take until the whole of Europe's reception and deportation centres will be privatized? Can anyone estimate what Sodexo's current profits in the deportation business are?

I'll try to write about this in one of the local papers soon, but I first have to calm down for a few days for my article to become a bit more civilized.

Thanks to a special muse who suggested me that I should write about this, while sitting at the Amica café. Wonder what the global corporatist connections of Amica are?

Bollywood-leffat - ranking list

Kun nyt elää pisteytysyhteiskunnassa, täytyy näkemänsä leffatkin laittaa paremmuusjärjestykseen. Näin arvostelisin viime aikoina näkemäni Bollywood-leffat:

Veer-Zaara ***** (kunniamaininta Rani Mukerjin rooli)

Taal ***** (kunniamaininta Anil Kapoorin rooli)

Parineeta ***** (kunniamaininta ajankuva ja lavastukset)

Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi **** (kunniamaininta värimaailma)

Kabhi Alveda Na Keena ***

Bride &Prejudice ***

Drona **

Run * (käsittämättömän huono)