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Wednesday, Jul 11, 2007

India is a massive, crowded country of hustle and grind.  With so many people, competitive drive isn’t just inevitable, it’s admirable.  Indian audiences look up to stars who they believe exemplify the rugged warrior virtues that spell success: lithe, statuesque Amitabh Bachan, brawny Sanjay Dutt, or Salman Khan.  It’s rare that someone comes along who represents the average Indian, and is loved for it.  India doesn’t usually have the wistful admiration for the reticent, yearning everyman. But if the country had their own versions of Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper, they’d probably be very close to Dilip Kumar, Naseeruddin Shah, and Shahrukh Khan.


For connoisseurs of Indian cinema, in terms of acting, there’s B.D.K. and A.D.K. - before Dilip Kumar, and after Dilip Kumar.  In 1949, he gave an intense, anguished breakthrough performance as the unrelenting love interest of Nargis in Mehboob Khan’s Andaaz.  Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, he was one of the leading stars, and the only one who was respected for his genuine acting talent. In character and career path, Kumar resembles Laurence Olivier, an urbane tragedian with an occasional penchant for light comedy, as well as Humphrey Bogart—someone wounded by life, cynical, but still rising to the occasion.  His greatest performance, as the defiant prince Salim in Mughal-E-Azam (1960), brought together his fascination with history, his theatrical desire to inhabit a great historical character, and his nuanced, vitalizing performance. It is one of the greatest Indian movies with the archetypal dilemma of all Indian heroes at the center - the choice of pride vs. duty.


Naseeruddin Shah is the great maverick of Indian stars. He’s so off-beat and unconventional in his choices, that he’s not even your traditional star.  Sharp-eyed and wiry, he resembles Jack Lemmon in the ‘60s, full of nervy energy and mordant wit.  He’s best known to international audiences as the resilient patriarch of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001).  In the ‘70s he collaborated with art film directors like Shyam Benegal, Shekhar Kapur, and Muzzaffir Ali in contemplative pieces, like Junoon (1978), Masoom (1983), and Umrao Jaan (1981).  In Umrao Jaan, Shah proved his sublime gift for character-acting by taking a minor role, that of a brothel-madam’s son and indolent pimp, Gauhar Mirza, and transforming him into an unforgettable comic portrait of ineffectual dandyism (the scene where he tries to pass off Umrao Jaan’s poetry is his own is marvelous in its feigned pomposity).  Shah continues to show off his skill year after year in films like The Great New Wonderful (2005), director Danny Leiner’s bittersweet series of vignettes about New Yorkers coping with their lives in the wake of 9/11, and in an enigmatic portrayal of a shady Bihari politician in Vishal Bhardwaj’s take on Othello, Omkara (2007).


Shahrukh Khan’s reputation precedes him. He’s huge. His celebrity is at level with Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor at the time of their Andy Warhol silkscreen portraits: movie actor as cultural icon. Swarms of people gather at his shows, his movies, and whenever he is hosting an event.  How did someone whose appeal is that he’s an accessible, everyguy grow into a superstar? Something similar happened to Tom Hanks, yet few people want to mob him when he’s in public.  People have to be literally restrained when Shahrukh walks by, and not just teens, but middle-aged women and men as well. Shahrukh’s movies in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s had him as an awkward, yearning teen.  Early on he showed great range in playing both heroes and villains.  His relentless stalker in Yash Chopra’s Darr (1993) was a disarmingly poignant portrayal of a morally repugnant character, not unlike Peter Lorre’s child-murderer in M


His affability and gift for musical performance shot him up the ranks to being one of the most versatile, bankable actors. In 1998, two movies made him the most popular star in Indian commercial cinema, the deliriously inane, but wildly popular Badshaah and Karan Johar’s endearingly schmaltzy Parent Trap send-up, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. His popularity grew, and in recent years he’s shown a gift for nuanced acting in films like Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), Veer-Zaara (2004), Swades (2004) and Don (2005). He’s one of India’s most well-rounded stars, a thoughtful actor as well as a great dancer and performer, but most important, he’s someone Indians identify with intimately; he could be the teasing neighbor, or the winsome cousin, or a protective brother. Watching him talk to his awe-struck fans on the game show he hosts on his off-season from making movies, Kaun Banega Crorepati (the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? ) is really quite amazing: he’s unusually giving and open for someone so famous, and the audience responds with unabashed enthusiasm and gratitude. In spite of all Shahrukh’s celebrity, he’s never forgotten from where he came.



Dilip Kumar, early ‘50s



Naseeruddin Shah



Shahrukh Khan in Swades, 2004


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Wednesday, Jul 11, 2007
by Carla Meyer

A critic’s expertise only goes so far. I cannot say, for instance, whether a giant crane seems to meet OSHA safety standards before it goes haywire and smashes into a high-rise in “Spider-Man 3.” But I can tell you that the gruff newspaper editor played by J.K. Simmons in that movie is only a few degrees removed from bosses I’ve had.


And that Jennifer Westfeldt in “Kissing Jessica Stein” makes a more believable copy editor than Drew Barrymore in “Never Been Kissed,” even though she doesn’t edit much copy on screen. It’s a personality thing.


I note the nuances because I work in the same business as the characters. And frankly, any nuances are welcome, since most reporters are portrayed as vultures sweeping in and out of the frame.


Journalists have always been popular as movie characters. The attraction between the film and news businesses is obvious. Both focus on telling stories. Both entail huge egos, accusations of getting it wrong, ethical dilemmas and, on occasion, spurts of brilliance and demonstrations of true moral fortitude.


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Wednesday, Jul 11, 2007

I’m just finishing a review of Jack Dann’s The Man Who Melted, out in a reissue from Pyr. Writing the review has had me thinking about genre fiction I’d like to see come back into print.


If I could bring a title back into print, it would be two by Sterling E. Lanier Hiero’s Journey (1974) and The Unforsaken Hiero (1985).  (Ok, that’s technically two titles, but the books are short, and it’s the same series . . . .)  These post-apocalyptic works, set in a North America ravaged by nuclear weapons, portray a warrior-priest’s struggle to incorporate science, religion, and new mental powers in the fight to maintain civilization.  Lanier handles the psychology of this character, and his telepathic bonds with animals of varying levels of sentience, masterfully. 


Growing up, I read borrowed copies of these books dozens of times, and when I found some battered copies at a laundromat-cum-used-books store in Atlanta almost 10 years ago, I was giddy for weeks.


Lanier died on June 28th.  Beyond his own fiction, his sculptures of the Tolkien characters ensure his legacy for fans of science fiction and fantasy.  I was sorry to learn of his death.  (I’m also weirdly irritated that he doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry—the true measure of reputation these days . . . . Cryptomundo has an interesting take on his life, though.)


Update: HTML glitches fixed.


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Wednesday, Jul 11, 2007

WSJ columnist Lee Gomes took another look today at Twitter and other so-called microblog services, sites that encourage you to post short entries (i.e. about 200 letters) throughout the day that keep a running log of what you are doing. Despite my previous post on the subject, it’s perhaps insufficient simply to dismiss these as yet another expression of post-internet narcissism gone amuck, another way for people to mediated their own lives and make it seem more real in a media-saturated age. This, via Gomes, is how these services themselves describe what they are for:


Twitter, the first microblogging service and the current leader, says these messages are a kind of “ambient information.” The folks at Jaiku, a newer entrant, say they allow users to have “social peripheral vision.”



Both pretty good memes. Both companies seem aware that in order for people to use their services, they need to pitch it as something other than self-regard. So in a neat trick, they reconfigure the process of constantly updating the world about the minutia of your day as a kind of selfless act, sacrifical biofeedback.


“Any individual post is usually something mundane,” says Mr. Stone. “But it keeps the relationship alive; it keeps you a good son or a good brother. The next time you see one of them, they will be able to say, ‘How was that trip you took to the NASA research center? It sounded really cool.’”
Mr. Engeström adds: “It’s a feeling you are living beside them even if you don’t see them all the time. Not everyone wants to publish their lives online. But we all need attention from the people we care about.”


So just like that, writing about yourself in isolation becomes a method for paying attention to someone else. Your solipsism is actually an expression of how connected you wish to be. This would be an almost tragic paradox, if people actually believed this.


In the column, Gomes likens microblogging to idle chatter on the phone, quoting a historian who notes, “The point isn’t the content, it’s the connection.” But obviously there’s a huge difference between having a phone conversation and sending out messages to the world. The phone conversation is reciprocal, and the reciprocity foments the connected feeling. The blog posts are messages in a bottle; I would think they would reinforce the feeling of being isolated in the world, despite the hypersophisticated communications industry, and all the various technological means of interconnectedness.


There’s no doubt that rote volunteering of personal information helps establish a social bond, but the bond comes not from the ceaseless one-way flow of information but from the give and take—the slow, measured ramping-up of what is shared and what is hinted at, and the warm glow that comes when you sense the other person is opening up. I think a blog program that periodically triggers you to spew out what is on your mind automatically yields a different form of intimacy, one not immediately or readily conformable to the forms we understand and yearn for. I hesitate to call it illusory; it’s just new, not yet fully understood, and it’s not clear what sort of relationships it would facilitate, or how it would affect already established relationships. Does it obviate reciprocity, or merely defer it, as the optimists in the article suggest?


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Wednesday, Jul 11, 2007

Indie rock band Interpol, transcending beyond the New York music scene, has reached global fame. Interpol’s break came when they released Turn on the Bright Lights, an album considered one of the best of 2002. Their follow-up album, Antics, was released in 2004, attaining greater commercial success than its precursor. On July 10th, Interpol released their latest album, Our Love to Admire.


The Heinrich Maneuver:



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