“Padmaavat” (2018) starring Deepika Padukone, Ranveer Singh, & Shahid Kapoor

SPOILERS: Don’t read this post if you haven’t seen, or don’t want to know, details from this movie.

Set in medieval Rajasthan, Queen Padmavati is married to a noble king and they live in a prosperous fortress with their subjects until an ambitious Sultan hears of Padmavati’s beauty and forms an obsessive love for the Queen of Mewar. -Synopsis

I didn’t know I would have to suffer THIS much just to see Shahid Kapoor’s spectacular abs! Seriously, this is one Bollywood movie (directed/co-written by Sanjay Leela Bhansali) which deserved the controversy it got- it’s misogynistic, Islamaphobic, and homophobic. One army is shouting and riding through a desert carrying green flags w/ a white crescents (just like the flag of Pakistan). There is a scene of many men all wearing white thobes and turbans doing namaz (prayer), then yelling and picking up weapons to fight in the next moment. The stereotypes are so blatant, this movie could be considered dangerous (esp. given the tensions between Muslims and Hindus in Modi’s India)! For those of you who watched Game of Thrones, there is a murder scene very similar to the killing of a lesser Lannister cousin by Jaime in Season 2.

I’m sure some of you’ve heard re: the characterization of the medieval sultan, Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh); he is violent (even w/o cause), lustful (incl. for power/lands), obsessive, and animal-like (eating raw meat w/ his bare hands). In stark contrast, Maharawal Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), is peaceful, loving (having eyes only for his wife), calm, and honorable leader. I learned that one of my fave veteran actors (who has worked all over the world), Naseeruddin Shah, is a maternal uncle of Kapoor! Yes, the actor has both Hindu and Muslim heritage; this is not unusual when it comes to some of Bollywood’s film families.

In the early 1300s, an arrogant/confident prince named Alauddin marries his cousin, Mehrunissa (Aditi Rao Hydari), and plots to take the throne of her father/his uncle- Jalaluddin (Raza Murad). None of the Muslims in this movie are portrayed as good, aside from the luminous/sad-eyed Mehrunissa. In one memorable scene, a warrior named Malik Kafur (Jim Sarbh), kills two hardened soldiers with balletic/swift strokes of his knife. Unfortunately, he spends most of the movie pining after Alauddin like a love-sick teenager.

When Mehrunissa is close, Kafur is jealous. In one scene, he is washing Alauddin while they sit in a big bathtub (talk about homoerotic undertones)! In the original story (written by a Muslim poet), Malik Kafur was both a fighter (respected general who fought in many successful battled) and a lover. In Ridley Scott’s Alexander, he has a handsome male companion who hails from somewhere in the Middle East; this was based on records uncovered by historians. In this case, Malik Kafur’s homosexuality serves as a running joke and makes Alauddin seem like even more of a freak of nature.

The princess (of what is now Sri Lanka), Padmavati (Deepika Padukone- sporting an unibrow), is first seen frolicking in the woods w/ a bow and arrow. This might bring to mind Diana (the huntress in Greek mythology) or Katniss from The Hunger Games trilogy. She attempts to shoot a deer, but ends up wounding the King of Chittor- Ratan Singh! He admits that it was his fault- he was staring at her (struck by her beauty, not just her arrow). Padmavati takes care of the king (in the cave where she lives- no reason why) while he recovers. This section of the movie reminded some viewers of Wonder Woman.

Of course, Padmavati and Ratan Singh fall in love; the actors portray this well. She gives Ratan Singh handfuls of pearls (which he had been searching for at the request of his queen). The marry and go off to his kingdom, where his first wife, Nagamati (Anupriya Genka) is put on the back bench. When the court priest- Chetan- is caught spying on the king and queen; he is promptly banished. Chetan ends up working for Alauddin, convincing him that in order to succeed, he must have Padmavati by his side! This is one character I wanted to see a bit more of, along w/ his motivations.

The middle section of this story drags on… and on; the viewer is bombarded w/ scenes of dust, desert, marching armies, as well as the opulence (of the Rajputs). Honestly, I couldn’t judge who had the better costumes- Kapoor or Padukone! Eventually, Ratan Singh invites Alauddin to share a meal and talk alone (w/o any men or weapons). When Alauddin asks to see Padmavati, Ratan Singh is deeply offended and says no. Alauddin says that he expected to meet both the rulers. Padmavati convinces her husband that, in order to appease Alauddin (and maybe save the kingdom from war), she will let him see her. Before Alauddin can get a good look, a curtain is pulled down, hiding the queen. This makes the sultan very angry; he vows to get Padmavati to come to him! Alauddin invites Ratan Singh to his tent for meal, then kidnaps him. Though Nagamati pleads w/ her not to, Padmavati insists on going to rescue her husband (w/ his two best soldiers by her side and 800 attendants).

The movie opens with some disclaimers, one being that it is not endorsing jauhar (Wikipedia: “the act of mass self-immolation by women in parts of the Indian subcontinent, to avoid capture, enslavement and rape by Islamic invaders, when facing certain defeat during a war.”) As some of you may have guessed, jauhar is closely connected to sutee (“bride burning”)- the custom of a Hindu widow being burned to death on the funeral pyre of her husband. Kaushik Roy said that the jauhar was observed only during Hindu-Muslim wars; John Stratton Hawley states it was present before them and was likely started by the actions of the Greek conquerors.

Well, in the last act of the film, jauhar is most obviously valorized! After the fight between Alauddin and Ratan Singh (where the good king is shot in the back), the girls and women (incl. ones who are pregnant) inside the fort are seen dressed in their finest (bridal) red outfits. They are led by Padmavati, who defiantly declares that Alauddin’s army will not defeat them. They walk in a slow procession for some time- too long- and bravely walk closer… and closer to a huge wall of fire. No one looks nervous, scared, or even hesitates for a second- that can’t be realistic!

Blinded by the Light (2019) directed by Gurinder Chadha

Gurinder Chadha (a British Asian Sikh journo turned filmmaker) made a big splash w/ the 2002 indie film, Bend it Like Beckham, starring Parminder Nagra (a theater actress who US audiences watched on ER) and a teen Keira Knightley (who became a worldwide success). At first, Chadha (now a mom of twins w/ her writing partner/husband Paul Mayeda Berges), felt that Blinded was too similar to her previous film. After Brexit happened, she was determined to tell the story (based on the life of a journo of Pakistani/Muslim heritage Sarfraz Manzoor). The movie was approved by Bruce Springsteen two years ago; after a private screening, The Boss told Chadha: “I love it. Don’t change a thing.”

Javed (Viveik Kalra) is a 16 y.o. living in ’80s Luton, England; it’s not a good time to be Pakistani, Muslim, or a dreamer who wants more than what’s planned by his parents. Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister. The National Front (NF) supporters spray hateful graffiti on mosques and homes, including in Javed’s working-class neighborhood. Though he (secretly) wants to be a writer, his immigrant father- Malik (Kulvinder Ghir from Goodness Gracious Me)- wants him to be a doctor, engineer, or estate agent. Jobs are scarce in this town; money is tight in the family; the parents are anxious re: upcoming wedding of Javed’s older sister. Javed and his mom give their earnings to Malik; this was a surprise to many people in my screening.

Javed has been keeping journals for many years; he also writes songs for his best friend/neighbor Matt’s (Dean Charles Chapman from Game of Thrones) band. Things start to change between the long-time pals when Matt gets his first girlfriend and Javed goes into the sixth form (in preparation for university). Javed’s new English teacher, Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell), sees potential in his work. She explains that he has an unique voice. Another British Asian kid in school, Roops (Aaron Phagura), introduces Javed to the music of Springsteen. Roops is based on the (real-life) best friend of Manzoor, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Javed falls in love w/ this American rock music (which was fading from popularity- FYI), feeling that Bruce is singing about his life!

Suddenly, Javed’s father is laid off from the factory job he’s had for 16 years. From the nightly news clips, we see that many people in factory/industrial towns are out of work. His mother, Noor (Meera Ganatra), has to take in more sewing to support the family; she works well into the night w/o complaint. Even Javed tries to go back to the bread factory where we worked the last summer, but there are no jobs. About half-way through the film, we get a (touching/sensitive) scene between Malik and Noor. I don’t think another filmmaker would have done it as well as Chadha. The parents would’ve remained more stereotypical, one-note, and unchanging. One critic esp. liked how they showed how much Malik cared for his fellow Pakistanis and mosque.

Javed’s younger sister, Shazia (Nikita Mehta), doesn’t understand why he’s so into Springsteen. We later learn that Shazia has a bit of a rebellious side also; she goes to “daytimers” (parties featuring bhangra music w/ fellow British Asian students). I had never heard of these events before- they look fun! Though this story is centered on a boy and his dad, it’s great to see a bit into a girl’s life.

One of the girl’s in Javed’s English class, Eliza (Nell Williams), is an activist who is impressed by his writing and personality. We eventually learn that she’s from a wealthy Tory (politically conservative) family. Her parents comment that Eliza dates boys who are “controversial” in the scene where Javed goes to their house. Aside from his obsession w/ Bruce, Javed is “a good, straight arrow kid” (as a film critic noted), so there isn’t much for her parents to worry about.

There is more to this (optimistic) story; you should check it out if it’s playing nearby. It doesn’t shy away from (in your face; period accurate) racism. FYI: People in my screening were shocked by a few scenes. A desi man in my audience commented after the film: “I grew up in Birmingham; it’s pretty accurate.” There is lot to like about this film, but it’s not perfect. The musical scenes may put some people off; a few viewers in my audience and critics considered them “cheesy” or “cringey.” They didn’t always fit well w/in the story; I was expecting them to be more naturalistic. FYI: 19 different Springsteen songs were featured through the film- WOW!

Book Review: “American Dervish” by Ayad Akthar

Hayat Shah is a young American in love for the first time. His normal life of school, baseball, and video games had previously been distinguished only by his Pakistani heritage and by the frequent chill between his parents, who fight over things he is too young to understand. Then Mina arrives, and everything changes.

Mina is Hayat’s mother’s oldest friend from Pakistan. She is independent, beautiful and intelligent, and arrives on the Shah’s doorstep when her disastrous marriage in Pakistan disintegrates. Even Hayat’s skeptical father can’t deny the liveliness and happiness that accompanies Mina into their home. Her deep spirituality brings the family’s Muslim faith to life in a way that resonates with Hayat as nothing has before. Studying the Quran by Mina’s side and basking in the glow of her attention, he feels an entirely new purpose mingled with a growing infatuation for his teacher.

When Mina meets and begins dating a man, Hayat is confused by his feelings of betrayal. His growing passions, both spiritual and romantic, force him to question all that he has come to believe is true. Just as Mina finds happiness, Hayat is compelled to act — with devastating consequences for all those he loves most.

-Synopsis of the novel (Amazon)

As some of you know, I’m a V slow reader, BUT I managed to finish 75% of this novel (according to my Kindle)! I’ve been following this author for a few yrs now; in 2017, journo Bill Moyers said of Akthar: “We finally have a voice for our times.” One of my friends read American Dervish a few years ago; she didn’t recall ALL the details, BUT said that she’d never read something like this before. She passed it onto a friend, then that friend gave it to another. A newcomer to the book club said she also liked the book- subject matter and writing style. The moderator who read it 2 yrs ago said that this book goes into the issues faced by ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis), NOT only those particular to Muslims. 

WARNING: This post contains SPOILERS for the novel. 

NOTE: The following topics/questions (which my book club discussed) can be found here: https://www.bookbrowse.com/reading_guides/detail/index.cfm/book_number/2649/american-dervish

Do you think that one has to reject one identity in order to embrace another? What choice does Hayat make? What will the result be?

I think that children and adolescents (such as Hayat Shah, the protagnist/narrator) can often feel this way; my book club agreed w/ this comment. For Hayat, he identified as a Muslim, at least as a preteen boy. His goal was to be a hafiz (someone who knows the Quran by heart), though his father was dead set against this plan. Akthar said in several interviews that he was V interested in Islam as a child; he convinced his (secular) parents to take him to the local mosque and allow him to study the Quran. 

Hayat’s mother and father have a difficult relationship. In fact, all of the relationships between men and women in the book are complex, often troubled. What might the author be saying about such relationships within this culture?

Back in Pakistan, Mina’s first marriage turned sour b/c of her abusive mother-in-law. Her husband didn’t do anything to stop this, so Mina made the drastic decision to go to the US (w/ her son Imran). She couldn’t go back to her parents; they had urged her to stay w/ her husband’s family (she was rejected in her time of need).  

The newcomer to our group said that there were messed up power dynamics between Hayat’s parents; his mother (Muneer) didn’t have a job, so his father (Naveed) has all the money (thus the decision-making power). The ONLY relationship that was positive was between Hayat’s mom’s best friend, Mina, and his father’s friend/colleague, Nathan. They have an old-fashioned courtship, under the watchful eye of Muneer for about a year. This is a kind of fix-up, though based on mutual respect and admiration. Mina and Nathan talk re: books and ideas, share meals, and grow to love each other. When Hayat asks why they can’t be alone, his mother explains that Mina is a Pakistani woman, so “dating” is out of the question.

Hayat’s mother has grown angry and bitter b/c her husband drinks (secretly, he thinks) and cheats on her w/ white women. The women are possibly nurses at the hospital where Dr. Shah conducts research. Hayat’s mother, Muneer, refers to the other women as “mistresses” and “prostitutes.” Her view of white women is thus very negative, though she has a positive view of the Jewish people (incl. Nathan). In one scene, Muneer says that she’s raising Hayat “like a little Jew” (so that he’ll grow up to love and respect women).

Do you think it’s valid and/or authentic for male authors to write about feminist issues? What was your feeling about the portrayal of women in American Dervish?

Yes, someone can be “a male feminist,” my friend said quickly. Akthar said that he was inspired by the women in his life, incl. his own mother (a medical doc), his aunts, and various Pakistani immigrant women from the community of Milwaukee, WI (where he grew up). 

What are the different visions of Islam portrayed in the book?

Naveed (a man of science) has a contempt (perhaps even hatred) of Islam; this is echoed in Disgraced, where Amir even hides his origins. Naveed makes fun of Nathan when the younger man shows an interest in the religion. After Mina and Nathan’s break-up, he declares to his son that he “never wants to see you w/ that book [the Quran] ever again.” On the flip side, Mina wants to know more re: Islam; she studies and also teaches Hayat for a time. She is BOTH religious and spiritual, explaining to Hayat that it’s the “intention” of an action that counts. 

What did you think of the relationship between Islam and Judaism in the novel?

This is a tough one (IMO), b/c in this novel, these religions are put at odds w/ each other. Mina rejects Nathan (a cultural Jew) b/c he doesn’t want to convert to Islam. After all, he had a shocking/scary experience the one time he attended the masjid. Naveed warned him, BUT Nathan’s curiosity and love for Mina compelled him to give this religion a chance. Muneer, who had such high hopes for the pair, is disappointed when they don’t marry. She saw Nathan as a decent man and great choice for Mina, even though he was white and Jewish. I feel that Muneer wanted her friend to have a better life than herself. 

 

Private Mohammed Kahn: Civil War Soldier

Wow, this is an AMAZING (and rare) discovery!

NARAtions

Today’s post comes from Kate Mersiovsky, National Archives Technician

Since I’ve become an archives technician in the Innovation Hub Scanning Room at the National Archives, I’ve seen my fair share of interesting records. Researchers have digitized the pension of presidential widow Lucretia Garfield, the pension of Harriet Tubman, and the Supreme Court cases In Re Gault and U.S. v. Edith Windsor. Recently one of my fellow technicians, Jesse Wilinski, found another unique record- the pension file for Mohammed Kahn, a Muslim soldier who served in the Civil War.

It is rare to find records of Muslim Civil War soldiers in our holdings. So far, Jesse has only encountered two pensions, and historians know of only about 250 Muslim Civil War soldiers in all. This record, therefore, sheds light on a unique perspective that is often overlooked. As a Muslim immigrant serving in a white unit, Kahn…

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2017 Washington Jewish Film Festival: In Between

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It is the time now for women to come and speak up. Until now, we were listening to men, and they were the ones to run everything. -Maysaloun Hamoud (writer/director)

Arab-Israelis make up about 20 percent of Israel’s citizenry. They share the same ethnicity, language, and culture of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; many identify as Palestinians rather than Israeli. This film (written and directed by 35 y.o. Maysaloun Hamoud- pictured below) tells the story of three 20-ish Arab women (two Muslim and one Christian) who have left their hometowns to work/study in Tel Aviv. They find themselves stuck between traditional Arab society (which values modesty, virginity, arranged marriage) and a more open/Westernized Israeli society (w/ dating, alcohol, drugs).

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Laila (Mouna Hawa) is an attorney sharing an apt. w/ close friend, Salma (Sana Jammeieh). Into their world enters Noor (Shaden Kanboura), a hijabi Computer Science major who is prepping for finals. We can see that the pals are dismayed to be stuck w/ this new roomie. Though Noor is religious, she is NOT judgmental re: Laila and Salma’s smoking, drinking, and parties w/ a diverse group of friends. She focuses on studying and keeping in touch with her fiance, Wissam. She cooks for him when he comes over to her new place. Wissam keeps pressuring her to move up the date of their wedding. He does NOT approve of her new building or roomies (who slowly become her friends). 

Laila (who loves to flirt) starts seriously dating a man, Ziad, who had his eye on her from a wedding they both attended. Ziad is VERY attracted to Laila, particularly b/c she is an uninhibited/beautiful/strong woman. Salma quits her restaurant job, after she and a fellow Palestinian coworker are yelled at by their (Israeli) boss for joking around (in Arabic) in the kitchen. She also has to deal w/ dinners set-up by her wealthy parents to introduce her to single men. 

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[1] …the movie is also very much about sisters doing it for themselves. There’s an automatic solidarity whereby women– at least young women of similar ages– are all automatically soulmates; and men, it almost goes without saying, are swine. Despite those stereotypes, the movie holds interest by virtue of believable acting and believable situations. 

[2] The three women characters were believable, warm, expressing solidarity to each other despite their very different personalities and lifestyles. The theme of personal conflicts between tradition and modernity is not new. What makes this film different is that the issues are very real and current and those outside the tradition don’t see it. 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews