Thoughts on a few South Asian diaspora books

Books I’ve Recently Read:

An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao

Synopsis: 1947: the Indian subcontinent is partitioned into two separate countries, India and Pakistan. And with one decree, countless lives are changed forever. An Unrestored Woman explores the fault lines in this mass displacement of humanity… In paired stories that hail from India and Pakistan to the United States, Italy, and England, we witness the ramifications of the violent uprooting of families, the price they pay over generations, and the uncanny relevance these stories have in our world today.

Don’t start this book if you’re in a bad (or down) mood; it’s not going to cheer you up. I liked a few of the stories, but some of them seemed too far-fetched or pandering to the exotic image of India. I don’t think men will enjoy this book much; the males in this collection are either terrible or impotent (as in unable to improve the lives of the women and girls in their lives). There is also no mention of the religious (mainly Hindu/Muslim) strife before (or after) Partition; this seemed odd to some of my book club. 

Streets of Darkness by A.A. Dhand

Synopsis: The sky over Bradford is heavy with foreboding. It always is. But this morning it has reason to be – this morning a body has been found. And it’s not just any body. Detective Harry Virdee should be at home with his wife. Impending fatherhood should be all he can think about but he’s been suspended from work just as the biggest case of the year lands on what would have been his desk. He can’t keep himself away. 

This (page-turner) is written by a pharmacist (he kept his day job) who grew up in Bradford, England. If you’re looking for literary, descriptive book re: desis in the UK, this isn’t the book for you; look up Nadeem Aslam and Kamila Shamsie instead. This is mystery w/ some desi flavor and interlinked characters who inhabit a city in decline (joblessness, drugs, religious strife, and white power). One of the best threads is the loving marriage between Harry (who was raised Sikh) and his wife (a nurse of Pakistani Muslim heritage). This book may be tough to find (for those in the US, as I learned from those in my book club); it’s available from UK sellers on Amazon. Dhand has already sold the rights to this book (and its sequel), so it will eventually be made into a TV show. 

Books I’m Currently Reading:

Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America by Vivek Bald 

Synopsis: Nineteenth-century Muslim peddlers arrived at Ellis Island, bags heavy with silks from their villages in Bengal. Demand for “Oriental goods” took these migrants on a curious path, from New Jersey’s boardwalks to the segregated South. Bald’s history reveals cross-racial affinities below the surface of early twentieth-century America.

This book is full of statistics, so it’s not a fast read. I’m in the middle of it now, and will keep on reading. It’s very educational, so I highly recommend it to anyone in the desi diaspora. I wanted to read it a long time ago, but didn’t get around to it. One of my acquaintances, an actor-turned-teacher, Alauddin Ullah, is featured in the book; his father came to East Harlem about 50 yrs ago from Chittagong (now a mid-sized city in Bangladesh).  

The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

Synopsis: In Afghanistan, a culture ruled almost entirely by men, the birth of a son is cause for celebration and the arrival of a daughter is often mourned as misfortune. A bacha posh (literally translated from Dari as “dressed up like a boy”) is a third kind of child–a girl temporarily raised as a boy and presented as such to the outside world. Jenny Nordberg, the reporter who broke the story of this phenomenon for the New York Times, constructs a powerful and moving account of those secretly living on the other side of a deeply segregated society where women have almost no rights and little freedom. 

I’ve only read a few chapters of this (nonfiction) book, but the topic is very interesting, so I will keep on reading. At the start of the story, Nordberg gets to know Azita, a female parliamentarian in her mid-30s, who has turned her fourth daughter into a boy (Mehran). 

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North by Northwest (1959) starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, & Martin Landau

While filming Vertigo (1958), Alfred Hitchcock described some of the plot to its star/frequent collaborator James Stewart, who naturally assumed that Hitchcock meant to cast him in the Roger Thornhill role. This time, the director wanted Cary Grant, who he thought looked younger (though, at 55 y.o. was 4 yrs older than Stewart). By the time Hitchcock realized the misunderstanding, Stewart was so eager to play the lead that rejecting him would’ve caused a great deal of disappointment. Hitchcock decided to delay production until Stewart was already committed to Anatomy of a Murder before officially offering him the North by Northwest role. Stewart had to turn down the offer, allowing Hitchcock to cast Grant.

Now you listen to me, I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself “slightly” killed. -Roger describes himself

A Madison Ave ad man, Roger Thornhill (Grant), finds himself in the world of spies when he is mistaken for someone named George Kaplan. A British man, Philip Vandamm (James Mason), along w/ his henchman Leonard (Martin Landau) and others try to kill Roger. In a meeting room somewhere, a group of FBI agents (headed by The Professor), are discussing the dilemma of Mr. Kaplan- a decoy, not a real man. Roger investigates, though even his mother is skeptical, and eventually gets framed for murder. He manages to flee the police and runs on board the 20th Century Limited (a train) headed for Chicago. Roger meets a beautiful blond, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who decides to hide him in her sleeper berth. He wonders why she’s being so helpful. Vandamm and his men continue to pursue Roger. 

The moment I meet an attractive woman, I have to start pretending I have no  desire to make love to her. -Roger admits sheepishly

What makes you think you have to conceal it? -Eve asks, matter-of-factly

She might find the idea objectionable. -Roger explains

Then again, she might not. -Eve replies

Though this film is fast-moving and efficiently made, MGM wanted the film cut by 15 mins (to be under 2 hrs). Hitchcock’s contract gave him control over the final cut (which is the most power that can be given to a director). Eva Marie Saint said that Alfred Hitchcock was unhappy with costumes MGM had designed for her, so marched her to Bergdorf Goodman (a department store) and personally picked out clothes for her character. When Landau’s character first sees Grant’s, he comments: “He’s a well-tailored one.” All of Landau’s suits for the film were made by Grant’s personal tailor. The clothes are fabulous (esp. the black and red floral evening dress worn by Eve in Chicago). Grant even has a shirtless scene, proving that clothes don’t only make the man. 

[1] This film has something for everyone within it: a little comedy, a little romance, great snappy dialogue and action… 

[2] There is great acting and a great story. You should be engaged and intrigued, and always surprised and what will occur next. 

[3] Of course the famous crop dusting plane scene and the Mount Rushmore chase are terrific. The former is really more notable for the amount of time taken to build up to the action than the action itself, while the technical work on the latter still looks pretty good. 

[4] Roger Thornhill is one of the best roles Mr. Grant played, during his long career. His chemistry with Eva Marie Saint is perfect. 

[5] Cary Grant’s debonair manner is displayed to the full in this film, even though the peril that his character goes through would cause any normal dude to break into a maddening sweat. 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

The Two Faces of January (2014) starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, & Oscar Isaac

[1] In turns enchanting, brooding and cowed like a cornered animal, he [Isaac] plays the perfect James Stewart character in this Hitchcockian homage.

[2] The narrative is very well-balanced and restrained from the hyperactive traps of modern cinematic storytelling.

[3] Not so much a morality play as a tale of amorality, this psychological drama makes for a movie that is moody and deeply satisfying.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

The principal relationship in this film (referred to as “a reto reworking of film noir” by one viewer) is between two men (one of them married; the other drawn to his wife). Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) is a rich American touring Greece w/ his younger wife, Colette, (Kirsten Dunst). The man who is intrigued by them is young tour guide, Rydal Keener (Oscar Issac), who is also American (yet able to blend in w/ the locals due to his language skills). Chester reminds Rydal of his father, who recently passed away, and w/ whom he had a difficult relationship. At first, Rydal thinks he has the upper hand; soon he realizes that he may have taken on too much by offering the couple his help. Who is the true con-man here? 

Adapted by the director, Hossein Amini (who is British-Iranian), from a novel by Patricia Highsmith (The The Talented Mr. Ripley; Strangers on a Train), this film is an atmospheric, well-acted thriller set in beautiful locations (Athens, Crete, and Istanbul) w/ great (’60s) costumes. Amini knows how to heighten the tension as the film goes on. This film is tightly edited, which adds to its effectiveness. The music fits very well w/ the action, too. You can watch it on Netflix. 

 

 

 

Rebecca (1940) starring Laurence Olivier & Joan Fontaine

INTRODUCTION

[1] The first thing that you notice is the outstanding cinematography. 

[2] …Joan Fontaine is just perfect as de Winter’s new bride. I can’t spot an unconvincing moment in her performance and can’t imagine any other actress in the role. 

[3] Her [Judith Anderson’s] presence is as dark and foreboding as that of the deceased Rebecca herself, and Fontaine is evidently cowed by her icy stare and unnervingly formal manner. The dynamics between the two actresses are wonderful. 

-Excerpts from various reviews on IMDB

Alfred Hitchcock often claimed that this film wasn’t his own. It belonged to Daphne Du Maurier because she had created such vivid characters and such a complex and exciting story. I disagree. You can’t deny his hallmark in all areas of this expertly crafted film. -Bette’s Classic Movie Blog

It is said that director Alfred Hitchcock encouraged the cast to shun Joan Fontaine (sister of Olivia de Havilland), even going as so far as to tell her “everyone here hates you” (in order to making her performance even more self-conscious and nervous in the lead role). Laurence Olivier was already upset w/ the fact that Vivien Leigh (his then-girlfriend) wasn’t chosen for the role. A gothic romance (inspired undoubtedly by Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights), Rebecca is a suspenseful study in guilt and anxiety, exploring themes of love, obsession, and power. This is a moody (atmospheric) film which draws in the viewer w/ its music (by Franz Waxman), superb use of light and shadow, and (most importantly)- characters. The Grapes of Wrath was a fine film (and a great contender), but Rebecca won the Oscar. 

CHARACTERS

Narrator/Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine): A shy, self-deprecating young woman working as “a paid companion” (an assistant/friend). Her mother and father (who she said people didn’t understand) are deceased, so she (as a single woman) has to make a way for herself in the world. Sometimes you will relate to her; at other times, feel sorry for her predicament. 

It’s just that I, well I’m, not the person men marry.

Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier): A middle-aged, handsome, aristocratic widower from Cornwall, where he owns an estate- Manderley. He can be witty/charming one moment, then angry/brooding the next (like Mr. Rochester); he is trying to forget his past.

Happiness is something I know nothing about.

Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates): Rebecca’s wealthy/widowed/high-maintenance employer. The two ladies are vacationing in Monte Carlo at the start of the story. She is shocked when she discovers that her companion and Maxim are engaged; she asks:

Have you been doing anything you shouldn’t?

Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson): She seems to be as much a nanny-figure and a controlling mother figure, as a sinister housekeeper. She is creepily devoted to the memory of her former mistress, Rebecca; we are left to wonder just what sort of relationship they had. In the pivotal bedroom scene, she asks the second Mrs. de Winter:

Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?

Beatrice Lacy (Gladys Cooper): Maxim’s older sister who is surprised to meet the new Mrs. de Winter, but eventually warms up to her as a family member. She lives nearby w/ her somewhat comedic husband, Major Lacy (Nigel Bruce). Cooper is perhaps best known as the domineering mother to Bette Davis’ character in Now Voyager (1942); she also played Rex Harrison’s mother in My Fair Lady (1964). It’s nice to see her in a more lighthearted role here.

Jack Favell (George Sanders): A clever, charming cousin of Rebecca’s who we sense has a shady side. He shares secrets w/ Mrs. Danvers and feels contempt for Maxim. Jack acts like he feels sorry for the new Mrs. de Winter when he meets her by chance. Sanders has a pivotal role in All About Eve (1950), where I first noticed him and became a big fan. He was in another (gothic-inspired) film- The Ghost and Mrs. Muir starring Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney. 

Frank Crawley (Reginald Denny): The manager of the Maderley estate; he is cordial to everyone in the household, including the new mistress. This is NOT the type of guy who makes (or likes) drama, unlike others in this tale.

Colonel Julyan (C. Aubrey Smith): He is a no-nonsense elderly aristocrat in charge of the court case (inquest). This actor played Mr. Laurence in Little Women (1949) starring Elizabeth Taylor and Janet Leigh (another of Hitch’s players).

Dr. Baker (Leo G. Carroll): He is a medical doctor in London. This prolific character actor appeared in several of Hitch’s films: Suspicion (1941), Spellbound (1945), Strangers on a Train (1951), and North by Northwest (1959).

THEMES

Food

Mrs. de Winter has trouble with eating. The long lonely dining room table separates her and her husband. Food is heaped up around characters: Jack tears into cold chicken, Mrs Van Hopper wolfs down chocolates, and “Oh! What a plateful!” exclaims Beatrice. 

Clothing & Hair

At the beginning, Fontaine’s character is dressed like she made terrible selections at a Macy’s basement sale. Later, as she tries to fill the role of the “great lady”… her clothes always appear too big and out of character. Note the black evening dress with the absurdly large flowers across the front and the overwhelming gown at the costume ball. -Excerpt from IMDB review

Mrs. de Winter is repeatedly subjected to adverse comments on her hair. When she tries for a new more sophisticated look, Maxim hates it. Hair (confined, unbound, luxurious, neglected) is mentioned several times in the film. We hear that Rebecca had long dark hair.  

Scent

Scent is as suspect and degenerate as all of Rebecca’s luxuries: a trap, a snare and a betrayal. -Les Senteurs blog

Mrs. de Winter talks of storing up her memories like perfume. Maxim comments that those little bottles “sometimes contain demons that have a way of popping out at you just as you’re trying most desperately to forget.” He prefers his new bride to smell natural. 

Innocence 

He had a theory that if you should find one perfect thing, or place or person, you should stick to it. Do you think that’s very silly? -The narrator says about her father to Maxim

The main thing that attracts Maxim to the narrator is her innocence (including her inexperience w/ men, unassuming manners, and youth). When she woefully wishes she were older and elegantly dressed, Maxim stops the car and solemnly replies: “Please promise me never to wear black satin or pearls… or to be 36 years old.” We can sense that Maxim has emotional baggage, but the second Mrs. de Winter doesn’t see the warning signs, or she overlooks them, being so much in love. 

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh & Angela Lansbury

TMC_poster
A poster for the film

…it feels as if it were made yesterday. Not a moment of “The Manchurian Candidate” lacks edge and tension and a cynical spin. And what’s even more surprising is how the film now plays as a political comedy, as well as a thriller.

-Roger Ebert

I love this movie & find it disturbing. It’s a thriller but at times it even seems a satire.

Sinatra is so great here, you hardly notice how good Laurence Harvey is.

#TCMParty (selected tweets)

I keep telling you not to think! You’re very, very good at a great many things, but thinking, hon’, just simply isn’t one of them. -Mrs. Iselin explains to her husband

There is something timeless, yet also eerily timely about this classic film (in Trump’s America). Though it was released in 1962, it is set in 1952 in New York and DC; the use of black and white makes it look older. I think the novelist (Richard Condon) was influenced by Hamlet; note Sgt. Raymond Shaw’s (Laurence Harvey) deep hatred for his stepfather, Senator John Iselin (James Greogory), who married his domineering mother, Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury). We are NOT told anything re: Raymond’s birth father; I imagine that he was a wealthy/intelligent/influential man. In the youthful romance of Raymond and Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish), there is an echo of the feud between noble families as in Romeo & Juliet

TMC_train_mtg
Maj. Bennett Marco and Rosie chat on the train in a mysterious manner.

Janet (Psycho) Leigh plays a shady, Robert Walker-like femme fatale whose cryptic language may or may not indicate she’s a member of the Communist Ring… The most celebrated (and widely discussed) meet-cute in film history occurs aboard a train, as Janet Leigh and Sinatra whisper sweet-somethings in the most roundabout, I’ve-never-heard-people-talk-like-this way imaginable. 

-Stanford Arts Review

Women are (in several scenes) depicted as capable, smart, and active agents in their romantic lives. Obviously, Mrs. Iselin is the power behind her loud-mouthed/dim-witted husband. A young Josie comes to Raymond’s rescue after he’s bitten by a snake. Rosie (Janet Leigh) approaches Maj. Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) during their train ride, shows him that she’s VERY interested, then tells him her address and phone number.

TMC_raymond_mother
Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury) and Raymond (Laurence Harvey)

It’s a terrible thing to hate your mother. But I didn’t always hate her. When I was a child, I only kind of disliked her. -Raymond explains to Bennett Marco 

This is the type of film that you MUST pay attention to, or you’ll miss something! It showcases Sinatra’s acting range; many critics/classic movie fans consider this performance to be the best of his career. The Manchurian Candidate proves us just how scary Lansbury can be, if the script calls for it; I wished there was more of her performance. The way that she controlled Raymond’s life has contributed to how his life is like at that start of the story: humorless, friendless, and loveless. He attempts to get away by taking a job w/ a newspaper editor he admires, BUT alas, his life is NOT his own. 

TMC_costumeball
Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury) faces off against Senator Tom Jordan (James McGiver).

There are people who think of Johnny as a clown and a buffoon, but I do not. I despise John Iselin and everything that Iselinism has come to stand for. I think, if John Iselin were a paid Soviet agent, he could not do more to harm this country than he’s doing now. -Senator Jordan says to Mrs. Iselin

Little details add to the richness of the story. There is a scene where an African-American soldier is having a nightmare/flashback (VERY similar to that of Marco), BUT we see that the ladies in the tea party are African-American. That’s b/c it’s happening w/in the context of his life, NOT that of a white man. There are two supporting East Asian characters, including Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh) and Korean translator-turned-cook, Chunjin (Henry Silva- of Puerto Rican heritage). In one exciting scene, Marco and Chunjin fight using karate.