All posts by Achala

Heroes, Ladies and La La Land

Some years ago, I wrote about what I called the ‘Loving Hero Paradox’, aka what happens when a fantasy hero/superhero needs to go off and save the day, and for this noble purpose, breaks up with an extremely understanding girlfriend. The girlfriend usually has no choice in the matter (after all, she’s not the focus of the story), and displays almost fantastical understanding and support for his decision, an attitude I myself have never seen someone display when broken up with out of the blue (and certainly not at the sort of venues the men usually choose to stage said break up, like, say, a funeral of a close friend or mentor). Maybe this is the girls’ superpower, in which case, I’d say they’ve gotten a pretty weird deal, both man- and power-wise.

ginny and harry

The whole point of the Loving Hero Paradox is that it’s created to make the heroes look, and feel, good. They are sacrificing something, you see. They are giving up the thing that makes them who they are, and distinguishes from the loveless villain. And they’re doing this so unselfishly, so bravely. Saving the world is more important than a romance, after all.

The thing is, the men never get punished for their love. Yes, there’s usually the fear that the dastardly villain will force them into a horrible choice—love or the world—but often, the hero wins both. Except for poor Spiderman, who lost the light of his life, and the Amazing Spiderman franchise which lost the wonderful Emma Stone.

shalottNow, I’ve identified the parallel syndrome for women. Actually, someone else identified it centuries ago, I just did the lit student thing of finding his work and connecting the dots to more contemporary cultural products. I’m speaking of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s beautiful poem, The Lady of Shalott.

 I was introduced to the Lady in her tower in 2005, or thereabouts, an impressionable 11th grader, surrounded by fellow dying-to-be-artistic ladies in an all-girl literature class. This extremely imbalanced gender ratio meant that classes often turned into personal discussion territories, in a way that might have been hard if there were budding men about. We were all awkward adolescents after all, still figuring out love and hormones, no matter how we pretended otherwise with our dreamy fangirling over Sylvia Plath or Frieda Kahlo. Even the fact that we idolized these women, and men like Keats and Hughes, safely dead and gone, should tell you how not getting into formation we were. Beyonce would be yelling at us, if she had come across us then.

The story of Tennyson’s poem is tragic, and appealing in a way that is certain to make dreamy girls with artistic ambitions sigh longingly. A mysterious lady, placed in a tower on an island in a river, weaves beautiful tapestries day after day. A mirror is her only outlook on the world; she cannot look outside directly because a ‘curse’ rests upon her. What that curse is, we do not know, and neither does she, but in the way of women have been forced to do for so many centuries, she thinks it’s better not to tickle a sleeping dragon, and decides not to look.

Until Lancelot gallops by on his horse, singing a lusty song that goes like this:

 Tirra lira by the river

Sang Sir Lancelot

The stuff dreams are made of.

It’s too much for the Lady to resist, and when she dares to look outside, and feast her eyes upon his manly form, her tapestry floats out the window, and her mirror ‘cracks’ from ‘side to side’. ‘The curse is come upon me!’ she cries, and with great solemnity, she makes her way down the tower, into a boat, and floats to her death. When the boat reaches the banks of Camelot, and the citizens crowd about, wondering who she is, the oblivious Lancelot comes out to say ‘She has a lovely face’ and absently passes a blessing on her.

John_William_Waterhouse_The_Lady_of_Shalott

If she wants to be an artist, and create things of value, one of the readings of the poem seems to say, the Lady should stay locked away, and not dare to fall in love, let alone lust, with a passing knight. A sacrifice, yes, but one made without even knowing what exactly it was she was giving up, and not even sure what the consequences would be.

This is not a weird idea to us, even now. We’re fed the idea, from various sources, that to be a truly great artist, you have to suffer. You have to be unhappy, and what more romantic (or Romantic) unhappiness is there than the pain of unrequited or sacrificed love? And while it’s a choice that male heroes often get to make consciously (after enjoying love’s fruits for a while), women have the decision take out of their hands, with society—the unaware but slightly stunned citizens of Camelot, for instance—passing the sentence of ‘who is this’ and ‘what is here’ when they dare to step out of bounds.

Now to turn to the more contemporary manifestation of this syndrome: Damien Chazelle’s much awarded movie, La La Land.

la la Let me get this out of the way: I love La La Land. I know this is a horribly mainstream way to respond to a movie that has a lot of problems, but I have now watched it three times and I have loved it more with each viewing. I try not to let this cloud my judgment of the way in which it treats gender and art, and I think I’ve succeeded. Besides, if I can do it with Harry Potter, I can do it with anything. After all, Sebastian is no Sirius Black, is he?

Okay, before we do this, warning: there are spoilers for the movie ahead.

What’s interesting about La La Land is how it braids the Loving Hero and the Lady of Shalott into the same fabric, and lets their syndromes play out equally well. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) takes on the traditional hero role, even going so far as to say that jazz is ‘dying’ and that he wants to ‘save it’. He wants to do this singlehandedly, refusing to listen to people who might know better than him (ie, John Legend’s character, Keith). His plan for saving it? Open a club where only ‘the greats’ will be played, though how he’s going to get the money to do this without lowering his standards, or getting off his high horse, is a question he’s struggled with. Until Mia (Stone) waltzes into his life, and provides the impetus he needs to join up with a more popular, contemporary group called the Messengers, selling his soul in the process. He’s going dark to save the world.

la la land

For Mia, things are slightly different. Sebastian convinces her that what the world needs is her one-woman play, and when things take off for her, he tells her that she needs to go ‘do this’ unencumbered by anything else, including their relationship. She needs to Shalott herself, her tower being the movie deal she’s gotten, and refuse to look outside of it to see him singing tirra lira, or whatever the jazz equivalent is. Knowing Sebastian, it’s probably a brooding chord on the piano.

As they end things, they tell each other they will ‘always love’ one another, but this is it: this is the sacrifice. Love needs to go, for her art, for his savior mission. And tellingly, it’s him who tells her this; once again, man exercising Loving Hero muscle; once again, woman taking it, because he has a mission, and she has success to find.

mia and seb

It just bugs me that he had to be the one to tell her that they had to end it, especially since it was him who caused so much of the trouble in the first place (not turning up for her play? Honestly). Some things even Gosling’s attractiveness can’t make palatable, and this is one of them.

At the close, we have a picture of Mia’s success: she’s a famous actress, her face all over billboards, people staring at her in awe as she walks into the same coffee shop she once worked in. She’s even got a partner, and a cute little kid. She’s done well for herself.

Seb? He owns his jazz bar. It’s packed, which means the music is probably good (though Seb’s made it very clear on multiple occasions that people’s opinions are ‘pishikaka’ to him). He’s clearly better off than he was at the beginning. Does he have a love life? We don’t know, and we’re not supposed to care. The longing look he shares with Mia seems to indicate that those feelings are still there, for both of them, but hey, their sacrifice has paid off, so it’s all good, right?

That’s a matter of personal opinion. Me? I teeter between yes and no. For what it’s worth, I don’t see why Ladies and Loving Heroes have to exist in today’s world, but that’s just me with my newfangled notions. Also, I accede that yes, there is no pathos like lost love, and pathos is what makes a movie ‘profound’, even in the vague manner in which La La Land is profound. As long as people want that, Ladies will weave away tragically, Heroes will give up lovers bravely, and 15-year-sold readers will sigh at the beauty of it all, only wondering why more than a decade later.

aw

 

 

 

 

 

A Crown of Wishes

If given space, I could wax eloquent about Indian and Indian-inspired fantasy for days on end. I can tell you all the  problems that (I think) beset it, and how these are not any fault of the  writers, but the  curious definition of ‘fantasy’, such a Western one that depends on a certain severance from belief and faith. Can you write Christian fantasy, for instance, without running into trouble and the waters of offence? Philip Pullman tried, and succeeded, to a certain extent, but I’d argue that the  moment he waded into Bible-heavy streams, his books lost much of their magic and power to dazzle, instead walking along the  edge of becoming transparently ‘agenda’-driven. Same with C.S. Lewis, who did it a trifle more hamfistedly decades ago. Myth fic in India is plagued by the  same troubles, with few authors managing to break the shackles of received wisdom and create something new from the  bricks of the  old: Samit Basu is a notable exception, and some of the  newer authors, like Shweta Taneja and Indra Das, have made strides here as well.

crownAnd so has Roshani Chokshi. Here, I reviewed her debut novel, The  Star Touched Queen. I called it a ‘fairy tale that strides through the  cosmos, refusing to be bound to one particular location, though it is quite culturally rooted in a Hindu setting/tradition. Her follow up, the  literal ‘sister’ to the  first novel is A Crown of Wishes, which tells the  story of Gauri, princess of Bharata, and Vikram, the  Fox Prince of Ujijain. It is, like its predecessor, a love story, but it also bears some of the  more recognizable elements of the  fairy tale, especially given its reliance on that staple: the  tournament, and its related, seemingly impossible, tasks.

Betrayed by her brother and cast out from her kingdom, Gauri finds herself at the  mercy of Vikram, the  prince of the  neighbouring empire of Ujijain. Vikram has just received an invitation to compete in a tournament held by Kubera, the  God of Wealth. He must enlist with a partner, and the  prize, should they win through the  three tasks set for them, is a wish apiece. Desperate to prove himself a worthy successor to the  throne, and not remain the  ‘puppet king’ his father’s council seeks to make of him, Vikram convinces Gauri to partner with him. Not only will she escape the death that awaits her in Ujijain, but this way, she can see to winning a wish of her own, and seeking vengeance against her brother, who holds her kingdom and her friend, Nalini, hostage.

What unfolds is an adventure story that moves between worlds and kingdoms, from the  glittering harem of Ujijain to the Otherworldly Night Bazar (the  site of much drama in TSTQ), from the craggy fortress of the  vanars to the  glittering wish-granting fantasy of Alaka, the  kingdom of the  Lord of Wealth and his consort, the  Kauveri River. Gauri and Vikram find themselves tested in increasingly harrowing ways, and learn truths about themselves and each other (well, it’s a fairy tale—that’s sort of de rigeur). But along the  way, they also make a friend, who is perhaps the  most compelling character in the  book: Asha, a conflicted vishakanya, who dreams of living a life unmarred by poison. Asha kills everything she touches, and can see through to a person’s deepest desires, but she cannot do something as simple as bathe her feet in water, or stroke a bed of grass without someone or something else paying the price for her actions. She longs, like the  Little Mermaid, to be part of a world that at once lusts after and fears her, and out of curiosity, befriends and helps these two strange humans, who are so lost in her magical world.

A Crown of Wishes carries forward Chokshi’s worldbuilding, her creation of a place where Hindu myth comfortably divests itself of the  ‘religious’ overtones that both distort and elevate it, instead using its characters and some of its concepts in creative ways to populate and push her story forward. The  vanars of Ramayana fame here become an abandoned people, left behind by their queen Tara on her pursuit for vengeance. The  Serpent King, a descendent of Kaliya, become a pathos-ridden, Hades-like figure, scorned for his alleged rape of the  Kapila River. Their story becomes a tale within this larger tale, and a mirror to that of Maya and Amar, one of misunderstanding and secrets, and a desire to reach out to another, alien soul.

In an interview with Bustle, Chokshi speaks of writing for ‘second culture kids’, those who are not native Indians, but children of the  diaspora. These are kids whose ‘exposure was different, but whose claim to those tales is the  same.’ ‘It’s a weird limbo’ she acknowledges, but it definitely works well in her case, if this is the  result. Chokshi’s ‘limbo’ state might have allowed her to free herself of the  derivative prisons that myth, and adherence to its, so often imposes on writers, giving her free rein with the  colourful figures and plots that are so rife in Hindu mythology. As a native Indian reader myself, I can only enjoy this liberated look at what’s so often churned out unexamined, and hope that there will be more to come. While Chokshi may have moved on to different projects (her next series is set in ‘a darkly glamorous Paris’), there’s plenty of space for other authors to take up the  challenge, and continue the  task of building an Indian fantasy trove that works both here and for kids of second, indeed, third or entirely ‘other’ cultures. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

Mild spoilers for Disney’s live-action Beauty and the  Beast ahead.

beauty-and-the-beast.16844I don’t remember the  first time I watched Disney’s classic Beauty and the  Beast, but my parents do. My mother tells me we had a pirated version of the  movie, recorded off a broadcast on Indian television, and my sister and I would watch it over and over. When we moved to the States, apparently one of the  ways in which the  first world proved its awesomeness to us was through this very same movie. It played on TV, and, my mother says, we sat before it entranced, exclaiming over how beautiful and bright the  colours were.

What a fitting way to open my relationship with the West. No wonder I continue to be so entranced, if that was my introduction.

Anyway, that should give you some idea of what an important role Beauty and the  Beast and its fellow Disney movies played in my life. I’ve written about this more than once, but today an occasion arose yet again, in the  form of a revisit to an old classic, the  movie that’s been ruling the  box office the  world over, Disney’s live action remake of one of its arguably best ever creations.

Let’s get right down to it. Yes, Emma Watson is a good Belle, even if her singing isn’t as full throated as Paige O’Hara’s. Yes, Dan Stevens, who’s doing such amazing work on Legion, still holds my attention as an actor to watch and possibly follow (my broken heart still needs fixing after Hiddleston trashed it). Yes, Luke Evans is arguably the  best of the  three, because he throws himself heart and soul into his role as Gaston and looks like he’s having a blast. His table-dancing, bar thumping number, ‘Gaston,’ made me wonder how much fun the  crew had filming it. It definitely looks like the  kind of thing you’d want to be there for, everyone embracing this ridiculously normal villain, whose evil is so mundane you can almost forgive it until it unmasks its more sinister side.

So yes, I really liked the  movie. Certainly much more than I expected to. I went in with cautious optimism because well, it’s not the  original you know. It’s not the same hand-drawn animation. It doesn’t have Angela Lansbury crooning ‘Tale as Old as Time’, and it’s missing the sheer audacity of its predecessor, which made its heroine one of the  first recognisably ‘feminist’ Disney princesses. This version is revamped, a little better updated, with a Belle who’s not just a reader, but also an inventor. Her father is an artist, the  more traditionally ‘sensitive’ profession of the two, still suffering from a trauma that keeps him silent on what exactly happened to Belle’s mother. Indeed, when she takes his place in the  Beast’s castle, Belle constantly worries about her father and tells the Beast, ‘He’s never been alone.’

belle

#SubvertingExpectations, right?

Sure, the  movie has its flaws. Some of the  new songs are meh, and pale sadly in comparison to Menken and Ashman’s original work, which they have the  (mis)fortune of standing beside. I’m not sure what exactly the  knowledge of the  Beast’s mother’s death had to do with anything, unless it was done to show yet another (tragic) similarity between the  two outcasts. The  lyric ‘Life is so unnverving/For a servant who’s not serving’ has not aged well, and for the  first time I found it a bit weird. Oh, and the ‘gay moment’ is not as in your face as some people, notably certain drive-in owners in Alabama, would have you hope. Or maybe that’s because our glorious Censor Board went ahead and did the  needful for us, protecting our delicate sensibilities. Who knows.

But for all these nitpicky little details, I enjoyed myself. Disney has a magic that no one can touch. Time beautyand again, they churn out these perfect stories, and create characters who, in the  span of literally 90 minutes, become immortal. Perhaps I’m biased, because I grew up worshipping and wanting to be these women, craving that ‘adventure in the  great wide somewhere’. But it’s not just me; literally thousands of people across the  world love and worship them too, and find themselves turning to these retellings of old stories in low times and good alike, so clearly, there’s something there.

If only I could bottle that magic, and figure out what it’s made of. Oh the power I would have.

Clearly Sauron was doing it all wrong, seeking dominion through brute force and the  One Ring. He should have been working towards writing magical, musical movies stuffed with feisty women and singing household utensils instead. Bet those Elves would have been humming ‘Be Our Guest’ even now, like the  rest of poor unfortunate souls.