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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.

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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.

Putting Quill to Parchment: The Magic of Writing in the Potterverse

This last week, I’ve been feeling a strange need to write letters. And not in a romantic, oh what a throwback to simpler times sort of way, but because, genuinely, I think that sometimes, writing to somebody is a much more therapeutic process than messaging them, or even talking over the  phone. This is because, unlike other, more instant forms of communication, you’re not giving your interlocutor a platform through which to respond immediately. It’s impossible for them to interrupt you, or gainsay you, or cut you off midway—all things that happen far too often when we speak to one another. A letter lets you get it all out there in one go, giving you space and, importantly, the  other person, time to absorb your words, and think about what you’re feeling.

It’s for this reason that I really think the  written is the  most powerful, and therefore, to me, meaningful form of communication. Don’t get me wrong, I love heart to hearts with my besties as much, if not more, than the  average person, but in the  absence of that space and time where once those heart to hearts were taken for granted, a letter can step in, and make you feel less alone in a world where we are constantly reminded, every time we log onto social media, that someone out there is probably doing life better than you.

This got me thinking, as many things inevitably do, about Harry Potter, and how the  characters of that world use, so often, letters to share things that bother them. It’s amazing isn’t it, that in a universe where people can literally just pop over to each others’ houses in a blink, where they can roam through fireplaces to more magical locations, they still rely on the  staple of quill and parchment to say so many important things.

harry writing

And letters are hella important in Potter. Letters are what get him out of his Muggle life, for one thing, and the mystery around the ‘letters from no one’ in Philosopher’s Stone is what indicates that Harry is more than meets the eye. Later, letters from his friends are what literally keep Harry motivated, push him through the  horrible summer days at the  Dursleys, even, in a twisted turn of events before second year, tell him that not everything he experienced in Philosopher’s Stone, was a crazy dream. Harry’s friends reach out to him constantly all summer long, for three solid summers, giving him the  support he needs to get through the  days. They even send him literal nourishment and sustenance, birthday cakes and assorted other, healthier food items, coming to him in the  summer before his fourth year in Goblet of Fire.

Letters are also therapeutic in the  series. When Harry is very troubled, woken with an aching scar in Goblet, he writes about his worries to Sirius. Indeed, his correspondence with his godfather is one of the  cementing blocks of their relationship—starting from the  moment when Pigwidgeon arrives, bearing the  note that allows Harry to go to Hogsmeade, to the  last note he reads from Sirius, which, heartbreakingly, talks about the  two way mirror. Sirius and Harry’s relationship, one of, if not the  most, supportive relationships in the  entire series, is constantly imperilled by the  disruption of this form of communication—when it flourishes, before the  start of Book 4, Sirius’s wellbeing is highlighted through the  beautiful, tropical birds he uses to deliver his letters. By the  end, all forms of communication out of Hogwarts have been imperilled, thanks to Umbridge’s snooping, and because of this, this fundamental breach of a channel Harry has long taken for granted, tragedy unwinds.

Riddle_DiaryAnother great example of literal soul baring: Ginny writes to Tom Riddle. She uses Voldemort’s first Horcrux as it was seemingly supposed to be used: as a diary, a record of her innermost feelings. She makes herself so vulnerable by spilling out her soul thus that soon, her body is no longer her own. The implication seems to be that as much as writing can help you affect someone, it can also undo you, pulls a secret, hidden and hence vulnerable part of you outside into a harsh world, where people may not be so kind to it as you hope they will be.

If you think about it, it’s really weird that anyone in the  wizarding world still writes letters, even people who technically no longer have to. You’d think that only the  kids (who can’t do magic outside of school) and those who are under house arrest (Lily, for instance, who writes that letter to Sirius) or in other dire, magic-less situations (Sirius on the  run) would take recourse to such a, well, ‘ordinary’ form of communication. But that’s not the  case. For instance, Bathilda Bagshot, in her scattered interview with Rita Skeeter, mentions that Albus and Grindelwald constantly sent letters back and forth, despite living in the  same village and both (presumably) being old enough to do magic legally. Given what we find out about their relationship later, these letters have a particularly poignant quality, not just the  musings of two, young ambitious wizards but, in the  case of one, at least, also a means to reach out, and unburden oneself, to a fascinating crush.

Paninirdlm023

In the  Potterverse, people do extremely mundane things—fight over petty jealousies, go on disastrous dates, call each other horrible names in the  schoolyard, write letters. These are all ways Rowling uses to humanise her characters, underline the  fact that though they have magic, they are no different from us who don’t. Letters, physically sitting down and creating a message for another, are still the  most magical, meaningful ways to reach out to someone, to prove that the  writer, and the  person being written to, are bound in a matrix of emotion that is real, made tangible by the  creation of this physical message.

 Nothing compares to Harry’s feelings as he looks as Lily’s old letter, drinking in the  sight of her handwriting:

The  letter was an incredible treasure, proof that Lily Potter had lived, really lived, that her warm hand had once moved across this parchment, tracing ink into these letters, these words, words about him, Harry, her son.

Impatiently brushing away the  wetness in his eyes, he reread the  letter, this time concentrating on the  meaning. It was like listening to a half-remembered voice.

alan-rickman-wrote-a-heartwarming-goodbye-letter-to-harry-potter-and-jk-rowling

I think the  greatest example of this, of the  power of such personal writing to wrench feelings about and reduce someone to a puddle of emotion is that last image Rowling leaves us of Snape. A man we’ve always seen as cutting, mean, petty even, is memorialized for readers thus:

…Snape was kneeling in Sirius’s old bedroom. Tears were dripping from the  end of his hooked nose as he read the  old letter from Lily. The  second page carried only a few words:

‘could ever have been friends with Gellert Grindelwald. I think her mind’s going, personally!

‘Lots of love,

‘Lily.’