Archive for Pop Culture and Art

Itne bazoo, itne sar…

One of my favourite songs, ever, is from the Hindi film Main Azaad Hoon. Itne bazoo, itne sar brings tears to my eyes, just about every time. This song is right in line with El pueblo unido jamás será vencido and The Internationale. In fact, you can see the references (certainly to the latter). Itne bazoo, itne sar was written by Kaifi Azmi — one of India’s leading leftist poets of recent times. Javed Akhtar (his son-in-law) wrote the screenplay, and I’m certain he had a hand in the lyrics of the song as well. Amar-Utpal composed the music.

Yet, it’s very hard to find good copies of the video or the song. But just last night, or, to be more accurate, this morning, I found some clips from the film (including the song in a couple of iterations) on YouTube. I also found a high quality mp3 of the song elsewhere. This was really serendipitous.

I’m presenting the clips here with my transcription and (awful) translation of the song — please feel free to correct or help me.

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Shoot ‘Em Up and the politics of indulging to abstain

Originally, I was intrigued by the subway ads. Clive Owen, “I’m a British nanny, and I’m dangerous,” and Paul Giamatti and Monica Bellucci too. Any film titled “Shoot ‘Em Up” with Owen and Giamatti in it had to have something different, perhaps even something intelligent about it. So on Saturday, Saqib and I went to see Shoot ‘Em Up.

The film dispenses with any pretensions to having a serious plot (it doesn’t have a plot, not really), and right from the get-go you realize that it’s actually a comedy starring guns. Clive Owen reprises his role from every other film he’s been in: a man reeling from deep personal tragedy protecting a baby or a woman, or both, from self-serving destructive and evil forces. I suppose the resemblance is intentional, his character even delivers a baby (as he did in Children of Men), but in the middle of a gunfight. The film is, really, just a series of gun battles, but very nicely choreographed gun battles without resorting to Matrix-type “bullet-time” gimmickry and going very light on computer-generated anything. It favours technique over content, and that technique is well worth watching.

But there is a plot, or something that resembles a plot — something about prominent representatives of the gun industry trying to cause the death of a pro-gun control senator poised to become the next president by killing the baby. (The president-to-be needs the bone marrow of this baby to cure his degenerative disease.) Ultimately, though, the senator teams up with the gun freaks to … I’m not sure why. And Mr. Smith (Owen) kills everyone, except the baby and Donna (Bellucci). That’s the entire plot. I haven’t ruined anything for you (if, indeed, you intend on watching this film) because you’d be watching it to see the asskickular action sequences.

But the film does have explicit moments of social commentary in it. Owen’s character constantly rails out against self-indulgent yuppies, against capitalism and the profit motive, and, yes, especially against guns. The film is very clear about this, guns are bad bad bad. Giamatti’s evil character states, at one point, that “guns don’t kill people, but they sure do help.” Yet, guns also happen to be directing everything in the film: teeming masses of men with guns getting picked off one after the other by Mr. Smith and his guns (or his carrots). We could, I suppose, dismiss this as hypocrisy. But couldn’t we also look at this piece — a film that celebrates guns and violence, yet condemns it — as reflective of the kinds of activism promoted by corporations and the like? That is, a kind of corporate-approved and corporate-directed activism that paradoxically (and, indeed, disingenuously) promotes indulgence as abstinence.

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Good Morning?

I’m like the fly Malcolm X
Buy any jeans necessary
Detroit Red cleaned up


It’s not even charmingly ironic or anything — it’s an awful track, with awful music and awful lyrics. Kanye West is ridiculously overrated.

But this track, apparently not on the album, is better by leaps and bounds. (Thanks, Ryan.)

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On the Holocaust, world wars and the hypocrisy of Eurocentrism

Adorno once wrote that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This statement is part of a broader focus of Adorno’s, and that of other social theorists and artists, to come to grips with the sheer horror of the Holocaust and modern suffering. Is it right, is it meaningful for art to exist after humanity’s witnessed such massive suffering? Recently, I came across a paper where the author wonders how we can make sense of reality itself after the cruelty of the Holocaust/Auschwitz. Adorno later said that suffering has a right to be expressed, and to be expressed through art.

There’s also the common refrain, if it weren’t for intervention in the world wars, “we would all be speaking German right now.” Throughout my pre-university schooling, on every 11th of November (or close to it), the school would organize ceremonies for Remembrance Day. “On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” the first world war ended, and so we commemorate the sacrifices of those who died defending our freedom.

I remember being wholly skeptical of the whole affair. I knew, see, that the British occupied South Asia until 1947. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be remembering, exactly, on Remembrance Day.

Of course, I speak English. India has the world’s largest English-speaking population. There are more Francophones outside of France than inside it, not in Quebec, but in Africa. So what’s German to us? What’s German fascism to us, when, as Césaire forcefully lays out, the techniques and methods of fascism were first practised on those colonized — the wretched of the earth — by those same, self-styled defenders of freedom and democracy?

And what is Adorno’s statement if not hubristic and self-absorbed? Was poetry not barbaric after the Belgians slaughtered up to 10 million people in the Congo at the turn of the century? Was poetry not barbaric after millions were enslaved and transported in great ships like cattle, when millions died at the bayonets of the European colonizers? If poetry is to be barbaric, it was barbaric long before the Holocaust.

The kind of barbarism perfected at Auschwitz, after all, wasn’t invented by German fascists.

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Sometimes a song you haven’t heard in ages just pops into your head out of nowhere. That’s what happened to me. I could only recall a few lyrics, inaccurately, which made searching for the song a pain. But I finally found it, and have been listening to it nonstop since then:

The lyrics aren’t exactly remarkable, but the song is so melodious and catchy. Also, Jackie Shroff is, as always, so dashing. I like it very much. I recall seeing the film, Aaina (Mirror), when I was younger — but don’t remember much about it. Another one of the songs, Dil ne dil se kya kaha, was also quite popular (perhaps more popular than this one). It’s also a really good song:

Despite being full of the typical running-through-meadows-and-hills, the video stands out for the most hilarious (quasi-sensual) chest thumping I’ve seen outside of basketball games (at 00:25, or -3:12). Definitely not to be missed.

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Being introduced to Marxism; or, a brief history of courses I’ve taken

In my last academic year (2006-2007), I took a course on aesthetics and politics at UofT, Marxism and Form (VIC401, based on the book of the same title by Fredric Jameson), taught by Eric Cazdyn. Taking the course was one of the more intelligent moves I made while at UofT. It was a graduate seminar and I had absolutely no idea what I was in for: it was probably only long after the full-year course had been completed, when I read Aesthetics & Politics cover-to-cover that I became relatively comfortable with the concepts discussed in the course.

Literature & Theory

I’d taken a course on English literature in the 20th century (ENG140). The emphasis of that course, as I recall (which I don’t recall well because I took it in the summer of 2004 while I was working full-time and taking another course on comparative politics) was not so much on the political or social implications of the texts (and we read some very good texts) as the moves within aesthetics, almost devoid of context — from romanticism to naturalism to … I don’t even remember. I do recall the professor’s analysis of the purple triangle in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a recurring motif, the significance of which flew over my head and probably still would (unless it was related to the politics of queer liberation, which, I can assure you, it wasn’t). I’m probably being unfair to the course, we did read In the Skin of a Lion, as well as Waiting for Godot, and I remember something about postmodernism being discussed (so maybe the course was moving through the major trends of literature?). Though, at the time, in the class I was taking on comparative politics, I learned about the concept of post-materialism which made a lot more sense to me. I should go back to my notes and see if I can actually give a fair and balanced account of the course content. Suffice it to say it bored me, very much.

My next experience with literature was a course on graphic novels (The ‘New Comics’, VIC300) with Luca Somigli. I enjoyed the content of the course, I’d already read most of the comics covered before starting the course anyway; and, judging from the mark I got on my final paper, Prof. Somigli enjoyed my paper very much. I wrote about Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde and his use of stereotypes to advance his political and moral agenda. Still, the discussions of literary theory and aesthetic theory, most of which I don’t recall anyway, probably went flying over my head. From these, and other experiences, I’d reckon that the most difficult thing in taking courses that are entirely outside of one’s academic purview is to acquire and maintain the vocabulary. By vocabulary, I don’t mean just the meanings of new words, but the significances and usages thereof. It took me, for instance, two whole years to wrap my head around the idea of postmodernism.

I suspect a lot of this had to do with the fact that I didn’t really think such terms and courses would be of much use to me — I was focusing on getting into medical school, not graduate school — and no one in life science or the kind of political science I was taking at UofT really cared about such things. That makes me wonder, as an aside, do Straussians bother to acknowledge postmodernism or think it worthy of being addressed? I don’t know of anyone like Harvey Mansfield — whose translations of The Prince and Discourses on Livy are superb — having written on Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Unmanly Liberal Academics.

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The crimes of the moneyed classes are safeguarded by their improbability

In Brecht’s Threepenny Novel, the character of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum observes:

Politicians can only take money because people picture their corruption as being altogether finer and nobler than it really is. Should anyone portray them as they are, that is, quite unscrupulous, then the whole world would cry out: What an unscrupulous rascal! and, by that, mean the portrayer.

It made me laugh.

And from one of Brecht’s unpublished drafts, writing in the 1950s about the 1990s to come:

The authorities had been able to cancel travel entirely since television now showed everything that interested delegations…. By means of raising productivity and volunteerism as well as by increasing efficiency, it was possible to limit the number of workers needed. At last, about 99% of the population could devote itself to the real goal of life, to the filling out of forms.

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Writing & The Pursuit of Happyness

I have a bit of a propensity to avoid writing. It’s not that I dislike writing, I don’t; it’s more like I can’t be bothered to write out something once I’ve figured it out in my head. This explains how I approach essays and papers — once it’s in my head, that is to say, once I’ve assembled and arranged my research and my arguments, writing the actual essay is akin to moving a mountain. It also explains why I don’t blog much. If I really need to get something out, I might spill it out to an unsuspecting (and nonplussed) acquaintance — who perhaps writes off my momentary lapse of restraint to my eccentricity (or, weirdness), and as this occurrence replicates itself he may simply consider it to be the cost of engaging in otherwise mundane conversations with me (few, and happily, far between). When I can’t do that, I may end up typing whatever it is out, in a blog post. Other times — and this is perhaps most of the times I do write — I’m motivated by anger, frustration, or a pensive (or nostalgic) mood. Sometimes I may rant to a person and then refine that into a blog post.

I also don’t seem to find the time to indulge in fiction — that is to say, reading novels or watching many films (I do follow certain television shows regularly, though). The last novel I read was To Kill a Mockingbird out of some sense of obligation to my general schooling — though it was never on the curriculum. Until yesterday, the last film I can remember having actually sat down to watch was Spider-Man 3 — in the cinema — that is, not including documentaries. I’m no film critic or theorist — and to the extent that I’m interested in film criticism and theory, it’s for general aesthetic principles and not because of my love of the medium — there is no list of films sitting on my desktop waiting to be consummated. I read and watch far more non-fiction than I do fiction. Indeed, when recently asked if I read fiction, I responded, “Yes, I read the news.” This dearth of fiction doesn’t include comics, of course. I have almost an obsession with the medium, which means I read just about everything I can get my hands on, when I get the time to do so.

In the past few days I’ve been reading plays written by Bertolt Brecht (his plays are much easier to find than his poetry or his works on aesthetic theory) and have started on his novelization of his play, Threepenny Opera — the novel, aptly enough, is titled Threepenny Novel. Additionally, in the past two days I downloaded and watched several films, some of which I’ve been meaning to watch for a long time: Hitch, Hero, Thank You For Smoking, Art School Confidential, Stranger Than Fiction, and The Pursuit of Happyness.

Although all of these films, in their own ways, have something to say about love, life, politics and happiness, the last in particular — The Pursuit of Happyness — raised my ire most.

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Chaddi aur phool

Gulzar’s words:

Jungle jungle baat chali hai, pata chala hai
Arre, chaddi pehan ke phool khila hai, phool khila hai

Jungle jungle pata chala hai
Chaddi pehan ke phool khila hai
Jungle jungle pata chala hai
Chaddi pehan ke phool khila hai

Ek parinde hua sharminda, tha woh nanga!
Bhai, isse to ande ke andar, tha who changa!
Soonch raha hai bahar aakhir kyon nikla hai
Arre, chaddi pahan ke phool khila hai, phool khila hai

Jungle jungle pata chala hai
Chaddi pehan ke phool khila hai
Jungle jungle pata chala hai
Chaddi pehan ke phool khila hai

And mine:

Everywhere in the jungle word is spreading, it’s become known
Well, a shorts-wearing flower has blossomed, a flower’s blossomed

Everywhere in the jungle it’s become known
A shorts-wearing flower has blossomed
Everywhere in the jungle it’s become known
A shorts-wearing flower has blossomed

A bird became embarrassed — he was naked
Instead of this, inside his egg, he was just fine
Wondering why he he came out at all
Well, a shorts-wearing flower has blossomed

Everywhere in the jungle it’s become known
A shorts-wearing flower has blossomed
Everywhere in the jungle it’s become known
A shorts-wearing flower has blossomed

Needless to say the shortcomings are in my translation and not in the wonderful song that Gulzar wrote for this TV series. I first came across it in India in the early 90s, I don’t remember precisely when — I was far too young to be able to keep track. But there in front of a black and white television, my cousins gathered and eagerly watched this show. The theme song has seeped into the popular discourse of Hindi-speaking Indians, particularly the refrain, “Jungle jungle pata chala hai, chaddi pehan ke phool khila hai”, and the character of Mowgli. I don’t recall following the series, indeed, I couldn’t — there was no Doordarshan TV in Saudi Arabia, and when satellite channels came out, I don’t recall any of them carrying this show. But in any case, the refrain’s been in my head as well.

I read The Jungle Book in grade six. I enjoyed it, and it attests to Rudyard Kipling’s creativity (and perhaps his accessibility). I hadn’t really been exposed to Orientalism as a theoretical concept so I wasn’t quite thinking of that when I read the book. (Though my grade six teacher, Ms Pate, did try to introduce us to socially relevant literature — rights of African-Americans and the problems of clear-cutting and indigenous rights — and a lot of that probably made an impact on me.) Disney also produced an animated film based on the book. But The Jungle Book TV series was produced in Japan, primarily for a Japanese audience but, it seems, with an eye for export — and it was exported all around the world from what I can see on YouTube. There are dubbings in Finnish, German, English, Tagalog and, of course, Hindi. Thus, there’s a trajectory from British-occupied India to Kipling’s imagination to the Disney remake to the Japanese remake before coming back to India….

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On language

There’s a used bookstore way up the street. I find myself dropping by from time to time to see what they have — the first time I went I was interested only in the comics. Later, I went looking for other kinds of books, academic books. They used to have a whole set of writings of Marx and Engels from Progress Publishers that weren’t there when I visited yesterday. I also found a huge book, Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings — the second edition from 1979. I looked into the most recent editions, and they are, for the most part, the same, with a few essays added here and there. I also found Rius’s Marx for Beginners. (“To Craig, A little light but politically correct humour. Happy Birthday! David. Summer, 1987.” I didn’t really find the book funny.)

There’s a shelf full of ‘classics’ of literature — Penguin Classics and the like. I saw a couple of copies of Albert Camus’s The Outsider, and I considered buying one. The problem, of course, was that it was a translation from the French. And I was supposed to have read the French in grade 12. Mme Liscio had wanted us to read Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos as an introduction to existentialism and Camus’s L’Etranger as an introduction to the philosophy of the absurd. I read the former, but barely read the latter, relying instead on free online study notes — which, needless to say, were a very poor substitute. After I graduated from high school I made little effort to keep what French I had learned fresh. I did, at one point, sign out a French comic book from Robarts — Stigmates — in a failed attempt to improve what little French I had rattling around in my mind.

In the summer of 2006, as Israel executed its war on Lebanon, I realized just how much was written on the subject in French — obviously, a lot to do with Lebanon’s colonial past. But it was when I came back to Sartre — reading Search for a Method for my Marxism & Form class — that I began to regret more deeply my lack of advanced French reading skills. Then I watched The Battle of Algiers — and I could not, for the life of me, keep up with the spoken French and I had to rely on English subtitles. Then came readings of Rancière, Badiou, as well as rumblings of Althusser, Balibar, so on, and that increased the desire to be able to access them in French. Not to mention Frantz Fanon. It’s like regretting not having learned German so as to be able to read Marx, Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin, and others in their original language — only I did know French. And still do, to some extent.

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