Like Fireflies


Women in the films of Guru Dutt


(First published in SOCIALIST FACTOR, August 2015, India. All rights reserved. To quote, share or otherwise publish, please contact me via this blog).

Everyone remembers the great socialist directors of Hindi cinema as the maestros of the golden age: Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, Mehboob Khan, Bimal Roy and Satayajit Ray, among others, live on as heroes and idols throughout cinematic generations. They were geniuses with a social conscience, whose great nationalist films told the story of India’s rise from poverty and the shadow of colonialism by dint of the struggle of labourers and farmhands, grafters, drifters and artists, and honest ordinary folk from the lower middle classes. But what of women? What was the legacy for women and for women’s struggle for liberation of these great (male) auteurs of the golden age?

Mehboob Khan’s Mother India stands for all time as the archetypal image not only of the nation and its suffering and its honour but also of the womanhood of its female citizens. Nargis’s portrayal of Radha set the standard for all depictions of women in film for a generation and longer: women were the bearers of the nation’s integrity, honour and fortitude; they were the foundation stone of the family and therefore of the nation itself, they were the lynchpin around which all ideas of truth and right and love and worship and duty revolved. They were the moral guarantors of the nation’s heart and soul and the endurance of its culture. Whenever women characters appeared on screen elsewhere, this was the touchstone by which they were measured and from which they should not deviate.

Were other ideas and ideals of womanhood possible then – and are they possible now, or does the Mother India archetype still dominate? Raj Kapoor was famous for pushing the boundaries of the sexual portrayal of women and love relationships in his films, challenging the conventional mores of how women should look on screen and be seen by the camera, as well as for his off-screen illicit romance with his star, Nargis. And in the decade before the golden era reached its peak, studio stars like Fearless Nadia portrayed women as action heroines, riding to the rescue in imitation of Hollywood’s ‘Perils of Pauline’ movies.


We remember Guru Dutt for his portrayals of lost and melancholic artists, for the poetic vision he brought to cinema and for Johnny Walker’s comedy tracks. And of course for his own personal tragedy and early death. But few consider the interesting – and groundbreaking – women characters in his films, or what perspective they brought to bear on the lives of women in India. Yet in fact Guru Dutt was one of the directors in India cinema – with the extraordinary exception of Canada-based Deepa Mehta in contemporary times – who had most to say from a socialist and nationalist perspective about women, about love and marriage, about ‘feminism’ (1950s-style), and about the conventions of women’s portrayal on film. In doing so he set a precedent for women’s roles that few in popular cinema have followed and none have matched since. Continue reading

The Chimes, by Anna Smaill, Sceptre (2015).

Anna Smaill is a New Zealander, a classical violinist and a poet. This, her first novel, was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize, and it certainly deserved that accolade. It will be like nothing you have ever read. Reading this book is like inhabiting the head of someone who thinks in musical idiom rather than in prose, which has a startling and disorientating effect – especially for the musically illiterate, like me. And along the way, Smaill raises questions about memory, narrative, religion, oppression, identity, language, the evil of perfection, and the pain of free will, in a consistently vivid and gripping tale.

The Chimes is – technically – science fiction, as it is set in a future where the world as we know it – the hi-tech but morally corrupt world of computers, electronics, metro systems, planes, and written information – has been destroyed in an apocalyptic episode called the Allbreaking. What has replaced it is a harmonious, but backward, totalitaritumblr_ns9480p6GV1uyx4j8o2_1280an state run by the Order, and ruled by music: music as social organizing principle; music as mytho-political orchestration; music as language; music as mind control; music as faith. It is a world where everyone plays an instrument, almost everyone converses in ‘solfege’ – the hand-signed version of the tonic Sol-Fa scale – and every trade, place, smell, object, person, direction or memory has its own idiosyncratic theme-tune or melody. It is also where, more ominously, all books have been burned and the narrative principle of individual lives, the connection with remembered past, is erased daily by Onestory and the Chimes. These are two acts of compulsory daily communal worship or ritual accompanied by a massive barrage of glorious but brain-wiping sound. Smaill sustains this world not only descriptively but with its own vernacular – an English corrupted in pronunciation by the lack of written records – and with a perfectly judged use of musical terminology and imagery through which the characters describe their lives, feelings and actions.

In this strange but familiar world we meet Simon, a boy or young man apparently from nowhere, somewhere on the road to London. With him he carries only a bag containing his ‘object memories’ – talismans he uses to recall elements of his past and his now dead parents, and the ‘body memory’ of the skill of planting bulbs. We know nothing more of him or where he is going – and nor, it seems, does he, except for a song whose words he can’t quite remember as a clue, a thread he is convinced he has to follow.

Simon falls in with a gang of young river prospectors who search ‘the Under’, formerly the London Underground and sewer systems, for ‘the Pale Lady’ – a corruption of palladium, a pure silvery metal that has the unique property that it can insulate against sound. They sell scraps of this ‘mettle’ to make a living, as it is used to build the instrument that makes the Chimes. The gang members find their way in the darkness by maps drawn with song, memorizing routes with music, and find ‘the Lady’ because of its silvery silence behind the interwoven melodies of their soundscape world.

It turns out, however, that Simon has a gift that not many in his world possess – the ability to piece together his own fragmented memories into a narrative, and the ability to ‘read’ others’ memories from the objects in which they have invested them. The novel is written in the present tense, so we are naïve readers, sharing Simon’s perpetual ‘groundhog day’ point of view, then piecing together the threads along with him and Lucien, the gang leader, as they begin to reconstruct each others’ pasts and the history of their world through recovered scraps of memory. In doing so, they discover the dystopian truth of their apparently utopian world, and the mission Simon has been sent on by his parents. This, it becomes clear, is to seek out others like him, a kind of resistance movement of memory keepers and, eventually, to overturn the beautiful serene musical order that has tried to erase the past and imposes totalitarian oppression on them all.

The concepts raised in this ambitious novel are not all quite fully realized or resolved, which perhaps is why – aside from the genre – the book did not make the Booker shortlist. What enchanted me about it, though, was the magical world of musical consciousness – a parallel to the almost magical fashion in which those with faith of certain kinds perceive the universe and operate within it. Reading it was like acquiring a seventh sense, in which everything is newly comprehensible in a supra-real way, or like experiencing all-five-sense synaesthesia. This beyond-normal means of perception and communication, the revelatory exploration of the capacities of memory and what it means in human society, and the extraordinary talents and feats of musicianship, are gateways to a higher, more refined world, and it is no surprise that after the demise of the Chimes the general population is not relieved but pained and bewildered by the loss of this magical repetitive certainty of existence. It is, after all, no less than the loss of access to God.

Although the beauty of such a world in this novel proves fatal, it is nevertheless an extraordinary imaginative creation, and sings on in the memory long after you close the book. I will be looking forward to Anna Smaill’s next novel.

Genre: Literary fiction, science fiction

Best accompanied by: bubble and squeak, neeps and tatties, rabbit, squirrel and every kind of music from folk song to organ to plainsong.

You will like if: you can read music or play an instrument or know solfege; you like earth-based future world sci-fi; Oxford; London; the Underground; memory games.

Avoid if: You don’t like science fiction, music, or critiques of religion!

Les Roberts – “Day 7: Brutal Triage”

I want to share this and urge people to follow this blog or others like it – and to give what they can or do what they can to help alleviate this horrendous situation. Heartbreaking.

Program on Forced Migration and Health at Columbia University

Les Roberts – Freetown, Sierra Leone – October 11th, 2014

Day 7: Brutal Triage

The prediction landscape is looking bad.   The official numbers reported are laboratory confirmed cases.   Typically, we think people need 7-10ish days to become symptomatic. Typically people have symptoms for 7 days before they get into a health facility. A month ago, it was one day, now it typically takes 4 days from when a patient is sampled to when the patient is told the result of their test (and lots get lost and mislabeled….).   Thus, the numbers that you hear about new cases today reflect the transmission dynamics from over 2 weeks ago…..and we thought the doubling time of the outbreak was 30 days, it seems to be less than that here.   We knew the ~350 confirmed cases last week were an undercount….we now think there are 7-900 in reality.   The need for hospital beds…

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