Annus Mirabilis

The title of this post refers strictly to my experiences as a fan of Wang Ji Won.  It has proved to be a year of miracles, a year of wonders,  thanks to one astonishing week.

I have been a fan of Ms. Wang for four years now, and the week started with a surprise that was literally incredible, difficult to believe.  I received a totally unexpected gift package. A copy of the DVD of her debut movie One Line and a copy of a limited run magazine featuring an interview with her made me smile with delight, but discovering this underneath them left me stunned:

For a fan FAR removed geographically from his bias, and even FARTHER removed demographically from her fanbase, receiving a framed autograph was truly “mirabilis”, a marvellous surprise I struggled to process. But the best was yet to come.

Receiving Ji Won’s autograph was a stunning surprise, but what cemented the week and thus the year as miraculous was the fulfilment of a long held, oft-stated dream.  Ever since I became her fan, I have dreamed of seeing Wang Ji Won in a show about dance.  Swan Club made that dream come true.

This ballet-themed special was a very emotional experience to watch. Seeing Ji Won tear up when being surprised at meeting her famous seonbae, KNB’s prima ballerina Kim Ji Yeong made me all teary-eyed too. Watching her grimace and weep with pain in her pilates/rehab session made me so proud of her inner strength , a reminder of the iron will that has driven her building a new career after  being forced out of the ballet world she so clearly still loves.  Watching her smile and laugh, with her fellow cast members and with her ballet colleagues made me so very happy.

Above all, watching her actually DANCE blew me away. Her beauty and  her grace were mesmerising, and the sheer joy she got from expressing her love of dance again,  was more than I had dared hope for.  Even the song she chose to dance to was an assertive statement – Amor Fati. If translated as “Love Your Fate” it comes across as an expression of her resolute determination to do just that: Fate may have taken her away from ballet and into acting, but instead of pining or mourning, she is “loving her fate” and making the most of every opportunity she gets. Watching the show was the most emotionally satisfying TV experience of the year, and I’ve already lost count of how many times I’ve watched her segments.  I am sure like many performers, she dreads reading internet comments, but I really hope she reads this one, because it comes from my heart with sincerity and truth:

To my incomparable bias Wang Ji Won I say, THANK YOU! Thank you for the wonderful surprise gift of your autograph, but most especially, thank you for touching my heart by giving your fans, all of us, such a wonderful, beautiful, “mirabilis” gift – the gift of your dance.  고맙습니다,  항상 고맙습니다!

저는 왕지원의 팬입니다

 

 

Always Look on the Bright Side: Fit the 1st

In a world of  naked negativicity, the contrarian in me decided it’s time to celebrate some good stuff that has happened, is happening and is about to happen in the world of Asian entertainment. From the perspective of one eccentric old man, anyway.

원라인


Wang Ji Won’s debut movie was the primary trigger for this post. When the movie was announced, she got a lot of press coverage. In the months leading up to its release that changed, and in the end, her role was not  everything this avid fanboy spent a whole year hoping for.

Nevertheless, I’m counting it as a blessing overall because it was her debut. She worked tirelessly to promote it, she looks GREAT in it, and she did well with the role she ended up with. So I’m celebrating it as a successful first step and hope the experience, connections and reputation earned by her hard work and professionalism will help advance her career.  She’s continued to make good use of whatever opportunities have come her way to raise her profile, including an appearance on Happy Together which reduced me to incoherence by giving its audience a fleeting glimpse of her dancing again. I was overcome, and hope the link below survives so others can enjoy it too.

MORE FANS

More appearances on TV and now film lead to another reason for this fanboy  to be happy – seeing the number of Ji Won’s followers on SNS grow. Every fan wants their bias to be better known, and seeing it happen is a real cause for happiness. In the 4 years or so I’ve been following her, her number of followers  has remained relatively constant, until quite recently. All of a sudden it seems, she has almost double the numbers of followers  she did when I started following her, a year after her debut. Still not a large number by K Ent standards, but the sudden spike in numbers is gratifying, especially as more and more of them are coming from various countries far from Korea. I’m happy to see more and more people following her cute, fun Instagram profile. If 원라인 brings her still more fans, that will be another reason to celebrate it. Which brings me to:

ONE FAN

For Ji Won’s Number One fan, I’m sure I’ve been a source of some misery (ha!). This is a shame because I, and Ji Won’s other international fans, owe her so much. She works tirelessly to protect Ji Won’s SNS from antis, and helps scores of non-Korean fans  feel more connected to Ji Won than they otherwise would. She  continues to be VERY patiently generous with her time, providing unsolicited translations and explanations and keeping us informed of Ji Won’s activities and well-being. Her devotion to Ji Won is remarkable, and her willingness to give of herself to help other fans is truly a blessing. As is the very happy news that ends this summary of “things that make a Wang Ji Won fanboy happy”

HOSPITAL SHIP

After two years, Wang Ji Won is finally back in a prime-time network Drama! I wasn’t originally planning to watch Hospital Ship but of course her casting changed all that. I am very excited that she’s back, and in a Drama lead by a real big headline name in Ha Ji Won. The boost to her profile from this Drama could be really significant, hopefully continuing the revival of her career trajectory. It also starts airing just after her fifth debut anniversary, and I’m really hoping that her fans get to do something truly very special for her to celebrate this happy double.  As the above ramble shows, there’s much for me to be happy about, and hopeful about, as a Wang Ji Won fanboy, but I have several more reasons to look on the bright side. So many that they have forced  a  sequel to this post. Stay tuned, y’all!

 

In Support Of The King 왕지원

저는 왕지원의 팬입니다

The phrase above is the background image for my Twitter profile.”I am a fan of Wang Ji Won”.  The use of the deferential form of “I” maybe grammatically incorrect, but the choice was very deliberate. This post is to celebrate her, and reflect on my experiences as an international fan.

As mentioned here, I started following Wang Ji Won a couple of years ago on Instagram. Her posts were pretty, cute and fun. At the time she was second lead in the drama I Need Romance 3. Many of her Instagram posts feature the cast of the drama having fun together, and I fell for her impish smile and ridiculously cute pout. But it was reading a translated interview in which she talked about her background that converted me into a hard-core fan.

4

Learning that she had spent 17 years devoted to ballet, including attending the Royal School of Ballet and earning a place with the Korea National Ballet before a pelvic fracture put her in a wheelchair for six months and ended her ballet career gave me a new perspective on this young woman. It showed that behind her cute, funny, impish smile was a character of determination, diligence and drive, someone who could still exude fun after having her life’s dream taken away. The trajectory of her post-ballet career has further demonstrated  those characteristics.

ballet1

Becoming proficient at ballet requires years of practice, lots of intensive physical exercise and sheer hard work, with a lot of pain. It has been similar for Wang Ji Won in her career as an actress. She started modelling and doing some advertising work around the time she was with the Korea National Ballet. Some of her earliest commercials also provide an excellent example of the depth of my fanboy’s commitment. They feature an actor of almost legendary fame, whom I have never seen in anything other than those commercials. So when people talk about him, he is to me “that guy who was with Wang Ji Won in those ads”.

 

Her first drama role was in the 120 episode Shut Up Family in 2012 . I watched this drama a few months ago to complete her canon, and recorded the time and duration of every one of her scenes in the entire drama. Following Shut Up Family, her next drama was the 2013 Good Doctor, which happened to be the first drama I watched while it was airing. After that came a very brief cameo in the mega smash hit The Heirs before she secured her first second lead in I Need Romance 3. One of her closest Korean fans recently said something like “don’t worry she’s not Oh Se Ryeong (her character in INR3)” I smiled and thought “but I like Se Ryeong”. And I did. The best friends to frenemies to best friends again arc was well executed by Wang Ji Won and the lead Kim So Yeon.

In 2014, Wang Ji Won got her first lead role in the web drama Another Parting . Effectively an hour-long MV for the eponymous title track, Another Parting was another step forward in her career, especially thanks to her high profile male lead Seo In Guk. It also featured a scene that made my blood boil when I learned later it was filmed in -9°C!

After Another Parting, her next second lead was a role that got me really excited. It was a remake of the Taiwanese drama Fated to Love You. I hated that drama, including its female second, who deliberately caused the lead to miscarry. The second lead character in the drama was a ballet dancer, but sadly the actress playing that character in the Taiwanese drama had no experience in ballet and was not a very good actor. So I was super excited when my ballerina bias scored the role in the Korean remake. Seeing her dance again even briefly remains a highlight of the drama for me. That her character was significantly less awful than in the Taiwanese original was a nice bonus.

Her next drama role was in 2015 as second lead in Divorce Lawyer in Love. I will be polite and describe the drama as underwhelming. As a very committed fan, I was hugely disappointed at the way her character’s role faded in significance and screen time in the last half of the drama, to the point where she was effectively absent. Nevertheless, the drama did give me many treasured memories of my beautiful bias looking very beautiful.

bluecomp18

In a recent interview for her first cover article in a magazine, Wang Ji Won mentioned (according to Google translate) that 2015 was a bit of a slump year for her. I found that candour endearing. Happily 2016 has been much better . Not only her first magazine cover but a short web drama that was effectively all about her, Immortal Goddess. These however are the appetisers for what makes 2016 a very special year for Wang Ji Won and her fans. She completed filming this year on her very first film role , a con artist caper film with Im Si Wan , One Line. It hasn’t come out yet, but when it does, this fan boy will be raving, again.

This brief recap of her career showcases her focus and determination. She has worked her way up slowly, from commercials to small parts on to 2nd leads and web dramas and now to a movie role. She has candidly acknowledged the role luck has played, but she’s also seized the opportunities presented and made the most of them. And it has not all been smooth sailing.

The same social media that cemented my attachment to her as a fan also caused her significant pain. She suffered serious verbal abuse from people who refuse to recognise that public performers are entitled to private lives. Performers need to a space to perform, and they need an audience.  Social media interactions provide both. Sadly some mean-spirited people attacked her repeatedly over a long period of time, to the point where she withdrew from social media. That low point in her public life also taught me the truth of the adage “never say never”

When I started getting into Korean dramas, I could not understand why fans would send expensive gifts to their biases, who obviously have a lot more money than their fans. Yet last year, when I learned the extent and nature of the abuse that Wang Ji Won was suffering from unkind people, I was moved to respond by sending a fan gift. Not solely as a fan, but  primarily as someone who wanted to express sympathy. That fan gift mission turned into quite a saga itself, with its own ups and downs and crises,(and even its own playlist) but in the end I got what every fan craves, acknowledgement from my bias. Since then, as her career has continued its upward arc, I have contributed to fan gifts on two further occasions. Never say “never”!

Being a hard-core fan of an actor with a lower profile has its advantages. Her fan base is not that large at the moment, so she interacts with many of them. For a few months, she even followed me on Instagram. This was, of course, the highlight of my social media existence. Any performer’s public social media presence is in large part about performance, publicity and promotion. No one shows all of themselves on SNS, and not for a minute do I think that Ji Won’s  public SNS shows all of her, but it what it does show, I like. Her interactions with her Korean fans on Instagram always present the same picture – that of a warm, friendly and genuinely fun young woman, who enjoys chatting with her peers. From her unobtrusive fondness for her cat, whom she rescued from a freeway, to her unfeigned anguish at being almost 30 (Korean age) and her constant willingness to simply goof off, there is nothing not to like. If I had a ₩ for every ㅋㅋㅋ in her comments and replies, I could afford to learn Korean in Korea. Which would certainly make my fan life a whole lot simpler.

There is a clip from Sesame Street I’m fond of using to express my relationship with the rest of Wang Ji Won’s fandom. The overwhelming majority of her fans are Korean, female, and under 30. I am emphatically none of those things. I cannot speak Korean, can barely read Hangul, and live 13,000 km away, in addition to being more than 20 years older than my bias and the majority of her fans. Despite all this, I have been made to feel very welcome as part of her fandom.

I am especially indebted to the fan who has the closest connection to Wang Ji Won. For her star, this young woman is a truly devoted fan, a friend, and a fierce protector. Their exchanges on SNS are always a joy to read, even through machine translation, good natured banter between friends. This fan has a fan in me. Despite already spending countless hours producing beautiful fan vids, and constantly being on guard  to shield Ji Won’s SNS from those who wish her ill, she has shown extraordinary patience and helpfulness in facilitating my fandom by sharing information with me and translating it for me. Her tireless loyalty is worthy of its own tribute. I have been deeply moved by her willingness to offer me the opportunity to participate in fan events, even when the realities of distance, differing timezones and my  lack of Korean eventually precluded my participation.

The title of this tribute is a dig at Google Translate. The name “Ji Won” is not uncommon among Korean actresses, but Wang Ji Won is the ONLY one whose name Google refuses to treat as such, instead translating her name as words. With her star seeming to be on the rise, I hope to see this change soon. All the signs are that this beautiful,  hard-working, talented, determined and beautiful young woman is starting to reap the rewards due her effort. I’m sure that in the not too distant future, many more, including Google, will know her name. When that time comes, and she shines to others as the star she already is to me, I will be cheering and clapping and smiling.

It’s every fan’s dream to meet their bias, of course, even when we know it won’t happen. Aotearoa is so far away from anywhere it famously doesn’t even show up on many maps. And my little corner of this little country is off the tourist track (except for wine buffs). So when I see photos of  my bias meeting fans, I feel very, very happy for them, and just a tiny bit wistful.

If the unimaginably improbable happened and I did meet Wang Ji Won, what would I say?

“감사합니다! 진짜 , 정말, 감사합니다!” ” Thank you for sharing your talent, grace and beauty.” “Thank you for making me smile and gush. Thank you for keeping the teenager in me alive and well.”  “Thank you for being a good person.”

As I watch this lovely young woman’s career from afar, I will continue to be proud to say, “I’m her fan” And when she’s the big name star she deserves to be, I’ll still keep treasuring  the words and images of a young woman who loves iced Americanos from Starbucks (sigh!), who gushes like a teenage fangirl over her favourite Dramas and anime, who rescues stray cats, who has kind words for strange old fans far away, and who has a smile and a pout that no tribute can do justice to. There may be many Jiwons, but for me, there can be only !

Owl Be Back

A few days ago I was called close-minded, for having no interest at all in historical dramas. My initial reaction was to feel insulted and offended. It is, after all, hardly a designation many would treasure. The offence quickly morphed into amusement that something as trivial as a difference in entertainment tastes could be seen as evidence of close-mindedness.

It was also, as the saying goes, “funny ‘cos it’s true” – when it comes to the world of Asian dramas I am an extreme outlier more often than not. Period dramas bore me rigid, and with almost no exceptions, I am utterly uninterested in the aesthetic appeal of male actors. A podcast urging its listeners “not to be THAT noona” further drove home to me my position outside the mainstream of Asian entertainment consumers. Not simply because it is not biologically possible for me to be any sort of noona without major surgery, but also because the podcast was mostly about KPop, another field of entertainment which generally leaves me  underwhelmed.

I may not care about historical dramas at all, or about KPop very much (Mamamoo excepted), but it is always a joy to hear from those who do. Listening to people talk about the things that interest them enlightens and delights me. I have a physical intolerance to alcohol, but love listening to my sommelier best friend talk at length about the wines which are his world. I have a degenerative disability, but always really enjoy listening to a young friend talk about her work as a personal trainer and about her surfing. Reading tweets and blog posts from people waxing lyrical about the things which excite them and stir their passion always makes me smile. As I was composing this I thought of the group EXID, and especially Hani. I feel like I know something about her, and of their music, thanks to the devoted commitment of one of my Twitter followers. Her tireless efforts to share her fandom have made sure that whenever I think about EXID, I feel good (Sorry Emily!)

Thus, reflecting on the pleasure I get from reading and learning about other’s passions, I’ve decided that when it comes to the muddled, contradictory, senescent voices in my own head , I’m going to follow the old advice : “What say they? Let them say.” The adage “blog like no one is reading” is close to being the literal truth in my case. That not even spammers visit is actually liberating. As with my very lengthy tribute to a drama  (almost) no one watched, I will rave about what I want to rave about, and, on the rare occasions when I care enough to overcome my aversion to the effort needed, I will rant about what I want to rant about. I’ll indulge my obsession with multilingual wordplay, even when much of the (putative) audience won’t get it, as in the owl theme on this blog. Anyone who does read this can expect to find my support for a former ballerina to feature prominently and for South Asian (or more specifically, North Indian) films to once again be bloviation fodder. Noho ora mai rā.

Number 1: Day 19

Drama That Started Your Bias

 

 

I NEED ROMANCE 3

I said in the introductory post to this series that “The ten I’ve chosen are going to be listed more or less in chronological order.” We’ve had the nine less, here’s the one more.

When it comes to my bias’s fandom, I’m the ultimate outlier. I am the wrong age, the wrong gender, in the wrong country and speak the wrong language. I am, in short, just plain wrong.  Despite all of that, I AM  a fan, and as such will gladly seize any chance to sing her praises.

This was a challenging category to answer  because my crush on my bias did not start from Dramas. I fell hard for Ms Wang Ji Won (yes, that is her NAME, Google Translate) by following her on her first Instagram account. Before being hounded out of SNS  her Instagram showed a young woman with an irrepressible sense of fun, who loved being silly, with a  killer pout that captured an old man’s fan heart “with a wink and a smile”.  Add in the cat she rescued from a freeway and doesn’t torment  for SNS fodder, and she had my vote before any Drama.

A big part of that SNS fun also revolved around the first of her Dramas that really did cement her as my bias. The cast of I Need Romance 3 spent a lot of time together in social settings, and continued to get together as often as possible long after the Drama had ended. Following her IG at the same time as watching the Drama was a double whammy of cute and pretty, with a  large side order of fun. It also foreshadowed “the start of a beautiful friendship” with the scene below being re-enacted endlessly on Twitter by two fans of the actors involved:

 


fight

If INR3 was the Drama that came closest to being the start of my bias, Fated To Love You was the one that sealed the deal. The Taiwanese original featured a bad actor playing an awful character, a ballerina. The Korean remake featured a better actor playing a less horrid character, and was played by a real ballerina. Ji Won’s story of building a new career after the injury that put her in a wheelchair for 6 months and ended her 17 year ballet dream was a big part of what made me such a fan, seeing her dance again, even fleetingly, in FTLY ,  completely shattered any chance of my escaping the thrall of my bias. When she first shared the clip below, of her practicing for the FTLY role,  she said it had been 5 years since she’d danced ballet. I can’t help thinking it may have  been a bittersweet moment for her
Many of the people I follow on Twitter get to tweet enthusiastically and  at length about the aesthetic appeal of their male biases. When one’s bias is both female, and a second lead, such opportunities are rare. A sign of how low profile my bias is can be seen in the way Google treats her name. Of seven actresses I know called Ji Won, she is the only  one whose name is not recognised as such, and a youtube clip entitled “Wang Ji Won ballet”, actually features a compilation of several Ji Wons, much to my annoyance, So the missing piece of the “cement my bias” puzzle was finally supplied by the web Drama Immortal Goddess. The whole Drama was built around Wang Ji Won, with the key plot point being “Wang Ji Won is really ridiculously good looking”.

 

She got to do things  she’s never done  onscreen before, including throw up, get piggybacked, and laugh.
 FINALLY, I got to have the pure fan service experience so many of my Twitter friends get so often, and it was, as the lady herself might say, “wangderful”. While looking forward to her first movie role, a lead in a con film One Line,  I’ll close with some of my favourite shots from Immortal Goddess,  ones that highlight the Wang Ji Won I will always support:

 

And now it’s done. Thanks again to Indigo/Helena for her truly excellent Drama Challenge and for the chance to challenge myself by writing ten positive pieces. Incredibly self-indulgent they were, and that may have been off-putting to some. As a gracious host AND hardcore Wang Ji Won fan, to any who have waded through my waffle and now feel worse for wear, I will let my beautiful ballerina bias convey my sincerest regrets:

Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna

“Last updated April 2013” – tempes really DOES fugit! So why am I revivifying this moribund blog, other than as an excuse to use words like revivifying? Because the time is right. I don’t really like goodbyes, which is one reason why I chose the song above – the lyrics are perfect, and it’s from a film that I REALLY, REALLY  dislike. An apt summary of the reasons this blog went to sleep.

I started this blog primarily to write about my reaction to Hindi films. I still love OLD Hindi films, but as the big mainstream releases moved further and further from my tastes, I found my enthusiasm waning. In the nearly three years since I last updated this blog, I’ve seen only two Hindi films during their cinematic runs, PK (an OK if slightly preachy Aamir vehicle) and Bajrangi Bhaijaan (a brazenly manipulative Sallu tearjerker that worked), and caught up with only a few smaller films post-release, most notably The Lunchbox and Patang. both of which I thoroughly enjoyed and enthusiastically recommend.

As my interest in current Hindi films waned, so did my already fragile motivation for bloviating about them. Thus did this blog end on an aptly funereal note, with the last post being a tribute to a  favourite female singer of yesteryear, Shamshad Begum.  Except it turned out that it wasn’t quite dead, just pining for the fjords.

It was reading a spate of “year end” blogs that sparked the urge to blow the cobwebs off this old Frankenblog and see if it still worked. I needed somewhere to celebrate my new consuming enthusiasm. East Asian Drama,  and the incredible people I follow on Twitter who have enriched the experience so much.

Within two weeks of writing the last post here, I watched my first ever K Drama. That count now stands at 124, along with 16 Taiwanese Dramas, 3 Chinese and 15 Japanese, plus 14 K Dramas dropped at varying stages. I’m an unashamed addict! I’m also a real fan boy, stretching that last word rather more than nature intended. I’m a fan of East Asian Dramas, but I’m an even bigger fan of the amazing Asiaphiles I follow on Twitter. This blog post is really for them.

Asian entertainment fandom has its fair share (he coughed euphemistically) of irrational obsessive fans who act like children, regardless of their age. Through an incredible stroke of good fortune, no one I follow is anything like that. Everyone I follow is intelligent, thoughtful and mature. The diversity of ages and backgrounds and biases is broad, as is the range of tastes and preferences in Dramas and music. On my Twitter feed are people with very different tastes in both performance and performers. Yet the spirit remains one of fun mostly, and civility always. Whenever discussions shift from lighthearted banter to serious exchanges of differing views, the conversations never become nasty, even when very vigorous disagreements are being aired.

Above all, this outstanding group of people taught me to “just let it go”, to remember that entertainment should be entertaining, and that there’s no need to rain hate on someone else’s parade. OTT ranting can be fun, but friendly banter is even more fun, and much less tiring. To the many exceptional women and tiny group of Most Unusual  men who’ve educated, entertained, and enlightened me,  y’all know who you are and all y’all are 대박, 진짜 대박, take a bow!

When I first stumbled into the Wonderland of an adults-only corner of K-ent Twitter, many (read: almost all) of my mentors prophesied that my obsession with K Dramas would lead inevitably to a slide down the rabbit hole of K-Pop, I scoffed and said the word one should never say. Never.

This year saw me fall hard for Mamamoo. I would seriously love to see them perform live, even though I’d be the ultimate outlier, demographically.  I’ve also stopped pretending that my interest in KPop stops at Davichi, and now accept that liking many songs from Girl’s Generation , T-Ara, Red Velvet and others means I’m more of a sitting duck than a standing egg.

Giving in to K-Pop was not the only noteworthy event in my fanboy life this year though. I got to actually talk to Nandita Das – a very  brief and prosaic exchange, but still! Later in the year, I did something else I never expected to do, and sent a fan gift. That turned into quite an adventure, full of laughs, frustrations and misunderstandings. It turns out that being fond of wryly self-deprecating wordplay in English is, er, let’s say, sub-optimal for maintaining clear communication with non-native speakers. Despite the hiccups along the way, when my very own “K-Drama” ended with me being called “my lovely fan”, the facade of adulthood was completely melted away from the gobstruck, hyperventilating, utterly incoherent adolescent fanboy within.

I also dabbled in blogging thanks to the generosity and tolerance of the excellent women at Couch+Kimchi.  It was fun sharing my views on K Drama, and now that I know many of them are Bollywood fans I might even see if they’ll let me back for a post about my first Asian addiction.

Another discovery this year was that someone whose writing I admire is also a  K Drama fan. Madhulika Liddle not only writes with skill and passion about pre-1970s Hindi films, she writes thoroughly absorbing and meticulously researched historical mysteries set in Mughal Delhi. To have been able to share a mutual fondness for K Drama with a real writer was an unexpected delight. If anyone reading this likes historical fiction, crime fiction, India, or any combination thereof, do yourself a favour and read her books, all of them!

What am I looking forward to in 2016? More thoughtful, fun fan exchanges on Twitter, more  K Dramas, more K-Pop and more time being a VERY happy harabeoji. It’s also the year when I find myself with no choice but to master at least enough Korean to follow the gist of a movie without subtitles, since Made In China isn’t going to get subbed any time soon. I  hope too that everyone who actually read all of this finds MUCH better ways to spend their time in the new year. May 2016 be everything you wish for and more, and for every single person I interact with on Twitter, this one’s for you:

 

 

There Can Be Only One? (reprise)

My apologies to all those who’ve read this ramble before. Since blogging is an egotistical exercise, I’ve decided it’s OK to put this to a wider audience than my first attempt managed.Although I’m not Indian and have never been to India, I’ve grown up with India in my life. Its food, cultures, languages and genes have always been a part of my experience, part of who I am, just as Partition is why I am. I neither sneer at India with the smug superiority of the xenophobe (or the orientalist), nor drool over it, looking at Bhaarat Maa through gulabi glasses. I love the land in which I was born, the only part of the planet I’ve ever lived in, but I have no affection for, or fealty to, the geopolitical entity which issued my passport. I perceive the republic of India as overcrowded, corrupt, riddled with gross inequities perpetuated on the basis of wealth, caste, creed and (especially) gender, and growing a frighteningly virulent, rabid patriotism. Even though I’ve never been, I believe it to be dirty and smelly and chaotic and frustrating. I also know that I would really, really, really like to be able to make use of my eligibility for OCI and live there for a while.

I first got into Hindi films seriously about eight years ago, when I decided to teach myself Hindi. The first three that I remember consciously choosing to watch myself were Lagaan, Earth:1947 and K3G. Since then, I’ve built a small collection of around 100 Hindi movies, and probably watched another 300 or so. Over that same period of time. I’ve also done quite a bit of one-on-one tuition and mentoring with different members of a Panjabi family I’ve come to know quite well. All of this exposure to North Indian culture has been enriching. Around five percent of my town’s population is Panjabi, and many of them have become friends to varying degrees. This has meant lots of good food, good music, help with my Hindi and Panjabi and a deeper, more realistic understanding of India, and Indian issues (especially desi diabetes) from afar. It is has also left me wondering about desi fandom.

In many aspects of its culture, India is renowned for being syncretic. Despite the sectarian divisions and the blood spilled in the name of religion, syncretism is deeply embedded in Indian faiths, with an enquiring interest in different belief systems being common (my Dad’s father made a hobby of studying India’s religions as he travelled around what is now Pakistan in his railways career). Likewise, Indic  languages are as welcoming of imports as their distant English cousin – “shuddh” Hindi being about as mythical a beast as “pure” English, and Hindi movies, or at least filmi songs, are often really Hinjabi or even Hinjablish. Much is made of India’s tolerance of diversity, and there is much that supports that claim. Which brings me, finally, to the point.

All generalisations are dangerous, but it does seem that Indian enthusiasms are extremely exclusive. The  focus of this observation here relates to Bollywood fandom, but this extreme exclusivity is not confined to films. If cricket is India’s national religion, then even in the pantheon of the1st XI, it seems that being a real fan of one player requires that one contemn all the others. YouTube comments are infamously  vicious, but even there Indo-Pakistani arguments set new lows in reflecting this mindset that praising anything requires dissing everything else. It’s not just a cross-border issue, either. I still remember my shock at hearing two young Muslim friends of mine from Poona denigrating Kerala’s literacy rates. This young couple were urbane , well-educated and amiable, and quite ferociously patriotic Indians. I had raised the subject of Kerala’s literacy rate in a complimentary fashion,expecting them to praise it as an Indian success story. Instead they derided it, saying, “that doesn’t count because it’s only in Malayalam”. To them, the only literacy that counted was in English or Hindi. Conversations with my Panjabi friends on a range of topics have often brought up other instances where praising something to do with India was inextricably linked with belittling or attacking somewhere else.

That said, my most in-depth exposure to the way in which Indians express enthusiasms has been in the area of Hindi cinema. In this field, the notion that enthusiasm requires exclusivity seems to be axiomatic. If you’re REALLY a Rafi fan, Mukesh is muck, and Talat is trash. If you’re a Lata fan, Asha is just a wannabe, a reproach on her didi’s fame. If you are a true Dev Anand devotee, any Kapoor is crap.

From infancy I have been aggressively contrarian, and this trait has manifested itself in my filmi preferences. I am an Asha fan through and through. I like Esha Deol, and Deepa Mehta (well 2 out of 3, Water was a bit wet), and I can use both to illustrate the issue:

Esha is probably not a great actress, and I don’t know enough about Indian classical dance to know whether she is really any good at Odissi. But I do think that the fact that she trained in such a demanding discipline reflects well on her dedication and motivation, and filmi actresses with a dance background are very rare these days. Despite this, when she was active in films, she was the subject of viciously personal attacks. Nothing she did was  exempt from crude, hateful commentary that went beyond even the scorn heaped on her brother Bobby.

Likewise, Deepa Mehta’s films are controversial, and it is easy to understand why her particular perspective on Indian culture is so unpopular in India. Earth was notable not only for Nandita stealing my fan heart (and never giving it back), but also for being my first introduction to the defensive nature of this filmi exclusivity. I find hard to understand the often heard dismissal of Mehta as being “not Indian”. While that’s technically true in terms of citizenship, the idea that someone who was born, raised and educated in India, and who did not leave to live elsewhere until after completing university, is a foreigner with no right to comment, seems bizarre.

Jumping forward a decade from Esha, we have Katrina Kaif, castigated and pilloried for everything and anything she does, but especially it seems for being prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve her ambitions, and above for all for daring to be firangi and successful, despite bad Hindi. That last (firangi and bad bad Hindi) stirred something atavistic in my A-I soul, predisposing me to like and defend her.

The two key elements that strike me as different about expressions of fan support in the realm of Hindi cinema are the ferocity of personal animus and the way that such contempt is seemingly viewed as a requisite to prove your worth or merit as a true fan of whoever it is you support. I have been a member of one large Bollywood forum for many years and have read and commented on many different Bollywood blogs. In all of these venues, both of these distinguishing features of Bollywood fandom are clearly on display.

It seems that being a  true Bollywood fandom involves two steps: First, pick your idol. Next attack anyone and everyone else. The first step is of course intrinsic to fandom, by definition. The second seems to me to be unique to Indian fandom. In blogs, on the one forum I frequent, among my many Panjabi friends, and on twitter, desi fandom/idolatry is almost universally paired with ad hominem attacks on those perceived to be rivals to the idol.

This  devotion manifests itself with a selectivity of criticism that amuses me. Katrina Kaif is pilloried for being an outsider who got to the top by cynical and allegedly amoral manipulation of personal contacts and rumours of other behaviour considered disreputable. She is further mocked for cosmetic surgery and for being single-mindedly wrapped up in achieving her ambitions. The same actions taken by others are considered permissible, the same sorts of rumours made about others (for example SRK) are considered cause for a thermonuclear flame war.

It’s not  monocular devotion to an idol that I find unique to Indian fandom, that’s part of what being a real fan is all about. It’s the idea that such devotion requires vicious personal attacks on others, that anyone working in the same field as your idol is by definition a rival, a threat, and someone to be taken down. This is also seen  in the promotional campaigns and launch date machinations and contortions, all of which reflect an assumption that people will only go to ONE film on an opening weekend and/or that if they don’t go to it on the opening/holiday weekend they won’t go at all. Box office returns are another expression of the mysteries of desi filmi faith, with terms like hit and flop seemingly open to any definition at all that suits one’s fan status.

Another interesting feature of this desi devotion is the way that it seems to be contagious for non-desis. On the Bollywood forum I frequent , even neophyte Bollywood fans from many different countries quickly get into the habit of being spiteful and nasty about those who are not the object of their devotion. Some non-desi bloggers have, in addition to their personal favourites, selected one or more filmi personalities as their targets of choice, and never miss an opportunity to attack them. I have occasionally made the mistake of attempting to discuss the inconsistencies inherent in this approach with its exponents. For example, querying why Katrina’s changing her name is somehow sinister when few BW stars haven’t done so. Or why Esha, Katrina and others exploiting family connections to get a start is evil when the industry’s theme song could be “We Are Family”. Fandom is a faith, and as with many expressions of faith, rationality plays little part. The faith-based element of desi fandom, with its often overt religiosity, might be a subject worth discussing in its own right, too.

If you’ve made it to this final paragraph your masochism is appreciated. If the labyrinthine trip was a repeat journey, SORRY! I hope, gentle reader, that, if the experience of reading this has not been too traumatic, you might be able to tell me just how wrong you think I am. Having mentioned Katrina a lot,  here’s one of my favourite clips of hers. A celebration of that aforementioned syncretism, an Indian film whose  three leads were born in 3 different countries, none of them India. Plus, it finishes this waffle with a bang.  Salaam alaikum, noho ora mai, and bahut, bahut shukriya!

Nandita Das: Gam sau baar milaa

This was an intimidating piece to write. How could I write a fan blog post on a woman who is so much more than just an actor, and whose sober dedication to issues of real weight makes anything fan-related seem insultingly trivial? Her two decades of work in various fields have always been marked by an intense commitment to serious issues, especially issues relating to women. Because so much of that work has been through the medium of film, Nandita Das is a perfect subject for Adam’s Rib , the month long blogging discussion of women in Indian cinema. Unlike the other contributors to Adam’s Rib, I am not female, and find myself conflicted in writing this piece. I want to gush like a fan, a man who is enamoured of Nandita’s great beauty, while also being ashamed of such frivolity when discussing Nandita’s work.If there’s one word that would never spring to mind unbidden when considering Nandita Das in the context of Indian cinema, it’s “frivolity”. I tried to find a line from one of her filmi songs for the title of this post, but really, the line from jaane vo kaise is a perfect fit for her cinematic career. As a fan, I think Nandita is stunningly beautiful with a truly gorgeous smile, but that amazing smile is not characteristic of her work. If  “Gam sau baar milaa” were taken as a literal count, it would be a grave underestimate.

Even though trying to write about Nandita is a nasty mix of chutzpah and hubris, I have to try. One of the very first Hindi films I chose to watch (not counting the ones I went to as a child, without choice or comprehension) was 1947: Earth and the lead actress really did steal my filmi fan heart Because I owe my existence to Partition, the fact that Earth was right at the start of my journey into Hindi cinema made its impact on me all the greater. I grew up hearing the stories my father had passed on from his father of the horrors of that time, and  this film helped me understand why my grandfather had been so anxious to get his family out of there, as well as leaving me wondering how he shielded his teenage children from it all. Because it was one of my first Hindi films, I didn’t realise how many things set it apart – the truly stellar cast, the fact that A.R. Rahman did the music, or the controversial status of its director. All I knew is that it was a powerful, moving depiction of a part of History that was part of MY history, and that the lead actress was both stunningly beautiful and very good at her craft.  Only much later did I begin to fully appreciate how well this film meshed with my filmi tastes. Years after becoming a big fan of the genius that was Sahir Ludhianvi, for example, I was delighted to learn that Ishwar Allah was a clear homage to Khuda-e-Bartar  from Taj Mahal

 

The main reason I started watching Hindi movies was to  assist my efforts at teaching myself the language, but Nandita won me over to the extent that I’ve tried to get as many of her films as I can, regardless of the language. So many of her films focus on the plight of women, and often in the context of male sexual predation, either personally, as in Bawandar, or as the mother of the victim in Pitaah. One of her most poignant roles is as mother and victim in  Kannathil Muthamittal,  where she serves as a personal representation of a community’s suffering and loss, and the consequences and choices made from that state.  Her other Deepa Mehta film,  Fire, was hugely controversial in India for its candid examination of female sexuality, but for me, its highlight  remains the only depiction of the Agni Pariksha I’ve seen so far that isn’t repellently and indefensibly misogynistic.
As a fan of Nandita’s work, I’ve managed to collect some of the VERY few movies of hers that were not relentlessly grim, like Rockford and Bas Yun Hi. The latter film was a Hinglish romcom remarkable primarily for the fact that Nandita was smiling throughout and that nothing bad happened to her. So many times, it seems that films she stars in have things ending very badly for her, either as an intrinsically necessary part of the plot, as in  Before the Rains,  or in a way that seems pointless and totally unnecessary, as in Vishwa Thulasi. I love that film for the amount of time Nandita is shown looking beautiful and happy, but the ending is typical of so many of the films in which she is the star. The fan in me sometimes despairs that in films like Vishwa Thulasi, the very downbeat ending is considered a requirement for a film to be a Nandita starrer. It was a delight to watch Ramchand Pakistani, another film in which Nandita plays a woman struggling to hold her own against societally imposed misfortune, and find that it has a happy ending.

One of her few purely upbeat films was the short Fleeting Beauty shot here in New Zealand, which led me to my favourite Nandita film to date, one that she did not appear in, but the one that is truly hers Firaaq.

Since so many of her films involve graphic violence, most often directed at her, I was a little afraid of watching  Firaaq but it was a masterful film. From my distant outsider’s perspective, it seemed like a clear-sighted look at the repercussions and consequences of communal violence, and made sure that no “side” came off either blameless or entirely guilty.  Nandita directing Naseeruddin and Deepti meant that the film was almost certain to be worthy of its reputation, and so it was. The fact that Nandita’s co-writer, Auckland-based Shuchi Kothari, was so willing to discuss the film with me by email certainly helped endear her and the film to me. I am very much looking forward to the next film Nandita directs, whenever that may be.Being a hardcore Nandita fan is not an easy job, especially up here in New Zealand, when so many of her non-Hindi films cannot be found on DVDs that specify they have subtitles (if they’re available at all). Just as my only Bangla film is one of hers, so too, if my DVD collection ever includes Marathi, Malayalam  and Oriya films, it will be almost entirely because of my wanting to own as many of her films as possible. I still have several of her films to source, so if anybody reading this knows where to get English-subtitled DVDs of  Naalu Pennungal  etc., I’d love to hear from you. As hard as it is to find her films, the integrity of her work and its relevance to the larger issues she promotes makes it all worthwhile. Her commitment to Indo-Pak relations is especially dear to me, which makes Ghoom Taana  my favourite Nandita “short film” – it even has a happy ending!

Even though I often wish Nandita would star in a film that lived up to the meaning of her name (a romantic drama/comedy for adults that reunites her and Rahul Khanna, for example), I’m constantly amazed at the breadth of her talent, and the way she puts her skills to use for causes that really matter. I was deeply touched by her personal tribute to her father and impressed by her 17-minute extemporaneous discourse at TEDx Nariman Point on transformation in education.
A month of blogs examining the role and place of women in Indian cinema is a great idea, and for me, Nandita’s role and place is that of  a dedicated, committed champion, using her considerable talents as an actor and director to publicise, promote and defend important causes that should matter to everyone, even if they are  of special relevance to women. In an industry that largely uses women as window-dressing and that is often either passively or actively complicit in perpetuating misogynist stereotypes, Nandita is a refreshing example of what women can be and can do in Indian cinema. That’s why, even though I don’t really get fandom, I am proud to say, in appropriately filmi OTT style  “main nandita ka das banna chahta hoon” 

Acknowledgement: A special tip of the hat to Madhulika for her blog post that showed the link between Ishwar Allah  and  Khuda-e-Bartar

Waheeda Rehman: nazar bhar ke jise tum dekh lo vo khud hii mar jaae

It is a real privilege to be part of  “Adam’s Rib: A celebration of women in Indian cinema”, a big thank you to Katherine for the opportunity. Apparently a rule of successful blogging is, “keep it short”. Herein I say, “to hell with that!”This post is celebrating one of  the  women of Hindi cinema, one of my two favourite filmi actresses, Waheeda Rehman. In the heyday of her career, I don’t think the lyrics above were much of an exaggeration. Waheeda was stunningly beautiful, making it easy to see why such a paean as Chaudhvin ka Chand could be written and sung about her. The film from which that song comes though, is something of an exception in her career, with its chauvinist objectification of women. To  me, Waheeda stands out  for having played women that were much more than beautiful chattels of the hero. There are three films in particular that demonstrate this, two of them are among my all-time favourite films from any cinema, and one is a film I can only tolerate because of Waheeda-ji’s brilliant performance. I’ll start with that one.

Guide is a film that I simply cannot watch right through.  Dev’s egotistical preachy narcissism is like fingernails down the chalkboard of what passes for my soul, especially in the climactic scenes where Vijay and he completely subvert Narayan’s book and indulge their “Dev  IS a god, worship him like we both do” complex. That is exactly what makes Waheeda’s perfomance in this film so remarkable. She is the only reason I could rewatch most of this film recently. Her performance as Rosie/Nalini was simply superb. Her luminescence, especially in songs like gaata rahe mera dil, and her dancing, as in  piya tose naina laaga remade the first 2/3 of the film watchable. The character of Rosie was a perfect example of what makes Waheeda so special. Rosie was not simply a decoration, a trophy to be won by the hero, nor was she a saint. She was an independent person, determined to be herself, and with a properly rounded personality including her own flaws and weaknesses. This was also true of Waheeda’s other big roles.

I find it very hard to separate the other two films which for me illustrate Waheeda’s special place in Hindi cinema. On the one hand, Pyaasa is utterly sublime, possibly my favourite film ever,  so good that my attempts to be objective and find any flaws in it constantly fail. On the other hand, Teesri Kasam is Waheeda’s film, and it has a very special place in my heart for that reason.

Teesri Kasam truly stunned me when I first saw it. I simply could not believe that such a film could be made in 1967. A film driven by the female lead, a nautanki dancer, not a damsel in distress, or a long-suffering mother. It seemed decades ahead of its time in the context of Hindi filmi standards. Waheeda’s character is what she is, she does not apologise  for it, nor does she harbour any illusions about her place in society. As much as I enjoy a good old-fashioned epic Hindi love story, there can be no denying that the typical structure of those films reflects the misogynistic  patriarchal attitude toward women that is sadly characteristic of traditional Indian society. I think that’s why I love this film so much.  I am (allegedly) a male, with genetic and family ties to the subcontinent. As such, I am ashamed of the way Indian women have historically been treated and depicted, and to find a film like this made more than 50 years ago was a huge relief. It showed that there were some men even back then, who were prepared to put real women on screen, and there was no better person for the role than Waheeda. There are a lot of similarities between Rosie and Hira Bai. Both are dancers, of course, and both are free of any romantic illusions or pretense about what that career actually meant. Coming back to Hira Bai, even though she was aware of the gulf between her profession and Hiraman’s innocent perception of her, she was not prepared to give up her career. Unlike Gulabo.

I have raved at length about my love for  Pyaasa elsewhere , so I won’t repeat all that. I will repeat what makes Waheeda’s role so special. It’s unglamourous and unvarnished,  real and grounded. If there’s any criticism I could make of Pyaasa, it would be Dutt’s “misunderstood, undervalued artist” routine. He pulls it off in Pyaasa, but went way OTT with it in  Kaagaz ke Phool, suffocating clouds of self-pity enveloping him. One big difference between the two film’s is Waheeda’s character. In  Pyaasa,  Gulabo is a very down-to-earth person, who shows that real humanity is not the property of  jinhe naaz hai hind par, by proving herself to be one of Vijay’s only two friends. As with Teesri Kasam, she provides a strength and a relatable humanity to the role. In Teesri Kasam Hiraman was almost too good to be true, a simple innocent, and Hira Bai was the counterpoint to that. In  Pyaasa, Vijay is the other-wordly poet, the sensitive artist who can hardly be bothered with the compromises needed to live in the real world. Gulabo is his anchor, his connection to the normal, giving him shelter and love, and especially giving him someone to trust. For me, it’s that dimension to their relationship that makes this a better film than Kaagaz ke Phool.


The films I’ve mentioned above illustrate why I think Waheeda is a pre-eminent icon of  “women in Hindi cinema”, but it should not be overlooked that she has continued to practice her craft well into advanced age. Even among many who panned the movie, her role in Delhi-6 was widely respected, and her work with charities promoting literacy, especially Urdu literacy, show her continuing commitment to advancing the cause of women. As much as I gush like a fan, it is Waheeda I’d love to meet, not any of her characters.

To wrap up, I will return to the the inescapable fact that Waheeda’s beauty was legendary, especially her killer smile That smile sparkles with her beauty and a real sense of mischievous intelligence. This is perfectly demonstrated in  the song from which this post draws its title, which I simply have to close with. Truly, it can be said of her, “khudaa kii kasam, lajavaab ho!”

ZARA NAZRON SE KEHDO JI