“Film is one way — perhaps the most important way — in which India makes sense of the teeming, heaving and chaotic multiplicity and the sprawling diversity of this tumultuous nation state.
Bollywood is ‘ordered chaos’ or pastiche, Bedlam at its chaotic best.”
— Anurag Subramani
The lights dim,
the music builds and
a train stops —
at the village where Gabbar Singh prowls.
Kitne aadmi the?
Two men emerge:
Jai and Veeru
Veeru and Jai
(they are the good guys)
out for revenge;
find romance instead.
Plot synopsis 1:
Plot synopsis 2:
Two good guys, two girls, one bad guy.
Plot synopsis 3:
Song — bang — song — bang.
In the midst of chaos
harmony reveals its hand —
Jo darr gaya
Samjho marr gaya
says Gabbar Singh: “He is who afraid is dead.”
Gabbar loses and doesn’t die; Jai wins and…
When the train leaves
only two stay behind,
not Veeru and not Jai.
Thirty-nine years after the movie came out,
I finally see what the fuss was about.
Or at least I think I do — Sholay is a love-story; Sholay is a thriller; Sholay is a tragedy; Sholay is a comedy. Sholay occupies a unique place in the Bollywood imagination for spurring the whole genre of “masala” films and the reason it retains its appeal to this day is because it still strikes us as contemporary. The aesthetic that worked so successfully in Sholay continues to inspire modern-day films: these two movie posters are separated by 37 years.
Above all, Sholay is a riddle. The plotline twists and turns; it delights one moment and frightens the next. Like much of Bollywood, the fun lies not in deciphering the riddle but in puzzling over it, in going along for the ride. The question is not whether the boy gets the girl — because of course he does — or whether or not the bad guy loses — because of course he does — but how does the boy get the girl? How does the bad guy lose?
It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, because it’s not an ordinary cup of tea. It’s masala tea.
(50 dirhams = 10 euros: December 2013)
The thought of spending 10 euros for an entire day in Paris may strike you as a daunting task, but arm yourself with a map and a good pair of walking shoes, leave the guidebook at home, and set out for a day of wandering.
Start your day at the Tuileries, the one place in Paris that bathes in sunlight no matter the time of year, and walk along the wide, tree-lined paths while the top of the Eiffel Tower peeps out at you between the tree branches. Unless it’s the first Sunday of the month or if you happen to be an E.U. resident (in which case, entry is free), make a mental note to return to the Louvre museum on another day and walk for now past the gilded pyramid, continuing to the shaded streets along the right bank of the Seine. Yield to the smell of baking bread wafting your way and enter any one of the numerous boulangeries, where a freshly baked croissant will set you back about €1.
Munching happily on your croissant, continue along the Seine and take the time to peruse through the old posters and books proffered by the aged owners of the bouquinistes, the green boxes dotting the bank that open up into second-hand, antiquarian shops. A poster of the iconic chat noir costs about €3, and can add a splash of animated color to your walls.
By now, your tiring feet may be calling for a pause, so take a break and spend about €2 on an espresso at any café of your choosing, and make sure to ask for a seat on the patio. You can stay and wind down for as long as you like, so lose track of time by people-watching or by filling in your travel journal. Entrance to the nearby Notre Dame Cathedral is free, and if you’re lucky you might catch one of the mesmerizing afternoon sermons. If the long line and large crowds dissuade you, however, just a stone’s throw away from the cathedral is the fabled Shakespeare & Company bookstore, a delightful place to while away a lazy afternoon.
Paris by night is in an entirely different realm from Paris by day, so allow yourself to be distracted by little side-streets, large squares and other diversions as you, eventually, meander your way to a jazz club: several places, such as the Caveau des Oubliettes often have free concerts. Congratulate yourself as you realize, while rummaging through the coins in your pocket, that you have enough money left for a crèpe or a drink, and let the music wash over your ears as you relax.
As your day in Paris comes to a close, you may not have gotten your picture in front of the Mona Lisa, but between the numerous monuments and museums dispersed around Paris are the small pockets where, it seems, time moves slower and the moment becomes more real: cafés, bookstores, gardens. Maybe tomorrow, when you have a camera in your hand and more than 50 dirhams in your pocket, you might visit the Louvre or you might climb the Eiffel Tower, but make sure not to walk too quickly.
“When built in 1890, the Palacio Barolo was the tallest building in South America,” says Diego, his upturned finger inviting my eyes skywards. As the tour continues its leisurely pace through the streets of Buenos Aires, I hang behind for a moment, sheltering my eyes from the sunlight that shines back from the windows. Now where have I seen this before?
Of course: only a few months had passed since I stood with my mouth gaping open at the base of the Burj Khalifa, craning my neck as far back as it could go to catch a full view of the tower. That time as well, gleaming surfaces had stunned me into silence. “The world’s tallest building, sure, but I hear they’re building a taller one in Saudi Arabia,” my friend had muttered. “The fountain show here is spectacular though; can you believe that we’re surrounded by sand-dunes?”
I had indeed forgotten about the desert; in a city like Dubai, it is all-too-easy to forget where you were. Our tour group (made up of Indian, Japanese and Chinese tourists among others) stands out like a sore thumb; in Dubai, on the other hand, where foreigners are the overwhelming majority, every local I saw wearing the traditional abaya or khandora stood flanked by three tourists with straw hats perched atop their heads. Buenos Aires, as Dubai, beats down a prickly heat that makes my shirt stick to my back, but the pronounced development of the desert landscape in Dubai relegates the summer to an expendable commodity; one can, in the same afternoon, venture on a desert safari in sweltering temperatures and then enjoy an indulgent shopping experience in the air-conditioned interiors of Dubai Mall.
In Dubai and Abu Dhabi, cities engrossed in the attempt to “rebrand” themselves as leading tourist destinations, these dueling images crop up everywhere you go: a shawarma stall huddled next to Starbucks, a tiny barbershop at the base of a towering skyscraper. These contrasts make me wonder: how does a newly developing city differentiate itself to carve a unique identity? What is a city’s identity? In Buenos Aires of 1890, a combination of freedom from colonial rule and a prime trading location put them in the same category where Abu Dhabi and Dubai now find themselves: governments with ambitious development plans and no dearth of resources to fulfill them. In these plans, however, why was possessing the superlative of the “tallest” building so important to Buenos Aires? Where would Dubai feature on the global map if a taller building really is built in Saudi Arabia?
View from the observation deck of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
In sociological circles, the use of money in an overt manner is called “conspicuous consumption.” Thorstein Veblen developed this notion to explain the tendency of consumers, regardless of social class, to signal their consumption habits to their peers in a way that emphasizes their monetary strength.
While the Veblen model is essentially microcosmic and has become known, colloquially, as the “Keeping up with the Kardash…Joneses” mentality, I wonder if the same concept could apply to urban development; don’t governments, just like people, harbor dreams of upward mobility and increased prestige? In attempting to differentiate one city from another and create a unique identity, developers – quite understandably – focus on drawing tourism through the rare and the novel.
At the most basic level, the superlative mentality is showboating – there are no two ways about it. The motivations, however, may derive from nothing more than a quirk of economic practice and the exhibitionist impulse at the core of human nature. Conspicuous consumption cannot be singularly achieved: creating a unique identity compels at least a basic awareness of the achievements of one’s peers, or the limits of what has come before..
As Buenos Aires once prized the tallest building in South America and Dubai now proudly hosts the tallest building in the world, these buildings are important because, quite simply, they are (or were) taller than the rest – the identity of the city emerges through comparison. Some superlatives are more ludicrous than others: no record books are being rewritten to include the world’s first hydromagnetic-powered tornado in the world (in Yas Waterworld) or the most expensively ornamented Christmas tree (in Emirates Palace, the most expensive hotel in the world).
Yet, is the identity of a city so one-dimensional as to be reduced solely to her tourist attractions? In the framework of urban development where identity is conceived in relativistic and competitive terms, how does culture and tradition figure into the global perception – and identity – of a city or country? Going back to a household model: if I wanted to decorate my home over the holidays, I’d be lying (or overly competitive) if I said that I always acted with my peers in mind. The ornaments on the Christmas tree may create an identity for the household based on the superior allure – “have you seen the solid gold star on Martin’s tree?” – but then again, another family may place the same ornament atop the tree as it has for the past few decades purely out of reverence for the household tradition.
A government, perhaps, is no different: both Buenos Aires and Dubai attempted to position themselves on the global map through elaborate development strategies, and the identity of the city came to be associated with those attempts. Buenos Aires, as an example of a much older city, was once identified with the tallest building in South America but no longer holds that title, which suggests that urban identity is transient and, perhaps, even fragile. When the dust from a construction site settles and a taller building comes forth in another country, does the city lose its only identity?
If we look beyond the framework of the superlative mentality, then the answer is a reassuring no. Tourists continue to visit Buenos Aires, if not for the “tallest building” or a mélange of cultures then for the pulsating experience of tango lessons. The newer governments of Abu Dhabi and Dubai have, to their credit, recognized the importance of upholding cultural heritage: what results is a loving but sometimes fraught embrace between the superlative mentality and cultural tradition. No expense is spared, it seems, in creating large-scale theme parks or innumerable foreign chains but cultural norms remain paramount. Prada stores and prayer rooms stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the same stretch of mall space, and locals flit between the two. None of the burger chains in the city serve pork, but camel meat, the desperate (but life-saving) measure of Bedouins, “back in the day,” quite literally provides you a taste of local culture.
In many respects, cultural traditions are like the rolling sand dunes that surround these developing cities. In a country where foreign influences constantly vie for attention, where hotels jostle for space with labor camps, I have – like many new residents – struggled to reconcile myself to the opulent displays of wealth, and spent many an hour in the search for the identity of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But sometimes, all it takes is to remember that, like the sand-dunes, the culture is living and breathing around us, coming alive in little but noticeable ways. That a shawarma stall and a skyscraper – or a foreign boutique and a mosque – can coexist in the same space certainly counts for more than the height of the skyscraper, or the expense of importing the marble of the mosque. And so, whether Saudi Arabia builds a taller building than the Burj Khalifa or not, life in Dubai and Abu Dhabi will continue. The superlative mentality is incidental, and not instrumental, to identity.
[Photo credit: Cyrus R. K. Patell]
A SHORT STORY
“Take a passenger?”
“Yes, get in, quickly. They might strike again.”
Zaid Hussein climbed into the dusty front seat of the armored truck, beside a shabbily dressed middle-aged man at the wheel. Hardly had he settled himself when the truck stuttered forward once more, leaving behind clouds of sand in its wake.
“The name’s Jamail Sheikh. I saw you limping there on the road, and, from the uniform, you seem to be one of our militants. You brave men need all the support you can get.”
Hussein nodded gratefully at the man, clutching his bleeding right thigh. The excruciating pain of the wound suppressed his tongue. He shut his eyes, grasping rare seconds of respite …
It was in the dead of the night when the first American drones descended upon Iraq, forever shattering the tranquility of the country. Zaid Hussein, staying with his wife and two daughters in a village on the outskirts of Baghdad, was one of thousands ordered to join the militant regime. Going from an agriculturist to a militant – from a spade to a gun – Hussein couldn’t have been unhappier to leave his family and his village. But an order was an order, and Hussein was in no position to refuse.
Situations had changed, and Hussein futilely searched within himself for a ruthlessness that had never existed. It wasn’t the tough conditions of the militant camps that got to him; the battle with his own conscience was a far greater deterrent.
That very morning, a sudden airstrike had engulfed Baghdad. American planes threateningly circled the stormy skies, bringing with them the powerful missiles of a country thousands of miles away. No sooner had the first missile struck than Hussein began scourging the streets, sacrificing his own body to help his Iraqi countrymen. Screaming at the top of his voice, Hussein caught men and women by their arms and shepherded them toward indoor shelters where the airstrikes could not reach them. In the midst of this mayhem, one of the aircraft bullets had found its target. The pain was splitting, but Hussein struggled on, only resting after he had taken a child safely indoors. And then, just as suddenly as the airstrikes had begun, they subsided. The aftermath was heart-wrenching – disembodied limbs strewn haphazardly on the streets, bloodied mothers with their crying infants in their arms, families broken apart by the single push of a button ….
Families … Hussein jerked involuntarily in his seat. It was all down to the weight of that one word that Hussein had decided, then and there, to flee from Baghdad.
“Are you alright, friend? Is there anything I can do?” The scruffy, but worried tone of his companion brought him back to the present.
“Yes … Yes, I’m fine. Just take me outside Baghdad,” he said, wincing as the truck hit another bump on the road.
“Sure thing, I was heading outside myself. Where to? The camp in Baqubah?”
The question startled Hussein. His heart sank as he realized that as long as he was still wearing his familiar military uniform, he couldn’t escape to his village. He would have to continue behaving like a militant for now.
“Yes, you can drop me off in Baqubah. But, before that … I would love to meet my family, after such a lon — ”
“Say no more, I understand. Are you sure you won’t need anything for that wound? It looks painful.”
“It looks worse than it is. Really.”
To Hussein, the pain of the wound was incomparable to the pain of not knowing whether his family was safe or not. He craved to see his wife once more – his beautiful, supportive wife. She had been silently against his departure, but she knew that the country needed him. And then, there was his four-year old daughter. The idea of war was beyond her. To her, her Baba was going on a trip, and would return soon. At least, that was what Hussein had told her. He wished for it to become true as much as she did.
Hussein ran his left hand through his hair, while he clutched his thigh with his right hand.
“What are you doing, driving a truck in times as troubled as these?” he said, asking the question which had been playing on his mind since the beginning of the ride.
“Well … See those crates stashed at the back?” Jamail said, pointing towards the back of the truck.
“They contain AK 47s. I deliver them to camps throughout Iraq.”
Silence. Hussein was stunned to the hilt; here he was, fleeing from a militant camp, and he had hitched a ride with the very person who supplies weapons to these camps. Jamail would surely not settle for anything less than dropping him right inside the Baqubah camp.
“Why are you so taken aback?” Jamail asked, charily.
“No reason. It’s amusing to think that those harmless looking crates have AK 47s in them!”
Hussein swallowed nervously. Jamail looked at him, and then guffawed.
“Right you are, friend!”
Hussein, momentarily reassured, looked outside the window. They were fast approaching his village. Though he hated to admit it, Hussein was slowly coming to grips with the fact that the trapdoor of his escape had been forced shut on him. He couldn’t give Jamail the slip, and now it was too late for him to pretend to be someone else. Yet, Hussein infinitely preferred to meet his family this one time, than not at all. He couldn’t allow himself the comfort of thinking he would escape again; the terrible facet to being a militant was that Hussein had to prepare himself for each meeting as if it were his last.
“There, that’s my village!” said Hussein, pointing forward. He immediately looked for any tell-tale signs of any wrongdoings; he delighted in the fact that there were none. Smoke curled out from the chimneys of the households, men stood hunched in their fields, taking care of their crops, and children ran about in the streets.
The truck slowly skidded to a halt, in front of a house indicated by Hussein. He climbed out as fast as his wounded leg would allow him, and shouted out loudly to his wife and daughter.
The door opened slightly, and a face peeked out – a disbelieving, skeptical face, which quickly transformed into one resplendent with joy. The door was thrown open. Hussein’s wife and daughter came running out and threw their arms around his neck, weeping with ecstasy.
“My loved ones, don’t cry… We’re all safe, and that’s what matters. I’ve decided to give my life to protect Iraq, the people in Baghdad need my services more than any field would. Shhh, Tanya, don’t cry, Baba will be back soon, sooner than you know… no love, I can’t stay for long, my friend is waiting fo –” Hussein turned around.
But the truck was gone.
A small distance away from Hussein’s village, Jamail Sheikh smiled to himself. He worked for a living by transporting guns to militant camps, and he knew a militant when he saw one. Zaid Hussein could never be one.
Mohit Mandal is a first-year student at NYU Abu Dhabi. This story was awarded first place in the Oxford University Press Story Writing Competition, part of the 2012 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, held in last March in Dubai.
Next week: Award-winning poems from the festival by NYUAD students.