Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Yes, you did read that right

I was in Amritsar recently (on which more to come) and couldn't help but notice that the place was plastered with posters for a movie with a title which, for European visitors, was rather eyebrow-raising:

Um, what? Let's have a closer look:

Yep, that's right. The big Punjabi movie hit of this season glories in the name Hero Hitler in Love.

Naturally I had to investigate this, so after taking the above snaps I got online to check the film out. Apparently, in the movie, "Hitler is a man with unique and different thoughts who loves his fellow villagers and helps them unite their soul mates."

So just to clarify, then, we're not talking about the most notorious psychotic mass-murdering dictator of the twentieth century. We're talking about a sweet, admirable and quirky Punjabi villager.

Called Hitler.

Anyway, apparently Hitler falls in love (the title kind of gives it away) and, although he believes in solving problems by talking about them, something happens that makes him decide to "become real Adolf Hitler".

Now, I haven't seen the movie, so I don't know if it features a Punjabi villager invading half of Europe and slaughtering millions of Jews, disabled people, gypsies and homosexuals (all in the name of love, of course). One can only presume not, which begs the question of what "becoming real Adolf Hitler" involves for Punjabi audiences.

Oh, and apparently Hitler is also an entrant in the Asian Car Racing competition. You read it here first.

I'm trying to imagine an equivalent film being released in the UK, called, oh I don't know, Pol Pot Gets His Groove Back, without uproar. I find it difficult.

I'm reminded of an incident when I was in Korea, when a Nazi-themed bar opened in Seoul, complete with swastikas and imperial German eagles, with staff all (in)appropriately dressed as SS officers and storm troopers. The resident expat community was horrified, but many Koreans simply couldn't understand what the fuss was about. It was just a fun bar with a historical theme. The idea that events that occurred in Europe sixty years ago could still resonate enough to cause deep offence came as a surprise to many, not least the bar's owners who thought they'd hit on a great marketing ploy. (Of course, this neutralisation of history would never apply to, say, the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula, which ended in 1945).

In the West, we are educated about Hitler and the Holocaust from a young age. He is more than a historical hate figure: he is someone whose crimes have been personalised for all of us from the first time we read about Anne Frank. He is, of course, not immune to being the object of humour. But while we may laugh at him and about him, he is rarely trivialised. We can't let ourselves forget the magnitude of his evil.

So it's unsurprising that, for me, the movie and its complacent plot description stick in the gullet. But then, of course, it's not Indian history. Hitler's name might be universally associated with evil, but the strength of that association varies a lot depending on where you are. And political correctness is probably less well established in the movie industry of Punjab than in the BBC studios or in Hollywood.

Ignorance is as ignorance does, of course. Few Brits know about the history of India, including that bit of it where we played an inglorious role. So it's hard to get very upset about a lack of sensitivity on the part of Indian film makers (or, for that matter, Korean bar owners) towards Europeans' historical hang-ups. But the Punjabis' lovestruck, heroic Hitler is another example of how, globalisation or no, the world according to Indians and Europeans looks very, very different.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Busy, busy bee

My appalling neglect of my blog recently has, you will be happy to know, actually quite a decent excuse behind it: I have been busy developing a social life. Of course, me being me, I don't do this the easy way (find a friend of a friend, meet up for a coffee) - I do it the way that effectively involves taking on a second, pretty demanding, job for two weeks. I've just finished being stage manager for most of Delhi's Short & Sweet festival, a celebration of short theatre (10 minute plays) that had a week's run at the Epicentre in Gurgaon and a week at the India Habitat Centre.

Theatre types are much the same everywhere: expansive, fun, creative, at times highly exasperating, but always stimulating and never forgettable. I've been involved in theatre one way or another since university, but particularly since 2005 when I moved to Holland having already manged to land myself a plum role as "Villager Number One" in the local panto. Since then I've been to (and dropped out of) drama school, appeared in any number of plays of varying intellectual pedigree, and when not on stage have made myself variously useful as director, props manager, front of house manager and general dogsbody (basically, anything that doesn't require me to know how to make any machinery do clever things, which is not my bag).

So it was a bit disappointing on moving to Delhi to learn that this is not a theatrical city. Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai - all are known  for their thriving performing arts scenes. But Delhi, I was told, was a city of bureaucrats and shopkeepers: a city where audiences chat on their mobile phones during performances and a curtain call is a decision you make when redecorating the living room. After my failed attempt to find a theatrical performance shortly after moving here I had almost given up on getting the chance to indulge my thespian side. So it was very exciting for me to spot a poster for the festival, asking for scripts, actors and directors to step forward. I may have got a little carried away, because next thing I knew I was volunteering not only to direct the script I entered, but to manage things backstage too.

Stage managing is exhausting. Particularly when you are coordinating not just one cast, but eleven in a single evening. With eleven different sets to be organised, and changeovers between the shows to be achieved in 30 seconds or less (which, apart from the first night, I think we pretty much hit). The stage management team was at every tech, faithfully marking the stage to ensure we placed all the sets correctly on performance night, and only moaning a little bit when we got to the theatre the following night to find the cleaners had helpfully removed all the little bits of tape. And while the actors only had ten minutes of performance to worry about, we were on for the entire night, shuffling furniture around and occasionally hissing at an over-excited actor in the wings to shut up.

Not that I'm complaining. As is generally the case when doing theatre, I met some really amazing people and got a huge buzz from being part of a collective creative endeavour. It's so good to be back doing something I love and to have met people who want to follow up with more projects (though I'm hoping the next one is a bit less all-consuming of my spare time).

And I got to direct too, which I have to admit was probably biting off, if not more than I could chew, then at least more than was easily digestible. But working with talented actors on my own script was just immensely rewarding (though the script itself may have been a little off-the-wall for Indian tastes - which I've noted for next year's effort).

Here are two of my brilliant cast, Vidushi and Akshay, mid-performance. I'm particularly proud that I managed to put two very attractive people on stage in utterly revolting clothes (integral, you understand, to the plot). Friends from uni may possibly recognise Akshay's tank top, which I have kept hold of since the 70s party in freshers' week in the firm conviction that one day I would be able to use it in a play. Vindicated!

So how does theatre in Delhi compare to London? Well, I have to admit I quickly realised how spoiled I have been by London's sheer variety of venues, technical capacity, and diverse theatrical scene. Our venues were conference centres rather than "proper" theatres, and while India has a wealth of performing arts to offer, Delhi theatre lacks the richness and variety of a multicultural place like London (though the festival itself was extremely diverse, ranging from minimalistic, dialogue-driven dramas to expressive pieces making more use of music and movement than words). But in terms of the dedication and the passion for theatre shown by those who worked to put on the show, Delhi is right up there. And there's something special about putting on theatre in a city where it's still something of a rarity. It was a privilege to be involved. Here's to the next one.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Is it just me, or is this just...scary?

If you're lucky enough to have visited the Indian state of Kerala, you will know that it's not a hard place to promote as a tourist destination. It's famously gorgeous, has a beautifully laid back feel, truly fantastic food, and a local culture that's both interesting and open. It's also one of the wealthiest states in the country with some of the best developed infrastructure, making travel there a stress-free experience compared to some of the more chaotic parts of India.

What I remember best about Kerala is the colours. Much of North India is rather arid, and the cities (Delhi included, though I've commented before about the richness of colour to be found here) tend to feature rather a lot of grey-brown concrete. In Kerala, the fabrics worn by locals are as dazzling as elsewhere in India, but they shimmer against a backdrop of blue skies, lush green palm trees and rice paddies, sparkling seas, long expanses of sand and brightly painted boats. I haven't made it to the famed Kerala backwaters yet, but from what I've seen they continue the theme.

All of which makes Kerala Tourism's latest promotional campaign seem rather bizarre. Ignoring its natural bounty of beauty and colour, the authorities have invested in a series of frankly weird images that, while they capture the imagination, don't exactly make me desperate to go to Kerala. Here's an example, which appeared in this week's Economist:

Now, I think I understand the logic behind this. Kerala doesn't want to be just another "sun, sea and saris" destination; it doesn't want to be another Goa (which has every reason to view tourism as a mixed blessing). And clearly they were going for an ad campaign that was more than just another snapshot of a couple of palm trees on a beach, and which reflected something of the state's cultural offerings. Something eye-catching and different.

OK, mission accomplished. Except that the result is plain scary, and the muted colour scheme - bordering on the depressing - doesn't seem to me to reflect vibrant, uplifting Kerala. It looks like one of the darker panels from the Sandman series (which I've just finished re-reading and which hasn't got any less amazing). I mean, "your moment is waiting"? What moment? The moment when that terrifying white-faced guy with  no eyes drags me off to unspeakable horrors? Because that's what he's going to be doing tonight in my dreams. I understand they want to show another side to the place, to give it more depth - but couldn't they have done it without giving everyone the willies?

So what do you think? Does this make you want to visit Kerala? Or run away from the scary man with no eyes?

(Just to show you what I mean, here are a couple of photos I took in Kerala in January - I didn't have a whole lot of time so they are not that good, but they give you an idea...)

Monday, 7 November 2011

Varanasi: beauty and brutality

A little over a week ago I made a weekend trip with friends to Varanasi, in the eastern part of the state of Uttar Pradesh. It's taken me this long to be ready to write about the experience, because Varanasi is one of the most intense travel experiences you can have. A regular stop on the Indian backpacking trail, this is the India I had mentally prepared for before I first came, and about whose whereabouts I've been vaguely wondering ever since. By turns staggeringly gorgeous and utterly filthy, joyously celebrational and ruthlessly predatory, Varanasi can elevate your soul and depress your spirits several times over before you've even had time to have your breakfast.

It's one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and is generally thought to be the oldest in India. And it feels ancient. Along the Ganges the buildings are piled on top of each other like discarded building bricks. Men and women crouch in the shallows of the river to wash clothes, and the stretched-out saris drying in the sun turn the banks into a giant, multi-coloured chessboard. At dawn and dusk, local brahmins carry out the ritual of paying homages to the Ganges, watched by an enormous crowd of excited tourists, hushed locals and an array of hawkers, beggars and others on the make. And all day long the funeral pyres at the "burning ghats" flicker and smoke, and a continuous procession of mourners accompany their loved ones on their last visit to the river. In many ways, it seems like life here is much as it was hundreds or thousands of years ago - a least, until you venture away from the ghats and alleyways of the old town and find yourself firmly back in honking, chaotic, in-your-face modern India.

And let's be honest: if Delhi can be grubby in places, Varanasi is downright filthy. A walk along the Ganges (at least in the current post-monsoon season) involves a series of athletic leaps over massive piles of pungent mud, punctuated at intervals by patient locals diligently slooshing the grime away with hosepipes. Metres from where children happily splash about and pilgrims come to bathe in the Ganges, a line of men squats, their buttocks exposed to the passing boats, blithely defecating into India's holiest river. And every now and then the corpse of someone whose family could not afford the burning ghat - or who had no family to pay for it at all - bobs up next to a jetty or boat, ignored and forgotten. Varanasi is not for the faint hearted.

Nor is it for the delicate. There is a hard edge here, in one of India's poorest and most crime-affected states, that you would be foolish to ignore. One of my travelling companions was hassled by local thugs who claimed that she was required to pay money to watch a funeral procession (which is nonsense). We were all harangued by the local kids and beggars (though not as badly as I had been expecting, to be honest) and by any number of men desperate to take us on a boat trip. Of course most people I interacted with were as friendly as everywhere else I've been in India, but still I felt a certain underlying unease. For the first time in India I found myself consciously worrying about how easily straying hands might find my wallet.

And yet for all of this Varanasi is an oddly tranquil place. Floating down the Ganges at dawn, watching the sky turn pink in the empty East as the tumble down buildings of the city take shape and the day's work begins at the water's edge, the craziness seems far away and the stresses of life seem to vanish. Watching the hubbub on the shore feels like looking at a far off picture of a simpler world. Docking for a while to watch the evening puja at the water's edge is like touching something older and more profound than anything in the cathedrals of the West. Without really understanding why, you feel that there is such depth in this city.

And it's that depth that made it such a fascinating place to visit. Varanasi is far from paradise, but in its beauty and brutality, its spirituality and depravity, it's a place that houses all the extremes of human existence at once. It's all of life in one city, and it stops you in your tracks. It's like nowhere else I've ever been.

I've put quite a few photos on facebook for those of you who are friends with me on there - but here's a selection for those of you who aren't.