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Sit, Watch, Enjoy: A Night at the Movies

Eat, Pray, Love
Image via Wikipedia

I first read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert during my own four-month stint in India. I was riveted by the story she told, but for some reason, some sections felt self-indulgent and disingenuous — I’m not sure why. This was not the case when I watched the film on Tuesday.

Like the book, Gilbert takes a tri-country trip to find herself, first to Italy, where she abstains from sex, while consuming an orgy of pasta and wine. Next, she prays in India at an ashram where she learns to clear her mind and guilty conscience about her life choices. Finally, in Bali, she learns to love, not just friends and family, but herself.

Before seeing the movie I was quite skeptical. I feared that the worst parts of the book would be the basis for the film, or, the director would turn Gilbert’s story into a romantic-comedy schmultz-fest. Thankfully, neither occurred. The pacing of the film, along with the casting, were fantastic. Each actor seemed perfect in his or her role.

I rarely see such raw emotional performances in mass market films. Billy Crudup as Stephen, trying to convince Gilbert that “she is his dream,” while she is trying to divorce him, was devastating. Yet, I thought James Franco as David, was a perfect foil to Stephen and his mundane relationship with Gilbert. Franco has the charm, passion and immaturity you can see was impossible for her to avoid, but there was something incomplete about him as well. And, from Julia Roberts’ performance, you knew something was incomplete about her too.

When she meets Richard Jenkins’ character, Richard from Texas, Gilbert is really struggling with finding god. But there’s a special relationship of support between the two characters that I found so evocative. Jenkins is very talented, evidenced by his dynamic dialogue with Roberts at a table outside and when he reveals why he’s at the ashram on the roof. His pain and past torture him — you can almost feel it in your gut.

Javier Bardem as Felipe is as magic as the cinematography in Bali. His lust for Roberts onscreen oozes from the screen like one of Wayan’s health concoctions, making the audience feel good and right with the notion of love. I was particularly touched by the scene with his son when Philipe cries when saying good bye and Gilbert gets choked up too.  To have that ability to love, so completely — Gilbert didn’t stand a chance.

Most notable about the film, and I don’t mean any disrespect to Gilbert as the author, was the genuineness of the journey portrayed by Julia Roberts. I’m not a Gilbert hater, nor am a jealous of her trip and success like some, but at times, in the book, she came across as selfish. Roberts’ acting seemed to combat that feeling I had from the book. I felt compassion and sympathy for her in the film, like so many others experiences when reading Eat, Pray, Love.

I know that sounds totally backwards to think Julia Roberts’ acting was more authentic than reading Gilbert’s words, but there was something amazing about her performance — an honesty that made me want her to overcome those emotional demons and find the inner peace she desperately wanted.

And, who could deny the emotional performances of those four men? I feel like this strong supporting cast really enriched the story and made for a better film. It was great to see actors who could hold their own with Roberts and to finally get the Eat, Pray, Love moment millions felt when they read the book a few years ago.

All in all, a great night at the movies.

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Legislation Opens to Women in India

Henna Wedding Decoration, Pune, India
Image by racoles via Flickr

The hands of government are opening and welcoming women into power with a bill that will likely pass allowing 1/3 of the legislation seats be designated for women.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the 186-1 vote to the Associate Press, a “historic step forward toward emancipation of Indian womanhood.” Given India’s history of oppression among women — from the systematic killing of female fetuses, the banishment of widows and the dowry system, the Prime Minister’s goal to improve the lives of women in India is not only bold, it’s much needed.

According to the Economist, “Women are missing in their millions — aborted, killed, neglected to death. In 1990 an Indian economist, Amartya Sen, put the number at 100m; the toll is higher now.” And, despite the awareness raised by news articles, human rights groups and documentaries like the ones featured in my post “A Women’s Work is Never Done,” change needs to come quickly.

With women working in legislation, it will happen.

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A Woman’s Work Is Never Done

An Analysis of Documentaries About Women in India

A look at how women’s work has changed to make a more modern India.

After 60 years of national independence and the election of the first woman president, Pratibha Patil, India is one of the world’s most rapidly developing nations.  With nearly half of its population below the poverty line, India’s diverse economy is built on the cultural effects of women’s roles.  Here are five documentary films illustrating the intersection of Indian culture and gender over the last decade.  See how women’s rights issues and cultural traditions collide to create a more modern India.

Miss India Georgia (1997)

Topic:  Cultural Pageant Contestants

Awards:  Athens International Film & Video Festival; New England Film & Video Festival

Summary: In America, first generation Indian mothers work hard to teach their daughters the balance between their Eastern past and Western future.  With pageantry as the backdrop, this film follows four contestants and their families as they prepare for a cultural pageant.  Watch the girls explore “being Indian enough” and being “like everyone else.”  Don’t miss the colorful teen angst and 90s fashion trends depicted in this film about beauty, gender roles, and cross-cultural family values. (Duration: 57 minutes)

Eye-Opening Extract: “You gotta always put in that cultural crap.”

Nalini By Day, Nancy By Night (2005)

Topic:  Off-Shore Outsourcing

Awards:  Black Maria Film & Video Festival

Summary: After receiving a call from a telemarketer who pronounced her last name correctly, Indian-American Sonali Gulati explores the boom of outsourcing in India.  In cities like New Delhi, calling centers are the most coveted positions for many middle-class urbanites who don’t mind answering to a pseudonym like Nancy Smith and practicing an “American” accent.  This film focuses on the economic benefits and contradictions between the U.S. and India with a sense of humor. (Duration: 27 minutes)

Eye-Opening Extract: 1 Telemarketing Position Creates 1-2 Additional Jobs

Born to Bondage (1999)

Topic:  Overview of Women’s Traditional Roles

Awards:  None

Summary: For centuries women have been treated as second-class citizens in India.  Treatment towards poor and “untouchable” women is even worse.  The dowry custom, child marriage, female infanticide, child slavery and prostitution, are common practices. This film investigates the detrimental effects of cruel gender customs, ineffective legislation and illiteracy. Find out why women’s rights are violated and how the economy and population are affected at the expense of women’s lives.  (Duration: 40 minutes)

Eye-Opening Extract: “In my next life I want to be born a boy.”

Science for Survival (1995)

Topic:  Women’s Progress and Influence in Modern India

Awards: None

Summary: As more women enter science, technology and medical fields, doctors like Vandana Shiva are dedicating their work to a more balanced and sustainable, “polyculture,” ecosystem for India by embracing biodiversity and seed varieties in farming.  They have also discovered the positive effects of blending modern and traditional medical practices.  This film is a well-organized and fact-filled piece about how women are improving the future of India. (Duration: 50 minutes)

Eye-Opening Extract: 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of silk is sold for 141 rupees ($3.55).

Born Into Brothels (2004)

Topic:  Children of Sex Workers

Awards:  Academy Award for Best Documentary; 12 Film Festival Awards

Summary:  This film is the Oscar-gold standard for films about India.  Provocative, yet, stunning shots of the red light district in Calcutta combine with a lovable cast of would-be photographers.  Fly as high as the kites they play with on rooftops or sink down to the reality of their lives in the brothel.  Either way, this film lets you walk in the dredges of Sonagachi, where the cluttered streets are framed in the kids’ camera lens as they momentarily set aside the physical and emotional abuse they experience daily. Become invested and involved in their escape from a life where their mother’s work hinders their way out. (Duration: 85 minutes)

Eye-Opening Extract: “Now I feel like taking pictures.”

The Fire Within

Fanning the Flames

Eight kings gather around a fire conjuring sacred hymns in hopes of bringing forth a divine child.  Complex beats thump in tune with their sharp steps.  Their faces focus on the flames as they squat down towards the fire with elegance, strength and poise praying to be blessed with an heir.  The heat of the moment fuels their devotion to this practice as an infant is born from the flames.

Ramya Ramnarayan, Image By NRI

“Do you get mad – like feel angry at the fire?” a girl asks from within the circle of kings.  “Yeah, I do feel like I look a little mad because of the way my hands are,” replies another student.  The dramatic tone fades away from the mythological.  The kings revert to their teenage girl personalities by giggling and chatting about the way their hand positioning and facial expressions alter the audience’s perception of their emotions on stage.  They discuss how a sharper flick of their hands affects the centuries old story they are portraying from Southern India.

“Are you ready yet?” asks their dance instructor, Ramya Ramnarayan as she restarts the music.

Eight young women dance together in a studio at the Nrithyanjali Institute of Dance, where they are portraying a story about a king and queen who long for a child and finally receive one from the gods.  Each student acts out each part of the story.  From the king who comforts his forlorn queen to the heroine who excels at archery, sword-fighting, and singing, their movements and facial expressions bring this ancient fable to life.  Ahead of the classroom, Ramya, the choreographer and artistic director of the dance institute, sits cross-legged on a woven rug, swathed in a royal blue with a red and orange shawl.  As she turns her head towards the stereo to adjust the volume, her gold earrings sway back and forth, ticking in time with the complex beats flooding the room.

The scene is a familiar one, a teacher posed elegantly in front of her students as she snaps her fingers, providing encouragement and pointers to the rhythm of classical music and dance postures.  But this is not ballet – it is Bharathanatyam, a centuries old dance form from Southern India.  And Ramya is a renowned performer in India and the United States who teaches this expression of music through dance to students as young as six years old.

For Ramya, dance became a part of her life when she was only four years old.  Living in Chennai, India with her mother, father and older brother, she was encouraged by her parents to pursue Bharathanatyam.  Her mother’s extensive knowledge of classical music inspired her love of the arts.  Ramya observed many disciplines of traditional Indian dance, but her mother also exposed her to dance troupes that visited from Russia and Europe.  When Ramya was five, she studied with the Russian Embassy Ballet for three years.  But by the time she was eleven, she was already performing full length Bharathanatyam concerts thanks to her eight years of hard work and dedication to the practice.

From 1975 to 1993 she received intense dance training from two well-respected and coveted gurus, S.K. Rajarathnam Pillai, and Dr. Padma Subramanyam.  And when she returns to India once or twice a year to perform, she continues her studies with her guru, Padmabhushan Kalanidhi Narayanan.  In addition to her dance training, Ramya is also well educated in Classical Carnatic Music and Sanskrit.

This deeper knowledge about music and classical language has enabled her to strictly adhere to the South Indian traditions while making the art forms relatable to contemporary audiences.  Ramya often chooses social themes she thinks people will connect with like love and the difficulties of war, “Even though some of the songs were written hundreds of years ago, the language doesn’t need to be constraining,” she said.  “The message gets across to the audience through the dancers’ expressions and emotions.  Music is universal.”

But being a choreographer is more than choosing themes.

There are two things Ramya seeks to accomplish with every performance: The piece must convey a message and provide exposure to something new.  “Everyone must feel inspired and take it to the next level,” said Ramya.  For example, right now she is preparing for her upcoming hour long performance on November 23 in the Thanksgiving Festival for the Newark Museum’s exhibition, India: Public Places, Private Spaces.  She is performing a piece about the fundamental element of Indian culture – the sacred relationship between student and teacher.  By sharing this aspect of Indian culture, she hopes to open doors to new interests whether they are in dance, music, language or scholarship.

“Choreography needs to come from inside you,” she said, “It has to be the spark.”

Ramya’s role as an instructor began in 1990 when she and her husband moved to New Jersey from India only a year before.  At Madras University in India she earned her bachelor’s degree in Accounting, but her love of performance, dance, music and story-telling led her to teaching Bharathanatyam in the States.  “I was totally scared because of the shock between the different cultural experiences,” she said with a laugh.  “But I was surrounded by people who wanted to help and support me.  Arts advocacy groups and universities were open and interested in giving exposure to Bharathanatyam.  I was nurtured so beautifully in this country by them, performing in many festivals right here in New Jersey.”

The Nrithyanjali Institute of Dance opened in 1990 and now has 6 instructors.  In addition to her own dancing, being a mother and wife, Ramya teaches 5-7 days a week for at least an hour a day.  She admits that the work can be both frustrating and rewarding.  Since most students begin at only six years old and spend five years learning basic techniques, the first three years function as a filter.  “If a student makes it through the first three years, they will continue to pursue it,” said Ramya.

Dancers begin at a young age to gain the strength and flexibility necessary for poses.  Unlike ballet, where students can perform in a recital six months after their first lesson, Bharathanatyam takes years, but many dancers perform well into their 70s because it’s not as hard on the body as ballet.  By the time students are 12 or 13 years old they can perform a two hour concert.  This is also when they begin their emotional education, which continues to enhance their performances as they mature into adults.  Like the lessons that build their knowledge of Bharathanatyam over the years, the relationship between teacher and students becomes stronger too.

Ramya welcomes her students into her spacious North Brunswick home she shares with her husband and two sons.  Inside the warm and orderly home, the walls are painted sea foam green and decorated with Indian carvings, paintings and family photos.  Shining wood floors reflect the light of a five-tiered shrine of small statues in the living room.

As students enter, they walk in and remove their shoes at the front door as if it was their own home.  “They’ve practically grown up with me.  I’m like a second mother to them,” says Ramya as one of her students closes the door.  They walk barefooted downstairs into the dance studio giving a wave to their instructor, “Hi Auntie,” they say.

Downstairs, the girls help each other tie their outfits properly as they chat about their day.  Their conversation moves to Bharathanatyam and rehearsal begins.  They discuss different movements with their teacher.  From the snapping sounds their feet make against the floor, to the angle of their elbows, Ramya talks them through the precise choreography of the ten minute king fable the students have been practicing for six months.

After the divine child has risen from the fire, she becomes a beautiful and talented woman.  The heroine’s ambitions to conquer to world abound in the girls’ simultaneous depiction of her.  They begin with sharp stances holding a bow and arrow, or sword-fighting, to the delicate poses of the heroine finding her true love.  Through every expression, Ramya is there to fuel their passion for the story keeping them in rhythm and in character.  At times she will tap small cymbals or sing along, drawing out the students’ emotional connection to the story.

When they finished, they looked peaceful and content.  Ramya casually quizzed them on the difference between specific hand movements, or Mudres, held during a performance.  Like the characters they portrayed, the students have matured and become a part of a rich cultural history by learning Bharathanatyam.  Led by their instructor’s passion for tradition, after nearly eight years of training, they all knew the answer to her question about Mudres.  Ramya’s fingers fan into position, “What is this?” she asks.

Her students reply in unison, “Fire.”

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The Rajasthani Adventure Ends

After being sick for 11 weeks and visiting six different doctors, Daniel and I have decided that I should come home.  I spent my last week and half in India resting, doing some last minute shopping and spending time with Daniel.  On my last day in India, Daniel took the day off to hang out with me before I had to leave.  Unfortunately he was not feeling well himself, so it was even more difficult to say good bye. 
I wish he could come back with me, but he has to stay for work until June 2.  We are both sad about it, but we’re trying to make the best of it by reminding each other that we get to spend the rest of our lives together and a month and a half is short by comparison.  I’m going to miss laughing with him about the things we see, hear or do here.  Each day India never fails to surprise us and it has been fun sharing those experiences.  I only wish my body had cooperated and I could have stayed longer to continue our adventure.

A Pushkar Named Bizarre

The next morning we drove to Pushkar.  Half way to our destination we stopped at a Jain Temple.  In India there are a few types of religions: Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and Jains.  All I know about Jains is that they do not eat anything that grows underneath the soil (no garlic, potatoes, etc.) and the women must be completely covered, including a scarf over their mouths, but Jain monks don’t wear any clothes.  At the Jain temple we didn’t see any Jains, yet I have seen some monks in Jaipur.  I was surprised to see full frontal nudity walking down the street in the middle of the day after dropping Holly off at the airport. 

The beauty of the Jain temple is etched in the pillars and walls of the large structure.  Intricate carvings cover the temple as a Cathedral in Italy is covered in paintings.  On the way to Pushkar we also saw many trees where bats hung like ripe fruit.  Dangling from their winged cocoons, the huge bats stood out against the green leaves of the trees like melons.  Once we arrived in Pushkar it was already getting dark.  We checked into our hotel and then went to the main bazaar and walked around at night.
Inside the main bazaar in Pushkar, it was as if we were in Alice’s Wonderland.  We may have even seen the Cheshire cat amidst the craziness there.  Shops full of typical tourist fare sparkled in the low light next to illegal shops with “cigarettes.”  We had heard Pushkar was a very spiritual place where people make pilgrimage to the only Brahma temple in India.  What we found was a drug paradise for foreigners who spend more time with a bong and opiates than prayer beads and shrines. 
Pushkar was dark, the streets were busy and narrow as motorbikes zoomed inches from our toes.  The bazaar was very dirty and to top it all off, the power kept turning off after a dust storm started when we were deep inside the market.  The streets and buildings funneled wind, dust, trash and motorcycles with no headlights … in the dark.  I found the whole thing quite comical.  I’ve come to accept India for what it is — something to appreciate despite your discomforts. 

To quote Leah, “At least it lived up to it’s name in the true sense of the word – bizarre.”

The next morning we went on a camel ride for an hour behind our hotel in the desert hills.  When we first saw our four camels, one was very loud.  I don’t know what you call a camel noise, but the guide said, he “was singing.”  Yeah, right, he sounded angry to me.  I kept thinking, “Please don’t let that be the one I have to ride,” but of course it was.  He was the smallest one, so they said I should ride him.  In the end, he just complained a little and only tried to scratch himself with a thorn bush once while I was riding him.  The scratches on my leg and foot were a small price to pay for such a cool experience.  
For an hour Leah and I rode the camels and looked at Pushkar from the hill.  I loved the soft thump of his strange feet on the ground and the shadow of myself and the camel against the sand.  Leah and I saw beautiful Kingfisher birds flying overhead and mouse holes below at the camel’s feet.  Daniel and his Dad took another route for two hours.  Apparently Daniel’s camel was in heat, so it foamed at the mouth, moaned and when they got down for a break the camel collapsed.  Daniel thought he had keeled over and died, but the camel was just desperate for his mate.  Daniel gave a pretty good rendition of the camel’s noises over breakfast when they returned.
Later that day we drove back to Jaipur.  On Saturday we spent some time with David and Leah before their flight.  We had so much fun with the Fletcher family, we were sad to see the final two go.