Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls

helen%20black%20and%20white Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls  

This  wonderful (though too short) half-hour 1973 documentary written by James Ivory is included by Merchant Ivory Productions along with the DVD of Bombay Talkie.

It opens with a mention of item girl, and dancer par excellence, Helen‘s 500-film milestone.    Over the next 30 minutes we hear  narrator Anthony Korner solemnly intone about the siginificance of dance numbers in Hindi films (“…vicarious luxury”,”…make do for love scenes”, “…puritanical censorship rules”) as we  witness the always upbeat Helen in a black bodysuit and tights doing her daily yoga routine and applying her green glitter maker-up for the typewriter dance number with Shashi Kapoor in Bombay Talkie.   She is asked about retiring and says that she has a boutique opening up soon in the Sheraton where she’d like to do “something nice and groovy”, but admits that “once you put make-up on, you can’t leave this line.”

But the real treat of film is Helen herself, in the many snippets from her many films, doing what she does best: dancing and vamping it up on screen, surrounded by such interesting elements as a caged  ”savage” in blackface and gold hoop earrings, Easter Island-like giant idols with lights blinking where their eyes would be, and Shashi Kapoor in canary yellow cuban-heeled boots hopping about on the keys of a giant typewriter.



Seen along Oak Tree Road

Edison/Iselin, New Jersey.    Proof of Indian citizenship or appropriate visa necessary upon arrival (almost).  

Had a very fun day yesterday playing at being housewives with my BFF, the coolest Parsi I know in Inwood, heck, in all of NYC, meandering in and out of shops  ($15 for a Shobhaa De novel!   Chee!), having a late lunch with the whole chaat place to ourselves, stocking up on many varieties of pickle and filmi mags, and getting disapproving looks from some aunties for a post-meal ciggie.

Seen along the way, a sign in an empty lot that said, simply, “Iselin”, with Devanagri script next to it:

Devanagri%20Iselin,%202 Seen along Oak Tree Road

and the serendipitous joining of R. K. Narayan and a chain of coffee-and-donut shops:

Malgudi%20donuts,%202 Seen along Oak Tree Road  

and then there was the latest edition to the Ganesh team at home:

 Seen along Oak Tree Road

Bombay holiday: Ganesh Chaturthi

  Bombay holiday: Ganesh Chaturthi

Rio has midnight of December 31  and people throwing flowers into the sea as an offering to Iemanja, Bombay has Ganesh Chaturthi to honor the son of Shiva and Parvati.

Thousands of miles from the festivities, here’s a sampling of some Ganeshas closer to home.

The many moods of Ganapati:

 Bombay holiday: Ganesh Chaturthi

Snippet from a wedding reception sweets package:

 Bombay holiday: Ganesh Chaturthi  

South Indian tapestry:

 Bombay holiday: Ganesh Chaturthi


 Bombay holiday: Ganesh Chaturthi

Droopy ears:

 Bombay holiday: Ganesh Chaturthi

Shades of silver and grey:

 Bombay holiday: Ganesh Chaturthi

Just chillin’:

 Bombay holiday: Ganesh Chaturthi

First one seen, entering or exiting:

 Bombay holiday: Ganesh Chaturthi

Book spine:

 Bombay holiday: Ganesh Chaturthi

On a leaf:

 Bombay holiday: Ganesh Chaturthi

With Francis and AB:

 Bombay holiday: Ganesh Chaturthi

Guarding the Hobson-Jobson:

 Bombay holiday: Ganesh Chaturthi

When not using a tusk for writing:

 Bombay holiday: Ganesh Chaturthi

Bombay Talkie

bombay%20talkie%20cover Bombay Talkie  

What a difference it is to watch this 1970 Merchant Ivory production after Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna.  

There are the vaguest of similarities: they both deal with marital infidelity, and  both  cities their stories are based in look lovely (Bombay in this case, New York in Kabhi Alvida).   But there the likeness  ends.

Bombay Talkie launches  with the coolest and most creative opening credits I’ve seen in a Merchant Ivory film:    a series of painted filmi posters that would make Jonathan Torgovnik plotz with joy, bearing the images and names of cast and crew.   What’s even neater is that we see the posters in motion  being carried by  people en route to where they will be displayed.   The first one, bearing Shashi Kapoor and the late Jennifer Kendall’s names as the lead actors, is borne across the street in front of Victoria Terminus.   (It occurs to me that this train station has appeared in more movies as an immediate placeholder for  Bombay, even moreso than the Gateway of India.)   Before the credits close, we’ve also seen the Taj Hotel at Gateway and the famous Bombay tetrapods in the water.

Jennifer Kendall is Lucia Lane, a British novelist in India to do research for a possible book, and she meets Vikram (Shashi Kapoor), the  handsome, popular Bollywood leading man,  as he is filming a dance sequence at a movie studio.   While he rehearses, she’s spoken to by the instantly smitten and impoverished writer Hari (Zia Mohyeddin).   As he describes – with contempt – the action they’re watching, the dapper, yellow-shirted and -socked Vikram cavorts on a giant typewriter with Helen (dazzling as always, here in a gold lamé swimsuit)  and a group of girls.   “We dance on the keys,” Lucia is told, “and the story typed is our fate.”

shashi%20on%20typewriter Bombay Talkie

Vikram is married to the very beautiful Mala (Aparna Sen), who is distressed because she can’t conceive.   She appears with him in one filmi picturization set in Venice of all places, a gorgeous referral back to Ivory’s first film, and foreshadowing of a later Merchant Ivory collaboration  based in Italy like A Room with a View.

aparna%20sen Bombay Talkie

Before long,  he and Lucia, who has a daughter in a boarding school in Geneva and who is rootless and needy, fall headlong into an affair, which they barely attempt to conceal.   They cavort around Bombay, sometimes accompanied by Hari, forming the third side of an odd triangle, as he looks on enviously at Lucia throwing herself at Vikram.   The relationship careers all over the place, leaving much  distruction in its path.

shashi%20kapoor%20jennifer%20kendall Bombay Talkie

Merchant Ivory have examined  the clumsy meeting between firangis and Indians in several films before, and since, Bombay Talkie.  

Here Lucia, like so many other visitors to India, admires the clothes (“I must get one of these,” she says as she strokes Hari’s green silk kurta) and brings with her set notions about the country.   At a dinner one night she remarks “I’d love to see Indian village life.   You must have colorful festivals; they do in Mexico.”   On another occasion, she expresses the frequently misguided notion of India as a holier-than-us Ground Zero, telling  Hari she needs to visit an ashram  because “Isn’t that what India’s for, to make people feel peaceful?   I need someone to guide me, some holy and wonderful person.”   (Are you rolling your eyes and gagging too?)

For being so gullible, Lucia ends up at an ashram with a pudgy ping-pong playing guru who mouths incredible babble about universal love and shows home movies – like a hunter back from safari – of the rich ladies-who-lunch who are his followers in Los Angeles (of course).

Lucia is an unsettled mess, and Vikram is a spoiled misogynist.   He tells  Mala about taking Lucia on a shoot: “It’s an intellectual relationship; you’re too stupid to understand.”   Later, he consoles the jealous Hari saying: “When I’m finished with her, you can have her.   She’s damn  good for her age.”  

It’s a mildly  uncomfortable film to watch, seeing so many  unlikeable and flawed people making such a mess of their own lives and the people around them, but it’s interesting to see Merchant Ivory’s portrayal of  this slice on Indian society at  the  end of the psychadelic, free love  1960s.   If you feel a somewhat disagreeable taste in your mouth  after watching it, the DVD also includes a 30-minute film called Helen: Queen of the Nautch Girls that serves as a lovely little palate cleanser.

See it or skip it?

See it, to  see a young and handsome Shashi Kapoor in a movie that examines his industry, and to see him in such a negative role, working with the woman who was his real life wife.

All I want for Ganesh Chaturthi is a GSASD*

bigCharlie All I want for Ganesh Chaturthi is a GSASD*  

* Generic South Asian Street Dog

You know the ones, they’re all over the roads and lanes, and even pop up in the background of films.  

They bear a slight resemblance to  the basenji, with a curl in the tail, almond-shaped eyes and the appearance of a constant smile.   Hopefully one day soon Chirodeep Chaudhuri will do a series on them.

Having unexpectedly fallen in love this spring with a scrawny,  underfed  kitten in Thailand and managed, without too much stress (or so it seems now), to DDLJ  her safely home, I’m dreaming of the day when I’ll be able to go back to Bombay and find a canine sibling for our little family.

In the meantime, NDTV has this story about Charlie of Bangalore.

Fresh air and sunlight are highly overrated

hindidirectservice%202 Fresh air and sunlight are highly overrated  

The weather is still warm and the leaves have not yet started to fall, but I feel a premature hibernation coming on.   (That, or a very full DVR!)

Just signed up for  Directv’s HindiDirect package, which includes Star One, Star Plus, Star News, NDTV, MTV Desi and DD.   (Not my girl  DesiDancer, but rather, Doordarshan).

On right now on NDTV, the parody Filter Coffee with Amma with special guest puppet SRK.