Books

A Jin Wong Appreciation Post

So I recently read the first two parts of the Legends of the Condor Heroes novel, which are considered the Chinese equivalent of Lord of the Rings. Written in Chinese by the writer Louis Cha under the pen-name Jin Wong in the 1950s, this cycle of four novels is wuxia perfection, mashing up historical figures and events with figures of myth and legend. The translations are by Anna Holmwood, a Swedish translator with impeccable credentials, an M Phil in Modern Chinese Studies and a BA in history from Oxford University. Even though she gets flak from OG fans for the anglicized translations, specifically her choice of names, the English versions capture the spirit of the milieu without teetering into footnote hell.

But indeed, you have to maintain a balance between provoking a reader’s interest and losing them completely due to incomprehensibility….the detail, the elements of Chinese medicine or historical references that are perfectly obvious to a Chinese reader. And yet, it is my opinion that an English reader doesn’t need to understand everything on the same level as his/her Chinese counterpart. I would rather that a translation inspires a reader to explore something further than sacrifices the energy and flow in order to make every detail plain.

https://caroltranslation.com/2018/04/03/greatest-women-in-translation-anna-holmwood/

Legend is being published as four parts, out of which two are already out early this year. It is the first of three volumes. The next book is Return of the Condor Heroes, where the two play a subordinate role to the next generation of heroes, followed by Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber, which goes one generation further. Holmwood and fellow translator Gigi Chang have been releasing one book every year, since 2018, and since every book has sub-volumes, we are looking at a decade more at least before the series is complete.

Legend of the Condor Heroes deals with the story of every-man hero Guo Jing and his fated duel with his brother-from-another-mother, Yang Kang, and the twists and turns of fate that lead various characters’ journeys to intersect. In the 13th century, where the story is set, friends become foes and vice versa; misunderstandings lead to decade-long rivalries; oaths of vengeance are sworn and kept; both justice and redemption go hand in hand. And through all this, there is the thread of otherworldly kung-fu disciplines that ties characters together. In Holmwood’s own words, from her introduction to the first book:

You are about to begin a journey that will span the lengths of the Chinese Empire and beyond, traverse centuries, witness dynasties rise and fall in brutal wars and deceitful invasions, brave men fight and die for their homeland and traitors exchange honor for personal gain. You will meet young men and women with remarkable kung fu skills, you will encounter gruff men who, despite appearances, always respect the code of honor that governs the martial arts world. You will be amazed by semi-celestial animals, magic medicinal concoctions and poison-tipped weapons. You will come face to face with princes who manipulate and mothers who are easily manipulated, men whose love is undying and women whose hearts never err.

Yes, in case you didn’t realize, I am besotted with the books, the immense cast of colorful characters, the heavily involved subplots, and the universal moral themes that the martial masters both embody and defend. I will freely admit to being enthralled by the multi-page action sequences, the magical ebb and flow of words on paper that bring to life one-on-one duels, both physical and supernatural. One such conflict, between two martial arts stalwarts that are evenly matched, is fought with musical instruments – a flute and a zither.

The iron zither was the call of monkeys and apes in a remote mountain range, the hoot of owls in a dark wood. The jade flute was songs under the spring sun, whispers in a maiden’s chamber. Fierce grief against the softly sensual. When one tune rose in pitch, the other descended. When one reached a crescendo, the other fell all but silent. Neither succeeded in dominating the other.

By the time I was on the second book, the momentum of the story overpowered the sheer volume of information being thrown at me. Here a character suddenly makes an appearance, and then turns out to be related to another from the middle of the first book. We meet another personage and realize that they have tangentially been connected to the proceedings for quite a while. And of course, it helps that every new character has a personality that crackles and pops on the page. A favorite is Hong Qigong, chief of the Beggars’ Sect, who refuses to take on disciples, but is coerced by the wily Lotus Huang into teaching Guo Jing the formidable Eighteen Dragon Subduing Palms technique. How does she do so? Why, by cooking a steady course of epicurean delicacies for the gourmand. And Miss Holmwood’s translation does more than justice to the proceedings.

The beggar’s chopsticks got straight to work on what Guo Jing thought looked like pan-fried beef strips. But Count Seven knew it was something much more complex than that, as new flavours and sensations unveiled themselves with every bite. One moment smooth, another moment crunchy – it was impossible to predict the next taste or texture. It was as if his tongue was sparring with a martial master. He examined the dish. Each strip was made up of five different layers! “I can taste shank of lamb, ear of piglet, veal kidney and . . .” The beggar closed his eyes as he savoured each mouthful. “I’ll bow to you if you can identify the others!” Lotus grinned. “Rabbit saddle . . . and . . . thigh of water deer!” “Amazing!” She clapped and cheered. Guo Jing could not believe how much effort she had put into each tiny strip. He was also full of admiration for Count Seven Hong for being able to distinguish the five ingredients. “Pork and lamb bring out one flavour, water deer and veal another,” Hong mused. “I can’t work out how many there are in this dish alone.” “Twenty-five, if we ignore the variations you get from layering the meats in different sequences.” Lotus smiled. “This dish is called Who Hears the Plum Blossom Fall While the Flute Plays? Five kinds of meat, the same as the number of petals on a plum blossom, and the strip is shaped like the dizi flute. It is meant to be a test of your palate, and your tongue affords you the title of Top Scholar.” Count Seven Hong moved on to the other bowl. “This broth is too precious to be devoured.” He scooped up a few cherries, tasted them and – ah! – gasped with delight. Refreshing lotus leaf, delicate bamboo shoot, honeyed cherry – their flavours are unmistakeable, Count Seven thought, as he helped himself to a few more cherries. He chewed with his eyes closed. What is the fruit stuffed with? It tastes meaty. Fowl. It has to be . . . “Partridge?” he said out loud. “No . . . spotted dove!”

Ah, Lotus Huang. Another character that

Of course, it is also the translation choices that fascinate me. Even the act of translating the characters’ names posed a challenge to Holmwood and Gigi Chang, her colleague.

For example, in the case of heroine Lotus Huang’s kung fu master father, his six disciples are named after feng, or “wind” in Chinese. In Chang’s version, they are called Hurricane Chen, Cyclone Mei, Tempest Qu, Zephyr Lu, Galeforce Wu and Doldrum Feng.

http://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201904/19/WS5cb91987a3104842260b70d3_1.html

How popular is this series? So popular that there has been adaptations left, right, and center since the books came out. So far, I know of 9 TV shows based on the first book alone, released at the rate of one every decade. I tried watching the 2008 version that’s on Prime Video, and was turned off in the first twenty minutes. Both the bad streaming quality and the dated quality of the show were to blame. However, at another, more wuxia-experienced friend’s suggestion, I gave the 2017 series a chance, and blasted through twenty six 40-minute episodes in the course of 48 hours. The budgetary constraints make themselves known, but the series is a remarkable adaptation, following (so far) nearly every subplot in the books.

When I got to episode 26, the quandary was whether I should keep going or wait for the next book in the series. Obviously the book series has a long way to go before it finishes. Two more books to complete the story of Guo Jing, Lotus Huang and their journey, with Book 3 due to release in September this year. Or so I thought, until it turned out A Snake Lies in Waiting has already been released in the UK, and it’s the US version that will be published later. A few clicks and I had it on my Kindle, and the next day was well-spent. I can’t wait to get back to see how the ocean-bound sequences play out onscreen.

As for the Lord of the Rings comparison, here’s my reaction: LOTR feels like a hearty meat stew compared to the song of spice and flavor that is Condor Heroes. Maybe it makes sense from an ur-text perspective, where both Tolkien and Jin Wong’s works inspired and influenced generations of writers who wanted to create their own fantasy worlds. But in terms of plot, characters, and moral complexity, there is no contest. Jin Wong wins hands down. Which may offend you Tolkien-fans in the audience, but you should probably go curse me in a made-up language. What Condor Heroes reminded me of, and made me go seek out were more non-European works. Indian fantasy and mythology, for example. Baahubali evoked a similar mood, borrowing heavily from Indian epics. As did Mahabharata spin-offs like Mayabazaar which I finally watched last weekend since Amazon Prime had a phenomenal sub-titled version. But that’s a rave for another day.

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AR Rahman, Music, Myself, Quizzing

The Rahman Quiz : Answers

The What: Hey, guess what! I am posting answers to a bunch of questions I asked seven years ago.

The What. The. Fuck: Yeah, I know. I have this bad habit of starting stuff and never finishing ’em. You know, like the rest of you fuckin’ slobs.

The Why: Because someone left a comment, and I am too nice to let comments pass by unanswered.

The Really, Why: I don’t know, man. Closure, I guess. Probably because the world is ending, one wants to wrap up unfinished business.

I thought about putting this up on Slideshare, but this was getting chatty and link-encrusted at the same time. So I figured there is no point in diverting traffic to a different site when I could just have fun in my own backyard.

Naveen is the Rahman regular on the flute/wind instruments. Who is the Rahman regular on the solo violin?

Answer

M Kalyan
Kalyan who had worked with A.R. Rahman’s father R.K. Sekar, was also part of ARR’s group right from his first film ‘Roja.’ “Rahman was a hard working boy. While working for other music directors, even during breaks, he would just stick to his keyboard and keep working on it. Highly matured even at that tender age, he was always a man of few words.”
https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/violinist-kalyanam-traces-his-musical-journey/article19464000.ece

Note: since going international, Rahman has used different violinists while touring, notably Ann Marie Calhoun, who he worked with during the making of Superheavy, with Mick Jagger, Damien Marley et al.

A very peculiar music sample is associated with Raghuvaran’s character in Kaadhalan (Humse Hai Muqabla). The theme music of which other Rahman film begins with the same sound?

Answer
This is the sample I am talking about (the video should begin at t=39s).

And the other theme music is this one.

Note: Jesus, what a shitty piece of trivia to know, remember, and inflict on the world.

Which are the only Rahman songs that have been lip-synched on screen by
– Amrish Puri
– Kailash Kher

Answer

Amrish Puri – Chal Kheva Re Kheva from Doli Saja Ke Rakhna

Kailash Kher – Al Maddath Maula from Mangal Pandey: The Rising.

Both of the above, by the way, are relentlessly terrible songs, rendered even more so by their pedestrian videos. We can fight about that opinion, if you want.

Name the first Rahman film dubbed into Hindi to not have lyrics by PK Mishra/Mehboob.

For additional points, name lyricist.

Answer

This one falls in the category of “It depends”.

The official answer would be Rajiv Menon’s Sapnay, with lyrics by Javed Akhtar. Akhtar would also write the lyrics to Shankar’s Jeans the very next year, and from then on there was no looking back, and PK Mishra completely fell by the wayside.

However, Akhtar had written lyrics for Priyadarshan’s Kabhi Na Kabhi way back in 1994, with the film ultimately releasing in 1997.

But oops, there was also the matter of The Gentleman, released in 1994 in Hindi. Directed by Mahesh Bhatt with music composed by Anu Malik, except that three of the chart-busting songs were basically overdubs on the original ARR numbers from Shankar’s Gentleman. The songs were ‘Roop Suhana Lagtaa Hai’, lyrics by Indeevar, ‘Aashiqui Mein’ and ‘Chika Pika Rika’, with lyrics by Rajan Khera.

The promotional poster for which Rahman album had the words – “Chinna Chinna Aasai, Grammy vaanga aasai”?

Answer

Mm yeah, trick question. It’s a Rahman “album”, not really a movie OST. This was Magnasound’s reissue of Shubha’s 1991 album “Set Me Free” in 1996, at the peak of Rahman-madness. Marketed as “AR Rahman’s first international album”, listening to it now is extreme cringe, with some redeeming moments. Ok, fine, I still feel ‘Zombie’, fine?

Before Sukhvindara Singh sang in Dil Se (1998) and became a Rahman Regular, he wrote the lyrics for song 1 and sang song 2, for two 1997 films. Name both songs and movies.

Answer
The lyrics were for the surprisingly rambunctious bhangra version of ‘Daud’, sung by Usha Uthup.

He sang for both the Tamil and Telugu versions of ‘Lucky Lucky’, from Ratchagan/Rakshakudu. Incidentally the film debut of Sushmita Sen. Yup, Sukhvindara Singh started his singing career with Rahman with a Tamil song.

The title of which song came from a Haj visit, where ARR heard a man selling water?

Answer
This is fairly easy if you know ARR apocrypha, or understand that May’i/Moy’i is Arabic for water. The song Mayya Mayya’ from Guru featured as a Turkish cabaret song, sung by Egyptian/Canadian singer Maryem Tollar.

Rahman has often spoken of the influence of Peter Gabriel’s Passion: The Last Temptation of Christ, and used the bassline of ‘Of These, Hope’ in Anbae Anbae (Jeans). In which Rahman OST would you hear a sample from Baba Maal’s ‘Call To Prayer’ from Passion: Sources, the companion album to Passion?

Answer
This is ‘Call to Prayer’ by Baaba Maal.

And this is the theme song from ‘One Two Ka Four’.

Also features Tuvan throat singing, African drums, and a Middle-eastern groove.

What is common to the soundtracks of Jeans, Bombay, Taal, Alaipayuthey and Thiruda Thiruda? Hmm, also Vande Mataram.

Answer
All of these soundtracks came in multiple versions, some with missing songs added in different releases, others with songs in CDs but not on the cassette.

The missing songs:

  • Jeans – ‘Poonagayil Thimuthi’ and ‘Jeans theme’
  • Bombay – ‘Malarodu Malarillai’ and ‘Idhu Innai Bhoomi’. Also, the second version of the album had Remo’s chanting included in the Tamil version of ‘Humma’.
  • Taal – ‘Kya Dekh Rahe Ho Tum’
  • Alaipayuthey – ‘Endendrum Punnagayi’ and ‘Mangalyam’ were not in the original albums, but added after the movie came out
  • Thiruda Thiruda – title track, ‘Aathukulla Ayira Meenu’
  • Vande Mataram – ‘Musafir’ and ‘Masoom’, released in the international version. ‘Musafir’ was essentially Otthagatha Kattikko (Roop Suhana Lagta Hai) remixed into English. Incidentally Rahman performed ‘Masoom’ at the Independence Day concert the night of 15th August 1997. Not seeing the song on the album made me the sole person to own a bootleg version of ‘Masoom’, which I had recorded on my walkman from my TV.

Name two (non-pop) male and female singers who have sung only one song for ARR.

Answer
Male: Kumar Sanu and Roopkumar Rathod. Bonus: Babul Supriyo and Nabarun Ghosh.

Nabarun Ghosh – Sun Le O Janam (Tu Hi Mera Dil)

Female: Parul Mishra, Sapna Mukherjee

This one is tough. Initially I thought Deena Chandradas qualified for ‘Zehreela Pyaar’ in Daud. However, he sang for the dubbed versions too, disqualifying him. Suresh Wadkar sang for Rangeela, imagine my surprise when I found out that he sang the Marathi version of the Roja title track.

Sowmya Raoh was a contender for the female singer – she sang for Godfather, but turns out she also sang a song in Guru. (‘Shaouk Hai’, which does not feature in the original release of the album, so that’s another addition to the list above). So was Sandhya JK, P Susheela’s daughter-in-law, who sang Poo Kodiyin in Iruvar, but also the Telugu version.

Danny Boyle recommended song Z for the end sequence of Slumdog Millionaire, but Rahman insisted on ‘Jai Ho’, wchich was originally composed for a situation in film X, where the director chose the song Y instead. ID X, Y and Z.

Answer
Z: ‘Aaj Ki Raat’, from DonThe Chase Begins Again

Aaj Ki Raat

X and Y – Yuvvraaj and ‘Shaano Shaano’.

Shanno Shanno

It’s ok to throw up in your mouth a little, after that last song.

In an interview, ARR complained that this song X used a sample that crashed his software a record number of times (vague memory says 21). The sample was reused by artist Y as the opening song Z of an album released 2 years later. Incidentally, ARR worked with Y’s lead guitarist around that time, so that might explain this. Once again, ID X, Y and Z.

Answer
Unfortunately this is one of those answers where you will have to take my word for it. This was from some Filmfare interview I read. ARR was moving away from hardware sequencers to software in 1997-98 and among the songs that he made for Daud, with Ramgopal Verma, this one kept crashing his software.

Sting’s Brand New Day album had a song called ‘A Thousand Years’ that used the same drum sample in the beginning. Sting guitarist Dominic Miller worked with Rahman on the Vande Mataram album.

What was the first authorized remix of a Rahman track?
Who remixed it?

(Authorized: appeared on the official album)

Answer
This was Yak Bondy’s remix of Chaiyya Chaiyya, called ‘Thaiyya Thaiyya’, that appeared on the Dil Se album, featuring lyrics by Tejpal Kaur. It’s still a fascinating version of the chart-buster, where Bondy uses key elements of ARR’s production to create a sparse, minimalist song where Sukhwinder’s voice holds sway. Incidentally, on the Telugu dub of Dil Se, the main song is called Thaiyya Thaiyya while the remix is called Chaiyya Chaiyya. Go figure.

During the opening credit sequence of Rangeela, we hear the sounds of a Bombay street as the cast and production names roll. What do you hear when Rahman’s name flashes on screen?

Answer
Muqabla Muqabla, lol. Don’t take my word for it, go check the opening credits.

Which AR Rahman OST saw its CD release on a German label known for manufacturing Varese Sarabande releases for non-US markets?

Answer

Easy: Which OST features Rahman and Himesh Reshammiya together?

Answer

So, Bappi Lahiri claimed that the Hindi song B was a rip-off of his song A. A however bears more than a passing similarity to a 1974 number C. Strangely, the definitive site on Indian Music copycats mention that a Tamil song by ARR, D was inspired by C.
Identify A, B, C, D.

Answer
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7JsIvYvsFA

By Rahman’s own admission (and a mention in one of his biographies), which album did he compose in the shortest period of time?
6 days, if I remember right.
And a damn fine album it is, too.

Answer
No citation again. Karuthamma, by Bharthiraja.

The name of which Rahman song translates to “The Chosen One”

Answer
So AR Rahman’s scores, in addition to rocking my adolescence with their music, have also led to an education in Islam-related factoids, especially with the man’s choice of song titles. Who would have thought that ‘Kun Faya Kun’ refers to the creation of all existence? Did anyone know that the word ‘Fanaa’ means ‘annihilation of the self’, before the song made an appearance in an ARR song?

So yeah, “the chosen one”? This song. Incidentally a track whose visuals can be interpreted as one of the greatest same-sex anthems ever made in Indian cinema.

“When we did (film) A, we had a song in the beginning and we used (song) B while shooting and editing. We went through HMV and asked for the rights to B and they quoted 1 crore rupees. We said “forget it”, composed a new piece C and it came out fine. Much later, they asked us permission to use (song) D. We quoted exactly the same figure.”
Who, talking about what?

Answer
Mani Ratnam is the “who”. As for the what….

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IdS5qckKg3w

Ok everyone, in case you liked what you saw, please like, comment, and subscr…no. *Seppuku intensifies*

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Books, Music

Reading At the End of the World: Daisy Jones & The Six

Midway through reading Daisy Jones & The Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s oral history of a fictional rock and roll band from the 70s, I feel this desperate urge to pause and listen to the Fleetwood Mac album Rumors. It was not a normal, hey-I-need-to-check-this-out feeling, it was somewhat akin to craving for a drink on a hot summer day, when you lick your lips and want that first swig of a cold beer to fill that ferocious vacuum in your head and belly all at the same time.

If you read the book, and get to the portion where the band’s seminal album ‘Aurora’ is being made, you may understand why. Of course, you also need to know something about Rumors, in order to make sense of the relationships unraveling on the page and how this very real album, to me, seemed like the only piece of musical history that could provide the musical resonance the book needed. I listened to the first few songs from Rumors, skipped to ‘Songbird’, a track that lacerates and heals my heart every time I have played it in the last twenty-odd years, and then carried on reading.

It is incredible how great the format of the book works for the subject. It is completely immersive, and visual in a way that most books try to be, but do not succeed. The picture that emerges from the juxtaposition of multiple people talking about the same sequence of events, with viewpoints switching in near-real time, makes it feel like I am reading a transcript of a documentary video. Reid captures the distinct voices of the characters in an incredible manner — no one is peripheral, and while the bulk of the focus is on the talented duo of Daisy Jones and Brian Dunne, it is the reactions of characters like Eddie and Camille that garnishes the story, shows you the debris the main characters leave behind, and enriches our experience. The experience, just so you know, is not just that of music, or love, or drug-fueled tours, it’s about the way the writer manages to capture the zeitgeist of the seventies, and a female perspective to rock and roll that I have not seen outside of Patti Smith’s autobiographies. The way the characters of Daisy, Karen, Simone, and Camilla are so different, and do not exist as cliches or tropes of the genre, is astonishing to say the least.

My favorite moment in the book comes when the author (not Jenkins Reid, but the fictional author of this fictional band) breaks character, with a short note explaining why, and the pages that come after not only signal the beginning of the end, but also gives you an idea of where things are about to go. Like turning the viewfinder of a lens that brings a blurry image into focus. It ends with a letter from a mother, and then all the lyrics of the songs in Aurora, one after the other, in the order of appearance in the album.

It is not surprising to learn that Amazon Studios is working on a TV adaptation of the book, and I have no doubt the production team has a tough time ahead of them. And it’s not just the music, it’s about adapting the iconography the book flaunts — be it Daisy’s drug-fueled vulnerability, or the way her voice changes on the fifth take of ‘Impossible Girl’, or the visual description of the album cover shoot of Aurora. It will be hard to match up to what’s in our heads when we read the book, and I am not holding my breath.

But what got me grinning like an idiot was reading the acknowledgements by the author (Jenkins Reid this time), and finding this dedication to her husband:

To Alex: It was hard to know where to acknowledge you because you have your hand in every aspect of this story. You came up with the idea with me, taught me about music theory, listened to Rumours with me, fought about Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie with me, gave up a job to be home more, became the primary parent, and read the book approximately nine million times. And most of all, you make it easy to write about devotion. When I write about love, I write about you. We’re ten years into this party and I’m still mad for you.

Turns out the entire framework of the book is based on the Lindsey Buckingham/Stevie Nicks dynamic!

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Music, Today I Learned

Sakhi Maro/Tu Mera Dil

I listen to a lot of music. This is known.

A byproduct of that is that for long periods of time, certain artistes take on more, or very little, prominence in my playlists, a function of recent release schedules, my soundscape mood (there are times when nu-retro reigns supreme on my headphones, for example, or ambient anime piano), and pure serendipity.

The third factor, that of serendipity is what leads to goosebumps, when a song that I haven’t heard in a long while suddenly emerges front and center. Today was one such day, when a tune from Susheela Raman’s Love Trap, an album that defined 2004-05 for me, materialized in my head, and of course, I had to play the album from beginning to end. I was going about my morning with a smile and a skip, as song after song came on, releasing dopamine hits and unlocking half-buried aural memories. Suddenly, it was ‘Sakhi Maro’ on the speakers. If you know the song, you know it melts you like butter on a warm slice of bread. But today, out of all the times I have heard ‘Sakhi Maro’, I realized that the opening bars of the song reminded me of something else. Another song.

But what did it remind me of? I paused the song for a bit and thought about what exactly brought about that stray memory? It was definitely not Susheela’s voice or the tune itself. When I played it again from the beginning, it hit me. The gentle, melodic strumming that is the bedrock of the track reminded me of a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan track from one of his collaborations with Michael Brook. There being two of those albums – Musst Musst and Night Song. A bit of quiet contemplation brought me to the exact track. It was the opening track to Night Song, called ‘My Heart, My Life’, with the exact same strumming that was part-guitar, part-harp.

Now I had always thought most sounds on the Brook albums were the Infinite Guitar, the musician’s own modification of the electric guitar. As it turned out, the sound on both the songs was a West African instrument called the Kora. It has 21 strings and has features of a lute and a harp. And once you hear a kora and realize how versatile it is, it’s hard to ever miss it. Tom Diakite plays the instrument on ‘Sakhi Maro’, Kaouding Cissoko from Senegal plays it on ‘My Heart, My Life’. On both the tracks, these guys steal the bulk of the thunder.

Here’s a minute long video that shows how the same instrument produces different kinds of sounds, demoed by musician Toumane Diabate.

And here’s an hour-long concert that’s a cello-kora duet featuring Ballake Sissoko and cellist Vincent Segal.

On an aside, the MTV Unplugged version of ‘Sakhi Maro’ has Sam Mills playing the guitar on the track, which added to my confusion. The track also features renowned percussionist and singer Kutle Khan on vocals and the khartal, making it arguably better than Susheela’s original interpretation.

I cannot but be awed by the things that I still do not know, and by the secrets these familiar friends from decades ago still manage to unravel.

(Also, this is the second time in a year that I have gone back to Susheela Raman on the blog. That must count for something!)

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Movies

An animated discussion

For the sake of my sanity, I avoid being emotionally invested in the Oscars every year, and use it primarily as a checklist of movies that escape my radar every year. Los Angeles also brings it with it an incredible selection of free screenings during Oscar season, most of which are accompanied by interviews with the director or the cast. Of specific note, these past few years, has been the Best Animated Films nominations. The award has, with the exception of last year, been won by a title backed by a powerful studio – usually the predictable, family-friendly crowd pleasers. But the nominations for the category prove to be fertile hunting ground for titles that I wouldn’t have noticed.

In 2016, for example, I saw The Red Turtle. It’s one of the few movies I bought digitally, at full price — and trust me, that’s a big deal for me. A Belgian production that was distributed internationally by Studio Ghibli, the film lost to Zootopia. I don’t think the winning title was all that bad, but placing a work as emotionally hard-hitting as Red Turtle on the same platform as that unsubtle, pun-ridden roller-coaster was a travesty.

Coco won in 2017, beating the visually spectacular Loving Vincent. To be honest, I love Coco, it was one of the few animated movies that made me bawl. It was also Pixar making a two-punch comeback, along with Inside Out, after years of mediocre offerings and half-hearted sequels. But the sheer visual chutzpah of Loving Vincent sets it apart. More than 100 artists painted individual frames in Vincent Van Gogh’s style to animate the story, 43000 paintings in all. The Aero in Santa Monica screened the film with the directors present for a Q&A afterwards, and the passion with they approached their project, which ended up taking 9 years to go from an animated short to a full-fledged feature film, gave me goosebumps.

(Also, looking at the previous award years, Wallace and Gromit beat out Howl’s Moving Castle? Big Hero 6 beat Song of the Sea? Fucking Rango got the nod over Chico and Rita and A Cat in Paris! Frozen beat The Wind Rises. If I was a little more delicate, I would be calling for smelling salts right now)

This year, I saw the passion project that will probably not win, but is a spectacular offering in the category — the French animated film I Lost My Body, with a story adapted from a novel called Happy Hand, by Guillaume Laurant (who wrote the original book on which Amelie was based). It is, on the surface, a surreal journey of a disembodied hand that tries to find its owner across the city, an epic adventure filmed at angles and perspectives one does not encounter in conventional animation. It is the story of Naoufel, a broken young man, and about how he comes to terms with loss, in more ways than one. The film talks about destiny and choice, of connections, to one’s past, to humanity. It also has, surprisingly, a romantic subplot, one that begins with ten minutes of conversation via an apartment security system. Tread carefully, though, because Jeremy Clapin has a tendency to unsettle.

I Lost My Body is that rare film that goes in completely unexpected directions, and as the non-linear narrative comes together, a spiral of flashbacks and foreshadowing that culminates in a fifteen minute climax, you will find yourself holding your breath until the screen fades to black. And then maybe you find your eyes wet, or that could just be me.

Oh, and turns out the mesmerizing soundtrack, with its haunting recorder melody backed with orchestral strings and repeating synth patterns, was composed by Dan Levy. Dan is the ‘D’ in the band The Dø , one of my favorite French outfits and one whose next album I’ve been waiting for 5 years. It was fascinating to hear Jeremy talk about how Dan refused to look at the visuals and ‘audition’ for the role of composer, when asked. He instead composed 20 minutes of music based on the brief story narration Jeremy gave him, to give an idea of the mood he was going for. That worked perfectly with Clapin’s sensibilities, and fit the narrative in a way that traditional scoring wouldn’t, imbuing the story with a pathos and a grandeur that is nothing short of extraordinary. Small wonder then that I have been listening to it on repeat the last two days.

The contenders this year, other than I Lost My Body, are Toy Story 4, How To Train Your Dragon: Some Vapid Sub-heading, Klaus, and Missing Link. I would dismiss Dragon and Missing Link outright. Toy Story 4 is running on Pixar goodwill fumes and may be the one to win. Klaus is the interesting one — it is also a Netflix exclusive, like Body, and has been winning awards in the same circuits as the latter. Both won at the Annies, with Body winning the best Indie Animated feature, while Klaus walked away with the overall best animated feature. But on the other hand, Body won the Nespresso Grand Prize at Cannes (the first animated film to ever win this). My gut feeling is that Klaus may win just because it’s the more family-friendly of the two, and that follows the historical trend. We’ll see in a week.

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