Friday, January 13, 2017

Bale Bale Magadivoy, directed by Maruthi Dasari

Bale Bale Magadivoy
India (Telugu), 2015
137 min, romantic comedy
Directed by Maruthi Dasari
Starring Nani and Lavanya Tripathi

Lucky is a young, good-hearted plant scientist with one major flaw: a mental disorder that makes him get distracted incredibly easily. This interferes with his life in various ways, and now it is interfering with his ability to find a girl and get married. When his father arranges for Lucky to meet the father of a prospective bride, Lucky gets distracted by a series of random events in full view of his prospective father-in-law – leading him to believe that Lucky is a terrible human being.

When Lucky accidentally runs into the girl, Nandana, he falls in love and tries to conceal his problem of forgetting everything. Many of his actions turn into (or are passed off as) incredible philanthropy, and Nandana falls in love with him partially because of his apparent goodness. But how long can he keep this up? Will he ever get the girl?


Lucky’s habit of forgetting things is treated as a disability throughout the film – and not just because he thinks he has to hide it. Throughout his life, his father has told him that he will never amount to anything, or be able to get married, because of his forgetfulness. And it does significantly impact his life - he has trouble carrying out the simplest tasks because he forgets about them halfway, and he has a lot of trouble with accidentally giving away his belongings – including his father’s car!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Jeevichirikkunnavarkku Vendiyulla Oppees (Requiem for the Living) by Johny Miranda, translated by Sajai Jose

Jeevichirikkunnavarkku Vendiyulla Oppees
Requiem for the Living 
Johny Miranda
Translated by Sajai Jose (Malayalam)
87 pages, ethnography, family drama

Thank you to Oxford University Press, India for providing a review copy of this book. This is part of the Oxford India Novellas series, which translates short works from Indian languages into English. 

An oppees is a prayer for the dead. This novella tells the story of a people who are eligible for an oppees in every way, while yet alive. - Author's Note

Josy (Osha) Pereira is the latest in a line of church sacristans in a village near Kochi, Kerala. His family belongs to the Parankis - a Christian group with mixed bloodlines due to centuries of Portuguese rule and trade in the area.

In a winding narrative, Osha tries to explain his life to the reader: his grandmother Mammanji's almost magical religious/traditional healing abilities; his father's desertion of the family in order to go on pilgrimage; his own hapless marriage and inability to connect with his wife; and, most importantly, his unique community and the religious and cultural values that it reveres.

Women and Men

As noted by J. Devika in her fantastic introduction, one of the central issues in Osha's story is the struggle between men and women in this community, and in Kerala as a whole. While Kerala is widely regarded as one of India's most developed and progressive states - with the highest rate of female literacy in the country and a higher percentage of women in the population than men - the actual story is much more complex. Keralite women do work outside of the home, and many have jobs that are considered "man's work" in the rest of India. Historically, several of the ruling groups have also been matrilineal, tracing their lineage through the female line and placing the elderly women in the family in a position of great power (but limited mobility).

Perhaps related to this history of female power and (limited) autonomy, Keralite society brims with an existential crisis of masculinity. This is reflected in many ways: restrictions on women's movement and strict gender separation in some public places and transportation; high rates of crimes against women; and a tendency toward machismo on the part of men, who feel that they must prove their manhood. This last aspect (expressed primarily through the need to be right at all times, even if demonstrably wrong) that has been particularly pronounced in my dealings with Keralites during the year I lived in a village near Kochi.

This novella does a great job of depicting these ideas and attitudes. Osha's life is dominated by powerful and influential women, and he does not know how to deal with this. He feels emasculated: why does he have to rely on his mother or grandmother, and why are his male relatives so ineffectual in comparison to them? Osha's existential angst, which he treats with alcohol and laziness, highlights this major problem in Keralite society.

Ethnographic Details

This novella is unique in that it is written by a member of the Paranki community from Kochi, a forgotten and marginalized group that does not fit into Kerala's highly stratified and purity-conscious society. As the translator notes in his introduction, much of the culture depicted in the novel is unfamiliar even for Malayalam readers: the "extremely local references" to Kochi Creole/Paranki culture and religion call for a detailed glossary of terms and rituals, provided at the end of the book. 

Osha also seems to be aware of how marginal his community is; he often stops to explain the significance of various rituals, terms, or clothing. This adds an additional flavor to the narrative: he is evidently addressing someone outside of his group, and wants to reveal something about his heritage and life. Luckily for the reader, this provides a detailed look at this fascinating religious, cultural, and ethnic minority, the history of which is further elucidated in J. Devika's introduction. 

While I did not like this story, per se, I do recommend this novella for the ethnographic information it provides about Keralite society and this particular community. If you are at all interested in cultural mixing, Indian Christians, or minority communities, I highly recommend this book. 

Further Reading: 

"Tribute to Cochin Creole Portuguese," an interview with Dr. Hugo Canelas Cardoso by K. Pradeep (The Hindu)
"What Led to the Decline of the Matrilineal Society in Kerala?" by Sheryl Sebastian (Feminism in India)

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Monday, January 2, 2017

Mini Review: "Egg" by Priya Sharma

Fantasy, horror
July/August 2016

This is the first of what I call "Mini Reviews:" short reviews of short stories by diverse authors that are (usually) available for free online. My New Year's Resolution is to post two of these Mini Reviews per month in 2017, in addition to the usual long post per week. Wish me luck! 

After failing for years, a woman will do anything to have a child. An old hag offers her the opportunity to do so – if she is willing to face the consequences. All of the consequences.

This story considers two interconnected issues. First, the significance of having a child of one’s own, especially for women. The narrator is willing to go to any length to have her own child, and will not even consider adoption. Is this because of the social pressure to have a child? Or because of some deep, internal yearning? Some combination of the two? The source of this desire is unclear, but it comes through strongly in this narrative.

And second, the difficulties of having a child with special needs. To care for her child, Chick, the narrator needs to do things she would never have considered. Just one example is that Chick will not breastfeed; instead, she will only eat worms that have been chewed up and placed in her mouth! Despite her disgust, the narrator puts the child’s needs before her own and does what is needed. However, this puts an immense strain on her, especially after Chick fails to grow and is unable to show any affection. Is all of this care worth it if she never receives anything in return?

You can read the story for free online here. I'd love to hear your thoughts below.

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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Year in Review: 2016

This year was bad. Really bad.

That's why I put off writing this post. Who really wants to revisit such a bad year?

But then I thought it would be a disservice to the really good books I read and movies I saw this year. So this is for you, the authors, directors, actors, and other artists who created these works.

In no particular order, these are the novels I enjoyed this year:


Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho (review forthcoming)


Rosewater by Tade Thompson (review forthcoming)


Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova

Hurma by Ali Al-Muqri, translated by T.M. Aplin

The diverse movies I enjoyed this year:

Adaminte Makan Abu, directed by Salim Ahmed (2011) (review forthcoming)

Neerja, directed by Ram Madhvani (2016)

Sardaarji, directed by Rohit Jugraj (2015)

Te3n, directed by Ribhu Dasgupta (2016) (review forthcoming)

As you can see, for lots of reasons I have been unable to review as much as I would have liked this year. Here's hoping for a somewhat more settled 2017. 

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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova

Labyrinth Lost
Zoraida Córdova
2016, I read digital review copy
336 pages, YA fantasy, LGBTQIA+

Many thanks to Sourcebooks Fire for providing a review copy of this book! 

Alejandra, or Alex, is a bruja, one of a long line of magical people. While her family is all-important, she’s hiding a secret from them: she does not want to be a bruja. When she tries to escape from her power and ends up sending her family into exile in an alternative realm, it’s up to her, her hired guide Nova, and her human best friend Rishi to save her family and the magical realm of Los Lagos.

Highlight the black sections to reveal spoilers.

Latinx Culture, Religion, and Magic

One of my favorite parts of this novel was the worldbuilding. Set in contemporary Brooklyn, the brujas are both very much a part of New York society and a secretive group that follows different laws. While they perform seances and healing sessions, they still have to pay the bills. The best example of this is Alex's mother, who has healing powers but also works in a gynecologist's office - as a secretary. This made me question why she never went into medicine herself; my guess is that her family did not have enough money to afford medical school. This indicates that the bruja community is very much subject to the same restrictions and racial/income discriminations that others experience, including Latinx communities.

Where do the brujas get their magic? It seems that it comes from two sources. First, their own families, living and dead. The importance of family - the full, extended, complicated and difficult family - is emphasized throughout this book. Despite fighting with her sisters (like everyone does), Alex is fiercely loyal and protective of them. Her decision to remove her own magic is a misguided attempt to protect her family from what she can do; when she accidentally banishes them to Los Lagos, she is wracked with intense guilt for what she sees as her betrayal of the ones she loves.

What Alex does not realize at first is that much of her power comes from her family - both from her long lineage and from the love that her family has for her. Setting aside the magical aspect for a moment, this is an incredibly powerful statement: your family's love for you can give you the strength to do things that you would never be able to do on your own.

On the other hand, in Nova we see the flip side of this importance of family among the brujas. Nova does not have a family, as such: he was abandoned and abused by his remaining relatives. This results in his inability to have a Deathday, and therefore his inability to contain and control his power - which is slowly killing him. Nova's abandonment is not his fault, but in this world - both among the brujas and in human society - he is punished for it.

The second source of bruja magic is their religion, a polytheistic and ancestor-worship belief system inspired by the veneration of saints in Latin American Roman Catholicism, Day of the Dead, and Santería. In addition to revering departed members of their family, brujas worship numerous deities named after natural elements - El Fuego, La Ola, etc. - who bless them with magical powers. The worship of these gods is complex, involving personal altars, offerings, prayers, and spells.

Cordova takes time to flesh out these religious practices: Alex compares her relatively unkempt altar with those kept by her family members, for example. The images and offerings on each person's altar indicate their values and powers. Since each deity grants a specific type of magical ability, each person generally prays to the deity associated with their power. The level of detail provided for these religious practices indicates just how intimately intertwined they are with the daily life of the brujas.

One other thing that I wanted to note is that bruja society is matriarchal: the women are the ones who are usually most powerful and who make most of the decisions. This is quite refreshing.

Positive bisexuality

Another thing that this book does really well is representing bisexuality in a positive way. From the very beginning of the novel, we are introduced to Alex’s as-yet-undiscovered feelings towards her human best friend Rishi. Then she also starts to fall for the hunky and mysterious Nova. Both of these relationships felt like equally valid possibilities.

Importantly, Alex's family is also supportive of queer relationships. This is first indicated by another lesbian relationship in her family (in an older generation), and then by the way her family acts when she finally chooses Rishi. Not only does this book provide an excellent example of bisexual attraction, but it shows a positive response from the main character's strong family unit.

I loved this book for its mythology, its characters, and its worldbuilding. If you haven't read it yet, go read it now.

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Friday, December 16, 2016

Two Webcomics: A Redtail's Dream and Anu-Anulan & Yir's Daughter

Today I'm going to do something a little different and review two webcomics that I recently finished. Both are complete stories that combine fantasy and mythology in a unique way, with gorgeous artwork.

A Redtail's Dream

Minna Sundberg
Finnish and English
Completed, 2011-2013
556 pages, fantasy, boy and his dog

When the residents of a village in rural Finland are accidentally sent into the Realm of Dreams (by the Puppy-fox Spirit, who is left in charge while his elders have a meeting), the loner Hannu and his friendly dog Ville must perform tasks to release their friends and neighbors. 

The story is broken into chapters. In each one, Hannu and Ville find themselves in a different part of the realm of dreams, where they must complete a random task to convince the main villager in that area to return home (and take the others with them). Each main villager is accompanied by an ancient animal spirit; Ville, to his delight and sometimes dismay, takes the same form as the animal spirit while they are there. Hence you have a dog that becomes everything from a squirrel to a moose to a seal. 

And did I mention that Ville can talk?

According to everything I have read, this tale draws heavily on Finnish mythology. Puppy-fox is a classic trickster character, Hannu and Ville's tasks feel like something from a folktale, and so on. However, I was unable to find a detailed breakdown of the mythological elements of this work online. Perhaps it is so close to the original tales that it isn't worth analyzing? I would love to read an in-depth article on the similarities and differences to the myths. 

Most importantly, the art of this webcomic is absolutely stunning. It is well worth reading just for the beauty of it. 

Further Reading: 

"Finnish Mythology" by Molly Kalafut
Read The Kalevala from Sacred Texts

Anu-Anulan & Yir's Daughter

Emily Carroll
Completed, 2011
3 pages, fantasy, LGBTQIA+

In this very short comic, the goddess Anu-Anulan requests a woman (Yir's daughter)'s bright, silvery hair. But after she receives it, she realizes something is missing. 

I am not sure if Anu-Anulan is based on any particular deity. Rather, Carroll uses mythlike storytelling to convey a very sweet tale. 

The artwork used for this story is relatively simple, but incredibly expressive. It's only three pages - go read it now! 

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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Queen, directed by Vikas Bahl

India (Hindi), 2013
146 min, comedy, self-exploration, travel
Directed by Vikas Bahl
Starring Kangana Ranaut

When Rani’s fiancée breaks up with her two days before their wedding, she decides to go on the honeymoon by herself. Her first time outside the country, and her first time really alone, gives her the opportunity to explore who she is and what she wants from life.

While in many ways this film draws upon problematic stereotypes of “life in the West,” it still provides a good example of a sheltered young woman steering her own life for the first time.


In Delhi, Rani lives a sheltered and protected life. Her younger brother acts as her chaperone, especially when she meets Vijay, her fiancée. It seems like her match with Vijay was only partially of her own accord: she wanted an arranged marriage, and this marriage seems to be half-arranged. I’m not sure she really considered any alternatives before making the decision, since she just took marriage as a matter of course.

When Vijay dumps her, she is devastated. She curls up in a ball and cries in her room for a whole day. But she emerges with a decision: she was really looking forward to going to Paris, and had even spent all of her life savings on the ticket – so she wants to go. At this point, she still gives her parents the veto decision, but her father realizes that she needs to do this for herself. Hesitantly, they drive her to the airport and send her on an adventure without them.

At first Rani is incredibly overwhelmed, lonely, and just wants to go home, but then she makes friends and begins to enjoy herself. As she does so, she realizes that she doesn’t need a man to have fun or to travel. She also realizes that some of the assumptions she was making about other people were wrong. For example, although she has been taught that all men are scary, she ends up befriending her three male roommates at a hostel in Amsterdam. Over the course of the film, as she continues to try new things, she becomes less afraid and more independent.

The Indian jerk boyfriend

This film directly addresses one of my pet peeves about Indian movies: the valorization of abusive (even stalker!) boyfriends. After Vijay dumps her suddenly, with no thought about her feelings, Rani accidentally sends him a picture. Seeing this selfie, Vijay suddenly realizes that he actually still loves her. He begins calling her repeatedly, and even goes to Paris and then Amsterdam to track her down.

At first, Rani doesn’t know what to do about this. She is angry, but society has taught her that she should forgive him. When he suddenly appears in Amsterdam, she is willing to talk to him privately - even after he tries to beat up one of her new friends in a fit of over-possessive stupidity! Finally, at the end of the film she realizes that his behavior is not acceptable and that he does not deserve her.

I was happy that Rani, unlike many Bollywood heroines, comes to the realization that stalking and over-possessive behavior is not romantic.

Buying into stereotypes of the West

My biggest problem with this film is the incredibly stereotypical depiction of the West. As usual, Rani’s character exploration is accompanied by large amounts of drinking, clubbing, and visiting red light areas (in Amsterdam, of course). Like other films of this genre, it seems like the only way Rani can loosen up is by literally wearing less clothes and drinking. Obviously, this isn’t all that happens in the West – but if you watch Indian movies you would be forgiven for thinking so.

Rani has two potential love interests in Amsterdam, one an Italian restaurant owner and the other one of her roommates. Of the three roommates, the one who catches her eye is the only white person; the others are a black Frenchman and a small Japanese man. The depiction of the Japanese character fits into the racist depiction of Asian men as cute but sexually unattractive; the Black character has barely any speaking lines. It is the hot, emotional, artistic, very white Russian who catches her eye. This reinforces the idea that the only foreigners worth dating or marrying are white people – an idea that is quite prevalent in Indian society.

Despite these rather significant problems, the powerful portrayal of Rani’s voyage of self-discovery makes this movie worth watching. I recommend it as an exploration of how being alone teaches you about who you really are.

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