Shades Of Words

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The Legend of Tarzan


The Legend of Tarzan

I have fragmented memories of watching the 1999 Disney animated movie when I was too young to question the politics of the story. Based loosely on Edgar Burrough’s adventure series, any interpretation of the movie will be fraught with problems inherent to colonial literature – racism, imperialism, the savior complex etc. The Legend of Tarzan is a retelling of the tale that tries commendably to cater to modern sensibilities of the 21st century.

It’s firstly not an origins story. The audience is introduced to Tarzan, already living the life of an English lord. It’s been eight years since his discovery and return from Africa. We learn of his childhood in the wild through flashbacks. He is now John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke, married to the feisty Jane Porter, living a quiet retired life in his English manor. He is requested to accompany Captain George Williams (played by Samuel Jackson) on a diplomatic mission to Congo for a friendly visit to King Leopold’s territory. The covert purpose is to investigate a suspected slave trade encouraged by the government of King Leopold.

This is where history meets fiction – as a Captain George Williams did indeed go to Congo, discovered and reported on atrocities committed by the private militia on the Congolese people. In the movie, there is a larger plot afoot – King Leopold plans to mine the diamonds of Africa and couple it with underground slave trade to become the richest kingdom in all of Europe. This strategy is masterminded by Captain Léon Rom (played reliably and effortlessly by Christoph Waltz) who is driven by ambition and pure evil. To achieve this he needs to deliver Tarzan to Chief Mbonga, the tribal chief who owns the diamond regions.

Tarzan and Jane’s down-the-memory-lane trip turns sour pretty soon as their host village is attacked and Jane is kidnapped. The movie now follows the predictable path; Tarzan must rescue his Jane and save the people of Congo from Rom’s devious plans.  And so he does, swinging gorgeously from vine to vine, fighting apes and jumping across trees through the forests of Congo!

The very buff and good looking, Alexander Skarsgård plays an understated, brooding version of Tarzan, rightly so for someone who has spent more time in the wild then in the company of men.  Jane Porter is the only significant female character in the story and Margot Robbie plays her with aplomb. Jane’s character often mocks the traditional role. When the villainous Rum asks her to scream, she throws her head and retorts – “Like a damsel in distress!” She does do a commendable job of putting up a fight, but for the sake of convention and the box office, she is gloriously rescued by Tarzan.

The Legend of Tarzan tries hard to be politically correct – not an easy task given the original material. The choice of adding a black man as the partner to Tarzan’s journey is very deliberate, as is reference to slave trade, and the colonization of Africa. Somewhere buried in the script there are references to civil war and the cruel treatment of Indians. The movie addresses a lot of political hot topics with a brushstroke without delving into the details.

In the end, in spite of all its ambition, The Legend of Tarzan remains a silly adventure romp.




Before Bram Stoker made the love (or hate) for Vampires mainstream, a 100 page story by Sheridan Le Fanu written in 1872 laid the foundation for Dracula. Carmilla is a gripping gothic tale steeped in darkness, cold and death. It begins innocently enough and even then the sense of anticipation of something about to go wrong is palpable. The opening lines that describe the estate and its location set the tone for horrors that will unfold.

Nothing can be more picturesque or solitary. It stands on a slight eminence in a forest. The road, very old and narrow, passes in front of its drawbridge, never raised in my time, and its moat, stocked with perch, and sailed over by many swans, and floating on its surface white fleets of water lilies.Over all this the schloss shows its many-windowed front; its towers, and its Gothic chapel. The forest opens in an irregular and very picturesque glade before its gate, and at the right a steep Gothic bridge carries the road over a stream that winds in deep shadow through the wood.

As a reader you are just settling into this remote deceptively beautiful place, when the narrator and heroine, Laura experiences an extraordinarily chilly encounter of the other kind. From that moment onwards there is a never a dull moment in the book.

The central theme of the book is the relationship between Laura and their surprise visitor, a beautiful young girl named Carmilla and how she changes Laura’s life.  Laura, who leads an almost solitary existence with her father and governesses, is really excited to finally have a companion of her own age. The friendship is clearly homosexual, most definitely from Carmilla’s side. Laura, deprived of friends and besotted with Carmilla’s beauty, enjoys the affectionate gestures of her new friend but gets extremely comfortable with the wild expressions of passions. If there are any doubts to the nature of their relationship, lines like these will remove them.

Shy and strange was the look with which she [Carmilla] quickly hid her face in my neck and hair, with tumultuous sighs, that seemed almost to sob, and pressed in mine a hand that trembled. Her soft cheek was glowing against mine. “Darling, darling,” she murmured, “I live in you; and you would die for me, I love you so.”

During Carmilla’s stay, strange happenings happen in the village and Laura’s health begins to decline. Now, because we know beforehand that it’s a story about vampires, as readers we are not so puzzled by the strange events. As Laura describes her strange experiences, the plot gives itself away.

Certain vague and strange sensations visited me in my sleep. The prevailing one was of that pleasant, peculiar cold thrill which we feel in bathing, when we move against the current of a river… Sometimes there came a sensation as if a hand was drawn softly along my cheek and neck. Sometimes it was as if warm lips kissed me, and longer and longer and more lovingly as they reached my throat, but there the caress fixed itself. 

The rest of the story is basically the unraveling of the cause of Laura’s troubles and the truth about Carmilla and her past, which though predictable makes for quite horrific reading. It’s interesting to observe that beyond the supernatural elements and obvious gothic elements of the story (lonely castles, female victims, old family portraits, missing maternal influence) there is something to be said of the portrayal of women. So while Mr. Le Fanu takes the enterprise of writing the story in a female voice, he essentially sees the world from a male’s point of view. The female characters are either victims or devils, or as important as the furniture in the room. The saviors are all men, ofcourse. That brings me to the important point of why did Mr. Le Fanu chose to write a gothic tale about lesbian vampires, was he just giving in to the male fantasy of watching two women get it on?

Footnote: While reading Carmilla, I also found references to what would probably be the first inspiration for how ghosts are visually depicted in Korean movies. Read on and tell me if you don’t agree

The room was lighted by the candle that burnt there all through the night, and I saw a female figure standing at the foot of the bed, a little at the right side. It was in a dark loose dress, and its hair was down and covered its shoulders. A block of stone could not have been more still. There was not the slightest stir of respiration. As I stared at it, the figure appeared to have changed its place, and was now nearer the door; then, close to it, the door opened, and it passed out.

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I’ll be back before midnight

There are plays that are a social commentary on the past or the present, then there are plays that are witty and intelligent using their razor edged lines to make sharp cuts in your mind and then there are plays that are just for fun.

“I’ll be back before midnight” does not promise to be anything than your average edge of the seat thriller and it succeeds in that promise. A remote house, quirky neighbor, nervous wife, incest, paranoia – are all essential ingredients of this creepy story.  The soundtrack keeps the audience on their toes, and there are enough gasps and screams to keep everyone engaged. [We happened to attend a performance with an unusually high number of seniors and were constantly worried if the shocks too much for them!]

The plot in brief – Greg moves out to a remote country house so that his wife, recovering from a nervous breakdown can receive rest. The nature of her illness is not fully disclosed. The only company that she has is in the form of old farmer in the neighbouring property who though kind hearted excites her nervous imagination by telling her ghost stories. This party is soon joined by Greg’s sister Laura. Things start getting really spooky in and around the house at this point. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away but yes there are dead bodies and there are hauntings – enough to keep you engaged through the 2 hours of the play. So if this play is ever in town and you are just looking for a fun night out – do check it out.



Before I write this review, I must highlight that I am not qualified in any way to critique old classics. So some of my view might sound naive or immature or simply prejudiced.
Directed by Kamal Amrohi, “Mahal” is one of the first gothic horror movie to be made in Bollywood which would later inspire a series of “Haweli main bhatakti aatma” genre of movies. It also launched the careers of Lata Mangeshkar with her melodious and haunting rendition of “Aayega, Aayega”  and Madhubala  with her expressive face.
The review contains spoilers and if you really ever plan to watch the movie don’t read ahead.
Our hero, (Ashok Kumar) comes to stay in this Haveli by the river Yamuna all by himself. He soon learns of the tragedy that came to pass there – a young lady died in grief over her lover’s accidental death. He also learns that it is believed that the ghost of that girl still walks the old mansion waiting for her lover to come to her. Sure enough, our young hero chances to see this vision for himself. Against the advice of his friends, he tries to make contact with this ghost and finds himself falling in love with her. Frustrated with his behavior, his family marries him off  (what an idea, Sirji!) . Unfortunately, the marriage does not cure him of his depression and though he travels far to get away from his memories he is unsuccessful. His behavior drives his wife to commit suicide and as she dies she blames her husband for her death murder (you go girl!). What follows is a short and rather silly court case where all his revealed. Apparently the maid servant of the mansion, harboring dreams of being loved and being rich was pretending to be a ghost and walking around the premises in white/black clothes.
Now, dear readers, tell me – if one gets in one’s head to be pretend to be a ghost, to seduce a rich young man and then to convince hims to leave his wife and kill another person – is one not psychotic? How can that be passed of as great love? And then asking your great love to marry your best friend – isnt that superbly regressive? Also if you were just a ‘pretend’ ghost, then how can your voice actually haunt someone miles and miles away?
Those were my main logical issues with the movie – but then times have changed and for some twisted reason all of that made good sense at that time – which was why this movie was a blockbuster.
I felt that the movie was also a tad long and only some of the songs were good. BN Tagore’s art direction was brilliant – the Haveli, the costumes, the lights – everything was very classically gothic and I believe set the tone for design for movies like Madhumati, Karz.  Ashok Kumar was a really good actor – I haven’t seen that many old movies and I was quite impressed by the suaveness of this old school actor. The supporting cast was quite inadequate – a trend I have noticed in quite a few older movies – if the hero and heroine can act then it doesn’t matter if the other minor characters can’t emote. They just fill spaces on the screen. Madhubala was quite melodramatic in her role and her beauty did have that haunting quality that was required for this movie. However, her dialog delivery was very flat and that sleepy look in the eyes could barely pass as seductive. I think that is what was expected of actresses of that time – coz Vijayalakshmi who played the wife acted exactly in the same way.
So, the scariest moment in the movie – watch and find out -there are a few nice creepy scenes
And the funniest moment in the movie – The dance of seduction by two sisters ( I know, I know – so many wrong images pop up but watch this)
Verdict: Though it may seem silly in the 21st century, the movie is still much better than what we have out in the market today. Watch it.  However, “Madhumati” is still my favorite Indian horror movie.

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The Haunted Hotel

Though its been quite sometime since I  have blogged,  I have been doing a lot to  talk about. Maybe I will overcome my  laziness and tell you all about it ,  someday.
For now we will do a book review of the  very first book that I have read over a  mobile device , iphone4 !
Yes I bought a  new phone and its an  iPhone and am  luvn it!
I am using the Apple Reader iBooks to  chose and read from a huge amount of  free material they offer. Stanza is  another app based reader and I tried  Kindle too, but I think in terms of  readability iBooks tops.
Now on to the review. “The Haunted Hotel” is a sufficient gothic story with its fair amount of interesting characters, haunted rooms and scandalous love affairs.
Though I did not notice this when I read the book, but as I try to explain the plot, I realize that its quite complex.  As it is more of a mystery than a ghost story ( with a huge potential for making a real good movie) I wont divulge too much. Lets say there is a hush hush marriage, a scorned lover , rivalry between brothers, missing servants and phantom visions.
Wilkie Collins creates a fair amount of sympathy for almost each character in the book that it is hard to really dislike somone. In the first half of the book, there clearly emerges a murder . Our detective in this case is the scorned lover who is unwittingly pulled into the main stream. Though as a reader  you have already categorized your cast into evil and angelic – you are never too sure – as all characters display layers.
The the word is “haunted” in the title, there is not much of spooky stuff happening – chilling and gory maybe – but not haunting.
This is not an elaborate blog post , and nor is the book probably Wilkie Collins best works , but I only put it here because it is nice  a gothic story ideal for a rainy or cold evening
Sometime to think about from the book
“How much happier we should be ” she thought to herself sadly ” if we never grew up!”


Paranormal Activity

I did it again. Against my better judgement I let my friends convince me into watching a horror movie. I think I should just admit it that I love a good ghost story – just like anyone else. God knows, I do love reading them.

Its highly probable that you have already heard and maybe seen this movie. Released last year by Paramount Pictures, this extremely low budget movie has been one of the box office winners.

Belonging to the ‘Blair witch project’ of horror movie film-making, ‘Paranormal Activity’ is about the lives of a young suburban couple living in a haunted towhouse.

The film opens up with Micah expalaining to his live-in girlfriend , Katie, why he is lugging around a huge video camera. Katie and Micah have been experiencing some unnatural activity in the house and Micah says that if they capture their home and daily life on a video they might have definite proof about a supernatural presence. The whole movie is shot using that video camera and hence has a very home-video effect.

Katie mentions to a psychic who she has called home for consultations , that she has been haunted since she was eight and the weird things have been happening to her since she has moved into the house. The pshycic explains to her that she is probably being followed by a demonic presence and needs to get hold of an exorcist. He also advices them against antagonizing the spirt.

Katie and Micah are opposite sides of the spectrum – typical to any good ghost story.Micah is clearly a skeptic and believes that whatever is happening in the house can be controlled by them. He keeps trying to instigate the demon so that he can capture more ‘cool’ proof on the camera. Katie, on the other hand, wants to get away and let things be. Though she sincerely believes that getting a camera is only making the presence act out more , she is never able to convince Micah to get rid of it.

As a viewer, the most exciting part of the movies are the night recordings , when Micah and Katie are bed, and things begun to happen. And mind you,initially these are just subtle stuff, light noises- door creaking. Then these get bigger and scarier.

I was convincingly scared by this movie. The extremely natural acting, the in your face scariness, and the oh-so-real suburban apartment enhanced the whole effect of the movie.

I slept with my lights on :).