Wednesday, November 12, 2008

India's Unknown Birth Control Pioneer

Margaret Sanger, an American birth control pioneer, founded her first clinic in 1916 at Brooklyn New York. A few days later, she was arrested on obscenity charges and sentenced to 30 days in jail. A determined woman, she kept challenging the reigning orthodoxy, and ultimately succeeded in bringing sexual and reproductive freedoms to women worldwide. Time magazine included her in the list of 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

Marie Stopes, a British birth control pioneer, founded her first clinic in 1921 at London. Although she was never arrested, a number of doctors and priests attacked her. Eventually her ideas and work gained acceptance, and today "Marie Stopes International" a women's reproductive health organization is active in several countries.

Raghunath Karve, an Indian birth control pioneer, founded his first clinic in 1921 at Bombay. He was arrested and convicted twice on obscenity charges, and had to pay fines. Despite waging a lifelong passionate fight for gender equality and women's sexual & reproductive rights, he was relegated to the backwaters of history. In 1953, he died a lonely and unsung man.

Dhyaas Parva (An Era of Yearning) is director Amol Palekar's award winning Marathi movie, a biographical account of the life of Raghunath Karve. Filmed in a restrained almost documentary style, this non-sermonizing movie keeps the intellectually curious viewer rooted to their seat. Shunning traditional devices like songs and melodrama, a rationalist treatment makes this a refreshing experience.

Malati Karve, Raghunath's wife, whole-heartedly supports him in his endeavors. At times she shoulders much of the couple's financial responsibilities, after having chosen to work in the career of her choice. One of the most powerful scenes is when Raghunath tells Malati that she is under no obligation to bear children. Since she does not feel like being a mother, they remain childless. Naturally this does not go down well in pre-independence India; a Doctor mis-diagnosing her illness(Pernicious Anemia) claims that her troubles are due to not being a mother in over 15 years of marriage.

Other effective episodes from the movie

*** Several snide comments passed by the Karve's neighbors. Viewers well versed in Marathi culture, especially that of Pune and Girgaum Mumbai, will truly appreciate these.

*** Raghunath's speech to a gathering of Pune intellectuals and the negative response it generates. Palekar takes a delicious tongue-in-cheek swipe at a few of the opponents, bringing memories of Ghashiram Kotwal.

*** Some progressive editors refusing to publish Karve's progressive magazine, one of those editors calling his ideas "provocative".

*** The reason for being charged with obscenity; his editorial asserting that "Current attitudes to female fidelity and virginity emanate from a woman being viewed as a man's property."

*** Several scenes hinting at some of the reasons for his failure :- a refusal to compromise, being extremely critical of those in power, unable to build and maintain relationships.

Employing an underplaying style reminiscent of Arun Sarnaik and Shriram Lagoo from Sinhasan, Kishore Kadam delivers an outstanding performance as Raghunath Karve. Without resorting to any histrionics, he intelligently conveys the pain of constantly being rejected and ignored. He is equally at ease displaying unflagging determination, but the real genius is the unsentimental portrayal in analyzing Karve's own failures.

Seema Biswas, as Malati Karve, delivers a reserved and gentle performance; quite unlike her Bandit Queen effort. The other supporting actors have turned in competent efforts, with Sanjay Mone as Dr. Ambedkar being the standout.

Amol Palekar himself a committed social progressive, atheist, and gender equality champion; possibly had an interesting dilemma as to how to create this movie. He could have chosen to loudly trumpet Raghunath Karve's ideas and raved and ranted against those that opposed him, he did neither. The intentional focus on the reasons as to why Raghunath Karve did not succeed in becoming famous is Palekar's stroke of genius. Additionally, he managed to get Bhanu Athaiyya (India's only Oscar winner) for costume design and Nitin Desai (Devdas, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam) for art direction to work for a pittance. Their joint efforts have resulted in creating a a realistic period feel that compliments the movie's central theme.

A) Free India was the world's first Govt. to institute a birth control program. It began in the 1950's on a small scale; and in response to the burgeoning population, by the late 60's/early 70's had grown into a much bigger country-wide effort.
B) India's population crossed the one billion mark in the early 2000's, and by 2020-25 is projected to reach anywhere between 1.3 - 1.5 billion. In the second half of this century, India is projected to be the most populous country on earth.
C) In the United States, it took the 1965 landmark US Supreme Court decision Griswold V Connecticut to legalize contraception for married couples. Eisenstat V Baird (1972) extended this right to unmarried couples.
D) Even today in the US, women's reproductive rights are constantly being challenged. Aid for international birth control is often un-certain and subject to ideological and budget constraints.

2) The Global Family Planning Revolution, Warren C. Robinson, John A. Ross
3) Twenty-First Century India, Tim Dyson, Robert Cassen, Leela Visaria
7) Wikipedia

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Woody Allen's Enchanting Spanish Caper

The movie starts with two American friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) going to Barcelona for the summer. They stay at Vicky's friend Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and her husband's home. On a visit to an art gallery they see Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem); Cristina is interested and enquires whether he is the artist. Judy narrates a story about how Juan Antonio and his wife had a tempestuous divorce, and the wife tried to kill him. Later at dinner in a restaurant, Vicky and Cristina see Juan Antonio with his friends. Juan Antonio notices them as well, walks over to them and his first words after introductions are "I like to invite you both to spend the weekend, we will eat well, drink good wine, we will make Love". Pat comes the reply to Vicky's question "Who exactly is going to make love" --- "Hopefully the three of us".

Viewers/Readers familiar with Woody Allen's history may be tempted to roll their eyes and mutter "There he goes again, that near pedophile". However, a witty and inspired script, excellent chemistry between actors, and imaginative direction soon overcome any misgivings. Indeed "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" marks a comeback for Allen, and is his best movie in a long time. Almost in the category of his early classics "Love and Death", "Annie Hall", "Hannah and her Sisters"; this movie continues his inimitable exploration into unfulfilled relationships.

Vicky & Cristina fly away with Juan Antonio for the weekend. The practical, level-headed & already engaged Vicky ensures the girls are in one room and he is in another. After a lot of wine, the more adventurous Cristina goes to Juan Antonio's bedroom, but suddenly gets an attack of food poisoning and has to be hospitalized. Vicky & Juan Antonio are thrown together, they do some sight-seeing and visit his father. Juan Antonio tells her about the complicated relationship with his ex-wife. At the end of a romantic evening with wine and Spanish Guitar music, she succumbs to his charms.

They all come back to Barcelona, Vicky keeps her dalliance a secret from Cristina. Over time Juan Antonio and Cristina get involved and start living together. Vicky's fiance' Doug also shows up in Barcelona, and has plans for a romantic hurried wedding. Meanwhile, Maria Elena (Juan Antonio's ex-wife) has some trouble in her life, and moves in with Juan Antonio and Cristina.

Please see this delightful movie to find out what happens next.

"Only unfulfilled love can be romantic", Maria Elena's wise words could sum up this movie. Indeed, Woody Allen has always specialized in exploring the many paths within relationships; especially relationships that initially flower but over time come asunder. This movie sheds light on some unexplored or partially explored paths such as menage' a trois (threesomes), and unfaithfulness. Controversial and delicate subjects like these could easily be mishandled by lesser directors, but Allen employing an unusually funny script keeps us highly entertained. Never do we feel that we are watching some sleazy endeavor, even the much celebrated make-out scene between Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz is tastefully enacted. He also uses a voice-over to periodically explain and embellish scenes, I personally liked it and found that it enriched the movie experience.

The acting is brilliant all around, with Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Rebecca Hall being outstanding. Cruz is a firm favorite for supporting actress Oscar; she spices up this movie with an electric performance of a slightly crazy and violent, yet perceptive and talented artist. Her character has many different shades from vulnerability to taking charge, nurturing to breaking up a relationship, friendliness to possessive violence, understanding and exhibiting an artist's temperament; she essays all these effortlessly.

Rebecca Hall is a great discovery, she delivers an intelligent performance that begins with a crisp and sure demeanor. As the movie progresses, she marvellously displays subtle cracks in this sure-footedness and is at ease portraying hesitation, self-doubt and indecisiveness.

Scarlett Johansson has a great working relationship with Woody Allen (Scoop, Match Point), and she is very much at ease with the initial flighty and easily impressed character. Later she often has to react to Cruz taking charge, which she does competently; but this may be a reason for her effort not being on par with the other three.

After an Oscar winning performance as a scary, psychotic, hit-man in "No Country For Old Men", Javier Bardem excels as a romantic, charming, confident Spanish artist. He leaves no doubt about his star power with a performance that nonchalantly seduces the viewer. The icing on the cake is his later expression of self-doubt and insecurity, hallmarks of Woody Allen male characters.

Adding to the appeal of this movie, are the picturesque locations and the wonderful cinematography. Scenes like sailing on the serene Mediterranean, bicycling through and picnicking in the enchanting Spanish countryside, alluring Barcelona locations, background fireworks; suggest a Madison avenue hand at work. The cinematography certainly enhances the romantic appeal of the movie, and is probably worthy of an Oscar as well.

Woody Allen has a different location (Barcelona instead of New York) and a younger set of characters (Bardem instead of himself); but has not lost his unique entertaining way of telling a slightly melancholy tale.