Sunday, 5 May 2013

Mirror Mirror (From Hollywood To Bollywood, And Back Again)

I've had the weirdest feeling after watching the Hollywood movie "Mirror Mirror", ostensibly yet another retelling of the Snow White fable. The last scene of the movie and the research I was compelled to do after it, transported me to the Punjab and thereafter to Iran and back again to the US. Whew!

Let me share this fascinating story here.

The movie itself was reasonably watchable, although not the dramatically different viewpoint it promised to be at the outset when the wicked queen began narrating the story. Always alert to the angle of sexism, I was gratified to see the objectification of men (specifically one shirtless man) on an equal footing, although disappointed that Snow White did the cooking for the dwarves yet again.

The big surprise came at the end of the movie, when Snow White burst into song. It wasn't the fact that she sang. It was the flavour of the music. Can you recognise it?

"I believe (in love)" - A spiced-up Hollywood musical

I did a double-take. The lilting, catchy tune, the signature shoulder-twitch of the Punjabi dance - this had to be deliberate. But why would a Hollywood director slip in a cross-cultural piece like that? The mystery appeared to be cleared up a couple of minutes later as the credits rolled. The director was Tarsem Singh Dhandwar. Aha! That explains it all, I thought.

A spot of Googling turned up this review of the film:

Not often does Hollywood put out movies romanticizing tyrannicide and the assassination of foreign leaders of friendly countries, in this case India.  Julia Roberts is the wicked Queen, witch, and false pretender, but actually the stand-in for Indira Gandhi, with an uncanny resemblance of look and dress in the final scene (I wonder if anyone told her?). This movie presents a romanticized and idealized version of how her assassination should have proceeded and should have been processed, namely in a triumphal manner with no reprisals but rather celebration and joyous union and love.  As the plot proceeds, you will find all sorts of markers of Sikh theology, including numerous references to daggers, hair, mirrors, water, immersions, submersions, bodily penetrations, transformations, the temple at Amritsar, dwarves who enlarge themselves, and the notion of woman as princess, among many others; director Tarsem Singh knows this material better than I do (read up on Sikh theology before you go, if you haven’t already).

The silly critics complained that the plot didn’t make sense, but from the half dozen or so reviews I read they didn’t even begin to understand the movie.

Without wishing to take sides on either the politics or the religion, I found this a daring and remarkable film.  The sad thing is that no one is paying attention.

The Sikh angle on Indira Gandhi made a lot of sense. After all, in the real world, the assassination of India's former Prime Minister was followed by a pogrom in which more than 3000 Sikhs were killed. Tarsem Singh is a Sikh, and his portrayal of Indira Gandhi as a wicked witch is not only understandable, but enthusiastically endorsed by many, many non-Sikh Indians (myself included).

However, the song itself had many more layers to it. The first surprising fact I learned was that it was sung by  Lily Collins (the actor who played Snow White) herself. The second was that she is the daughter of none other than Phil Collins.

Then I read that the original version of this song was sung by an Iranian singer called Googoosh. Tarsem Singh had heard Googoosh's rendering of it in his childhood, and he wanted this in his film. This is a clip of Googoosh from the mid-70s singing "I believe (in love)".

OK, so it isn't Bollywood, then. Is that what Persian music sounds like?

(So that's what pre-Ayatollah Iran looked and sounded like. In hindsight, the Shah seems to have been quite a modern bloke, the kind of leader the Middle East sadly lacks today.)

But the mystery went even deeper. This article says that after a very long hunt, the original songwriter was found, and it turned out to be an American woman called Nina Hart.

So what I watched was a Hollywood movie, which had a song at the end that sounded like a Bollywood song, but that was because the movie's Indian director heard it in his childhood sung by an Iranian, who it turned out was singing a song written by an American.

I believe (in situational irony).

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