Soniah Kamal

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'Islam is not Pakistan's religion; Marriage is'

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Why Barfi Will Not Win the Oscars, BUT for an Indian film it's really good

Jeetendra with Sridevi
I completely agree with Lakshmi Chowdary over why Barfi's Oscar chances are rather slim. It is not exactly your hard hitting, original, social film. But it's not just that- Barfi is a cute film, that is it's always easier for an audience to digest disability framed within humor films, but Barfi could have been much tighter and better .But it is interesting to me to see how so many of us qualify statements with 'well for an Indian film it's really good', implying that were it pitted against 'other' films it would not be so good. I enjoyed Barfi but perhaps part of my enjoyment stems from the history I have with Indian films. A child of the 70s, 80s, 90s, Indian cinema grew me up. While some kids  clutch  teddy-bears, I look back fondly on Jumping Jack and Shrill Sridevi, Govinda and Kader Khan making banana jokes, Kumar Gaurev in 'Love Story' and Neelam's hair,  and Amrita Singh out-brawning a rather scrawny Anil Kapoor in Chameli kee Shaadi.  (okay let me quit my Indian movie memory lane because it's never ending). So to see Rishi and Neetu's (my forever favorite couple in my forever favorite song 'Tera Chehra Say' from Khabi Khabi)  son, Ranbir up on screen doing a great job, is like visiting a fantasy family. I know-- weird, but 'like, what to do?'
Was Barfi from some other country and was I watching it with subtitles, I wonder if it would really be memorable?

from Three Reasons why Barfi is an Oscar dud! by Lakshmi Chowdary

Barfi? Barfi! is going to be the Indian entry for the Foreign Language Film Oscar this year? A movie picked out of a shortlist that included Paan Singh Tomar, Dirty Picture, Kahaani, Deool, Eega, Vazhakku Enn 18/9 and Akasathinte Niram?
What were they thinking? I’m not exactly sure, but let’s first acknowledge the one upside: Hey, it’s not Jeans. Irrespective of Barfi!’s weaknesses, it’s a cinematic masterpiece compared to past Indian entries, which include, most notoriously, Jeans (1998): The brain-dead Aishwarya Rai-starrer whose highlight was a song highlighting the seven wonders of the world. And it’s certainly no Eklavya, the Vidhu Vinod Chopra box office bomb that was nearly withdrawn because of evidence of bias.
In comparison, Barfi! is blessed with great production values, strong performances, and a heartwarming story. None of this, however, will improve its Oscar prospects, and for entirely sound reasons. read rest here

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Review of Indian movie Barfi

I was, as usual, dragged by a friend to watch another movie the friend had heard great things about which in this case was writer & director Anurag Basu's movie 'Barfi'. The film begins with Ranbir Kapoor, the eponymous Barfi, aged-by-makeup so much so that he actually looked a bit ridiculous. The first half hour was slow, in fact beginning the movie with Barfi in old age sort of killed all the suspense for me: I mean no matter how bad it gets obviously this character makes it to a very ripe old age. The movie then goes into two flashbacks, one inside the other, carrying the further risk of boring an impatient film goer; in fact, Barfi really only picks up after the intermission.

But to my surprise I found myself wooed, long before the intermission, by the cinematography of a 1970's Darjeeling, West Bengal which reminded me so much of a yesteryear Muree (hill station in Pakistani Punjab) where life seemed just as slow and cozy and close. I was also wooed by the deaf and mute Barfi's sweet, Chaplinesque antics no matter how unbelievable, as well as everyone's fine acting especially Priyanka Chopra who is barely recognizable as 'herself' without the glamor girl hair and make up and tight outfits. Priyanka plays Jhilmil Chatterjee an autistic girl, though in my estimation her acting seems to fit the profile of someone mildly retarded rather than autistic, but that said Priyanka's understated acting is a delight to watch. I came to care deeply for Jhilmil  in her weird girl-woman attire,  her bursts of delight, her averted gaze, her confidence to negotiate life as much as she can on her own terms.
 Barfi then is a lovely film about everyone-- no matter what they are up against-- possessing the ability to lead fulfilling lives. The movie's central conflict is a love triangle but refreshingly enough it is also a movie in which  'real' love is not necessarily your first love or even the most predictable. Barfi also brings up the age old issue of love versus money, as well as the choices one makes and subsequent regret. Is there always regret no matter what path one chooses? Had Shruti  chosen another way would she truly have been happy?
Barfi is full of beautiful little touches: Barfi's shoe as signal, Barfi intertwining Jhilmil's pinkies, Barfi with a rough, 'no', one of the few time Barfi speaks, ripping Jhilmil's bag away from Shruti. Pritam's score is excellent however I think the viewer could have done with many more moments of absolute silence in order to understand Barfi's inner world i.e. that he cannot hear a thing.
I left the movie theater glad I'd watched Barfi but not particularly enamored. Two days later, do I wish the movie moved a lot faster in the beginning, absolutely, but the fact that I'm still thinking about it makes me realize that I am smitten. Barfi is India's selection for the 2013 Oscars; though not a perfect film it is very good and I hope it makes the cut.

That said: I just saw the  list of nominations from India. I haven't watched all of them: but between Barfi and Kahani, I think Kahani should have been nominated. I'm surprised Delhi Belly isn't on the list. Here's my post on why Barfi is only good for an Indian film.

1) Eega (Telugu)
2) 7am Arivu (Tamil)
3) Vazhakku Enn 18/9 (Tamil)
4) Akasathinte Niram (Malayalam)      
5) Heroine (Hindi)
6) Paan Singh Tomar (Hindi)
7) Kahaani (Hindi)
8 ) Barfi! (Hindi)
9) GoW – Parts 1 & 2 (Hindi)
10) Arjun – The Warrior Prince (Hindi)
11) Gattu (Hindi)
12) Jalpari (Hindi)
13) The Dirty Picture (Hindi)
14) Ferrari Ki Sawari (Hindi)
15) Deool (Marathi)
16) Veer Hamirji – Somnath Ni Sakhate (Gujarati)
17) Anhey Ghore Da Daan (Punjabi)
18) Kaksparsh (Marathi)
19) Tukaram (Marathi)
20) Vazhakku EN 18/9 (Tamil)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

In the Garden of Beasts: The Scientist Responsible for Zyklon B Won a Nobel Peace Prize

In my old age few things manage to shock me. This does: that the man, Fritz Haber, responsible for the Zyklon B formula, the killer gas used in concentrations camps, was also awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Also he was born Jewish. I learn this while reading 'In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin' by Erik Larson. Garden of Beasts is a heavy read about the 'adventures' of the hapless American Ambassador (Dodd) to Germany during Hitler's time, and his impressionable daughter. It's a dense read with lots of names and lots of information crammed onto every page and though this can get overwhelming, for those interested in this time period it is never the less a very worthy read. Although Larson does not go into Dodd's feelings about segregation in the U.S. (yes, this is not a book about civil rights in the U.S.), I did wonder about Dodd  reconciling his disgust with separate benches for Aryans and Jews, versus all the separate amenities for blacks and white in the segregated South. In one of the final chapters, chapter 55 'As Darkness Fell', Larson mentions 'a strange episode' i.e. while driving Dodd has a hit and run with a four year old black girl.  Considering Dodd is the hero, if you will, of In the Garden of Beasts on account of his sense of right, wrong, fairness and moral righteousness, his subsequent reactions and actions after this accident are a very interesting look into this man's ethics in his 'own' world.Dodd did pay her medical bills and the girl did recover, but Dodd did not stop at the scene and he also wrote a rather interesting letter to the girl's mother.  Which makes me ask: are we someone else abroad and someone else at home?  

from 'In the Garden of Beasts':
"Another of Dodd's early visitors was, as Dodd wrote, 'perhaps the foremost chemist in Germany,'.....He was Fritz Haber. To any German the name was well known and revered, or had been until the advent of Hitler. Until recently, Haber had been director of the famed Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry. He was a war hero and a Novel laureate. Hoping to break the stalemate in the trenches during the Great War, Haber had invented a poison chlorine gas. He had devised what became known as Haber's rule, a formula, C  x t = k, elegant in its lethality: a low exposure to gas over a long period will have the same result as a high exposure over a short period. He also invented a means to distribute his poison gas at the front and was himself present in 1915 for its first use against French forces at Ypres. On a personal level, that day at Ypres cost him dearly. His wife of thirty-two years, Clara, had long condemned his work as inhumane and immoral and demanded he stop, but to such concerns he gave a stock reply: death was death, no matter the cause. Nine days after the gas attack at Ypres, she committed suicide. Despite international outcry over his poison gas research, Haber was awarded the 1918 Novel Prize for chemistry for discovering a means of mining nitrogen from air and thus allowing the manufacture of plentiful, cheap fertilizer--and, of course, gunpowder. Despite a prewar conversion to Protestantism, Haber was classified under the new Nazi laws as non-Aryan, but an except granted to Jewish war veterans allowed him to remain director of the institute......Within a decade, however, the Third Reich would find a new use for Haber's rule, and for an insecticide that Haber had invented at his institute, composed in part of cyanide gas and typically deployed to fumigate structures used for the storage of grain. At first called Zyklon A, it would be transformed by German chemists into a more lethal variant: Zyklon B.'"
Also it is often said that a country can be judged by how well its animals are treated. The nexty quote struck me because whenever I have taught how to write well-rounded characters, one of my examples is always the fact that as horrid as Hitler was his dogs loved him and he loved his dogs. 

from In the Garden of Beasts

'At a time when nearly every German is afraid to speak a word to any but the closest friends, horses and dogs are so happy that one feels they wish to talk," he (Dodd) wrote. "A woman who may report on a neighbor for disloyalty and jeopardize his life, even cause his death, takes her big kindly-looking dog in the Tiergarten for a walk. She talks to him and coddles him as she sits on a bench and he attends to the requirements of nature...." In Germany, Dodd had noticed, no one ever abused a dog, and as a consequence dogs were never fearful around men and were always plump and obviously well-tended. "Only horses seem to be equally happy, never the children or the youth," he wrote. "I often stop as I walk to my office and have a word with a pair or beautiful horses waiting while their wagon is being unloaded. They are so clean and fat and happy that one feels that they are on the point of speaking." He called it 'horse happiness' and had noticed the same phenomenon in Nuremberg and Dresden. In part, he knew, this happiness was fostered by German law, which forbade cruelty to animals and punished violators with prison, and here Dodd found the deepest irony. 'At a time when hundreds of men have been put to death without trial or any sort of evidence of guilt, and when the population literally trembles with fear, animals have rights guaranteed them which men and woman cannot think of expecting. He added, 'One might easily wish he were a horse.'

Monday, September 17, 2012

Literary Prizes and What They are Worth

Sarah Dunant argues that while literary prizes are more important than ever it is rather tough, if not down right impossible, for the 'best book' to win. Of course this is true. As true as it in in any field where subjectivity plays such a huge role. As much as I enjoyed Madeline's Miller Orange Prize winning novel 'The Song of Achilles' I was truly shocked when one of my favorite novels, Amy Waldman's 'The Submission', did not make it past the long list.  On the face of it one could argue that the two novels have much in common: they are about dishonor and friendship and being true to yourself. But they could also not be more different.  Madeline's novel, 1st person single POV, retells 'The Illiad' with plenty of metaphor and simile, while Amy's novel, 3rd person multiple POVS, is a contemporary tale about post 911 and ground zero and so topical she actually had to change dialogue to avoid it being 'ripped from the headlines'.  As such The Song of Achilles is a 'comfortable' read about war and its fallout set as it is in Ancient Greece while The Submission is a tougher read in that it forces the reader to confront the here and now.  It would have been a hard vote, but I think I can safely say my particular sensibilities would have had me voting for The Submission. As Dunant points out 'prizes are a kind of lottery'. I say they are all a lottery.

 Sarah Dunant for BBC's A Point of View: 'Prizes for All'
"You are probably already aware of some the names on this year's Man Booker shortlist. But how much more aware you - and others - become over the next four weeks will determine not only each book's commercial fate, but in some cases the writers' publishing future.
Like everything we are being sold in a hopelessly over-crowded market, novels strain to get their voices heard amid the cacophony. Launch a new brand of moisturiser and smart marketing and a big budget will ensure at least an element of brand rest here

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Jamie Beckman and Cherish and Madonna and Me

Today's interview is fellow contributor to 'Madonna and Me'  is Jamie Beckman. Jamie's essay 'Where's That Girl? is about the implications of  Madonna moving into Jamie's neighborhood. My favorite bit from Jamie's essay: 'After we had walked a few blocks, we stopped on an unassuming street full of unassuming townhouses. 'That's it...I think," I said, looking from my Post-It to the address across the way. We stood, squinting in the afternoon sun at a big brick building four stories high. The plot of residential real estate was palatial by New York standards, but without context, it was just a brown brick box with painted brown wood accents.'

And here's Jamie herself.

Favorite Madonna song and why? 
I love Cherish, just because I like that she took that beautiful 1966 song by The Association and reinvented it in her signature Madonna way. From what I've read, I don't think Madonna herself thought that it was that great a song — she called it "retarded" — but the verse, "Romeo and Juliet, they never felt this way I bet" is just so sweet, simple, and succinct. I get happy whene'ver I hear it.

Favorite video and look?   
It's great that you asked me this now, because I recently re-watched Justify My Love, and holy cow, it's still so hot! Her gorgeous Marilyn Monroe-esque hair, the great lingerie, the gender-bending... It still reads fresh. I mean, the way she runs down the hallway at the end, wearing a black trench coat, and bites her index finger, thinking of what just went on? It still seems exciting, even today. I want to BE Madonna in that video.
Madonna with Nickie Minaj and MIA: Ultra Diva or Desperate?
Oh, Ultra Diva! Is this even a discussion? I thought her performance was thrilling and professional all the way through, to the very end of the show. Reading my Twitter feed afterward was almost more fun than watching Madge in action, because even a few men I follow who are rarely serious and rarely sincere were blown away by Madonna that night and tweeted as much. I think any hyper-vocal dissent had some element of sexism in it. She brought it, end of story.
Can you tell us a little about your writing and revision process for 'Where's That Girl'?
 At first, I wanted to put down on paper everything in my life that had ever related to Madonna — I'm still a little bitter that I didn't get that Immaculate Collection cassette tape that I'd asked for for Christmas back in 1990 — but as Laura and I looked at my first draft together, we realized that my little "search" for Madonna's new home on the Upper East Side was probably the most fun, unique gem in the whole piece. So I whittled it down to that idea, and in doing so, I got to talk about my unconditional love of New York City at the same time. I'm still really proud of my essay, and I credit Laura Barcella for drawing it out of me.

What are you working on now? 
I'm working on several lifestyle-oriented magazine pieces, my relationships news blog for, Sexcerpts (, and the proposal for my next book, which is top-secret now, but I hope to have more news about it in the near future. Stay tuned!

Jamie's Bio: 
Jamie Beckman is a freelance magazine writer, columnist for the women’s website and its Sexcerpts relationships-news blog, and the author of the book The Frisky 30-Day Breakup Guide. She has worked as a writer and editor since she graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.Jamie has written about health, nutrition, fitness, relationships, sex, and style for publications and websites including Redbook, USA TODAY, the L.A. Times, Health, Men’s Journal, Men’s Health, Best Life, Better Homes and Gardens, First for Women, Publishers Weekly, The Frisky,,, The Good Men Project,, and
 Jamie judged the 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel awards. She lives in New York City.

Thanks Jamie!

Next up is contributor Tamara Lynch

Buy Madonna and Me 

Read Q& A with Soniah Kamal
Read Q & A with Caroline LeavittRead Q & A with Rebecca Traister
Read Q & A with Erin Bradley
Read Q & A with Jen Hazen
Read Q & A with Sarah Sweeney
Read Q & A with Joshunda Victoria Sanders
Read Q &A with editor of the anthology Laura Barcella
Read Q & A with Wendy Tokunaga  

Interview series for Sept 1, 2012. Decatur Book Festival. Local Prose Stage. 3: 15.
Soniah Kamal will be talking about growing up Muslim with Madonna. She will also read from her essay 'Through the Wilderness'. Please join her.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Soniah Kamal and Live to Tell and Madonna and Me

Today's my turn for my 'Madonna and Me' talk at the Decatur Book Festival which means I'll be interviewing myself. (It's the first time I'm doing something like this-- bit weird) My essay 'Through the Wilderness' is about how Madonna informed and influenced my strict Muslim upbringing in Saudi Arabia as well as made a certain four letter word okay for me. My favorite bit from my essay 'We were three excited girls perched on the edge of a green velvet sofa, waiting for the cassette to rewind, not knowing that when the world changes, this it how it happens, in ordinary living rooms in ordinary afternoons ' Because it was nearly edited out and I made a decision to keep it and because I can still absolutely conjure up the hot Saudi sun bathing that green velvet sofa and the whir of the VHS as it re-winded.

My answers:

Favorite Madonna song and why?
I have so many but I think 'Live to Tell' wins. I wasn't sure what that song was about when I was growing up but I was going through such a rough time-- I didn't know then that this roughness was known as 'patriarchy squashing the spirit out of you',and something about Live to Tell always made me feel better. 

Favorite video and look?   
Frozen. I think her breaking into crows is beautiful. Crows/Ravens are everywhere in Pakistan, sleek and sexy  creatures, they look like onyx jewels embedded in emerald trees. Madonna's henna/mehndi  and the crows are always  able to transport me-the-immigrant back to my birth country in a very interesting way!  

Madonna with Nickie Minaj and MIA: Ultra Diva or Desperate? 
I really don't think Madonna is desperate. Whether one loves her, hates her, or couldn't give a shit about her, fact is she's an icon. I do think though that Madonna does not want to be stuck in some 'gracefully aging category' where she's doing revival. She's so alive and vital and can do stuff the Brittanys and Christinas and Lady Gagas and Nickies and MIAs have yet to prove they even have the ability to do. Madonna's got a young soul and her body-- well you've seen her body! I was so irritated when, after Madonna's 2012 Super Bowl performance, everyone seemed to focus on how Madonna had done quite well given 'her age'. Abhor Ageism. On another note, I was watching the Super Bowl with a bunch of desi friends and their kids. When Madonna was on stage flanked by two brown/desi girls (MIA is from Sri Lanka and Nicki Minaj has Indian in her) I though I was going to choke up and die. I mean this is the Super Bowl, okay, a quintessentially white-American sport and there's not one but two brown girls up there.   

Can you tell us a little about your writing and revision process for 'Through the Wilderness'.
I was browsing the internet when I came upon a call for submissions at the ezine Literary Mama for an anthology called 'Madonna and Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop'. My stomach plummeted-- yes, I have a Madonna story, do I have a Madonna story, I've had my Madonna story ever since my early teens and here was an opportunity to deliver it into the world. My stomach  plummeted even more when I saw that the deadline was literally a day or so away. So I literally put  everything on hold  until the essay was written and I'd emailed it along to its fate. When Laura Barcella sent an acceptance e-mail, I was ridiculously delighted.  We went through two edits to streamline the essay and then it was done. As for my favorite passage above, as suggested I did delete it at first, but then a few weeks later I sent Laura a frantic e-mail asking to please have it reinstalled. I know writers are  supposed to kill our darlings but this darling was just too darling :)

What are you working on now?
I've been invited to guest edit an issue of the e-zine Sugar Mule so am working on that. Am also revising a novel.

Soniah's Bio:
Soniah Kamal was born in Pakistan and raised in England and Saudi Arabia. She earned a B.A. in Philosophy with Honors from St. John's College Annapolis, MD and her undergraduate thesis was the recipient of the Susan B Irene Award. Soniah's essays, short stories and books reviews have been published in the US, UK, Canada, Pakistan and India.
For more go to

Buy Madonna and Me

Still to come: Interviews with Jamie Beckman, Kim Windyka, Tamara Lynch, Courtney Martin and Erin Trahan

Read Q & A with Caroline Leavitt
Read Q & A with Rebecca Traister
Read Q & A with Erin Bradley
Read Q & A with  Jen Hazen
Read Q & A with Maria Raha
Read Q & A with Sarah Sweeney
Read Q & A with Joshunda Victoria Sanders
Read Q & A with editor of the anthology Laura Barcella
Read Q & A with Wendy Tokunaga  

Sept 1, 2012. Decatur Book Festival. Local Prose Stage. 3: 15.
Soniah Kamal will be talking about growing up Muslim with Madonna. She will also read from her essay 'Through the Wilderness'. Please join her.