Good men through the ages

Indian elephant

I’m finally filling in my gaps in world history, starting with a book about India. I’ve always loved India–the colors, the architecture, the music, the dance. No surprise that Indian history is just as beautiful.

I was especially struck by the story of Ashoka, a 3rd century BC king. After a dissolute youth and a period of ruthless and violent conquest, Ashoka suddenly repented and tried to rebuild his life–and his entire society–around a strict moral law. I can only imagine that his new subjects–the ones who survived his earlier massacres–were less enthusiastic about his conversion. Yeah right! Now he decides to be non-violent!

But it seems to have been a real conversion! Ashoka set up dozens of carved edicts, abolishing the death penalty, urging care for the environment, developing highways, and even trying to enforce religious tolerance. I find this so touchingly familiar. Tell me you’ve never gone through this stage: Guys, look at this cool thing I just found out about! I’m going to change my whole life, right now, and you should too! I’m not going to stop talking about it until you do! Ashoka even sent a kind of missionary to the east and the west, he was so excited about his new ideas.

Ashoka edict

As you can imagine, things didn’t go very well for him. I was expecting him to get assassinated pretty soon, but he seems to have made it to old age. His moral reform, of course, didn’t last any longer than he did. But by his own account he never gave up: “I am never fully satisfied with the end product of all my work, my exertions and the conclusion of my business…but work I must for the public good.” He also makes this heartbreaking admission in one of his edicts: “now I realize how hard it is to persuade people to do good.”

That’s the problem, isn’t it? It’s an old, old story, trying to make heaven on earth. Ashoka wasn’t the first to try to do it through political means, and he wasn’t the last. It’s never gonna work, but it sure is tempting.

Good men through the ages

trying to find the sun…

Five year plans and new deals wrapped in golden chains.

And I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain?

“Who’ll Stop the Rain,” Creedence Clearwater Revival

elephant picture: source

sculpture of Ashoka’s edicts being carved, at the Parliament Museum in New Delhi: source

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Seven Quick Takes: Bollywood!

If the only Bollywood movie you’ve ever seen is Bride and Prejudice, you’re in for a treat!  Seven quick film reviews, from the epic and heart-breaking to the aliens/mentally disabled/Singin’ in the Rain mash-ups.  Okay, there’s only one of those.

1. My Name is Khan

A portrayal of a man (played by the fantastic Shah Rukh Khan) with Aspergers, struggling to adjust to life as an immigrant in California, that manages to be charming and moving without being condescending.  This movie successfully deals with the tensions between Kahn’s devout Muslim family and his Hindu wife, who is also a single mother; the biases and fears of a society recovering from September 11th; and the gamut of responses run by parents suffering the loss of a child–all while keeping a sense of humor.  The second half of the movie portrays Kahn’s impetuous trek across America, half the pilgrimage of an innocent fool and half the romantic hobo’s rambling of O Brother Where Art Thou.  This movie requires less suspension of disbelief than most Bollywoods, but it does require quite an emotional commitment.  Underneath the dramatic events, it’s really just a beautiful story of love and crisis in marriage, patience, prejudice, and forgiveness.

2. Lage Raho Munna Bhai

A hapless small-time thug pretends to be a Gandhi expert to impress a girl, and gets predictably involved in a Wodehousian tangle of lies and mistaken identities.  Things get more complicated when Munna begins getting apparitions of Gandhi, who urges him to tell the girl who he really is.  Starring the marvelous comic face of Sanjay Dutt, and featuring some very catchy songs, Lage Raho Munna Bhai weaves together together reality, fantasy, slapstick humor, high ideals, sappy melodrama, and musical routines the way only a Bollywood movie can.

3. Johda Akbar

This movie is a feast for the eyes–rampaging battle elephants, royal palaces, ornate historical costumes, whirling dervishes, and color-soaked, sari-swirling dance routines.  Hindu princess Jodha is forced into a political marriage with Akbar, a Muslim ruler reminiscent of an Old Testament king: pious and righteous, but also prone to impulsive violence and revenge.  Lots of classic fairy-tale elements, including the king’s treacherous old nurse who is the power-behind-the-throne.  Underneath the historical and martial drama runs the story of a marriage beginning in convenience and distrust that gradually grows into respect and mature love.  (Warning: several scenes of disturbing violence)

4. Singh is Kingg

A really sweet, Roberto Benigni-type comedy about a naïve, small-town Sikh who mistakenly inherits a mafia dynasty in Australia and sends his henchmen out to do boy scout-style good deeds.  (Warning: some sexy club scenes)

5. I Have Found It (Kandukondain Kandukondain)

The lesser-known but more authentic cousin of Bride and Prejudice, this is a well-cast retelling of Sense and Sensibility.  Austen’s themes of class prejudice and city vs. country culture shock translate very believably into an Indian setting, with its busybody relatives, arranged marriages, stiff-upper-lip Englishmen, and tradition-defying youth.

6. Lagaan

Set in 1893, Lagaan is a drama about a cricket contest between a drought-plagued village and the local British forces.  The wager is three years worth of the exorbitant lagaan tax.  The villagers’ team includes an untouchable, and they are aided by the British captain’s sister, who is in love with one of them.  One of the most bittersweet scenes is her painfully awkward and unexotic love song, unable to compete with the lively dancing of the village girls.  A really satisfying and enjoyable movie even if (like me) you know very little about Indian history or cricket.

7. Koi Mil Gaya (“I’ve found someone”)

This is the most amazingly weird movie.  It stars the impressively versatile Hrithik, who played the king in Jodha Akbar, as a sweet, mentally disabled man who makes accidental contact with an alien.  Ripping elements and whole scenes from E.T. and (really!) Singin’ in the Rain, it also includes a few good songs.  I…don’t even know what else to say about this movie.  But I’m glad I saw it, I guess.

Check out the rest of the 7 Quick Takes, hosted at http://www.thisaintthelyceum.org  Thanks for letting me play, guys!