Movie review: Mahabharata (1989)

I was a bit taken aback by this film adaptation of the Mahabharata.

The Mahabharata is an ancient Indian epic that talks about ancient views of duty and what is right. The story centers on branches in a family that vie for the throne (Pandava and Kaurava).

Pandu gives up the throne to his blind brother Dhritarashtra and retreats to the forest with his wives. His wives give birth to five sons through the gods. Meanwhile, Dhritarashtra’s wife gives birth to a hundred sons. After Pandu’s death, the cousins end up growing up together. An intense rivalry develops that results in a game of dice, banishment, and ultimately war. The god Krishna—the human form of the god Vishnu—appears as a go-between and a counselor to Arjuna, one of the five Pandava brothers.

I expected an Indian cast but discovered that Peter Brook had directed a multicultural cast. Caucasian, East Asian, African, Indian—the members of the families came from all races and cultures. The Mahabharata is the poetical history of mankind through the lens of ancient Indian culture. Brook strove to make the Indian history of mankind universal through the cast of actors he used in his movie.

Originally, Brook and writer Jean-Claude Carrière wrote a theatre production and then adapted the nine-hour (!) production to a six-hour and then three-hour film production. This three-hour rendition of the Mahabharata has been whittled down to three parts: The Game of Dice, the Exile in the Forest, and the War.

The Game of Dice sets the stage for the story, culminating in the fateful gambling that leads to the Pandava brothers, along with their wife (yes, wife not wives), being exiled for 12 years and incognito for another year. Arjuna, the ultimate warrior, wins Draupadi in a contest involving skill with a bow and arrow. Upon telling his mother of his success, she tells him to share whatever he won with his brothers.

Whenever the sacred law of the universe (dharma), which maintains the order of the world is threatened by chaos, then the god Krishna appears to bring order. The rivalry between the Pandava and Kaurava grows, leading to the appearance of the god Krishna.

Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pandava brothers and a lover of gambling, agrees to gamble with the Kauravas. The stakes are high. One by one, Yudishthira loses everything he owns, even his brothers, himself, and Draupadi. In one final vain play, he agrees that if he loses, the Pandavas and Draupadi will go into exile for 12 years and then disappear for an additional year. If they fail at this, then war will ensue. Of course, Yudhishthira loses and the Pandavas go into exile.

The Exile in the Forest section covers this time in exile during which the Pandavas face challenges. Bhima encounters rakshasa, fierce-looking, man-eating creatures in ancient Indian mythology. One shape-shifts into a woman and has a child with Bhima before disappearing from whence she came (along with the child). Before departing, the child tells Bhima that if he ever needs him, call him and he will save Bhima. (This child makes a later appearance during the war.)

During this time, Arjuna, the ultimate warrior born of the god Indra, encounters the god Shiva while on a hunt. After battling with Shiva, the god of destruction, Shiva grants him the ultimate weapon (pashupatastra), which can destroy all creation.

Both the Pandavas and Kauravas approach Krishna for his blessing in the impending war. Krishna ends up seeing Arjuna before Duryodhana. Ultimately, he promises to be neutral in the war, but take the role of Arjuna’s chariot driver and counselor.

The battle is set. Both sides align. Arjuna rides out to start the war but hesitates. He looks out and sees his relatives. Killing his family is madness. He lays down his bow. Krishna counsels him in the dharma, duty, and morality—in what is the famous Bhagavada-gita, which often stands as a work separate from the larger context of the Mahabharata.

Krishna explains to Arjuna that defeat and victory is the same. He must act but seek detachment from acting. Krishna instructs Arjuna on illusion. “He who thinks he can kill and he who thinks he can be killed are both mistaken.” Krishna advises what may seem contradictory. But what is right is dependent on the person, the time, and the place. Following one’s dharma or duty is the utmost. Preserving dharma preserves the universe. Not preserving dharma leads to chaos and the destruction of the universe.

In the end, Arjuna takes up his bow and an 18-day war follows. As with his pre-war counsel, Krishna’s advice during battle goes against normal feelings of right and wrong. Krishna tells Arjuna to shoot his bow into an undefended Kaurava. Krishna tells Bhima to hit his opponent in one-on-one combat on the thigh. Both pieces of advice break the normal rules involving combat.

The Mahabharata instructs on how to live in the world. Some instruction is easy to see and accept. Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas, is consumed by hatred, a weakness that has haunted him all his life. (Do not be consumed by hatred seems like good advice to follow.) But Krishna counseling the following of duty, even if it means killing extended family members, is a hard one to grasp.

Some of the themes are timeless, appearing in later Indian traditions. The stress on action, illusion, and detachment appear in various Indian religious and philosophical strains, though interpreted slightly differently.

Like other ancient works, the Mahabharata contains words of wisdom. Kunti, the mother of the five Pandava brothers states, “If you live with the fear of death, why were you given life?” Krishna notices before the war, “Death is already here observing us.” And later, he speaks to a Kaurava, “No good man is entirely good. No bad man entirely bad.”

At just under three hours, this film version of the Mahabharata is a manageable watch. I found the use of a multicultural cast initially an odd choice, but it grew on me as I watched the film. Peter Brook’s film helps bring the Mahabharata to audiences outside of India, where the epic is a part of national consciousness and informs everyday life. The Mahabharata itself is a huge work; a more manageable entrance into the epic may be the Bhagavada-gita, an excerpt of the war from the larger Mahabharata, which covers Krishna’s discussion with Arjuna about duty.

Book review: A Swiftly Tilting Planet

I originally knew A Swiftly Tilting Planet to be the bittersweet conclusion to a Madeline L’Engle trilogy that included A Wrinkle in Time (1962)  and A Wind in the Door (1973). Since my introduction with this trio, L’Engle wrote two more to round out what has since been known as the Time Quintet. (I have yet to read the latest two books in the quintet.)

All of the books focus on the Murry family, specifically Meg and her younger brother Charles Wallace. The family is a bit of an oddity in the small New England town in which they live. All are highly educated and intelligent. The Murry parents are scientists. The twins fit in the best—they are intelligent and athletic.

Meg feels like an odd man out, the signet before becoming the beautiful swan. Charles Wallace is small for his age and beyond any intelligence around him. Meg and Charles Wallace have a special bound and ability to kythe, which is kind of the ability to communicate telepathically. Meg and Charles Wallace use their ability to kythe throughout the adventures described in the book.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet has a different feel than its predecessors. The Murry kids are pretty much grown up. Meg is married and expecting a child. The twins are studying in their respective professions. Only Charles Wallace remains a teenager. The story no longer really involves children going off on otherworldly adventures. It is more a story inhabited by grown-ups.

The story is also different in that Charles Wallace is not so much the center of the story but a vessel through which different characters appear. He travels with a unicorn who takes him on the wind to different Whens not Wheres. The location is always the stargazing rock near their house, but the time is different. Charles Wallace goes within different people during these different Whens. He essentially enters these people, being aware of it, reliving their experiences and histories, and ultimately changing them so the present-day is different.

The story is essentially a family story going back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The common thread throughout each bit of the family story is the pitting of brother against brother, whether Welsh brothers fighting for the throne or brothers fighting in the Civil War, and how evil comes from that.

The President calls Mr. Murry, an outside expert consultant for the government, about a rogue madman about to end the world by starting a nuclear war. (Gee, the story, which was published in 1978, seems a bit apropos in 2018.) Meg’s mother-in-law strangely recites an ancient rune of protection and charges Charles Wallace with saving the world from this mad man.

The world that Madeline L’Engle creates has good and evil. In this book, the world is a world of music that sings its joy. The people before the evil were of the Old Music. Some strains continue to exist during the years.

As in the previous books, Charles Wallace is accompanied by an otherworldly helper, this time Gaudoir who is a unicorn. Also, like in the other books, Charles Wallace must deal with evil that seeks to destroy him. The Ecthroi or Enemy seek to divert him from his task and destroy him. It is a battle of joy vs. anger, brother against brother, Charles Wallace against the Ecthroi.

Charles Wallace and Gaudoir have no idea what to do or when (not where) they must go. Forcing their way doesn’t work but rather leads them to different projections or worlds of a possible future. When Charles Wallace lets go of control, he is taken to When he needs to be.

Another theme in A Swiftly Tilting Planet is interdependence. Everything interacts and is interrelated. The destruction of the planet, the twins quip, might be a good thing. But no, not to L’Engle. Because everything is interrelated, the destruction of the planet through nuclear war would affect everything in the cosmos. It’s the butterfly effect.

L’Engle shows her optimism in the belief that everyone can make a difference. Through the words of a character in the book, she exclaims, “Nothing, no one, is too small to matter. What you do is going to make a difference.” Life may be a cosmic battle between good and evil, but for L’Engle, good always seems to win the battle and anyone, even a child, can save the world.

Cabaret Poe

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I learned about Cabaret Poe last year from a woman at the Indiana Landmark Center’s Silent Halloween. I was intrigued.

The show is a combination of recitation, spoken word, singing, dancing, and jokes—all surrounding Edgar Allan Poe’s works. The production has an air of the macabre sprinkled with humor in action and word. Three actors dress in Victorian-era-inspired clothing. (I kept thinking of steampunk. Hard to describe but you know it when you see it.) A fourth actor dresses all in black, as a dark, foreboding presence in the background. For some pieces, musicians play from behind the stage.

The show I attended was sold out and the audience, for the most part, thoroughly enjoyed itself. (To my surprise, about 30 minutes into the two-hour+ show, a family got up and left.) At various times, the actors mingled in the audience and interacted with attendees.

During a recitation of different bits of Poe’s poems, an actor picked out different women in the audience to approach as the object of the poem he was reciting. And wouldn’t you know it, he wandered over to me, picked up my hand, and started to recite a poem about a beloved.

Eulaile, he entreated me.

I dwelt alone
In a world of moan,
And my soul was a stagnant tide
Till the fair and gentle Eulalie became my blushing bride —
Till the yellow-haired young Eulalie became my smiling bride.

When he reached “yellow-haired”, he paused and looked askance at me. (My hair is dark brown.) I tilted my head and raised my eyebrows, as if to say, “Yeah, well, sorry about that. Whatcha gonna do?” (Clearly, he had picked me because I did NOT have yellow hair. I was part of the joke.)

The troupe covered dozens and dozens of Poe’s works, and their performance mediums were varied. I realized in hindsight that I should have re-familiarized myself with Poe’s works from my youth and made my acquaintance with the rest of his oeuvres before I went to Cabaret Poe. Ah, hindsight. I had forgotten how truly dark Poe was. Perfect for the Halloween season.

Cabaret Poe, an Indianapolis original production by local playwright and composer Ben Asaykwee, is in its 9th season. If you cannot catch it this year, look for it next year. In the meantime, reread Poe as preparation to seeing Cabaret Poe or in celebration of the shorter days, the chill in the air, and the anniversary of Poe’s death (October 7, 1849).

James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home & Museum

Another Riley home? A couple years ago, I toured the house where he lived as an adult at Lockerbie Square in Indianapolis. I was surprised to learn that his childhood home existed.

In fact, the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home & Museum is celebrating its 80th year as a museum! The city of Greenfield bought the house in 1935 with the idea of making it a museum.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Riley’s childhood home is on the National Register of Historic Places. Next door is the museum. Check in at the museum. A docent will accompany you to the house and walk you through an hour or so tour of it. The tour winds through the garden and ends with a seven-minute film at the museum.

Phyllis, my tour guide, was an absolute pleasure. She clearly enjoys giving tours and sharing stories about Riley. She paced the tour to the attendees, entertaining questions and engaging in conversation. Through the tour, she sprinkled in quotes from Riley’s poems.

In 1844, James’ parents married and lived in a log cabin that his father built on 3 to 5 acres of land—behind the current house. James was born in that cabin. After three children arrived, his father Reuben set out to build a house, which took three years to complete (!). (He also built a lot of the furniture that populates the house, some of which comes from their log cabin days.)

Reuben was a lawyer, a state legislator, and a soldier in the Civil War. Unfortunately, after the Civil War, the Rileys owed back taxes. They slowly sold off properties and then the house in 1866. James’s mother was devastated, and James vowed that when he got rich, he would buy back the house. (He did, but it wasn’t until after her death in 1870.)

The various rooms of the house are filled with furniture and knick-knacks, including items that Riley mentions in his poems, such as the ceramic dog and sample clock on the mantel or the what-not shelf in the front room.

The front formal parlor contains a wonderful Steinway piano that the museum keeps maintained. (We were encouraged to play it.) The piano is not original to the house but a gift from a Dr. Fletcher. (Hmmm. A Fletcher family was important in 19th century Indianapolis.) The floor had to be reinforced to support the 800 lbs of the piano. (Note: The front formal parlor is not the only room that has been reinforced.)

The other front room is a law office. (James’s father was a lawyer.) The pièce de résistance in this room is the partner desk that Reuben made—a large desk that allows one person to work on each side, divided down the middle by a large partition of cubbyholes. The desk had wandered away from the house between the Rileys losing the house in 1866 and the city buying it in 1935. In recent years, a local company, Irving Materials, stumbled across the desk at an auction, bought it, and donated it to the museum. (Kind of a wild story with a happy ending.)

As we prepared to ascend the front staircase—I marveled at the steep descent of the banister and vocalized my speculation that probably it was too steep for children to slide down—Phyllis paused to tell us about Mary Alice “Allie” Smith.

Mary Alice was an orphan who ended up at the Riley home, working for her board and keep. She would often tell the children stories of goblins—her stories ended up in Riley’s poems and she herself was the inspiration for Little Orphant Annie among other works. (Side note: The work was originally called Little Orphant Allie but the printer could not read Riley’s handwriting.)

The goblins, according to Mary Alice, lived under the stairs. (We got to see the room where the goblins lived—a dark and dank space under the stairs fit for goblins—at the end of the tour.) Apparently, she also had names for each of the stair steps. (The names are lost to time.)

The main bedroom upstairs houses a four-poster butternut bed so heavy that the law office below had to be reinforced. Our docent pointed out various objects in the room: washing and drinking pitchers and containers, a foot warmer, a boat jack, a steeple clock.

The one thing I hadn’t seen before—the sewing bird, a little metal bird fastened to a table. On top of the bird is a place to hold a sewing thimble. The bird’s beak holds a piece of cloth as you sew it—kind of like using pins to pin a hem in place before you sew it.

A rocking chair, a sewing chest (both made by Reuben), and a Howe Company sewing machine occupy the space between this bedroom and the next. The docent explained that early sewing machines—because they were machinery—were used by men, not women. (Hmmm…believable but true?)

The second bedroom was for the girls. The rope bed, with an 1853 coverlet on top, stores a trundle bed underneath. And we were given a demonstration and explanation about tightening the ropes. The room contains some curious objects: a curling iron (I thought of a scene in the movie The Little Women when some of the girls were getting ready for a party), a glove stretcher (the docent asked us to guess what it was…none of us were very imaginative), bottles of squill (a cough medicine made with turpentine!) and camphor. Phyllis pointed to a footstool—a cylindrical object with two wooden pegs on either side—and referred to it as a blind pig footstool. (I haven’t found any information about such a footstool.)

Through the second bedroom towards the back of the house is dormer room with slanted ceiling—the boys’ bedroom. The only access is through the girls’ room or through an alcove to back stairs that originally went outside. (The stairs now end in the kitchen.)

A little door in the room opens to a rafter room (which reminded me of the room where they hid runaway slaves at the Levi Coffin house). This room, keeping with the theme of the day, housed some goblins. We took turns looking through the rafter room door at two shiny goblin eyes peering at us.

A painting of lard hogs by John Keefer, who taught Riley to painting (his initial profession), hangs on the wall. The hogs do not look too happy. They are probably aware of their impending fate.

The alcove with the back stairs is where Mary Alice slept. A thin pallet lay on the floor, and a window overlooks the back yard—probably the best view in the house, our docent mused. The steps of the back stairs are different heights, an intentional design of Reuben’s as a warning from intruders who would stumble and wake the house.

The kitchen is not original, though I do not know when it was added. It is filled with lots of artifacts, including the ever-present pie safe. Our docent demoed the polishing box, which was used to sharpen knives, and picked the handle-less cup and saucer out of the dishes and asked use how they could use a handle-less cup. (And this is where knowledge of history comes in handy. I thought of the cup and saucer metaphor for the House and Senate. Like the saucer, where you pour out hot liquids to cool before consuming them, the Senate is where ideas from the House can cool before acting on them by turning them into laws.)

A small narrow room between the kitchen and the foyer holds several photos, a spinning wheel, and the entryway to the room beneath the stairs where the goblins live. Next to it is the dining room, which another little closet similar to the rafter room, where—you guessed it—goblins live.

Another John Keefer painting hangs in the dining room. An Enemy in Camp — Where is He? Could we determine what was special about the painting? Hmmm…the painting was of a turkey vulture and chickens. Why was there a large off-white shape in the center of the painting? My eyes couldn’t make it out. It turns out that this center off-white shape was key; it was the shape of a silver fox, an image of the South, among the birds. The fox in the hen house, so to speak.

In between the dining room and the front formal parlor is an informal parlor full of interesting tidbits. I noticed a stereoscope on the table, similar to the one I recently saw in the Swiss Heritage Village. A large dulcimer lay on another table. And in the corner is another Reuben-made desk from their log cabin days.

Phyllis then led us outside through the flower and herb garden and pointed out the pixie garden. A surprising number of bumblebees enjoyed the gardens, and I saw a butterfly house in the midst of flowers. I was stopped by a curious site on the climbing passionflower plant—big round pods. I had never seen maypops on passionflower plants before, which made me wonder: was I simply unobservant or were the passionflower plants that I previously saw deficient in some way?

The tour ended in the museum with an amusing seven-minute film of Riley played by an actor. The film, as Phyllis described it, really tied together all the bits of the tour. The museum itself is an interesting collection of tidbits, including tins and packages of the Hoosier Poet brand (like the items I saw in the kitchen at the Gene Stratton-Porter house).

And there was the story of Riley’s Edgar Allen Poe hoax. Riley was born on the day that Poe died—October 7, 1849. But that was not the only connection between the two poets. Before Riley became known as a poet, he struggled to get his poems published in eastern periodicals. To prove his point—that snobbish eastern periodicals only publish poems by already famous poets—Riley “discovered” a long-lost Poe poem. An Indiana (not eastern periodical) published it, and later when the forgery was discovered, Riley was fired from his job at a different newspaper.

I can almost hear Mary Alice’s admonishments to the children against doing something bad, words that are immortalized in Riley’s poem Little Orphant Annie:

An’ the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you
Ef you

No goblins at the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home & Museum, only lots of stories and artifacts from his life. The tour of the house and the museum are definitely worth a stop.

Movie review: A Writer’s Roots: Kurt Vonnegut’s Indianapolis (2016)

The person introducing this documentary about Kurt Vonnegut described it as filling a void: no documentary existed about Kurt Vonnegut. (However, a quick Internet search brings up another documentary released this year.) This documentary, A Writer’s Roots: Kurt Vonnegut’s Indianapolis, was produced in partnership between PBS station WFYI and the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis.

Kevin Finch, the Director/Producer/Writer, and Jim Hall, Associate Producer/Writer, attended the showing at the 25th Heartland Film Festival and fielded questions after the movie.

Kevin was asked: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Vonnegut? His reply: Learning about his connection to Lake Maxinkuckee, a lake in northern Indiana where the Vonnegut family—and the muckety-mucks of the Indiana novelists, playwrights, and songwriters—summered.

What surprised me in the film? Mistaken associations about gravesites in Crown Hill Cemetery. No, really. Vonnegut was quoted as placing Dillinger near Riley. (Their graves are on separate sides of the cemetery.) And in the documentary, someone mentioned the Vonnegut family plot as being on the Crown, the hill where James Whitcomb Riley is buried. (The Vonnegut family plot is near the Crown but not on the Crown. Kurt himself is not buried there. His actual resting place is unknown.)

The documentary starts with Kurt’s eldest son Mark reading a speech written by Kurt on April 27, 2007 at Clowes Hall on the Butler University campus in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Indianapolis mayor, Bart Peterson, had declared 2007 the Year of Vonnegut and celebrations were planned. Kurt was planning on delivering the speech in Clowes Hall. But then tragedy hit. He passed away April 11 from severe brain damage following a fall.

The documentary focuses on the intersection of Vonnegut and Indiana. A Writer’s Roots shows his life in Indiana and beyond, how he escaped Indiana to gain perspective on his past, and how Indiana continued to pop up in his works—and how he continued to return to Indiana throughout his life.

A Writer’s Roots includes interviews with important people in Kurt’s life, such as his daughter Nanette, son Mark, and friend and fellow author Dan Wakefield. Experts such as curators at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library provide historical bits and show artifacts from the library, such as the umpteen rejection letters Kurt received from writings that he submitted.

Although coming from a family of freethinkers who moved in artistic and creative circles, his father insisted that Kurt not pursue the arts. He was only allowed to attend college if he studied something practical that he could make money doing. Kurt’s father did not want Kurt’s financial success (or viability) to be dependent on the whims of the economy. He decided that Kurt’s major field of study would be chemistry.

His father’s insistence was somewhat understandable given his life experiences. Kurt’s father and grandfather were responsible for some amazing architecture in Indianapolis, such as the Athenaeum. But the Depression hit and his father’s architectural business and the family fortunes never rebounded.

Kurt started with chemistry and finished his time in college studying engineering. He attended classes at several different universities but never completed his studies or received an undergraduate degree.

Kurt ended up going into the army to fight during World War II, where his experiences informed his later novels. He was part of the Battle of the Bulge and a prisoner in Dresden. He had the unique opportunity of watching the beautiful buildings of Dresden be obliterated and of helping to bury the women and children killed in the attacks. (The bombings of Dresden just killed civilians. The men were all off fighting in the war.)

He came home, married, attempted graduate work at the University of Chicago, and ended up in New York. He never returned to live in Indianapolis after leaving for the University of Chicago, but Indianapolis remained with him for the rest of his life.

Kurt had a love/hate relationship with Indianapolis. He loved his childhood, which was idyllic as the member of wealthy families of freethinking Germans—at least until the Depression hit and the family businesses of alcohol and architecture disappeared. Kurt established deep ties to friendships formed growing up and had fond memories of Shortridge where he attended high school. He maintained these friendships throughout his life.

The love/hate relationship that Kurt had with Indianapolis was mutual. Indianapolis celebrates Kurt’s roots, much more than other past famous Hoosier authors (Riley, Tarkington, Nicholson—to name a few). In some ways though, he was not accepted or embraced by his hometown, witness the dearth of attendees to his book signing In Indianapolis for Slaughterhouse-Five.

Does Indianapolis really accept him as one of their own, or do Hoosier resent his depiction of them in his works? I would argue that the freethinking tradition (for lack of a better word…kind of ironic referring to freethinking as a tradition) of the Vonnegut family (and other educated German families) never really took root and was not accepted by the Hoosier population at large. Kurt’s ideas are foreign to the conservative and insular culture of Indiana, which rejects or ignores them.

According to Kevin Finch and Jim Hall PBS stations across the country are showing a shorter version of this documentary. (Why not the whole documentary—it is only 86 minutes in length? Presumably the shorter version is to fit into the standard hour-long slot.) The documentary is well worth the watch.