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I recently watched two movies The King and I and Anna and the King back to back and then, for a lark, re-read the nonfiction book Anna and the King of Siam written by Margaret Landon.

This is my favorite snippet from The King and I. *** Louis (Anna’s six-year-old son): Doesn’t anything ever frighten you, Mother? Anna: Oh, yes, sometimes. Louis: What do you do? Anna: I whistle. Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect and whistle a happy tune so no one will suspect I’m afraid.                 *** Not a bad idea! I would love to adopt this trick myself, but then I’d have to learn to whistle first.

This is my favorite snippet from The King and I.
***
Louis (Anna’s six-year-old son): Doesn’t anything ever frighten you, Mother?
Anna: Oh, yes, sometimes.
Louis: What do you do?
Anna: I whistle. Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect and whistle a happy tune so no one will suspect I’m afraid.
***
Not a bad idea! I would love to adopt this trick myself, but then I’d have to learn to whistle first.

The two movies and the book are based on the real life events of Anna Leonowens (a British woman) who spent five years as a governess/teacher in the court of King Mongkut in the Thailand (Siam) of the 1860s. It was a turbulent time in Thailand’s history, with the British, French and Burmese sniffing at it from all sides.

King Mongkut hired Anna to lead his considerably large royal brood—including his heir apparent, Prince Chulalongkorn, who incidentally went on to become Thailand’s most popular and progressive ruler and accredited many of his principles to the foundation that Anna had laid through her teaching—into the modern world.

I like to compare books/movies based on the same subject matter but written/directed by different people. This fun activity always results in fresh revelations about objectivity and point of view. (Read my observations from another similar exercise here: Point of View.)

Margaret Landon, author of the book Anna and the King of Siam, writes of Anna’s first impression of the king: “How revolting to be dependent for one’s innocent desires upon the caprice of this withered grasshopper of a King!” However, as she works closely with the king in translating and writing his English and French correspondence, Anna begins to respect his extraordinary intelligence and keenness of mind.

Coming to the two movies, The King and I was released in 1956. As the name suggests, this movie solely focuses on the relationship between Anna and the king and relegates the rest of the rich tapestry of incidents to the backdrop. Perhaps as suited for the times, this movie shies away from depicting any ugliness, including the fickleness of the king’s character and the inhumane concubinage and slavery that was rampant in Siam.

Yul Brynner, actor and noted Broadway star, plays the king in the movie as if he’s still on stage. He’s loud and gimmicky to the point that he makes the king look like a caricature and sound like a fool. (Also, his king is no withered grasshopper; rather he is buffed up and athletic, and his costume makes sure we notice.) All the actors in the movie speak in loud overtones as if to make up for their lack of knowledge of the customs of Siam. Perhaps it has somewhat to do with the fact that it’s a musical. Still, Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr (who plays Anna) make it work, and you come away from the movie with a light spirit, if not especially instructed in the culture of Siam.

The second movie Anna and the King, starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat, was released in 1999. This movie is on the opposite end of the spectrum in its sensibilities from The King and I. Far from being averse to harshness and brutality, this version seems to anchor the story in them. The movie begins with a gruesome scene with several dead bodies hanging from a tree—the director’s way of depicting the political unrest between Siam and a British-backed Burma.

Jodie Foster, with her stiff body language, makes Anna remote and aloof to me, while Chow Yun-Fat takes King Mongkut to the other extreme. With his characteristic genteel demeanor, Yun-Fat turns King Mongkut into a gentle giant of a man as opposed to the mercurial autocrat that he was. This movie, however, makes a better effort at explaining the Eastern philosophy and putting some of the spotlight on Anna’s relationship with the various royal children and concubines.

A single point the two movies share (and hence stray as far as possible from the real life events they’re based on) is: they are both love stories at their core. Say what? Nowhere in the book does Anna say that she has developed any feelings for the king but frustration, irritation and many times a grudging respect. So, why, oh, why should both the movies twist the plot into an unfulfilled love story? Because that’s what Hollywood does best. Sigh!

As the last frame rolled away, I was yet again reminded that how a movie shapes up is subject to the past and present life experiences of the director and the actors assaying the roles. When we watch a movie, we’re stepping for the duration of it into the director’s private chamber upon his/her invitation. And what each of us takes out of that visit, again, depends on our own point of view as a viewer.

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I recently read, back to back, two works of fiction that are based on one historical figure’s life. I didn’t expect them to be overly similar, but I wasn’t prepared for them to be so different either.

What made them so dissimilar was the point of view of each of the authors. And by that I don’t mean the first person or the limited/omniscient third person view they used to narrate the tale, but the perspective and understanding of the authors about the life and times of the subject matter.

The books are Shadow Princess by Indu Sundaresan and Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors. Both the books examine the life of Mughal princess Jahanara, the eldest daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan and Empress Mumtaz Mahal (yes, the Mumtaz Mahal of the Taj Mahal fame). The stories are set in an India of the 1600s that is thrown into turmoil by the constant bickering of the various invading forces like the Mughals, the British, the Portuguese and other opportunists.

Shadow Princess is the last of a set of three books called the Taj Mahal trilogy. Sundaresan sets the stage beautifully for Jahanara and narrates her story (in alluring poetic prose that enhances the ambiance) with the right mix of awe and slight disdain that Mughal lives tend to evoke in most Indians’ hearts. Sundaresan’s Jahanara is bold and decisive, but tempered by subtlety and decorum. When suddenly burdened with the responsibility of a mourning father and confused siblings upon her mother’s death, teenager Jahanara steps into the role with aplomb. Over time, she learns to protect her own interests with the requisite cunning that is inevitable in her position.

Shors’s Jahanara, on the other hand, is outspoken and in-the-face courageous. So much so that she rides astride a horse in broad daylight, walks around the city unveiled and openly disobeys her husband. In short, she could pass for a twenty-first century (almost American) teenager, if you didn’t know any better.

Having grown up in India and read its history, I know that Mughal women were rarely allowed outside their palaces and certainly never without purdah. If it were a princess, then her life was even more circumscribed owing to the intrigues surrounding her as the candidate for a powerful political alliance.

I feel Sundaresan, being an Indian and a woman, handles the subject with better insight into the traditions and restrictions Jahanara possibly faced during her lifetime and how those same constraints shaped her into the strong and influential figure she grew into.

Shors deals with the situation head-on and makes a formidable heroine of Jahanara. I didn’t dislike the book. In fact, after I managed to swallow my irritation (even if it took me several trials and dozens of pages into the book to get there) at how modern Jahanara and the other characters and their interactions with each other sound, the book grew on me. I loved the gumption and resourcefulness of Shor’s Jahanara.

This exercise brought home to me forcefully once more that a book, be it fiction or non-fiction, is colored by the past and present life experiences of the author among many other things. When we open a book, we’re stepping for the duration of the story into the author’s private chamber upon their invitation. And what each of us takes out of that visit, again, depends upon our own point of view as a reader.

Have you read two or more books by different authors but based on the same personality or incident? Please share with us your experiences from the activity!

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Perspective

I don’t know how much truth there is in the saying that you grow wiser as you grow older, but I definitely know of one thing that never stops changing (no, by that I don’t mean your nose which never stops growing – ack!!) as long as you live.

It is your perspective; your viewpoint. It keeps changing along with you whether you want it to or not. For better or for worse.

A few months ago, for kicks and out of curiosity, I went to some trouble and finally got hold of DVDs of a couple of movies that I used to watch again and again as a teen.

I was fully prepared to not really drown in the magic of those movies the same way that I did way back then, but I thought that I’d at least be able to enjoy a few carefree hours of strolling down memory lane.

Little did I know that I’d end up very close to tears. No, not the joyful, oh-how-much-I-missed-you tears, but fat, hot man-am-I-bored-or-what tears.

No, I’m not demeaning the feelings or the emotions I’d experienced as a pre-adult . It’s just that I’ve moved on. The over the top hair and loud clothes of the early nineties and the melodramatic, hit-over-the-head throes of first love, which meant so much to me then, have obviously lost their charm for me. (And I’m not complaining – who wants to be on that roller coaster again?! :-))

That was about movies.

Now, books.

Amazingly enough, the books – be it The Summer Adventure or a Pride and Prejudice or a Mrs. Pringle – I used to love a decade or two ago still hold the same power over me. I go back to them again and again whenever I’m in need of faithful company, and always come back from them refreshed and buoyed in spirit.

In fact, there are some books that I didn’t quite get as a kid, but when I read them again as an adult, I saw a whole new side to them.

For example, when I first read Great Expectations, I couldn’t look beyond the morbidity in the setting of the book. When I read it again as an adult, a couple of years ago, I couldn’t help but notice Dickens’s sense of humor playfully peeking through the chinks in the dark fabric of the book.

So, what makes books different from movies in this respect?

I think it’s the wings lent to your imagination when you’re reading a book. Movies are very restrictive in this sense. They definitely don’t provide the same scope for making up your own world.

Whatever it is, I can only say: “Thank God that it is so!”

Is there any book (or books) that has grown on you as you read and reread it?

And, on the flip side, are there any books that you have grown to hate over time?

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Okay, so the title is not entirely true. I still very much love and enjoy reading. It’s just that the definition of ‘fun’ as it relates to reading has changed for me.

Now, when I pick up a book, it’s not merely to indulge myself. It’s not just a hobby any longer, though I’d have to admit, reading has always been much more than a hobby with me – it’s been a natural part of my life.

It’s just that my objectivity and perspective as a reader have recently altered. It’s like a kaleidoscope: I have adjusted the viewing tube ever so slightly and the whole pattern has shifted.

Let’s take a look at some of the thoughts that are likely to roil through a writer’s head the minute s/he starts reading a good book written by someone else:

  1. Wow, what a strong opening! Guess I need to work on mine (in my novel-in-progress) some more. (This thought can be objectively interpreted as: “Wish I would experience an epiphany and the opening for my novel would strike me like a bolt of lightning.”)
  2. Ugh! How could he have written the exact scene that has been brewing in my head for the past two weeks? (Read as: “The scene is somewhat similar to the one I’ve been sketching – the same one I haven’t been able to cough up coherently enough to put down on paper yet.”)
  3. Yes!! The voice of this character is very close to my protagonist’s. (Read as: “If this book got published, then there’s hope for mine, too!”)
  4. The narrative is so catchy; I admire the style very much! (Read as: “I’m envious, pure and simple.”)
  5. The plot is strong, there is just the right balance of dialogue and narrative, and the flow is so natural in this book. (Read as: “How many more revisions before my manuscript gets this tight?”)
  6. This author is so prolific. (Read as: “I’m jealous of this author.”)
  7. Gosh, I never expected this twist! (Read as: “I need to explore this genre more, if I didn’t see this coming. Sigh!”)

Reading like a writer is a completely different game, with its own set of rules, than reading for fun or relaxation. It is a sport that can become exciting and effective with discipline and practice.

I am game for this: I look forward to fashioning new relationships with a whole lot of new books, and forging fresher bonds with those that I have already read in the past.

Has something like this happened to you? I’d love it if you’d share with us your newfound wisdom!

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