Happy Holi: Another version of India than Slumdog Millionaire’s

As the big win of Slumdog Millionaire has moved out of the top story category, here’s another version of India, one that I experienced, but without all the choreography and singing. Today is Holi, a holiday celebrating the triumph of good over evil. I forgot about it until being reminded by this Intelligent Travel post. Here’s a happy Holi experience for you.

If you watched Season 13 of the Amazing Race, you may remember part of it occurred during Holi. Some of the team members were totally covered in powder. If you have blond hair, good luck getting out the green. When we went to a Holi celebration, one of my daughter’s friends, a fair-haired, fair-skinned girl, looked like she was related to Shrek for about three days.

Touring the Taj

Built in 1648 by Shah Jahan as a monument to his third wife, who died giving birth to their 14th child, the Taj Mahal still stands as one of the greatest man made structures anywhere in the world. Attracting upwards of 4 million visitors per year, the Taj is India’s top tourist spot, with many foreigners now being inspired to make the journey thanks to the success of Slumdog Millionaire.

Recently the Houston Chronicle published an excellent article with great tips on touring the Taj, which was named a World Heritage Site back in 1983. The article is a great read for anyone planning on visiting the massive mausoleum, which can be quite daunting for the unprepared.

One of the first tips offered up for travelers is that they hire a regulated guide to show them around the sprawling grounds that consist of the iconic white domed tomb, as well as a large garden, and a number of smaller buildings as well. The guide will not only help you navigate the place, they’ll also make sure that you aren’t mobbed by vendors and beggers while making the final trek to the entrance gate, which isn’t all that close to where you’ll park.

Also of note, the article recommends that you go to the Taj twice, once at dawn and once at dusk. This will double your chances to avoid crowds, which can be quite massive and chaotic during the days, and allow you to stroll the compound at your own pace.

Oscar nominees for best movies that capture place: Six nominees

Each year I see all the movies nominated for Oscars in all the major categories–plus more. As I watch movies, where they are filmed and how the place influences the story interests me. Perhaps this is because when one travels, the places one travels influences the experience.

There’s not an Oscar for movies that best capture a sense of place, but if there were, here are my suggestions for movies that came out this year. As you read the list, think of movies that have struck you. My list is from this year’s movies, but any movie and any year counts.

Best movie for capturing the sensuality and sexiness of place:

Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

This whole movie made me drool over Barcelona, Spain and the city of Oviedo, another location. The architecture, art, the fountains, the glasses of wine, statuary and little courtyards–divine. Plus, it was sunny! As a bonus, that delicious feeling of being young women off on a European adventure was perfectly captured. Who wouldn’t want to have a romp with Javier Bardem?

Best movie for capturing a place that is past its prime:

The Wrestler

With the economy’s downturn has come the closing or downsizing of beloved attractions. The scene in the abandoned carousel room at a no longer in use boardwalk in New Jersey where Mickey Rourke’s character danced with his daughter encapsulated that longing for simpler times and childhood memories gone-by

Best movie for capturing the intricacies of cultural interactions and neighborhood change:

Gran Turino

I was so disappointed this movie wasn’t nominated. The scenes between Eastwood and the Hmong immigrant family from Cambodia were superb. Also important were the shots of the neighborhood in Highland Park, Michigan. My favorites were when they kept plying him with food, something he eventually relished. What a wonderful tribute to the idea that culture is mostly about what makes your heart sing.

Best movie for capturing a place of color and vibrancy:

Slumdog Millionaire

As much as I wasn’t all that enamored with Slumdog Millionaire as a package, the vibrancy, sounds and colors of parts of Mumbai drew me in. Plus, what a feat to capture the footage in the sprawl of Dharavi, the “slum” community there.

Best movie for capturing how place influences how people live:

Frozen River

As I watched Michelle Leo steer the car across the ice of the St. Lawrence River next to the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in Upstate New York, I thought about how where people live can affect outcomes. The storyline and place was a perfect match. I can still hear the sound of the ice crunching.

Best movie for capturing place that has been a heartbeat of change:


San Francisco’s role in the movement of gay rights was an integral part of this film. Along with depicting the important people like Harvey Milk and Cleve Jones (who started the Names Project, the AIDS Quilt), this was a terrific look at how the city has played an important role in U.S. history.

Best movie for capturing the sense of self discovery that travel brings:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons

All the footage of Benjamin Buttons traveling as a young man, particularly in Nepal, brought back memories of how travel is an integral part of developing a sense of self. Anyone who has washed out clothes and hung them on a piece of string in a country that is not your own, knows what this feels like.

Slumdog Millionaire: Not too crazy about it

Spoiler alert. Oscar season is here. I’ve seen all the movies in the major categories and some. At the risk of sounding crabby and uncool–not with it, I wasn’t enamored with Slumdog Millionaire. Yes, yes, yes, I know the movie is considered mighty fine, and a shoo in to bring home Oscar on Sunday, but at times when asked what I thought about it, I’ve declared, “I hated it.”

That’s not true. I didn’t hate, it but I’m not fond of it either. Of the movies nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, I liked it the least. Somewhere during the middle of the movie, about the time the two brothers were tossed off the train, I had an unsettled feeling, a bit of unease–the feeling that I was being manipulated to have certain ideas about India, poverty, and what might make it feel better. It felt exploitative in a Hollywood, feel good kind of way.

I have company. In a conversation with former Peace Corps volunteers, we tried to pinpoint what bothered us the most about the film. We didn’t come up with anything specific, but it has something to do with our own experiences of living in the midst of poverty, and how the movie piled on bad news in huge helpings with only one solution to address the mess–win gobs of money and get the girl. .

It’s not that there aren’t kids who get maimed to make them better beggars. There are–some. I’d say not many. It’s not that people haven’t been killed in India because of unrest between the Muslims and the Hindus (or Christians for that matter). Some have been. It’s not that there isn’t organized crime in India. There is. And, it’s not that the police wouldn’t torture a person in India. Some do. Throw in the prostitution angle and the movie covers it all. Not the bride burning, though. That wasn’t included–it must have been left off the laundry list of bad things to include in the repertoire of really, really bad things that happen to people in India. (I’d venture to say, there are equally bad things that might happen anywhere, but India is in these days, particularly since any one who needs assistance over the phone is likely to be talking to someone in India.)

So, here we have a movie that piles on all the worst India offers on it’s worst days and shows seemingly endless scenes of torture and child endangerment. But, it’s a feel good movie because at the end, the bad guys are dead, the police turn nice, the talk show host has a change of heart, and one of the only two positive characters in the storyline wins amounts of money that most of us will never see. PLUS, he gets the girl–the girl being the only other character that audience members are coached into caring about.

The way I see it, Slumdog Millionaire took the darker side of India and turned it into a movie that those of us who will plop down money on movie tickets feel good about seeing. At the end of the movie, we feel good because love persevered. Too bad about the blind kid, though–and the brother gone bad did make a bold statement about getting money through organized crime when he arranged himself in a bathtub filled with crisp bills knowing he’d be gunned down in a blood battle.

If I hadn’t lived in India or The Gambia, I might have liked Slumdog Millionaire better. But I feel like it took an outsiders view under the guise of capturing reality. Some might say that the movie showed what poverty is like. Really? Only the beginning scenes showed the closeness and organization that occurs every day in a jugghi colony –the version of poverty I’ve seen–the kind not jazzed up by fantastical events. In my mind, poverty was not the biggest reason the three kids were in jeopardy. Religious unrest and hatred was. That was barely addressed in the movie and was used merely as a vehicle to kill off Mom so the rest of the story could occur.

There were two scenes, though, that felt like perfect pitch. One was at the Taj Mahal. Although it was a volume turned up version, the interaction between westerners who feel guilty about being tourists, and the people who make money off that guilt was fairly accurate in its intention. Still, it was a parody of American tourists. Are we that hapless and clueless? My experience of the Taj Mahal is that, although you might be swarmed by people trying to sell you post cards as you beeline from your vehicle to inside the Taj Mahal complex, in general, you’re not going to be ripped off if you look for official tour guides. The over the top part was the car being stripped. Could it happen? Sure, I suppose. I never heard about it happening though.

The other scene was when the two brothers were being chased by the police when they were young. This was perhaps my favorite scene. What I liked about it was it captured the essence of rambunctious boys and authorities who try to keep them in line. My impression is that this is a cat and mouse game that happens daily with no one getting hurt.

When I saw Slumdog Millionaire, it felt like dining at a huge buffet with every kind of food imaginable, but after the experience, I wasn’t sure exactly what I ate.

Here’s what I think would make for a better movie. Show kids from a jugghi colony that have been cast in a blockbuster movie and what it’s like for them to have this experience, particularly once the cameras have stopped rolling. From what I’ve heard and read, a trust fund has been set up for the children who were cast as the childhood versions of the grown up characters. The kids have also been enrolled in school, but in general, their lives are the same. Tinseltown didn’t change them much. However, they are going to attend the Oscar award ceremony. (See photo of Rubino Ali, the young girl who played Latika in her house in India.) That might change them a bit.

Here’s what I’m wondering. If the kids who are living in poverty are having valuable lives with meaning and depth–which I think they are, and obviously Danny Boyle thought so too since he left the children where he found them, then why is there the notion that in order to solve life’s problems, we need to be millionaires? As much as we were told that the main character didn’t care about the money, then why did he need to win it in the end?

Of course, I was happy he won it. It’s Hollywood. And the dance scene while the credits rolled was excellent.

Galley Gossip: My Bollywood Valentine’s Day

There we were, the husband and I, standing up in a dark movie theater with a huge smile across our faces. We had gone to see the movie Slumdog Millionaire and were just about to leave, but when the credits began rolling the Bollywood dancers started to move their bodies in sync.

“Wait, I want to see this!” my husband exclaimed as I began to walk up the aisle.

“Really?” I asked, even though I already knew his response would be, yes, really! What I didn’t want to see was my husband doing those same Bollywood dance moves later that night. He can’t help himself. That’s why I love him.

As I stood there watching the dancers perform the “go away” dance move, as my husband calls it, a move that requires one hand to flutter from the front of the face to the back of the head, I immediately flashed back to another time in my life, back to the days when I was single and used to work the New York – San Jose route.

Why would an amazing film like Slumdog Millionaire remind me of a San Jose trip? Because we used to layover in Fremont, California – not San Jose, California. It was cheaper, I guess. Have you ever been to Fremont? Let’s just say I spent many layovers eating wonderful curries, drinking delicious chai tea, and checking out the local video store for a Bollywood movie I once worked on eight years ago called Mehbooba starring Sanjay Dutt, a movie I never did find.

Oh yes, that’s right, yours truly is not only a mother / flight attendant / writer, but also a not so famous ex Bollywood actress. In the movie Mehbooba, a film that was shot in New York City and other amazing places around the world, I’m just an extra. I’m the girl wearing the red dress on the boat, which is actually the same boat that was used in the movie The Mosquito Coast starring Harrison Ford. While I lounged on the wooden deck, Sanjay Dutt actually kissed me on the cheek. I do hope they didn’t cut that part out.

For the record, Mehbooba means my beloved. My husband actually had it engraved on my wedding band. Only he spelled it wrong – Mehabooba. Just a random fact about me.

Another random fact about me, I don’t like Valentine’s Day. There’s just to much pressure to have fun and fall in love and spend too much money doing so – just to be let down in the end.

My dislike for Valentine’s Day began in elementary school. That’s where, each year, I was forced to decorate a tissue box with construction paper in shades of red, pink and white on the day of love. A person can’t help but get excited about what they’re going to find in their box at the end of the day, even if that person is only ten years old! Of course my box never overflowed with hearts and candy the way those of my classmates did.

Then, years later, I gave my college boyfriend a special gift. I don’t remember what it was, but what I do remember is what he gave me. Nothing. He was too busy breaking up with me – not just once, but twice, on two different Valentine’s Days! What can I say, some people just have to be slapped in the face with rejection!

After college I dated an engineer who wanted to celebrate Valentine’s Day the day after – on the 15th. Or the 13th would’ve worked, too. “It’s cheaper that way,” he’d said matter of fact. Of course now that I’m older and wiser I see the logic in that, but back then it only made me hate the day even more.

Though I do have many bad memories, there was one Valentine’s Day I did actually enjoy. It happened in Fremont, California of all places. And it may even have to go down as one of the most fun nights of my life. My date that night at the Bollywood disco after a scrumptious dinner at an Indian buffet was Katherine, the flight attendant working in first class with me that month of February in 2001.

I had just planned on having another not so great Valentine’s Day, which is why I had opted to work that day, but Katherine decided to take matters into her own hands. She started asking passengers if they could fix us up with someone – anyone! Who lived in Fremont. You have to understand that Katherine was the kind of person who could say anything and get away with it. I think the British accent had a lot to do with that. While we did make quite a few of our passengers laugh, we never did get set up, and eventually found ourselves alone drinking chai tea as we celebrated together in a coffee shop across the street from our Fremont layover hotel.

“Why don’t you two come along with me!” said the owner of the shop. He’d been eavesdropping in on our conversation. “Just pay me gas money.”

So that’s what we did. We paid our new friend gas money and he took us to a private party not too far away. Katherine and I danced the night away to music we’d never heard before, nor have I heard since, and we learned dance moves that only my husband could appreciate. Of course back then he wasn’t around to appreciate them. No one was. Just Katherine.

On the flight back to New York Katherine stood in the first class galley wearing her pin striped apron and looked me square in the eye, and said, and she said this very seriously, “Heather, you were the best date I’ve ever had.”

Of couse I felt the same way about her. The sad thing is I never did see my special Valentine’s date again after that wonderful month working together. I heard Katherine quit flying shortly after 9/11. A lot of flight attendants did.

So now that I’m married to a wonderful man who has spectacular dance moves of his own, a passenger I actually met on a flight from New York to Los Angeles just a few months after 9/11, and now that we have a beautiful two year-old son who travels so often he calls his belt a seatbelt and prefers to keep it fastened at all times, things have changed for the better. Valentine’s Day is no longer about me. It’s about us.

This year the three of us will be celebrating together at home. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but I do know that mommy and daddy will be spending a romantic evening out alone on the 12th instead of the 14th this year. You better believe my husband will be getting a copy of the Slumdog Millionaire CD, as well as the just released Mehbooba DVD! Yes, it took eight years, but it’s out, the movie is finally out, and my poor husband will be forced to watch it!

Photos courtesy of (Bollywood dancers) Fikirbaz (Mehbooba) the official Mehbooba website (Valentine’s box) Msabcmom