22 February, 2007

The Half-Moon Files

The Half-Moon Files

By Sushma Joshi

I happened, by accident, to hear about 'The Half-Moon Files.' The Berlinale, Berlin's international film festival, is the biggest in Europe after Cannes, and there were 250 films competing for attention. But the woman who told me about it was certain I would be interested. It was about the POW (Prisoner of War) camp in Berlin after WW 1 and had interesting anthropological elements, she said. 'It is about Indians in the POW camp,' she said. As soon as she said 'Indians', I knew I had to watch it. It was the last day of the festival, but I had no hesitation chucking my ticket to the Hongkong action movie and heading to the Arsenal, a theatre located in the basement of the Filmhause of Berlin.

The documentary was in German, which I do not speak or understand. But it was probably the most interesting film I, as a Nepali, watched in the entire festival. The reason was this-- the film, an ostentious 'ghost story' in which filmmaker Philip Scheffener goes out to track down the voices of prisoners-of-war imprisoned in a camp in Berlin after WW1, features old archival sound files, a four minute film footage, and a treasure trove of photography.

The filmmaker spends a great deal of time shooting the bureacrat at the Indian Embassy and the difficulties he encounters trying to get a shooting permit to India. This lavish attention to Indian bureacracy seems to lead him astray. For what I saw on the screen were not 'Indians', but face after face with distinctive 'Nepali' features. They had names like Dhanbahadur and surnames like Budathoki. They said they were 'Singhs', but the accent--rough mountain voices with a Nepali accent, gave them away as not the fieresome Tigers of the Sikh Punjabi regiments but Gorkhalis who had descended from the hills to make a living in the British regiments.

There was an old photograph of a court with men in Nepali topis. The four minute footage, the only extanct one as far as I could tell, features a Dashain ceremony in which men perform a vedic ceremony before a goat is taken to be sacrificed. In the background, there is a dance performed by dhami-jhankri. Anybody who has taken a look at contemporary shamanistic cermonies in Nepal will instantly recognize this cermony. This was not Dusshera, as the filmmaker explained to me later, but Dashain--a very distinct form of celebration with its own geographical and cultural connotations. The causal disregard that most Indians hold for cultural distinctions between Nepalis, who have a distinct national and geographical reality, and Indians, was apparent in the way the researchers in India had informed the filmmaker. The Sikhs stand around watching but there is a little excited scamper as a group of Nepali men cluster around the priests who perform the fire ceremony, just before the white goat is brought to be sacrified.

The film also tracked the way scientists used the POW camp as a rich treasure trove of ethnic groups to practise their first anthropological and ethnological experiments on. They measured body parts to figure out why the Germans were not as hardy as their enemies. This was the beginnings of the scientific racism of Nazi Germany which would manifest twenty years later, with tragic and far-reaching consequences.

A german girl sitting next to me was kind enough to translate. The film ends with a funny story--although the filmmaker has never been to India, he appears in several news reports in India, 'shooting in Andhra Pradesh' on this story. The filmmaker, it appeared, was open to the humor of narratives, to the ways in which stories are made up and in which reality is often constructed and open to interpretation. I wondered how he would react if I told him his story was not complete.

The ghost may have been tracked, but he seems to have left some important details out. Did he know that about fifty percent of the people he shows as POWs are not Indians, but Nepalis? So I asked him in the Q and A. Had his research assistant in India, by any chance, not told him that the men were Nepalis, speaking Nepali?

The filmmaker, disappointingly, said that he had been aware of that they were Gurkhas, speaking a mixture of Khas and Hindustani, but that he had not felt it was important enough to distinguish between the many different groups from India. This would have complicated the story. I pointed out that Nepal was already a different nation state in the 1700s, far ahead of the Indians, but this apparently was not historically important to distinguish. It seemed incredible to me that an European researcher at this day and age, working with serious historical materials, would feel this was not pertinent, but apparently such was the case. The filmmaker talked a great deal about colonialism. I sat in the audience and thought of the irony of how the Nepalese reality, once again, had become submerged into a larger Indian one, but the critic of colonialism couldn't fathom this important distinction.

There were large segments of black footage during which one can hear the voices talking. As I heard the Nepali voices from almost a hundred years ago talking about how their King would recall them back to their homeland from the terrors of Germany, I thought about how things haven't really changed. Nepal sends its men and women out to Malaysia, Korea, Iraq and Jordan these days, instead of Germany. But the faces and the voices are still the same, and the simple faith that their country, no matter how impotent, will save them eventually is still the same.

'The Half-Moon Files' moved me, not only because the voices from so far ago talking about displacement and loss were never heard by their countrymen, or understood by their captors, in their own time. It also moved me because this remains the case to this day--that Nepalis, to this day, remain an invisible group in the global conciousness.

07 February, 2007

En Vogue: Prabal Gurung, Bill Blass

Sushma Joshi
Kantipuronline.com, February 7, 2007

Vogue, one of the world’s premier fashion magazines, features actress Angelina Jolie on the cover of its January 2007 issue. Jolie wears a raspberry rayon matt jersey evening dress that drapes across her body in perfect, sensual symmetry—there’s a sari-like hint to the drape of fabric against her legs. The classic, elegant look comes from the design table of Bliss Blass, a New York couture house with clients as diverse as Oprah, Laura Bush, and Sigourney Weaver. What most Nepalese don’t know is that one of the designers of the label is Prabal Gurung, whose rise to meteoric New York success rivals those of the best stars.
A St Xavier’s graduate, Prabal was the only one of his class to study this field in 1990. Like all boys, he struggled to belong, but was made to feel different. However, this very sense of being “different” helped to push him to define his sense of identity later on in life.

Prabal went to Delhi, where he attended the National Institute of Fashion Technology and worked for the Indian designer Manish Arora. So when he was accepted to the Parsons School of Design, New York’s most prestigious school of fashion, of which Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford and other influential designers are alumni, he was already a veteran industry insider, as well as a student with a deeply serious interest in his art and business.

Prabal went on to win the Best Designer competition between Parsons and the Fashion Institute of Technology in 2000. The next year, the faculty asked him not to compete, but to open the show instead, which he did featuring 15 looks of his work. The designer Cynthia Rowley, who was a judge at the show, was so impressed she offered him a job on the spot. After three years with Rowley, Prabal moved to Bill Blass. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I knew Prabal in New York (he was at Parsons, I was at the New School’s graduate programme in anthropology, a block away). The stress of student life in New York was alleviated by fun evenings with Nepali friends, and Prabal was always a key participant. He sang, danced and displayed an incredible memory for old radio Nepal jingles, and a hilarious talent for parodying Nepali pop songs. His side-splitting Tara Devi imitation: ko hoo ma? Kay hooo ma? (Who am I? What am I?) is pure genius. I have hours of video footage of Prabal that makes me suspect he would be as good in the acting world as he is in the fashion one. He can dredge up an Urdu shairi, switch effortlessly into mainstream American chit-chat, then return to a slap-dash Nepali insult within the space of a sentence. I was impressed by Prabal’s ability to navigate through multiple cultures simultaneously. But while Prabal is undeniably at home in New York, he never forgets his Nepali roots, or his family.

“The most important influence in my life,” says Prabal, “is my family. My mother a strong, opinionated, hard working and extremely compassionate renaissance woman whose sense of style, grace and ability to look like a million dollars even in a shoestring budget has left a huge impact on my life. My drive and desire to succeed has come from her. I am a product of her in every sense. My father’s sartorial elegance, optimism and relentless pursuit to provide us with better education made me confident to hold my own today.” He also cites his sister, brother and brother-in-law as a major source of inspiration and support.

Having a close and supportive family network helped him not only to weather tough times, but also to share, communicate and articulate his dreams in a way that served him well in the hyper-competitive environment of New York. Prabal’s mother had faith in his dreams, and refused to listen to people who said she was a fool to let him study fashion design. Yet she believed in him, and her faith was eventually justified.

I was often amazed by Prabal’s ability to party, while simultaneously excelling at work. There was no doubt he was the best amongst his peers. What is your secret? I asked him once. And he told me: “The key is to make it appear effortless by working hard when nobody’s looking.” As we looked through the beautiful drawings of his portfolio, we had no doubt that Prabal was working extraordinarily hard at the job he loved best.

One evening I showed up wearing a mirrored Gujarati shawl, which Prabal took from me and meticulously molded, twisted and shaped into a dozen different outfits—a skirt, a shirt, a dress, a hairband, a wrap. Watching him at work was akin to watching a painter rapt in his painting, or a musician in his instrument—there was no doubt that I was watching a master of his art working on his creations.
Prabal’s daily routine these days is the stuff of fashion magazines. He dresses the First Lady of the USA, and her daughter. Oprah Winfrey-- “the most influential woman in the world”--according to some commentators, chose to buy and wear a Bill Blass dress not just on the cover of her O magazine, but on the very special day on which she opened her $40 million leadership academy in South Africa.
But despite these successes Prabal is not satisfied. “I have lots to achieve. This is something I have learned from my mother. With every achievements and success she always asks me: “That is great, but what’s next?” so that kind of zeal and drive has kept me going,” he says. “I will feel a real sense of achievement when I am able to give something back to my country. The day I can make a contribution to Nepal, socially and/or economically, I’ll consider that a job well done.” Prabal eventually wants to create his own label—one that would show the world that creative minds can also come from a small country known mostly for its exotic factor.

Prabal’s farewell party when he went to New York left people gasping as he showed up—fashionably late—in an outfit that Kathmandu had never seen before, and probably never will. His ability to leave a shimmering impression of imagination, longing and fantasy will no doubt show its hand again when he returns, time and again, to visit his home country.

Fashion design falls low on the hierarchy of the doctor-engineer obsessed Nepali culture. But fashion is a billion dollar business globally. In places like New York, fashion has received its due as a significant shaper of contemporary culture, and a potent hybrid of art and commerce by being featured at institutions like the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA.) It's time Nepal embraced its own artists in the fashion world with credit that’s long overdue.