Tag Archives: Book Review

Book Review: This Place | That Place (2022)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Buy This Place | That Place at Amazon

*This Place | That Place will be released on June 14, 2022

The innovative format of Nandita Dinesh’s This Place | That Place, along with its timeless subject matter, make her debut novel an absolute must-read.

Dinesh’s background in theater and the study of protest movements informs how she constructs This Place | That Place. The novel is primarily a dialogue between two characters, organized to read almost like a screenplay. The conversations are supplemented with other documents, including excepts from a guidebook and a developmental materials for a curriculum, along with notes from the character reviewing the document. The inclusion of these materials reminded me of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future.

The (sadly) evergreen subject of This Place | That Place is military occupation. Conversations between the two main characters — a man from the occupied country and a woman from the occupying country — take place inside his house during the first few days of a surprise military curfew.

In order to make her novel as universal as possible, Dinesh doesn’t assign names to either the countries or the characters. The book could be about Ukraine and Russia or Palestine and Israel, etc. Yet the setting is clearly inspired by Kashmir (“This Place”) in 2019, when India (“That Place”) revoked Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 and cut off access to the outside world. Fans of Hindi films will appreciate the characters’ discussion of a “Shakespeare adaptation” set in the region, clearly referring to director Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider, an adaptation of Hamlet.

Conversations between the main couple tend to focus on limits: practical limits on the movements of people under curfew; the limits of her ability to understand his experience of living under occupation; limits on the ability of individuals and groups on either side to change the terms of the occupation. The pair deliberately avoid addressing the romantic tension between them in order to delay the most frustrating discussion of all: the limits the occupation places on their possible future as a couple.

The woman from “That Place” is in “This Place” to pilot a (secret) course to deprogram occupying soldiers, similar to tactics used to deprogram cult members. The goal is to get soldiers to question their orders, rather than follow them blindly and to view the local citizens as people, not enemies. It’s one of an array of interesting resistance tactics discussed in the book. Editorial notes attached to the woman’s curriculum give further insights into the characters.

Perhaps of most interest to those of us lucky enough to live outside of a military occupation is the man’s document on how to endure prolonged periods of curfew. Most of the man’s solutions involve taking control of time — the only thing one has in abundance when locked inside one’s house — or at least the perception of it.

As the book explains, despite an outsider’s best efforts to empathize, it’s almost impossible to truly understand what it’s like to be trapped with no access — physical or virtual — to the outside world for days or months. Dinesh does a wonderful job guiding the reader to empathize with the situation right up until the point when the reader realizes that it can’t really be done without personal experience. It’s a an effective call to action.

Dinesh uses her wealth of experience to craft a thought-provoking novel that doesn’t claim to have all the answers. Rather, This Place | That Place invites further exploration and provides a new lens through which to see the world. As one character states: “One of the things that people without the experience of curfew don’t understand, is how easy it is to keep entire nations subjugated when its citizens cannot access information.” That’s a warning all of us should take to heart, no matter where we live.

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Book Review: Bollywood Kitchen (2017)

Author, screenwriter, and producer Sri Rao just released a new book called Bollywood Kitchen: Home-Cooked Indian Meals Paired with Unforgettable Bollywood Films. Trust me: you want this book.

Bollywood Kitchen is organized as a dinner-and-a-movie entertainment guide. Rao chooses one of his favorite recent Hindi films and pairs it with entrées and sides designed to complement one another–and the movie. For example, Kaahani‘s entry features recipes for kati rolls, which originated in Calcutta, where the movie is set. The meal for the family film Chillar Party consists of Rao’s take on fish sticks and healthy vegetables with a kid-friendly twist.

The first thing you’ll notice about Bollywood Kitchen is how extraordinarily colorful it is. Rao’s publishers secured the rights to use images from all of the films he mentions, so the book is full of amazing posters and stills. On top of that, the food is beautifully photographed.

One of the many gorgeous movie stills featured in Bollywood Kitchen.

The second thing you’ll notice is the effort Rao put into making his ideas for dinner-and-a-movie night doable. The films he selected are generally available on streaming services or for rent or purchase from places like iTunes. My public library has nineteen of the twenty-two films featured available on DVD or Blu-ray. For each entry in the book, Rao suggests three similar movies also worth checking out.

Rao’s recipes are easy to execute, as well. It’s clear that his goal is to get his readers cooking, while leaving them with enough time and energy left to actually enjoy the movies. Chickpea dishes use canned beans, not dry beans that need to be soaked for hours. Rao suggests time-savers like using pre-cut squash from the grocery store.

The very first recipe in Bollywood Kitchen requires zero cooking skills. Rao’s “Bollywood Popcorn” puts a spicy twist on a movie-night staple, and all that’s required is mixing together some common pantry spices to make a topping for do-it-yourself microwave popcorn in a paper lunch bag. The novelty of the lunch bag alone was worth it to me (not to mention it tasted great).

Using ingredients found in most American homes plays an important role in the story of Bollywood Kitchen. As he mentions in the book’s introduction, Rao was born and raised in small-town Pennsylvania to Indian parents who moved to the United States in the late 1950s. Decades before the internet made accessing products from around the globe a snap, Indian-American home cooks had to get creative, adapting their family recipes to use ingredients easily found in major grocery stores. This often meant using spices common in Mexican food — such as cayenne in place of Indian red chilli powder — or substituting ground beef for hard-to-find mutton.

These aren’t necessarily dishes that would be served in a restaurant, so the only way to taste them is with an invitation to someone’s home. Now that Indian ingredients are more accessible, I wonder if Indian-American home cooks have adjusted their recipes or if they’ve stuck with the recipes they used in the decades before the internet? Whatever the case, Rao’s description of his upbringing gave me greater insight into the lives of my high school classmates and the compromises their parents made to fit into an America that was not nearly as interested in diversity as it is today.

Confession time: I am not a good cook. I’m a good baker, but the idea of being responsible for dinner stresses me out. My wonderful husband, Greg, has handled most of the cooking in our household for the last dozen years, for which he has my eternal gratitude. Nevertheless, I actually made a couple of the dishes from Bollywood Kitchen, and they turned out great!

I chose two recipes crafted to accompany the gripping thriller NH10 — Northern Indian fare that one might find in the region where the movie is set. I started with something in my wheelhouse: kheer. Rao warns that Indian desserts can be quite sweet, so I only used about two-thirds of the recommended amount of sweetened condensed milk. The resulting dish was perfectly sweet (to my taste) and had a wonderful creamy texture, slightly thinner than American-style rice pudding.

One word of caution is that most of Rao’s recipes are designed to feed from four to six people, and with generous portions at that. I wound up eating more kheer in a week than one human should reasonably consume, not that I’m complaining.

The other dish I made was Rao’s chana masala, and it was amazing. The spicy chickpeas make for a hearty vegetarian entrée, especially when accompanied by naan. Greg and I have vowed to make it one of our go-to dishes; it’s that tasty. If someone with as limited a skillset in the kitchen as I have can make something as delicious as this chana masala, the recipe has to be good.

The cherry on top is that Rao has wonderful taste in movies. Almost all of the films featured in Bollywood Kitchen — big hits like Kapoor & Sons and gems like Haider — wound up on my “Best Of” lists for their respective release years. As the producer of New York and Badmaash Company and the writer of Baar Baar Dekho, Rao has enough experience in the film industry to know a good flick when he sees one.

Bollywood Kitchen is a must-have book for hardcore Hindi-film fans, but the movies featured offer a great introduction for any Bollywood newbies. The recipes themselves suit those new to cooking Indian dishes at home, although even those who prepare Indian food regularly will appreciate the meal-planning that Rao’s done. This really is a terrific book. Get it here.

Book Review: Don’t Call It Bollywood (2016)

Hindi film fans take a lot of things on faith, especially those of us who didn’t grow up immersed in Bollywood. For example, a Bollywood punch doesn’t simply knock a person to the ground, it sends him flying through a wall. Also, ball gowns are appropriate attire for women no matter the environment, be it a sand dune or a snowy mountaintop.

One aspect of Hindi cinema it never occurred to me question is why Punjab and Punjabi characters feature so prominently in films made in Mumbai. In her new book, Don’t Call It Bollywood, Margaret Redlich explains how Punjabi refugees shaped modern Hindi films, resulting in the mustard fields of Punjab becoming the industry’s visual symbol for the nation: “the India you want to remember.”

Redlich’s book is part film history, part industry insight, and part personal essay. Each chapter begins with Redlich’s own accounts of her experience with Hindi cinema, as well as her efforts to introduce it to others. Like me, she didn’t grow up with Bollywood films, only really finding a passion for them as an adult. The dismissive attitudes of (I presume) her fellow film studies counterparts toward Indian cinema prompted her to write this book.

Don’t Call It Bollywood is a good jumping-off point for movie fans ready to take the leap from the screen to the page. Because the e-book does not contain any photos or illustrations, it helps to be familiar enough with Hindi films or Indian culture to have some preexisting image in mind when Redlich mentions something like a character wearing “a typical Parsi hat.”

The book features several addendums, including suggestions for further reading. The most helpful is the “Useful Hindi Words to Recognize” addendum, which serves as a key for translating almost any Hindi film title.

Redlich’s writing style is very accessible, and for $2.99, the price of the e-book is undeniably reasonable. Click this link to check out Don’t Call It Bollywood on Amazon. More of Redlich’s writings on Hindi films, plus her movie reviews, can be found at her website, also called Don’t Call It Bollywood.