Sweet Charity

Almsgiving.

The word seems such a far cry from fearlessness, the first of the Divine Qualities from the Bhagavad Gita I set out to explore in this, my year of journeying through twenty-six qualities and how they may (or may not?!) apply to me and my life.

Fearlessness is exciting: it shouts in triumph, and I strongly suspect it has wings. Big, powerful wings.

But almsgiving? It’s reserved. It feels far more likely to speak in a whisper, and to shuffle along in the shadows…

For me, the mere mention of the word almsgiving immediately conjures vivid images of darkly hooded monks holding empty wooden bowls, moving in silent procession along dimly lit cloisters. It seems archaic, and somehow austere, not to mention (from where I’m sitting) very Catholic. Almsgiving always reminds me of religion classes in primary school, when our teachers felt the need to regurgitate the same explanation each and every year when they distributed our cardboard Project Compassion boxes that Lent is a time we were meant to give alms, not arms: the Good Lord wanted our money, not our body parts.

I mean, I get it — giving to those less fortunate than ourselves is part and parcel of spiritual traditions the world over. It’s what makes us decent human beings. It’s coins slipped quietly into donation boxes, dollars slid silently onto collection plates, online donations made without fanfare or fuss from the privacy of personal computer. And it’s important — I genuinely believe that.

But even so, almsgiving is not particularly…exciting?

And even though I did not — and still do not — plan to make any of these dives into the Divine Qualities a specifically religious exercise, it occurred to me that perhaps I need to shed yet more of the baggage I have been hauling around since suriving thirteen years of Catholic school?!

In the light of this conclusion, I sought out the secular — and where better to turn than to the silver screen, and to a beautiful, whimsical romantic comedy released twenty years ago this year,  Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, which is better known to English speaking audiences simply as Amélie.

I watched this (still delightful) film with my elder daughter a few weekends ago, and was struck by the fact that the title character, Amélie, is always trying to do the right thing by people. Being shy, she does so secretly, surreptitiously and — in the case of breaking into a neighbour’s apartment — downright stealthily. And even though Amélie doesn’t always get things quite right (let’s face it: the break in is completely illegal), for the most part she makes a genuine effort to improve the lives of the people around her, all while attempting to conquer her own feeling of isolation.

Weirdly, Amélie could almost be said to be about almsgiving in action: as Amélie cultivates generosity towards others, her insular world begins to open up. Without giving too much of the plot away, over the course of the film Amélie befriends a lonely old man, Raymond Dufayel, who lives in her apartment building, painting a copy of the same Renoir picture year after year. She walks a blind man across a street, rapidly telling him all the things she can see so he may get an impression of the hustle and bustle of Montmatre. She hatches a unique plan involving a garden gnome to encourage her father to broaden his horizons. She stands up for Lucien, the grocer’s assistant, who is regularly ridiculed by his boss. She reunites people with long lost possessions. And, ultimately, she falls in love and — with encouragement from Monsieur Dufayel — finds the courage to pursue Nino, the man she has fallen for, and to give him her heart.

Watching Amélie made me realise several things.

That almsgiving at its simplest and most perfunctory is making a donation of money or a possession we no longer require.

With greater thought and commitment, almsgiving may involve giving our services, our intellectual property, our time. You might prepare a hot meal for someone, or draft a letter for a person who doesn’t share your particular professional expertise (whether that be legal or financial or whatever), or you may offer to drive someone somewhere even though it’s out of your way.

Almsgiving doesn’t have to be as exciting as fearlessness for it to be fulfilling. And I think I can safely let go of the idea that almsgiving is something that has to be done — like it seemed to, with no small amount of drudgery, every Lent, every year when I was at school. It’s a choice, and the more thought and better the intention behind the choice, the more fulfilling the act.

Ultimately, there is true power doing things, however small, with great love.

Mind yourselves,

BJx

2020 On Screen: Blue Jai’s Top 5

Happy New Year from Blue Jai!

Folks, I’m still in lockdown as I write this, but am hoping against hope that restrictions will ease tomorrow and we will finally be able to escape the Northern Beaches for the first time since 19 December 2020.

Not surprisingly, escape seems to have been the theme of much of what I consumed on screen in 2020. In my view, desperate times call for comedy, for fantasy, and for distraction – and that’s just what I went for last year. So yes: I watched things like Space Force and allowed my children to binge way too many episodes of Brooklyn 99. But I also needed things to be real, so I devoured (along with most of the TV watching population of the planet) The Last Dance, and also took in Cheer and My Octopus Teacher and other documentaries – even Operation Odessa, from which I am still recovering.

Most of all, now that I reflect on it more deeply, I think much of what I really enjoyed on screen in 2020 revolved loosely around notion of “family” – which, as we all know, is much more about what you make it rather than what you’re born into. I’m very fortunate 2020 brought me closer to my own family than ever before.

So here, in no particular order, is Blue Jai’s Top 5 on Screen for 2020:

The Mandalorian, Season 2 (Disney+)

Can we all just take a minute to acknowledge the genius and greatness of Jon Favreau? The Mandalorian has clearly been such a labour of love for him – and in my view he has triumphed, successfully tying together so many disparate threads from the Star Wars universe, as well creating a thoroughly entertaining series populated with fantastic characters. Our family has loved hanging out together taking in the eight episodes of Season Two, delighting in the developing bond between the Mando and Baby Yoda, watching awesome warrior women like Cara Dune and Fennec Shand kick butt alongside Boba Fett, and screaming with excitement when we finally saw Ahsoka Tano appear on the screen for the first time (as a live action figure, obviously – she was probably the best thing about Star Wars: Clone Wars). And the blockbuster final episode? I want to talk about it so much! But also don’t want to spoil it for anyone…it’s that good.

The Mandalorian has brought us joy in a year tainted by so much…other stuff, and I’m so grateful that the Space Western genre is not only alive and well (complete with masterful musical contributions from Ludwig Göransson), but is thriving in the eminently capable hands of Jon Favreau and his team.

Hamilton (Disney+)

Other than The Mandalorian, I don’t think anything on screen in 2020 has been obsessed over as much by me and my family – especially Marvel Girl – as Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda delivers a virtuoso performance as creator, producer and star of this incredibly successful musical. I have lost count of the number of times we’ve watched it or listened to the soundtrack, and lines from the show seem to sneak into our everyday parlance with astounding regularity. The libretto is astonishing – as is Daveed Diggs, but that is a whole other story. Watching this masterwork prompted me to post a note on my kitchen wall reminding me (and the other people who live here): You have as many hours in the day as Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Challenge accepted?!

The Bureau, Seasons 1-5 (SBS On Demand)

Let’s change it up a bit, shall we? Once the world (well, my world) became a bit less tense in 2020, I was able to take in content that was more suspenseful. By this I mean that I binged five entire seasons of the brilliant French production The Bureau and loved every minute of it. This spy drama has it all – a superb cast, great characters, gripping plotlines, realistic engagement with current events, the works.  You will probably recognise Mathieu Kassovitz, who plays main protagonist, Guillaume Debailly alias Paul Lefebvre alias Malotru, from the cult classic movie Amelie. Here, however, Kassovitz portrays a deep cover agent for the DGSE who is unable to let go of a former love when he is unexpectedly recalled to Paris, setting off a chain of events which have repercussions for him, his lover (played by the luminous Zineb Triki), his daughter, his colleagues, and many others. I sincerely hope Season 6 is in the works – I’d watch it in a heartbeat.

A Suitable Boy (Netflix Series)

I watched a number of shows with a subcontinental theme this year, including Never Have I Ever (which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially since it is narrated by John McEnroe and also features one episode narrated by Andy Samberg) and Indian Matchmaker (which I found hilarious and heartbreaking all the same time). But in the latter part of the year I was delighted to discover something Indian with which I was far more familiar: A Suitable Boy.

I have a rather large soft spot for A Suitable Boy, not least because I had the privilege of meeting Vikram Seth, who wrote the book upon which this show is based, when I was seventeen. It was the first time I’d met a famous published author, and my copy of A Suitable Boy, which he generously inscribed for me, remains a treasured possession – even though The Bloke jokes that it could double as a door stop, such is its size.

The Netflix television adaptation of A Suitable Boy necessarily leaves out some of the incredible detail which characterises Seth’s book, but it remains full of colour and life and tackles the personal and the political in greater depth that I had imagined it would. At its core it’s a love story, but it is so much more besides.  Tanya Maniktala does a great job as Lata Mehra, the main character, but for my money Tabu nearly steals the show as Saeeda Bai. This six part series is well worth watching.

The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix Series)

I was tossing up a number of options for my fifth choice, but The Queen’s Gambit managed to pip several other contenders at the post because of its polish. The production values of this Netflix show (another screen adaptation of a novel, this time by Walter Tevis) are consistently high, and the attention to detail is second to none. I have next to no interest in chess, but this series kept me hooked – probably in part because of the attention to detail paid to the fashion, décor and music of the time in which the series is set. Add to this Anya Taylor-Joy’s mesmerising turn as Beth Harmon, and throw in the ‘chess family’ she ends up with, and I was left well satisfied.

Under the category of Highly Commended for 2020 I would have to include:

  • Umbrella Academy Seasons 1 & 2 (Netflix) – more escapism and quirky takes on “family”, not to mention the zany brilliance of Robert Sheehan as Klaus;
  • Douglas (Netflix) – Hannah Gadby’s masterful follow up to Nanette, in which she tells you exactly what she’s going to do to you and you still laugh as she does precisely what she told you she would;
  • The Highwaymen (2019 Netflix Film) – in which Woody Harrelson and Kevin Costner take on Bonnie and Clyde (I particularly love the way this movie was shot, without showing the faces of Bonnie and Clyde until they are finally ambushed);
  • Freeman (ABC iView) – introducing Cathy Freeman’s historic gold medal win at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games to my children was a more emotional experience than I ever expected.

That’s a wrap of Blue Jai’s Top 5 On Screen for 2020 – stay tuned for the next episode, in which my trusty alter ego, the Thrifty Fictionista, tackles Blue Jai’s Top 5 Books.