Sunday, September 10, 2017

Arjun Reddy - To love or to hate (Movie Review)

I watched the telugu movie Arjun Reddy, and felt conflicted the moment I walked out. Should I submit to its charms or do I give form to the discomfort I felt while watching some portions? Do I declare it a masterpiece or exhume its flaws. Or could it be both at once--flawed and great. It has been weeks, and I have had problem letting go of the movie. This review is my trying to resolve the conflict.

Arjun Reddy (Vijay Devarakonda) is in final year medical college. He is a brilliant student, with a promising future. But, he has anger issues (imagine what would happen if you drop a 200 kg bag of dynamite into a raging volcano--you roughly start getting the sense of the rage Arjun Reddy is capable of). He is on the verge of getting kicked out of Medical college for refusing to apologize for beating up the rival team in a football match. He is willing to throw away his career, his future as a doctor--all because he believes that he is who he is and there is no point bending one's principles, no matter what. But then he sees Preethi (Shalini Pandey), first year student, walk in to the college. It takes about fifty screen-seconds-thinking for him to decide she is his future wife. He promptly apologizes and starts pursuing Preethi.

This section, where he pursues the girl, is quite troubling. He lets everyone in the college know that she is his girl and no one else is to pursue her, rag her etc. Then he just inserts himself into her life--visiting her in her hostel, planting a kiss (on his first one-on-one meeting, before even completing a full conversation with her), deciding whom she should be friends with, pulling her out of classes and conducting his own private coaching sessions in scenic locales by drawing anatomy diagrams on her limbs. One night he just drops by her dorm and shoos away the friend with whom she is apparently studying and rests his head on her lap and goes to sleep. The heroine's response to all this is even more dumbfounding. We hardly know how she feels about all this. The best case, generous interpretation is that she is terribly attracted to him and doesn't express it (though the screenplay gives little indication of this). The worst case interpretation is she acquiesces to all his shenanigans because she is scared, doesn't know what to do, how to respond, until she genuinely starts to fall for him. Either way, we are not witnessing two people fall in love. We are witnessing one person's will browbeating another into passive submission, into love (?).

But the movie progresses. They fall madly in love. They become inseparable. How can we buy this, root for this--such a lopsided, deranged relationship? Because they are good looking people, good actors and the director does a good job of selling the romance, staging the scenes. Also, the secondary characters (their friends) are sympathetic and believable to a large extent and we believe it because they also believe it.

Eventually, the parents get wind of this. Arjun is a rich Telugu guy and the Preethi hails from a conservative, Tulu, middle class family. The girl's parents are outraged by the relationship that crosses caste, language, class, and throw Arjun out of their home. Arjun and Preethi confront each other in front of Preethi's house, in one of the best scenes in the film. They try to come to terms with the reality, of their upbringing, of their parents, their own will, self-respect and struggle to reconcile all this with what they feel for each other. This scene has genuine emotional resonance -- in one unbroken long-take (or at least feels like it), the walk, talk, cry, scream and throw everything they have (emotionally) at each other. Every word that comes out of them pushes them a step closer to irresolution. You are left dreading the consequences, hoping that they would somehow find a way to work things out. This is a triumph for the movie and its actors and director--they draw you in, make you nervous, make you root for the characters (even if they are flawed).

But it doesn't work out. Arjun overdoses on drugs and falls unconscious for 36 hours, during which Preethi is forcibly married off to some random guy. Arjun wakes up, realizes what has happened and gate crashes the wedding home to somehow get Preethi back, and when he realizes that it is not possible, shatters and recedes to living a drug, alcohol, sex fueled life while serving as an orthopedic surgeon in a hospital. The second half, almost in its entirety, captures in gut wrenching detail Arjun's downward spiral as he burns and crashes and tries to come to terms with his loss. It is painful to watch him go down the drain of substance abuse and implode. The movie presents a flawed character and makes no apology for it. There is a scene where Arjun threatens a girl at knife point to have sex with him, before realizing what he is actually doing and dropping the knife. This is the movie's way of telling us that Arjun is indeed an assole, a dangerous one at that.

What keeps us engaged is the assortment of extremely likable array of secondary characters, Siva, Arjun's closest friend and probably the most abused character in the movie, and Arjun's paternal grandmother, who comes across as the perfect antidote to all the mayhem, a sane-jane, looking at everything clear-eyedly and commenting ('Suffering has to done alone. Leave Arjun alone.'). And Arjun's other friends, who only wish good for him and dote on him, root for him and shower him with love and attention. Also Arjun is played by Vijay--a star-making, career-making turn--he invests the role with so much authenticity and naturalism and gusto, he makes you root for him, in spite of all the shenanigans his character does. [Some women who have watched the movie remarked to me that he is 'YUM'. So, I guess, the 'YUM' factor also helps in making him likable.]

Coming to the questions--does the movie have any problems. Unfortunately it does, major ones. The problem is not that the protagonist is an assole. That is alright. Characters don't have to be flawless. But the problem is that Arjun (and unfortunately the movie also) is obsessed only with himself (and with Preethi, only because she is the object of his want, love). No one else matters. He unleashes unspeakable abuse and bad behavior against everyone who cares for him--his family, friends, no one is spared. He rips their soul apart and tramples on it. And they also put up with it, without much of a protest. Even a couple of scenes where he is shown bonding or honestly interacting with others is used to espouse his theories and impose his world view on them. For example, his brother visits him and sees the squalor he lives in, and starts exchanging words and blows--there is an honest moment when the brothers fight it out and in the end share a drink. Even here, the final word is Arjun's, who gives his elder brother marital advice on why couples shouldn't 'plan' their pregnancies and how it should 'just happen' 'out of love'. Also, the scene is staged and framed in such a way that the movie and its director honestly believe that what Arjun says is the gospel truth and that his conformist brother is no match to Arjun (if the character condescends, we can forgive, but if the movie condescends then there is a problem). And this continues throughout. No other character (barring Arjun's grandmother) has anything of importance to say. Even when they chat (like the hilarious scene between Siva and his dad) it is about Arjun--to narrate Arjun's chronicles. Arjun is the sun, the moon, the solar system and the universe and all the universes there are. No one else exists, matters.

Another problem is the ending. It seems forced. The entire second half is spent showing us how Arjun struggles with his loss and how helpless and hopeless he is. And his grandmother's words --suffering has to done alone--sets up the stage for his redemption. But redeem himself he doesn't. He gets back with Preethi, who has been waiting for him to come back, bearing his child. This ending completely makes irrelevant the entire movie. Arjun isn't changed one bit in the end--the world comes around to him and proves him right! All that mumbo-jumbo and pseudo-macho dialogues he has been espousing is not something he grows out of--we are asked to accept that as the norm. Arjun is not an assole--he is a visionary who is way ahead of his time. It is the audience who is lacking the emotional intelligence to understand him--this is what the movie and its ending says. What a world that would be where Arjun sets the tone and agenda and we all have to follow!

The movie is made by a first time director (Sandeep Reddy Vanga). And it is a spectacular debut. The casting, the staging, the cunning deployment of razor-sharp non-linear editing (the football ground fight scene), avoiding the impulse to over-explain, extracting the best from his actors, even the minor ones--all of which points to a major talent. As a film fan I rejoice at Sandeep's arrival on the scene. I am thrilled to see what all he has in store for us. But I have a problem with the vision--it is terrifying to imagine a world populated by narcissistic megalomaniacs like Arjun, let alone imagine one shaped around his worldview.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Superman's Jatti

I watched the latest superman movie (Man of Steel) a couple of days ago. I liked the movie, liked the backstory, liked the no-holds bar action scenes which were over-the-top, un-hinged, almost breaching the line between entertainment and stupidity. But this post is not about the movie. It is about a far more important issue. It is about Superman's jatti - i.e., his underwear, knickers, chaddi, briefs whatever you call it.

Only today (a good two days after I watched the movie) I realized that Superman's red jatti, which he normally wears over his blue pants were missing. Don't get me wrong - his groin area is well protected by his suit, and no - you couldn't see anything. But the iconic red jatti was missing. I apparently was so engrossed in the movie, that I had missed this major, major detail. How could I have?

The jatti is the cornerstone of the Superman legend. Countless kids, all over the world, for several decades now, have at some point put on a jatti over their shorts or pants, with their skinny legs sticking out, and felt for a second that they were Superman. Felt the power seep up to their oversized heads. Imagined for a second that they could punch the air with their fists and lift off, making an appropriate "uusssshhhhjjjjj" swooshing sound. If you remove the jatti from the legend - a magic goes away a little bit.

Actually, I'll go one step ahead and say that jatti is the cornerstone of modern civilization even. Modern civilization is built on people leaving their homes and working with each other to build the buildings, discovering fire, running empires and so on. Imagine a bunch of people without jatti's doing all these tasks. First of all, they wouldn't have the same level of confidence without their jattis. No building or bridge is ever going to survive for long, when built by a jatti-less contractor and mason. No way! You try stepping out of the house without a jatti for a day. All you will be thinking about a thousand details that would expose the fact that you are not wearing a jatti.

Humans are very very obsessed with this seemingly innocuous piece of clothing. For something that is such a tiny component, a lot of thought goes into it. Women buy black underwear - to look good when they are undressing! Guys buy briefs - to gain support; buy boxers - to loosen the strings, so to speak. And it is such a himalayan faux pas if your jatti is visible in public. "Look at him/her - dressing in a way that his/her jatti shows! Immodest!!" No one wants to be caught with their jatti showing. Being conscious of your jatti being spotted is one thing. Being conscious about your jatti-line (or panty line, as it goes) is another. Some women, go to the extent of wearing thongs when they wear white or some light colored pants/shorts so that the panty line is not visible. This is really pushing it, I would say. Why do they do that? The light colored fabric could be translucent that people can deduct that you are wearing a jatti by reading your panty-line. I have never tried wearing a thong - but I am going to venture out and say that it must be pretty inconvenient wearing one. Why torture oneself for the sake of a jatti? Well, that is a topic that I won't open now.

Let's not get sidetracked here. The topic is Superman's jatti. I have a theory as to why he wears his jatti above his pants.

Theory 1: Scene 1. Superman has packed his costume in a briefcase, and reports to work for the first day of saving mankind. And he picks up a distress call from a distance. But he can't reveal his civilian identity - so he needs to quickly change into his superman costume. Off he goes to the nearby back room/janitor's closet or something like that, quickly pulls out his suit and wears it. (Some of you, at this point, might be thinking that - doesn't Superman wear his suit under his civilian dress, and he just needs to strip down one layer and fly off. Sorry! I beg to differ. I submit that he couldn't be wearing his suit underneath his civilian dress, because of his cape. The cape is too unwieldy. He could not possibly wearing his suit with the cape and wear one more layer of clothing above it and not look like an idiot. So - he would have to undress and wear his suit.) Coming back to my theory - so, while undressing and wearing his suit, he forgets to wear the jatti! See, he is not human! Aliens are not as obsessed with jattis as you and I are. When he discovers that the jatti he packed with his suit is still in the briefcase - without thinking too much, wears it and takes off. And on his first day out, he gets photographed wearing his jatti over his pants - and it becomes a mark of his brand, and hence he couldn't go back to wearing his jatti under his pants. And a legend is born.

Disclaimer: The author has to admit that the above article was only possible with inputs from a secret source who has inside access to the workings of Superman's mind. The source might or might not be named Clark Kent. The source requested the author to sound out humanity, through this blog, if Superman in fact could revert to wearing his jatti under his pants or skip it altogether, as at most times, when he is flying at high speeds chasing villains, his jatti flies off mid-air, and creates unnecessary embarrassment.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

When Writers You Love, Leave You…

I am not sure if you have ever felt grief over the death of a public personality – one that you haven’t even met.

I have a few times in my life.

The first time it happened was when I learnt about the passing of M. S. Subbulakshmi - I was shocked at my own reaction to the news, I was surprised that I cared so much about her, that I felt real sadness – the kind that for a moment or two makes you lose balance and lumps up your throat, and you quickly fight tears so that the person next to you doesn’t notice that you have lost it. I, like pretty much every other middle class kid growing up in Chennai, grew up listening to her Venkatesa Suprabatham, Barathiyar songs and other numbers. And she had a pleasing demeanor and all. But I never realized that I cared for MS so much. Until that day.

The second time it happened to me was when a writer whom I worshipped (David Foster Wallace) went and hanged himself. I was devastated. Till then, I followed every single word of his non-fiction writing, and used to diligently check for new articles. When I found out one day that he had written a long article about Roger Federer, I jumped up in joy, as two Gods in my universe were meeting in some form, and I can read about it. I remember printing out that article (15 odd pages) and rushing to the coffee shop and reading it. It was a fantastic day! And then one day, DFW was not there. I cursed him. I dissed him. And then slowly came to terms with the face that I won’t be able to hear his voice, which was actually my own voice (his writing was always like that – it seemed like he somehow got into my head and found out how I would feel about things and wrote it), in my head. It was a loss I could have lived without.

The third time it happened to me was last week. When I learnt about the passing away of the film critic Roger Ebert. Ebert has been a constant companion, discussion partner, and muse for nearly 10 years now. And he is no more – it kills me to realize that there won’t be one more of his reviews waiting for me when I wake up on a Friday morning or one more of his ramblings on some random topic on his blog. It physically hurts me when I think about a world that will not have anymore of Ebert’s new words in it.

The first time I heard Ebert’s name was when my friend Ritesh asked me if I read his reviews, one morning when we were both headed to attend a seminar in grad school. Once I got back to my office, and read one of his reviews. That was the start of a beautiful friendship. My research productivity must have seriously suffered for the next few months (only my PhD advisor can stand testimony). From that day, I waded through his website, obsessively and with urgency, frantically catching up, searching for reviews of movies I had watched, of directors I respected, of movies I knew for sure that I would never watch. He was the best guide there was. And one of the biggest advantages he had over almost any other film critics was that he reviewed pretty much every single movie that was released in the US, over three decades. Which also included a healthy dose of independent and foreign movies. He was the only film critic for the Chicago Suntimes since 1967 - which meant that his website, which archived all his reviews, will most probably throw out an Ebert review of a movie title you are looking for.

A movie review was never just about the movies, when Ebert wrote it. He used it as a platform to discuss life, quirks, priorities, used it as an opportunity to introduce the reader to other works of the director and other films with related themes. He loved books, and never missed an opportunity to plug his favourite books and authors. He gently broadened the knowledgebase of his readers. That was such a boon for a novice like me. My introduction to English literature was almost nil when I started reading Ebert. (I read my first English novel at the age of 19 – and it was a Sidney Sheldon novel – so, you see I am not being modest when I say novice.) I followed his leads like a hound in a pheasant hunt. And when you are entering a new field, it always helps to have good advise and reliable mentors – Ebert was all of that and more – I trusted his judgment. And he rarely failed me. I remember reading one of his reviews where he mentioned “A Fan’s Notes” by Fred Exley and said something like - if you find a person who has read this book in a party, then you both will exchange knowing smiles and chat away about the book for a long time. (So, now you see how the sly son of a bitch made you run after a book and read it, rather than just say that it is a great book that you should read.) And run I did. And found the book (in a beautiful Modern Library production) in my university library and read it. A few years into reading Ebert and following up on his suggestions, I no longer felt like an outsider and books and titles and authors ceased to appear threatening or intimidating.

Ritesh and I practiced a routine for almost four years: On a Friday morning, read up on all of Ebert’s new reviews, watch a reviewed movie or two that weekend, and have lengthy discussions the following Monday – what Ebert got right, what he missed. We were grudgingly happy when Ebert got it right. We were even happier when we disagreed with Ebert and thought he got it wrong (well, if He could get it wrong, then…there was hope for mere mortals). We shook our heads in disbelief and smiled when Ebert (the old fart!) called Frances McDormand a babe and Emily Watson an emerging babe (or something like that) in one of his Harry Potter reviews. This was our film club, our film school. Ebert was the professor we loved to love and loved to hate.

As it was bound to happen, after a few years of reading Ebert, I wanted to be Ebert – in the sense that I wanted to write film reviews as well. A couple of failed attempts later, I did manage to write my first film review – for a campus newspaper. I was super proud to see my byline appear in print – I have only Ebert to thank for that. I continued to write half a dozen more reviews for the paper and more on my blog. It not only helped me think more about movies – but also started me off into writing. Somewhere along the process of writing reviews and continuing to follow Ebert, some unsettling questions did float up. One dis-spiriting aspect about reading Ebert, while attempting to write on your own, was – how incredibly prolific he was – and how words and thoughts seemed to tumble out of him effortlessly, in such huge volumes. How can anyone human being be so productive, and more importantly, what that made me? Another, but more fundamental question that bothered me was - all this – the act of writing about movies, many times subjectively based on your own reactions to the movie, sometimes about movies that don’t deserve to be watched at all, is kind of meaningless. First of all, you are not creating anything new – you are feeding off what other people have created. And just riffing your opinions on it – how constructive can that be?

I did not find answers to these questions immediately. But answers did appear,in the due course of time. As far as Ebert’s productivity goes – my conclusion is – he is prolific because he is prolific. He practices his art so much, that he gets good at it even while practicing it. And it all adds up – the years and years of producing hundreds of reviews – you are bound to get better at it. The more you draw the more it secretes. And there is the snowballing effect as well. And art criticism does have its place in the world. It helps people engage with a work of art – it helps people think through their emotions, to come to terms with certain things, and form opinions, a good reviewer also guides the reader/viewer. When there is lot of junk being created in the world, alongside movies that are worth watching – the world sometimes needs a loud and articulate voice to enunciate why a movie is worth watching and call junk as junk. When people are afraid to prioritize or call a spade a spade, a critic should do the job for them.

And that also brings me to what I think Ebert’s biggest legacy/impact is. I don’t think he was the best movie reviewer there was. Sometimes, he completely misses the point. Sometimes, things are way above his league – read the review of Gandhi by Ebert and Pauline Kael – as an Indian I can tell Pauline Kael’s review was far more truer and she ferrets out aspects of the film that one she has exposed, will fundamentally alter the way you will think about the movie again – that is the power of a great reviewer. But, we all have bad days, and there are always things that are above our league.

But, there are two things that are enduring about Ebert. First, he was fearless about engaging with new things, new themes, new directors. He had an open mind for ideas, for experiences. Even when they challenged him, and he didn’t understand them fully, he withstood it and produced a review that grappled with his ambivalence and confusion openly. The second lesson I derive from his life is – how it pays off to be articulate. The world is filled with conflict. I don’t just mean the wars and armed conflict. I also mean conflict of ideas, ideologies, religions, perspectives. In such a world, people who are most effective are the ones who can communicate their thoughts and convince others of their merits. And for this, it most certainly helps to be articulate - about your thoughts, your ideas, your confusions, your opinions. That is all a good movie review really does. Even when I thought Ebert was being pea-brained about some issues, I was engaging with him – I was debating and refuting his point – his victory is just the fact that he had managed to engage me, and I was paying him attention. That is what articulate people get – other people’s attention. The more effective you are at it, the more effective you are in life itself. And the hopeful part is, it is a skill that is cultivable. And you can get better with practice. When you have written 7000 reviews, it becomes easier, as Ebert has proved, to write the 7001st review. The more you draw from the well, the more it secretes – not the other way around.

Friday mornings will always be a little empty for me, without Ebert’s voice in my head, for the rest of my life. But, I can write this blogpost and let you know how I feel about it – only because Ebert taught me to do it. To write movie reviews. To express my opinions, my fears, my confusions and my sense of loss.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Why Jangri is NOT South Indian Jalebi

I don't know why it happens. I always think that I shouldn't get into such arguments. To use my better judgement. To stay away from trouble. But I can't seem to help it.

Just the other day, two of my colleagues were having an independent conversation (very much in my presence though). The topic was how jelabi was super tasty and how jangri is a South Indian version of jalebi. I could have just kept my trap shut (see, the conversation didn't involve me). And pretended to look at the Excel sheet with fake intensity. But I didn't. How could I? How could I stand one of my most favourite things in the world (Jangri!!!) being treated like a poor second-cousin of jalebi? How can I stand anyone not respecting and appreciating Jangri like I do? I mean, how can you not like Jangri? It's like saying Nelson Mandela is a fake. Not possible. Disliking Jangri. Also, not possible. Speaking ill of it - can't standable.

Okay, let me tell you what happened after that. I jumped in and vigorously defended Jangri. First and foremost, let me get this across. JALEBI and JANGRI are not related!!! Just because, both are orange looking and have a curly, wound-up, roughly-round shape they are not the same thing! It is like saying a domestic cow is one and the same as a ferocious mountain lion, because both walk on all fours, and have a tail. There are umpteen differences between a Jangri and Jalebi.

Before we plunge in to this, a word to the folks who are unfamiliar - in the north (of India that is, not the northern hemisphere), you get a very weak version of Jangri - which is called "Imarthi". But, just as you have to be in New York to eat New York cheesecake or New York bagel, you have to come down south to have authentic and good jangri.

Differences between Jangri and Jalebi:

1. Jangri is not Jalebi (in case you didn't pick that up already).

2. Jangri tastes better. (Don't shake your head. Yes, it does.)

3. Jangri is more healthy. (Jangri while made of urad dal - pure, health-filled, protein you see, Jalebi is made of maida (yes, unadulterated no-fiber containing maida - the cause of all health troubles around the world.)

4. Jalebi recipes include yoghurt. Jangri doesn't. (If you want to injest youghurt, drink Lassi, don't put it in your batter, you yoghurt haters!)

5. Jangri has a defined structure (two-large circles, with smaller beautiful circles arranged around the edges of the large circle). Jalebi has no structure whatsoever - it yields to the whims and fancies of the guy who is squeezing it through the cloth mould - which basically means, that it has no identity. Do you want to deal with a sweet that has such deep unresolved identity crises or do you want to eat a beautiful looking Jangri?)

6. Jangri tastes better. (Yes, it is true the second time, and the hundredth time.)

7. Jangri is not as sticky, and hence not as messy when you eat. (So, while eating Jangri, you can use your not-messy hands to scratch an itch that is bothering you very much.)

8. Jangri is strong. Jalebi is weak. Let me explain what I mean by that: people add malai to Jalebi. Some people also put milk in it and eat it for breakfast. I am not surprised. Jalebi can't stand by itself. It has to go and hide behind the creaminess of a malai or milk and hide its flaws. Jangri is taken as is what is - no accompaniments necessary. (Mark of strength, you see.) As thalaivar says, "Singham single-a than varum" similarly, Jangri-a single-a than adikanum.

Well, I can keep going, if you want. But I'll stop here by giving a call: Jangri lovers of the world, unite. And write the Jangri Manifesto, so as to keep the Jalebi-st forces at bay, and bring in the rule of the Jangri-teriat.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Sleeping Like a Baby

I am sure you must have heard of this expression, "He is sleeping like a baby!" or "poor thing, she has been working on her project all night and now she is sleeping like a baby" or some such variant of it.

Have you? You sure have.

Now, do me a favour, and find out who coined that expression. I have a few things I would like to say to that person. And may be more than a few things I would like to do to that person (I am not sure yet - I am currently reading a volume on Medieval Book of Torture - once I complete my survey I might pick out a few recipes from the above book and implement it on our new to-be-found friend).

Now back to the subject - poor thing sleeping like a baby. When people say stuff like this, what they generally imply is that the "poor thing" under consideration has had a long day and is wearing an innocent expression and is sleeping so deeply and so serenely no force on earth could possibly awaken it. And it is disarming and charming to look at this "poor thing" sleep away.

Person who made this statement first must have never met a baby. May be they met a baby on the street or on a bus, and when they said "chu-chu-ma" or "coo-chi-koo" or some such thing to the baby, the baby might have cracked open a half-smile, and our person would have fallen flat for the baby. This person must have seen another baby asleep when they walked past a pram and must have come up with the phrase.

Let's get some reality into this picture of utter non-sense.

What must have actually happened is this - when this person saw the baby on the street or the bus, the baby must have looked at an idiot contorting his already ugly face to make a super-ugly monstrosity, and must have given a worldly smile, thinking 'what all jokers a baby has to meet in its daily life…' and our man would have thought that the baby understood him and lovvvved his antics. And when he went past a pram and saw the baby sleeping - that must have been the baby closing its eyes to do pranayama or meditate, to calm itself down, because its mother or whoever was pushing it around did not stop at the street corner for the baby to look at a dog peeing into the lamp post. Soon after this the baby would have opened its eyes and did what it did best.

More importantly, let me tell you how a baby falls asleep. One would have to walk around with the baby, gently rocking it, and singing in a low baritone, some lullaby for about 30-40 minutes. If you are conjuring up some "wah- what a pleasure it must be to be carrying a baby and singing to it" and so on - stop right there! Have you ever walked continuously, singing, and rocking a 7-8 kg baby- you'll be breathless after the 7th minute (may be after the 11th minute if you are one of those gym-bodies). But, the thing is, you can't stop after the 7th or the 11th minute. If there is one cardinal rule when you are putting a baby to sleep, is "Don't ever stop doing whatever it is that you are doing before the baby is deeply-deeply asleep". If you try changing what you do, then the baby will wake up, and you can reset the time, and start all over again.

These are a thousand factors that could wake a baby up. Hunger. Thirst. Dreams -yes, babies do have bad dreams. If the baby is teething - which is all the time. Having peed outside the nappy pad which you very consciously wrap around. If there is no cushion or pillow touching it (in the baby's head, this lack of touch of an external object probably makes it think that people have abandoned it in the middle of the Sahara without a soul in calling distance). If it doesn't have enough room to roll around freely. For no reason that you could think of - also, all the time.

All of the above reasons are absolutely legitimate. And babies are like that. That's why they are called babies. That is perfectly alright.

But don't tell me someone sleeps like a baby. Only people who put babies to sleep and make sure that everything in the house is orchestrated in such a way to let the baby sleep its due time are qualified to make that statement.

So, before you attach that title to someone sleeping, think if that person would scream and wake up the entire neighborhood in the middle of the night, because they woke up don't know how to put themselves back to sleep.

(Just like how you can make fun of a community or a religious group if you are an insider, I can make fun of babies - my daughter empowers me to make politically incorrect statements about all babies of the world.)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Indian Film Classics: Baashha/Baasha (Tamil, 1995)

Once in a lifetime, an actor gets a role that he was born to play. The fact that he has spent decades playing other roles and building a career up to that point becomes an after thought. The role/character must have been thought of by various writers and must have gone through numerous iterations before it would be perfected. Other actors would have played some version of it earlier - but none of that would matter anymore. Once the actor and the perfect role meet, everything else that happened before and would come after recedes into irrelevance. What remains is a perfect marriage - one whose glory will be frozen forever. In a million laser disks, DVDs, film copies and fan's imaginations and memories.

Baasha is one such role. And Rajnikanth is the actor born to play that role. I am sure someone can point out some 1940s black and white hollywood movie from which this concept was copied. Or, folks can point out that this is a direct rip-off of Hum, and Amitabh did a great job in that movie. Sorry people, you are talking about movie facts and factoids. I am talking about a cosmic happening, that occurs once in a century.

Manikkam (Rajnikanth) is an average auto driver in an average neighborhood  in Chennai. He lives with his step-sisters, brother (all younger), his step-mother and works hard to bring up and protect his family. He is a fast-talking, jovial kind, who is surrounded by friends, and leads an innocuous life. He is afraid of any act of violence or aggression, and whenever is provoked looks the other way and avoids any confrontation. There is even a rich girl auto customer of his (Nagma), who falls for his charms.

The local rowdy (a perfectly cast Anandaraj) wreaks havoc in the neighborhood, and when Manikkam's brother, who gets appointed as the local Inspector of Police, tries to intervene and bring the rowdy to justice, things start taking unexpected turns. The rowdy corners the Inspector/brother and when is about to chop off his hand, Manikkam intervenes, and pleads to forgive his brother and offers to undergo any punishment but to let his brother go. Taking up this offer, the rowdy ties Manickkam to a lamp post and beats the crap out of him - all through this, Manikkam just smiles and takes-in the treatment without uttering a word. When he is finally let go, covered in blood and drenched from the rain (even the Gods cry when a good man is beaten up, see), his brother asks him "Ungallukku kovame varatha?" (won't you ever get angry?), he answers with a  laughter that really doesn't answer anything.

Surely this is odd behavior. But we know something else is there under the surface. (Also the fact that there are lot of mysterious footage in negative film with ominous music in the background to indicate that something else is there.) Then we learn that, Manikkam is actually Baashha, a don in his previous life in Bombay, who is forced to take up a career in underworld because of the injustice he sees and to avenge the death of this friend. He takes over Bombay's underworld and becomes a terror and friend to all, depending upon which side you are looking from. This leads to the inevitable clash with the bad-don, Antony. The fact that Baashha's dad is a long-time employee of Antony leads to complications. Unexpected things happen, and Baasha's dad dies, only after extracting a promise from Baasha that he should leave town and live life as an average citizen and bring up and protect his brother and sisters.

To keep his promise, Baashha moves to Madras (after staging his death in a road accident and leaving behind his underworld methods), reverts to his original name Manikkam and becomes an auto driver in an average neighborhood. All his acolytes take up equally innocuous careers like tea shop owners, push cart vendors, fellow auto drivers etc., and lead life as average citizens around Manikkam. And we are back where we left off.

This background sets up a perfect ground work for Rajni to unleash his power. He is the ultimate super star - no, that is not just a fan fawning. He embodies heroism (or at least the kind that works on fantasies and celluloid) like no other. He doesn't try in the least to be liked or be heroic. He doesn't have the self consciousness of many other actors, and is not afraid to just be there on screen. This gives him enormous power - and makes him thousand times more interesting. Trying to be heroic on film is like trying to sleep. The harder you try to be heroic, the less likely you will succeed. The less you do and think, the more effective you'll be. Rajni knows this.

He is an excellent actor and has impeccable timing and sense (he gets very little credit for his acting skills - it is time someone gave him his due). Watch him underplay his role for most parts in the first half. There is not a single emotion or gesture which is over done - he gives a performance that is a study in how to give only the bare minimum of what is required and get away with it. He is not insecure to hold back and no do much when it is not called for. But once the ball starts rolling, and he has to enter his hero phase - like the scenes where he is interrogating as Baasha, he doesn't hold back - he experiments, he pushes it to the limit, and is unafraid to do so (imagine some other actor making sounds like "hey, hey, hey, hey, hey….naan our thadava  sonna…"). One wrong step, his performance risks being a caricature and un-intendedly funny. Not when Rajni is in charge.

This sets up one of the best scenes in any film. When his sister is refused admission into a medical college, and the college principal tries to misbehave with her, she recedes and cries, sitting in the canteen. When Rajni hears about this, he takes her back to the principal's office, and requests to speak with the principal in private for a minute. Then he says, "My name is Manikkam" at which point he shuffles out of his submissive posture, unfolds his hands and puts it on the principal's table, looks up and continues "I also have another name..." (now, the camera shifts to outside the principal's office and we see what happens through the glass walls). With only Rajni's gestures and the background music, we come to know what is happening. No other actor can pull this off - this scene was born to be played by Rajni, Rajni was born to play this scene.

The first half is full of scenes which exploit this premise - like when Manikkam lands his first punch to a rowdy trying to attack his sister, the rowdy flies through the air, hits a lamp post, and electric sparks fly off the post - and time just stops for a moment - when every one in the film is reeling from the surprise of such a sadhu guy like Manikkam turning violent. For Rajni fans, this is a scene, with the electric sparks and all, that will be etched in their memory forever. It is one of the cinematic moments, which leap out of the screen, enters your consciousness and will become part of what you remember in this world.

Does the film have negatives. Yes it does - but that is more intellectual than experiential. For example, the way women are characterized and spoken about by Manikkam etc. - wont sit well with any well reasoning person. But, that is a problem with any Rajni movie, and majority of movies per se. Setting that aside for a moment, this is as good a movie as it gets for Rajni fans, or fans who love to hero worship and want a perfect story for their hero to show his powers.

The movie is directed by Suresh Krishna  with a  light touch. The film has a wafer thin script and plot, and rest of the departments of the movie are adequate - if you take Rajni out of the movie, you can almost see the movie fall apart and crumble. The entire movie is held together and taken to the stratosphere by one man, his persona and his performance. This is the first movie that featured a special title card for Rajni - where the word "SUPER STAR" slowly appears on the screen in blue dotted letters with a cheap version of the James Bond theme music playing in the background. I remember watching this film in Udhayam theater, when it was released, and the SUPER STAR title card appear on screen - I had goose bumps allover. And the film that followed lived up to the title card experience. It was pure bliss for Rajni fans, and probably the best Rajni movie that will be ever made. Once, if you are lucky, in your lifetime you'll have such a transcendent experience, and the memory of it to go back to. I was one of the lucky ones.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

On Biscuts

I take my biscuts seriously. I put considerable thought into choosing the right kind. Just like choosing a movie to watch at a particular time, a novel to suit a particular mood, there is a biscut for every occasion. And one can’t take the task of choosing the right biscut too lightly. A good amount of research and field work has to done, time has to spent in the trenches testing it, and one shouldn’t be too timid to give in to popular choices and easy way outs. One needs true grit and singular focus if you must succeed in this task.

Let’s start with first-thing-in-the-morning biscuits. Amateurs and biscut-apprentices might be tempted to shout out some fancy biscut like bourbon or something like that. But, not so soon. Bourbon is a great biscut – but hardly one you can nibble with your coffee in the morning. Bourbon has lot of things going on – the sugar crystals, the chocolate filling, the crumbly biscut layers – a great mid-day or late-night snack. But not an early morning co-companion. First thing in the morning, you need something that is simple, has a direct and single flavor and should definitely be a team-player: must be able to play off the coffee or tea flavour, and must be a good “dip” or “dunk” candidate which means that it shouldn’t become soggy and drop off into the coffee, and should not alter the flavor of the drink too much. I submit Britannia’s plain Milk Bikis (not the cream filled variant) as possibly the best candidate for this. Other equally good ones are “butter-biscuts” (available in Chennai tea-shops), shewsberry (Pune’s claim to fame) and Hyderabad Sughan bakery biscuits. (Avoid anything that has a cream filling or has some extraneous stuff like sugar crystals or coconut shavings sticking on it.)

For mid-morning or evening snacking: now it won’t hurt too much if you give in to popular choices like bourbons, oreos, or other cream filled biscuits. Now, one is just looking for some short-gap hunger quencher or a sugar-fuelled high, and there are n-number of good candidates for this. The recently introduced Sunfeast strawberry cream biscuits are awesome – try it. (No- Sunfeast is not paying me for writing this.) They have just nailed all aspects of it: perfect crunch and texture, amazing aroma (which hits you the moment you tear open the wrapper), and great color-combo or pink and white cream – just as good as food science can be worked to create a near-perfect product. (Sunfeast also introduced a chocolate cream variety of this – but not as good as the strawberry one.)

One thing you should avoid at all times are the “soft” biscuits. (The ones that don’t break, but tear, with some gooey stuff in the core.) I just don’t get it. A biscut should be brittle, and have a crunch when you bite in. These soft biscuits aim to be both biscuits and chocolates at the same time. That just tells me that the biscut has not made up its mind which camp it wants to join. I don’t want to injest anything as confused as this in me. I have my standards.

And regarding these so called healthy biscuits: first of all, there is nothing of that kind (I mean a healthy biscut). All biscuits are made of a dozen ingredients, most of which are either unhealthy if you eat them on their own, or are chemicals that you would have never heard of or food colors and flavourings, with some traces of some vitamin supplement. So, don't let biscut companies fool you into buying a "healthy biscut". All biscut is junk food, invariably. They are quite enjoyable and that is the reason I buy them – and in moderation it is not so bad.

You might ask, is it worth putting so much thought into choosing something as trivial as a biscut. Such questions will arise only to a mind that eats only healthy food, and possibly is reading Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment or Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and has never enjoyed the sins of food science. (And what a dangerous mind that would be.) Eat some biscuits and let me know if you feel the same way.