Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Best New Year Song Ever!

If you are wondering how you should celebrate New Year's eve - I have a suggestion for you. Watch this song - if you watch Tamil TV channels, you might have no choice but to watch it, because it is only telecast every half a second during that week. The song I am talking about is "Ilamai Idho Idho…" (Youth, here, here…) from the movie "Sakalakala Vallavan" (Master of thousand arts). The movie was released in 1982, and the song, according to me is still the undoubted anthem of the new year.

It is a club song - don't ask me what that means. In the late 70's and early 80's a lot of these songs appeared in Hindi and Tamil films - where the hero (more often than not it was Kamal or Rishi Kapoor or Feroz Khan) wearing some tight fitting leather jacket and pants studded with thousand diamonds or a serial light set danced with a ill-clad "item"-girl (very rarely the heroine) in a spectacularly lit "club". There were lights on the floor, lights on the ceiling, lights on walls, lights in every dimension possible, blinking like mental stars. Lights of every color imaginable, possible.

These "clubs" did not or do not exist in the real world. (If they existed, the occupants would burn their retinas from all the psychedelic lighting and become delirious and uncoordinated). These clubs existed only in those songs in Tamil, Hindi films. These clubs had their own type of waitresses (very little clothing) and waiters (utterly clueless), odd looking furniture, and glass surfaces for the hero to break in case a fight breaks out at the end of the song.

Coming to the song under consideration, why is it so great! Because it is loads and loads of fun. Illayaraja's (the genius who keeps surfacing again and again whenever there is a discussion of greatness) score is buoyant, superbly varied, celebratory - in simple terms - it rocks! Kamal enters the song in a golden color Enfield bullet in an all-black leather dress and wishes everyone a happy new year - now, if that doesn't make you want to have a happy new year, I don't know what can. And he circles around the club in his motorcycle with a club dancer doing acrobatics on his motorcycle. And then there are the dancers who look like they were picked from a PT teachers' conference, where they slept under a marijuana tent. Doing totally ridiculous moves - but what fun it is! There is light spilling over from every corner of the frame. Did I mention there are soap bubbles floating around?

That is not all - Kamal comes on roller-skates, he dangles from ropes and sways to the tune (actually, editing effects will add another 6 Kamals swaying, with multi-color balloons lifting off). He does the robo-dance, mimes some traditional martial arts moves and boxing moves, flexes his arms and admires his own muscles, sways to a swinging chandelier, finally invites his coy guests to come and dance with him on the floor - where they all dance away into the new year.

All aboard the fun train. Next destination: the very happy new year!

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Social Network

Social Network is one of the best movies of the year. (I haven't watched every single movie released this year - but I can still make such statements, because, one can perceive greatness when one sees it.) Seriously, it is a great movie - go watch it.

It tells the story of the formation of Facebook. Starts when Mark Zuckerberg after being dumped by his girlfriend in a Cambridge bar, leaves his drink unfinished, jogs his way through the night wearing a GAP hoodie and his backpack, to reach his dorm room in Harvard to have some more beers and start blogging furiously about the cross-currents of thoughts running in his head - he makes scathingly insulting cracks at his ex-girlfriend, and in the process of emptying his mind on the cyberspace comes up with an idea for a website that compares and rates Harvard girls based on their appearance.

He completes coding and setting-up the website that same night and sends the link to all Harvard students. The traffic is so heavy on this site, it brings down the university network at 4.00 in the morning. For this, he gets noticed, and is offered the job of joining a team of students (two of them, brothers, with the last name Winklevoss) who are setting-up a social networking site at Harvard called Harvard Connections. He runs with the idea on his own, partners with his friend Eduardo for the money and sets-up Facebook.

The Harvard Connections team sues him for stealing their idea for the website. While the two sides sit across a posh table and go through lengthy, acrimonious depositions, the movie unfolds in the background. Mark and his friend Eduardo get Facebook going (complete with the subtitle of "A Mark Zuckerberg Production"), first exclusively for Harvard students and then expand it to other universities. The site grows spectacularly - and lets just say, things get interesting.

This is a semi-fictional film - the broad outlines are drawn from what is public information. Mark comes across as a socially inept, uber-talented nerd. He writes computer programs like be was born to write computer programs, with manic energy and drive and phenomenal stamina (36 hours coding sessions, anyone?). And there is an entire sub-section of students/programmers who derive their mojo from zoning out the rest of the world, wearing a head-phone to musically cue their brains and have an orgy with machines and … code.

Watch Mark in any social setting - he stands out (not always in a good way, nevertheless). Without exception, he is the most under-dressed guy in any room. Even when there is a feet of snow outside, he roams in his shorts and flippers. The conversations he has with people (who are not his friends or whom he likes) are like playing hopscotch in a landmine field - you never know when things are going to blow up. The first scene where Mark chats with his girlfriend in bar is a masterpiece of dialogue writing - the actors speak at breakneck pace, not just speak, think and dodge and dance with words. Issues crop up like a punching wall and Mark furiously talks, diverts, talks more until he has unwillingly traumatized his girlfriend in every which way possible. His mind works so fast, he is sort of befuddled that it has not led him to the right end. Thinking fast is great, but some pause, some compassion could help.

The film also subtly raises issues like conformity and its role in society building. Parents, family, society everyone who could influence you when you are being formed, tries to make you to conform to things. The more you conform, the better you are for. People sometime confuse discipline with conformity. Discipline to some extent is good. But most of us don't stop until we are way way into the super-safe, super-under-exiting zone of passivity and acceptance. In a world populated by mostly conformists, the non-conformists rule. Boundaries are meaningless to them. Mark is one such example.

A room full of men and women in suits trying to get a penny from a guy wearing a ill-fitting shirt, unkempt hair and bathroom flippers. That says something.

This is a beautifully crafted film. Watch the rowing competition held in England where the Winklevosses lose by a whisker. Spectacularly constructed - the cinematography, the editing, the sound effects, the choice of music - it is slightly eerie, it is odd, it is confusing, it is an experience -just breathtaking. Another scene that is superbly done is the scene where Sean Parker (the guy who created Napster) talks to Mark seated in a loud club about how big businesses are built, and how to dream big - the tension of those words, their implications - you can barely sit still watching the scene.

It gets pretty much everything right. The characters, their priorities, the acting, the world of start-ups, the atmosphere, the college experience. The movie is funny, it is gripping as only the best thrillers can be, it is smart, it is perceptive, it doesn't underestimate the audience's capabilities and it transports you. I don't know how you feel about Facebook - I have still not made up my mind - it is nice to see my old friends on Facebook - but, still…, I don't know if Facebook is a good thing or bad. But, I am pretty sure of one thing - that this is a story that deserves to be told, and deserves to be watched.

Monday, November 01, 2010

The pleasures of language and Endhiran songs

It has been more than a month since the film released. Still, I am not able to get over the songs of Endhiran. Hands down, it is one of the best albums in the last few years. There are several things about the album that rock. First the music - Rahman uses various aspects of the story in the music and creates a seamless and fresh album. The title track, part of the "Puthiya Manidha" song, is a meditation on the possibility of a new beginning and perfectly fits the Robot assembling scene.

Pretty much all the songs are awesome. My picks of the lot would be "Irumbile Idhayam" and "Arima Arima". The girls (who are named Lady Kash 'n' Krissy) who sang "Irumbile" pack so much verve and pep and attitude in their voices, compared to AR Rahman's rather (intentionally, I guess) droll and straight rendering. I never thought the day will come when I'd have to say something in praise of Aishwarya Rai, but it has - she dances like there is no tomorrow for this song - great entertainment.

Apart from being a super song, "Arima Arima" also serves as the song for Chitti- the villain. Rajni's antics in the song are just a pleasure to watch. People should cast him more in villain roles - he clearly enjoys it so much (which he proved in Chandramukhi as well - lakalakalaka). And since he is the only hero capable of taking on himself, script writers should find a way to cast him against himself. The only thing better than Rajni is two Rajnis.

The lyrics of "Arima" also deserve superlatives. Tamil is such a beautiful language. When used well - its effect on you is just stunning. A two thousand year old language working so well for a film about a Robot. There is a line where Chitti sings "…kaamutra kanini naan…" which means "I am a lust filled computer" - three words unleashing the descriptive power of Tamil.

A word about the movie and Rajni's contribution to it. The most talked about aspect of the film has been the graphics. More importantly for me, the movie works because of Rajni - he pulls off the roles of the benign-Chitti and villain-Chitti spectacularly. He hardly seems to emote while playing the benign-Chitti, but is able to convey so much by apparently doing nothing. Villain-Chitti is a different ball game altogether - he relishes his performance, and gives one of the most menacing, entertaining and rollicking villains in Indian film history. Through all three roles, he makes us care for what happens to the characters - and this is what makes the film work , big time.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Why Rajni is possibly the greatest star in the world

Before you could rebut me, please let me explain.

I think Rajni has worked himself to a position where he qualifies for the title of the "Greatest star in the world". The operative word being "star".

By the way, who qualifies to be a star? A star is an actor who is super popular with the masses, and just by seeing his/her image on the poster or trailer, the audience will be half convinced to see the movie. Acting has nothing to do with being a star. There are stars who are great actors, and there are stars who couldn't act if their life depended on it. So, forget acting for a moment. Stars sell pictures. They are marketing tools. When someone is deciding which movie to watch, a star influences that decision and makes you shell out your hard-earned money and watch the movie. That doesn't mean they can make a movie successful - they can just make people aware that such and such a movie is releasing.

Okay, there are lot of actors who qualify for this definition. Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, Mithun Chakravarty (no, I am not kidding), Amitabh, Amir, Salman, Shahrukh etc. etc. What makes Rajni so special.

Almost all the stars in the world sell their films like crazy. Any Hollywood release is prefixed by a 3-4 month world tour by the star, where s(he) gives dozens of interviews to TV channels, radio stations, newspapers, websites etc. etc. world over. Photo ops, magazine cover stories, talk show appearances etc. etc. They travel to pretty much every country where commercial airlines fly to and talk and talk about their movie. Most of the hollywood ones have these marketing gigs written into their contract. If they don't play ball and help in marketing the movie - then it becomes difficult to find investors who would put up the money.

With stardom comes power and glamour - but it also comes with months of living out of suitcases (for each film you act in), half-dead hotel food, uninspired journalists, publicists, and unending red carpets. Answering for the thousandth time...questions about your marital status, dating status, weight status, rehab status etc. etc.

Rajni does none of that. He chooses his projects, acts in them, and goes to the Himalayas when the movie is about to be released. Now that is the definition of cool. He doesn't give thousand interviews (some interview bites here and there he does - but the reporters catch him in airports or some place like that...he almost never goes to them), do promotional tours, countless TV appearances etc. No other star in the world can afford to do that.

One reason is that - Rajni understands his stardom, and understands the meaning of the word over-exposure. He does one film in 2/3 years. And then disappears and makes people want him more. He doesn't promote cell phones or colas during his spare time. He knows - stop when they want more. When you know when to shut up, the world starts talking about you.

Friday, September 17, 2010

On Vadapav

Statutory warning: Consuming this blog post is very injurious to health - may cause acute shrinkage of brain power and thinking abilities. May cause intellectual paralysis and lead to rapid rolling of eyeballs within socket. Mild disorientation and faintness can also be expected.

People who haven't stepped into Maharashtra- vadapav is a fried potato cutlet/patty/mysore bonda (called vada) sandwiched between a rectangular bun (called pav).

Why do we like vadapav so much? Why is it such a good snack? It is questions like this that keep me up at night. It is questions like this that need deep thought and push me to take long walks and engage in some quality deep thinking. I think I may have found the answer to this question (yes, please sit down, I am also reeling in excitement).

First, I would like to submit exhibit A, B and C for the defense:

Did you look at the photos. What do you see? I see innocuous looking buns suddenly turning violent and trying to gobble up the poor potato patty. Such rowdy behavior! When we are served a vadapav, what we see is the bun trying very vigorously to swallow the patty by wrapping it's enormous mouth over it. And, instinctively we feel wronged. We bought the vada and the pav to eat, and we are facing the imminent risk of losing the vada and just having the pav to eat. What we do? - we get competitive and jump into the fray and start eating the vadapav before the pav could eat the vada.

That is why it tastes so good. If you grew up with a sibling, you would understand. Even the lousiest of foods instantly transform into the most delectable delicacy if your brother or sister (or friend) wants it. If he wants it, I also want it. If he is trying to eat it, I will eat it first. If the pav wants the vada, I want it even more. Vadapav appeals to this instinct in us - that is why it tastes so good, and an entire state gobbles down lakhs of vadapavs every day.

Also, people who are intrigued by this, and planning to pursue their PhDs in vadapav research, I'll let you in on another top-notch discovery of mine. You know what vadapav resembles, and where it gets its gluttonous behavior from - I have one word for you - pacman. (Yes - your suspicion is right, I am a genius, and if you are planning to nominate me for the Nobel prize, please do so next year...this year I am busy during December and won't be able to go to Stockholm to collect the prize personally). Thanks for your consideration.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Indian Film Classics III: Jalsaghar (The Music Room, 1958) Bengali

In "Jalsaghar", Satyajit Ray portrays a character with whom it is almost impossible to sympathize with and relate to. How much can you relate to an obscenely-rich guy (a zamindar) who has it all, and loses everything almost singlehandedly through pride, delusion and sheer stupidity (when millions around him are struggling for their daily bread). Who is completely oblivious of the change in the world around him - some might call him a dinosaur who deserves to be extinct. You don't meet such characters in your life every day -how do you expect to relate to him. But, by the end of the movie, Ray left me rooting for the character so much, that I wanted to get into the frame, and slap the zamindar guy and tell him to come back to reality, and by the very end of the movie, I was empathizing with him - and seeing the way he is, understood his flaws and what made him happy and why he is acting so knuckle-headedly.

He is a dinosaur, no question. But he is also human. It is easy to vilify such a character, but if you look close enough, or if you have a director like Ray who would do that for you, you see the frailty behind the facade and the obvious- the fatal weaknesses, the pains, the joys, the pleasures. From a social perspective, there is nothing much to like in him - he is a rich guy who think he is entitled to much more than he has, who couldn't care less about the people around him, and strongly believes that since he is born into a privileged class he is better than others and at the best tolerates other people. Personally also, he is rude to visitors, and treats them according to the class they belong to. If you put your socio-political cap on, you would despise such characters - at least I would. But, if you look at him as an individual, possibly as someone who would live in your neighborhood…then it is a different story.

Bishwambhar Roy(Chaabi Biswas) is a zamindar (read an ultra rich landowner apparently without much else to do other than enjoy life, throw parties, celebrate and milk his riches) in rural Bengal in the 1930s. He has a huge estate on the river bank, and the river keeps eating into his land as it rises. He rides his horse (named Tufan) and has an elephant (named Moti) in his stable. He throws lavish parties, flowing with food, drinks, fireworks and entertainment. The main focus of the parties is the men-only music/dance performance held in his music room. The music room is the pinnacle of his pride - it is lavishly and ornately decorated with chandeliers, a larger-than-life-size mirror, and paintings of his forefathers dressed and decorated to the hilt, as a reminder of his lineage and status for his visitors. The men smoke, drink and enjoy the fine arts. For all his faults, the zamindar is a ardent lover of music and dance. He is transported by good music, and will go to any extent to hire the best performer for his music room parties.

He walks into the music room when the performance is underway, and basks in the attention and salutations thrown at him. And occupies the central position (half lying down on a cushy spread), with flowers, booze and a hookah specked around him. Takes in all the music and the atmosphere, nodding in approval regularly to his closest companions. And rewards the dancer/musician after the performance.

He funds all this extravagance by selling his valuables one by one (as his income is way below his expenses, which his manager keeps pointing out to him). His wife too chastises his for over-spending with abandon- he handles her, charms her and nullifies her concerns. His son, taking after him, shows interest only in music and riding the horse, Tufan.

His neighbor, Mahim Ganguli, is a money lender who charges atrocious interest rates and quickly rises up the economic ladder. Which is manifested in Mahim throwing parties and celebrations of his own, and inviting the best performers. This rubs the zamindar the wrong way, and hurts his pride. The zamindar's point is that Mahim represents new money and hence doesn't equal him and is uncouth (which Mahim is). When Mahim visits the zamindar to invite him to the housewarming of his newly constructed house on a given auspicious day, the zamindar wanting to one-up Mahim, informs him that he himself is throwing a party on the same day and forces Mahim to retreat. In spite of dwindling funds, and over-riding his manager, throws a lavish bash in the music room. And sends for his wife and son to return (who are visiting his wife's parents' house) immediately by houseboat.

And tragedy strikes. The scene building up to him discovering the tragedy is masterfully done. Just by inter-cutting a few shots of the window and the swaying chandelier with the performance, Ray builds an ominous tone and suspense. And to clinch it, there is a shot of a cockroach, belly-up, struggling, in the zamindar's drink cup - just brilliantly done.

From that day on, the zamindar withdraws into a shell, and the music room is shut. He moodily spends his days and his only relief is seeing Tufan and Moti (his horse and elephant) and some music. His servant and manager are super-loyal to him. His servant's demeanor and expressions mirror (multiplied by a 1000) that of his master's. He is extremely happy whenever he sees a spark of revival in his master, and is crest-fallen to see his master's morale sag into the shell.

Mahim keeps getting wealthy and keeps irritating the zamindar. And throws a big bash to celebrate his son's thread ceremony, and invites the best kathak dancer available, Krishna Bai to perform. This clinches it- and the zamindar snaps out of his moody shell, and organizes a bash to show Mahim his place (with the same Krishna Bai's performance) in his music room, with the last of his remaining wealth (the rest of which has since been auctioned off to settle his debts).

The manager is shell shocked. The servant jubilantly dusts off the music room and restores it to its past glory. And Krishna Bai performs in front of the zamindar, his cronies and Mahim. What a performance that is - it is one of the best picturized song and dance sequence ever- just see how Ray (and his cameraman Subrata Mitra) build the tension and the performance. And Roshan Kumari, who plays Krishna Bai, dances like a whirlwind. How this scene ends is one of the greatest pleasures of watching this movie.

The zamindar basks in the glory of this last flame-out of a celebration. He drinks and stumbles around the music room, admiring its opulence, his ancestors. And once again, Ray starts working his magic. The candles lighting the chandeliers start going-off one by one (as it eventually will) - and the zamindar panics- as he wants the night to last forever. Of course, it doesn't and the sun rises and disappoints him. He turns to his last refuge and decides to ride Tufan (his horse) in his intoxicated state. At this point, we know that he has nowhere else to go, and is spent, completely. At this point, I started rooting for him, and was relieved at the way the movie ends - there was no other way to go, and he couldn't have saved his dignity any other way. Should we care about the dignity of a loathsome, pompous character- we normally shouldn't. But sometimes, when you look closely at lives like this, it is very difficult to come out the same way you went in. And in the end, Ray has succeeded in making you see the human in the dinosaur.

Ray worked with very limited resources to make his movies. And he was so good at this game that the lesser the resources he had, the more spectacular the result on the screen was. Give him a dark room and a candle or a matchstick and he will create magic just with that - and there are some unforgettable scenes in his movies to prove this. There are few directors who could build so much tension by stringing some seemingly simple looking scenes together. He is the greatest Indian film director till date. And one of the best the world has ever produced.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Indian Film Classics II: Karagaattakaran (1989) Tamil

“Karagaattakaran” is one of the greatest romantic comedies in Tamil film history. In Indian film history for that matter. It is one of the most formulaic films ever – it has a good-hearted hero, beautiful heroine, side-kicks, villains, misunderstandings, fights, song and dance, mother-son sentiment, and a climax that resolves everything and ends with multiple weddings. But calling this film formulaic is like calling the rain in monsoon formulaic – yeah, it is the monsoon season and it is supposed to rain – water droplets leaving the clouds and reaching the earth – but, such a description totally misses the point and the poetry of the rains. If rain in the monsoon season is formulaic, then “Karagaattakaran” is formulaic as well.

And the same team has tried over and over again to re-create the magic- only in vain. It happens only when it happens – that is why it is called magic – not when you desperately want it to happen. Gangai Amaran, the director, has directed countless films before and after this, with the same hero, Ramarajan, with the same technicians, but lightning struck only once- but, what a day it turned out to be. Actually, “Karagaattakaran” itself is a sort of remake of the old Tamil film “Thillana Mohanambaal”, but the remake is way ahead of the original in entertainment value and pure fun.

Muthaiyan (played by Ramarajan) is a Karagattam dancer (a folk dance form of Tamil Nadu, for the non-thambi people), who travels with his troupe to a village to perform in the temple mela. Kamaatchi (Kanaga) is the lead dancer in the local Karagattam troupe and she is denied a chance to perform at the same mela. (She rebuffs the indecent advances made by the village head-man (Santhana barathy) towards her with a slap, and the head-man punishes her by snubbing her troupe and inviting Muthaiyan's troupe from a nearby village to perform in this year's festival.)

Kamaatchi's manager who is also her brother-in-law confronts Muthaiyan during his performance, riles up the atmosphere, and arranges for a match-up between him and Kamaatchi. Inspite of the strained atmosphere, Muthaiyan and Kamaatchi slowly but steadily fall for each other. Each, guarding their professional terrain, teases the other, exchanges playful banter, and ever so gently falls in love. The villains intervene and complicate things, and misunderstandings and sentimental blackmail intervene and complicate things, and in the end, with God's blessings, and after dancing for an Amman song, things fall in place, and love and peace and a "subham" ending prevail.

What makes this film work? The Goundamani-Senthil-Kovai Sarala comedy track. Ilayaraja's blistering soundtrack and a simple story told competently. Let's start with Goundamani-Senthil comedy track - both being part of the same Karagaattam troupe, (Goundamani being the senior) and Senthil trying to be subversive and sight-adhichufy and route-vuttufy (or in other words, woo) Kovai Sarala and ending up crossing Goundamani. Goundamani is a comic genius. One of the best comedians in the world. (Yes, I said the world.) There are some comedians whose comedy works when the material is good. Some people make scenes funny just by being there, irrespective of the material (think Goundamani). Him saying things in English is funny, his dancing is funny (Ullathai Allithaa anyone?), the way he looks at Senthil is funny, and let's not even get into the insults he hurls at Senthil - if a poet can think of so many ways to describe anyone's head, he would be lauded as the most imaginative poet ever. And Senthil plays perfect counterfoil. See him head-down, giving sheepish, guilt-laden glances when Goundamani corners him. He is the silent notes in between Goundamani's musical notes that make this symphony a symphony.

The film starts with the director approaching Ilayaraja requesting him to sing the title song for sentimental reasons. The title song is a lot of fun - where the entire cast and the crew are introduced, sans make-up. One thing you notice is that, almost the entire crew is clad in veshti-shirt. It's a movie made in a different time - the time when there were a dedicated team of junior artists (some of them are good, but some of them just ham-up the dialogues and look dutiful and inert in the background) and back-up dancers, before the time of TV serials and foreign-location songs. The time when films started with a shot of a temple or idol, with a character saying "Ellarum nalla irukkanum thaayee…" (let everyone prosper, mother goddess…).

And Ilayaraja was at his peak and produced a scorching soundtrack. One of the songs is so good (Maanguyile Poonguyile) that it is used twice in the film (and once more wouldn't have hurt the film - when the film was first released, many theaters did play it one more time on audience demand). And Ramarajan is the hero of the film - for all the flak that he gets for being immobile during songs in other films, he is the most convincing dancer in this one. He emotes well, and fights well- in my opinion, he was an underrated hero, banished to serve the B and C centers. Yes, he wears lipstick and some "jigna" on his face, and has a mustache that looks pencil-drawn -so what…he is a very functional hero and can deliver when required.

There are two objects on earth that are visible when seen from the moon - the Great Wall of China and Ramarajan's shirts. He wears shirts that have so many bright eye-popping colors in them, they make you wince and wonder about the possibilities of nature. His shirts make Govinda's wardrobe look like that of a conservative banker. And, if you scrape the make-up off of Kanaga's face, you can probably apply make-up for a town of 300 women for a year (the fact that she looks good in spite of this paint-job is another point).

The film came out of nowhere and stayed in theaters for over a year. People were wracking their brains about what this film has that makes it work big time. I don't think we know the answer yet. The film moves in a brisk fashion. The dialogues capture the nayyandi-loaded (playfully taunting) banter in villages, interspersed with the world class comedy track. Even the villains know that it is a breezy fun film - they appear, do their job of creating havoc- but don't linger around - they get their punishments from hero/God/circumstances and move on.

The film hasn't aged a bit. It is just as fresh today as it was when I saw it first. This film will never appear in the Time/New York Times 100 best films of all time, nor will it ever be praised by world famous critics (who wouldn't have watched it). It never had any chance of winning an Oscar when it was released. But this film will be watched by Tamilians world over for a long time to come (and there are Tamilians in pretty much every country on the map), and it will provide entertainment and spread joy in those households. For me, that speaks volumes about the success of the film- more than any award could ever mean. Maanguyile…Poonguyile...

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bloom! flower Bloom!!

All the buds in the garden, perk up and listen. It is sunrise time, and the metrological dept. has announced that the sun will rise at 5.42 am today and all you damn lazy buds better bloom at exactly 5.42 am. Not a minute later, not 5 minutes later - exactly at 5.42 - GOT IT? Any later, you cease to be a flower and you will always remain the one that missed the sunrise.

What if it is cloudy today and I feel like blooming at 5.50 instead. Sorry - you will still be blemished, for life.

What if I want to see that sparrow that is flying hither and tither - it looks very pretty, you see. Sorry - NOPE.

What if I really really want to watch the other buds bloom - it is a beautiful sight you know - it is like seeing your life unfold right in front of you ;-) hehe, what say? Sorry - stop being poetic - it is not your job to be poetic, it is your job to be a flower that blooms at 5.42.

Kids, don't kid around. Your job is not to be a kid and goof around pointlessly - what is the point in that. Your job is to quickly pick up skills, as quickly and humanly possible, and start earning as much money as possible as early as you can. If you want to just be and learn intrinsically by doing things and observing things at your own pace, sorry- you are in the wrong place and in the wrong century for that matter.

You jackass middle-school, high-school students, the same goes for you too. What you should learn in 12th standard learn in 11th. Even better cram it in while you are still in 10th or 9th std. Wait, wait. You have those two empty months called annual holidays after your 8th std. exams- why not start then? Uh? You damn useless pinheads!

What do you want to become when you grow up? "Uh…i don't know…I like reading books and watching movies…may be, I'll become a…" Stop it you idiot, that was a rhetorical question. And moreover there are only three correct answers to that question - doctor, engineer and if you don't know any better, charted accountant. That's it. The world functions only because of these three professions, and you must become one of those. If you don't, the earth will part, and down you'll go and have to collect samples of magma for the rest of your life and burn in it.

"Hey…that's not a bad idea, I like playing with rocks and stuff, even collecting and analyzing them..may be I'll study geology and about magma and become a …"

Stop it, you empty-headed mud doll. I was using an imagery to drive some sense into you…not for you to let your imagination loose and get dangerous ideas!!! What nerve - this kid! Whoever has heard of anyone becoming a …and getting ahead in life.

There are relatives of mine, who used to come to me uninvited and start giving me advice as to how my 10th std exams (and later on it was the 12th std. exams and so on) is going to completely change my life, and how it is a make-or-break situation and not even God can save me if I bungle it. One of the most abundant natural resources in India is "free advice". Actually free, absolutely irrelevant, useless, advice.

My 10th exams came and went. My 12th exams also came and went. Nothing happened. My life didn't change. I just got into new classrooms, and met a few more people on the way.

I see students walk through fire when they are in their 10th or 12th std. They attend IIT coaching classes starting from kindergarten. A relaxed pointless afternoon is a distant dream for most students in that age. Countless thoughts and ruminations that should feed the imagination and help them grow and mature into full human beings will never occur or happen. They will remain locked in their over-pushed over-processing brains. It is a murder that will never be discovered.

Unclench your butts, parents. Let your kids breath. And let those locked-up thoughts blossom. It will be a different sunrise. But how will you know whether it is good or not unless you open your windows and let the light in.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Indian Film Classics I: Sagara Sangamam (Telugu) 1983

Have you walked down the aisles of Landmark or Crosswords? If yes, then you have walked very close to a gem, without noticing it. Although the gem might be in the form of a DVD and titled "Sagara Sangamam", it is a gem nevertheless. Some of the phenomenal talents of Indian cinema came together, and, magic happened. Thank god it happened when the cameras were rolling and we get to see it happen over and over again.

The wise sage of film criticism, Roger Ebert says that a great film is one in which there are three great scenes and no bad ones. The first half of Sagara Sangamam is packed with wall-to-wall great scenes.

Balu (Kamal Hassan) is a washed out dance critic who publishes a blistering critique of a performance by an upcoming danseuse Shylaja (S.P. Shylaja). He is called in by his publisher to apologize for his rudeness (as Shylaja's fiance is connected to the newspaper publisher). Balu makes no apologies, and in fact gives a blow by blow demo to Shylu and her fiance of what all she did wrong and how it should have been done. For this, he gets himself and his friend Raghu fired from the newspaper. (Raghu is an also-washed-out poet, now a proof reader, played by the eternal hero's friend in Tamil/Telegu cinema- Sharathbabu.)

Shylu's mom Madhavi (Jayapradha), catches this sole bad review of her daughter's performance and is intrigued to learn the identity of the reviewer. Madhavi and Balu have a history. In the early days, Madhavi had helped Balu in his dance career, and had grown close to him because of that, leading to an almost-romantic involvement. This is the first half of the movie.

The movie shuttles between the past and the present- with the flashbacks filling most of the first half. This part of the movie is about art - about a man who wants to pursue his art and nothing else, about his frustrations as to how the world receives his efforts, and how his friends help him to get his work out there.

In the flashback, Balu, after learning various other forms of dance like Bharatanatyam, Kathakali etc. goes to learn Kathak from a renowned teacher. He is received by an assistant who doesn't understand his language, and Balu ends up performing the purpose of his visit in dance moves to the assistant. He explains that he wants to learn from the master and has no money to pay him and will pay-back in kind, by serving the master. It is a pearl of a scene - mail me if you were not moved by it, I'll mail you back the part of your soul you might have lost years ago.

Raghu, hoping to help Balu stand on his own feet, finds Balu a job, assisting a choreographer for a Telugu film. Balu gets the job of choreographing for a beautiful song about Lord Krishna and he composes a soulful classical dance and performs it in front of the film director. And gets berated for spoiling the song. He is pushed to perform a dance with lot of "steps" in it and in which, the hero and heroine come tantalizingly close to kissing and the camera tilts to a vigorously shaking bush. The scene makes fun of the perceived "commercial compulsions" in making films, and does so in a barbed yet hilarious way.

Madhavi, who is an arts writer and photographer, comes into Balu's life. And instantly recognizes the talent and potential in him. She incrementally gets him the exposure that he richly deserves, but currently doesn't have or doesn't know how to get or cannot afford. Magazine articles and other odd favors culminate in her securing Balu a slot in the prestigious national dance festival to be held in Delhi. She teases him by bringing up the topic about the festival and mentioning that she has procured him an invitation for this year's festival. Balu lights up on hearing this, and eagerly goes through the year's line-up comprising of the top dancers in India. He flips the page and finds out that he is included as one of the lead performers. A masterfully done scene - with Illayaraja musically setting-up the scene and Kamal literally dissolving in front of us. The scene just melts you away. I have watched the movie over ten times, and this scene gets to me every single time. Watch how Jayapradha beautifully underplays this scene, and sets it up for Kamal to steal it, and Kamal scores an out-of-the-stadium-six.

That brings us to Jayapradha. One of the most beautiful actresses ever to grace Indian cinema (I am not the only one who thinks so, Satyajit Ray also thought so.) It is hard to find an actress who looks like her, has grace and could dance and act as well as she did. Some of the songs with her and Kamal are just an orgy of good looks, talent, dancing and emoting. It is hard to find a leading pair today who could match what Kamal and Jayapradha brought to the table in this film.

Another phenomenon to be mentioned is Ilayaraja. This film and its background score (not to mention the spectacular songs) should be compulsory course material for anybody who wants to do anything in film. Watch each scene and observe how Ilayaraja musically sets up the scene and adds layers to it, and fills in missing details and elevates the movie to an altogether different level. He makes us go through four/five different emotions within a single scene- all through his score. The man understands cinema like few other human beings do. Genius, thy alias is Ilayaraja.

Okay, confession time. I only told you the part-truth. I told you that the film is a gem, which it undoubtedly is. But the full truth is - it is a flawed gem. Seriously flawed at that. The second half is such a mess and loaded with ridiculous sumangali sentiment, kungumam sentiment, I don't know what to say.

The rest of the story is, when Balu and Madhavi realize that they are in love and are about to get-together, her father breaks it to Balu that Madhavi is already married, and as her in-laws demanded unreasonable dowry, she is forced to stay with her dad. And to top it off, the estranged husband shows-up exactly at the nick of time, and mouths some very gentlemanly dialogue (I was a coward then, I am trying to do penance for my sin by marrying off Balu and Madhavi - who the hell are you to marry them off, man). Wait, it gets more ridiculous.

Balu decides that Madhavi would be better off with her estranged husband, and does uncalled-for, unreasonable things like making Madhavi agree to be reunited with her husband. She goes off with her husband, and Balu is left to take refuge in the Bottle. And now through Shylu, Madhavi and Balu are connected again. Madhavi's husband has since passed away, and since Balu can't handle the truth and see Madhavi in peril (because she is minus kungumam, see), a drama is staged, wherein the above mentioned kungumam/sumanglai sentiment is utilized to death.

The melodrama and sentimentality of the second half almost destroys the film - only the memory that we have just seen such a spectacular first-half saves us from abandoning the film and running away. This has been a very hard review to write - how do you review a film that incites such extreme emotions in you. I cannot abandon the film because of it's pure genius first half, neither can I embrace it fully because of the misplaced sentiments. It is hard to invest so much in the characters, and care so much for them, and see them do dumb things. I guess, the answer is in accepting the fact that this is a spectacularly flawed gem of a film; spectacular in its flaws and a little bit more spectacular in its virtues.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Balsu Chronicles II: May the force be with you

It was a triveni sangamam of sorts where all the big alphabets of the city (DAV , SBOA, PSBB - KK, PSBB - MAIN, PS etc. etc.) came to merge and join the march towards destiny. We, a small contingent from the world famous (in Nanganallur) Modern School, would quietly but defiantly and proudly occupy our small territory in the classroom. Everyone waited in the common din and buzz for genius to strike.

After 2-3 hours of intense stuffing our brains with equations, chemical structures and concepts, we'd burst out of the class into the apparent vacuum around Satyamurthy school. Catch the bus (11 or 13 to Usman Road), catch the train to St. Thomas Mount/Palavanthangal and footboard our way out of the city and into the night, without a thought in our mind (other than straining our necks and looking for the the girls waiting on platforms to board the trains in the designated ladies compartment areas). Particularly overlooking the thought about the homework we just inherited from the class - which would involve at least a day's worth of effort to even honestly attempt. And, it goes without saying, we would hardly attempt to solve those problems before the next class.

Sometimes we got off easy - like the chemistry profs, Govi and Santhanam, who would treat us like adults, and not push too hard to hold us accountable. Other professors were not so gentle. Balsu-sir and TRS (our math prof) would first enquire about who had done the homework, and follow it up with walking around the class and randomly pulling out the notebook of the students to see whose claims had some truth in it. And god save the guy who claimed to have done it and had a blank notebook (majority fell in this category). Those moments were priceless - not even a $100 million Hollywood film can match the amount of pure drama, thrill and suspense packed in those moments.

Govi's class was a pleasure to sit through. A genial faced man with thin black rimmed glasses and an open smile, he made statements about chemistry that you wouldn't forget for the rest of your life ("chemicals are not gods, so don't capitalize them unless it is the beginning of the sentence"). Laced with humor, his classes made chemistry go down like hot gulab jamun with vanilla ice cream.

Balsu-sir's classes were altogether a different ball game. Surviving his classes was one thing- surviving his wit was something else. Acerbic, quick, rich in imagery, and devastating in its destruction. I don't know how he came up with all those put-downs and comments. The best part was you could see his eyes playfully twinkle right before he was going to deliver a zinger.

Balsu-sir was teaching Projectiles, when he caught a guy who hadn't done his homework. He flipped through the notebook and saw page after page of blanks. Before the student could react, he threw the guy's hardbound 192 page notebook out of the classroom - it sailed through the doorway and landed in the corridor with a shuffle. Balsu-sir continued "if you come to class again without doing the problems, you will follow the trajectory of the notebook".

His best line was "repulsion is the sure test of magnetism" - which means that if you and your friend have arrived at the exact same wrong answer for a problem, it is highly probable that one of you copied from the other - hence, repulsion is the sure test of magnetism.

His early tests were notoriously difficult. Scores like 7 out of 25 were considered decent. And while distributing the test papers, he would accompany each paper with his blessings: "scientists all over the world are trying to achieve it (zero kelvin), but you have achieved it - zero, here…."; one particular student he suspected had copied during the test - he singled him out and said…"Shankar meet me after the class, I am going to grind you into a pulp…" (the sight of that guy sitting in terror through the rest of the class was a sight to behold).

And the man would draw force diagrams like God. He drew the best looking force diagrams I have seen. You might be thinking…what?…force diagrams? Who gives a rat's behind how they look? But, I am telling you… it was something you should have experienced to understand. The man would lecture and you couldn't take your mind or eyes off him or what he says or his chalk marks. It was like seeing a suspension bridge being erected right in front of your eyes, in half an hour.

We learned. Remembered some and forgot most. Some among us went on to go to IITs (not me). Some were crazy enough and smart enough to crack JEE and get a hundred-odd rank when suffering severe diarrhea and stomach pains on exam day. Some among us went on to do other things in science and engineering. A few of us took up other careers. And for a few of us, the force stayed with us, long after.

Balsu-sir passed away a few years ago, and a few hundred students, spread around the world, had lumps in their throats on hearing the news. Articulate, well educated men were groping for words to express themselves. Thoughts came rushing, not following any particular trajectory. That period in our lives was evoked…and no one else to better embody those days than Balsu-sir.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Balsu Chronicles - I: The quest for genius

I used to go for IIT training classes. Well, it was a rite of passage for most students in the 11th or 12th std and who were in Chennai CBSE schools and in the science group to attend them. The smart ones shifted to matric or state-board schools after finishing 10th so that they could crack the highest ever marks and sneak into BITS or enter some Anna, Thangacchi University to study engineering or Meenaachi, Kamaachi medical college and become certified geniuses. The super-smart ones (not me), the ambitious ones (again, not me) and the ones who couldn't see/plan for more than 3 months into the future (self) stayed in CBSE schools. And attended IIT coaching classes - without which one risked major loss of identity or developed deep existential anxiety (I am in 11th and NOT attending IIT classes - who am I, what am I doing on earth, why is everyone calling me Jason Bourne?). After all there are only two alphabets in the English language, I and T and one of them is so irresistibly good, that they used it twice. (If you are lucky enough and destined to, you learn other alphabets like M, B, D, K, another-K etc. after you get through the JEE.)

At that point in time, there was only one A-list IIT coaching center in Chennai. If you had even an iota of self-respect and wanted to be somebody at some point in your life, you wanted to join Balsu-sir's IIT classes, period. And obviously, there was a very stringent selection process (after all, only so many people in Chennai can attain super-smartdom at the same time). So, my dad and I landed at his house in West Mambalam at 2.30 pm on a May afternoon, requesting a spot in his class. The man himself came out, dressed in a baniyan and veshti, enquired about my 10th total marks, asked a few questions and noted my name down in a maroon diary. I was in. There was a brief moment of unrealness. Did that just happen? My dad and I walked out of his house in disbelief and a slowly encroaching sense of jubilation. And by the time we reached Ashok Pillar, we were in the middle of a full-blown happy-attack. The world sure was a rosy place. And filled with nice people too. I could imagine how Wooster must have felt the morning after his engagement was broken, and while he tasted Jeeves's bacon and eggs (laid by, no doubt, happy hens).

Thus started my quest for genius.

The classes were held behind Kamarajar Arangam in DMS, in a school run by a trust (Balsu-sir and his colleagues were offered the best of schools to conduct their classes in, but chose this place as the resulting revenue would benefit the trust, and help in running the school.) After finishing my day-school, I would cycle home, shove some snacks in, cycle to the train station, take a train to Guindy, take a bus to DMS and walk the final stretch. The bite from the travel was softened by an occasional tea/biscut at the tea shop near DMS bus stop. In the monsoon season, the fun would be multiplied. The school was located in a low lying area, and so, for the briefest of rains, there would be knee-deep water around it, through which we would all wade (including Balsu-sir), our pants rolled thigh-high. The fact that the area around the school was generously used as a public open-air toilet and the logged-water had a very high content of natural fertilizers, dissolved particles and methane did not deter us from our quest.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Lost, "Salt" and the movies

It's not about the movies. It's about you.

Whether you like a movie or not, it is not about the movie - it's about you. It is about how much you have conditioned yourself to let go for a couple of hours, without asking any smartass questions, without looking too closely. Someone recently taught me how to use "optimal ignorance" to gain best results. That is what is required to enjoy this movie. Optimal ignorance.

"Salt" is not just salt. "Salt" is popcorn. With butter. Seasoned with those delicious but definitely-not-good-for-your-health chemicals. You put it in your mouth, it bypasses your commonsense. All you taste is the super-delicious popcorn. It has no fiber in it. So what. It has flavor.

I like losing myself at the movies. That is why it is called the movies.

I like it when a team of 240,000 or so people work together to create a single product and the product works. Not only works, but kicks ass.

Angelina Jolie walking in super slow mo, dressed in a black overcoat, with live grenades hidden in her hand…and distributing destruction all around her…now, that is a sight worth the discomfort of a early Sunday show in one of the most stupidest mall theaters in Pune.

If a kid sees a unmanned kucchi-ice (Popsicle for the uninitiated) at a reachable distance, what will it feel. How will it act. Salt appeals to that instinct in all of us. Fun is worth being stupid in front of a screen for 2 hours. Because, movies can do that to you. And once in a while, you should let it.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Mussoorie Diaries - 2

I was looking forward to the field trip part- where we had to go and spend five days in a village and conduct a study. But we had to endure a colossally boring gas-man before we could get to the field-visit part. He spoke for four hours like the worst kind of high-school debate participant - over-punctuating and unnecessarily emphasizing every damn thing he said. And he said some really stupid shit ("Green is not a color" "The earth is still beautiful" - oh really!).

He kept saying things like "the honorable minister in the current govt. said…" (numb skull, which honorable minister are you talking about- there are at least 70 of them), "the honorable nobel laureate has said…" (Oh right! there is only one nobel laureate in the history of mankind). And the clincher was "the greatest philosopher of the world…"(at this point I was waiting with bated breath as to whom he was going to confer the title on) and the title went to…"H.G.Wells" (what!!). If I ever found a candidate for the title of "poop among nincompoops" - this guy is the one.

The saving grace was an organized trip to old Mussoorie, which is located a few hundred feet above the new part of the town, and is much more beautiful and peaceful. Our tour guide was a local journalist who spoke chaste hindi and had a curiously strong affection for the British and the East India Company. He filled us with facts and figures - and we all acted duly impressed. But a more useful guide was a local man who kept pointing out at farm houses with large compounds, and elaborating on which house was owned by which celebrity - "that house belongs to Pranoy Roy…you know…once when I was here with a bunch of people, Pranoy Roy and his wife were out for a walk…and everybody in my group started to….", "that house was recently bought by Tendulkar…", "that house belongs to the famous actor Victor Banerjee" - to which many in our group drew a blank and exchanged hesitant glances…who?!…and the man had to add that Banerjee plays the old guy in "Jogger's Park" (sorry Mr. Banerjee - I liked you in many Ray films, but the world is what it is).

Finally, the field trip part arrived. We were split up into two groups, and two villages in the lower himalayas were chosen for us - Agar and Kasmoli. We ended up going to Kasmoli - I was sort of glad we went to Kasmoli - at least the name had character. If you are a village and have to name yourself, I say you should go all the way and pick a name like "Kasmoli" or "Jhumarithalaiya" or "Sattuvanthangal"or something like that with some substance and character. "Agar" sounded very anemic a name for a village - it sounds more like something you put in your food, while frying the masala.

We started to Kasmoli and drove up the mountains. We drove into a cloud, and after a bit of driving we were above it. It felt like we were floating on clouds - much like what you feel while on a plane. Only that in our case, if we had wanted, we could have got down and peed in the bushes and felt the tingle of the grass under our feet and not had to look at some drooling stranger covered in an airline-given blanket instead.

Kasmoli was tucked into the mountains - a beautiful village. If I direct Chinna Gounder -2, I'll shoot it in Kasmoli, and have Vijayakanth deliver a guest lecture to the local mountain leopards on family values and village life. We went about our job - chatting with the villagers, collecting data and formulating grand theories. Since it was a Sunday, the kids were out roaming the village. We gave them some goodies and asked them to convince and drag their mothers and fathers to the panchayat bhavan so that we could grill them with questions. Quite friendly, these tiny-tots were. I wore a kid's size 2 or so chappal and mimed walking in it - they got a kick out of it. One of them wore my sandals and strutted around - see photo.

The program ended with the required elements. Reports were written, powerpoints were made and presented, appreciations were registered. I came via Delhi and squeezed a one hour meeting with my friends there. I was sitting in the back seat of my friend's maroon Ritz and we were driving around looking for a coffee shop close to the airport. I was in that exact seat, two weeks ago, doing the exact same thing- roaming the streets of Delhi, with the same guys. People say life comes one full circle. Meanwhile, it also makes several small circles.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Mussoorie Diaries -1

I landed in Mussoorie for a training program. Came via Delhi – stayed at a friend’s place for a couple of days, caught up with stories- old and new, and got an extensive tour of the malls in and around Delhi (Noida, Gurgoan etc.). If you haven’t seen/been to these malls, you haven’t seen malls – period. And, people from the US who are reading this and feeling smug that they have seen all that malls have to offer, and seen the most outrageous, over-the-top ones – sorry to burst your bubble- you haven’t. These Delhi ones are temples of consumption that are unmatched in their flamboyance, size and ridiculousness.

Then took the night train to Mussoorie, with a bunch of IFS officers who were traveling to attend a mid-career training – very genial fellows – all of them got up at an ungodly hour and yapped non-stop till they woke me up. Took a cab to Mussoorie and was promptly stunned by the Himalayas – imposing, awe-inspiring and majestic. I am still reeling from the awe-struck feeling – when ever I look out of my balcony or when I take a walk.

The first day had two super-boring, super-long (2 houurrrrrsss… each) sessions done artfully (the art where someone speaks a lot without saying anything). I don’t know how some people manage to talk entirely in clich├ęs and redundancies (sample bullet point on a slide: “sustainable development with integrated holistic approach”). Lesson for students – Don’t ever trust what a person says if he uses “innovation” and “strategy” in the same sentence.

Lesson #2: Don’t trust a professor who doesn’t encourage student participation. If a professor declares at the beginning that he knows students will go to sleep if he talks for too long, and proclaims that he plans to encourage student participation like never before – then definitely don’t trust him. (The good ones just do it, instead of saying it.)

And a word about our program coordinator: he is like a roshogulla – round and blank. The roshogulla will roll into the class once in a while and look here and there and roll out. When we ask uncomfortable questions regarding programming or some such thing, the rosho will quiver and roll its eyes uncomfortably before rolling out.

Some observations:

A crow sitting 6000 ft above sea level, alone on top of a tree, with a “kich-kich” problem, and needing someone to feed it Vicks desperately. It sounded more like a crow-bar stuck between barrels.

An IAS officer (mid-forties, I would say) with a harried look asking her colleague “Yaar, mera chashma ko-gaya; kal-se doond-raha hoon” – makes one think of the files and petitions at her office.

A recently recruited IAS trainee with dark rimmed glasses, and in trainers, lost in time, with that far away look. I looked at her for a few seconds – if I had looked any longer, I could have seen even my future through her lost gaze.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Tamil films and the rising tide

These days, it feels pretty good to be a Tamil film rasigan. Some of the best films in the country are produced in Tamil. A majority of the top technicians and film makers at work today cut their teeth working in Tamil films. (Cinematographers - Ravi K. chandran, Santosh Sivan, PC, V Manikandan, KV Anand; Musicians - ARR, Illayaraja; Editors - Sreekar Prasad, Suresh Urs, Antony).

More than anything, there has been a renaissance in Tamil film industry (at this point you might think that I am going to start lecturing on film history or I am going to link this renaissance to the European one and bore you to are safe...I have as much knowledge about renaissance and film theory and history as Ajith has about acting, or Balakrishna has about underacting.) In plain language - there has been some really awesome, kickass Tamil films released in the last 5/6 years and the directors who made those films are getting better and better - which means more awesome, kickass films in the future.

And that makes me really really glad. There was never any shortage of talent or directors who broke barriers and gave some solid films. But, mostly those were breakthroughs in how they tell stories rather than what they say. Tamil directors have been great innovators of form, but not so great creators of content (how many two-wives, one-poor-suffering-husband combination stories can one tolerate). Not any more.

There is a bunch of new guys, who are exploring new issues, putting lot of thought into how to say it and giving entertaining, searing, scorching, throbbing films, that are filled with heart, without compromising their heads. Here are some directors to watch out for. And rent their films immediately - and do yourself a favour.

Balaji Shaktivel - director of Kaadhal (2004) and Kalloori (2007) (apparently he also directed Samurai - the film with one of the most loaded, double meaning songs ever - and sung by none other than Nithyashree Mahadevan- look for "Oru Nadhi..."; at this point, we can treat this as an abberration). I saw Kalloori and was blown away by his story telling, his decency, his camera work and how he found a way to picturise ordinary lives with such extraordinary detail. The scenes where Tammanna offers the hero a lift in her Kinetic Honda is just pure poetry.

Sasi - director of "Poo"(2009). He took a kickass short story by Tamil Selvan (One of the best writers at work currently, period. If this guy was writing in English, he would be the rave by now.) and made a beautiful film out of it. First rate visulatisation, uncomprosmising acting, thoughtful screenplay. Once again peering into seemingly ordinary lives and retelling the stories with heart and verve.

Vasantha Balan - director of "Veyil"(2006) and "Angaadi Theru" (2010). What this guy has achieved with "Angaadi Theru" so early in his career, few directors have achieved after decades in the industry. What performances he has extracted from his team! His industry, his vision, his execution, his talent, his courage - hats off!Watch out! Watch out!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

One Straw Revolution - Reflections on a book

An old Japanese farmer writes a book about farming, food and life. 30 plus years go by. An Indian guy comes across the book, and even though he has never planted a seed or lifted a sickle, reads it. It gives him immense joy, pushes him into deep reflective phases, makes him feel like riding a cloud when reading, and guides him through a world which is very removed and very immediate to his all at once.

And there have been many many more Indians, Kenyans, Americans, Italians, Kampucheans, and other ---ans who must have read this book and share this outlook. The book would mean different things all of them. What it means to you, you have to figure out. It doesn't offer (or claim to offer) solutions to all the problems in the world. It will just help you reflect. In a good way. In a way where it expands your mind, and opens your thought buds.

The book is about farming, about one man's life - his struggles to find answers to his questions, and once he finds answers, his efforts to communicate it to the outer world, about food, about what constitutes food, about one's approach to life, about philosophy, about sustainable agricultural practices and so much more.

It talks about cultivating rice and barley. It doesn't matter if you care about rice or not. It doesn't matter if reading this gives you a faint uncertainty about how barley looks like. It talks about coating seeds with clay - why, you might ask - it doesn't matter. It talks about working with your hands, working with mud, water, pulling weeds, thrashing grains. It doesn't matter if you can't remember the last time you put your hands in mud or made a sand castle. It doesn't matter if it makes you wonder why children are so happy and joyous playing in mud and water, and adults with all their wisdom, freedom to do things, buy things, consume things, grapple to be happy for a few moments. It doesn't matter. You will still enjoy the book.

Why are people so confused about food? Why do they have such conflicted realtionship with food? Should you eat more proteins, and less fat or should you eat more fat and less carbs? Is "zero fat" food better? Or is "no artificial sweetners" better? Is added vitamins a good thing? When the food companies and medical associations certify that the food you eat is the most healthiest thing you ever put in your mouth, who are you to question them? Don't the experts know what is best for you?

All I can say is, when you don't get the right answers, most likely it is because you are asking the wrong questions.

These questions will continue to appear in your mind, in your TV screens, and in the front page advertisements of your news paper. Good looking, near-thirty year old women dressed in pressed cotton sarees will keep appearing in your TV screens and admonish you to buy this, and not buy that, because they will say, the experts said so. You will go to bed with a faint feeling of guilt, till you go to your next grocery shopping when you will pick up the box of ....., recommended by the cotton saree lady and feel guilt free again. Any solution to life questions offered by products in boxes is most likely not the right answer.

Neo says in Matrix "I didn't come here to tell you how it is going to end. I came here to tell you how it is going to begin". This book cannot give you answers for all the questions you have. It might, just might, be able to help you ask the right questions.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Up in the air

There are some movies which effortlessly pull you in to their narration, cast a spell, and stay in your thoughts for days to follow. Up in the air is one such little gem. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a consultant, who is hired by companies to fire people (or scores of people), or execute their downsizing plan. Why would companies hire specialists to do it - well, lot of reasons - it is dirty work, potential for law suits, and most importantly, if you are a manager worth your salt, you would never do a job yourself when you can hire consultants to do it and spend a fortune (read someone's annual CTC)on it.

As you can imagine, in the current economic situation, he is in great demand. Clooney jets around from city to city (enjoy the arresting aerial views of dozens of tier-2 US cities), moving in and out of offices, leaving scores of people jobless and in shambles.

Corporate travel in the US could be suffocating and soul-sucking to some. With the standard issue corporate buildings, meeting rooms, beige barricades called cubicles, ubiquitous dark suits (with the colorful ties trying in vain to break the monotony), airport hotels which are located as far away from civilization (or normal life) as possible, window less hotel conference rooms, mediocre food, and lots of dread. But Clooney's character thrives in it. He doesn't embrace it - he ravishes it, raking up frequent flyer miles meanwhile. He is a man who has calibrated himself to the system around him so efficiently, that he almost forgets that it is the system around him and not real life.

Of course, there are intruders from the real world who intrude his perfect system, engage him, play him and puncture his perfect cocoon. His sisters, a younger colleague whom he is showing the ropes of his trade, a fellow business traveler and others.

The film is carried by very good performances - Clooney tones down his charm quotient to fit the character and gives a measured, beautiful performance. Matched by Anna Kendrik as his co-worker and Vera Farmiga as his co-traveler. And an array of consistently good performances by people (some of them were cast as they had to go through this in real life) who get fired in the movie.

There are some very funny moments, some poignant ones. There is heartbreak, razor-sharp dialogue and tit-for-tat. And some hope and possible redemption. Rent it, watch it, mull it over, and smile.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Phoonk 2: The Death of Evolution

I had the pleasure of watching this wonderful movie. I consider myself blessed and privileged for being able to be a part of this epochal event. For, it is not every day that you get to watch the end of the world, the death of evolution.

A film review is supposed to inform the reader and help him/her make the right choice. Let me help you, PLEASE!!!

Consider this: Imagine you are on a two hour flight. You are sitting next to a friend whose idea of entertainment is to scare you. And he does this by turning to you suddenly after every 30 seconds and screams “BOOOO”.

You, being a good sport that you are, humor him for the first 10 min….20 min…..30 min and act amused, even though you know that after every half minute he is going to do the same action, make the same loud noise. You hope that your friend picks-up your impatience and changes his act or shut-up.

What if he continues doing the same silly, grossly stupid actions for the next two hours, non-stop? Turning to you as if for the first time and screaming BOOOO….after every half minute. That is how I felt after watching the movie.

It is an insult to anyone’s intelligence to expect them to be scared by doing the same stupid s*** for two hours. It takes advantage of the fact that the viewer can see and hear and keeps assaulting those senses. This movie is an insult to your intelligence (expecting you to be scared on watching the same old trick being played over and over again). It is an insult to human senses. It is an insult to evolution that helped humans develop the senses of sight and sound.

People might trick you into watching this movie by saying things like “come on yaar, this is just fun”, “I just want to watch a mindless horror movie” etc. Please do yourselves (and humanity) a favor and run away from there, as far as you could – and celebrate the fact that you helped stop the death of evolution.