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.