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.