Sunday, June 23, 2013

Superman's Jatti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 07, 2013

When Writers You Love, Leave You…

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

I have a few times in my life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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