Review: Half Girlfriend

Early in Mohit Suri’s Half Girlfriend, based on Chetan Bhagat’s novel of the same name, we see a to-do list of items chalked out on a blackboard (in very good handwriting, it must be said) in order for one to acquire good command of English: watch English movies, listen to English songs, read English books etc. If it were only that easy, especially for someone from a far-flung town in Bihar trying to … impress his girl from the creamiest social layer in south Delhi? Nah, that’s been done before. 

Our hero Madhav Jha (Arjun Kapoor), the burly basketball player who gets into a not-so-suspiciously named university named St. Steven’s through its sports quota, aspires to be the change his small town, Simrao, needs. “Myself coming from village,” he says in front of an interview panel of three men with stiff upper lips (the sort whose day-to-day living room conversations would commonly include sentences like “exasperated farrago of outright lies”). But he is not the stereotypical working-class struggler you see in movies like Raanjhanaa. He has royal blood, this aspiring sociologist and scion of a yesteryear Raja who has been brought up by a single mother, Rani Sahiba (Seema Biswas). She has taught him never to accept defeat but to defeat defeat — a weak line that attempts to string together the whole film — and speak from the heart. 

And so he does, upon seeing the beautiful Riya Somani (Shraddha Kapoor) checking off several trademark Bollywood heroine must-dos such as walking into the rain in slow motion, singing to herself and coming down a flight of stairs dressed in designer gowns. She huffs and puffs only in English, has dysfunctional parents (extra credits for not casting a drunk Ronit Roy as the violent father) and dreams of singing in a New York City bar. All this emotional outpouring is done, strangely enough, atop New Delhi’s India Gate, where Riya seems to have easily snuck up for many years (CISF be damned). In addition to rolling my eyes after cliched ‘cute’ exchanges, I was concerned about a potential bullet from a security guard’s gun whizzing past the couple.  

In a rather refreshing manner, Riya does not shun him for his (forced) Bihari accent replete with “noejj”, “toejj”, “bhery” and comically misplaced gerunds. At her birthday party, set in her extravagant backyard, she tells him: “This is how my life is, but this is not me.” But Madhav is overly naive and gets lopsided ideas about love, consent and relationships from his half-baked roommates. 

Never mind the clandestine crawl of his hands over hers in the dark of a theatre or his tight wrist hold and finishing shove when in a fight. Boys will be boys, as some political patriarchs say up north, right? It was Riya, after all, who allowed him to  became her hangout buddy, her movie companion, her sober friend-cum-driver who ensures she gets back home safe but also tries to slip in a kiss when she’s visibly high. She admits that she is halfway to becoming something more than a friend and hence the ridiculous justification of the movie’s title. 

Madhav, otherwise would be the perfect role model for his prohibition-imposed State (a teetotaler) and our central government (‘beti bachao, beti padhao’, he ends his speech in the United Nations a few years after college. Yes, you read that right). 

To be fair, Madhav’s pursuit of championing social change was right there from the beginning. It only took a breaking of the heart to set him on course again. After the inevitable reunion in the second half that also involves a hilariously-bad VFX cutout of Bill Gates’ face, the story takes a tragic twist and escorts us from Patna, Simrao and all the way to New York City for a predictable finish. 

At some point, it felt as though this film turned from plain water into a strange cocktail of Karan Johar with splashes of Imtiaz Ali. There are eleven songs (all of them hardly impressive), rendered independently by six different composers — Phir Bhi Tumko Chaahunga” by Arijit Singh and “Stay a Little Longer” by Anushka Sahaney stand out because they are relentlessly rehashed every 15 minutes.  

Despite the heavy baggage of Bollwyood cliche, both Arjun Kapoor and Shraddha Kapoor give spirited performances that hit the ‘just right’ spot and make Half Girlfriend, well, half-likable. They have perhaps cracked an acceptable formula to portray Chetan Bhagat characters. Only time will tell when they announce the cast of One Indian Girl

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A sleuth’s tale

Book review: Arthur & Sherlock — Conan Doyle and the creation of Holmes

It was 130 years ago that the world was introduced to a lanky, sharp-eyed sleuth by the name of Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, John Watson. He certainly was not the first of his kind to appear in literature. So what makes him — with his distinctive pipe and deerstalker cap — the default image of the very word ‘detective’? (Even today,  when you punch in the word on Google, it is Holmes’ silhouette that pops up first).

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Michael Sims’ Arthur & Sherlock — Conan Doyle and the creation of Holmes (Bloomsbury, 2017) narrates the fascinating tale behind the conception of the most portrayed literary human character in film and TV. Vigorously researched, the book contains a good deal about Arthur Conan Doyle’s childhood and upbringing in the Scottish city of Edinburgh, his natural affinity for storytelling and most importantly, how his time period coincided with the growth of scientific reasoning and the shift from poetry to fiction as a respectable form of literature — all of which were essential to his work’s success.

Sims divides his book into three parts: Conan Doyle’s early years and entry into medicine, his literary influences and eventual rise to fame with Sherlock Holmes. A good amount of information comes from Conan Doyle’s memoirs and Sims has carefully pointed out tributes the former has paid to authors, especially Edgar Allen Poe, in his writings. Some similarities in sentences (of Doyle’s) border on plagiarism and would not be taken so kindly today. But then, even the concept of copyright was unheard of in Georgian and Victorian times.

Conan Doyle’s portrayal, his rise from abject poverty to a not-so-successful physician to infamous author, is most empathetic. He lives on a shoestring budget in Portsmouth, subsists on canned beef and bread, stocks up basic furniture on credit and struggles to find patients. Yet, he refuses financial help from his mother. One can almost relate, even today, to the plight of a bachelor, fresh out of college, trying to find his own feet in another city. But what a leap of faith it must have been, in the 1870s, to pause studies and take up an unpaid internship as a doctor onboard a ship sailing in the Arctic or along the western African coastline. He slowly realises he can make more money through these experiences than slogging it out to become a surgeon of repute. That too turns out to be easier said than done; his first attempts at short stories face rejection or return a pittance.

The storyteller in Sims seems to be a trivia aficionado, embedding gems of information that some might find inconsequential: how the surname Doyle derived from the Anglo Norman D’Oil, a short history of Edinburgh’s slums, the etymology of ‘diphtheria’, the story of Beeton behind the Beeton’s Christmas Annual in which Sherlock Holmes debuted (this man also famously published the controversial novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin). But the tales, especially of Conan Doyle’s mentor, the legendary Dr Joseph Bell whom he acknowledges as the primary inspiration for Holmes, and of the genre’s precursors (Poe’s Auguste C Dupin, Voltaire’s Zadig and an unlikely biblical protagonist) are unputdownable.

Despite all the heavy stuffing, Sims’ writing is most accessible and perhaps, at times, lacks the exciting punch it should ideally have had. William Dalrymple once compared his style of writing after arduous research to Chinese cooking, “where three-quarters of the time is spent on chopping things up and the actual cooking takes very little time.” Sims seems to have overdone his cooking with Arthur & Sherlock in certain chapters, with redundant statements (“Thomas Babington Macaulay was Arthur’s favourite writer” appears many times), rambling into inconsequential tangents that force us to exclaim like Sherlock Holmes himself: “What the deuce would it be of any use to me?” He has also left us turning pages in vain, in search of why Conan Doyle ‘killed’ his detective at Reichenbach and how public pressure forced his revival. We see paragraphs dedicated to origins of Gregson, Lestrade and Irene Adler but not Moriarty!

In all fairness, Sims’ work is nothing less than a labour of love and an extraordinary resource for fans of crime fiction. It is a must-have for all Sherlockians and possibly, for history buffs impinged with some love for literature.

An edited version of this piece can be found here in The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

The K.V. Anand interview

He entered the film industry in 1994 as a cinematographer and ended up winning a national award for his work on debut. Ten years and 13 projects later, he settled into the director’s chair and gave us hits like Ayan and Ko . K.V. Anand, now 51, is waiting to release his sixth film, Kavan, starring Vijay Sethupathy, Madonna Sebastien and T. Rajender.  Edited excerpts from an interview:

What’s happening with Kavan right now?

I’m editing the ‘Oxygen’ love song. My team saw the first cut and said it was pretty good. But I feel I can improve it further. That will happen during the rerecording. We need to make things slick and fast for the audience.

Speaking of fast-paced films, did you see Si-3?

No, no. But Kavan doesn’t have that much of action. It’s more to do with an ordinary man dealing with a situation.

You earlier said Kavan is about a David vs Goliath conflict, where a common man is pitted against a powerful entity. What else can you reveal about it?

Kavan literally translates as a tool used to aim at a target — like how David used a catapult and stone to bring his adversary down. Goliath is in the form of a corporate giant and an ordinary guy is pitted against it. Vijay Sethupathy fit that bill.  This script wouldn’t have worked with a superstar like Suriya, Vijay or Ajith.

You also have a new team to assist you …

Yes. Instead of Harris Jayaraj, Hiphop Adhi is the music director. The cinematographer is Abhinandan and Kabilan Vairamuthu has contributed to lyrics, story and screenplay. The reason for this change is … when you’ve worked with the same team over the years, we end up agreeing on what everyone says. I wanted to break with that familiarity. The only person who has remained constant in my team is editor Antony because he and I differ on everything under the sun except the food we eat.

Why have you chosen HipHop Tamizha specifically among the new crop?

I had my eyes on Ghibran and Imman too, but he was the only one who was free. There’s a great difference in the way he approaches music. Harris composes music in an almost meditative, transcendent state. With Adhi, there’s a playfulness in his tunes, there’s unpredictability. In Thani Oruvan, he has done a  fantastic job with the BGM and songs. I think a substantial amount of the film’s success is owed to him. My feedback to him simply was that lyrics were not discernible in his music; he said this is what youngsters like these days. But we made some compromises with each other.

We hear you rewrite your scripts as many as five or six times. Where does this quest of perfection arise from?

From my critics, especially those who work with me. Most of the time, you have a lot of jalra cases. But then, some of them conclude that it is only criticism that I like and give me an overdose of it.

How much of a critic are you of your own work?

I can’t watch my old films on screen or on the TV. I can’t sit through even 10 minutes of them, all the mistakes start appearing. The film that I’m making currently, I can always try to improve it as much as possible.

Which of your earlier films would you say were most satisfactory to you?

Ko and Maatraan.

Ko was based on a lot of experiences from your time as a photojournalist.  Tell us a bit about that part of your life.

When I was doing my BSc in physics in 1985, I had applied to become Junior Vikatan’s student reporter. I was rejected. Then, I began freelancing for Kalki and as part of their reportage series, went to many districts to cover civic issues. I hardly went to click photos of heroes or heroines. My very first assignment was in Thindivanam where my reporter and I had to interview a doctor who complained about poor government hospitals facilities. He was none other than Dr. S. Ramadoss (founder of Pattali Makkal Katchi). I went on to click more than 1000 pictures for Kalki (including 110 cover photographs). I freelanced for Illustrated Weekly and India Today also. I didn’t apply to The Hindu because they would never give bylines for photographers unless you were sent abroad to cover sports.  Only India Today promised a byline and good money. So I applied for a full-time job there. In my mind, I thought I would get it and settle there for the rest of my life. I didn’t get it.  So I showed my portfolio to P.C. Sreeram, who at that time was working on Nayagan. I loved his work and ended up assisting him for three years before he recommended me to Priyadarshan for Thenmavin Kombath (a Malayalam film).

Does your approach differ when you work for a different film industry where the language isn’t the same?

Not much. For cinematographers, there’s no need for a language. For Malayalam (films), I had no problem. But, in Hindi, I always had assistants would would translate what was required and convey it to me. Even there,  some directors, such as Mansoor Khan, would write and work in English primarily. During the shooting of Thenmavin Kombath, the brief we got was that it would be set in a village on the border of Karnataka and Kerala with no electricity. The only source of artificial light would be from the lanterns outside people’s houses. We set things up to suit that.

It has been nearly 10 years since you wielded the camera for a major film. Your last such project was Sivaji. Do you miss it? Would you handle the camera again?

Definitely. When I run out of a script. In fact, Shankar — who is a good friend — asked me to join his team for Rajinikanth’s 2.0. This was immediately after I had wrapped up Anegan. I asked him what the timeframe was. He said it would be a year. I didn’t mind but I wanted to know if he was starting it immediately. He said no. So I said it would be difficult because I had my upcoming (directorial) projects too.

Did you wish that you had been a cinematographer for some of the films during that gap?

I’m not sure. I would’ve loved to have been a part of Gautham Menon’s films or with Mani Ratnam, my favourite director. Good cinematography is not just about showing landscapes but within a single room too. Like in the case of OK Kanmani. Three things combine to give good visuals in a film: cinematography, costumes and art direction. If you want to show something in a very tasteful way, say a person standing in front of a green wall, then he shouldn’t be wearing an eye-popping red. That becomes jarring … like how that Punjabi actor looks like in Messenger of God.  The only person in control of those three elements is the director.

What was it like to direct Vijay Sethupathy?

He’s a very sharp fellow when he listens to narrations. He gave a couple of good suggestions as well. At the same time, he’s a very simple man who avoids being pretentious. That’s why he fit the Kavan character — someone who doesn’t immediately attack back when he gets hit but instead tackles it in a different way.  The film is a reflection of our society, how some things have become a part of everyday life … like bribing a cop or just paying to get things done.

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And that anger is what comes out in your films?

Not anger. Me, I’m just numbed out by these things. Shankar’s Anniyan … that was anger. Whatever maturity I have is because of my reading of newspapers and meeting a lot of people. And travelling — nothing teaches you life like travelling alone.

You managed to keep your love for pulp fiction on the side as well

Well, yes. I took photographs for SuBa’s novels (SuBa is the nom de plume of writer duo Suresh and Bala). Their works had a lot of blood and mystery like James Hadley Chase novels. And I tried to give that effect to their covers by imitating P.C. Sreeram’s styles, like how he did it for Agni Natchatiram. I also loved reading comics: Irumbu Kai Maayavi (Tamil version of The Steel Claw) and Spiderman. Only after college did my reading taste turn a bit more serious.

How is a veteran director like you finding it to compete with the new generation of filmmakers who are churning out content non-stop?

Whether a film makes Rs. 30 crore or Rs. 40 crore, only the content matters. It’s not just about the message but also packaging it with entertainment. Even in the case of a project with a very small budget like Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru, the director, a 22-year-old boy, gave us a good, sharp film. There were no songs or anything extra.  One pattern is clear: we need to move at breakneck pace and the audience want us to cut to the chase. The challenge is to add romance and comedy within this limited timeframe. People are definitely ready to see good films. We just have to ask ourselves whether we’re providing them with any.

Are you also cued into the forms of quality digital content available on the internet?

I’m a big fan of Netflix serials — Marco Polo, 24, House of Cards and Narcos … what a fantastic series! It is so realistic, almost like a documentary. A fat gangster (Pablo Escobar) who’s a loving father and loving husband but still kills so many people.

Would you be interested in directing something like that if someone approaches you with a script?

In my career as a director, I’ve been approached by lots of top producers and heroes to do films that suit their image. I’ve turned them down. I need my own script. I can’t just go to Ooty or Kodaikanal and form a story there for the hero’s sake … I can’t do it and I won’t do it. I may do a bad film but it will be planned, scripted and executed my way.

An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2017 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

An attempt at explaining the inexplicable

This post is a reply I gave to a fellow journalist based in New Delhi who asked me to explain Rajinikanth (includes some strong portions that I deliberately chose not to give)

I’m not exactly a fanatic but I have to say there is something about the way he looks that attracts people to him, almost like a magnet. I have seen about 90% of his movies (including the black and white ones) and there are certain things that most people agree on: the man CANNOT dance, his onscreen persona — at least in the post 90s era — has been largely preachy, blatantly patriarchal, tilting towards the spiritual and sometimes very cringeworthy. But the audience loved it. And he delivered punchlines like none other. He still does to some extent. His signature walk, the way threw a cigarette and caught it between his lips (he’s replaced it with a chewing gum now to cultivate a more responsible image), and his natural timing for comedy made him a perfect package for most directors. But above all, and this is my personal view, I think he was able to channel a rage that was prevalent among many men of his generation and put it into his characters. He was Tamil cinema’s Angry Young Man. And naturally the perfect choice to essay Amitabh Bachchan’s roles in Tamil remakes of his films.

Rajinikanth was the underdog, the voice of the subaltern (finally got to use this word!), the man of the masses. He was and continues to be the paragon of simplicity for many. That goes for both his onscreen and offscreen avatar. And Tamil people love a rags-to-riches story. They embraced him without question. They have willingly tried offering their lives for him. They love the fact that he doesn’t pretend to be someone else when the camera is not rolling. That he refuses to wear a wig in public and avoids ostentatious clothing appeals all the more to the common man. His ways of dealing with the most powerful people in the State have been nothing short of epic. On the professional front, he has always expressed himself as a “director’s actor”, is never considered a control freak, and has always been respected for his punctuality and commitment to shooting schedules — something that is found rarely in today’s generation of actors and actresses.

As he transitioned from being cast as a villain to a hero, he was slowly molded into a larger-than-life protagonist (he otherwise, almost always, played second fiddle to Kamal Hassan) by directors like S.P. Muthuraman, P. Vasu, K.S. Ravikumar and later, Shankar. There was no going back. The man was an assured hit. There was no such thing as Rajinikanth fitting into a role anymore. He was the dazzling star, the rest — script, supporting roles simply needed to orbit around him. With every film came a king-size cutout of the man; fans would climb dangerous heights to worship his ‘idols’ with milk or even beer. There was too much at stake with every release and immense pressure to satisfy the raging crowd. They had to have their opium of Superstar’s swag.

I have, of course, experienced this high in theaters many times. All you have to do is wait for the opening credits.

The letters R-A-J-N-I scrawl out in their most familiar style, between ‘SUPER’ and ‘STAR’ which appear like a dot-matrix printer’s output. The Star Wars text crawl can go screw itself. Everything else in the universe gets blanked out for those 20-odd seconds. Goosebumps are induced, fingers turn into whistles, and any semblance of paper becomes confetti. The rest of the movie is just a joyride, probably like a hippie experiencing an incredibly good LSD trip. If you arrive inside the cinema hall on the first-day-first-show of a Rajini movie as a serious connoisseur, just head right back out the door. Dialogues get drowned in hooting and cheering, song sequences mean you break into a dance as well and the guy playing the baddie gets showered with a volley of your finest abuses. These are sacred templates that no one dares interfere with.

All this was a rabbit hole into which the actor Rajinikanth fell into somewhere during the course of finding immortality on celluloid. His onscreen persona has to have equal, if not more swag than the previous. If it doesn’t, like his last two releases (Kochadaiiyaan and Lingaa) or even the forgettable Baba, chaos prevails. His fans go home disappointed, their pilgrimage to the screen halted. His critics snigger, “how long can the old geezer fool people that he is young?”. Rajinikanth, the man, has to pacify theatre owners and producers. He has to compensate them for their losses. And probably head to the Himalayas and ponder over existential questions.

The writing on the wall is there for all to see. Rajini is as old as our Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His wig on film has not greyed (until now at least) like he has in life. Consumers are now exposed to more quality entertainment than ever. And they have developed a taste for a bit of authenticity in their cinema too. Rajini’s angry-old counterpart in the north, meanwhile, is already a good ten years into playing age-appropriate roles. So why not him too?

Kabali‘s director Pa Ranjith comes as a breath of fresh air in these troubled times for thalaivar. He says he wants to bring back the actor that is Rajinikanth as he saw him in the 1978 film Mullum Malarum (Ranjith had not even been born then) while simultaneously satisfying his army of fans. Personally, I think his ambitions are far-fetched. Mullum Malarum marked an important transition in Rajini’s life. He was not the cunning villain anymore. But he wasn’t the good guy either. He was the oppressed, fighting a battle against existing systems dominated by the fair-skinned bosses. Strangely, that same battle played out against him as the film was being produced. The financier who belonged to a class of businessmen was dead against a dark-skinned man being the central character of the film. The director persisted, saying no one else will do. Rajini’s heart had already sunk by then. His salary of Rs.13,000/- wasn’t of primary concern anymore. The performance had to be all or nothing. We know how that turned out in the end.

In 2016, Rajini has little to lose. The yardstick set by his previous two flops seems unprecedented in an otherwise legendary career. There is really nothing to prove anymore. And yet, the juggernaut rolls on. 

The pre-booking slots for the film have opened a week ahead of its release and have sent servers crashing. One of my colleagues, a man in his 50s who sits next to me, was surprised by my attempts to somehow get a reservation. “It’s surprising,” he said. “I could understand the frenzy Rajini caused when his film released during my time. But even now … ?”

I guess that somehow explains why Rajini is what he is.

Shelf Help – For Information or pleasure? That is the question

A column for The Hindu on … quizzing. Thanks to Radhika for pressing me to write after long. 

“We always read for one of two things — information or pleasure”.

My college English professor often spouted this fountain of obvious wisdom every now and then. But I don’t think I used to think, back then at least, that the two could go hand-in-hand. What was important for an 18-year-old me was to read facts for what they were and recollect it in my head during quizzes to score points. These points were very important, especially when there were cash prizes at stake — a difference of 5 points could mean a potential loss of Rs. 2,500 or in the case of business quizzes with plump sponsors, multiple times of that.

So the natural thing thing to do (at least what some of us thought back then) would be to keep your daily dose of Wikipedia completely disconnected from your reading of say, Paulo Coelho or Jhumpa Lahiri (“What question could possibly arise out of the boring Interpreter of Maladies?”). The dry Wikipedia-and-old-trivia-books-mugging method persisted for most of the time. And that’s how most college quizzes used to function. You see a keyword in the midst of all the text on the projector slides and hit the buzzer.

“This started as Galvin Manufacturing Corporation in Illinois, …”

*BUZZ*

“MOTOROLA!”

“The blue agave found in Mexico …”

“TEQUILA!” (The liquor is made from that plant)

And then when you seek to unlock new levels of awesomeness on the bigger stages (the open quizzes), you hit a roadblock. There are some questions so beautifully framed and possibly, so complex that there would be no way you could have answered it without having read the piece of associated literature. These were nothing like your college quizzes — most of which were set in the twelfth hour and scraped from older powerpoint presentations. There was considerable amount of research that had gone into setting them. A major portion of that effort required reading books (fiction, non-fiction, pulp thrillers, comics … the whole lot). And after several occasions, the goal was no longer about brownie points. It was about whether you remembered the story behind why you actually knew the answer. This is slightly relatable to that feeling Dev Patel’s character has when he keeps giving right answer after right answer on the quiz show in Slumdog Millionaire. He hasn’t scoured through Wikipedia articles and infused trivia in his brain; there’s actually a story behind every answer. An emotional connect, be it joy, sadness or even anger. And nowhere is this more relatable than reading a good book that narrates facts in the most recollective style of prose. Sample this:

“In France, a chemist named Pilatre de Rozier tested the flammability of hydrogen by gulping a mouthful and blowing across an open flame, proving at a stroke that hydrogen is indeed explosively combustible and that eyebrows are not necessarily a permanent feature of one’s face.”

― Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

Chances are you’ll never forget Rozier’s name from now. I can’t say the same if you encountered him on Encyclopaedia Brittanica though.

I had a fractional Slumdog Millionaire moment once in high school: “Who was the first man to set foot on the Hipparchus Crater on the Moon?” read the question. When I noticed teams before us were listing out possible names of astronauts from the Apollo Missions and were not getting any affirmative reaction from the quizmaster, I picked up the mike and said: “Tintin”.

That was possibly the greatest moment of ecstasy I felt back then. You needed to have read Destination Moon in-and-out to crack that one.

Another memorable one (although this was on an online forum) was when someone asked: “What reason do travel guides usually give to unwary tourists when they want to know why temples like Khajuraho have erotic sculptures?”

The answer: ‘So that the people, in the aftermath of the bloody Kalinga War, would be aroused to reproduce and get back the population on track.’

How much ever apocryphal this story seems, this is exactly what a character named Mr. Kapasi says to an NRI family who come heritage-hunting in that boring book — Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri.

An edited version of this article can be found here.

The problem with Papanasam

 

I’ll begin with a disclaimer before I proceed, lest I (accidentally) draw any ire from the angry horde of Ulaganayagan fans: This is just a rant, it might be flawed (in your eyes obviously) and no, I don’t hate Kamal for whatever he does. I just like picking on him when he thinks he’s being too cool for film school — but he isn’t and is actually being reduced to a parody of his former self.

I’ve always questioned myself why this schadenfreude for this man has generally been on the upside in recent times (yes, a lot of us feel happy when his attempts at creating a magnificent spectacle of film-making fails spectacularly). We know it is not healthy but it is also representative of a cinema-going society with reduced tolerance for bullshit, who are willing to call it so without fear. Uttama Villain, in this sense, was nothing short of a cinema scam. Papanasam is Kamal’s immediate saving act. But here too, one can’t help but notice the unhealthy hangover of a man inebriated (and overflowing) with cinema occasionally creeping into what is otherwise a very well-made remake of the Malayalam original.

Uttama Villain was nothing short of a cinema scam. Papanasam is Kamal’s immediate saving act.

I tried my best to avoid reading detailed reviews of Papanasam but some collisions were inevitable. Almost all of them seemed full of praise and certainty that the movie stands out on its own (90% true). After sitting through roughly a couple of hours and 45 minutes, certain realisations dawn on you. The lead character is a man who has learnt everything in life from watching cinema (who else but Kamal could be the real-life personification of this?). So trust Kamal to take it an extra step forward: not only is his knowledge of cinema encyclopedic, but the character himself was born in a theatre while his mother was watching a flick in the 1970s. First cringe moment.

His wife (Gauthami, who’s actually done a very decent comeback to the big screen) asks him whether he thinks of himself as a kaadhal mannan. I’ve lost count of how many times that reference has popped up in every Kamal film. Cringe moment number two. That moment sort of makes a haunting comeback after a breakfast scene, when Kamal and Gauthami — both visibly aged — are lost in each other’s deep, loving gaze; two pairs of eyes resting on puffed-up sacks, locked into each other. And our kaadhal mannan winks in slow motion, thinking he’s still exuding his charm from the late eighties. More cringe.

papanasam-tamil-movie-asha-sarath-pictures-00220There’s the usual subtle reference to the groin region, in true Kamal style: he asks the corrupt constable to zip his pants up (“Neenga modhalla moodunga … zip ah”), and later mocks the same person as one who truly resolves itches, anywhere on the body (“Avare solraaru la, arippa theerpaaru nu … enga arippu irukku nu sollunga, avaru aripaaru”). The second one can be slotted into the classic Kamal “dirty joke” category, and has appeared in an almost similar form in Virumaandi.

Drishyam-movie-new-stills-(18)8355In Drishyam, Mohan Lal eschews all this and sticks to his cool self. No fuss, no additional self-references from previous movies. The composure with which his character handles tense situations is brilliant to say the least, only because Lal underplays it. There is this genuine dollop of childlike innocence to many of Lal’s onscreen characters. He just needs to give that sheepish wide display of his pearly whites clenched together (its all the more funny when he’s got a thick mustache) and we really feel like smiling along. And he doesn’t need to even to try hard if the goal is to achieve a tear-jerker of a scene.

Why is it, by default, assumed that mainstream Tamil film scripts would not click if they are subtle?

The argument that both Kamal and Lal approach their characters in different ways has been used to death. Shouldn’t it basically work the way the director (Jeethu Joseph, for both Tamil and Malayalam versions) envisioned his script? Here’s where Joseph readily admits that it is Kamal who best knows the pulse of the Tamil audience and hence agreed to make it more “emotional” for that sake.

Now we really need to address this question: Why is it, by default, assumed that Tamil film scripts (mainstream ones at least) would not click if they are subtle? Why is it that we always need to overdo things to achieve impact? Why is that in Manichitrathazhu, when Dr. Sunny Joseph (the ever-subtle Mohan Lal again) plainly manages to knock off a cup of poisoned tea from Suresh Gopi’s hand, Rajinikanth’s Dr. Saravanan has to leap and fly in slow motion before he does the same in Chandramukhi? Why, as an established director such as Mani Ratnam has often asked, can’t subtle realism be applied outside of artsy movies? The answer: it can.

Trust me, the best parts of the movie lie in scenes where Kamal really underplays himself — whispering to the roadside hotel owner about approaching the sub-inspector before clearing his throat and saying it louder, folding his palms and giving an acknowledging goodbye nod to the police after they question him at his house, a small confirming grunt when Gauthami asks if she goofed up during the interrogation and coaching the family to maintain their cool in times of danger.

The best parts of the movie lie in scenes where Kamal really underplays himself

All this momentarily goes for a toss during scenes where his character guffaws or suddenly decides to let tears flow. This effort is more pronounced just before the climax when he meets IPS Geeta Prabakar and her husband for one last time. All of Kamal’s facial muscles automatically twitch into motion; he channels his inner Velu Nayakan and Krishnanswamy (from Mahanadi) but stops before they pour out as wails. Thankfully. He, in fact, is not even subtle when he indirectly confesses about his guilt. Almost the entire point of keeping a secret and getting roughed up with his family is lost.

Ah, yes. That reminds me. Okay, so the roughing up scene in Papanasam was more brutal than in the original one, especially when Kalabhavan Mani cracks Kamal’s thumb in a way so cruel only the Kamal of Kuridhi Punal or Aalavandhaan could’ve conceptualised it. And when his younger daughter makes contact with it while hugging him, Kamal goes into his “aaaaahhh!” (it hurts but it’s okay darling) mode.

In conclusion, I’m not going to blow this up into a “Lal is better than Kamal” debate for two reasons: a) Because I know he is and b) The Malayalam original is always better. You can watch it right here, legally. You decide for yourself.

Haider sans Hamlet

I haven’t read Hamlet. The only work of Shakespeare that I can claim to know of (and that too an abridged version) is Julius Caesar, only because it was part of my high school English syllabus. So how must one react to Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider?

The past few days for me have been a steady diet of reviews of the movie, most of which painted a reasonably good picture of it, though I did manage to find one very critical piece. Almost all looked through the lens of the play set in Denmark and drew parallels or noted where the director took artistic licences to deviate from the original text. What of the cinema goer who has never had a brush with Shakespeare? What would one see and learn through fresh eyes?

Kashmir is truly paradise. The valley looks stunning whether it is dotted by yellow-leaved trees in autumn or is capped by snow. Each house is worthy of being an art piece by itself — one look at the bedsheets, carpets and the cups they use to serve hot kahwa will tell you why. Which is why you will cringe when gunfights result in bullets searing through the wooden windows or worse, when bombs disfigure them altogether.

The Indian Army is making sure Kashmir stays in a state of limbo. People are routinely made to walk in hordes, holding up their identification cards. A hooded army man inspects them, one by one. If they look suspicious, he honks his vehicle, the suspect is taken into custody and tortured behind closed doors – gruesomely enough so that his cries can be heard, to strike fear into whoever may be guilty of hiding something. Suspected insurgents disappear as a matter of fact. They languish in secret prisons, are tortured even more (nails tweaked out, wires inserted into bodies), shot in the dark and thrown into the Jhelum from where bodies are regularly fished out. A sense of “everyone-knows-but-won’t-talk-about-it” attitude prevails. A State police officer says filing an FIR will only cause more personal troubles. People who save you from knotty situations quickly turn informers. Even a lover can blurt out things one confides to her. Referring to Srinagar as Islamabad — considered normal for a lot of people — is the something the security forces don’t take lightly. For them there is only one Islamabad, on the other side of the border. And what’s with most of the top army brass being Tamilians? (Nagraj & TS Murthy, their badges proudly display)

This is the situation which our poetry-writing protagonist comes to face with when he returns home from college. If this was not enough, his mother and power-loving uncle seem to be happier after his father’s disappearance, and even finding solace in each other. As Kashmir turns wintry, Haider’s beard grows long and so does his quest for answers. As inconvenient facts are unearthed, madness starts to creep into his mind and results in one of the most memorable scenes in the movie: an energised solo recitation of the dreaded Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) bang in the middle of Lal Chowk, an area where Jawaharlal Nehru supposedly once pledged the plebiscite promise to Kashmir.

The premise is simple enough. Haider learns of his father’s dying wish to take revenge, to pop two bullets into the eyes of his wily uncle. In the process, we see how daily life is in Srinagar. The film’s co-writer, Basharat Peer, has lived up to his promise of depicting Kashmiris as people who are not necessarily fanatical about everything in life (Peer himself makes an interesting cameo just before the halfway mark). He is sort of right when he says that previous commercial directors have always overlaid the theme of unhindered patriotism in the valley’s backdrop (Roja, Lakshya et al.) or used it simply as a pretty setting for songs (Jiya Re from Jab Tak Hai Jaan comes to mind). What sets Haider apart is that it unabashedly shows the armed regiments as unethical, something you can least rely on for safety and as a tool used to gain political mileage. It was flagged as fodder for controversy earlier this year. Vishal Bhardwaj reportedly made 35 cuts to tighten the screenplay, while the Censor Board made five so that it would be appropriate for children under adult supervision. Given the present circumstances under a potentially sensitive, right-wing government, I’m thankful there have been no protests to stop its screening yet. Time will tell.

As far as the process of film making goes, some quick observations: the cameraman Pankaj Kumar’s eye has rightly captured what it considered a visual feast and Vishal Bhardwaj sits right up there with our best music directors. Bhardwaj has also, in a way, taken a step back and forward in making Haider. Some actors have crooned to his tunes — a practice that was commonplace long time ago — and the songs are strictly slotted in only if there’s reason for them to be there. This adds a much-needed element of realism. Lastly, we have properly mastered the art of how bullets hit and instantly kill people as well as how flesh splatters around after an explosion — at least this gets the desired effect of cringing.

A bit of nostalgia: Shahid Kapoor in portraying a Kashmiri who picks up his gun for revenge reminded me of his father who played somewhat a similar role in Mani Ratnam’s Roja. Both films are interestingly, set in the same time period.

One element that threads the film together is Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry, especially the song Gulon Mein Rang Bhare (Let The Blooms Fill With Colour). It is the bond that father and son share, the thing that a mysterious informer uses to show Haider he knows of him and something that was given a new life by Vishal Bhardwaj, the composer, but disappointingly not used in the main film. More importantly, it signals hope in a rotten environment and presses us to ask the most important question. Will, as the lyrics go, the garden of Kashmir ever get on with its daily business as it once used to?

Gulon Mein Rang Bhare (Mehdi Hassan version)


Gulon Mein Rang Bhare (Arijit Singh version)

The last time I saw Landmark

Very nice take on Landmark bookstore (Apex Plaza) closing down.

The Lowly Laureate

landmark2
Whenever something shuts shop, the memories associated with that something swell out, that is only natural. Because memories need not be rational, this is some loss however.
One thing I realised that, we can continue to have the memories even if the source of those memories has shut down or changed course, because basically these are our memories and we can construct them however and whenever we wish to, immaterial of conditions. So basically this is not a nostalgia piece, but masquerading as one.
I do not know how my generation spent their birthdays; mine was always at Landmark Nungambakkam. Weekdays or weekend whenever it came, didn’t matter; it was the unspoken norm, lunch and dinner also didn’t matter. It wasn’t that we returned with a kart load of books, maybe just one or two.
Landmark Nungambakkam was my first idea of what a bookstore should be, a major introduction…

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Culinary Conundrums

 

Cooking away from home — especially for a young bachelor — can be quite cumbersome unless the person is genuinely excited about it. For starters, you don’t have the exact kitchen arsenal you are used to handling back home: induction stove instead of LPG-run, a rice cooker in place of a pressurised model, a one-size-fits-all tawa and a knife that can’t even seem to cut through butter.

Stage two involves realising that vegetables don’t magically appear on opening the fridge and the bold step of going out to purchase them. This is a highly educational exercise guaranteed to make you realise how expensive onions are or that your vendor doesn’t completely understand what ‘aubergine’ or ‘brinjal’ actually mean.

When it comes down to getting your hands dirty, you realise you will never dice or julienne the carrots the way your mom can or add the exact amount of salt to the sautéing paneer dish like she does. But you do remember her last-stop solution to all this. “Just throw in those Maggi magic cubes!”

Lunches and dinners never go as planned and are always set behind by a good two hours (by this time your friends have decided its okay to order a Dominos or binge on the Lays and Coke.) It’s O.K. if sunflower oil replaces the extra-virgin olive one on your pasta or you slightly overdosed the Kashmiri lal mirch powder. This is not MasterChef Australia — although eating your creation while watching the TV programme can significantly depress you.

Your friends might not have helped much except with making the raitha or the salad. But in the end you will realise it was well worth the effort. Nothing beats that feeling of friends enjoying your dish — they may well have no alternative — and beholding emptied serving vessels! (Hey, what’s that bit of okra fry doing in the kitchen bin?!)

With practice, anyway, you will fine tune your culinary processes and grin with satisfaction that you actually produce better stuff than that overpriced hotel at the end of your street. Here’s to more cooking away from home!