Vantage point

Friday, August 28, 2009

When satire works a little too well!

Until a couple of years back when I used to make satirical posts, I thought their tone was obvious. But occasionally, someone would take it seriously and get all hot-under-the-collar about it. For example last year when I made an obviously satirical post demanding that Chennai Super Kings fire Matthew Hayden because he called India a third world country, a blog run by CSK fans responded earnestly saying I was over-reacting.

So anyway, I started actually tagging or labeling my satirical posts as "satire". Partly defeats the purpose of the posts in the first place, but at least it can serve as a pointer to those slow on the uptake.

Which is why this post surprised and amused me. It's about my "demand for an apology" from the HUF. I even tagged the post as satire and tongue-in-cheek, for cryin' out loud! Didn't help. The blogger chides me at length for getting offended and also for dragging casteism and MSD into the picture unnecessarily.

Such responses are amazing. Without quite realizing, they end up proving the basic point I was making - that any idiot can concoct the stupidest reasons for getting offended, and people will actually treat the demands for an apology seriously.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Few Scattered Points on the American Healthcare Debate

Not at all in the mood to write a long libertarian polemic about healthcare, its existing ills and so on. Hence, a few short points.

- Those who say healthcare should be a "fundamental right"..... have they ever read the bill of rights? Do they recognize what negative rights mean? I know Obama does. Maybe that's why even as he pushes for taxpayer-funded healthcare, as far as I know, he has never called it a right, a la Ted Kennedy (rest in peace).

- The basic idea of "healthcare insurance" is so absurd. It is absurd that the same word "insurance" is used to describe a fall-back bet you make for mostly-unlikely events like car accidents, and the inefficient skewed-incentive payment plan for falling sick, which pretty much everyone always will. Democrats need to understand that the problem is not really "insurance companies" per se, but the concept of "insurance" itself.

- IF...and that's a big bold "IF" for me.....but IF we have to have some sort of a public insurance reform in America, the least worst way is seriously to just go with a single payer plan, like medicare. Or like they have in the UK. This public option plan that Obama is championing literally combines the worst of the two worlds.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

TOI's Renuka Vyavahare - Meta-Satirist?

First, watch this clip -

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Shah Rukh Khan Detained at Newark
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests

Now read this.

I think Renuka Vyavahare, who wrote the article, is some sort of a meta-satirist, satirizing satire itself, by pretending to take it wayyyyy too seriously, fake-projecting some complexes and biases, and getting worked up over nothing. That has to be the case. NO ONE can be capable of missing the forest for the trees by as wide a margin as the article, if seriously written, would imply.

In case Ms. Vyavahare was serious, here are some pointers for her -

- Jon Stewart's ridicule is a defence mechanism that is part of crisis management from the "American press"?? Hah! that's like saying...... gah, similes fail me! The very idea is so absurd! Clearly, this woman has no idea what The Daily Show does. Which begs the question..... how will she react if shown clips of Stephen Colbert? Specifically, Colbert taking the credit for Shashi Tharoor's Lok Sabha win? I can just imagine the headline "US Media Falsely Claims Credit for Tharoor Win". Followed by a poll question - "Do you think the US media is wrong in taking credit for Shashi Tharoor's win?"

- She writes that Stewart mocked SRK by showing clips of him not being recognized at Newark. Ummm.... he was actually mocking the ignorance of New Jersey, incidentally his home state!

- The little bit that he talked about SRK was also basically just a set-up for Aasif Mandvi's clearly self-deprecating bit....including calling Stewart a "m***-chod".

- Random people like Omar Qureishi and Taran Adarsh are quoted, supposedly sticking up for Shahrukh and taking potshots at America. Their quotes are hilarious enough by themselves.

In conclusion, I have some sobering pieces of news for Vyavahare, Qureishi and Adarsh - The parrot in the Monty Python sketch? Not REALLY dead! More like a stuffed or toy parrot. Inspector Lobo in the Chocoliebe ad? Wasn't REALLY turned down from a police job. Eating Center-shock will REALLY NOT make your head look like a porcupine. Udham Singh on Channel V was not REALLY a jatt bumpkin, nor was Apple Singh on Star Sports an actual villager. And Jaspal Bhatti doesn't actually have a REAL political party.

And at night, the sun doesn't really go to sleep. It just happens to be shining on the other side of the planet.

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Kaminey from Kaminey - One of Gulzar's best?

The melodious song Kaminey from the movie Kaminey is one of those typical Vishal Bhardwaj slow songs that when you first hear it, seems just "nice". But when I listen to it repeatedly, Gulzar's lyrics start to seep in, and before I know it, I'm obsessed with that song, not the pacy number that is topping charts. Happened with Naina in Omkara, Rone Do in Maqbool and now Kaminey.

The lyrics are really astoundingly brilliant and deep even as stand-alone lyrics. As usual, Gulzar unleashes metaphors and allegories that resonate with you, even as you wonder how no one else thought of them. But take them in the context of the movie's plot and you marvel at how perfect the song is for the movie. The song could only fit this well with this movie. And this movie could only have the song as its primary "theme".

For my non-Indian readers, the word Kaminey is used as a mild non-profane insult, and it means rascal/scoundrel/cheat/crook. It can be used as a noun as well as an adjective. The movie is about a pair of twin brothers, one of them small-time crook and the other a holier-than-thou do-gooder, who don't get along at all. They both get in trouble in separate ways and their paths intersect in a complex, twisted and hilarious plot that draws you in as you go along. The movie is infested by all sorts of "kaminey" characters.

And what makes the song work so well is, it is not a smart-ass snappy song about being a crook in the "Damn it feels good to be a Gangsta" vein, but introspective, thoughtful and very honest.

Anyway, on to the lyrics, with my (Admittedly crude and inferior) translation and my (admittedly fanboyish and geeky) annotations.

Kya kare, zindagi, isko hum jo miley (What could I do about Life...for when I met life..)
Iski jaan khaa gaye, raat din ke gile (I ended up sapping the spirit out of it with my daily complaints)
Raat din giley (Night after night, day after day, my complaints)

The song is in first person. Gulzar starts with an allegorical treatment of Life, with the singer treating his own life it as some solid entity different from himself. He starts off on a wistful note, admitting that his complaints and whines have taken a lot out of life. In the film too, the twins are cynical whiners.

Meri arzoo kamini (My desire is crooked)
Mere khwaab bhi kaminey (My dreams are also crooked)
Ek dil se dosti thi (The only friend I thought I had was my heart)
Yeh huzoor bhi kaminey (Turns out even that esteemed being is also crooked)

He knows that everything he wants and dreams of is tainted with dishonesty. In the movie, Charlie keeps talking about how there are only two ways to get rich - a shortcut or a shorter shortcut. So unlike others, even his ambition is crooked. I really love the part about the heart, something always thought of as being "pure" in its essence. He discovers, as life rolls along, that even his heart is crooked. Notice how he treats all these abstract entities as some sort of foreign objects, blaming them, not himself. Suggesting that he is helpless, and has no choice but to be a crook.

Kabhi zindagi se maanga (Sometimes I asked Life)
Pinjare mein chaand laa do (To get me the moon in a cage)
Kabhi laalten deke (Sometimes I gave Life a lantern)
Kahaa aasmaan pe taango (And said, hang this on the sky)

Beautiful metaphors, which lose a lot of their elegance in translation, for the fact that he's always had impossible expectations from life.

Jeene ke sab kareene, hamesha se kaminey (Every meticulous effort to live, has always been crooked)
Meri daastaan kameeni (My story is crooked)
Mere raastey kameeney (All the roads I take are crooked)
Ek dil se dosti thi (The only friend I thought I had was my heart)
Yeh huzoor bhi kaminey (Turns out even that esteemed being is also crooked)

Every Gulzar song typically has a bunch of unknown urdu words that I always look up. His infinite knowledge of those words enables him to rhyme effortlessly without losing any meaningfulness, but in fact, often adding to it. This song had only one such new word for me - kareene. From what I gather based on the urdu poems that Google threw up, "kareene se" is used in the sense of "carefully" or "meticulously". So the best translation I can come up with in this context, is "meticulous effort". Apart from that, these lines further drive home the point about how everything in his life has been crooked.

Jiska bhi chehra chheela (But whenever I peeled off anyone's face))
Andar se aur nikla (Underneath it, there was more/something else (pun))
Masoom sa kabutar (What I thought was an innocent pigeon)
Naacha to mor nikla (When it danced, showed itself to be a peacock)
Kabhi hum kaminey nikley (Sometimes I was the crook)
Kabhi doosrey kaminey (And sometimes, the others were crooks)

Ah, finally we come to my favorite bit that I think, in tune with the movie's central theme, makes the song so special. After telling us in fair bit of detail about how everything about him is crooked, he now moves on to others. How others are crooks too. And not just other thieves and crooks that the movie is full of, but even seemingly nice, decent and principled people, are at core "kaminey".

I first thought it was "chheena" (snatch), which implied "Whenever I snatched someone's face".... which can make sense because it is the story of twins. But on listening to it more, it seems like "chheela" (peel off), which fits better. I loved the non-funny wordplay in "andar se aur nikla" which can mean both "turned out there was more under there" as well as "turns out it was something other than what I expected", both of which are true. And the pigeon-peacock metaphor is also Gulzar-esquely superb. Normally you'd expect a pretty peacock to be associated with something good or desirable, and if you were to use the two birds in a metaphor, you'd convey disappointment using the pigeon.

But if you think about it, what is a peacock known for? Colors. Colors that are on full display only when it dances. So this metaphor is also conveying something like the idiom "I saw their true colors".

And that's a common theme towards the end of the movie. We know who the crooks are and who the innocent people are. But the innocent people start showing their true colors, turning out to be kaminey themselves. All of them using ends to justify means, without explicitly saying so. The do-gooder Guddu (has a nice ring to Guddu :P), the epitome of virtue, has no problems stealing drugs from his own brother to marry the girl he loves. The sweet Sweety pulls the trigger to kill her brother (although there are no bullets left, something she does not know). The only supposedly-honest cop in the movie, on a mission to bust the bad guys, wavers when he gets offered half the booty himself. And of course the bigoted-but-principled son-of-soil politician turns out not to be principled even about his bigotry.

The song is following the movie perfectly. The movie is mostly narrated by Charlie, and this song is clearly is from his perspective too. Never have I seen a song that captures the core idea of the film, as well as its broad storyline, so perfectly.

Hence the perfect end to the song -


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Monday, August 24, 2009

Review of The Time Traveler's Wife

I usually read 3-4 books at a time, switching between them, returning to each one after a few days, usually able to pick up the story where I left it. But Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, is a skillfully crafted and well-told story that demanded reading at one go. It demanded devoted attention, because if left midway for a few days, it would be almost impossible to get back into the narrative, a narrative that jumps all over time and keeps revealing twists frequently. I finished the book over a weekend, and enjoyed it.

The book, long-ish and complicated as it is, offers itself to be made into a very good movie, if handled by a skillful screenplay writer and director. But watching the movie, it is obvious that Bruce Joel Rubin and Robert Schwentke have respectively failed miserable at their jobs. The movie is just a confused meandering snooze-fest that makes you wish you could travel through time to its end.

What makes the movie even more disappointing is that the casting for lead roles is perfect. Eric Bana is the quintessential Henry, portraying even relatively minor 5-10 year differences in the character's age perfectly. In the book, Henry at 28 is very different from Henry at 36 and then Henry at 43, and Bana manages that difficult task splendidly. Rachel McAdams is also the best possible Clare, not only in appearance, but also in attitude and temperament. The two exemplary performances have been let down by a screenplay that seems to have almost worked hard to consciously remove any layers and nuances that the book had, and leave us with a stew of a film that seems simultaneously rushed and slow.

The movie also bizarrely leaves out many elements of the plot that made the book so complexly riveting. For instance, Gomez is a boisterous, generous, yet selfish character, brilliantly written, and torn between his friendship for Henry and his feelings for Clare. But in the movie, Ron Livingston is wasted playing a Gomez who is a feeble shadow os what he could have been.

The movie also botches up royally some pivotal moments by making absolutely unnecessary changes to them vis-a-vis the book. The scene when Clare tells Henry that she has gotten pregnant by him, even after he got a vasectomy is touching as well as hilarious in the book. In the movie, the bizarre changes make it fall flat. Similarly, the scene of Henry's accident when riding in a car with his mom offered many possibilities. Instead there is a big change made that makes it seem almost farcical, if not paradoxical, and the rest of it is cut out or referred to in subsequent conversations. The worst botch-up was with the scene where the two Alba's are playing in the backyard, and the future Alba reveals something important.... again, mindless changes have rendered the scene soap-opera-esque.

And of course the end, or should I say the end after the end, so sweet, poignant and touching in the book, has been changed to something rubbish that not only fails to strike a cord, but also makes a big big logical error.

My verdict - give the movie a miss even if it is playing on TV. Read the book instead.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Review of Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino's latest release, Inglourious Basterds, is kind of like a 50-over innings from a one-day cricket match. Delectable beginning and a breath-taking end, but the middle portion has you checking the watch a lot. The bang for the buck you get from the start and the end does compensate for the dreary middle, but really, this is not the sort of calculation you usually find yourself doing for a Tarantino movie! So while keeping in mind that the movie is way better than the usual fare, worth watching on the big screen, and entertaining on the whole, let us examine why it fails to meet the admittedly astronomical QT standards.

A big problem - the dialogs, which, paradoxically enough are usually QT's biggest strength. Hardly any engaging conversations that really stay with you after the movie ends. Individual lines? Lots, most of them from Brad Pitt. But conversations? Not so much. Maybe something got lost in translation, because at least half, if not three-fourths of the movie, is in German or French, so for the most part, you are reading the subtitles. I say "maybe", because it was not at all an issue in the two Kill Bill movies. Subtitled conversations were still engaging, hilarious and memorable, like those between the bride and Hatori Hanzo or Pai Mei. Here, nahh, not so much.

Which probably has to do with the second problem too. A relative dearth of memorable and well-fleshed-out characters, which again, QT films are usually packed with. Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa of the SS is chillingly suave, and should get an Oscar nomination. Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine has a rustic hilarity that is reminiscent of his character in Snatch, more in style than content. But too much in the film rests on the shoulders of these two men. I found myself wishing, hoping praying that every subsequent scene would have at least one of the two men.

And I don't think the problem was with acting. Melanie Laurent's performance as Shosanna is a triumph in non-verbal acting, with her eyes, facial expressions, and even sighs conveying more than words ever could. Daniel Bruhl, whom I loved in Goodbye Lenin, does an excellent job playing the annoying overachieving sniper Zoller. The guys caricaturing Hitler and Goebbels are hilarious, and there is a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo by Mike Myers. And the rest of the basterds, like Eli Roth, B.J.Novak, and so on also put in a competent hard day's work, but are not developed. I was especially disappointed to see Eli Roth as the promising "Jew Bear" lose all distinguishing characteristics as the movie progressed. So the problem was with the writing, which left all characters except Landa and Raine totally flat and purely functional rather than evocative.

With the film lacking in engaging conversations or engaging characters, the middle half is bound to meander. I was especially annoyed by the whole long-drawn scene in the bar, which fails to deliver on its potential of being cult-worthy, and adds nothing to the movie except what happens at the end. The King-Kong bit is the only clever part in there, and even then, the punchline takes a little too long to arrive. And considering what happens at the end, it was also pointless to include the British angle, including a doddering old man not given too much footage, and who one assumes is supposed to be Winston Churchill.

But that's the bad part. Now on to the really good ones.

The opening scene of the movie is nail-biting and gets you on the edge of your seat right away. And gets you intimately acquainted with the demonic Col. Landa. And has some awesomely imaginative background music.... imagine a mash-up of Beethoven's Fur Elise and David Bowie's Cat People? (The background score is quite awesome throughout, with lots and lots of Ennio Morricone, whom QT used extensively in KBV2 as well). Then we get acquainted with the basterds, leading to some deliciously violent signature Tarantino scenes.

Then umm... the middle....already extensively bashed..... which has some crucial elements as a way of laying the ground work for the end, but for the most part...mehh... and devoid of Pitt or Waltz.

Then the beginning of the end, which is when the movie starts picking up pace again. And the QT touch returns and keeps making itself felt as it builds up. Finally the climax reaches a vein-bursting crescendo in a manner that is very unique, even unprecedented. It is at once a stylishly pulsating big flourish (like in KBV1) and an intelligently ironic anti-climax (like in KBV2). Tarantino manages this seemingly impossible task with the panache and ballsiness that show he still da man.

So my advice to you is - go watch it for sure. But with lowered expectation. Don't expect something of the caliber of Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs or Kill Bill, but more in the Jackie Brown - Death Proof range, and you will be a contented customer.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Review of Kaminey

Entertaining action-packed thrillers in India started being made with regularity in the 1960s - Teesri Manzil, Johnny Mera Naam. The genre evolved considerably in the 70s, with imaginative storylines, more elaborate action sequences and entertaining dialogues that often injected comedy into the proceedings too - Amar Akbar Anthony, Don, and of course, Sholay.

Then, the genre mysteriously stopped evolving. Younger film-makers were basically using the same old formula and not thinking outside the box at all. They were still trying to recreate the magic of the 70s, instead of planting their flags on any new hills. A few exceptions were there for sure - Mr. India, Hera Pheri, Aankhein and so on. But even they were at best marginal improvements. And there were some horrifying pretenses like Main Hoon Na and Om Shanti Om.

For the most part, the entertaining thriller genre in Bollywood has been in a state of stasis. Those sort of films became stupider with each passing year. And that's why a new wobbly mantra came to be adopted for such films - "dimaag ghar pe chhoD ke dekhne ka", leave your brains at home and enjoy. The corollary is, entertaining thrillers by definition are stupid, full of errors and holes, and to enjoy them, you must stop thinking. Case in point - Om Shanti Om. Or the fact that Sanjay Gupta has a career in films.

Kaminey is the exact opposite. While watching it, you can not afford to leave your brain anywhere. Heck, you can not even let your mind wander for more than a couple of seconds. Because the film is so packed with story, that it demands your rapt attention. It moves at a furious pace. The tempo does not slacken even when there's a song on.

Vishal Bhardwaj has taken a fistful of cliches from the Bollywood thriller genre - twins...orphaned twins, big bad brother as an obstacle for the couple in love, elopement, stylish drug czars living lavishly on yachts, corrupt cops, get-rich-quick schemes, gambling, chases and chaotic shoot-outs to name a few - and created a movie that looks and feels completely and refreshingly different.

Shahid Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra should be singing "Pehli baar acting ki hai", because this is the first time that I have not wanted to strangle them. It must be said though that their performances are good... but that's it. Neither of them has really achieved a Langda-Tyagi-esque feat. The media hype about how brilliant Shahid is and how Priyanka Chopra is, in the words of Joey Tribbiani, the best actress since sliced bread, is not unlike the hysteria about H1N1 being the next black death. To Shahid and Priyanka, I say, in the words of Jacopo Peterman, congratulations on a job....done!

The real stellar performances are from the ensemble cast, and one wishes they all had more screen time. Amol Gupte as Bhope Bhau is deliciously manic or bipolar or whatever the term is. Chandan Roy Sanyal as Mikhail is endearing in a Circuit-meets-Bhiku-Mhatre kinda way. Tenzing Nima as Tashi is in turns menacing and witty. But my personal favorite in the whole cast was Shiv Subrahmanyam's tense turn as Lobo. I had a long ctrl-f period of several hours as I tried to figure out who he looks like an older version of. Almost 24 hours after the movie, driving on the freeway it struck me - Khandagale from Prahaar! Got home and checked on imdb and sure enough, same guy. Why has he been in so few movies???

I could go on and on about this movie. But I'll make a couple of points and stop. Firstly, the gratuitous injections of in-jokes, ironies and hat-tips, so rare in Bollywood, is refreshing. Although I caught several, I am sure repeat viewings will unearth a lot more. Be it naming one of the Nigerians as Cajetan (the movie starts off with a message - based on a story idea by Cajetan Boy), or the naughty graffiti on the bathroom door, or....oh, I won't spoil them for you. The pleasure of spotting one is like that after finding an easter egg.

Secondly, the Marathi dialogs, which are aplenty, are perfectly written and perfectly delivered. Too often, Marathi is used in films and media in a way that sounds like they used google-translate.... you know, like newspapers using "Amchi Pune" instead of "Amche Pune", or Baburao Apte in Hera Pheri saying "marathi maansa jaaga ho", with the wrong "n" and "j" sounds. Not here. The lines are written very accurately, and Priyanka Chopra's diction is so perfect (except for a couple of minor slip-ups), I wonder if she lived for an extended period of time in Maharashtra (not Bombay, actual Maharashtra) while growing up. Yash Chopra and his ilk have made the gratuitous over-use of Punjabi in Hindi films so annoying, that another Chopra speaking "aamchi bhaasha" so well seems like justice+reparations.

Oh, and the best part about watching the movie in the US? No interval! Which was great. This movie, with its unrelenting tempo, needs an interval like Usain Bolt needs a breather at the 50 meter mark.
Mini-update: George tells me they have intervals for Hindi movies in Atlanta, and did for Kaminey too. Hmm... maybe just a New York thing then. It is a "dhan te nan" city after all. :)

Finally, a few friends asked me how the movie compares with Maqbool and Omkara. Well, it can't be. Maqbool and Omkara were like the best and second-best biryanis of all time. Kaminey is the best vadapav of all time. The most perfectly made vadapav, with the right amount of juice, crispiness, spice and bite. Any idiot can mash boiled potatoes, chuck in spices, fry them in batter and so on like Sanjay Gupta, Farah Khan and Ab-bas Mat-taan do. It takes a Vishal Bhardwaj to come along and show us what a vadapav can REALLY taste like.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Sir, sir, you forgot your money!

On a mailing list I am part of, there is a debate on about things like tipping in India, being rude or inconsiderate to the "lower class" or "servant types", being rude in general, societal norms, so on and so forth. I recounted an experience from the first time I dined out during an India vacation after moving to the US. Needless to say, I had imbibed US norms on tipping. Mohit found the episode interesting and asked me to blog it, so here it is.

On my first trip to India with the wife (then girlfriend) two years ago, for our first meal outside of the house, we went to Irish Pub in Khar. They have a very good and different cocktail menu and hookah too. So we sat on the diwan outside, and had a king's meal.... a couple of innovative cocktails, 2 different hookahs, lots of snacks and food. They also kept bringing us some complimentary kababs and such. The service was really outstanding.... maybe because it was a chilly December night by Bombay standards so everyone else sat indoors, but for us, coming from the US East Coast, it was toasty weather. So all the waiters deputed to work on the outdoor tables were focused on us.

The drinks came promptly, they asked what we needed a lot, water glasses were always filled promptly, changed the charcoal in the hookah very regularly without prompting (in the US, you have to almost beg them to change it, and they take their own sweet time), brought us free stuff, and yet were not overbearing like Indian waiters tend to be. There was no attempt to serve us food on our plates, which I liked (the owner must have been a smart guy like Madhu). Wife and I were really blown away by the sort of service we got. So when the bill came and it was almost 1700 rupees, I put down 2000 rupees cash. A quick calculation told me that the change, 300-odd would be about 18-20%, which is what I leave for really good service in the US. And the service that night was way better than anything I ever got in the US.

So when they brought the change back, I left the folder untouched, and a few minutes later, we decided to leave. Two waiters run behind us, stop us at the door and one of them says "Sir, sir, you forgot your money." and I said to him, "No, that's the tip." And he looked confused. Takes the money out, shows it to me and says "No sir, this is 300 rupees." And my wife said "Yes, that's the tip". He looked shocked for a while, then broke out into a wide grin and said "Come again Sir, you will get really good service from us."

My wife later wondered how could the service get any better, unless they planned to wash my feet or something.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Losing my virginity

I have finally decided to lose my virginity. Like anyone who does not give up their virginity willy-nilly, I have been waiting for "that special one" to come along. And that special one is finally (almost) here. At least I hope I am righjt about the specialness. I'll find out only on Saturday night.

That's right, ladies and gentlemen. On Saturday night I lose my "watching a Bollywood movie on the big screen in the US" virginity. I've been here three years. And not watched a single hindi movie on the big screen. It's not like I had made a vow not to. It's just that I live in a podunk little town where they don't show hindi movies. The closest cities where I can watch them are 3-4 hours away where we only go on weekends. And on weekends in a big city, there's so much to do, that spending 3 precious hours on a hindi movie seems absurd. And no movie in the last 3 years, at least based on pre-release info, has seemed THAT great. Which is not to say there have been no good hindi movies in the last 3 years. There have. But waiting for their DVDs or finding them online after a few days seemed do-able. For me to watch a hindi movie on the big screen, it'd have to be REALLY special.

And from all reviews, it does seem to be special. Saturday night. In New York City, I'll spend money and precious weekend hours watching - Kaminey! :)

Friday, August 07, 2009

Now THIS is why I got married!!!!

First anniversary. Traditionally speaking "paper" anniversary. What does wife gift me? The bestest coolest thing made of paper anyone can everrrrrrrr gift me. Tickets for a Jerry Seinfeld stand-up show! :) :) :D :D Cloud nine is so below me!


Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Ball's in your court, Michael Jordan!

A few weeks back, in my post about Michael Jackson's death - Four Michaels, down to Three, I noted how four Michaels dominated the scene when I was growing up. They came, they conquered, and then they receded into temporary obscurity. Now I notice a trend - they are back in the limelight one by one.

Michael Jackson made the first move, by dying and taking over news channels. Next, Mike Tyson made an appearance in this year's biggest comedy hit Hangover, playing what I think is a very watered down version of himself. And now, Michael Schumacher is about to return to the race track, replacing Felipe Massa.

What's going on? I guess the only one left is Michael Jordan, who can choose a number of different ways to be back in the headlines. He can announce another return to basketball. Or to baseball. Or even better, he can come out and join the long list to baseball players and admit he took steroids, although he never must have. Ball's in your court, Michael!

P.S. If only Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong had named their kid Michael instead of Lance. With Armstrong also making a comeback, my theory would have become even more rigorous!

Monday, August 03, 2009

Review of Azree the Dwarf

My friend Chandrahas Choudhury recently released his debut novel Arzee the Dwarf, published by Harper Collins.

Chandrahas is a good friend, a brilliant writer and one of the nicest human beings I know. Experiencing or consuming a creative work by a friend is always special. And reviewing it is always tricky because one can never be sure if one's appreciation is objective or driven by personal affection for the friend. I loved the book, but did I love it only because Chandrahas wrote it? My answer to that is a resounding NO! I loved the book because it is an amazing book, and one of Chandrahas' greatest triumphs in writing Arzee is the fact that the book does not automatically seem that it was written by him. There are hardly any telltale signs in the writing that one can immediately pin on him and say "This line is SOOOOO Chandrahas!". The book seems like it was written by Arzee himself, but in third person.

Hash, as all his friends call him, has managed to create a captivating voice for Arzee when Arzee speaks, but also a delightful second-voice of narration that can only be Arzee himself. There are literary flourishes and some very poetic lines in the book which has a uniquely sophisticated yet earthy vocabulary to it. The hard work that must have gone into writing and rewriting each line laboriously for a couple of years has paid off, and Arzee the Dwarf is a masterpiece not only in terms of a telling a splendidly moving and multi-layered story, but also in the rich and engaging way the story is told.

The first thing that I found myself admiring about the book was the perfection in what I think of as Arzee's "silent soliloquy's", i.e. the times when we are told in detail what Arzee is thinking to himself. They are beautifully crafted, and yet realistic enough to seem like actual ruminations. Complete with digressions, tangents and non-sequitirs that characterize our own thoughts. Here's a sample -

Phiroz! At least the old man could have warned him! Did all these years that they'd been working in concert count for nothing? Granted, many days they didn't talk at all, or if they did, it was of the same humdrum matters. It was true that, although Phiroz knew about Mother and Mobin, and had met Mother on occasion, and Arzee knew that Phiroz's wife was long gone, and that the only family he had was a daughter, the subject of family never came up between the two projectionists. They shared work, shared space, shared time, but did not share confidences. But that was how it was in Bombay - everybody was like that! And a gap of more than forty years separated them in age, so their relationship was somewhat formal. Yet they were linked together by ties of profession, by the sharing of the projection room and the Babur, by the fact of one generation being succeeded by another.

See what I mean? There's an effortless realism in this passage that reveals Hash's immeasurable talent, but can only be the product of a lot of hard work. The book is full of such gems that give us a delicious insight into the chaotically structured mind of Arzee.

Not only does Hash do a phenomenal job of laying bare Arzee's mind, but he also gives glimpses of Bombay from unexplored perspectives. Many writers have described Bombay eloquently, sliced and diced it every which way. And yet, when slivers of Arzee's Bombay are described repeatedly, there is always an unexpected angle that simultaneously makes you go "This is SO correct, I have always thought about this place the same way!" and "This is interesting...never thought about this place like that!". Here he is describing the view from the top of the Grant Road Bridge -

The gleaming tracks that came all the way from distant Virar, the asbestos roof pocked with holes and bits of rubbish sifted by birds, the little figurines of people in their ill-fitting clothes standing in slack poses on the platform, and the shoeshine men beating their brushes on their boxes - there was something vivid, life-giving, about this scene, just as there was about the projection room with its heat and light and the celluloid rubbing down the tracks of the machine.

There are also bits of ironic humor sprinkled throughout the book. Bits that don't make you guffaw and roll on the floor, but ones that make you chuckle for a few seconds, and then make you chuckle once more three pages later when you remember the line again, making you flip the pages back and re-read it. A great example is from when Arzee is sitting in the church -

Some of the people cast curious glances upon a very short man sitting all by himself on a bench right at the back, and two girls tittered over a joke aimed at him. But Arzee ignored them steadfastly, for they knew not what they were doing.

I could go on and on quoting lines that I loved, but I am afraid I might end up transcribing the whole book here, and that might make a dent in Hash's royalties. For it is a book that you must own and not borrow. It is one of those books that has to be re-read multiple times, discovering hidden nuances, ironies and pleasure points that you were bound to have missed when you read it last. Not just in the lines but also in the situations and the plot itself. For instance, maybe I am thick but it was only when I began reading it for the second time that I was struck by the significance of Arzee, a dwarf, working with a machine that "took a picture the size of a passport photograph, and threw it out into the screen magnified to three thousand times its original size!"

I am eagerly anticipating many such Eureka moments that await me as I re-read the book further, and that will hit me when I least suspect it, often when I am not even reading the book. And that's what separates a work of genius from a merely great book - its ability to seep into your senses and intrude into your consciousness even when it is several feet away, innocently standing in the shelf, slanted at a 70 degree angle and sandwiched between two other books.

Above all, what makes the book really click is that Arzee's voice, his mind, his heart, so vividly put into words, come together to bring you close to a persona that is remarkably endearing and fascinating, but is also perfectly placed - Arzee is not larger than life (pardon the pun)... he does not make you want him to nominate for any against-the-odds achievement awards. Nor does he seem too petty or churlish. He occasionally takes some mighty swigs of that hallucinogen we all love to partake of - self pity, but never drowns in it. Even when he cries, there is a definite dignity to him. And when he triumphs or succeeds, it does not seem surprising.

And when he finally bids you farewell on page 184, he does it in a manner that you have now identified as being "Soooo Arzee". And he leaves you wanting much more.

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