Nov 30, 2010

Role Playing

There is a scene in the film ‘Revolutionary Road’ where Kate Winslett & Leonardo Di Caprio are arguing over her wish to abort their third child. This is an unwanted pregnancy they are discussing and the decision to go ahead with the child will severely hamper their future plans of relocating to Europe. The story and their marriage hinge on this move, but that’s unimportant here. In a desperate bid to make her husband understand the reasons behind her decision, she bursts out, “But I have had two children. Doesn’t that count in my favour?” You are filled with an immediate distaste when you hear a mother thinking thus; as expected her husband looks at her in disbelief. Then the accusations follow.

You follow the trajectory of this neurotic woman’s character, you sense the tragedy ready to implode within her and you fine-tune your senses to hear what she is really trying to say beyond the ‘doesn’t-that-count-in-my-favour’ question.

What this woman is actually trying to do is something very simple – she is beseeching, even begging, for understanding, for empathy, from a world which has cast her in a role she is not fully willing or happy to play. She is ok with that role, she has played it for several years, but there are other roles she wants to explore. What is notable about this scene is the look of sheer despair she wears because not even the person she loves and connects with most is able to understand or accept her as she is. If that isn’t defeating, I dunno what is.

This isn’t really a feminist rant about a woman’s need to determine her own selfhood. Much has been written about all this and my writing a few feeble lines will not change anyone’s perspective. What is perhaps more imp is how intolerant, how unforgiving, we are of those who don’t confirm to the stereotypes we bear in mind. Time and time again, we exact a price for their non-conformity even when we think we don’t.

A lot of the times I write a post, I wonder how D would react were she to ever read it. I don’t know if she ever will. What I do know is, I’d like her to know and love her mother as she was. After all she is my flesh and blood, not one of the 250 friends people have on their FB lists.

I have some strict notions about motherhood, as opposed to parenthood. Parenting is a dual function, mothering is not. For me, motherhood is about putting your child ahead of your needs. Period. How many times you do this in a lifetime is immaterial. It is about taking a backseat, giving up things, so that your child can run. Once or twice, you follow your dreams; mostly you give them up. So, you say no to outstation deputations because your child is young, you refuse prestigious offers of heading departments because it will entail 13-hr workdays, you shake your head to opportunities to work with the best minds in the industry because the father is travelling and you're required at home. Thus the years fly by.

But if such giving up implies doing it with a grin and a sunny demeanour, I’ll be damned. You cannot sit back and watch opportunities fly by and turn around to admire how wonderful your child is doing at swimming. No, you can’t. And the truth is, there is nothing wrong or bloody criminal about occasionally feeling sad or disappointed. What is galling is when the world expects you to give up things and accept it with equanimity simply because you were born with a uterus. Is motherhood or womanhood a Phd course where you are tutored to annihilate your ego and selfhood to the extent that you function in society solely as the roles you can play as a mother or wife? If so, what of those women who flunk the Phd programme? What becomes of these perennial outsiders? Is there any hope of redemption or empathy for them?

Nov 27, 2010

Valentine: Carol Ann Duffy

Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.

Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

Nov 22, 2010

Notes on Guzaarish

Guzarish is like good red meat which has been cooked by someone like my maid whose idea of culinary variety consists of flavouring almost everything with mustard and cumin seeds, adding coconut, ginger, garlic and onion paste, and tomatoes. In the early days, I'd anticipate that she'd prepare something spectacular with the mutton shank I'd lugged all the way from manish market but no such luck. Guzarish is similar.

Guzarish tells the story of a quadriplegic Ethan Mascarenhas who lives in a dilapidated (though that adjective implies something totally different in a Bhansali film) mansion in  Goa which sometimes looks like Ooty, and sometimes Capri. Ethan was a world-famous magician who has been rendered helpless after a spine accident during one of his performances. Why Bhansali felt the need to invest a sinister angle to this accident towards the film’s close when we are already a little weary of Ethan’s endless nodding and grinning, I don’t know. If the idea is to ratchet up the drama, it fails miserably; if the idea is to strengthen the Christ-Ethan analogy (from his hairdo, to the way his body is placed on the wheel chair and innumerable shots of his torso, he is framed as Christ) and show how forgiving Ethan is, even that is pretty needless. It is revealed that Omar Siddiqui (Aditya Roy Kapur), a young apprentice who wants to perfect his skills under Ethan, is actually the son of the rival magician who caused Ethan’s accident. By the way, all this explanation and conversation between the 2 friends-turned-rivals takes place over a call-in radio program which Ethan DJs.

For a film which wastes no time in getting to the crux of the story within a few minutes of its beginning – Ethan wants his best friend Devyani (an over-zealous Shernaz Patel) to file a petition in court for euthanasia since he’s been quadriplegic for 14 years and his organs are progressively deteriorating – it just meanders and seems to flit from one idea to another till the end. So much so that you wonder if it is about something as facile as euthanasia, or is Bhansali attempting to question the limits of individual power of the mind versus God’s glory, or the fate of a love that survives only on the basis of the knowledge that its fulfillment will be deferred forever. All of these are beautiful themes in themselves, but Bhansali never seems to be sure which one he wants  to explore.

What is sad is that Bhansali has gifted actors and a theme which is really difficult to screw up. I mean, the story of anyone living in a vegetative state for 14 years is moving, but when it happens to someone who is a great artist, of whose genius the world has been deprived of untimely, the story becomes even more touching. Add to that the fact that Hrithik Roshan is that actor who has such a nice, kind personality that you don’t want anything bad to ever befall upon him. But none of these pluses can build the kind of mood you experience when you watch films like ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ or ‘My Left Foot’.  What is truly puzzling is that even the laughs fall flat. Jean Bamby’s smart-ass, sassy thoughts (Diving Bell) which he can’t articulate because his speech is also gone after the stroke, serve to lighten the mood in the midst of the sterile hospital atmosphere the film is set in. Ethan’s deprecatory remarks about his condition, his sexual innuendoes and flirting with his nurse Sophia (a splendid Aishwariya Rai), appear oddly contrived, as if he is striving for affect.

Most critics have praised Hrithik’s performance. The fact that he’s one of the most talented actors we have today is never in doubt – one needs only watch him slowly seep into a spiritual state of oneness with Him in the Khwaja mere khwaja song from 'Jodha Akbar' to know the stuff this hunk is made of. But I suspect he is also a director’s actor; not like an Aamir Khan who will put his foot down when asked to turn on the histrionics in full force. This is a film where a good actor has tremendous opportunity to convey much through his facial expressions alone because the rest of his body is gone but Hrithik throws away this chance. It is like he has a select list of stock responses to situations which he randomly picks from – grinning in maniacal glee, breaking into sudden sobs, weeping silently, striving for an expression of calm acceptance (the fly on the nose scene) and anger when others refuse to see his POV. But isn’t the human mind, especially a mind as evolved as his, capable of feeling thousands of other things as well? Do we live out our individual tragedies and stultified lives in such overtly simple experiences?

Which brings me to the second best thing abt the film – Aishwariya. Looking more radiant and picturesque than ever before, Ash adds the one thing which is missing in this film – a soul. You feel the pain of Ethan’s condition because you see the pain in Sophia’s eyes, you weep for the hopelessness of his condition because you recognize in it the equally hopeless love Sophia bears for him, you are struck by her ruby lips and alluring cleavage but instantly realize they will never know a man's touch; your heart breaks as you see her trying to contain her grief and carry on about her duties with a sometimes surly, mostly grim-faced demeanour. If there are moments which stand out in the film, they all have Ash in them. Like the scene in the car where she sees a tear silently sliding from the corner of Ethan’s eye and wipes it slowly, and then proceeds to light a cigarette for him and put it in his lips. All this is done with remarkable economy and an internalization that I’ve rarely come across in hindi films. You know her heart is breaking at that moment because she has seen the man she loves in tears and yet she wont allow anyone to witness its breaking. You realize that it is this resilience which must be behind her mulish insistence on taking on the entire responsibility of looking after Ethan alone. It is ironical that it has taken Ash this long to make use of eyes that anyone would die for. In another scene where Omar assures her that he’s perfectly capable of taking care of Ethan and exhorts her to take the day off, she responds with a slow painful smile of awareness of her own paralysis, the sterility that defines her existence. She is nothing without Ethan and once his wish of euthanasia is granted, her heart will stop breathing as well. The story of a love as opposed to a 'romance' between these two damaged, wounded and incomplete individuals has the potential of a great tragedy and it is to Bhansali’s credit that he manages to at least hint at it. There is enough pain in her already but again Bhansali wants to ratchet up the drama and he throws in an abusive husband abruptly. 

As i watched Guzarish, i couldn't help wonder how the film would have played out with an Aamir-Rani Mukherjee or even a young AB-Rekha pairing.Rani is not the most beautiful actor around but what she can offer through sheer expertise, none other can.

Of the other actors, almost all of them are disappointing and seem to have been instructed to render their roles in the most melodramatic manner possible. Hence Shernaz Patel is shrill and too earnest, Rajat Kapoor loud, Suhel Seth trying too hard to be simultaneously cool and sad, and Aditya Roy Kapur eminently annoying. The only scene where he seems to get his footing right is when he calls up Ethan on the radio program, and fumbling for words, says that he cannot vote for Ethan’s right to euthanasia. 

Another setback is the film's unusualmusic. Recall the music from Bhansali's earlier film 'Khamoshi' and you know what is missing. The lyrics are haunting but most of you wont revisit them after the film is over. The idea is to first get used to the songs while watching them and then listening to them as an audio piece. There are two songs i played immediately after i returned at 2 am - 'It's a wonderful life' which the film employs well, and 'Keh na Sakun'. The latter evokes memories of someone who has lost everything in love and lives to tell the story to an uncaring world. 

The best thing is the cinematography – lush, opulent, gorgeous, haunting. Kudos to Sudeep Chaterjee, the film’s cinematographer who does more than capture it on lens. He lends it a mood, he evokes thoughts from the way he frames the scenes, and he makes them come alive and sing. I have known Sudeep closely for nearly 12 years now and he deserves every inch of the success Bollywood showers upon him today. Not only a gifted lensman, he is perhaps an even better son, husband, brother, and friend.  

Last, the film’s basic premise – who has the ultimate right over an individual’s life? Is it him or is it those that make his life memorable? This too is a part which is dealt with too pedantically in a contrived court room scenario and a cringing monologue by Ethan’s mother (an irritating Nafisa Ali.) We all know the answer to this question and it’s a no brainer. What the film should have posited via Ash is – when is it the right time to let go off someone without whom your life will cease to have any meaning? All questions of human integrity and autonomy stem from this simple question and it is truly a tragedy that Bhansali lets go of such a splendid opportunity to delve deeper into it.

Nov 17, 2010


The other day I was talking of 'perfection' with a friend. To me El Greco's 'Christ on the way to Cavalry', Beethoven's Ode to Joy, Graham Greene's 'The Power & the Glory', fall landscape in Vermont, the matte orange hues of the Grand Canyon, and the river bank at Pahalgaon in J&K are all examples of perfection. Yet, none of these are within our grasp. There is another kind of perfection that lies within our reach. This picture tells the story of that perfection.

Joy Unltd

Nov 15, 2010

Was it only yesterday that I was cursing everything from friendship to Facebook to successful men? Ah! That wasn’t right.

Reached office early, started speaking to Vivek who’s buying his first house, things unraveled and now I realise you don’t choose your friends or do things for them because of how long you’ve known them or what they will do for you some day. No, you don’t.  You do them for 2 simple reasons: you think it’s the right thing to do and we all like being right :) & you are also convinced your actions will add some value, do some good, to your friend. That’s all there is to it.

I have known Vivek for about 3 months now and we hit off really well from early on. I was smoking alone & thumbing through my phone when he first started talking to me. It was his thirs day at work and within minutes he’d confided that his wife had suffered a miscarriage the previous Saturday. I could sense the sadness in his voice, as also the acute loneliness that’d lead a guy to confide to a perfect stranger. We spoke, smoked and somehow a bond was forged. Another time, we were talking about life in small towns and he spoke about his plans for his widowed mother. I am much older than him and he often teases me mercilessly. In an odd way, Vivek is the kid bro I’d loved to have had.

This dude has finally decided to buy a house. It’s gonna cost him Rs 40,00,000 and he is scrambling around for cash as he’s not eligible for a home loan of more than Rs 20,00,000. We were discussing the cash arrangements he had made, home loan applications, floating versus fixed rate of interest when he revealed that the builder had asked for 50% of the money to be paid in black. Even this wouldn’t be so bad had it not transpired that our man had already paid Rs 4,00,000 without receiving any documentary evidence/receipt that he has made such payment. According to him, the bulder had claimed that no receipt is issued in cases of black money. I was aghast.

Now a bit of diversion here. My entire family are pros at this game of buying and selling homes and stocks. Dad, my uncles and my brother – they are not so much interested in the actual flaunting of the money as the means of making it. I admire that. A and I are too lazy and too stupid to do the same, but admire them nonetheless. So I do have some working knowledge of how loans are disbursed,  what penalty pre-payment invokes, how black component money has to be paid, etc. Alarm bells started ringing and I did the only thing I do in such cases – called up Dad. He was livid and started calling Vivek names. Calm down I said; the kid’s green, is fatherless and is naïve. Being naïve is not a crime, is it?

Anyway, dad spoke to vivek and explained the things he needed to do immediately. Vivek spoke to the builder who is now saying that he will issue a receipt only after Rs 13,00,000 have been paid in cash. Asshole. I don’t know how things will unfold and I am scared.

You know, spread over a lifetime Rs 4,00,000 is not a very big sum and I’m sure Vivek will do well in life and buy more homes. However, if things go wrong, there is a part of this simple, honest kid from small-town Ranchi that’d be lost forever. I hope that doesn’t happen.

Nov 14, 2010

Notes on The Social Network

I have been staring at the screen for a full 7 mins wondering where to start. i want to write about The Social Network (TSN) but I realize its gonna be less about the actual movie and more about the phenomenon of success and the assholes who find it, about human relationships and a social order where getting into the right clubs is an all-consuming passion for many. TSN is about all this and much more. And yes, it is about a stupid fallacy we lay too much premium on – friendship.

David Fincher’s film based on the novel ‘The Accidental Billionaires" by Ben Mezrich is fast paced, deploys scintillating wordplay, and is gripping. Considering that it after all tells the story of a computer geek who is at his best writing 800-lines of code during a 36-hour stretch, one would expect us to sit stumped and disinterested. But that doesn’t happen because even as the first scene unravels, you sense you are going to be watching a movie whose hero is a thoroughly unpleasant character and who does not deserve an iota of the success he finally gained. This knowledge dawns on you in the film’s first 10 mins and it leaves a vague acidic feeling; it’s a realization that you probably possessed when you heard ‘good guys finish last’ but the Facebook phenomenon and this film about its founder Marc Zuckerman provide the moot evidence how true it is.

Of course this is a wildly fictionalized account of how the idea behind FB was born and the film is unabashed in its attempts to paint Marc as some kind of poor lost kid who though a lil narcissistic is also pretty misunderstood and lonely because he lacks social skills. Which is all crap of course.  What Marc or people like him really are is that they are children who never grew up. There is no one more self-centred than a child for it cannot see anything beyond its needs, beyond its ego; try explaining to a 5-yr old that its mother has a splitting headache due to which she’ll skip the nighttime story reading session. Ending the war in Iraq is probably easier. That is Marc for you. And we are all a part of the age that made him a  success.

Racy and gripping as the conversation between Marc and his gf Erica is in the first scene, you gradually figure out that it involves a man who has such set notions about the rightness of his views that no real conversation is ever possible with someone like him. He’d be best left talking to a stone wall instead – one which would never dispute his narrow, single-toned vision of what is it that really defines success. This is also the moment when you realize you are one of those billions of people who make folks like Marc a success. The conversation ends with his gf telling him: “You are probably going to be a very successful computer person. But you're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole.” Marc is stunned and what does he do? He rushes to his room and calls Erica a bitch on his blog, reveals nasty details about the size of her bust or rather the lack of it, and starts a site called Facemash where he uploads face shots of all Harvard women in pairs who can be graded on the basis of their hotness quotient. Forget feminists, any human being would be disgusted. But no, that doesn't happen. Facemash is a success; there are so many hits in a single night that the Harvard servers crash. Of course legal issues arise but this single momentous prank or incident sparks off the idea behind FB. It's altogether another matter that the film doesn’t dwell too much on what Erica has to endure as a result of Marc’s  disclosures or the fact that the trend which Marc started flourishes today and FB (and much of the internet) today is indeed a weapon which angry couples use with impunity. And we are all a part of the age that made FB a success.

Lest it seem that Marc is painted only in shades of grey, let me assure you that is not quite the case. Indeed there is a scene where we see him in the middle of a deposition looking out of the window pensively as it begins to rain. There is such acute sadness on his face that at that moment you realize how removed he is from the rest of us. You don’t even blame him when he says: “I think if your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have the right to give it a try - but there's no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention - you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing.But the Eduardo episode is yet to unravel.

The narrative switches between the present, where Marc is involved in double law suits with his best friend Eduardo and the Winklevoss twins - fellow students at Harvard with him. While the latter are suing him for stealing their idea, Eduardo is suing him for swindling him out of money that rightfully belongs to him. It is to Fincher’s credit that he conveys all of this with a moral ambivalence that we are never sure that there is no basis behind the three litigants’ claims. Of course the Eduardo episode is dealt with in much greater detail later on and he forms the moral cornerstone of the film. Indeed one does not expect to shed tears in a film like TSN and yet they flowed, they flowed freely in that one penultimate scene between Eduardo and Marc. It is not so much that what Marc does is wrong as the fact that the wrong is perpetrated on the ONLY real friend he has; that it tells us that there is indeed something wrong with a universe where the founder of one of the world’s most successful friendship sites doesn’t hesitate to betray his only friend; where a man doesn’t hesitate to befriend new friends at wild parties but shoos away those who offer him unconditional support.  And we are all a part of the age that made FB a success.

The film would be incomplete without a mention about Sean Parker, millionaire, coke snorting playboy and founder of Napster, played with amazing aplomb by Justin Timberlake. He is the kind of guy who makes you go ‘eeeks’ and then you wonder, ‘ Really’? Another world, another time, wouldn’t we all be like him or at least die for a chance to snort coke with the likes of him? I dunno. I am not sure of anything anymore.

This is by no means a ‘review’ of Fincher’s latest work; my perception about TSN is far too subjective. It shook me deeply; it made me angry. It made me angry to see on screen what I already knew - that there are people like Marc, who are not really bad, or evil. They are simply people who spend their lives treating others as towels. You face a  moment of minor irritation if you cant find it but nothing is really lost if its missing. Sure, he misses Erica occasionally and even goes to apologize once, but that is not out of any real feeling of affection or regret. I don’t think he shines the torch inwardly even once. He thinks about Erica when it suits him, not because he bothers to imagine how she must be without him. This towel ring syndrome is what makes him successful. And we are all a part of the age that showers success on him. 

Nov 12, 2010

This Rocks

"I look back on life – it’s funny how things turn out. You, the creator of beeping sirens and honking cars, yearn for the solitude of the mountains. You, a connoisseur of fast food, now gaze at water that took years to gather natural minerals as it trickled down from the Himalayas to within your reach. And I, some of the purest water in the world, stand here, trapped in a bottle. Come, enjoy the irony."

This is the copy that appears on the bottle. I have rarely come across a better example of copy in recent times. Himalayan has a convert in me.