Sunday, 28 June 2009

Ab Ke Saawan: A Chronicle of the new rains

It is 10:00 a.m. and it has been pouring since morning. The BMC failed once again as usual. On a rainy day like this, I had to reach college to buy the admission forms and pay the MTNL bills. Finally, I got an opportunity to rejoice over two things: I am through with my school life and secondly, I am pretty much excited to start commuting once again after a gap of nearly three months.

Rainy days have always meant a piping hot cup of steaming coffee, my music and my musings. The rains always begin as a drizzle at first which slowly expands till the rains finally open up. The combination of it all creates one of those rare, inexplicable moments that makes one feel so alive!!

The rains have a way of putting me into many moods, all at the same time... from a melancholic to a romantic mood and from a "I-don't-wanna-reach-college" to an "I want to sit on the window sill and have a cup of hot coffee and bhajiyas" mood. We've had quite a heat wave in Mumbai for the past couple of months, that this is such a welcome change from that. The rains are detrimental to me of getting any work done. I get distracted very easily, even otherwise but these rains just aggravate my problem. They end up distracting me further.

Maybe it's because the world looks so different in the monsoon... freshly washed of its problems... and possibly also because I'm a die-hard romantic!! To crush the stress I was going through a day before June 25, I was thinking of all the possible romantic comedies and romantic movies since my mom told me that they equal to positive thoughts. Mark my words, it worked. The sudden shift in the weather transports me to another place in my head, where I start to believe that I'm in a hill station enjoying the cold winds.

I usually detest travelling by local trains. Since the weather was so romantic, I decided to come back from college by train. The reason I gave was that it was too confusing to find the bus stop since there are just too many bus stops on the road. The train was late but it wasn't so crowded but I did get sufficient place to stand. So there I was standing near the door, enjoying the breeze and the raindrops falling gently on my face. So by the time I reached my destination, I pounced on eating a hot vadapav.

For us in Mumbai, the monsoons bring pleasure and pain!! While we enjoy the rain, at the back of our minds, we dread flood-like situations which has become a part of our monsoon life now!! But, I'm not going to let these trivial thoughts spoil my current mood because there are so many things I love to do in the rains: Go for long drives; curl up under the sheets and listen to some really good romantic music (with the sound of raindrops falling in the background and a good book to keep me company); a cozy dinner by the window watching the rain lash the city and drinking hot soup while engaging in some great conversation; a walk in the rain, without a care in the world... my list is endless!!

So for my fellow rain lovers, my advice is--get in your car and go for a nice long drive with the person you enjoy being with the most. Since music is such an important part of all these special extra romantic moments, I'm sharing my top picks of the 'must-listen to during the rains playlist':

* Baawra Mann--Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (Swanand Kirkire) (Shubha Mudgal)

* Mar Jaava--Fashion (Shruti Pathak)

* Rimjhim Rimjhim--1942: A Love Story (Kumar Sanu & Kavita Krishnamurthy)

* Suno Na--Jhankaar Beats (Shaan)

* Pyaar Hua Chupke Se--1942: A Love Story (Kavita Krishnamurthy)

* Aayo Ri Sakhi--Water (Sadhana Sargam & Sukhwinder Singh)

* Rimjhim Gire Saawan--Manzil (Kishore Kumar) (Lata Mangeshkar)

* Bhage Re Mann--Chameli (Sunidhi Chauhan)

* Dekho Na--Fanaa (Sunidhi Chauhan & Sonu Nigam)

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

The Hands That Build A Residential Complex

The mill that can be seen from my window is being demolished to make way for a commercial complex. The last three months have been an esoteric experience--seeing bricks, sand, dust, wood, stones and a JCB machine have been regularly spotted in the mill compound.

The sound of the drilling machine is full of rhythm and the carpenter's saw has a very melodious tune!! If I close my eyes, I well imagine the construction site to be a big musical show where a collage of drums, metals and cymbals play in harmony with harsh human sounds. At any hour, there are groups of people undertaking tasks like demolition, hammering nails, drawing blueprints and shovelling the course sand over a thin net filter. All around, hands covered in grime, cement, wood shavings move animatedly.. hands that are skilled, hard and sinewy. These hands hang off sturdy bodies of men who have migrated from different parts of the country.

The history of any city skyline is a story of the freedom of human migration, enterprise and skill. These 'outsiders' build our skyline, our four walls in which we plot, plan and ponder. Do these workers have an emotional connect with these structures? I posed this question to Niraj, the one who is handling the demolition work. He smiled and said, "Earlier, I had a strong bond with the structures but over time, I have learnt to disconnect once the work was completed. He draws parallels with giving away a daughter in marriage. You create, you nurture, you deck it up and then give it away to its rightful owner."

These workers are a breed of true nomads, bohemians with a set of tools and latent skills moving from one job to another. Some have no fixed address and these sites serve as their temporary homes. One of the masons, Prem, has been working for fifteen years at different construction sites and doesn't possess a home. He sets up a temporary home made with asbestos and aluminium sheets at each construction site with a portable bed and stove. Once the work is complete, he moves to another site. There are of course, a vast majority of labourers who rent small shanties, the only affordable dwelling, into which cram four or five workers to rest their bodies. Money earned is dispatched to their villages where a daughter is getting married, a family loan has to be repaid or a sick parent is being attended to.

Another fascinating insight is related to the fact that the very nature of their work inculcates them a blatant secular outlook. These workers build and repair religious structures too. There are a few Hindu masons from Rajasthan who have worked on the repair of several mosques in the city and a few Muslim labourers from Gujarat have helped to build temples. I probe deeper to find out if they approach these projects differently. On the contrary, while working on religious structures, they maintain utmost sanctity, do not litter or speak loudly and try to maintain decorum. "After all, we are building God's house," they proclaim unanimously.

The mill has already been razed and a new residential complex would be ready soon on the land where the mill once stood. The workers will move on once the complex is complete. The paint might wear off six months after the building will be complete, the polish will lighten with time, the hinges will inevitably gather rust, but these invisible hand imprints of the men who build a residential complex, will be there for eternity, outliving any human who resides in it. If only, we could spare a thought for such unsung heroes.

Cracked the Boards or yourself?

I have always been an average kind of student. Even though, I excelled in co-curricular activities, I was always in the shadows (read: ignored) by my school teachers. The reason given to me was poor grades. Initially, I was very vocal about the decisions and so when I blurted out the way the most undeserving people were elected as house captains, I was asked for a justification on why I blurted out the truth. Later, I started learning to take these things in my stride by just remaining a mute spectator.

I was always head-strong on what I want from my life. I personally believe that the marks scored in examinations matter to a very limited extent in the overall scheme of one's life. These results bring an initial euphoria, or a surge of disappointment, based on not what we have scored but on what others have. I personally think in our over-drive to compare ourselves with others, we've forgotten the basic truth that the purpose of examinations is to better your own performance, year after year.

I remember having spent most of my school years competing bitterly for every single mark and trying to mug up all the Physics laws and definitions just to save the reputation of my school. I knew my limitation that I could never reach the position of where the toppers were. The most stressful aspect that is related to the board examinations is, "what would others think?" My good-for-nothing neighbour Ashita marched in on June 4, a few hours after the HSC results were declared with a triumphant look on her face, I immediately knew she was upto something. "I've nailed Sandhya's lie. She said her son has scored 87 percent. It took me full three hours to enter all possible roll number combinations to find her result on the website. The aggregate is mere 82. Huh!" I congratulated her at the effort for investigating such a startling piece of news and advised her that she turn into a professional detective. It just reminded me of how crazy we have become in a bid to compare ourselves with others on the basis of marks.

Examinations is one thing where I guess we all have to pay our dues in terms of stress and tensions. So for now, I am heaving a huge sigh of relief since I completed my 14 years of vanvaas of life with 60%, which I believe is great for an average student like me.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Reflections of our times: Morning Raga

Morning Raga is a simple plot really very well told. Morning Raga tells the story of Swarnalatha (Shabana Azmi), a gifted Carnatic classical singer, whose ambitions of performing in the city gets thwarted because of a ghastly accident on the bridge that connects the village to the city. In this accident, she loses her son and Vaishnavi, the one who plays the violin. Swarnalatha holds herself responsible for the tragedy and now spends her time in a self-imposed exile, never daring to cross the bridge.

Twenty years have passed now and her friend's son grown up son Abhinay (Prakash Rao) returns to her life. Not satisfied with his job as a jingle composer, Abhinay sets out to start his own music band. Priyanka (Perizaad Zorabian), a city bred girl, finds herself drawn into the same village since she is also affected by the tragedy. Her father, driving the car that hit the bus in which Shabana was travelling, was responsible for the accident. Abhinay and Priyanka start a music group, but soon realize that something is missing. Abhinay bumps into Swarnalatha in his village and persuades her to sing for his group. She turns down the offer initially, but relents subsequently.

Morning Raga rests on a simple plot and the rustic setting in the village of Andhra Pradesh is beautiful. The film is visually striking and does possess poignant moments. Sequences like Shabana Azmi dares to cross the bridge for the first time after twenty years, but not mustering the courage to do so, is brilliantly executed. The director Mahesh Dattani deserves credit for handling the subject with utmost sensitivity. The cinematography by Rajiv Menon is breathtaking. The music composed by Mani Sharma, though Carnatic is really nice. The singers are also formally trained actual Carnatic singers.

Morning Raga clearly belongs to Shabana Azmi, who delivers an award-worthy performance as usual. Prakash Rao is a revelation. The actor matches up to Shabana and does a first-rate job. Perizaad Zorabian seems to be evolving as an actress, probably being the next Nandita Das. She catches you completely unaware with an efficient interpretation. Lillette Dubey is once again lovable. The Tamil actor Nasser is, like always, highly competent.

On the whole, Morning Raga is a genuinely different piece falling in the parallel cinema mould. The film is a brilliant piece of work with the actors giving their best. Morning Raga is a film that will only appeal to the hardcore parallel cinema devotees. All in all, its a nice story with awesome performances. Its a film that you won't regret wasting money on.

Movie Review: Parzania

My friend Anvika asked me, "I read your movie review about me about Firaaq, so why haven't you written the movie review of Parzania?" I replied, "I agree that both films were based in Gujarat about the communal violence but then, it is not mandatory that I should have watched Parzania." She refused to believe me, so I finally succumbed to Anvika's request and decided to watch the film all over again. Anvika, here's the review for that:

When I first heard the word, "Parzania", I wondered what it really meant. The answer to the question lay in the film itself. It's the name of an imaginary world that little Parzan creates for his sister and himself. Now, Parzania is not the greatest film I've seen and its not even the kind of movies I would keep watching till I die. Parzania is a film set in post-Godhra Gujarat, about an innocent Parsi family whose sanctity and peace is lost forever, after the horrifying communal riots. Based on a true incident, the film follows the story of a Parsi couple Cyrus and Shernaz Pithawala played by Naseeruddin Shah and Sarika, whose ten year old son goes missing in the riots. The film tracks the couple's repeated and continuing efforts to find their son who seems to have vanished without a trace.

The film also sheds light on the matter in which everyone from politicians to the police who exploited the climate for their own personal benefit. The thing about Parzania that it makes it so relevant is the fact that such a tragedy could strike anyone. Worse still is not entirely unjustified fear that we now live in a country where a situation like Godhra and riots that ensued could happen all over again. The part that I appreciate most about Dholakia's film is its completely balls-out approach to be as upfront, honest and factual as possible, without mincing words, without trying to sugarcoat and without trying to soft-peddle the truth. Having said that, its true that Rahul Dholakia steers clear of sensationalism and that whole beating-the-chest style of grabbing attention.

Rahul tells the story as it is, because the story in itself is so tragic that doesn't need to be dramatized for effect. Now there's no doubt that Parzania will throw up many questions about important issues like religious intolerance and communal polarisation, but sitting in the chair and watching the film unfold, is what you'll find drawn into is the heart-wrenching human story that forms the film's real core. Who cannot identify with the pain and suffering of a mother whose son is nowhere to be found? Who cannot relate to the helplessness of a man whose family is uprooted for no fault of theirs?

There's no doubt whatsoever that much of Parzania appeal lies in the superlative performances delivered by its protagonist pair. Naseeruddin Shah makes Cyrus Pithawala such a flesh-and-blood character that you can relate to his trauma completely. A desperate father looking for his son amidst a heap of corpses, pleading to the corrupt police officers, turning to faith to see him through the difficult times, Naseeruddin Shah plays the part with instinct, bringing the kind of believability that only great actors like him can strum up.

How I wish Smita Patil would have been alive to be act in a movie like say Firaaq or probably Parzania. Sarika, too, did a good job by infusing her character with a next-door-housewife kind of authenticity, and then she backs it up with such spontaneous passion as the angry mother unwilling to give up the search. It's a performance that stays with you long after the film is over. No wonder, she was bestowed the National Award for this movie.

I recommend Parzania because it documents a shameful chapter out of a past that cannot be erased. It's a film that must be watched because it's important to see what happens to innocent people when religious politics takes over. I am very impressed by Parzania because the film doesn't sermonize. Instead, the director Rahul Dholakia vents out his own feelings through the American student who hammers out diatribe after angry diatribe on his rusty typewriter, condemning the fanatical fuel fire fuelled by a selfish government.

Parzania is a film that must not be missed. It's a chilling story about real human loss in the face of communal violence. It's like that bolt of electricity that's soemtimes needed to shake you up and wake you up.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Movie Review: Mazha

I suddenly developed an urge to watch movies which were centered around rains. We in Bombay were really deprived of rains for nearly half a month in June and I literally started praying that it should rain. Thankfully, it did. Since rains are always dampeners, as they just don't allow one to do anything else, I plunked myself on the couch to watch a Malayalam movie--after a lot of channel surfing (that included the Hindi ones too) and finally I chose the best movie--Mazha. The title of this movie, "Mazha" means rain in Malayalam. The film is based on a novel, "Nashtapetta Neelambari" by the controversial Malayalam writer Kamala Das or Madhavikutty. The name for the novel was taken from the ragam, "Neelambari" which is the favourite ragam of the female protagonist of the novel.

The movie begins with teenager Subhadra (Samyuktha Varma) getting infatuated with her music teacher Ramanujam Sastrigal (Biju Menon). Her creative talents for poetry start to flourish, under his influence. The parents enter the scene and whisk her off and he is obliged to a marry a village belle. Next, we see Subhadra becoming a doctor, like her father and getting married to Chandrashekhara Menon (Lal), who is a well-off computer engineer. Chandrashekhar happens to see her diary one day and the relationship goes for a toss. Of course, there are no names in the diary. So, he goes off to doubt every male in her life including her father. He becomes a victim of the DEVDAS syndrome and dies of a related illness. Subhadra sets out in search of her old flame to Madurai where she discovers that Ramanujam has lost lots of things. His wife has now become a basket case by now, and the final shock is when she finds out that he has lost his beautiful voice to cancer too.

Lenin Rajendran films have always fallen under the parallel cinema mould. Mazha is a welcome departure from the crap movies like Sagar-alias-Jacky etc. He is successful in bringing out the best in the three stars. Samyuktha's performance too is a treat to the eye of a connoisseur. She lives the character that she is entrusted with. Lal is also good in his role as Chandrashekhar and really comes out with dark side. Biju Menon as the restrained lover also gives a great performance. Thilakan and Urmila Unni deliver a good performance. The music of this film is melodious, the lyrics are just fabulous--very much like ghazals. "Mazha" is for the moviegoer who appreciates good and intelligent films and for people who are constantly on the lookout for substance.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Movie Review: Khamoshi: The Musical

The movie begins with Joseph (Nana Patekar) and Flavy (Seema Biswas) waiting for their daughter Annie (Manisha Koirala) and Raj (Salman Khan). Annie goes into the state of coma after she crashes into a truck. Subsequently, we are taken into a flashback told through Annie's eyes. Although her parents are deaf-mute, Annie's grandmother Maria (Helen), is the ultimate singing-dancing, life affirming woman. Annie's brother Joy, however, dies very soon after his birth. Annie's world is shattered when first Maria dies and then her younger brother falls from the bell tower of the church. Her parents Flavy and Joseph lose faith in God but Annie becomes more serious and devout.

Raj (Salman Khan) comes into Annie's sad life from Bombay. He is a composer and has used her as inspiration for his music from afar. Their love blossoms, but not without complications, mostly involving Annie's parents who have come to depend on her. A poverty-stricken, deaf-mute fisherman and his family is a brave subject matter for a Hindi film. The performances by Manisha Koirala, Nana Patekar and Seema Biswas are powerful and compelling. Manisha in particular is in her element and demonstrates the full range of her acting ability.

The scene in which she shouts at her father through the door, screaming and using sign language even though she knows he can neither see nor hear, is extremely powerful. Seema Biswas as the insular, angry mother afraid of the outside world, is a good counter balance to Nana Patekar's full-bodied performance as Annie's father. The scenes in which he's trying to deal with his son's demise and then throwing the cross into the ocean are exceptionally strong and moving.

Manisha Koirala and Nana Patekar's scenes together are also powerful. Salman Khan, looks very sweet probably due to his "Prem" image and manages to keep his shirt on almost the whole way through the film, a miracle for a man whose main assets have been his biceps. He offers a nice counterpoint as the uncomplicated middle-class boy thrown into Annie's world of pain and guilt.

A poverty-stricken, deaf-mute fisherman and his family is a brave subject matter for a Hindi film with popular Hindi stars. In Indian culture, where films serve primarily as escapism, Khamoshi offers a rare example of handicapped people being portrayed beyond the usual stereotypes of street beggars and sufferers. It is a strong, powerful and yet beautiful film about the transformations art works upon our lives.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Where there's a day

Political correctness is all that we care about these days. Children who have entered schools from this week will not learn the days of the week by their names as we but by new avatars like Wife's Day, Bosses' Day, Mother's Day or Environment Day. Before you jump out of your beds and start dialling the number of the HRD ministry to sue, I would like to assure you that I am just joking: no such threats exist as yet.

The way we are going, we might have a course correction soon considering how each day of the year has a tag attached to it: March 8 was Women's Day, June 1 was Flip a Coin Day, June 5 World Environment Day, June 7 is Chocolate Icecream Day and December 22 is, believe it or not, World Orgasm Day. Added to these, certain months have tags too. Among other things, June is Lovers' Month in Turkey. Plus, there's Halloween, Thanksgiving, Valentine's Day and numerous others.

Why this fetish for tokenism? While on all other days, each one of us leaves no 9 sized carbon footprints all over the planet, on June 5 we become card-holding green crusaders. While we are getting all worked up about keeping pace with the changing days and their different celebrations, the card companies are actually laughing all the way to the bank. Can we now have a "Ban Tokenism Day", please? A day when we can just be ourselves?

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Not without my mother

My parents are divorced and my father never cared about what I was doing or whether if he still remembered me. His apathetic nature towards me affected me a lot until I discovered the fact of having two twin stepbrothers. Sixteen years without the presence of a father was really annoying but then I had my mother and my grandmother with me for adequate support. I shrank from discussing the past, and the dread of a lonely future. She, however, was ready at last to speak about her complicated and a failed marriage with my father.

Sitting down for dinner with her, just the two of us, night after night, I began to understand how well she had kept things away from me. Struck by the quiet acuteness of her observations, I winced at my own failure to defend her hurt. The easy option had always been to take my father's side as he mocked and criticized her for his life. My father, an unusually dominant personality, had always been doing what his sister and his mother did. His mother called the tunes to which my father and my father's sister danced.

My mother, from the earliest years of her married life, adopted the silence and retreat tactic after she lost hope that they would improve and the strategies she chose for the survival of her married life was just shattered by then. When voices rose, she looked away. When pressure built, she wandered out into the garden. "I was weak," my mother had confessed during one of our late night chats. I disagreed. Finally, aware of how much unhappiness she had endured, how much it cost her to pretend that all was well, I admired her dignity.

There were moments of regret in our three years of retrospective discussions. Why had I always chosen to take my father's side against her? But there were also moments of sweet compensation. As we both recalled, my father just couldn't really accept the fact of a failed marriage and he was a father of one boy. Reading through my mom's divorce papers, I was surprised to learn that this man was never really interested in the welfare of his son. I helplessly observed how shameless he could be. The conversations were both engrossing and chastening. We spoke, for the first time, as equals. I rediscovered her as my friend.

Early after a failed marriage, my mother recovered from the zest of an earlier, more vibrant self. My mother has always been the admirable woman type. She follows the careers of Shahid Kapoor and John Abraham with eager interest and examines the pages of entertainment tabloids with a keen eye specially focussing on John Abraham's Dostana body. So when a mugger in Cochin tried to attack her, I pushed her sideways so that she could be rescued. She applauded me for that instant decision. My friends say she looks younger than me and happier too. Writing and talking about past experiences has brought my mother and me much closer.

Grass is greener...

I was just making small talk with a group of people. One of them said that he had lived all over the country and abroad, since his father had a transferable job. To me, who has been born, raised and lived in the same suburb of the same city, that seems like a dream life. The guy shrugged, "The grass is always greener on the other side." Although the adventure bit and the opportunity to see new places were fun, there was not the constant adjustment, not building long-term friendships, not getting stability and always being the perpetual outisder. I suddenly remembered an honest cop's wife saying that they had moved 32 times in 25 years, which is the grim side of the picture.

But the oft-used, "The grass is greener...," line reminded me of a silly line which kids to write in one another's slam books--"When it's hot like you like it cool, when it's cool, you like it hot, always wanting what is not." In Hindi they say, "Ghar ki murgi dal barabar," which means you never appreciate what you have. Thinking back on the thousands of conversations with different people, it does seem partially true. A man who has a simple stay-at-home wife, wishes he had been married to a glamorous working woman... the one who has a working wife adds to the family income, wishes he had a wife to open the door for him when he returns home from work and serve with hot rotis or parathas.

A woman who has a dutiful husband who comes home on time every evening and helps with the household chores, wishes she had a man who would take her partying every evening.. the woman who has a man-about-town kind of husband wishes he would stay put at home. A kid who has a housewife for a mother is slightly ashamed that her mother is not a career woman.. and the one whose mother does have a career, wishes she had a mother like her friend's, always preparing goodies in the kitchen.

It never ends--a man with a steady career wishes for a more exciting job. A pilot, model or actor, whose glamorous job everyone envies, wishes he could get more time to put his feet up and spend more time with his family. It never ends, this wishing for something better, which is not the same as an ambition so overwhelming that the person is willing to sacrifice anything to achieve it. The desire to have what someone else has, under the notion that it is better if not superior to what one has, doesn't necessarily translate into action, even in the circumstances when change is possible.

While many of us are looking over the fence at the greener grass on the other side, we might miss the flowers that may have sprouted in our own garden.

The Naming Game

What's in a name? We have always been assured that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Of course, it would. Except that this misses the point somewhat. The truth is that names do matter. Think about it. We would have a hell of time locating a street, city, or even a country if we didn't get the name right.

This was brought home to me by two incidents. The first incident went like this Simran who was actually trying to locate Naushad Ali Marg, which incidentally was Carter Road in Bandra at one point of time. Soon after the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks ended and the endless recriminations began, reliable sources had it that the transcripts of the terrorist intercepts ad indicated that they were going to attack a target on Mathuradas Vassanji Road, Mumbai. At the time, this information caused some confusion among the ranks. Nobody could quite figure out where Mathuradas Vassanji Road was. It took some time before it was traced: this was the road on which the Taj Hotel and Towers is located. But such is the pre-eminence of the Taj that is regarded as a landmark in itself; nobody even knew the new name of the road on which it stood.

This confusion is not just restricted to our intelligence agencies or even officialdom. It affects all of us and is exacerbated by the fact that the place names are forever being changed around us in some sort of nod to political correctness. In fact, as the first reports of firing at a train station came in, I couldn't help figure out the location myself. Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus? CST? Where was that? We have too many landmarks named after the Maratha prince. It's only when a report referred it by its maiden name of Victoria Terminus--VT to everyone in Mumbai--that the penny dropped.

So widespread was the confusion that it even percolated down to the international media, which couldn't quite make up its mind as to whether the terror attacks took place in Bombay or Mumbai. Some used one name, some the other, and then there were those who alternated between the two, clearly unable to make up their minds. It took the London Times to address the issue head on. The front page of its November 29 2008 issue had the headline: Bloody End to the Siege of Bombay. But inside, in a column headed Feedback, Sally Baker wrote that after considerable discussion the Times ad decided to change the house style to Mumbai. The paper had always referred to the city, as Bombay, wrote Sally, because it was assumed that most of its readers were familiar with that name. But now, after the terror attacks and the endless coverage, Mumbai was more recognizable. Hence, the change.

I'm sure all of us can identify this confusion. Even now, so many years after the name change, it is still hard for me to think of Bombay as Mumbai. We all use the new official name when we write about it, but in our hearts and minds, the city will always live on as Bombay. It's much the same story with my hometown Palakkad. The commissars may have written it as Palghat (which is how you would pronounce as an Englishman) as a sop to colonial chauvinism but the town will always remain Palakkad--or the more affectionate dimunitive Pal--to me.

But then, Bombay is a city that clings to its old names with a stubborn obduracy. Naushad Ali Marg is still Carter Road, Mumbai Samachar Marg is still Apollo Street, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Marg is still Marine Drive. It doesn't really matter that all these places have been renamed by the powers that be. We still refer to them by the old familiar names we grew up with. Of course, this compulsive renaming does have its moments. Where else but in Calcutta would you find the American Consulate situated on Ho Chi Minh Sarani? Clearly, some comrade somewhere had a sense of humour!!

In Delhi too, we have had the usual renaming of old colonial landmarks with new home-grown names. Some years ago, an Indian politician Mani Shankar Aiyar ran a campaign to rename Connaught Place--the hub of New Delhi before its epicentre shifted to Khan Market--as Rajiv Gandhi Chowk. But you would be hard pressed to find anyone who calls it by that name. Connaught Place is still called Connaught Place, or as Delhi hands would have it: CP.

Despite the failure of such new names to catch on, the renaming game continues apace. So Bangalore is now Bengaluru; Cochin is now Kochi, Baroda is now Vadodara, Trivandrum is called Tiruvananthapuram, Shimoga is now Shivamoga. It is, of course, another matter that nobody even refers to these cities by their new names. So, honestly why do we bother? There is no denying that names have an emotional resonance and even intellectual baggage. So, Mumbai is a bow to Marathi chauvinism just as Kolkata is a salve to the wounded Bengali pride; Bengaluru is a slap in the face of those North Indians who can't be bothered to pronounce names of South Indian places; and Vadodara is a monument of Gujarati "asmita" (pride). But given that nobody ever uses these names, what is the point of this exercise? I certainly can't see the point. If you can, please send me a mail justifying your answer to

Friday, 12 June 2009

Movie Review: Naseem

The way this multiplex strike affected me so badly that I was forced to watch some old movies on DVD. The film I watched turned out to be an important socio-political movie that marked a turning point in the Hindu--Muslim dynamics in India. The name of this film in Urdu "Naseem", which literally translates as "The Morning Breeze" in English is directed by Saeed Akhtar Mirza. It is centered around the Babri Masjid demolition of 1992. Being a hardcore art-movie fan, I decided to give this a try.

The film charts the story of a young school going girl Naseem (Mayuri Kango) in the months leading up to the demolition of Babri Masjid in December 1992. She shares a deep and loving bond with her ailing grandfather Anwar (Kaifi Azmi) who represents the era of communal harmony between Hindus and Muslims in India, as he fondly recalls the times he spent in pre-independent Agra. As communal tension erupts in the city of Bombay, Naseem gets increasingly bewildered by the changing dynamics at her school and in the neighbourhood, while her grandfather watches helplessly in a city getting divided deeply over the Babri Masjid issue.

The film stands amidst great films of this genre, like Dharti Ke Laal (1946) directed by K.A. Abbas and Garam Hawa (1973) directed by M.S. Sathyu. The film marks the screen debut of actor Kay Kay Menon, Mayuri Kango and also has the distinction of being the only screen role of Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi. It won the National Award for Best Screenplay jointly written by Saeed Akhtar Mirza and Ashok Mishra.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

The Wonder Years

Old school ties can be very, very strong. Why shouldn't they be? Schools are the places where most of us began to discover ourselves and our places in the world. It's one place that aside from our families at home firmly established our values, our ideas of how life should be lived, and our concept of what a good education is.

Schools are also the place where we made the first good friends of our lives, where we indulged in masti and mischief, where we learned how much we are capable of achieving as well as our limitations. It was where we grew up. Since it occupies most of our lives before we become responsible, grown up people, it's also the place that made some very strong memories.

Nostalgia is surely a big factor in old school ties, specially when you bump into a classmate and you can't really recall his/her real name as opposed to his/her nickname he/she had all through school, there are shared memories. Nostalgia exists in various degrees. For people who haven't, or don't, keep in touch with batchmates beyond their social friends, nostalgia is what keeps the party going when they land up for an occasional reunion. To tell the truth, nostalgia often begins at school itself, in the final year. There's just one exam left and then it'll be over. Which, after years of togetherness, can be unnerving. So memory collection becomes really important. Upto class IX, our class was a divided lot but suddenly in class X, there was tremendous unity because you realize that it's going to be over. So it has to be maintained, for memory.

Old school ties continue to bind because of friends. Everyone acknowledges that the Internet has done much to make old school ties strong. I have no strong feelings for them either way, though I did get a good education and was very fond of some of my teachers. But if you ask me what was so wonderful about school, I'd say it was the friends I made there. One of my friends posted an photograph taken before the Diwali holidays in Class IX when there was a fancy dress competition and a party was organized to recreate that photograph and lot of my classmates turned up. Friendships are something most of us acknowledge after some thought. It is often difficult to separate the friendships from the school when the friendship happened because of the school.

I personally believe that certain friendships just cannot happen elsewhere but school. The school had certain values and ideas about life, people who went there share those values and ideas of life. The moment someone tells me that he/she is from my school, there are ten questions I don't need to ask. The batch and institution is also important. The batch is important since we grow up together, which in itself is a big bond. The institution is important since it provides the values you live by--and that's again a big bond that's established.

Shared values. They can often be so strong that age and generation have no meaning. Older people generally tend to have an automatic affection for--or at least a sense of responsibility towards--younger people from their old schools. It's because of the old school ties that continue to bind us wherever we go since they are so strong.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Virtual Loss

At the fag end of a fabulous holiday in Cochin, I lost all the photographs I had clicked from my digital camera. It happened like this. I was travelling from Wellington Island coming to Ernakulam and suddenly, I had a feeling that I dropped my camera into a backwater of Cochin. The wedding frenzy of my cousin set up the mood and I was rejoicing that I got to drink pal payasam after nearly two years. The pal payasam was as cold as ice and I was happily clicking photographs on my digital camera.

I set it down beside me so that I could gulp one glass of pal payasam into my mouth. And just then, the memory in the camera crashed and I lost all the photographs I clicked including the rare pictures of the extinct Cochin Harbour Terminus. In that instant, the euphoria generated by the beauty and serenity of Cochin, the sense of well-being engendered by several hours of happy memories and serious fun moments, was destroyed, leaving me devastated and near-tears. Overreaction? You might think so, but I can't possibly agree.

You see, I hadn't just lost the photographs and surely, I couldn't go back to the places where I had been to click photographs, I had lost a significant part of my memories. I am not mad to confess that I cannot live without the camera because I am really not much into photography. The way the camera ate my photographs took all the memories related to Cochin in a flash. It was the first time I clicked so many pictures from my camera. So surely, this was a trip that I would have liked to cherish but then I lost all my photographs and being reduced to only forming mental images.

On a more practical level, the loss was just as immense as Ravana's defeat in the Ramayana. I had lost my entire collection of Kerala photographs and a few photographs of Indian trains I clicked during a railfanning session in Ernakulam Station. I had lost all the photographs including the ones clicked at the Cochin airport and which--true to form--a machine that I kept ignoring for years.

Not that computers guarantee any kind of safety either. I have lost count of the number of times friends have called me in despair because their PCs and laptops have crashed wiping their entire library of pictures that chronicled their lives and the music lists which contained the songs they lived by. But then, that's the danger of adopting a digital lifestyle. Your entire history is at the mercy of technology which can erase it in a moment--and of course, sooner or later it does. It's a scary thought, isn't it? But despite the fact that these worst-case scenarios are all too common, none of us have any compunction about embracing the virtual age with a vengeance. Going digital is all the rage, and we are all buying into this trend.

One of the first casualties of this is the art of letter writing. We no longer write home recounting our adventures or detailing the minutiae of everyday life. We simply pick up the phone and have a casual--even desultory--conversation, send a terse sms to say that all is well, or dash off a rushed e-mail that is deleted as soon as the inbox begins to get a bit clogged. No meaningful conversation or dialogue is possible in the circumstances we are living through, nor is it feasible to have a fruitful exchange of ideas or information. The era in which Jawaharlal Nehru's letters to his young daughter Indira were thoughtful and informative enough to form the basis of three books--Discovery of India, Glimpses of World History and the recently released Letters From A Father to his Daughter--is well and truly over.

Somehow A Father's SMSes to his Daughter doesn't have quite the same ring. That appears to be the best that our generation can do, given that these days all social networking seems to be conducted by digital means. We speak on the phone, we write our thoughts in blogs, we communicate through mails and sms, we store our records--both written or pictorial--on the computer. It's almost as if we are determined to leave no physical evidence behind as we go through the motions of our lives.

Our parents' generation left behind a plethora of material, a rich colourful record of lives lived in letters and pictures. Today, the art of writing letters maybe drying up, the photographs fraying at the edges, but they still have an immediacy to them. We may not recognize all the faces, the handwriting may have faded but these cherished mementoes give us a glimpse into the past, imbue us with a sense of personal history.

So, I can't help but wonder what our generation will leave behind. A couple of compact discs, an overflowing e-mail inbox? That's assuming of course that we haven't lost all of this in the interim in a computer crash or two. The way things are going, we look set to vanish off the face of the earth leaving behind no visible traces. That could well make us the first generation without a history.

Romancing The Rail:

Given the way the economic recession brought us to our knees, while looking for ways to cope up with a bleak economy which can actually better our lives, I touched upon the romance of train travel and Sejal suggested that we needed to introduce our children to its charms. Watching videos of Indian trains on Youtube triggered instant memories and reminded me again of why trains have such a special place in our lives. Well, perhaps not in the lives of the generation brought up on the dubious pleasures of cheap air travel, but certainly in the lives of those of us who have cherished memories of train journeys long since lost in the mists of time.

I vividly recall every detail of my first such excursion, taking a train from Howrah station in Calcutta to visit the tea gardens in Assam. I was barely five, had just about mastered the written word, and was excited beyond relief to be allowed to buy a selection of Amar Chithra Kathas at the station bookstall. I settled down at my window seat and even before the Howrah--Guwahati--Dibrugarh Kamrup Express pulled out of the station, I was deep burrowing into the pleasures of Indian mythology. But as the scene outside grew more rustic, even picturesque, my attention wandered to the marvellous moving display outside my window. There were gentle rolling fields, green and lush more palm trees than I could count and an endless expanse of a bright blue sky.

Just then, a man entered my peripheral vision. Scythe in hand, he was intently cutting down some tall grass in the fields. "Oh look," I cried out to my mother, "It's a farmer, a real life farmer!" As a city-bred child, I hadn't realized until then that farmers actually had a life and an independent existence outside my story books. That wasn't the only discovery I made in the course of that first train journey or the many others that followed. Gazing out of the train window as I travelled across the country, I was introduced to a new India that was far removed from the bland boundaries of my middle class urban existence. I like to believe today that this made me more aware of the complexities of the society we live in.

Obviously, at that time such elevated thoughts were the farthest thing from my mind. I was just intent on having the best time ever. I tucked into endless cups of milky tea and wolfed down everything from pav bhaji to oily samosas at each stop. When it became too dark to enjoy the scenery outside, I read books that had been specially chosen for the trip. And then, when I just couldn't keep my eyes open any longer, I allowed the gentle rocking motion of the train to put me to sleep.

Train journeys have been far more than simple pleasure trips for me. Many of them have marked important rites of passage as well. I still remember the thrill on an Indian train of taking my first solo trip to Mumbai from Bangalore on a train. I was returning from Bangalore after a pleasant two week stay during the Diwali holidays and my mom who decided that I need a break and experience life on my own.

So, I was deposited on the overnight Bangalore--Mumbai Udyan Express by my aunt and I revelled in the feeling all grown up and important negotiating the various formalities of train travel myself (i.e. rousing myself when the ticket collector came calling). My aunt who believes that I am always in the imminent danger of being malnourished, had packed some really oily rotis and tasteless potato curry along with my favourite dessert pal payasam, which made me popular among the kids sitting next to me.

Needless to say, the rules of train travelling have changed these days. Mothers now instruct their kids not to speak to strangers in case they stumble on a child molester; adults are exhorted not to accept food from strangers who may want to drug and then rob them; and platform vendors can't really intrude too deep into the airconditioned compartments of Indian trains. The nature of train journeys has changed. The romance still endures despite the recent sanitation of the experience. The magic was best evoked in the first half of "Jab We Met", where veteran traveller Kareena Kapoor encounters train rookie Shahid Kapur and tries her best to strike up a conversation with him. The easy camaraderie with which she tries to help him when he is caught travelling without a ticket tells us all we need to know about the charms of rail journeys.

That's the reason why I am determined to rediscover the joys of train travel the next time I take a break. Sure, the station will be dirty and noisy, messy and nothing less than a nightmare to negotiate, but frankly, airports aren't better these days. And even the dreadful loos are a small price to pay for the pleasure of simply sitting back and watching the world go by.

Hang Up!!

Last night I went out to have dinner with a few friends. There we were, eating, chatting and generally having a good time. Except for one of us--who shall remain anonymous out of sheer generosity of spirit--who spent all his time checking his mobile phone messages and then typing out long replies, completely ignored Sejal who was sitting opposite him who was trying to conduct a conversation.

This man kept testing my patience for nearly an hour and when I couldn't resist keeping quiet and he began tapping out a message even as another friend was in the middle of telling an interesting story, I piped up indignantly, "I'm sorry, but clearly the people you are messaging are more interesting than all of us right here. Perhaps, you should be having dinner with them instead!" To his credit, the gentleman was suitably abashed at being called out on his bad behaviour. He turned a deep red, muttered unconvincingly about how it was his daughter on the phone. He then put his mobile phone away ostentatiously, promising that he would not check it again in the course of the evening. Yet, when he thought nobody was looking, I caught him checking out the display surreptitiously, to make sure that he hadn't missed on any calls or smses.

My irritation--and that of my friends--notwithstanding, in the cold light of day I have to admit that none of us can afford to be overly judgemental about these things. I am the first to confess that I am as much as sinned against as sinning. In fact, it was only a week ago that an old friend, whom I was catching up for lunch after nearly three years, accused me of being a mobile phone addict because I kept checking on the delivery of some urgent smses I had to send out with reference to "Sunehre Pal". So, I guess I shouldn't be holding forth about the trespasses of others. But you know something, I just cannot resist certain things.

Honestly, what is it about mobile phones and us? Why are we always looking at them anxiously, worried that we may have missed some important call during the nanosecond when we weren't looking? Why do we seem unable to ever disconnect? Why can we never switch off completely? Why have we developed such a symbiotic relationship with our phones that we appear unable to exist without them? Why are we so addicted to our phones that we suffer withdrawal symptoms on the rare occasions we are parted from them?

I still remember the feeling of utter helplessness that engulfed me a year ago when my phone crashed as it got wet in the rains. There was no network and the phone wasn't even in the range network. It felt as if I had been disconnected completely from life itself. Nobody knew how to get in touch with me for nearly a week. Going by the extinct concept of phone books, I didn't know how to call anyone. After casting about desperately, I was reduced to e-mailing people to send me their numbers. All the time, I was in agony, fretting about the fact that I didn't have access to the radio and all the important calls I was undoubtedly missing, convinced that there must be some work or family emergency just when I had been rendered incommunicado.

So, don't get me wrong. I understand just how important mobile phones are to all of us. You can call the airport from the car to check on the flight status. You can keep tabs on your kids no matter where they are. In a medical emergency or in case of an accident, you don't have to go around looking for a phone booth to summon help. Your elderly parents can get in touch with you at all times. And after a late night ouut as you take a taxi home, it is a reassuring feeling to have a mobile phone in your wallet or pocket so that you can call a friend if anything untoward happens.

I know all this, yet the tyranny of mobile phones is beginning to get me miffed. Is it really necessary to take calls when we are in the midst of an important business meeting? Do you have to have a loud conversation on the mobile in a restaurant where everyone else is trying to have a quiet meal? Must the loud ring of your phone disturb everyone else in cinemas, at the theatre or a book reading session? Can you not switch off your phone even when you are visiting a sick friend in the hospital?

Surely, life went on even before the mobile phone was invented? We managed to catch flights on time, make restaurant reservations, keep in touch with family and friends, even check our e-mails, long before the mobile became an essential tool of modern life. So why do people act as if they can't figure out how we ever coped in its absence? After all, it was only a decade ago we managed perfectly well without it. Could we really have become so dependent in this short passage of time?

I guess the short answer to that is yes. But sometimes it makes sense to do without something you feel is essential to your life---if only to prove to yourself that that you can. So maybe it is time to ditch the mobile phone---one hour at a time. I'm sorry, but I'm not ready to go cold turkey just yet. I'm guessing that nor are you. What say?

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Movie Review: Firaaq

The film opens with a truck dumping dozens of corpses at a graveyard site for mass burial. The director Nandita Das makes it clear that her directorial debut, "Firaaq" is not going to be an easy watch. Firaaq is a fictionalised account of true stories set one month after the horrific communal riots of Gujarat in 2002. Firaaq focuses on a handful of ordinary characters whose lives are changed irreparably by the riots.

There's an affluent mixed religion couple Anuradha Desai (Tisca Chopra) and Sameer Arshad Sheikh (Sanjay Suri) who prepare to Delhi because Sameer is afraid of what might happen next. An auto-rickshaw driver whose house is burned down, and his wife Muneera (Shahana Goswami) who suspects her Hindu friend's husband did it. Khan Sahab (Naseeruddin Shah), an elderly Muslim classical singer, who is initially unaware of the events and loses his optimism after becoming aware of the hate floating around. Aarti (Deepti Naval), who is a victim of domestic violence and the wife of a bigoted Hindu who is haunted by guilt for not opening her door to save a woman running from the mob. There's this little Muslim boy Mohsin who is in search of his father, unaware that he's been orphaned in the carnage.

These stories do interconnect occasionally in a manner that makes it clear that victims, perpetrators and silent observers are all connected somehow. Firaaq steers away from political overtones, choosing instead to tell a dramatic story about everyday people and the repercussions of violence. Interestingly, you don't actually see any incidents of violence in Firaaq, but its aftermath can be felt throughout the film, in the fear, anguish, loss and anger felt by those left in its wake.

Firaaq is an important film because Ms. Nandita Das has once again proved it that she wishes to be part of stories that need to be told. She never shies away from showing the ugly side of her characters. I'm reminded of this particularly disturbing scene in the film in which Paresh Rawal gleefully asks his younger brother if he enjoyed a gangrape he'd participated in. Barely moments later, his brother turns to watch a TV news report in which a Muslim woman is seen complaining that they were robbed of their dignity during the riots, to which he spitefully comments that they had little dignity to begin with. It's scenes like these that deliver the full impact of this powerful film, and Nandita assembles a movie with some of the finest actors in Indian cinema who bring her characters to life.

If there's a problem with Firaaq, it's the fact that despite her best intentions, Nandita fails to bridge the gap between the audience and her characters. It's unquestionably sad what happens to these people you know their lives have changed forever, yet there's a certain unexplained distance that never lets you "feel" the pain yourself. Remember, the most compelling films are the ones that transport you to the centre of the drama, and make you a participant in the action. Firaaq is a noble film, an admirable directorial debut, but you don't feel the pain. There is also the issue of the affected English dialogues in the Sanjay Suri--Tisca Chopra track, and the somewhat meandering nature of the Naseeruddin Shah track.

Overlook these flaws, however, and make it a point to watch Firaaq. It's an unsettling film, one that throws up difficult questions and demands urgent responses. It is definitely not a perfect directorial debut, but it's much better than anything else you're likely to have watched recently.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Mamma's Boy:

"How are you? Is everything okay? Are things under control?" It was the first phone call I received in the morning at 7:15 a.m....okay, my mom and I aren't staying together anymore due to a big war in the house. I notice the dynamics around me slowly change with every passing week, but still the degree of articulated concern from my mother is something I haven't really been used to. I have been through enough to deserve this.

Since the reign of Ashoka, I was never the conventional boy as far as my mom was concerned. We went travelling in ladies compartments of local trains till I turned 14, we watched matinee movies together, fought like siblings, I was never the boy to be interested in Maths and Science to which my mom reacted with a shock considering she was a topper in school and I was completely a disaster in academics. I was again not interested in test cricket and my mom was shocked to learn absolutely "couldn't-care-less" attitude towards cricket.

Later, as I kept telling my mother about my crushes and ideas for a perfect date and the ideal match, she just had a peripheral interest in what they were all about considering that my crushes were for people whom I'll never meet in real-life (read film actresses). Her opinions about my crushes rarely went beyond a grunt or a simple hug. To her, it was nothing but a mere distraction and passing phases of teenage life. Since she falls into the old school group, it was something that her "dyscalculic, limited attention span Virgo son" would soon lose interest in.

It's true that she never thought I needed to be 'escorted' for travelling in the crowded buses for reaching school for an early morning lecture. I never even felt the need to be 'escorted' since I could travel all alone in Indian trains, or even fetch me back from the studio after a radio programme that ended at 5:00 a.m. As my grandmother whined about how times had changed and one had to take special care of her grandson , my mother retorted, "He knows what he wants from his life, I wouldn't worry about him."

I guess I am, and I amply demonstrated the fact at the age of sixteen when I took the challenge of travelling alone in an Indian train all the way from Mumbai to Guruvayur. In a very embarrassing incident that happened in Mumbai once, one wannabe weirdo happened to pull my cheeks in the classroom during the break, I picked up the duster to hit him on his forehead and before the teacher arrived and tried to calm me down.

Now, as I waddle into the challenges of facing a new life of reaching college, my mom can't help but helplessly notice how vulnerable I am, mentally, at least... and I can sense that there is a lot more she wants to say and ask, but all she manages is, "How are you?"

I guess it's a big deal for her for being my mother and all of that. More importantly, she realizes that we'll soon be even once college starts. We will soon be like the Prem and Suman of Maine Pyaar Kiya, and that's a bit surreal to deal with.