Sunday, December 23, 2007

By the side of a queen

Source: The Hindu

Years of interaction with Rajmata Gayatri Devi, and the release of her biography recently, have not dimmed the starry aura for author Dharmendar Kanwar, finds ANJANA RAJAN.

Maharani Gayatri Devi in her youth_Published in Roli Books' Family Pride series.

ONCE THERE was a schoolgirl. She adored a queen. As she grew up, the distant yet kindly and stunningly beautiful queen remained her idol. One day, they met. The little girl, now a young lady, found in the stately queen a compassionate friend, a companion in laughter, a partner in work. And they continue thus. Yet to this day, that little girl, who has grown into a prolific writer, cannot believe her amazing luck in being able to walk by the side of the queen. It's only fitting then, that she decided to record her reverence by penning Her Highness' biography.

So how do you write the story of a queen? With lots of sugar, some spice that's nice, and plenty of adulation? This formula could well apply to many of the pictorial biographies in Roli Books' Family Pride series, which features family members or close associates chronicling the lives of great people. But it is particularly the case with the latest in this series, "Rajmata Gayatri Devi... Enduring Grace" by Dharmendar Kanwar.

For Dharmendar, who has authored eight books on tourism and travel - all on her home State of Rajasthan - besides numerous articles in mainstream newspapers and magazines, this is the first biography. Associated with the erstwhile Maharani, Rajmata Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, for several years, she says, "I had already planned a book. Each meeting I had with her I had recorded. I knew enough about her life. I have also travelled with her. When the Roli Books proposal came, she felt I was the best person, and she wouldn't have to do the interviews all over again."

Writing about a strong-willed individual like the Rajmata, still active in her 80s, can be a challenge. Such a work does have to have the subject's approval, agrees Dharmendar, but, "In her case it was all right. There was nothing extraordinary that I was trying to reveal."

Dharmendar, who attended the Maharani Gayatri Devi Girls' Public School - founded by Gayatri Devi within a few years of her marriage to Maharaja Man Singh of Jaipur - recalls the Maharani's visits to the school. "She used to wear beautiful chiffon saris and pearl necklaces. It was like a fairytale for us."

It was Dharmendar's writing that brought her into direct contact with the Maharani. Still new in her career, she was sent to interview Gayatri Devi. "I remember I was very nervous and tongue-tied. I spent a sleepless night. But she spoke very nicely and put me at ease."

The awe in which even a seasoned professional like Dharmendar Kanwar holds the Rajmata is nothing unusual in the State, she points out. Even today, a glance from the Rajmata is considered a moment to prize. That she made a great contribution to women's education in Rajasthan, setting an example of emancipation and bringing women out of purdah, only adds to her exalted status as an incomparably dynamic and beautiful woman, whose pictures from her youth have the dreamlike quality of the Hollywood heroines of the 1920s and `30s.

Dharmendar Kanwar in New Delhi. Photo: Anu Pushkarna.

Dharmendar, who also works for heritage conservation, edited, designed and published a cookbook, "Gourmet's Gateway", written by the Rajmata to raise funds for charity. Not commenting much on her writing skills, she does admit to overhauling the book to make it more interesting. Not that cooking is one of the Rajmata's fortes. Points out Dharmendar, "It's written by a non-cook and published by a non-cook."

As soon as the biography was released in New Delhi, the Rajmata set off for England. But had she had been here, says her biographer, she wouldn't want to talk to the press. "Even if you talk to her, she'll tell me to write something, show it to her and send it," says Dharmendar. "I am handling all her press."

Purdah and the Rajmata don't go together, but then, royalty will have its enigmas.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

We write like that only

The engaging story of India’s embrace of English is glazed with wit and tongue-in-cheek humour, but lacks a nuanced quality.

Entry From Backside Only: Hazaar Fundaas of Indian-English, Binoo K. John, Penguin India, p.224, Rs.95.

Apart from a few ill-fated attempts by Binoo John to “explain” humour that’s self-evident (rather like explaining a punch line), and pat himself on the back when there’s no reason to feel insecure, this entertaining swim through the story of Indian-English is a nice way to spend an afternoon with some chai-wai for company.

It is replete with gems mined from the colonial period, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublimely funny. Advertisements of quacks and legitimate sellers, letters to the editor and dialogues from cinema, all allow John to traverse a ‘literary’ landscape strewn with blunders in grammar, spelling, capitalisation, punctuation, malapropisms and inappropriate idioms. A smaller serving with crisper editing would have been just right. One is educated and frequently amused by this use, or rather, misuse of the language. However, the tone is never condescending. John’s sensibility comes from knowing that it isn’t easy to fathom the illogic of English. But today, colours, flavours, textures and sounds that imbue Indian languages with an onomatopoeic quality make Indian-English inimitable, robust and quirky — just the way we are! Advertising bears this out. From gullies to highways, roadside shops to mega malls, it flaunts itself. This mongrel child or hybrid language has been adopted by Booker Prize winners and celebrated in everyday communication too.

Sociology of language

How did it all happen? The author tells us what we know; that we were saddled with English, thanks to Macaulay’s insidious plans to create “…interpreters …and Indians in blood and colour but English in taste, in opinion, in words and in intellect”. But insightfully notes that Indians “yearned” to take to all things British, including English, for reasons of credibility and upward mobility. He looks at the phenomenal growth of English teaching institutes and the rapidly selling Rapidex, to explore how and why English continues to be a vehicle to fulfil aspirations.

Since we speak more than 30-odd languages, it’s surprising that John hasn’t ploughed a bit deeper into the reasons behind why we speak and write the way we do or how we grapple with the habit of thinking in our mother tongue while expressing ourselves in English. Something he could do in a reprint! What he needs to get rid of then would be the typos. The editors have let Seshagiri go as Seshagir and classics as classis (pp. 140, 156).

Absorbing section

In an absorbing last quarter, the book looks at how the tables turned, how all things Indian fascinated the British! Glossaries such as Hanklyn-Janklyn and Hobson-Jobson compiled Indian-English words and expressions. Then came ingenious wordsmiths such as Desani, Rushdie and Arundhati Roy at a time when English was becoming inadequate to capture the Indian experience. They began to reshape and free English by taking all kinds of liberties and readers were in thrall — of their uninhibited use of language.

Fruitful John’s fundas are convincing enough to prove that this sub-genre, having imbibed socio-cultural trends, is now a confident linguistic entity, a stand-alone. As I was typing this piece, a rhythmic rendition in English, of “Welcome to the heart of incredible India”, a television ad-campaign, was playing. I had heard the Hindi version on a few occasions (“Hindustan ka dil dekho”). Brilliantly translated, it was pure Indian-English of the heartland kind, capturing the lilt and rhythm without losing any of the charm and impact of the original. We are playing with Macaulay’s bhasha and loving it!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Tendulkar still teaching lessons

Source: The Hindu

An exceptional performer can recalculate his skills and alter himself, says

There is no weaseling out of this: I was wrong about Sachin Tendulkar. Earlier this year, his struggle painful to watch, I wondered: if he couldn’t mirror the exalted standard of his past, then why play? It was a miscalculation of the rage that courses through the uncommon athlete’s veins.

Even now, across continents, you can hear the hum of Tendulkar’s desire. For just playing. For runs. For winning. He knows that the great athlete has to prove himself, constantly, that we’re not interested in his yesterdays but only his todays.

I first met Tendulkar 20 years ago when he was 14 and have admired him since. Not because he scored runs with a ferocious beauty but because he possessed a powerful sense of duty and met acclaim with serenity. No sportsperson in 20 years has moved me like him except the elastic Michael Jordan, who was like a Michelangelo statue come to athletic life. But the batsman was ours, he was hope tugging at his box and our hearts. Jordan taught us that human flight was possible. Tendulkar is still teaching us.

Like some bonzai schoolmaster holding class, he taught us that don’t judge a kid by his voice. He taught us to sit down and back in our drawing rooms because he was going to hang around the crease for a while. He taught us that champions find the necessary calm amidst the delirium. He taught us that playing for India was fun but also a responsibility. And he taught us he could make grown men cry, sometimes watches, sometimes bowlers.

He taught us that only the exceptional performer can recalculate his skills and alter himself. Haile Gebreselassie, unable to maintain the speed of the 10,000 metres, has morphed into a marathon champion. Tendulkar rearranged his repertoire, and while he was not the greatest anymore, he taught us he could still find a way to be good.

One last lesson

But this year, I began to believe he was declining, and quickly, because he was unconvincing for long periods, wearing an unsurety that looked so foreign on him. The vincible hero. At 34, how do you stop time, and deterioration? But 20 years after first learning from Tendulkar, there was one last lesson he had to teach. About concentration.

If first his getting beaten made me flinch, what made me keep watching was his refusal to flinch. The ball went by and he started again, like a student trying again to solve a problem. Every ball was a new ball to Tendulkar, a new life, a new start, it was like he had cleansed his memory of the previous delivery that hissed past his bat. It was like Jimmy Connors swearing the last point was unimportant, only the next one mattered.

What control of mind does it take to erase the immediate past, to not let doubt fester, to stay alert even as the bowler is exposing your hesitancy? The easy option would be to react, to swish harder. The hard choice was to just stay, to start afresh every ball with hope, to view temptation with priestly detachment. Tendulkar chose well. He taught us in this time that the first rule of sport is not to look good, it is to survive.

Tendulkar’s body may have healed and allowed him a fuller expression of strokes, but it is his confidence in himself, confidence that was shaken and rattled surely but never extinguished, that carried him on. He still gets beaten some days, but he is also more fluent, too, astonishing no less in his ability to rack up scores of 99, 93, 8, 17, 99, 8, 55, 71, 94, 30, 0, 16, 43, 79, 47, 72, 21, 4, 99, 29, 97 in his last 21 one-day innings.

What does Tendulkar play for? Team, himself, pride, records? Maybe he plays because part of him is just a boy who finds himself when bat meets ball. Maybe he plays because of a boy agog in the stands. Maybe he has summoned this last reservoir of energy to show a kid, now old enough to understand, why, for 18 years, the world has made such a fuss about his father.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Alone but not lonely

Source: The Hindu Folio

I cannot live in my son's house and play second fiddle to my daughters-in-law at this stage of my life," declared my 80-year-old grandmother, twenty five years back. The ceremonies following my grandfather's death were just over and my father and his brothers were discussing their mother's immediate future. "I prefer to live independently in my own house and die in it" she continued vehemently. And so she did, firmly brushing aside all protests, confident that she wanted to spend the rest of her life in control of her surroundings. Her sons visited her in turns but that was more for their own peace of mind, as she really made no demands on them. Religion and religious teachings seemed to sustain her and the people around her whom she had cultivated over the years satisfied her social needs.

Used to joint families and sons traditionally looking after ageing parents, many then reacted negatively and found it difficult to accept that an old woman would want to stay alone. That was 25 years ago. India's social pattern has seen many changes since. Yet, confronted with ageing people living on their own, the average Indian continues to react in a similar fashion.

However, social reactions notwithstanding, the numbers of ageing people, many in their 80s and yet maintaining individual establishments, are on the rise, especially in urban areas.

What lies behind this growing trend? Are these people who live alone content with their state of affairs or does the responsibility of running a home at this age and living all alone produce self pity and depression. Meeting a cross section of such senior citizens one felt that irrespective of whether they stayed alone out of choice or out of necessity they do share an outlook that is refreshingly optimistic and comfortingly confident. And quite surprisingly, considering their state of splendid isolation none of them seemed lonely. For as 84-year-old Vaidyanathan put it, "We are not going to be less lonely if we stay with our children for they are all caught up with their own lives."

While varied reasons are responsible for this choice of living on their own, the single most important factor is the break-up of the joint family and the increasing mobility of the Indian. Very few ageing people wish to uproot themselves from their familiar surroundings and move into unfamiliar terrain. This reluctance is most evident when their children are settled abroad.

"We have no friends and have to depend on everything from transport to companionship on our children" said an 80-year-old gentleman from Kotturpuram, Chennai. "I live alone much against my children's wishes but am happier this way. My children in the United States are busy with their lives and with both working I would spend huge chunks of time within four walls. And when my children come back they are too tired to go out. But they are weighed down by this huge feeling of guilt that they are neglecting me. This is not fair on them." he continues.

"Reluctance to burden children with an invalid grandparent or parent is also partly responsible" comments Vaidyanathan who took on the care of his 95-year-old mother-in-law after his wife's death. Kalpana Venkataraman, who, at 81, handles the total nursing and care of her 104-year-mother echoes this statement as does Ramiyengar aged 88 who takes care of his half-paralysed wife. With a sensitivity that belies the common belief that people grow self-centered as they grow older these persons protect their children from stress and in the process give themselves a purpose to their lives.

They run their own establishments, offer physical and emotional support systems if necessary, manage the day-to-day of financial matters and continue with a reasonable amount of social interaction. Going out might not be frequent but in their familiar surroundings there is a greater security of movement. A few do still drive or have access to a car and driver. To the many who cannot afford it, familiar terrain also makes taking autorickshaws or other modes of public transport relatively less mind-boggling. This independence that makes it possible for them to do their own banking and shopping is a boost to their self esteem and makes staying alone more than worthwhile. "It is easier to look after my assets staying on where I am at home, and this saves my children a lot of bother" says Bhagyam Krishnan explaining why she lives alone.

While life does move at a slower pace than in a younger past there is a quiet acceptance of this fact and most of them have learnt to create leisure activities that keep them occupied. "I read a lot and I have been teaching English to a few poor girls" says Pattammal "and this gives me mental stimulation and a feeling of being useful".

Given the limitations of age and money most of those old people seem to manage effectively to create a workable infrastructure that suits their needs. Medicines and grocery are ordered at home, food can be got on a daily basis from the many caterers that have sprung up and neighbours and friends do pitch in, in an emergency if children are not in the same town. Daily help is still available even if it means paying a little extra to hold on to them. Some even hire a companion if they can afford it.But all this self-reliance does not make their decision quite acceptable to their children. Many of them, especially sons, feel a sense of disquietude and a fear that they are not doing their duty to their parents. They worry about their parents' financial needs, their security and their health. "I realise that if I am incapacitated in any way, I shall have to move in with my son," says Kalpana Venkataraman, "but till such time why burden them". An opinion that is shared by most of the others. Emotional security is provided by just the thought that their children care for them and their grandchildren love them and there is no real desire to change the status quo unless failing health finally dictates the change.

It would be too much of a sweeping statement to say that the aged are happy only if they are on their own. There are many who hold diametrically opposite views. Besides, staying alone preconditions a certain attitude, a healthy bank balance and a healthier physical condition. What is needed however is a greater acceptance from society that old people are quite capable of staying alone if they so wish. They need neither sympathy nor fussing over. Rather emotional and if necessary discreet financial help from children and the confidence that they are always there when needed is more vital. We also need more social support systems that will make their living alone easier and do much for their self-esteem in their autumn years. The numbers of ageing people having to or wishing to stay alone will only rise over the years. It is time our society gears up for it.

World without women

Source: The Hindu

Women are being bought as “wives” in certain States because sex-selection has ensured that few local women are available.
Photo: Vivek Bendre

A life of toil: Deep set prejudices against women refuse to go away.
In the late 1980s, when we had the first indications that technology was being used to ensure that girls were not born, a few people made rather prescient predictions about the future. They predicted that women would face much greater violence. They suggested that women would be trafficked.

These campaigners against sex-selective abortions were condemned as scare-mongerers. They were told they were exaggerating to make a point. Fewer women would mean a greater demand for them. That instead of dowry, women could demand a higher price for marriage.

Realities now

We know now that the opposite has happened. Many of the dire predictions made in the 1980s are coming true. In the States where sex selection is most rampant, there are entire villages where the men cannot find women to marry. So they are “buying” women from other States. And in some instances, where the family can afford to buy just one woman, she is expected to “service” all the men in the family.

An increasing number of studies and reports are now revealing that this is happening not just in Punjab and Haryana, the States with the worst sex ratios but also in some districts of Uttar Pradesh. It is possible that such incidents could be occurring in other States as well but have not yet been reported.

The 2001 census was a wake-up call. It exposed the damning Indian reality of falling sex ratios in the 0-6 years age group. The national average stood at 927 girls to 1,000 boys. Since then some efforts have been put in place to implement the law to check sex-selective abortions and to encourage parents with girls. But clearly, so far, the impact of such policies has not made a difference. The Third National Family Health Survey has revealed that five years later, the sex ratio in the age group has fallen to 918.

Meanwhile, according to recent reports, in villages in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, women are being sold as “wives” for as little as Rs. 3,000. Impoverished women from Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa and Jharkhand are finding themselves in households where they do not speak the same language as their “husbands” who have paid for them. They are expected to clean, cook and procreate. Ideally, they should bear boys. If they have girls, they have several reasons to worry. For one, girls in these villages are unwelcome. Second, in villages full of men, many of who cannot find women to marry, girls are unsafe. They cannot be sent out of the house alone. And even within the household, they have to be protected.

In some villages in Punjab, however, all the men in a household have access to the bought bride. She has no choice. Even if she is married to one brother, she must be available to all the other brothers in the house. Thus, polyandry exists, particularly in poor households where only one man can “buy” a wife. Studies suggest that this is happening in the cotton growing districts of the State. Once prosperous, crop failures have led to an acute economic crisis for many farming families. Suicides have been reported similar to those witnessed in Vidarbha and Andhra Pradesh. Sex selection has ensured that there are too few local women available. And poverty has dictated that only those with money can “buy” a woman.


How ironical it is that just when Indians are patting themselves on the back on having the richest man in the world in their midst, when the middle classes are celebrating the rising stock market, when the media is openly promoting two Bollywood blockbusters as if they were essential news, girls are being killed, women are being bought and girls and women have to fear for their lives in many parts of this country. This reality should cancel out the euphoria. But it barely makes a dent. It touches our consciences for a moment and then recedes.

What should be done? In the States where the trend of eliminating girls has reached its peak, there is a social emergency. It must be tackled on all fronts. It should be a high priority not just for those State governments but also for the country. For, what happens in Punjab, Haryana and UP today could take place in any other part of India tomorrow.

But more than enforcing laws, and making sure they are effective, we have to work harder on the more intangible and deeper problem of prejudice and perceptions. Some believe that we will be a less biased society, and that caste, gender and communal divisions will be flattened out as we become more prosperous. Yet, sex selection has clearly shown that prosperity enhances and deepens inherent prejudices and provides the resources to act upon them. It is no coincidence that the most prosperous districts have the lowest sex ratios.

Changing perceptions

Can the media do anything to change perceptions? To some extent it can, although the reasons for son-preference are complex. A recent survey of advertisements, for instance, revealed that the majority of ads using a popular icon, like a sports personality or a film star to endorse a product, used little boys. These boys were not chosen on the basis of their looks. They had to be “cute” and “smart”. On the other hand, when little girls appeared in ads, they had to be pretty. You could not find a dark girl or a plump girl in any ad. Furthermore, most family images comprised man, woman, boy or man, woman, boy and girl. Rarely did you see a family with just one girl, or with two girls.

These are subtle normative messages that sit on top of accepted perceptions and reinforce them. You can never prove this because it is imperceptible. But if we have to change perceptions, or at least believe we should, then a deliberate attempt has to be made not to reflect popular perceptions but to try and alter them in some way.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Donate rice using your vocab. Amazing site!

Here is a site that tests your vocabulary and for each correct answer for the meaning of the each word.

Check it out:

Saturday, November 03, 2007

'Sound of bat hitting ball is still a special feeling'

Sachin Tendulkar has dismissed speculation that he is thinking of retiring from one-day cricket or cutting down on the amount of ODIs to ensure a longer Test career. In an interview with the Times of India, the 34-year-old Tendulkar discussed a number of issues, from the challenges ahead against Pakistan and Australia to a look at his own fitness and form.

On the question of quitting the one-day game, Tendulkar was emphatic he had no such plans. "I have honestly not thought about the fact that I only need to play one version of the game to play the other longer. I am enjoying whatever I am doing at the moment. The moment I feel I am not enjoying myself, I will start thinking about it.

"I think I still like to do a lot of things on the cricket field. When I am bowling, I would want to do something more, surprise the batsman, beat him with a little bit of extra seam or some spin or whatever I am doing. That excitement is something else. Even today when I do that I feel happy. When you hit a cover drive, a straight drive or a cut, the feeling touches your soul. The sound of bat hitting the ball, even hitting it exactly where you want to do it, those feelings are special. I enjoy that feeling, I live for it."

Plenty has been written about his inability to dominate attacks in the last few years, but Tendulkar saw it differently, saying he is now more adept at shaping his game according to the needs of the situation.

"My batting has changed for the good, I would like to believe. I won't be able to pinpoint but I know when I go out in the middle now I do things a little differently, things I was not able to do earlier. You continue to raise that bar, to get better. I definitely feel there have been a lot of changes; my shot-selection has improved, I have more options now. If somebody is bowling a particular ball, maybe earlier I had only one or two options; now I may have four or even five options. And I am able to pick the best option for that particular moment and I go for it."

He also spoke at length about his battles with James Anderson and Ryan Sidebottom during the Tests against England earlier this year to illustrate the fact that he had improved in his ability to mould his batting to suit the needs of the team.

"I thought on both the occasions I went in to bat at the most crucial moments in the Test matches," he said. In the second match at Old Trafford, Tendulkar overcame a terrific spell by Sidebottom, getting beaten several times and hardly scoring a run off him. "If I had lost my wicket at that stage, we would have been on the back foot. Even the result might have been different. I am not saying the batsmen behind me would not have done the job, but we would have been under more pressure. At that particular stage it was important that we didn't lose any wicket. Just play out that spell and gradually start building our innings again." Tendulkar finally fell for 91, but by then India were in command at 342 for 4, and a platform had been set for a huge first-innings lead.

Sachin Tendulkar avoids yet another bouncer on the first day of the Oval Test © Getty Images
In the next game, at The Oval, Anderson tested him with several short deliveries on the first day but Tendulkar refused to be baited into playing the pull or hook and instead took several blows to his body. "That evening spell [by Anderson] was very crucial. I thought if I could just hang in there it would put us in a better position.

"[The body blows] were all intentional. I though that was the best way of playing at that point. He was trying to intimidate me and I said fine, 'try it as long as you want'. I had basically used a different technique, a different approach to overcome it. I don't know how to express this but I was like 'if you are going to do this I will handle it like this'.

Tendulkar also explained why he didn't try to hook. "They had fielders there for that specific shot and if I mistimed even one shot they would have been successful in their plan. And I wasn't going to let that happen. Here it is not a battle between Anderson and me; it is about the team. I was looking at the big picture all the time. I knew he won't be able to go on and on with that line and length. And that's exactly how it worked out. Later on when the other batters came on, the pressure had eased out.

"Probably ten years ago I would have played my strokes, tried to dominate. I didn't mind not doing it that time." Anderson did eventually dismiss Tendulkar, but not before he had made 82 and put India on the road for a sizeable first-innings total.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Are film critics 'retards'?

I was reading the other day that Aishwarya Rai, now busy being the 'pink' in the Pink Panther franchise's next episode, was feeling particularly lonely (She must be missing all those sycophants who cluster around stars on a Bollywood set, maybe?).

So, lo, hubby Abhishek and saas Jaya Bachchan rushed post-haste to be with the poor lonely darling, thus providing us with an invaluable example of what 'family values' is all about (You never know, Karan Johar just might use this as the peg for his next film, if he can think of a title in four words each of which begins with K).
Here's the funny thing, though -- this is a family that, loudly and often, values its privacy. The senior Bachchan not so long ago pleaded with the media to stop 'hounding' the family. So where did this story, and similar other recent tidbits about life chez the Bachchans, come from?

Could it be an enterprising reporter keeping vigil at Sahar International, waiting to see which star family is flying off where, and for why? Or could it be inspired plants by the family seeking to give its golden hue another touch of the gilding brush?

You tell me. Meanwhile, let's get off this boring topic, and move to an infuriating one.

During the 'word association' segment of one of those 'rapid fire' things on Koffee With Karan not so long ago the host tossed this word out: Critics.

Pat came the answer, from guest Farah Khan: 'Retards'.

I had always imagined it was impossible for a person to be asinine and arrogant at the same time, until I saw that segment; the guffaws that greeted the answer only underlined the enormity of the egoistic bubble Bollywood's movers and shakers have enclosed themselves in.

'Retard' is not a word you would use today in polite conversation even if you were in fact referring to someone who was mentally challenged; to use that word to describe a sub-group of journalists who are doing their job the best they know how merely demonstrates Khan's lack of class and breeding.

Farah Khan, Deepika Padukone, SRK and Karan Johar in Koffee With KaranTangentially, I was much taken by Shah Rukh Khan's more nuanced response: Critics have made me who and what I am, and therefore I think it is fair to take the good with the bad, he said, and with that statement, he in my mind wiped out the negative vibes of a decade of acting that was mostly so hammy it belongs between two slices of bread.

Back to Farah Khan and her ilk (when Karan Johar put together a group of hot shot directors and the subject of critics came up, similar sentiments were expressed by two A-list helmers), who think it is uber cool to look down their politically incorrect noses at a group of people who, week in and Friday out, sit in darkened movie theatres, ignoring the growing pain in the butt, watching the week's release and most times, trying to say in 800 polite words what the average fan would say in two:

'This sucks!'

(In passing, any and all of these directors will happily take a review that reads 'This is the absolutely worst movie of the year', and reproduce it on their publicity posters as 'Movie of the year: Media!!!'; apparently even the best of directors need these 'retards' to con their audiences).

More recently, a columnist for a Mumbai tabloid, writing against the backdrop of the universal panning Ram Gopal Varma attracted for his Aaargh!, suggested in all seriousness that critics should enroll for a three-year course in film, before putting finger to keyboard.

Apparently, he was inspired to this effort after Jaya Bachchan called him to say critics were being unnecessarily brutal about the film -- never mind that the lady had, from the time Ramu announced his project, been sniping at it endlessly and had said, even in the run up to the release, that Sholay should never be remade.

Significantly, the columnist doesn't mention that maybe Bollywood's directors, who spend unnumbered millions turning out, for the most part, turkeys, could benefit from such a course too.

So, to the question: are critics really what Farah Khan said they were?

You likely have your answer; mine is no, not really -- they are merely, for the most part, intellectually lazy.

Week after week, they paint their pieces by the numbers: Describe plotline; say a few polite words about the male and female leads (or impolite words, if said stars are not A-listers); toss off a few adjectives about cinematography and music ('evocative' is the adjective du jour -- 'evocative cinematography' sounds very impressive, and tells you nothing at all) and 'either rag or fawn on the director, depending on whether he is part of that select group that can do no wrong or not.

If you want to sound particularly erudite, you toss in something on the lines of 'The editing was a touch too jerky in places, and could have been tighter' which is as insightful as my horoscope for the day, which says 'You will be confronted by much work (No shit?!), but since Mars is in Venus, you will bring your natural abilities to doing it well.'

It's a great gig if you get it; you get free tickets for previews, you get wined and dined by the movie-makers, some even get envelopes that help pay off another installment of that 'home loan' and, since an award in this category has to be given out annually and there are only a dozen or so critics around, someday soon you could end up with a 'Best Film Critic' national award on your mantelpiece.

And then there are a few critics, from the younger lot, who bring sense, and a measure of cinematic sensibility, to their writing; guys like Mayank Shekhar, Baradwaj Rangan (who won the best critic award this year and actually deserved it, unlike some names I could mention from the past but won't), and Rediff's Raja Sen the only critic I know who has an 'I hate Raja Sen' community on Orkut. (Apparently this community is so large, and growing at such frantic pace, that it is helping Orkut stave off stiff competition from Facebook for the most number of enrolled Indians).

MementoI don't agree with everything these guys write, but when it comes to opinion, each is permitted his own. For instance, I spent part of this weekend watching, with considerable pain, a Memento rip-off by Tamil director Murugadas, called Gajini.

When it was released the critics raved, the masses loved it, and it went on to become an enormous hit; Aamir Khan, our very own Robert de Niro wannabe, is currently busy making the Hindi version with the same director. And -- at risk of being flamed -- I absolutely hated the film.

Movies are largely a matter of personal taste. So, no, I don't agree with every review these guys write, and likely you won't either -- but the point is, their writings are informed by a sense of cinema's aesthetic; an appreciation of the finer points of the craft.

That is all you should reasonably expect from a critic; that, plus an ability to constructively argue their opinions through.

Which brings me to why I called critics -- barring a few honorable exceptions -- lazy: they don't read.

A good friend, who happens to be one of the top technicians in the business, and I were once arguing about a film he had worked on. At one point, he suggested that before I started tossing off criticism on camera work, which is what I was inundating him with at the time, I should take the trouble to read Daniel Arijon's The Grammar of the Film Language.

He couriered me his personal copy, enhanced with considerable marginal notes. I have since bought my own copy -- it is a brilliant guide to the many techniques of visual narration.

Among dozens of other books I read since then -- books that created a greater awareness of, and appreciation for, the magic of movies -- I'd recommend Timothy Corrigan's A Short Guide to Writing About Film; Syd Field's Screenplay and, in fact, all the books by him including the latest, Going to the Movies; and Story, by the iconic Robert McKee (I once attended one day of his three-day seminar on the art of storytelling; it was both magical, and brutal but more on that another day).

I don't subscribe to the view of the columnist cited earlier, that critics need to have taken three-year courses in film. But I do believe that critics owe it to themselves, and to the public, to better inform themselves about the nuances of the art form they bang on about each weekend.

I believe they need to work on developing a cinematic sensibility of their own and, with it, an articulate, intelligent voice.

And if they can do that, the rewards are enormous.

You know those lists Forbes magazine constantly puts out, like World's Richest, World's Billionaires and such? Recently, the magazine on the basis of an exhaustive poll put out the list of the United States' Top Ten Pundits.

The list is dominated by political opinion makers ranging from Bill Maher and Al Franken on the left to Bill O'Reilly on the right, Rosie O'Donnell on the lunatic fringe, and Geraldo Rivera in between. Greta Van Santeran, the legal pundit who deserves to be known for her coverage of the OJ Simpson trial but is more famed for the plastic surgery she went in for after landing a gig with Fox News; Lou Dobbs, the business guru who these last few years has concentrated on bagging outsourcing; and former basketball star turned sports pundit Bill Walton all earn high praise.

Here, though, is the surprise: movie critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times is the astonishing entry at number one; Leonard Matlin, whose movie guides you are constantly tripping over on the pavements outside Churchgate station, also makes the list at number seven.

Think on that: a movie reviewer polling tops in a list of America's most influential opinion makers, beating out an A-list of political commentators in a country where political punditry dominates, even monopolizes, the public consciousness.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

RGV on Aag's failure

Were do you think you went wrong with Aag?
I did go wrong. The one person I must have made supremely happy is Ramesh Sippy. I’m very happy to make him happy because he made my life. I saw Sippy’s Sholay again last night. It’s fantastic. I must’ve been nuts to attempt it.

All my impressions of Sholay over the years went into Aag. Now I ask myself, if someone else had made Aag and I as a fan of Sholay went to see Aag, how would I react? I’d probably hate Aag as much as pople have hated it. The original is too deeply embedded in the public’s psyche.

Were you at all preprared for the severe backlash?
Can’t say it was entirely unexpected. When you attempt to remake the most revered film in the history of Indian cinema you’re going into the realm of the sacrilegous. Everyone from friends to well-wishers to people who didn’t care a damn either way warned me I was heading for trouble.

Irrespective of whether the film was good or bad I was expecting extreme criticism. But I was not expecting such a low opening for the film.Whether it was because of the title or because of the film’s look, I don’t know.

People felt the film was looking very 1970s

But I wanted to make a 1970s film! So one way of looking at it as a homage to the decade. The other way is to see it as outdated. It’s a question of perception.

Aag is your career’s most vilified and ridiculed film.
I’d think so. The baggage of expectations was too high. The brickbats were a part of what people see as this upstart trying to tamper with a classic. The backlash isn’t personal. Sometimes the criticism against some film begins and rises in a wave, all in one voice. I don’t think people sat down and conspired to trash the film.

What according to you is the reason for the backlash?
They hate my guts for having the audacity to attempt to remake Sholay. But I’m used to be hated for what I do. Only this time the volume of protests is higher.

What do you mean?
They keep ridiculing me for everything I do. Everyone has a mind and tongue and the right to use them. I think it’s human pleasure to attack others. No one has the time to be personal.

What about the SMS that said you should learn filmmaking from your former assistants Madhur Bhandarkar and Shimit Amin?
We all have an opinion on everything under the sun. If somebody feels I should learn filmmaking they’re right in their own way. When Kissna failed they said Subhash Ghai should enroll in his own film institute. Ridiculing people is a form of entertainment.

At least I’m entertaining people more with their comments on Aag than I did with the film. They should at least thank me for that and give me a 5-star rating for providing post-release entertainment.

Maybe the volume of work goes against you.
I don’t agree with that. I don’t do anything but make films. And I can’t take a break from what I do just because people want me to make less films.

In any case I don’t think people care if I make 2 or 20 films a year as long as they like what they see, And who knows what will click? When I made Satya it was meant to be a no-show film with newcomers and a non-recognizable hero with a beard.

Then I made Daud with Sanjay Dutt and Urmila which was supposed to be a sure-shot. It bombed. I put in the same effort in every film. If I knew a film wouldn’t work am I a madman to make it?

But people feel Aag was a careless work?
That’s again a viewpoint. My intention was re-do the original without tampering with the spirit of Sholay. Now take Mohanlal. I had him with a beard all through because my logic was, how can a man without fingers shave? Then people say Mohanlal looks like a bear with the beard! Now what do I do?

As for Mr Bachchan as Babban, I wanted it to be low-profile. People found him inert and unenergetic. Let me clear this. Every actor has done exactly what he or she was told to.

If Mr Bachchan’s performance was found to be inconsistent it’s because through his character I tried to pay a homage to all the villains I know from Mad Max to Gabbar Singh to Anthony Hopkins in The Silence Of The Lambs to Jack Nicholson in Batman.

I was too busy enjoying Mr Bachchan’s performance on sets. I lost track of the character’s consistency in the film.

So you take full blame?
Yes. I take blame for every actor, camereman, dialogue writer,etc. They did what I asked them to. I kept on insisting Aag was a formula film. I never said I was making a classic. But I guess no one was listening. Right from the word go my Sholay was jinxed.

From the court cases to the title change…. Once I got caught in the process of separating the legal matters from the film I was jacked. See I’m a genre filmmaker. Sholay is not a genre. I was trying to artificially capture what didn’t come naturally to me. I got confused.So obviously it wouldn’t work.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Oscar the cat predicts patients' deaths

Source: Yahoo news

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Oscar the cat seems to have an uncanny knack for predicting when nursing home patients are going to die, by curling up next to them during their final hours. His accuracy, observed in 25 cases, has led the staff to call family members once he has chosen someone. It usually means they have less than four hours to live.

"He doesn't make too many mistakes. He seems to understand when patients are about to die," said Dr. David Dosa in an interview. He describes the phenomenon in a poignant essay in Thursday's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

"Many family members take some solace from it. They appreciate the companionship that the cat provides for their dying loved one," said Dosa, a geriatrician and assistant professor of medicine at Brown University.

The 2-year-old feline was adopted as a kitten and grew up in a third-floor dementia unit at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. The facility treats people with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease and other illnesses.

After about six months, the staff noticed Oscar would make his own rounds, just like the doctors and nurses. He'd sniff and observe patients, then sit beside people who would wind up dying in a few hours.

Dosa said Oscar seems to take his work seriously and is generally aloof. "This is not a cat that's friendly to people," he said.

Oscar is better at predicting death than the people who work there, said Dr. Joan Teno of Brown University, who treats patients at the nursing home and is an expert on care for the terminally ill

She was convinced of Oscar's talent when he made his 13th correct call. While observing one patient, Teno said she noticed the woman wasn't eating, was breathing with difficulty and that her legs had a bluish tinge, signs that often mean death is near.

Oscar wouldn't stay inside the room though, so Teno thought his streak was broken. Instead, it turned out the doctor's prediction was roughly 10 hours too early. Sure enough, during the patient's final two hours, nurses told Teno that Oscar joined the woman at her bedside.

Doctors say most of the people who get a visit from the sweet-faced, gray-and-white cat are so ill they probably don't know he's there, so patients aren't aware he's a harbinger of death. Most families are grateful for the advanced warning, although one wanted Oscar out of the room while a family member died. When Oscar is put outside, he paces and meows his displeasure.

No one's certain if Oscar's behavior is scientifically significant or points to a cause. Teno wonders if the cat notices telltale scents or reads something into the behavior of the nurses who raised him.

Nicholas Dodman, who directs an animal behavioral clinic at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and has read Dosa's article, said the only way to know is to carefully document how Oscar divides his time between the living and dying.

If Oscar really is a furry grim reaper, it's also possible his behavior could be driven by self-centered pleasures like a heated blanket placed on a dying person, Dodman said.

Nursing home staffers aren't concerned with explaining Oscar, so long as he gives families a better chance at saying goodbye to the dying.

Oscar recently received a wall plaque publicly commending his "compassionate hospice care."

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Pamela Mountbatten on the Jawaharlal-Edwina relationship

Source: The Hindu

In the first interview given by any member of the Mountbatten family on the relationship between Lady Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, Lady Pamela Hicks, Earl Mountbatten’s youngest daughter, has said she does not believe Nehru and Lady Mountbatten had a sexual relationship but added “maybe everybody will think I’m being very na├»ve.” In an interview to the CNN-IBN programme Devil’s Advocate to mark the publication of her book (co-authored with her daughter India Hicks), India Remembered: A Personal Account of the Mountbattens during the Transfer of Power (Pavilion Books, London 2007), Lady Pamela spoke at length about the Edwina-Nehru relationship. Excerpts from the int


Lady Pamela Mountbatten, with her parents, bidding good-bye to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, in New Delhi.

Karan Thapar: In your introduction [to the book] you write: “towards the end of the fifteen months we spent in India, the immediate attraction between my mother and Panditji blossomed into love.” What do you mean by love?

Lady Pamela: I mean a very deep love. The kind of love that the old knights of old [had], a chivalric love really … Nowadays everybody assumes that it has to be a carnal love, but you can have just as deep an emotional love with two like souls in a way, people who really grow to understand each other, and to be able to listen to each other and to complement each other and find solace in each other.

In your book you write: “my mother had already had lovers, my father was inured to it” but then you add, “the relationship with Nehru remained platonic.” Can you be really sure of that?

I was with them most of the time. We called it a gooseberry. It was very awkward for them, you know, if I was around the whole time. I would say yes, anyway Nehru was a very honourable man who liked my father. There was a great affection between the two. It was nearly always in my father’s houses either in England or in India that they were together, and I think he would have never dishonoured his friends, you know.

But you know at the time, and even afterwards, people have speculated about it to say that the friendship went a lot further. Did this speculation hurt your father? Did he ever object to the fact that he must have known behind his back people were joking possibly about the Viceroy being cuckolded?

I think it shows what confidence he had and how he was correct in that. My mother died in Borneo, working for Save the Children Fund and St. John Ambulance Brigade, and she died suddenly in the middle of her work. On her bedside table was a packet of Panditji’s letters. In her will we found she had left the whole collection of letters to my father and they were an enormous number — there were suitcases full of these letters. He asked me to read them. He said he was ninety nine percent sure there was nothing that would wound him or worry him or diminish him in any way. But there was just that one per cent of doubt fluttering in his heart and he said, ‘darling will you read them first?’ So I read them and they were wonderful letters — nothing at all that would have distressed my father.

Were you at all apprehensive? Did you as a daughter think, maybe, there’d be a sentence, a stray phrase that might give the game away?

No, I didn’t. Because I didn’t really attach the sexual importance to the whole affair that other people did. To me they were two amazing people whose place in history was considerable. What they did, I thought that was the important thing about them. And I loved them both very much, and I wasn’t particularly interested if they were tumbling around in bed together. And I was certain they weren’t

In a letter you quote in your book, he [Lord Mountbatten] wrote to your sister Patricia: “she,” meaning Edwina, “and Jawaharlal are so sweet together. They really dote on each other. Pammy and I are doing everything we can to be tactful and helpful.” Was it easy to be as tactful as he makes it seem? It couldn’t have been quite that easy?

Yes, very easy indeed. We just had to go out of the room!

So there were moments when he felt ‘I ought to just leave them alone’?

Yes, but they were both fully dressed sitting on a sofa in the study or something.

There was no tinge of jealousy or perhaps of hurt emotion?

No, because I think he trusted them both. And also, my mother was so happy with Jawaharlal, she knew she was helping him at a time when it’s very lonely at the pinnacle of power. It really is. And if she could help, and my father knew that it helped her, because a woman can, after a long marriage, and they’d been over twenty five years together, a woman can feel perhaps frustrated, and perhaps neglected if somebody’s working terribly hard. And so if a new affection comes into her life, a new admiration, she blossoms and she’s happy.

So both of them, in a sense, fulfilled a need — both Jawaharlal and Edwina needed each other.

I think they did, and my father understood that need and of course it made my mother, who could be quite difficult at times, as many very extraordinary women can be … and yet when she was so happy with everybody, it was lovely to be with her. There were no prickles.

You have a lovely phrase in your book: “there existed a happy threesome based on some firm understanding on all sides.” What was the firm understanding, not to probe too deeply?

No, I think that there were no doubts. That my father was convinced that it was just a friendship. That they would like to talk together and be together, and he was convinced that was all it was. I was certainly convinced that was all it was.

Much of this friendship and affection, much of this relationship, actually lived its way in the letters they wrote each other. You reveal in your book that Pandit Nehru wrote to your mother practically every night at 2 o’ clock.

They would have an endearment to begin with and, sadly always, [they would say] that they were missing each other so much. They wouldn’t see each other for six months at a time. And then probably they only saw each other twice in a year.

There is a particular letter that Panditji wrote to your mother, where it seems quite obvious to anyone that he’s just completely bowled over. He writes: “suddenly I realise that there was a deeper attachment between us, that some uncontrollable force drew us to one another.” Was he in a sense more in love, because he was a lonely man, than your mother maybe?

No, I don’t think so. But again I think he is talking about the emotional more than the physical. I think suddenly they’ve realised that they were two souls together. Not necessarily two bodies together.

So all the speculation that there was a physical side is, in fact, unfair?

Yes. I don’t understand this obsession that people who have a deep emotion with each other must immediately have a physical relationship … These were two very unusual people.

But Panditji was a widower, he needed female affection. Your mother was alluring and beautiful. They were so close to each other. It would be natural for the emotional to become sexual.

It could be, and maybe everybody will think I’m being very naive, but the fact that she had had lovers in the past, somehow this was so different, it really was. And the letters, I mean if you were deeply, physically in love, your whole letter would be about the other person and your need of them physically, and it would be that kind of love letter. These letters had an opening paragraph of tenderness, and the end would be also tender and romantic and nice like that, but three quarters of the letter was unburdening himself of all his worries and his disappointments or his hopes and all his idealism coming out for the extraordinary time of India at her rebirth in history and it is the history of India as an independent nation.

Panditji would not hurt his friend?

I think so. Panditji was a very honourable man.

There is another aspect of this relationship that you refer to in your book. You say that the Edwina-Nehru relationship was also of use to your father as Viceroy. That he often appealed to Panditji through the influence your mother had. And that this was particularly useful handling tricky situations like Kashmir.

That is true, and he did use her like that. But he certainly wasn’t going to throw her, he didn’t say to her ‘go and become the Prime Minister’s lover, because I need you to intercede!’ It was a by-product of this deep affection.

He realised there was an emotional relationship he could use for the betterment of everyone?


Many people in India believe that the decision Jawaharlal Nehru took to refer Kashmir to the United Nations was taken under your father’s advice. Could that have been an area where your mother’s influence would have been particularly useful?

I think it could have been well. Because Panditji being a Kashmiri, of course, inevitably the emotional side comes in from one’s own country, doesn’t it? And my father, just in dry conversation, mightn’t have been able to get his viewpoint over. But with my mother translating it for Panditji and appealing to his heart more than his mind … that he should really behave like this. I think probably that did happen.

So in a very interesting sense, Panditji had a love in your mother, and your father had a bit of influence through your mother on Panditji.

Yes, I think so. But the important outcome of it all was really for the good of India … Panditji was a real statesman, it never occurred to him to make anything out of his position. He never made money out of it. He was the real idealist, for the good of India, always.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

US Senate opens with Hindu prayer

Source: Rediff

History was created in the United States Senate at 9.30 am on Thursday, when Rajan Zed, the Hindu chaplain of the Indian Association of Northern Nevada, opened the Senate with a Hindu prayer.

This is the first such instance since the formation of the powerful Upper House in 1979.

A few Christian fundamentalists protested and began screaming, while holding the Bible aloft, "Lord Jesus, protect us from this abomination."

Officers from the Sergeant of Arms' office ejected one after the other (three were taken away) from the Senate gallery which looks down on the floor.

The president pro-tem of the Senate, had to beat the podium with his gavel thrice. He requested Zed to halt his prayer just as he was about to begin, and called on the Sergeant of Arms to restore order in the Senate Chamber.

A Senate aide said these people probably had gotten visitor's passes to the Senate gallery through a Senator's office and noted that "disrupting a Senate in the chamber is a criminal offense and they can be arrested."

A few minutes later, Zed delivered his prayer which took no more than 90 seconds, which as per the instructions from the Office of the Chaplain of the Senate had to be delivered exclusively and entirely in English.

"Let us pray," Zed began, "We meditate on the transcendental glory of the deity supreme, who is inside the heart of the earth, inside the life of the sky and inside the soul of heaven. May he stimulate and illuminate our minds.

"Lead us from the unreal to real, from darkness to light, and from death to immortality. May we be protected together. May we be nourished together. May we work together with great vigor. May our study be enlightening. May no obstacle arise between us."

Seeking the blessings of god on behalf of and for the Senators, Zed declared, "May the Senators strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world, performing their duties with the welfare of others always in mind. Because by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. May they work carefully and wisely, guided by compassion, and without though for themselves."

"United your resolve, united your hearts, may your spirits be at one, that you may long dwell in unity and concord!" he added, and ended with, "Peace, peace, peace be unto all."

Before stepping away from the podium, Zed also said, "And, Lord, we ask you to comfort the family of former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson," wife of the former and late President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who died at age 94.

Speaking to immediately after he delivered the prayer, Zed said, "I sprinkled some Ganga jal -- the water from the Holy Ganges on the podium before the prayer."

He also bemoaned the protests, saying, "I believe dialogue is always better," and profusely thanked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who had arranged for him to deliver the first Hindu prayer in the US Senate.

"The Senator was a very courageous man for standing up and giving us this opportunity. He was very courageous and I appreciate what he did very much," he said.

A few minutes later, when this correspondent accompanied Zed, his wife, Shipa, and four of his friends from Virginia, who were the only Indians present in the gallery to witness this historic chapter in the US Senate, to Reid's office, Zed told Reid, "We appreciate your courage, you stood up to them. We appreciate it very much that you went through with it."

Reid, seeing the conspicuous tilak of Zed's forehead, asked him what it was about, and the latter, who was wearing the saffron robes synonymous with Hindu priests, explained that it is a sign of auspiciousness.

Earlier, before the prayer, Reid told, "There has been some criticism that I arranged this, which is true."

Asked if these protests were from other denominations, Reid said, "From other people," and noted, "The Senate Chaplain's office got hundreds of people protesting, by phone, mail and e-mail for allowing this."

But he asserted: "It shows what America is all about. Having real big arms to put around everyone and this is a religion that has been around a long time, which has brought peace and contentment to people over the generations and we are happy to have a (Hindu) prayer."

Before the prayer, Zed told he felt honored, humbled and thrilled that he was creating history. "It's a great honor for me, my family, for the great state of Nevada, for all Americans and for us all Hindus. It's is indeed a historic occasion for all of us Indian-Americans also."

Zed said the fact that a Hindu prayer was opening the US Senate for the first time, was a clear indication that there is an acceptance of Hinduism as part of America today. "Slowly we are becoming mainstream. Yoga is very popular already, and through yoga in America, Hinduism is becoming more known. I teach Hinduism classes also in the community colleges (in Reno, Nevada) and I get a very favorable reception."

Each day, when the Senate is in session, the Senate chaplain delivers the opening prayer, before the Senate gets down to the business of lawmaking, which it shares with the US House of Representatives, but occasionally, on the urging of one community of another, particularly those from minority religions, guest chaplains are invited from across the country to deliver a prayer from their faith.

Zed, an alumnus of the Panjab University, from where he received his bachelor of journalism degree, is also the public relations office of the India Association of North Nevada.

After coming to the US for higher studies, Zed received his master of science and master of business administration from San Jose State University in California and the University of Nevada, Reno, respectively.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Any takers for serious cinema?

Source: The Hindu

Struggle for space: Stills from Shyam Benegal’s “Ankur.

Popular director Anil Sharma, whose high-profile “Apne” was released recently to a fine reception, is a touch disappointed these days. His first, and arguably the finest film, “Shradhanjali” has found no takers. Much like Prak ash Jha’s “Damul” and “Hip Hip Hurray”.

Sharma laments, “TV satellite channels do not show ‘Shradhanjali’. They show what sells. They are ready to screen ‘Gadar’ and ‘The Hero’ 100 times but not my first film, which is also my best.” “Apne” was in great demand from channels even before the release.

No takers

Jha, who has also made a neat switchover to popular cinema with films like “Gangajal” and “Apaharan”, says, “There are no takers for serious cinema on television. The market is determining the choice. Nobody is interested in ‘Hip Hip…’ anymore. They want ‘Gangajal’. I am designing films that sell in the market. If I don’t texture a film according to the market, it won’t sell.”

He should know. While his films like “Damul” and “Hip Hip…” have struggled to find takers among the private channels, “Gangajal” and “Apaharan” have raked in more on the small screen than all his previous films combined.

It is not a surprise. Nor are Jha and Sharma without company. Govind Nihalani’s timeless classic “Ardh Satya” lies unsold as does his sci-fi venture “Deham”. Nihalani, whose “Takshak” and “Dev” (starring popular actors like Ajay Devgan and Amitabh Bachchan) have been shown repeatedly on TV, explains, “When films like ‘Ardh Satya’ were made, this kind of cinema had to fight for time then too.”

Yes, the small screen continues to ignore the works of the finest craftsmen of parallel cinema. Never far from being models of anonymity, serious filmmakers have failed to make the cut with TRP-driven satellite channels. Ironically, the stakes have seldom been higher for major players in the Hindi film world and the losses steeper for lovers of serious cinema.

At a time when major box office hits like “Rang De Basanti”, “Lage Raho Munna Bhai”, “Krrish”, “Dhoom-2”, “Phir Hera Pheri”, “Umrao Jaan” and “Don” have been lapped up for television screenings at whopping sums going up to Rs.15 crore, no channel is ready to push the envelope for serious cinema. Result? Parallel cinema is dying a second death.

Having lost out in the box office popularity stakes, worthies like Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen, Goutam Ghose, Kalpana Lajmi and others are being given the cold shoulder by satellite channels too. Almost all the movie channels including Set Max, Zee Cinema, B4U and Filmy show four films a day, but on a “safe average only about six parallel cinema films” a month.

At times less, coming down to as little as two out of 120 films a month. Interestingly, unreleased entertainers like “Partner” and “No Smoking” with popular stars have already been bought by various channels!

As Filmy’s Ashutosh says, “We don’t have the luxury of waiting to know the film’s box office fate.” The channels are ready to shell out up to Rs.30 crore for a Yash Raj bouquet, but will not stake even a fraction of that for parallel cinema. Even box office duds like “Raja ki Aayegi Barat” (one of Rani Mukherji’s early films) or “Janani” (a Bhagyashri-starrer that was taken off some theatres on the third day of its release) are preferred to classics like “Ankur”, “Bhumika”, “Mrigaya”, “Manthan”, “Saaransh”, “Katha”, “Ek Pal” or “Nishant”.

No wonder Kalpana Lajmi, who has directed films like “Ek Pal” and “Darmiyaan”, rues, “The channels only want films of the last five years. I am known to the new generation by some of my weaker films. Even I cannot see my favourite films like ‘Ek Pal’ on television anymore. The classics are lost.”

Only economics

Mahesh Bhatt, who started his career with films like “Arth” and “Saaransh” before being associated with the likes of “Murder” and “Zeher”, says “Contrary to the assumption that people want good cinema, they don’t. Even if they get it for free, they don’t watch it. Even Doordarshan, where profit is not the main motive, does not want art house cinema. It is a battle for the eyeballs, a battle for bums on the seat. It is pure and simple economics, no art.”

He reveals that the contract of his National Award winning “Zakhm” was not revived with Zee because it had exhausted its possibilities. “Zee found it too gloomy. The film in the first run on TV had exhausted its potential audience. Channels are petrified of losing their audience. When TV runs short of icons, it manufactures them.”

Not excluding himself, Bhatt says “You have to put up with potboilers on television today because even the filmmaker who made ‘Saaransh’ yesterday makes ‘Murder’ and ‘Jism’ today.” Incidentally, “Jism” got Star very good ratings!

What is worse, the channels plan special festivals of the films of Amitabh Bachchan —Zee cinema had Bachchan’s ‘Navarasa’ in April-May this year and around the same time Set Max had ‘Ab Tak Bachchan’ — Madhuri Dixit, Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit, Govinda and Akshay Kumar... But never is a festival of Shyam Benegal films or Goutam Ghose films planned or shown. And, in a rare case, as in Set Max showing films of Guru Dutt and Benegal, the films are dumped in the early morning slot, sometimes starting as early as 8.00 a.m. on weekdays. And they are completely off the radar on weekend mornings “as that is a time for family viewing”.

Dhoom 2”.

Nihalani states the obvious, “TV is a very commercial medium. The best time goes to blockbusters. The ‘other’ kind of films are shown according to the channel’s convenience. Often more like a filler.”

Ashutosh admits, “There are not too many art movies on the channel. They don’t work well if you take ratings into account. Ninety per cent of people don’t want them. One has to make the channel work. We are not for classics that don’t sell. It is a battle for the eyeballs. Even popular films like ‘Pakeezah’, ‘Guide’ don’t work.”

Older and cheaper

Set Max’s Sneha Rajani takes the same line. “When one criticises the channels for not showing serious films one must remember their number is smaller too. We have Ghose’s ‘Yatra’ and some of Benegal’s movies like ‘Sardari Begum’ and ‘Kalyug’. We do not have a strict schedule for them but Sunday morning is ruled out for any library movie.”

A library (old film of about 25-30 years) movie is purchased by a channel at less than one/tenth the cost of a blockbuster. The older it gets, the cheaper a movie becomes for channels. Still the best works of Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy hardly make it to the schedules of movie channels. For evidence, just surf the timetables of Set Max, Zee Cinema, B4U, Filmy and others. No movie has made it for screening in May. Even Star Gold that started with the idea of showing yesteryear super hits now plays regular, usually relatively new, movies.

Rajani counters, “When they talk of serious cinema, why only the past? We have shown Aparna Sen’s ‘15 Park Avenue’. I wish the audiences had supported us then.”

Zee Cinema’s Mohan Gopinath, head, marketing and programming, explains, “Case to case, we give recommendations according to the star cast, content, mass appeal, before a movie is selected. For instance we have had hits like ‘Diler’ and ‘Durga’. These films had flopped when they released in cinema halls. Sometime back we did show ‘Ijaazat’. But we normally have late night slot for such films as we have to cater to the larger audience at other times.” As Bhatt puts it, “Everybody talks of good cinema, nobody watches good cinema.”

Meanwhile, the rarely seen Lok Sabha TV is the only exception. Every Saturday evening, the channel is busy showing films like “Ek Doctor ki Maut” and “Pestonjee” at prime time. The films, according to the Executive Producer Vartika Nanda, “get good response from the viewers with a lot of enquiries about the films”.

Each film is introduced by an expert from the field and is ushered with promos played a couple of days before the film’s screening. “We are a low-profile channel. We don’t indulge in mirch masala. We are not in the rat race. We shows films with sub-titling and intend to continue the series over 54 weeks,” adds Nanda.

But is that enough to take on the juggernaut where each offering of Yash Raj Films or Vishesh Films comes with truckloads of advance publicity and a screening schedule more than a month in advance. No guesses needed!

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Fans do not make a following

Source: The Hindu

Photo: M. Periasamy

Spontaneous expression: At a theatre showing “Sivaji”.

A week of cathartic images; fans going delirious, jostling queues, offerings of milk and flowers, NRIs soaking in the fun — the scenes of the first day first show of the film “Sivaji” crammed our television sets. While cameras panne d and mobbed the crowds in Chennai theatres, it remained ignorant of places where there were hardly any such celebrations. A huge billboard of Rajini in front of the Casino theatre in Chennai was the only sign of “Sivaji” being screened there. Otherwise there was hardly any fanfare and certainly no milk was flowing. Casino screened the Telugu version of the film and understandably did not have many takers. It looks that image, even if it is that of Rajini, is still not free from the word. Fans were, after all, not so blind as the television commentators made them out to be. Even if it amounts to two weeks of waiting, they would rather wait than watch a Telugu-speaking Rajini.

Simplistic notions

In one of the television shows, a young film critic from Mumbai simply shrugged his shoulders and declared that the catharsis as seen is nothing new to Tamil films or fans. His casual comments simplistically connected films, fans and politics. Names from Annadurai to Jayalalithaa were thrown in the rings of discussion. The subtext of the conversation was that the film crazy South cannot distinguish fantasy from real life. Things often blur and at times reach the irrational, they said. As the conversations continued, images of people pouring milk and jumping around Rajini’s images were juxtaposed.

For, those who are familiar with Tamil politics and film history would know that one of the biggest flops in politics was Shivaji Ganesan, the thespian. His fan following and box office performances matched that of M.G. Ramachandran, but none of those could be converted to votes. The political party he started quickly folded up. Annadurai, who many think is the architect of the film-politics coalition, lost his second election in Kancheepuram. Not all of MGR’s films did well at the box office. There were a considerable number of flops. Rajinikanth himself had to eat humble pie when he urged voters to vote against a particular party. Fans did not listen to him. Jayalalithaa’s ascent in the party was not instantaneous. Her stint as parliamentarian and propaganda secretary cannot be overlooked. She was also not the immediate successor of MGR. Vijayakanth is still toiling. Sarathkumar, another popular actor, lost elections in Tirunelveli. S.V. Sekhar, a comedian, lost as an independent and BJP candidate but was elected as a member of the Assembly only after he joined AIADMK. He was elected from Mylapore constituency, which many think is a Brahmin stronghold. It was not enough to be an actor, the kind of politics one was part of was more important.

Nature of public spaces

Revelry in theatres is about cultural practices in public spaces. Theatre is not a closed space of performance where one restrains till the end and stands politely and applauds. The audience, be it a vocal performance or a film screening, burst out in appreciation even in the middle of the show as it happens. To express in a spontaneous manner, unbound by the unwritten codes is rather common in popular cultural practices. What was hitherto immanent to people who enjoy the performance has now been showcased as the urban ethnic by television. The ceaseless quest to pick and produce peculiar images masquerades as a discovery of urban culture. The downward gaze conveniently separates the gaiety as an image for circulation while the moorings are overlooked.

Comfortable co-existence

Nothing could be more revealing than the image of the bald and un-shaven Rajini overlapping with the fair and lovely poster picture of him. The fans are comfortable with Rajini as he actually is as well as with the made-up hero screened in the film. The image is not all that overwhelming. They are not suspicious of the image nor consider it manipulative. The fantasy conveniently coexists with the real and the ability to discern and differentiate never vanishes. Suspicion about cinema is age-old and it has always struggled to achieve the status of legitimate spectacle and source of pleasure. When “Sivaji” fans are having simple fun and inventing the theatre space as their own, it can be left to remain just that.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

You must stop drinking wine...

I 've never heard the sparrows sing at 2 am. But those little fluttery things were cheep-cheep-chirruping away on a leafy bough at Chennai's Kodambakkam residence, studio and prayer alcove of A R R. Was the sparrow squad infected by the every day and night music around them? Or was I just hallucinating?

No answer to that one I'm afraid. But after seeing the little big genius work, dream and talk at that address, I feel blessed. Unimagined sounds suddenly reverberate from his mega-synth console, from his sibilant hums as he goes even as his visage becomes more sombre than a magistrate's.

Then the slow-mo coming-out of a near trance and an apologetic, "What do you think?" Before I can utter half a syllable, he's on, "Okay, we'll try something else.. na na na.. hum.. hum.. la la la.. oowaah wooh."

Cross with himself for not hitting the right notes, he taps away at a laptop, either converses too much or not at all.. vanishes for his prayer and returns a new man.

More attempts, more self-dissatisfaction, and all of a sudden at least five variations for a single song are ready, take your pick.

His first version of the devotional song, Piya Haji Ali, was 14-minutes long, edited to a filmable five minute length. He promised to give me the original, hasn't.. yet. Some music, perhaps, he keeps to himself.

Over 15 years, he has preserved his position of India's most creative and ground-breaking music composer. He's been knighted as the Mozart of Asia but.. such titles embarrass him. He looks away, a hint of self-deprecatory giggle followed by the sentence, "Please, I cannot be talked about in the same breath."

And when you switch to the role of an interviewer, he answers off-the-cuff, to ask at the end of a gab session, "I feel strange talking about myself, did I do okay? He did. Excerpts:

What kind of music plays on the iPod of his mind?
Whatever I'm working on at a point of time.. or if I'm on a concert tour, it is snatches of different pieces of music.. which escape and come back as if they were being recalled from a distance. Piano themes from the film songs take long to finesse, at times of course a tune just hits me like it does with every composer, become either playful or stubborn.. and I've to take it from there.

The piano theme for Rang de Basanti and then Guru kept eluding me, I kept working and working on them round the clock. No composer can be narcissistic though.. his ear and heart take in the music around him.For instance, the piano theme for Rang de Basanti and then Guru kept eluding me, I kept working and working on them round the clock. No composer can be narcissistic though.. his ear and heart take in the music around him, whether it's something playing on TV, a child laughing musically or a CD I've heard recently .

The thing is to keep oneself open, if I'm told James Blunt's You're so beautiful had a certain lilt to it, I listen to it.. casually and .. then if I like it, again and again.. and again.. it makes me feel light, relieved.

And if I ever feel a mental block, there's Vivaldi's Four Seasons. If you haven't heard it, you haven't lived. (Perceiving the blank look on my face) I won't give you my copy, but I'll get a CD burnt for you.. Vivaldi! Vivaldi! Let's hear it right now.. (we do).

Which Rahman songs are most in demand at his world concerts?
That fluctuates. Strangely enough at one US concert, it was Humma humma. Otherwise, usually it's Chhaiyan chhaiyan. And the songs from the films which have been released recently Also Tamil film songs are demanded.. like the ones from Sivaji.. once I also played the Fight Poverty anthem done for the UN, which went down very well.

Bombay film industry's attitude to A R R.
Why? What do they think of me? As far as I know, I've gone through phases. There was Swades at one point of time, and then the phase of period films like Bose and The Rising.. after which I felt perhaps I should also do films with younger, fresh filmmakers.. Not because the period films didn't become major commercial hits.. I'm used to that.

From experience, I've learnt that music has no age, many songs have a recall value and grow. Like it or not, it all boils down to the simple fact that the music company.. which is releasing a movie's soundtrack.. believes strongly in the product and promotes it properly .

Can Bombay-based music companies sabotage the soundtracks they've bought the rights for?
It happens or does it? I wouldn't like to get into a controversy over that.. who needs that? Still, it's important to say that what you say is possible. Sabotage is a strong word but it cannot be ruled out. I still have to understand why at least three or four of my music scores were just sidelined by a music company in Mumbai.

They didn't get a sufficient amount of TV promos, their album jackets were designed carelessly.. the pressings didn't have proper sound quality. In fact, I asked a certain music com pany what the problem was.. (shrugs) they said there was no problem.

No naming the company?
They you and I know who I'm talking about. Filmmakers sold them the rights, the composer just hopes for the best.. and holds his breath. But I'm trying not to hold my breath anymore. You know music is not possible with negativity .

It's better to have a clear mind than a black one. If I were to hold grudges in my heart, I wouldn't be able to play on my keyboard any more. One has to stay pure.

Purity! How pure can any composer be in the time of commercial cholera? that clever? All I can say is that I try to remain as pure or as possible. I can't be conniving, double-face or naughty Whatever . little work I do has to least try to express divinity, love and purity .

Sabotage is a strong word but it cannot be ruled out. I still have to understand why at least three or four of my music scores were just sidelined by a music company in Mumbai. What! No naughty ditties? Aayee re aaye re from Rangeela?
That was hardly naughty. I think the naughtiest has to be Shakalaka baby.

The stage musical Bombay Dreams, the Chinese movie score Warriors of Heaven and Earth, music for The Lord of the Rings on stage, doesn't the global work take you away from Indian assignments?
Initially, I was skeptical. Should I go over or not? My work for Lord of the Rings on stage, I wouldn't even call a "musical." The story moves in and out of the musical pieces. After doing the Chinese film (Warriors..), it gave me the freedom to go beyond, by using chants, choirs and several other music idioms.

Can you hazard a world without music?
Right now, no. I love to go into a space which doesn't distract me. When you're praying, you nearly go dead, or at least try to. It's another kind of sphere altogether. Please don't ask me more about this, it's something private and within. The moment I don't have this special.. divine space.. for me music will stop.

Forty one going on 17. I can dream hopefully .

Any odd dreams?
Snowfall in Chennai. Snow was all over the streets.. and in the middle of it all, there was this big hoarding of The Lion King. Weird!

No filmmakers are allowed at the Chennai studio with a hint of alcohol on their breath.
What! Okay, quite a while ago one or two filmmakers came a bit tipsy. That did become awkward but I learnt to be more tolerant. I go absolutely silent when something like that happens, the filmmaker catches that, and it doesn't happen again. It's important to be pure and clear in the mind..or else..

You must stop drinking wine.. chacha.

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