Friday, December 31, 2004

Tsunami help and blogs

Just to reiterate: great work being done by the guys over at the Tsunami Help and the ChiensSansFrontiers (formerly DesiMediaBitch) blogs. The latter site includes transcripts of text messages sent by a Sri Lankan blogger, Morquendi, who's been providing firsthand accounts of the rescue operations in the tsunami-affected areas.
As Rohit Gupta, who set up ChiensSansFrontiers, says (quoted in this BBC report), "He was running around, looking for friends, burying bodies, carrying bodies...I can't even begin to imagine the psychological state he was in when he was sending us reports, and doing the relief work at the same time. He was caught between being a journalist and being a human being."
Visit Tsunami Help for comprehensive info on contact numbers and where to donate.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Year-end books round-up

Every one else is doing it so why shouldn’t I? (As the crowd chorus in Life of Brian goes: "YES! We are ALL different!") So here go scribblings on The Reading Experience, 2004.

Some highlights:
The Plot Against America (Philip Roth): Easily the most accessible of Roth’s recent fiction, because much of it is written in the voice of a frightened 8-year-old – Philip Roth himself, living in an alternate world where Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh becomes US president and makes peace with Hitler.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Susannah Clarke): struggled with the first 200 pages but after that, wow! Magical, entrancing, bewitching and plenty more. The brief, unrecorded appearance of the Raven King, John Uskglass, towards the end was one of the most poignant passages I read this year, and the fact that it was in a book about magicians and evil fairies probably says disturbing things about me. (Added plus: with a book this heavy, who needs barbells? Downside: I developed tennis elbow without once lifting a racquet, or a cricket bat.)

Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell): infuriating, bombastic, often impenetrable book, but one I couldn’t help but regard with awe. Sometimes great ambition can be its own reward. There’s no way I’m ever going to recommend this to anyone unequivocally, but I’m bloody glad I saw it through myself. Learnt an important lesson about not dismissing something just because it seems pretentious and overblown; inverse snobbery often grows out of laziness.

Corridor (Sarnath Banerjee): probably my favourite Indian read of the year, and it had a welcome side-effect, plunging me headlong into the world of the graphic novel. Art Spiegelman’s Maus was the only book I bought when I visited England earlier this year, and I subsequently devoured Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis I and II as well. Next on the list: Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, which I’ll have to keep out of Putu’s claws.

My Life as a Fake (Peter Carey): A mesmerising Frankenstein story for the literary world, examining the truths and the deceptions that are a necessary part of any written work. Loved the very Aussie rhythms and cadences; very distinctive while not as difficult as the writing in Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang. Already on my to-be-reread list.

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (M G Vassanji): probably the book that affected me most strongly at a personal level this year, perhaps because the idea of "in-betweenness" – sitting on the fence, never completely sure about what side to take – has a private resonance. The In-Between… is also my strongest argument for carrying on with book reviewing, which I sometimes get so fed up with: there’s no way I would have read it if it hadn’t been given to me for reviewing.

My Name is Red (Orhan Pamuk): have to admit I drifted off in parts, but was still enthralled by Pamuk’s device of different chapters narrated in the first person by different people, each of whom is unaware of what the others are up to (which means the novel’s structure exactly mirrors its story of a group of miniaturists working separately on components that will make up a larger design).

The Sari Shop (Rupa Bajwa) Refreshingly unshowy debut from a young writer. Didn’t completely succeed in avoiding the "India in a Bun" syndrome but at least it wasn’t a shameless exercise in pretentious Exotica. I was probably influenced by the fact that I read it around the same times as the wretched The Last Song of Dusk.

The Line of Beauty (Alan Hollinghurst): firmly in the "admired a lot but didn’t enjoy all that much" category. It beat out Cloud Atlas for the Booker Prize, but I’m on David Mitchell’s side.

Favourite older book read this year:
Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills, his first novel but the one I read last. Agreed with Ajitha that it doesn’t read like a first book. It’s a circular narrative with hints of surreality, much like his last two novels, and seems to belong with his later work. (After A Pale View... Ishiguro’s next two books were An Artist of the Floating World and Remains of the Day, which were both straightforward narratives.)

Some cherished short stories:

Robert Bloch’s "The Legacy";
Douglas Clegg’s creepy but affecting "Where Flies are Born";
Ian Watson’s sometimes-facetious but entertaining "The Eye of the Ayatollah";
Manjula Padmanabhan’s collected stories in Kleptomania, especially "Betrayal" and "The Girl Who Could Make People Naked";
Many Asimovs, notably "Breeds there a Man...", "The Billiard Ball" and the masterful "The Final Question";
loads of classics by S J Perelman and Woody Allen, notably Allen’s "The Kugelmass Episode" about a man who can enter any literary classic he chooses to and ends up having an affair with Flaubert’s great heroine. ("I’m doing it with Madame Bovary," he marvelled, "Me who failed freshman English.");
the essays in the Granta Book of Film, especially Maarten 't Hart’s compelling "Rats", written, paradoxically, by a man who doesn’t think that much of cinema as an art form but who finds himself mesmerised into inaction during his work as a consultant on Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu.

I’m not that much into non-fiction as a rule, so it’s surprising that there are quite a few titles on this list. Finished delightful memoirs by Luis Bunuel (My Last Breath) and Peter Ustinov (Dear Me) and was pleasantly surprised by Lance Armstrong’s two autobiographies, especially the first It’s Not About the Bike. There was also Ved Mehta’s The Red Letters, which closes the "Continents of Exile" series, and Ali, Rodney Hartman’s biography of Ali Bacher which was, by extension, a history of the politics of south African cricket. And perhaps the best of them all - because it could be picked up and read from anywhere - Isaac Asimov’s I. Asimov, less a chronological work than a collection of his thoughts on various topics, ranging from fellow science fiction writers to Jewishness to writing prolificity.

Guilty pleasures:
The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown): this is where I meet the P3P. But I’m not going to deny the sheer thrill of reading this. (Besides, with all my time-management issues, any book that takes just 3 days to finish has my approval.) And Brown’s Angels and Demons, which had me thinking very seriously about ambigrams for all of two days.

Five Point Someone (Chetan Bhagat): yes, I admit it, I enjoyed this fluff about the misadventures of three IIT students! Flunk me! (My defence: it took two hours to finish.)

Plain guilt:
Still haven’t found time for Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, though it’s been four-and-a-half months since I coerced a friend into giving it to me for my birthday.

Currently reading:
Pamuk’s Snow, which will easily make it onto my 2004 or 2005 top 10 list, depending on when I finish it (oh yes, I’m a pedant); Sebald’s Austerlitz; McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories.

Looking forward to:
Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled; Ishiguro’s latest, worryingly titled Never Let Me Go; and Thomas Harris’s new book with the Hannibal Lecter back-story (the last with a mix of dread and anticipation; Harris is a favourite writer but this prequel is likely to be a cynical, money-motivated exercise). And oh yes, Samit Basu’s Simoqin sequel. (Plug, plug.)

New year’s resolution:
Will not buy books with small fonts. Eyes can take it no more. If this means only hardcopies, well then so be it; will learn how to steal.

Book of the Year:
Ha! I’m not officially doing this, but if I absolutely HAD to, I’d probably go with Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Vol 1, a book that is every bit as frustrating and unclassifiable as the man himself. Written in a style that marries Mark Twain with Jack Kerouac with Hunter Thompson, it still has "Dylan" stamped all over it. Full of awkward, ungrammatical sentences, colloquialisms, odd twists of phrase, it leaps madly about like a kangaroo with a pouchful of steroids, doesn’t cater to popular perceptions of the "defining" people and events in the author’s life - and is nevertheless unputdownable all the way. The reverence in Dylan’s voice when he speaks of people like Hank Williams, Roy Orbison and even Harry Belafonte is an eye-opener for anyone who can’t reconcile the image of the great wordsmith with the wide-eyed, unsure boy who came to Greenwich Village in 1961 with a long list of his own idols.

[Phew, this has turned out to be cathartic. I keep complaining that I don’t get to do as much reading as I’d like to, but looking back now at this list (and I’m sure I’ve left out quite a lot) it doesn’t seem all that bad. And I even managed to watch 3-4 of my DVDs...]

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Cronenberg and Rushdie

Just saw this link, a conversation between Salman Rushdie and David Cronenberg. They discuss, among other things, the perception that novels are a superior art form to cinema, censorship, making audiences faint (Rushdie at a book reading, Cronenberg because...well, have you seen any of Cronenberg’s films?), and whether computer games can be Art. Read.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Life of Brian, amen

Ever mindful of festive tradition, I watched my DVD of Monty Python’s Life of Brian on Christmas Day. This is a deeply felt, profoundly moving and utterly nonsensical film about the life of Brian Cohen, a contemporary of Jesus Christ. The Scriptures tell us naught about Brian, and even today (with so much thoughtful Christ-related revisionism doing the rounds thanks to Dan Brown and his apostles) regrettably little is known of him, which makes the Python film a valuable reference source.

Brian could have been a neat role model for all of us Salieris who must live in the shadow of someone else who’s much better at something we love doing. Except that Brian doesn’t really want to be a Messiah, or a martyr, or a poor man’s Jesus, it just happens that way. From the very beginning, his life parallels that of Christ; in fact, he’s born just a couple of mangers away. ("What IS myrrh anyway" his shrill, cantankerous mother – played by, of all people, the hook-nosed Terry Jones - asks the Three Wise Men when they mistakenly give her the gifts they arrive bearing.)

The film moves on good-naturedly to tackle issues like infighting (the People’s Front of Judea is perpetually at odds with the Judean People’s Front); the occasional misguidedness of Good Deeds (an "ex-leper" complains that Jesus spoilt his begging prospects by curing him); the importance of haggling; and even the Larger Picture (in a bizarre two-minute interlude where Brian is carried away in an alien spaceship). A tragic scene near the end teaches us important lessons about the futility of being a suicide squad when you’re armed only with knives. There are many soul-stirring lines like "Can’t make head or tail of this sermon, let’s go for a stoning" and others that might have sent Groucho Marx scurrying to the nearest church for benediction.

One has to be in a certain mood to enjoy this film, though I’m not sure I want to define that mood. It’s loud, ribald and certainly offensive in bits, though not as much as you might think. (I couldn’t help thinking of the bloodshed that would take place across India if a film of this tone were to be made with a story from Hindu mythology as the target.)

Also, the Cockney accents are sometimes hard to follow – but this is more than compensated for by "Bright Side of Life", the hilarious song that brings the movie to its incongruously cheerful end (it’s sung by a group of men up on crosses and includes lines like "For life is quite absurd/And death's the final word./ You must always face the curtain with a bow./ Forget about your sin./ Give the audience a grin. /Enjoy it. It's your last chance, anyhow.")

Put this on your post-Christmas shopping list. It should soon be available on a DVD double-bill with The Passion of the Christ.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Golden Globes 2005

Is it just me or have the Golden Globe nominations been strangely low-profile this year? Happened to catch a glimpse of related news on the CNN ticker a couple of days ago while surfing TV (which I claim never to watch) and only then remembered their existence. The list - which is here - looks interesting, though as has happened with increasing frequency the past few years, I gazed wistfully at it, knowing I probably won’t be seeing most of these films any time soon. (Enormous reduction in movie-watching, esp. Hollywood films, because of 1. my reluctance to get into the VCD-renting culture and 2. increase in reading.)

Have always had a fondness for the Globes because of the separate category for comedy/musical films (which the Oscars are infamous for ignoring). Of the films prominent in this year’s nominations, I’m looking forward to: Million Dollar Baby (think Clint Eastwood’s a very interesting director, despite last year's ponderous, overrated Mystic River); The Aviator (if only to see how any actress, even a very talented one [Cate Blanchett], can possibly get away with playing the great Katharine Hepburn); Finding Neverland (Johnny Depp, Johnny Depp, Johnny Depp); Sideways; and Closer. And yes, I admit to STILL not having watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Eternal damnation in prospect.

Which author's fiction are you?

Dorothy Parker
Dorothy Parker writes you, you wonderfully urbane,
witty boozehound, you.

(An urbane Jabberwock, whiffling and burbling?! No Lewis Carroll in their list unfortunately.)

Which author's fiction are YOU?

brought to you by Quizilla

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Why Bob Dylan rules's why. A passage (just one of many such) from Chronicles Vol 1:

"New York City, the city that would come to shape my destiny. Modern Gomorrah. I was at the initiation point of square one but in no sense a neophyte.
When I arrived, it was dead-on winter. The cold was brutal and every artery of the city was snowpacked, but I’d started out from the frostbitten North Country, a little corner of the earth where the dark frozen woods and icy roads didn’t faze me...I had a heightened sense of awareness, was set in my ways, impractical and a visionary to boot. My mind was strong like a trap and I didn’t need any guarantee of validity."

More on this later...

Amu, and the 1984 riots

Watched a preview of Amu at the Habitat; this is Shonali Bose’s soon-to-be-released film about a young, US-based Indian girl coming to Delhi for the first time in 18 years and realising that the death/disappearance of her real parents was tied up with the 1984 anti-Sikh riots following Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

For the first 15-20 minutes I was convinced it was going to be a disappointment. The flaws were there for all to see: a few cliches about the "real India", a couple of stiff performances, a slightly theatrical set-up, some prettification of riot violence. But the film got better and more engrossing as it went along.

Something else I thought was iffy - though other friends at the screening disagreed - was Konkana Sensharma’s brave but misguided attempt at an American accent. Now Sensharma is a fine actress but I almost wish she and the director had decided to compromise on authenticity by avoiding the accent altogether. Not that it’s bad, it’s just very uneven - sometimes there, sometimes not -- and the bigger problem is that when her character speaks Hindi or Bengali she promptly lapses into a completely Indian voice, which is jarring if you’ve just about managed to convince yourself that it’s an NRI girl up there on the screen.

But even this was a minor fault. An unconvincing accent will at most times ruin a performance, but the young actress rose above it as the movie went on, so that after a point, it was possible to ignore the way she was speaking and focus instead on the character’s other nuances. She has to be one of the most interesting performers around and I think her career will bear watching.

Bose has an assured yet unpretentious style, and that’s sorely needed today, when so many directors in non-mainstream Indian cinema are preoccupied with being clever and tricksy. I liked the subtle use of trains as a motif, for chook-chooks have had an interesting role to play in the context of the "many Indias". At most times, they are the threads that bind the country, enabling people of one region/community to travel to another. But at times of communal violence they have carried some horrific associations - one thinks of the corpse-laden ghost bogies of the post-Partition riots and the moving deathtraps of Godhra.

Even when Bose over-simplifies, it doesn’t seem too preachy or forced. In the last scene, for instance, the Konkana character has achieved closure; she’s mourned for her parents, come to term with their deaths, and she’s walking away near the train tracks with her boyfriend when we hear an NDTV report in the background about the torching of kar sevaks in a train in Gujarat -- the prelude to the Godhra riots. But the simplistic (though not irrelevant) message about the cycle of communal violence isn’t thrown into our faces. Instead, the director gives us a long shot of children playing near the tracks as adults mill around the TV set and tension builds in the air - thus making a quiet point about the legacy we’re bequeathing our children. (Incidentally, some of the most striking visuals in the film are shots of the faces of terrified children seeing things they should never have had to.)

P. S. I was only seven in 1984, not old enough to fully grasp what was happening or to be traumatised by the fact that the "Singh" nameplate on the gate of our Panchshila house had to be removed for a few days (in fact, I don’t think I knew about that till later); or to understand the implications of the stories that men riding two-wheelers were stopped in the Delhi streets and had their helmets removed to check if they wore turbans. My strongest memory is that of our class 2 teacher Mrs Gidwani walking into the classroom all shaken up, waving her arms about like a bird in a cartoon, repeating "she’s been shot". I didn’t even know she was talking about Indira Gandhi until later, on the way home in the school van, and then some silly conductor was trying to reassure the children by saying "she’s only got a stomach ache, she’ll be okay" or something such.

P.P.S. One of the points the director makes is that the Sikh-stalking during those few days in 1984 hasn’t been adequately represented in literature or film - partly because many people in high places were complicit. Some lines of dialogue have been censored from the film in India - mainly where characters bemoan the apathy of powerful ministers. The print telecast at the IHC was the original international print without any cuts but with the "offending" dialogues blanked out, which meant that in the middle of an intense onscreen discussion, the characters would suddenly turn into Marcel Marceaus for a few seconds. It was very funny and very frightening.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The Humourless

Was demoralised yesterday when I discovered a friend of mine does not understand Humour. I don’t mean the Laurel-and-Hardy variety, wherein the Fat One accidentally sits on the Thin One, and most people recognise that now would be a good time to laugh out loud, and in unison. No, I’m talking about that - alas! - rarity: Delicate, Understated Humour (which we’ll henceforth call DUH), the sort that doesn’t need to broadcast itself from a far distance.

Like the first sentence of a comment I posted on this friend’s blog yesterday. (Not revealing details here, though doubtless she’ll hang her head in shame on reading this). It was a black joke that derived its funniness (or so I like to think) from being stated matter-of-factly, unaccompanied by a signboard saying "Laugh here!" Why then should anyone be able to recognise it as a joke, you ask? Well, because of its content, which was plain absurd; it was like nonsense verse, a non-sequitur, a Jabberwocky. If the sentence in question had been meant seriously, it could never have fit in with the frivolous overall tone of the comment.

But this friend mails me saying, "Are you serious? What happened...etc etc." What unnerves me is that she’s very with-it in most other respects, and has a work efficiency that I’m in awe of (incidentally, I came within a couple of months of working directly under her, which we agree would probably have ended the friendship for good).

In fairness though, she’s not the only one to respond thus. Thinking back, some of the most intelligent people I know just blank out when administered a small dose of DUH. Now I’m worried because I often write mails in this vein to friends, and could this be the reason some of them have stopped calling me?

For solace, I turn to Martin Amis. Here is what he has to say about the Humourless:

"Watch the humourless closely: the cocked and furtive way they monitor all conversation, their flashes of panic as irony or exaggeration eludes them, the relief with which they submit to the meaningless babble of unanimous laughter. The humourless can programme themselves to relish situations of human farce or slapstick -- and that’s about it. They are handicapped in the head, or mentally ‘challenged’, as Americans say (euphemism itself being a denial of humour). The trouble is that the challenge wins, every time, hands down. The humourless have no idea what is going on and can’t make sense of anything at all."

(Having said which, I don’t find Amis - or his dad - as funny as many others seem to. But that’s Irony.)

Big Deal, says Roosevelt

Philip Roth isn’t the only one who can rewrite history. Have a look at this front page from the archives of the venerable Onion newspaper.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Robert Bloch, Lon Chaney and an elegy for silent films

Just read Robert Bloch’s short story "The Legacy" part of a horror anthology I recently bought. It fits the bill well enough; it’s about a film buff who leases a house once putatively owned by a famous silent-screen horror star and discovers, in said house, a make-up kit with a mirror that has retained the spirits of malignant personalities from old horror movies. It’s a creepy tale, it gets under your skin, and it’s by one of my favourite suspense/horror writers. So why can’t I shake off the feeling that the author intended it to be not so much a horror story but a tribute to a fascinating, enigmatic actor and – on a broader level – an elegy for the lost treasures from cinema’s early days?

The actor in question is the legendary Lon Chaney, known even during his own lifetime as the "Man of a Thousand Faces", an epithet that is only mildly exaggerated. Chaney, whose talents as a make-up artist still inspire awe today, is best remembered for his iconic death-head face in the 1925 Phantom of the Opera; but in hundreds of other silent movies (many of which have been lost forever) he played a mind-boggling range of characters, mainly exotic villains, not one of whom quite resembled another. (What adds mystery to the Chaney legend is that very little is known about his off-screen life. "Between pictures," he famously told prying reporters once, "there is no Lon Chaney.")

Robert Bloch watched The Phantom of the Opera as a child and was "terrified and fascinated by the face that glowered at me from the screen". It isn’t too much to speculate that this terror and fascination played no small part in Bloch’s prolific writing career, during which he produced a number of chilling stories that played off on real-life figures (Bloch wrote the novel Psycho, inspired by the true story of the grave-robbing Ed Gein, and his "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" is one of my favourite short stories).

The frightening passages in The Legacy are the ones where the protagonist looks into the make-up mirror to find, reflected back at him, the faces of the characters Lon Chaney played in his movies. But anyone who cares about the rapidly-vanishing legacy of the silent cinema will also instantly recognise in these passages the voice of a true movie-lover:

"Faces formed in the glass – contoured countenances which seemed frighteningly familiar…some Dale had seen before only in photographs – the evil Chinaman from the lost film Bits of Life, the benevolent laundryman in Shadows. Then, in rapid shifts, the vengeful mandarin of Mr Wu, the bespectacled elderly image of Wu’s father, and a final, frightening glimpse of the chinless, sunken cheeked, shrivelled face of the aged grandfather. They formed and faded, sharing their secret smiles.
Now others appeared – the two pirates, Pew and Merry, from Treasure Island, a bearded Fagin out of Oliver Twist, followed by figures looming full-length in the mirror’s depths. Here were the fake cripples of The Miracle Man, The Blackbird, Flesh and Blood. Then the real cripple of The Shock and the legless Blizzard of The Penalty. Now came a derby-hatted gangster, a French-Canadian trapper, a tough sergeant of Marines, a scarred animal trapper, and Echo, the ventriloquist of The Unholy Three…a crazed wax-museum attendant, a bearded victim of senile delusions, a deranged Russian peasant, the insane scientists of The Blind Bargain and The Monster."

Though I was once obsessed with the silent cinema and read up on it gluttonously, I hadn’t even heard of some of these films. Reading Bloch’s story made me want to revisit Chaney’s filmography on IMDB and then try to get my hands on all these movies. But I know that’ll probably never happen; some of them don’t even have any existing prints.

The great silent films in the horror/fantasy genre have an unmatched visceral effect, precisely because they are so creaky and fragile; they seem to come from another world altogether (which in a sense they have), which suits the demands of the genre perfectly. It gives them a power that no computer-generated effects can replicate. Chaney’s films fall in this category, as do the films of F W Murnau, Fritz Lang’s great Siegfried series (I remember watching with awe the hero slaying an obviously cardboard dragon) and numerous other films of the time.

But silent films are also tragically fragile. Granta editor Ian Jack wrote recently of how thousands of reels of film are slowly decomposing in forgotten archives, and of "the unequal struggle to preserve and remember". Like the unfortunate vampire exposed to sunlight in the final scenes of Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu, the great silent movies are fading.

P.S. Love this coincidence. The latest essay in the fortnightly "Ebert’s Great Movies" series is on The Phantom of the Opera. Here’s the link.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

The one where they all turn 30

There’s the cliche about how, once you’ve reached a certain age, you find a member of your group missing each time you go for an annual class reunion or similar get-together; the circle keeps getting smaller and smaller. I’ve experienced something like that over the past year, and though it doesn’t entail a permanent passing into oblivion, it’s still disquieting. What’s happening is this: friends have been turning 30 with frightening rapidity.

This trend began in September last year when Amrita’s clock struck three times ten. But somehow it didn’t seem like cause for alarm at the time - I’d always thought of her as several years older, and besides we know better than to wish each other on birthdays, so the day passed without one having to think about it. But early this year Sudipta and then Raghu followed suit and I began to think, "whoa, hold on!"

Now, what once was an ignorable trickle threatens to turn into a flood. This week, Rumman travels to the Land of the Three-Oh whence one may never return, and I’m almost as upset about losing him to that dreaded number as I am about his more corporeal shift to another city next month. Worse is to follow; come February/March 2005, Ganatra, Ajitha and Soumik fall in quick succession.

It’s a comeuppance of sorts for me. I used to play this cruel joke on friends wherein I would call/message them the day after their 29th birthday to announce "Welcome to the first day of your 30th year." Some were thick enough, or in denial enough, not to get the maths: "No, no, I’m only 29!" they’d say cheerfully. Then the horrible truth would hit and I could practically feel the moroseness seeping in through the phone lines.

Now I’m faced with the likelihood that I too will turn 30 eventually. I feel much the same way as the evil rakshas Hiranyakashipu must have when he realised, seconds before Vishnu’s man-lion avatar ate his heart, that he was mortal after all. Or Macbeth, when he was asked the silly, completely rhetorical question "Knowest you not, Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped?" Mythology and literature are full of cruel tricks like these, but this is real life! Of course, I tell myself, I still have more than two-and-a-half years to go, but Time works in unknowable ways and before one can take stock of things the three-oh will have sneaked up on one. My aging friends all assure me that that’s what happened with them.

My one consolation is that I can now tell them "Congrats, you’re on the right side of 40." But how long will even that pleasure last?

(P.S. I've, uh, plagiarised the blog headline from a Friends episode)

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Rushdie-Dalrymple reading

Wasn’t planning to blog about the Rushdie-Dalrymple book reading at the Oxford Bookstore on Tuesday evening, but after reading Hurree Babu and Putu the Cat I thought I’d fling in my three rupees’ worth. Not that I have much of substance to say. Salman Rushdie, who I’m unashamedly in awe of, read out a whole short story ("The Firebird’s Nest") and I missed most of it, because I was more interested in roaming the store. Does that make me a Bad Bookster? Dunno, maybe book readings are an acquired taste, like scotch, but I just couldn’t get into this one.

Shougat, who’s as dedicated a reader as anyone I know, once sniffed that most of the book readings/discussions he’s been to had the feel of public masturbation. ("Look at us, we’re the Few Who Read.") I wouldn’t go that far, but yes, there’s something so personal about reading and something so impersonal about events like this one. And I’m not talking about the pretenders -- the high-society hacks and gadflies, the types who go up to Rushdie and coo "I loved The God of Small Things. Those are the soft targets; we poke fun at them all the time and I have no intention of stopping. But I’m talking here about the genuine book-lovers. Oh, sure, I know those who write reviews/do author profiles on a professional basis have to go for such events, and so it makes sense to find a way to have a good time at them. But still, but still still still... (Had a terrible headache at the time, so think I’ll use that as a temporary excuse while I’m searching for the larger answers.)

Oh well, the good bits now. Met Putu, who’s back in Delhi. We’re all such dour creatures behind our Internet identities. Think Putu the Cat encountering Jabberwock and you’d at the very least expect some hissing, snarling, gurgling, calloo-callaying, perhaps even bookshelves being hurled from one end of the store to another. But no, we just walked about, murmuring in undertone, exchanging reading recommendations, making half-hearted attempts at wisecracking.

Finally met Hurree Babu, whose presence always reminds me of how much reading I have yet to do before I can call myself a "books person". Strange to come face to face for the first time with someone you’ve had long, thoughtful mail exchanges with. (I was never a part of the online chat fraternity when the Internet first took off, so this was a completely new experience for me.) And when it’s someone you admire, well... Was unnerved, tried not to show it though.

Briefly met Rana Dasgupta, whose book Tokyo Cancelled is out in January, and who is being hailed as the next big thing. Putu assures me that he won’t be The Next Big Thing in the same way that Siddharth Dhanvant Shangvi (of "the air was bursting with tension like the belly of a pregnant male sea-horse" fame) was last year’s Next Big Thing, so that’s encouraging.

And of course, had the always-delightful company of Shrabonti, who, refreshingly, is just a real person, with no blogging alter ego attached (though she was mistaken for Putu’s Forebrain by some at the do). The cakes and quiches were good too. So I probably will give the next book reading a go after all.

P.S. As Putu pointed out, no Padma Lakshmi cleavage. She did look hot though, and surprisingly elegant. Rushdie (all shaven) was surprisingly White.

Afternoon at the Golf Club

If you want to experience firsthand the phenomenon of "time standing still", stand on the sidelines as a golfing star poses for a large group of media photographers. As he practices his swing in slow, very slow, motion, you’d think there would be enough time for each of the camera-artists to capture every imaginable angle. But no. Inevitably, one of them will have missed that crucial micro-second when said golfer’s lower arm was at a 43.74 degree angle to the upper, and so the process will have to be repeated. And again. And again. There are many photographers, all perfectionists; they are all masters of their craft.

I was at the Delhi Golf Club for most of yesterday afternoon, waiting servilely at the back of a long queue of soundbite-seeking television journalists who naturally had to be given preferential treatment over us "print press" types. Jyoti Randhawa was there to launch a new range of golf equipment; his stock has risen enormously in the past couple of days with the win at the Volvo Masters in Kuala Lumpur, and I had to interview him for a profile. Won’t dwell much on that here; how much can one write about an interview that began with me saying, "You’ll have to bear with me, my golfing knowledge isn’t really - heh heh - up to par." (Actually, it didn’t go badly at all, the guy was very pleasant, very relaxed.)

Of course, as mentioned, I had to wait until the TV journos had done with him. One of them coolly whisked him away from right under my nose and dragged him onto a golf cart so she could conduct the interview while they circled the greens. (Have sworn off writing journalists’ names in my blog for at least a month, so am not divulging any more.)

I hate press conferences, hate waiting for anyone or anything, and yet I had a reasonably good time yesterday. Strolled about, contemplated the greens, made faces at the hissing resident kittens and the scraping PR people, read the quaintly funny instructions on the notice board (one, exhorting members not to pilfer the club newspapers, actually said, "otherwise we will be constrained to attach Wooden Batons to each paper, so they will not be taken away!"), overheard the conversations of young ladies who had mastered the lost art of making a multi-syllabled word out of "Pa-pa-aa!" in the manner of Audrey Hepburn in one of those ultra-chic ’60s films (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, How to Steal a Million).

Lovely place, the Golf Club. Maybe I’m just betraying my ignorance here, but it’s always such a pleasant surprise to be reminded that places like this do exist in the heart of a city one otherwise thinks of as just a confusion of unconstructed flyovers and unruly traffic. Felt that way when I rediscovered Lodhi Gardens a few weeks ago too.

Bad sex award

Tom Wolfe has won the Bad Sex Award for I Am Charlotte Simmons, which contains passages like these. I have no plans to read the novel, having read numerous reviews of it (besides, as I keep saying, life is short). But I’ll take this opportunity to draw attention to my own unerring perspicuity last year in predicting that Aniruddha Bahal would win the 2003 Bad Sex Trophy for Bunker 13. That novel, I remember, mentioned Aryan warlords, Bugattis, Volkswagens and Swastikas - and I’m talking only about the sex bits.

Wolfe, on the other hand, is a much more experienced journalist-writer and trades in - yes! - otorhinolaryngological caverns and pectoral sheathes. Read and enjoy.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

A Sunday interview with Mihir Bose

I’ve never cared for the idea of the Sacrosanct Sunday. Many friends - even those in journalism, where regular hours are hardly the norm - baulk at the idea of working on Sunday, either in office or out of home. But I enjoy it - not, I admit, on a regular basis but in doses. Enables one to combine a sense of purpose and achievement with the general relaxedness that runs through the day. (In fact, even when I was doing a regular Sunday shift in Today, the atmosphere was always more relaxed than on other days -- as if everyone, including the bosses, had the "Tension" switch set to "Low". Besides, for once the traffic was never a problem.)

But of course it’s a bonus when the "work" is something you’re really enthusiastic about, and you know it’ll only take an hour or two of your time, and you don’t have to travel a long distance to get it done. Which is why I was quite pleased about my appointment on Sunday morning with author Mihir Bose, at the Marriott Hotel, just 1 km from my house.

Went there feeling some ambivalence though, even a little nervousness, because the focus of the interview was to be the revised version of Bose’s 1982 biography of Subhas Chandra Bose, which I wasn’t familiar with. My connection with Mihir Bose, and the main reason I wanted to meet him, was his epic A History of Indian Cricket, one of the first cricket books I had read - and I hoped to have at least a brief, informal stumps-and-bails chat with him. Conflict of interest? Sure.
But it went off as well as I’d imagined. Bose, who’s worked for 30 years in England as a business and sports reporter, had a brisk, academic, briefly intimidating manner to start with (and I squirmed when our zealous photographer made the poor man squat and pose in all sorts of weird angles, while holding his very heavy books) - but over the course of our discussion it slowly dissolved into cameraderie. He had a scribe’s thirst for information about recent developments in the country, and kept interrupting me to ask about the Ashok Advani case, the general health of journalism in India ("how’s that magazine run by my old friend Vinod Mehta doing?"; "What’s Akbar up to these days?"), the number and quality of television channels now telecast.

Naturally, Subhas Chandra Bose (who I’ll henceforth abbreviate to SCB) was the principal topic of conversation. The author is clearly bemused by all the obsessing over whether SCB died in that 1945 plane crash; when he was researching for his book in the 1970s, he found there was a paucity of useful material but "I was told to go to Madhya Pradesh because SCB was going to appear at a rally there! The man has been diminished by the mystery surrounding his death." The Lost Hero eschews speculation along those lines, instead focusing on the life of the man who controversially fought for Indian independence not the Gandhian way but by teaming up with the Axis powers during World War II. Much of the new material in the revised edition comes from the recently opened files of the Indian Political Intelligence (IPI), a secret service of the British Raj. From these files, Mihir Bose gathered information on British spies who pretended to work with SCB, and Indian communists who took advantage of their association with the high-profile figure.

"Indians often find it difficult to take a balanced view of history," rued the author. "Everything must be black or white, Ram or Ravana, and so it’s inconvenient to dwell on what doesn’t accord with common perception. Which is why probing biographies of public figures are so rare here." This, he believes, is also why SCB’s role in the independence movement is often obscured. "But history is more complicated than we like to think."

Bose believes much of the double-think and double-speak in modern India is tied up with the ambiguity about how relevant the Father of the Nation’s beliefs are to our practical life. "Gandhiji," he said -- the ‘ji’ a careful reminder of his fundamental respect for the man -- "has the status of a modern Hindu God today. But if you list the top principles of Gandhiism, you’ll find that none of them is followed by modern India -- we certainly wouldn’t be sitting in this posh hotel today if we had followed his ideals to the letter! He has been turned into an icon whose beliefs are of no practical value, and this has encouraged double-thinking and hypocrisy." If SCB had been a prominent political figure in independent India, he feels, there would have been "more rational, straight-line development -- no beating about the bush".

Our conversation had lasted an hour and over its course Bose had metamorphosed into a jovial raconteur lounging across the lobby chairs and chatting animatedly. But we hadn’t talked cricket yet. So when he casually remarked that "Mahatma Gandhi was the greatest man this country has produced -- with apologies to Sachin Tendulkar", I seized the opening and led him down paths yet untraversed. It lasted just 5 minutes, not an indepth discussion or anything, just a couple of anecdotes (including his first glimpse of Gary Sobers in the late 1950s) but what I was glad to note was that he still had the schoolboy light in his eyes when he talked about the game.

I asked what he thought of Indian cricket’s development since he wrote his book in 1990. "I think Sourav Ganguly is the most interesting figure to have emerged in the modern Indian game," said Bose with a crinkly-eyed parting smile. It said a lot for the conviction radiated by the man that it was possible to believe his admiration for Ganguly was unrelated to the fact of their shared Bongness.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Reading for pleasure: wassat?

I reached home the other day with a peculiar feeling – emptiness and anticipation all mashed up together – and it took me a while to realise it was because I was in one of those increasingly rare twilight phases: with absolutely no book-reviewing obligations, at least not for a couple of days, and so free to just pick up anything from the vast stack weighing down my bed (all the available bookshelves having long been booked).

Incessant book reviewing can take away much of the joy of reading and force you into doing things – speed-reading, skimming passages – you’d rather not do. It can also make you guiltily conscious of the whole "better to know one book really well than a thousand books sketchily" thing. I’m not, of course, knocking reviewing altogether. One of my most enthralling reading experiences in the past few months, for instance, came from M G Vassanji’s beautiful The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, a book I would almost certainly never have read if it hadn’t been shoved into my hands by our books editor.

That said, being free - even temporarily – from the cross of reading a book because I had to was empowering. But great power brings great responsibility, as Spiderman says, and so I looked around me with trepidation. What should I commit myself to, I wondered, always assuming that this reprieve wouldn’t last for long and I probably wouldn’t have time to finish more than one book before another deadline came-a-calling.

Do I reach for a favourite classic – maybe A Tale of Two Cities in the cheap Rupa publication I bought a couple of years ago? (Actually, I did reach for it, even opened and skimmed, only to discover that the print was fuzzy on pages 36 to 41. Enough to put one off.) Or maybe get around to reading the Moby Dick chapters I’d rushed through the first time, like "Of the measurement of a Whale’s skeleton"? Or an unread "must-read" that had been gathering dust on my bed, waiting for a time like this? Sebald’s Austerlitz. Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Don Delillo’s Underworld. Or should I make it easy for myself by turning to some short stories - still some treasures in the New Yorker anthologies pending. S J Perelman. Ian Frazier. Updike. Thurber.

It was only 10 o’clock, I had a good two hours at least of quality reading time ahead of me. I scanned the sea of options – the jacket spines, paperback covers, smooth Vintage covers, all waiting, begging to be read. And then, with an exasperated sigh, I conceded defeat and turned my attention to a cellphone game.

Poe in the barbershop

So why did I start thinking about Edgar Allan Poe while getting my hair cut yesterday? What happened was, after the barber had finished doing what he was paid to do, he suddenly began thumping and slapping my head all over – kneading like dough, almost, the more delicate parts of my skull. (I must have a stern demeanour when seated in a hair saloon, because I’m invariably asked if I wouldn’t like a full head massage, since "tension must be released". I say "no" but then they always throw in the skull-whacking act anyhow, as a freebie.)

Anyway, the man had been banging on my head harder than usual and after this had gone on for some time I started wondering exactly how compact the human skull is in its more fragile places. And then the exhilarating last bits of Poe’s story "The Facts in the Case of M Valdemar" leapt into my mind. The story ends with this fascinating notation:

"…his whole frame at once – within the space of a single minute or less, shrunk – crumbled – absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed, before that whole company there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome – of detestable putrescence."

[Note: No one - no one uses italics the way Poe does.]

How would this overenthusiastic barber react, I mused, if in the course of his violent thumping a customer’s skull caved in beneath his hand, revealing a loathsome – why try to improve on the phraseology of a great writer – a detestable putrescence? And what mood would such an incident create in the saloon?

Not ideal ruminating for a lazy Sunday afternoon, I realise, but it did bring a smile to my face. And that made the barber happy too – he thought he was responsible for the tension release – so it ended well. I doubt Edgar A P intended his macabre tales to provide such all-round pre-Christmas cheer.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Tendu’s 34th, and amateur commentators

Ah, the bittersweetness of being a Tendulkar defender these days! Naturally, he’s splashed all over the front pages (of the TOI and HT at least) – but then, that was always going to happen when the 34th century came. It happened even with Gavaskar when he got his 29th, and that in an age when the media was far less cricket-obsessed. (In fact, given how India feels about the game, today’s news would probably have made it to the front pages even if the century world record involved two batsmen from other countries!)

But it’s sad that Tendu’s 34th had to be against Bangladesh – more grist to his detractors’ mills, especially given his bizarre form in Test cricket over the past year (three huge unbeaten centuries and a masterful 55 against Aus in Mumbai, dotted with countless single-figure scores). Can already see the all-too-predictable sneering on various websites about how he should be played only against this quality of opposition. Now, even as a self-appointed Tendulkar loyalist for life, I concede that he’s used a low-quality bowling attack to get some of his confidence back; but to dismiss this innings outright without considering that India were 24 for 2 (and then 68 for 3) at one stage…well, that stinks of the blind, petty-minded prejudice there’s just no arguing against.

For my part, I’m a trifle annoyed that his new top Test score is this innings instead of the much better-sounding 241* in Sydney. Also, fervently hope he doesn’t get his 35th hundred in the next Test.

On to another cricket topic: my respect for commentators who do their job even half-decently has suddenly increased. ESPN’s been giving amateur commentators (who presumably went through some kind of competition) one/two-over guest stints during the match, and boy are these guys stiff.

There was this 15-year-old for instance, who tried to seem assured but kept betraying himself. [Ravi Shastri: “So, are you relaxed?” 15-year-old (gritting teeth, clenching jaw, looking straight ahead unblinkingly, enunciating every word like Navjot Sidhu’s elocution teacher): “YES, I’m VERY reLAXED!”] At first I felt like throwing the kid a laxative but then, watching him and the others, I realised that this is probably exactly the way I’d come across if someone hurled me into the commentary box (all my strong opinions on the game would probably stick in my throat then).

Kudos to all the Harsha-wannabes. I’ll content myself with thinking hard about the game and keeping my mouth shut.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

U2 rocks

Have been listening to the new U2 album (How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb) and can’t get Bono’s sublime crooning on the track "A Man and a Woman" out of my head -- was all but expelled from a meeting for humming it unconsciously today. Major spine-shiver when Bono sings the lines "The soul needs beauty for a soulmate; When the soul wants...the soul waits..." (Stop chuckling already, go LISTEN to the song.)

One of the great things about U2 is that with all the baggage of being the world’s "biggest, bestest rock band" they are still secure and confident enough to write and perform a simple love song in the most direct, unselfconscious way imaginable. I still have to listen to the album many more times but so far it reminds me in parts of my favourite U2 record, the 1984 The Unforgettable Fire -- very acclaimed at the time but almost forgotten today, or so it seems. That album was a bridge between their early days - when much of their work was teen-angst agitprop about the political discontent in Ireland - and the maturity of The Joshua Tree. But there are also echoes here of their beginnings: The Edge’s pulsating guitarwork and the boyish, wide-eyed abandon of Bono’s singing in the opening track "Vertigo" is a nice, nostalgic throwback to their work on Boy and War.

"What a drag it is getting old!" yammered Jagger in the 1960s, and nearly 40 years later he’s still howling and bounding about the stage. The members of U2 are, of course, young in comparison; but they are in their mid-40s, and show absolutely no sign of fading. The four of them first came together as high school students in 1976 and I marvel at how they’ve spent the better part of three decades together, creating great music with so much passion, with only occasional lulls, and without poking each others’ eyes out along the way. It’s scary.

Friday, December 10, 2004

More book lists

Links (courtesy the Maud Newton site) to more year-end best book lists: from the Village Voice, and the New York Times Book Review.

So many reading lists to persuse, who has the time for the actual books? Grumble...

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Ved Mehta's The Red Letters

Have just reviewed Ved Mehta’s The Red Letters for the paper (here’s the link). It’s the conclusion to his autobiographical "Continents of Exile" series and tells the story of his (married) father’s brief liaison with a family friend (whom he had first met years earlier as a young medical student). Found myself drawn into the book on reading the prologue, in which the author describes a dinner party in his New York apartment in 1967, at which he brings together his parents and his revered editor at the New Yorker, William Shawn. (Incidentally, I realised only on reading this that Wallace Shawn -- that fine character actor who played Uncle Vanya in Louis Malle’s masterful Vanya on 42nd Street -- is the son of William Shawn. But that’s another story.)

Update: the link no longer works, so here's the full review.

The final book in Ved Mehta's autobiographical "Continents of Exile" series starts with an account of a party that ended on an unhappy note. It was New York, 1967, and the then 33-year-old Mehta had reason to feel upbeat. He was an established staff writer with the New Yorker and a protege of its revered editor-in-chief William Shawn -- quite an achievement for an Indian working in the US at the time, but much more so for one who had been blind since the age of four. Now his parents were visiting him, he was eager to flaunt his self-reliance and he was "bringing together the two men who had had the greatest influence on me -- my father and Mr Shawn". But things didn't quite work as hoped: somehow, an evening that began promisingly ended with Mehta's slightly inebriated father sobbing about how he had always felt guilty about his son's blindness.

This episode has no direct connection with the story at the centre of The Red Letters; but it's significant because it reveals to Mehta an unseen side of his always-composed, always-dignified father, and in a way prepares the ground for what follows. Guilt, regret and the barriers to attaining candour in a parent-child relationship are among the motifs of this new book, in which the author decides to publish a story he first learnt of decades ago: the story of his (married) father's brief affair with a married woman in the early 1930s.

Mehta gleans this information in parts. It begins with his father's seemingly capricious decision to co-write a book with him, about an encounter between a young medical student and a 12-year-old hill girl in the Punjab Himalayas and their chance meeting again years later, when they commence a brief dalliance. The project is abandoned, but a decade on Mehta's father unexpectedly suggests they take it up again. In the course of a long conversation, as the senior Mr Mehta progresses from conditional to indicative mood while relating the plot, the author realises that the story is in fact about his father's affair with a woman he remembers from his childhood as Aunty Rasil.

These dialogues between father and son form the most interesting sections of the book; they are by turn intense, searching and tentative exchanges where both men learn things about each other and about themselves. There are many levels to their conversation. There's shared guilt; the guilt of the father about his adulterous relationship and the guilt of the son about hearing the story ("I felt there was a symbiotic relationship between the impropriety of his relationship with Rasil and the impropriety of my getting involved with it"). There's shyness -- fostered by the generation gap -- which leads to the coining of the euphemistic term "Enchanted Period" to describe the affair ("a love affair...with sex, as you would call it today" is the closest Mehta's father comes to being candid, and that's when he is still pretending the story is about someone else).

There is, too, the inevitable clash of cultures, though with a twist: at one point, Mehta's father defensively says, "There you are applying your Christian, Western concepts to our Indian culture, where Hindus and Muslims have traditionally taken more than one wife." The author subtly conveys his father's lack of self-awareness, or at least his refusal to face up to the full impact of the relationship on the major parties involved, including his wife.

Ved Mehta's writing style is, as William Shawn once described it, "airy, elegant, marvellously clear". But it has also often been contentious, because it is strikingly visual and descriptive; he writes as if he can see, which is disorienting in a non-fiction narrative. (In 1960, a New York Times reviewer decried the author and his publishers for omitting to mention his blindness from a jacket description.) Reading The Red Letters, you might feel a bit cheated by, for instance, this key passage where his father unveils the "red letters" written by Rasil to him:
...he undid the latches, opened the attache case on his lap and, from under his change of clothes, started pulling out the paraphernalia of an old man -- old counterfoils from checkbooks, old clippings, used airmail envelopes, a gold watchband, and an empty Harrod's plastic shopping bag. Then he brought out a packet of letters loosely tied with a string...they were in envelopes of many sizes and colours...
If you're not overly sensitive about such things, however, it's possible to appreciate this unpretentious book on its own terms. The Red Letters is what is spoken of in critspeak as a "little" book -- not just because it's novella-length (which, these days, means anything under 250 pages) but because it isn't about "big" topics; it's an intimate story that might seem too particularised to be of universal interest.

Mehta himself has often rallied against this notion, pointing out that "the story of any person, however insignificant and humble, has intrinsic value -- that the more specifically individual the story, the more universally general it is". He overstates his case -- it's a little embarrassing when he mentions Proust and Joyce as the inspiration for "Continents of Exile" and discusses the significance of all his books in his Afterword -- but the core of his argument can't be faulted. At its best, The Red Letters is a moving and insightful personal history, a fitting conclusion to a series of books that has greater universal appeal than one might think.

More on movie-watching: a mail exchange with YB

Am posting here a mail exchange I had with Yusuf, a friend/former colleague twice over, with whom I’ve often squabbled about topics like "serious cinema" vs "entertainment". YB and I argue about many things, but we also have an occasional grudging, unhealthy respect for each other -- though that’s mainly when we’re both very drunk and so can pretend to have forgotten about the whole thing the next morning.

In his mail (which he tried to post as a comment but couldn’t), he makes some good points about film appreciation and about quality film writing in Indian journals/serious papers long before the advent of the Net. My response is only partly a reply to his mail, but it takes some of the things I mentioned in the Ocean’s Twelve blog further.

Yusuf: Dude, was going through one of your blogs...the one that has your thoughts on plagiarism. Was surprised you think that before your time film critics were not cued in the Western/Hollywood idiom. And that "knowledge" came with the advent of www. I don't think even today Indian film critics (or any observer) understands a foreign culture. Some of today's youngsters (and I include you in this group) may speak with an accent, have a slightly more understanding of American English. But how does that help one understand a film? By your yardstick I need to live in the US/Czech Republic/Peru to understand films from those countries. Having an in-depth knowledge of a country/culture helps one understand better. American society has been written about extensively (in India) since the end of WW II. Indian film critics had a working knowledge of Hollywood.

I think you've missed the point. Internet has made plagiarism (as well as getting caught) easier. But to think that critics of the 1950s/60s/70s were lacking in film education is going a tad over the top. I wish you could read Bengali so that I could refer you to a few film magazines that had serious articles on cinema (European, Latin American, Hollywood, etc) and all written before the advent of www. I'm sure there must be articles in other Indian languages too written during the same period. Frankly I can't understand why people are getting worked up with 300-word reviews in mainline newspapers. If one was serious one would be writing about films in film journals.

I would have posted this on you blog space but then found out that I had to register and all that crap.

My reply: Hi, thanks for the inputs, but some of what you've written is in vain -- I should have clarified (and I think I did in one of the subsequent comments on that blog or another related one) that I was talking largely about Delhi-centred critics, and the mainstream newspaper ones (the 300-word trash writers), not journal/academic writing. I'm certainly not so naive as to think that quality foreign film writing didn't exist here before "my time".

Regarding being "serious", we've had that discussion before in the context of film watching/reviewing... my only real critical observation on your approach to movie-viewing is that I don't think you're open-minded enough about films. I'm every bit as discriminating about "Hollywood trash" as you are (and anyway, I've watched maybe 6 American films in the last two years) but I also think one should be open to movies that might not seem to be about serious issues but which have style, verve and a sense of cinematic history. Often, if you watch such movies with an unprejudiced eye, you'll find that they do in fact have some interesting, provocative things to say as well - it's just that they don't spoonfeed you messages, the way the "serious" directors' films do.

Small example: (and I know I'm painfully obsessive about the Hitchcock thing, so bear with me) try this sometime. Watch Psycho, note how beautifully Hitch hides his little ideas, visual motifs, scene-echoes, even (yes!) "messages", within the framework of the film's narrative structure, so that they don't interfere with the storytelling. Then watch Bergman’s Persona, a movie with many visual and thematic references to Psycho (the child-figure reaching out to the schizophrenic mother figure, the concept of becoming another person through the process of acting a role, etc), and see how the director time and again thrusts his motifs and ideas in the viewer's face blatantly, with complete disregard for narrative structure or story continuity.

Now I'm aware that Bergman's approach to film-making is completely different from Hitch's, and that both are legitimate. My point is this: Bergman is universally regarded as a serious director of "ideas", while Hitchcock is still widely dismissed as a clever entertainer. And yet, in the example I cited above, what Hitchcock did is clearly far more difficult to achieve than what Bergman did.

There are many more examples...more on this later...

P.S. Dude, the last thing I would ever suggest is that one needs to live in a country to understand its cinema. I've been here for 27 years and I still have immense trouble with Hindi films. (Go on, that's your cue for another jibe about how Ocean's Twelve "is no different from a Govinda movie"...)

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Ocean’s Twelve, and ways of watching films

Watched Ocean’s Twelve last night, my first movie preview in what felt like decades. Didn’t regret it though; it was almost as fluid, snazzy, cinematic as its predecessor, if a bit overlong. Am not going to review it here, but here are some scattered thoughts:

- Enjoyed a film despite the presence of Julia Roberts in it. Big achievement for me, I deserve an Oscar. Especially because, for a few horrible, cheesy moments the Julia Roberts character has to impersonate the real Julia Roberts, which is twice as bad as Julia Roberts just playing somebody else. Soderbergh being unnecessarily cute here.

- Thought George Clooney overdid it in this one -- too many facial tics. Strange, because his trademark is being relaxed.

- There’s talk of how the shooting for this movie was one big picnic for the cast and crew, and some of the nudge-winkism has spilled over into the film.

- Some friends are annoyed by Don Cheadle’s Cockney accent. I don’t get that. Okay, so it’s inauthentic. But people, is realism really a big issue in this movie?! (Beside, it’s such fun.)

On to a related topic. After watching Ocean’s Eleven a couple of years ago, I shook the faith many of my friends had in my movie judgement by opining that it was Steven Soderbergh’s best film: better than the intriguing Sex, Lies and Videotape, better than the underseen Kafka and Out of Sight, certainly better than the overrated "Look at me, I use different colour schemes for different settings!" Traffic. I strongly felt Ocean’s Eleven was closer to "pure cinema", or at least my idea of what that is, than any of his other movies. I loved the way the film didn’t rely too much on words: the assured playfulness, the long silent passages where the director used purely visual means to convey what was going on (I remember especially the sequence that showed how the final heist was executed, and the look on Andy Garcia’s face when he realised exactly how he had been duped).

My notion of pure cinema (and I’m aware that it’s a limited definition) is a movie that doesn’t need words at all, spoken or written (on title-cards). The most famous example of this being achieved in a feature film was in F.W. Murnau’s 1924 silent The Last Laugh, which made do without any title-cards. And I also remember the late-1980s Kamal Hassan-starrer Pushpak, which was a very interesting experiment in making a modern-day silent film.

I think it’s notable that throughout film history the great purveyors of "pure film" have had to be defended most ardently by their fans, against meaning-seeking critics. Hitchcock remains, of course the classic example. Even though he has latterly been overanalysed by critics/academics anxious to atone for the sins of their forerunners in dismissing him as merely a clever showman, the fact remains that even today, it’s difficult to write an article about Hitchcock without first explaining why his work must be taken seriously. (Things haven’t changed all that much since the day Truffaut wrote in the introduction to his famous book of interviews: "Why should we take Hitchcock seriously? It’s a pity the question has to be asked at all...if we were yet able to see cinema, instead of mentally reducing it to literature, it would be irrelevant...")

Among living directors, Brian DePalma is a notable victim of this critical insistence on "serious, important, meaningful" themes and the simultaneous dismissal of a movie that is a great visual experience, with style generating its own substance. How easily it’s forgotten that cinema is, first and foremost, a visual medium. (DePalma told Quentin Tarantino in an interview once: "People often tell me, you’re very clever, you know how to make things jump and dance, but where’s the substance? And I tell them, look at a Van Gogh painting, where’s the substance in that? What you see is what you get.")

Like I said, I know my idea of pure cinema is a limited one. I had a rewarding conversation with a friend recently who pointed out that the concept as I see it doesn’t accommodate directors like Bergman, Woody Allen and others who rely on words, and the subject matter of whose movies is such that they have to include reams of dialogue. This friend also suggested that DePalma’s painting analogy was problematic, because cinema as a medium/art-form has more dimensions than painting: sound is as much a part of it as sight, and you can’t do away with words altogether. Fair enough. So I’ll accept that my espousing of directors like Hitchcock and DePalma is a matter of personal taste (and protectiveness: for such directors need defending much more than the Bergmans do).

I have all the time in the world for informed, thoughtful debates like these where opposing views on a subject are exchanged. What I don’t have time for is people who dismiss outright -- and without allowing for further argument -- great visual movies like Ocean’s Eleven and Ocean’s Twelve as "mere entertainment, nothing more". There are far too many of these joyless sorts.

Apologies to Triumph the Sock Dog

Annoyed US-based friends who enjoy smearing their pedantry in other people’s faces have been mailing to tell me I got it all wrong in my recent Eminem blog: that it isn’t about an Arab/Asian being hounded at all, what it’s really about is M&M pillorying one of his many bete noires, in this case a sock puppet (??!) called Triumph the Puppet Dog, and what business do I have complaining about plagiarists when I can’t do some basic research before posting a blog. This puppet appears on the Conan O’Brien show apparently and Eminem has had a long-standing grudge against it (him?), for who knows what reason.

In the tradition of Leos who don’t admit to being wrong, I’ll say this: my blog was based on ONE cursory hearing of the song, and I was too busy laughing to concentrate hard on the lyrics. Anyway, on hearing it again, my initial impression hasn’t changed that much; so maybe it’s Eminem making fun of Triumph the Puppet imitating an Asian man. Whatever.

But just for the record, deepest apologies to everyone concerned: my hurt friends, the profane Mr Mathers, Triumph the Dog and the almost equally insensate Conan O’Brien. Next time I blog about a song that catches my fancy, I’ll analyse the lyrics across 200 websites first.

I didn't mean to be obscene or make a great big scene
And don't treat me like I'm Peewee Herman, this movie's PG
Mr. Officer, I demand to see my attorney
I will simply plead innocent, cop a plea and be free
Free, yes, free, right back on the streets
What you mean my lawyer's with Michael, he's too busy?
I am Triumph, Britney Spears has shoulders like a man
And I can say that and you'll laugh cuz there is a puppet on my hand

-- "Ass Like That", Eminem

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

All the world's a copy-cat

Rejoice, we Indians aren't the only ones who plagiarise! Got a mail from Alan Vanneman, who writes for the Bright Lights Film journal (read some of his film writings here). Had told him about the Ebert/Kazmi incident. His reply:

"If there's one thing the web is good for, it's plagarism. Four or five years ago I did a piece on the Doris Day-Rock Hudson-Tony Randall films of the sixties, and recently an author for Slate "borrowed" my findings when she wrote up Tony's obituary. I sent Slate a note and they gave me credit, which was nice..."

So, does this mean the Times of India movie reviews merit a joint byline? If that were to happen, then given some of the asinine 'alterations' made to the Ebert review, the Chicago Sun-Times would have good reason to sue...

Indian batting: a passage to greatness

Interesting link on Cricinfo: Mukul Kesavan on the modern history of Indian batting in the light of Wisden Asia’s list of 25 Best Test Innings by Indian Batsmen. I’ve held a bit of a grudge against Kesavan, mainly because (here I go again) he’s been uncharitable to Tendulkar in previous writings. But this is a very readable piece, and finally - FINALLY, FINALLY, FINALLY - here’s someone else making the point that great innings mustn’t be judged only by the match result. ("Wisden’s list of 25 best innings doesn't make that mistake; it understands Indian cricket's long romance with gallant defeat and makes room for it.")

Will have to buy the December issue of Wisden Asia to see the complete list.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Ishiguro, Dylan and celeb reading lists

There’s always a childlike thrill on discovering a link between two of your heroes, especially if you imagined that they belonged to different worlds and their paths could never possibly converge. I felt that thrill on reading, on this page, that Kazuo Ishiguro thinks Bob Dylan’s "writing voice in Chronicles: Volume One is almost as magnificent as his singing voice". I wonder how Stevens, the butler from Remains of the Day (or practically any of Ishiguro's protagonists for that matter), would react if Bob D started croaking "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" to him.

Also interesting that another of Ishiguro’s book recommendations is Alex Garland’s Coma, because from what I’ve heard about that book, it’s similar in some ways to Ishiguro’s own The Unconsoled, a great surrealistic novel. Ishiguro himself describes Coma as "a weirdly disorientating illustrated novella...a bold step towards the creation of a new genre, perhaps even a new art form". I’ve put it on my own reading list queue now.

On another note: it’s fun to glance through celebrity recommendations for books of the year, but if you’re sceptical about such lists here’s another link for you.

Friday, December 03, 2004

“Golly gee! People read! Books!”

I have this recurring professional nightmare: on a 20-minute deadline, and with no research allowed, the Editor orders me to produce an overview of, let’s say, quantum physics or some such topic I’ve meticulously avoided thinking about for most of my life. I fancy the Times of India feels much the same way when it writes a story on books. I noted with alarm this morning that there was an article titled "Book, Line and Sinker" in the TOI’s city supplement, wherein the paper seems finally to have convinced itself that people do, in fact, read books and that this bizarre trend is on the upswing.

The first paragraph of this story is a masterful example of how an experience as commonplace (for some of us anyhow) as reading/book browsing can be prettily exoticised. Here goes:

"One would have thought that with TV, the Internet and other modes of entertainment hitting drawing rooms, reading books was a lost culture. Be surprised! For, most of Delhi’s well-known people, and the not-so-famous ones, have one thing in common: a passion for reading. Or to be more precise, the passion of just browsing through shelves after shelves of book at bookstores."

The above para is so rich in comic detail, it deserves multiple readings (which is apt I suppose for a story on the reading culture), just so you don’t miss anything out. (My personal favourite turn of phrase: "browsing through shelves after shelves of book...")

And later: "The classy among the rich and famous are fond of reading from various bookstores..."

This is probably what Alfred E Neuman meant about "rising to new depths", but I suppose one should at least allot points for intention. Me, I’m scribbling out that quantum physics piece now...

Thursday, December 02, 2004

The plagiarism debate (contd)

Posted this on DesiMediaBitchFest...

Further to Black Muddy River’s blog on plagiarism on DesiMediaBitch...we had a long talk about the subject last evening and one of the things we discussed was: why is everyone so surprised by the Nikhat Kazmi incident? Over the last few years we’ve been looking at the foreign-movie reviews that appear weekly in our major (and minor) papers and we’ve never been under the impression that it’s anything but "inspired" writing. The big surprise in the latest incident isn’t that the plagiarism occurred -- it’s been happening for years, and in all the newspapers, though, as Shamya says, often in neatly disguised form. The real surprise is that a high-profile critic in the country’s leading newspaper was silly enough to lift whole passages without changing anything, thus making it easy for herself to get caught.

Those of us who pride ourselves on watching movies with passion and forming our own very strong, individual opinions about them, are annoyed by the seeming laziness of many established critics. I have a small theory about this: film critics in India who started out on this beat in the 1980s (or before) rarely had to contend with doing reviews of non-Indian films. Ten, even eight, years ago, Delhiites went to the Priya or Chanakya halls eyes agog at the prospect of getting to watch a Hollywood film (usually a very mediocre Hollywood film) a mere eight months after it had been released in the US. Back then, that was considered luxury! Then came the multiplex culture followed by the era of nearly simultaneous release, and it became necessary for newspapers to carry foreign film reviews. Naturally, writing these became the responsibility of the already-entrenched reviewers, who, until then, hadn’t been watching non-Indian movies with a professional eye (notwithstanding the odd film festival), and had little experience in writing about them.

All this started happening in the mid-to-late 1990s, and that was also when the Internet came into its own out here. How’s that for a combination! On the one hand there was a group of film journalists who hadn’t had much exposure to international cinema and (quite understandably) didn’t get all the cultural references in the Hollywood films they were regularly being bombarded with now; and on the other hand, there was this vast, eminently minable database that would supply all the information they wanted. Go on, put the two ends together and see what you get.

I’m not saying everyone was naturally lazy or dishonest to begin with; I think how it probably worked was that in the early days our reviewers checked online reviews for basic information (cast, crew, character names, places mentioned in the story, the other little details one doesn’t always pick up when the people onscreen are talking in unfamiliar accents), and then gradually moved on to "borrowing" ideas and so forth. And soon, realising that no one really took movie reviews too seriously anyway, they developed the apathy that allowed last Sunday’s Shark Tale review to be "written" the way it was.

Much of the above is speculation of course, and I’d appreciate inputs, especially from anyone who was working as a journo 10-15 years ago and has a better sense of how this culture of indolence might have developed.

The funniest song EVER! (and other scattered thoughts on Eminem)

Lost control of the steering wheel and nearly ploughed into the nearest divider last evening, I was laughing so hard while listening to Eminem’s "Ass Like That" from his new album Encore. Has anyone heard this song? It is fucking (oops, * beep * beep) hilarious. The hip-hop refrain (with M&M’s buddies from the gangsta rap circuit, including Nate Dogg, 50 Cent etc, solemnly chanting, "Never seen an Ass Like That") is conventional enough, except that the background music has an Arabic flavour, with what I’ve always thought of as "harem chords". And the refrain is punctuated in three places by the hysterical rants of an Arab/possibly Asian gentleman being hounded by the police in the US. ("It wasn’t me, Meeester Offeecer" and such.) Eminem’s mimicry here is awesome. (It panders to every racial stereotype, but what the heck, it’s still awesome.)

Eminem is accused of being unpardonably offensive to women, blacks and gays (and other minorities). He is all of that -- in his songs at least; I have no clue what he’s like offstage - but something that isn’t much commented on is that at his best, Mr Mathers is offensive towards EVERYONE, not least himself. (Check the lyrics of his misogynistic songs to see the light in which he paints himself vis-a-vis his relationships with women.) This is absurdism on a grand scale and there’s a puerile side to me that loves it. His repertoire is a (very scatological, very profane) variation on that famous exchange from the early Brando film The Wild One. (Sweet, cotton-frocked Mary Jane: "What are you rebelling against?" Pouting, denim-clad, bike-straddling Marlon: "What’ve you got?")

Which is why I found it funny when various Bush-hating friends forwarded me the lyrics of Eminem’s Republican-bashing song "Mosh" last month. I think it’s ill-advised to hold him up as the mouthpiece for one’s own beliefs or causes, because he’s always liable to do an about-turn and leave you confounded. (I could be wrong in the specific context of his political beliefs of course - most musicians/performing artistes in the US are firmly with the Democrats, and very strong-minded about it.) In fact, this is one area where I think the comparisons with Bob Dylan are valid; Dylan went his own way throughout his varied career, repeatedly disillusioning fans/followers who thought they had him pigeonholed. (I was very amused by the cries of dismay when he appeared in the lingerie ad a few months ago; it was SO like the man to do something like that, and the fans’ reaction betrayed such naivette.)

Anyway, back to the funniest song ever. You’ll find Ass Like That lyrics on the Net, but not much point reading them; you have to hear the thing. Meanwhile, I’m considering writing an album review or two (have also bought U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, the car stereo is behaving and there’s finally something constructive to do during the two hours I spend on the road each day.)