Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Plug for Stet

Link time. After much prodding from Hurree Babu and myself, Mitali Saran, formerly of Business Standard and one of my favourite book reviewers and travel writers (she’s done much more of the latter in recent times), has finally descended into the blogo-swamp. In a manner of speaking, that is: Stet: Life, Unedited isn’t a blog with freshly generated content, it’s a storehouse for the very entertaining weekly column Mitali writes for BS Weekend. Topics include the effect of Gandhigiri on the flower trade, superheroes we really need, and why Diwali is actually quite dignified compared to what the rest of the world does for amusement.

One of my favourites: this piece about evil foetuses that “release toxins to constrict the mother’s blood vessels and starve her organs, to death if necessary, to feed their own placenta”. [Note: not intended for anyone who says “sho shweet” more than 10 times a day and thinks babies/foetuses/the Miracle of Birth are too sacrosanct to joke about.]

Next on the agenda: getting her to post some of her reviews and travel pieces. And I also have to get Kishore Singh's People Like Us onto a site of its own...

Monday, October 30, 2006

Anti-heroism in Paths of Glory

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

(from “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, by Thomas Gray)

There’s a harrowing scene late in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory that help bring the film’s real concerns into clearer focus. Three soldiers of the French army have been condemned to death by their own superiors, for alleged cowardice in the face of a mission that we know was suicidal and unreasonable from the start. Their commanding officer, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), stands helplessly by: a lawyer in civilian life, he had tried to defend his men in the army court by pointing out their shows of courage in past missions, but to no avail.

Of the condemned men, one is relatively stoical about his fate; another is barely conscious because of an accident in his prison cell the previous night (leading one of the senior officers to tell a warden: “Make sure his eyes are open when the firing squad takes aim”). But the third man bawls all the way to the execution area. “Don’t kill me,” he wails, “I don’t want to die!” He squirms and flinches until the very last second of his life, and watching him we squirm too; weaned as we have been on war films founded on heroism and panache, we are now face to face with anti-heroism of the bleakest kind. And it’s much easier to identify with.

Up to this point, Paths of Glory had seemed to be a film about grave injustice; about three good soldiers being made scapegoats for the callous games of their power-mad superiors. The main question seemed to be: are they shirkers who had to be punished as an example, or brave men who were asked to perform an impossible task? But watching the terrified soldier resist the meaningless ending of his life, we realise that this is beside the point. The real question is: in the face of war’s insanity, is it reasonable to expect a sane person not to be a coward, to choose death over life? ("I can't understand these armchair officers, fellas trying to fight a war from behind a desk, worrying about whether a mouse is gonna run up their pants," says the callous General Mireau at one point. "I don't know, General," replies Dax. "If I had the choice between mice and Mausers, I'd take the mice every time.")

The question has of course been addressed before, in film and literature. One thinks of great comic works such as Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H* and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and it’s often been suggested that war is best treated as a horror-comedy. Paths of Glory is a rare example of a great anti-war film, indeed a great anti-heroic film, that is dramatic and austere on the surface and yet creates its own subversive comedy. How can you not smile in disbelief when Dax’s senior officer tells him not to quibble over fractions (they’re discussing whether the expected casualties would be 30 or 40 per cent of the squad). Or when two soldiers discuss whether it’s preferable to be killed by a bayonet or a machine gun. Or when Mireau, sealing the fate of his own soldiers, snaps, “If the little sweethearts won't face German bullets, they’ll face French ones!”

This was Kubrick’s breakthrough film, though by all accounts it was Kirk Douglas, the producer-star, who insisted on the downbeat (and un-Hollywoodish) ending. Given
that Douglas began his career as a hunky leading man who specialised in physical roles (as in Champion; picture on left), it’s notable that this film, which stands in opposition to every idea of swaggering machismo, was so close to his heart. But then, he was always a much more interesting actor than a casual glance through his filmography would suggest: by the early 1950s, he had already started to expand his range, playing anti-heroic roles even within the framework of genre films such as Detective Story. Watching Paths of Glory helps me put in perspective his disagreements with John Wayne, who wanted macho leading men to play tough heroes, not “wimps”, onscreen (more on that in this post). If ever a film made a good case for “wimpishness” over “heroism”, this is it.

Paths of Glory is beautifully shot, justly famous for George Krause’s black-and-white photography, the long tracking shots in the trenches (the setting is WW1) and the performances, especially by George Macready as the power-hungry Mireau and veteran actor Adolphe Menjou as the manipulative General Broulard. To an extent, it suffers from the artificiality of American actors speaking in English while playing Frenchmen (it’s understood that this is cinematic licence, but it does get jarring, especially today, when we are more accustomed to realism – or at least to the idea of realism). Still, it was an enormous achievement for a film like this to even get made at a time when Hollywood was awash with gung-ho war movies that made guns and cannons look exciting. The biggest testament to its effectiveness is that it was banned in some countries (including France) for decades, and that it is still looked at askance by extreme right-wingers and by those who like to romanticise war. Luckily, the DVD is now widely available.

[Did an edited version of this for the New Sunday Express.]

Also see this lengthy analysis by Tim Dirks.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

A day in the life: the Delhi of Zafar and Dalrymple

Above all it is the city's relationship with its past which continues to intrigue me: of the great cities of the world, only Rome, Istanbul and Cairo can even begin to rival Delhi for the sheer volume and density of historic remains. Crumbling tomb towers, old mosques or ancient colleges intrude in the most unlikely places, appearing suddenly on roundabouts or in municipal gardens, diverting the road network and obscuring the fairways of the golf course. New Delhi is not new at all: it is a groaning necropolis, with enough ruins to keep any historian busy through several incarnations.
To call William Dalrymple's love for Delhi infectious would be a serious understatement. I’ve stayed here all my life but watching the city through his eyes is always such a fresh experience; it gets me all excited about Delhi again, and regretful that I never got around to nurturing (if only on an amateur basis) my adolescent interest in history and archaeology. Am halfway through The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857, Dalrymple's account of the last years of Bahadur Shah Zafar's reign, and there's already been much to cherish. But special mention for Chapter 3, "An Uneasy Equilibrium", in which he fascinatingly contrasts the lifestyles of the British and the Mughals residing in Delhi in the 1850s. (Incidentally, at the Jaipur Heritage fest early this year, Nikhil, Chandrahas and I attended a presentation/reading by Dalrymple, where he read from portions of this chapter.)

"An Uneasy Equilibrium" is a masterful pen-portrait of a day in the life of a city and its many peoples. "During the early 1850s," Dalrymple writes, "it sometimes seemed as if the British and the Mughals lived not only in different mental worlds, but almost in different time zones." He then illustrates this difference by examining the events of a typical day on an almost hour-by-hour basis: starting at 3.30 AM, when the day is beginning for the British as they wake up in the cantonments, while it is only just winding to a close for the Mughals:
…the poetic mushairas of the Mughals were still in full flow in the Red Fort, while in the kothis of the courtesans in Chauri Bazaar the dancing and ghazal singing were drawing to a close, and the girls were progressing to the more intimate stage of their duties. As the Mughal poets and the courtesans raised their different tempos, sleepy, yawning Englishmen [...] would be sitting up in bed as their servants attempted to shave them and pull on their stockings. A long session of drill in the cantonment parade ground lay ahead.

Two hours later, by the time the sun was beginning to rise over the Yamuna and the poets, the courtesans and their patrons were all heading back to bed to sleep off their long nights, not only the soldiers but also the British civilians would be up and about..."
Hours later, Dalrymple tells us, as Chandni Chowk was waking up, the working day was already drawing to a close two miles to the north, in the cantonment: "Soon after 1 PM, as Sir Thomas [Metcalfe] was heading back to Metcalfe House in his carriage, his day's work completed, things were just beginning to stir in the Red Fort." And so it goes. The aged emperor Zafar begins to eat his dinner no earlier than 10.30 PM, a time when most of the Britishers are long asleep. And we come full circle when, late at night, “the versifying began, to continue until dawn, when it would be the turn of Zauq and Ghalib to bring the night to its climax. But long before that, from the north, would come the distant sound of the morning bugle. Two miles away, in the British cantonments, a very different day was beginning".

[Download of an extract from the book available at Dalrymple's website.]

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Outtakes from the Dark Side

So you thought I spent all my time writing profound things about books and films that no one has ever heard of? But this is far from the truth. Here are examples of sentences I've written recently, which, for one reason or another were expurgated from the stories they were meant to be in (and in at least one case, caused a minor strain in my relationship with an editor).

– Today, Rishikesh (Hair of Sage) seems somewhat bemused by its own status as the Yoga Capital of the world. "Maybe it's because of our deep spirituality," says Guru Rudra, reaching for a packet of Krackjacks.

– Sitting alone and contemplatively in the mud pit that is the "VVIP Enclosure" of the Great Bombay Circus tent, I watch with mounting terror as the elephant kicks the football straight at my head.

– Giggling, the nubile swami ventures, "Was it because of the Beatles, you think?"

– It’s 6.30 AM, I’ve been on this railway platform for two-and-a-half hours now listening to that cussed “Ooh Aah India” song and watching 20-year-old journos and PR people jiggle and sing along, and the last vestiges of patriotism have been successfully drained from my being, along with all desire to witness the continuation of my species.

– "I wish to make a film about Yoga in Rishikesh," implores the young African, "I will sell the rights to American TV, or put it up on the Internet." "We don't believe in commercialisation," retorts the ashram secretary, wagging his finger from side to side, "We won't allow your foul cameras into our inner chambers, begone!"

– The dogs are expected to walk in a 360-degree arc around the outer ring with their forelegs placed at a small height and their hind legs dragging along the floor; unfortunately, not all of them know this.

– "Main aap se sirf Hindi mein baat karoonga," says the muscular, Adonis-like Russian juggler, folding his hands in greeting, even as the parrots flap their wings and shriek. "Aur yeh hai meri dharmpatni, Svetlana."

– "In my resignation letter," continues the Yoga Niketan secretary, grinning evilly at the distressed student, "I wrote: I am leaving Delhi to come here, mingle with saints and merge my soul in good mother Ganga."

– No one, not even the Outlook photographer, is going to persuade me to enter an akhada that doesn't have Monica Bellucci in it.

– After working for three years with Hindustan Aeronautics, he had an unexpected spiritual experience, wherein he travelled for more than 70 hours through an astral realm. "When I returned to my physical body, I found it was extremely stiff," he tells me. "I could barely move for the next couple of days, much less do any work. The factory head was very annoyed."

– Then Abrol, a large, genial man in baggy shorts, walks up to the mound and laughs a powerful, echoing laugh that seems to rise up from the very belly of the earth. Deer Park reverberates with this call to arms and a multitude of Laughter Clubbers emerge from the shrubbery, staggering towards us like zombies in a Romero film.

[Note to all wannabe journalists: when you've been working on a story for days and find yourself getting bored, just pile on as many adverbs, adjectives and analogies as you can. This won’t make you a good writer but it will help you discard your self-worth and perhaps even become a better person.]

P.S. Yes, all of the above did happen.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Go, pirates!

Am pleased to report that whatever minor moral qualms I had about buying pirated DVDs have vanished, like breath into wind (yes, still on the Macbeth trip). Am I the first babe-in-the-woods to discover this or did everyone else know that the films we get here on official discs (the ones priced at Rs 399/599 and found at Planet M, Music World etc) are randomly censored? The same way the movies in those thick plastic-cover cassettes (forget the company name now) used to be in the video era. And the same way, of course, that movies screened in our regular halls are cut.

I’ve been buying legit DVDs quite frequently, against the counsel of friends who say it’s insanity to spend that much on a single disc. (What to do, I’m finicky about proper packaging and such. Besides, you don’t get everything at Palika Bazaar.) There was no problem all this while because the films I’ve been picking up from Planet M have mostly been Hollywood oldies: Sunset Boulevard, His Girl Friday, The Grapes of Wrath, Mary Poppins, a few films for my classics column for the New Sunday Express. No content there that might be deemed objectionable by our certificate-suppliers. But a couple of days ago I bought the DVD of Francois Ozon’s atmospheric Swimming Pool and discovered that entire scenes (mainly involving nudity by the delectable Ludivine Sagnier – and one scene, crucial to the plot, with Charlotte Rampling at the very end) were missing. (I’ve seen the film before, hence was aware of the deleted scenes and how the cuts affected the film’s continuity.)

Subsequently, a friend informed me that his officially purchased Pulp Fiction DVD has bits cut out from the confrontation involving Marcellus Wallace, Zed and the Gimp in the cellar, and possibly from a couple of other scenes. This is worse than disgusting; if the authorities are so bent on playing moral guardians, they should at least stop trying to put out crumbs for the non-mainstream/world cinema audience. Stick to old films and the occasional Hollywood summer blockbuster that’s G/PG-rated and sanitised in the first place. (It’s a strange morality that allows you to watch only Jerry Bruckheimer movies all day long, but what do I know.)

Nor is sex-and-violence censorship the only problem. On my Swimming Pool DVD, the portions of the film that were in French didn’t have subtitles, and there were no options to enable them on the “special features” menu. It threw me back to that day many years ago when I excitedly bought a very impressively packaged videocassette of The Godfather Part II, rushed home and found there were no subtitles for the flashback sequences (with De Niro playing the young Vito Corleone, the dialogue mostly in Italian). It’s all very well to bleat on about the film industry losing a lot of money to piracy – this is true enough on its own terms, and I sympathise with the struggling, lower-profile filmmakers who suffer as a result. But not including subtitles (or audio options, or the promised special features for that matter) on an “approved” DVD priced at Rs 500 is a blatant case of cheating the customer. Besides, man is a selfish animal and does not live on family films alone.

Back to the Palika Bazaar grind now…

Related posts: DVD extras, the Palika shop, DVDs vs VCDs and discs that aren’t properly packaged. Also, a nice, balanced comment here about the evils of piracy – which makes all this dicking around with legit discs even worse.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Crossing the great divide

Two quotes, from Haruki Murakami’s wonderful novel Dance Dance Dance:

“I used to think the years would go by in order, that you get older one year at a time,” said Gotanda, peering into my face. “But it’s not like that at all. It happens overnight.”
Humans achieve their peak in different ways. But whoever you are, once you’re over the summit, it’s downhill all the way. Nothing anyone can do about it. And the worst of it is, you never know where that peak is. You think you’re still going strong, when suddenly you’ve crossed the great divide. No one can tell. Some people peak at twelve, then lead rather uneventful lives from then on. Some carry on until they die; some die at their peak. Poets and composers have lived like furies, pushing themselves to such a pitch they’re gone by thirty. Then there are those like Picasso, who keep breaking ground till well past eighty.
Dance Dance Dance is the sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase, though you don’t really need to read that one first; like all of Murakami’s work, this book is self-sustained. Am not reviewing it here (partly because no time, partly because reviewing Murakami is always a scary prospect; writing a structured review somehow feels like you’re being false to the author and what he stands for), but treat this as a strong recommendation. He's one of the world’s truly great writers in my always-humble opinion, and this book isn’t a bad place to start if you haven’t read him before. Norwegian Wood (which I blogged about here) is still the most accessible of his novels, but Dance Dance Dance comes a close second; it isn’t as dense as Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (which I also love) or as long and attention-demanding as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, or as esoteric as A Wild Sheep Chase gets in places.

e other reviews of Dance Dance Dance here.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Nine Hamlets

While on Shakespeare films, do bookmark and read this staggeringly comprehensive article by Alan Vannemann, about nine different film versions of the Bard’s most celebrated play - with such actors as Olivier, Branagh, Richard Burton, Derek Jacobi and Kevin Kline in the title role. It’s a long, superbly researched piece with plenty of information on the movies and scene-by-scene commentary on the play itself.

Lots of humour sprinkled through it too, and I enjoyed his likening of the sulky, self-absorbed prince to Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield - “so proud of the fact that he isn’t ‘ordinary’, that he sees so much more deeply than anyone else”. How many of us haven’t felt that way as teenagers? (Which is why so many people become obsessed with Salinger’s book at age 15, though most of them outgrow it eventually; one sign of growing up might be to realise that you aren’t so special after all.)

More of Vannemann’s film writings here.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Diwali post redux

Just linking to this post I wrote a couple of years ago, about a childhood incident that got me disillusioned with Diwali. It felt strange and a little embarrassing to reread it. (That often happens with the stuff you’ve written a long time ago – you look at it again and wonder how you could ever have been so earnest and so transparent about your feelings. I suppose it helped that back then a total of four people were reading this blog!) Even so, I think it holds up okay, so here it is again…

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Polanski's Macbeth

Roman Polanski’s film of Macbeth is one of my favourite Shakespeare adaptations, right up there with Branagh’s four-hour Hamlet, Olivier’s Henry V and Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (which is the Japanese Macbeth – but it’s very difficult to compare Polanski’s version with Kurosawa’s, given that one uses Shakespeare’s actual words and the other doesn’t. I think the difference is crucial to the effect of watching the films).

One of the things I like most about the Polanski film is his use of voiceovers during important soliloquies – turning many of them into interior monologues rather than having the characters say them out loud. It’s strange that this hasn’t been done more often in filmed versions of the plays. The technique would suit some of Shakespeare’s soliloquies very well, especially when the idea is to aim for realism as opposed to the deliberate, studied theatricality of (for instance) Olivier’s Richard III. (At Stratford-upon-Avon a couple of years ago I spoke with a theatre actor who had been doing Shakespeare for decades, and we somehow came around to this topic. It was his contention that the Bard would have used the technique with relish if it had been available in his time.)

What’s especially interesting about Polanski’s use of voiceovers is the way he shifts between speech and contemplation within the same soliloquy. Ever so often, just a single line in the middle of a monologue is spoken aloud. This usually happens when Macbeth, caught in a confused, threatening world of prophecies, phantasmagoria and deceit, tries to convince himself of the palpability of things. One example occurs during a famous early soliloquy. Macbeth has just been informed that he is now the Thane of Cawdor, which means that one of the witches’ prophecies has come to pass. His next lines are:
This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good: if ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature?......
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother'd in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.
Polanski treats almost the entire soliloquy as a private contemplation, which is appropriate; these are deeply reflective words. Macbeth’s lips move only once: when, clasping the seal that has been presented to him, he says the line “I am Thane of Cawdor” – almost as if to convince himself that all this is really happening, that his greatest hopes (and fears) are coming to pass. This is repeated in a later scene when a magical dagger seems to appear before his eyes – he says “Come, let me clutch thee” out loud but the rest of his lines are thought, not said.

Apart from achieving a certain type of cinematic realism (and remember, there are many varieties), Polanski’s approach also makes for a Macbeth that is smaller than life, less grand than what we expect from a standard production of a Shakespeare play. An element of hopelessness, of surrender to life’s mishaps, runs through this director’s work and this film is no exception. Neither Macbeth nor his wife (or any of the other characters for that matter) are prime movers – nearly everyone is passive, allowing things to happen to them and reacting lackadaisically.

The film's Macbeth (superbly played by Jon Finch) comes across as a confused little man who does things almost randomly, without understanding the implications – not one of literature’s great tragic figures whose every deed (good and bad) stems from his essential nature. Francesca Annis’s Lady Macbeth is fragile in appearance, which makes her initial exhorting of her husband to evil more effective – but even she doesn’t hold the stage for any length of time. The hand-washing scene isn’t shot to evoke a sense of High Drama (as it superbly was in the Kurosawa version), it’s understated and somewhat pathetic – this Lady Macbeth feels like a victim of circumstance, a little woman who allowed momentary greed to enmesh her in things that were way over her head. One almost feels that her comeuppance is disproportionate to her crime.

The nihilism on view here is more Polanski than Shakespeare, but there are many things to enjoy even for purists. The splendid cinematography for one, with the deliberately gloomy outdoor sequences creating an oppressive effect that’s so suited to this story. And yet, despite the understatement, Polanski does turn into a stylist when he has to, and pulls it off brilliantly (note the striking fantasy scene with mirrors, when Macbeth has a vision of Banquo’s son becoming king).

Then there’s the way he sets images to Shakespeare’s words to fit his own worldview. When Macbeth says (or, in this case, thinks) the lines “Stars, hide your fires/Let not light see my black and deep desires”, he is shown looking at the dead body of the former thane of Cawdor, a traitor now hanging outside the castle walls. The image becomes a form of prefiguring: Macbeth’s deep and black desires will bring him to a similar end. But it also points to the cyclical nature of evil, allowing us to reflect that the previous thane must have had overvaulting ambitions of his own. The very last scene of the film, which I won’t reveal here, takes this theme further and is markedly different in tone from the play’s ending.

There are little vignettes that suggest a close reading of the specifics of Shakespeare’s text (quite remarkable considering that English wasn’t Polanski’s first language). When the ghost of Banquo first appears and Macbeth cries out to his men in guilty terror, “Which of you has done this? Thou canst not say I did it”, the ghost nods his bloody head with a look of sorrowful reproach, as if to say “Yes, you did this.” (It adds such resonance to Macbeth’s next line: “Never shake thy gory locks at me!”) Also watch the faraway expression on Finch’s face when Macbeth hears the witches’ prophecies for the first time – he’s so mesmerised that he looks around distractedly when Banquo addresses him from behind, almost as if he were expecting another prophecy to come at him from the sky.

There’s an interesting article here about the back-story of Polanski’s Macbeth: including the slaughter of his heavily pregnant wife Sharon Tate by the Charles Manson gang in 1969 (as Roger Ebert points out, the viewer’s knowledge of this incident brings such frisson to Macbeth’s climactic revelation: “Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped”), the director’s subsequent bouts with depression and his whimsical behaviour during the shooting of this film. Some of this may help explain why Polanski’s Macbeth – his entire filmography, for that matter – is as bleak as it is.

Other Polanski films I love: Knife in the Water, Repulsion, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Chinatown and the underrated The Tenant.

Old post about Shakespeare on film here.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Astonishing births in the Mahabharata, and other stories

Lesson 2 from Vyasa’s great epic: boast about your origins, no matter what.
Drona began, “As you may know, O Bheeshma, the Rishi Bharadvaja was my father and my mother was a river-shell (sic). And for my exceptional birth, I am called Drona.”
[Clarification: Bharadvaja, out meditating by the river, sees the naked Apsara Ghritachi and ejaculates into a drana or a pot. Hence the name given to the resultant child. In this case, the pot or vessel might have been a river-shell. No one looked too closely.]

The Mahabharata is full of such strange and wondrous births, but what I like best is how the characters thus born are always very eager to relate the full story of their conception to strangers. Their narrations are marked by a sense of pride and often by grandiloquent language (“As you may know, O Bheeshma…”). This proves yet again that people were much cooler about these things back in the Dwapara Yuga. (When was the last time you heard of such candour in our own nefarious times? Imagine the progeny of a sperm donor conversationally telling his classmates during tiffin-break: “You want to know how I came about? Well, my dad took this stack of Penthouse magazines into a little room and made out with a cup…”)

Anyway, a short sample of some other astonishing births mentioned in the epic:

Drona’s wife Kripi: her pedigree was no less than her revered husband’s. Apparently, bathing Apsaras were quite the rage around Hastinapura at the time, and the Muni Sharadwan was strolling along a river’s bank when he espied one such. As Ramesh Menon delicately puts it in his translation:
Sharadwan had been celibate for a century, and he was a master of himself. But on that day the unexpected sight of the naked nymph unmanned him and he spent his seed into a clump of river-reeds…Just a day later two infants of unearthly splendour lay crying lustily in the bed of reeds…they were named Kripa and Kripi.
Jarasandha: a hermit gave King Brihadratha a mango and said, "Feed this to your queen and she will bear you a son.” But Brihadratha had two wives, so he cut the fruit in half and gave a piece to each of them. He didn’t want either to feel deprived, and besides he was hoping for a threesome that night (the mango alone wouldn’t do the trick, natural conception also had to happen).

Alas, each queen went on to deliver half a child. The palace maids left the two bundles at the edge of the jungle, a rakshasi named Jara came along and pressed the halves together, and the child miraculously came alive. Hence Jarasandha, which means “joined by Jara”. (He was unjoined by Bheema subsequently in the epic.)

Shishupala: here’s a rare example of a character who wasn’t proud of his Exceptional Birth. In fact, the story of Shishupala’s birth had to be narrated to a large sabha of kings by the great Bheeshma himself.
His deep voice filling the Yagnashala, Bheeshma began: “Shishupala, you were not born an ordinary child. You came into the world with three eyes and four arms. You were a freak, and we heard about you in Hastinapura. You brayed like a little donkey, like demons do when they take human form. But when your father thought of killing you, a disembodied voice spoke to him, telling him to keep and raise you.”
Okay, enough of this. The moral conundrum of the week was faced by a colleague who told me she had read Roberto Calasso’s Ka and been greatly disturbed by (among other passages) the description of the 40-day copula-thon between Shiva and Parvati. (She wasn’t explicit about this, but I got the drift.) Her question: “It makes you wonder what the point is of praying to these Gods. I mean, how are they in any way different or superior to us?”

I had no answer to give her. I don’t wear my irreligiousness like a badge or make fun of the sentiments of religious people, otherwise I would have pointed out that no mere human has ever been known to copulate for 40 straight days, and that this alone might be good reason to worship these celestial beings. As it was, I muttered something vague like “strange and unknowable are the ways of the Divine”, and then fled. (This is another reason why it’s convenient for me to go to office just once or twice a week.)

Friday, October 13, 2006

Obligatory Nobel post

Am completely with what PrufrockTwo says about Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel win in this succinct post - starting with the headline, “Next time it better be Roth”. (It better, better, better, BETTER!) I loved Snow and My Name is Red, and liked Istanbul (my review here), but Pamuk really is too young at 54. (SMS from Hurree Babu yesterday: “I think the Nobel chaps got a bit worried - Sebald and Ananta Toer died before they got theirs, so they probably thought it best to give it to Pamuk before he got bumped off by mad Turks.”)

Anyway, it was a good decision from the political perspective, and it’s greatly pleased nearly everyone I know, so I’ll stop nitpicking. Except to say that I do hope Pamuk’s best work is still to come.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Kamal Haasan and Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu

Watched the Tamil movie Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu yesterday and rediscovered Kamal Haasan, not having seen him in a long time. Haasan really is a great actor, something that's been easy to lose sight of at various points in the last few years. As the redoubtable DCP Raghavan in this film, he has such natural flair that he doesn’t need to put on a swagger or be played up by the script. Watching this short, stocky man stride into a villain’s den in the opening scene, I primed myself for some unintentional funniness, but Haasan brought integrity to even the standard dhishum-dhishum that followed – and he did this with good old-fashioned acting, not with elaborately choreographed fight movements. His physical appearance doesn’t suggest he can take on 3-4 men in a fight, but by the end of the sequence I knew I wouldn’t want to be a no-gooder encountering Inspector Raghavan in a dark alley. (The man looks confident and purposeful even in a later scene where he steps out of an elevator, starts heading in the wrong direction and has to be redirected by a companion.)

He’s believable even when everything around him is corny; he brings a note of authenticity to scenes that could have been laughably melodramatic. Take the flashback song sequence where Raghavan and his wife-to-be are riding together on a bike. She’s singing, the back-projection is terrible, it’s a stereotypical filmi moment, and Haasan raises it with a single expression (a shy smile when she briefly puts her head on his shoulder, a happy but slightly embarrassed glance around to see if anyone is watching them). Or the shot where he’s hugging a pillar in his verandah in a moment of grief. Or when he coolly informs an American cop about the accuracy of his gut feelings: “back in India, they call it the Raghavan instinct”.

None of this means Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu is itself a great film, though I enjoyed the first half a lot. For much of its running time it’s a solid (if occasionally derivative) exercise in style – very tightly made, very controlled, with some fine editing and cinematography. But it deteriorates in the last hour or so, losing focus and spending too much time on a romantic angle that’s accompanied by a cringingly loud and incongruous background score.

The story proper begins with a teenage girl being kidnapped and her father (Raghavan’s senior colleague) finding her severed finger hanging outside the door the next morning. (Gore Alert: it gets worse. This is not a film for anyone whose stomach turns easily.) Soon the girl’s body is discovered, and a few months later her parents are killed in their New York home. Raghavan, carrying his own demons (as so many middle-aged movie cops do) from having failed to save his own wife years earlier, travels to NY for the investigation; it’s obvious that his personal stake in the case runs very deep.

He teams up with an American cop, they start to make some headway. Then, midway through the film, we are introduced to the killers, two young men who posture and fume a lot. There is a confrontation, with the sort of bloodletting that Sam Peckinpah and Quentin Tarantino might have dreamt up in collaboration. The murderers escape and return to India, and Raghavan flies back after them. The film then obstinately refuses to wind up, with the final third turning the killers into omniscient cartoon villains who can apparently show up just about anywhere and kidnap/murder whoever they choose.

At a basic level Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu is still quite gripping for most of its duration, but my most serious problem with this film was its handling of the killers’ actions. Some scenes are almost pornographic in the way they seem to revel in the bloodlust of the two men. I’m no moralist (and many of my favourite films are gore-soaked anyway), but I think there’s something fundamentally indecent, even misogynistic, about first showing us the decomposing, half-naked body of a murdered girl and then subsequently depicting (even if in jump-cuts and swooshes that make the whole thing indistinct) the rape, murder and mutilation – right down to one of the killers taking out a large knife and gleefully saying “Now I want to cut the body into two even pieces”.

In a twisted sort of way, perhaps all this would have been easier to digest if the killers had been convincingly depicted as amoral psychopaths. (The film certainly tries hard enough to capture the spirit of Hollywood psychos from films such as The Bone Collector, Kiss the Girls, The Cell and Se7en… there’s even an extended view of a Hannibal poster in one scene.) But for all their intense monologues, nostril-flaring and general efforts to convince us that they are monsters in human guise, the two never seem much more than callow fratboys on a bad day. It’s easy to believe that they have a nasty appetite for rape and violence, but one doesn’t get the sense that they would have the stomach (or the imagination) for some of the more grisly things we see here. This makes the grisliness seem even more gratuitous and exploitative; it doesn’t feel like it’s organic to this film.

Note (maybe I should have mentioned this earlier in the post): for some reason, PVR is showing this film without subtitles. It was frustrating to not be able to follow some of the dialogues and I’m sure I missed a lot of the humour, but I didn’t have any problem understanding the story – also, most of the midsection, set in New York, is in English. (Incidentally Kamal Haasan manages to make Raghavan likable and self-assured even when he puts on a slight accent while talking to the American cop!)

P.S. At risk of being accused of profiling, I have to say the two or three groups of south Indian youngsters in the hall were models of decorum compared to most young people one encounters in PVRs. No screaming and yowling, no talking on cellphones. It was a welcome change.

Also see this review by Baradwaj Rangan, who's much better informed about Tamil cinema and Kamal Haasan’s career.

Congratulations to Kiran Desai...

…for winning the Man Booker. The Inheritance of Loss wasn’t my favourite among the three books on the shortlist that I’d read (and I much preferred a few others that didn’t even make it to the final six anyway), but that’s hardly the point here. Competitive awards, as we have oftentimes noted on this blog, are inherently silly, self-indulgent and meaningless things, best appreciated for their entertainment value (the “let’s rank the nominees” games widely played around Oscar-time and Booker-time are a lot of fun, but they also rank somewhere alongside Orkut scrapbooking on the Pointlessness Scale).

So here’s why I’m pleased for Kiran: she’s one of the nicest authors I’ve met, as I mentioned in this interview a few months ago. That’s as good a reason as any to win the Booker.

(Another excellent reason: my site traffic went through the roof last night because of Google searches for “Kiran Desai”.)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Lessons from the Mahabharata 1: how Rukmi learnt to stop worrying and love the war

Reading Ramesh Menon’s translation of the Mahabharata, which I mentioned here, I come to a passage shortly before the Great War, with the kings of Bharatvarsha swearing their fealty to either the Kauravas or the Pandavas. Rukmi, the king of Vidarbha, arrives at the Pandava camp, sits down and promptly pisses everyone off by saying words to this effect:
“I have come to win the war for you, Arjuna! Without your lifting your bow, I shall make corpses of Duryodhana’s best kshatriyas. When I have slain your enemies, I shall make a gift of the earth to you! Fear nothing any more, Arjuna, your war is already won.”
As expected, the proud Arjuna is outraged by this and tells Rukmi to bugger off (in slightly more high-falutin language):
“Dare you come here and speak to me of my being afraid? Who are you that you dare speak of winning the war for us? We have no need for the likes of you. You may stay or leave, as you please.”
So Rukmi leaves, rides straight to Duryodhana and speaks to the Kaurava in much the same vein. And predictably:
Duryodhana laughed in his face. So the lord of Vidarbha returned to his capital, seething. Thus, apart from Krishna’s brother Balarama, he was the only king of Bharatvarsha who did not fight in the Kurukshetra war.
“Seething”, indeed. Like he had been forced to miss the college prom or something. I mean, here the end of the Dwapara Yuga is in sight, jackals are howling away forebodingly, vultures are making whatever sounds they make and you have every billboard and advertising agency in the place proclaiming the onset of the war to end all wars – the war that will end the lives of nearly all who participate in it, and make living corpses of the survivors. And it’s compulsory for everyone to attend. But here’s this clever king who wriggles neatly out of the whole mess just by stoking the egos of the main players.

I say smart cookie, this Rukmi. We should all aspire to be like him. Only then will the great wars of our own time be avoided.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

On celebrity age-fudging

[Warning: very obsessive post, full of tiny details that won't mean much to anyone else. It derives from my unhealthy (and as far as I can tell, minority-of-one) obsession with people's years of birth. I get pissed off when public figures fudge their years of birth. It feels like they are thus denying not only their own personal histories but the personal histories of their families, friends, colleagues and contemporaries, and eventually perhaps in some small way altering the story of the world.

Yes, I DID say this was going to be an obsessive-compulsive rant.]

It's widely known that the ages of some film stars are as difficult to pin down as those of Pakistani cricketers (remember that alarming period when Inzamam refused to budge from the cold comforts of 29 for a full five years?). There's the old yarn about a much-married Hollywood diva from the silent era who kept sneakily removing years from her portfolio until one day her press agents discovered that she was now officially younger than her eldest son. Fortunately it didn't make much difference in this case since the son wasn't a public figure himself - and so the deception continued apace until the actress died of natural causes, still a few years older than her eldest grandchild.

[Note: I may have fabricated this yarn. But if so, I maintaiin there is poetic truth in it.]

Some years ago, while helping to compile articles for an encyclopedia of Indian cinema, I found that it was nearly impossible to get reliable information on the years of birth for some celebrities. The only cases where you could be reasonably sure were with dynasties such as the Kapoor khandan, or with star children (Sanjay Dutt, Saif Ali Khan) of parents who were already famous at the time of their birth. Also, performers who began their careers as child-actors. It's not that the information isn't available but that it changes with amazing frequency. Trawling the usual websites with actor profiles (IMDB, Wikipedia, Upperstall.com), it's entertaining to watch the number-fudging patterns that emerge over the months. Some observations:

- Age-tampering occurs far more often with performers who had ultra-glamorous images during their heyday. With actresses like Raakhee, Jaya Bhaduri and even Hema Malini, sticking to one date of birth was never a problem – in fact, growing old gracefully became a feather in their matronly hair-buns. But it's quite different for, say, Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi, who had to be seen as being forever young. It's a matter of biographical record that both these ladies had a full formal education; at the very least, each of them finished college before she got anywhere near a movie camera. But if you look at some of the birth dates officially trotted out for them (Parveen's was widely reported as 1955 after her death last year) and then glance through their filmographies, you'd have to think they were 14 or 15 when they were shooting their first films. (Zeenie managed somehow to do a journalistic course after graduation, work for a while with Femina, and still make her movie debut while in her teens!)

- Typically, the alterations start to happen when a personality is about to encounter an undesirable milestone birthday. Shatrughan Sinha, for instance, has been on a desperate mission to avoid hitting the unmentionable S-I-X-T-Y for some time now; his official year of birth has changed from 1941 through 1945 and 1946, and is currently showing as 1948 on Wikipedia (though amusingly it still says "1945 births" in the Categories section at the bottom of the page). Again, a basic biographical check will indicate that 1941 is the most plausible YoB; Sinha post-graduated from the FTII in the mid-1960s before starting his career as a villain.
On the same lines, Sunny Deol has recently discovered the inherent problem with being born in October 1956: as October 2006 approaches you might meet people who know the fine art of subtraction and come to distasteful conclusions about you. Little wonder then that Deol's YoB has been magically pushed forward five years to 1961 on both the IMDB and Wikipedia databases (this happened within the last month). Perhaps with a view to maintaining cosmic order, his father Dharmendra's birth-year was briefly changed from 1935 to 1939 on Wikipedia – never mind that naram Dharam was merrily accepting congratulations for his 70th birthday last year.

- In Bollywood, actresses are not permitted to be even a couple of years older than the actors they have been successfully paired with (because that could only make them their bhabhis, and then how would romance come?). Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla have both had hits with each of the three Khan heroes (who were all verifiably born in 1965), which could be one reason why both women have their official DoBs as late 1967. This is more than a little risible given that a) Juhi won the Miss India contest in early 1984 and b) Madhuri made her film debut with Abodh in 1983.

(Apropos of nothing, I remember a magazine quote from one of Ms Dixit's Class 12 teachers who expressed surprise that she became an actress at all, given how she used to wrinkle her nose at Hindi cinema. Quite a double life that, to be making such statements in front of classmates and then scooting off to a film set for dhak-dhak after school was out.)

The amusing thing about these charades is the selective amnesia required: the tampering of ages as if they exist in a vacuum and don't have any bearing on the past. All that matters is the here and now: this actor is only 35 today and that's all you're supposed to care about; you're not supposed to remember that he was dancing around trees and beating up goons 30 years ago. No one but poor obsessive-compulsive me seems to care.

And so a day might come when a quick mathematical calculation will reveal that Madhuri was just 10 when she did the "Ek Do Teen" song for Tezaab (thus turning all young men of that time into wannabe paedophiles and giving us more retrospective information than we need about societal trends of the 1980s). Eventually, if the deception is carried far enough, she may altogether cease to exist.

P.S. Wikipedia being what it is, some of the dates I've mentioned in this piece (the Deols', for instance) have already been re-revised. Don't bet on them staying that way.

Update: Praba Mahajan, a researcher associated with GRAFTII (graduates of FTII), writes in to tell me that Shatrughan Sinha graduated from the FTII in 1967 and that a college degree wasn't a prerequisite for joining the FTII. Which means that he could be 1946-born after all (though certainly no younger). Fair enough; the only reason I'm still slightly doubtful is that the Shotgun's YoB was 1941 for a long time on sites like IMDB and Wikipedia; and in my experience the earliest-mentioned YoB for an actor/actress is usually the correct one!

(Illustration: Anirban Bora for Business Standard)

Friday, October 06, 2006

Review: The Afghan

Frederick Forsyth has arguably been on the wane since his 1970s bestsellers such as The Day of the Jackal, The Dogs of War and The Odessa File – or maybe it's just that his rigorous, reportage-like style of thriller writing has lost some of its novelty. However, old masters don't relinquish their gifts so easily; his latest, The Afghan, though not a return to top form, is as gripping as anything currently available on bestseller lists.

Forsyth is adept at taking real-life events and spinning fiction out of them, with often-prescient results. The Afghan draws some of its back-story from the July 2005 terror blasts in London but its central events take place in the period September 2006-April 2007, as Islamist terrorists prepare the ground for an attack that will dwarf even 9/11. The book spends a lot of time on background detail – on explaining the internal functioning of various intelligence groups and their constant attempts to stay two steps ahead of terrorism – but soon we arrive at the meat of the story: following a raid in Peshawar, British and American intelligence get hold of an Al-Qaeda laptop that makes oblique references to a major operation known as Al-Isra (the Koranic name for a divine journey undertaken by the Prophet Mohammed). With time running out and no way of knowing what the operation might be, an unheard-of gambit is agreed upon – passing off a Westerner, the dark-skinned Colonel Mike Martin, as a former senior commander of the Taliban.

At the end of a long training process and a number of painstakingly executed deceptions, Martin, now going by the name Izmat Khan, finds himself on a suicide mission in the heart of darkness in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Of course, it helps that he briefly knew the real Izmat Khan several years earlier in Afghanistan, when they were both fighting on the same side during the Cold War. The doppelganger theme is used quite effectively, both here and in the little parallels repeatedly drawn between the terrorists and their nemeses in the US and UK intelligence - even to the extent of invoking an extremist Muslim leader's words ("We are all sentenced to die, but only a warrior blessed of Allah is allowed to choose how") to fit a passage where an intelligence agent sacrifices his life to thwart terrorist plans.

Forsyth worked several years as a diplomatic correspondent before becoming a novelist and his writing, which combines imagination with meticulous research, is marked by a good journalist's obsession with detail. One resultant problem is that his books are sometimes almost too low-key. In the 1970s this approach might have been a stimulating change from the thrill-a-minute pulp novels that then cluttered the genre, but today, when a number of authors are writing the way only he once did, it's possible to yearn for some unselfconscious excitement. But Forsyth is so instructive, so bent on feeding us a constant stream of information, that even the climactic scene – where two men face up to each other with the possible future of the world at stake – feels clinical rather than spontaneously thrilling.

This notwithstanding, The Afghan is a taut, extremely well plotted book, and it's always interesting to see the little ways in which this author inverts our normal expectations of the genre. One example: many books of this type provide an emotional anchor by encouraging the reader to identify with someone (perhaps a relatively peripheral character) who has an enormous personal stake in the proceedings. Forsyth seems to be going down that path early on here with a character named Terry Martin, a man who "had only ever loved four people and had lost three of them in the past 10 months". The fourth, still-living, person is Terry's elder brother Mike, who is about to be thrust into this dangerous mission, and it seems inevitable that this will provide the book's emotional frisson. But no such thing happens: Terry simply vanishes from the canvas and we never meet him again.

This could, of course, just be lazy editing, but it’s more likely a case of the author toying with the reader's expectations, discarding what he doesn’t feel is absolutely imperative to his plot. Or maybe Forsyth decided to throw up the emotional stuff
(his writing style usually precludes the exploration of psychological depth in characters) and go back to doing what he does best. On balance, he succeeds. At its best The Afghan is a very involving story about the levels of personal dedication needed both in carrying out terrorism and in countering it.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Mythologies retold

Have been reading and thoroughly enjoying Siva: The Siva Purana Retold by Ramesh Menon. It’s full of such great mythological stories as the churning of the ocean by the devas and the asuras; Sati’s self-immolation in her father Daksha’s yagna, and Shiva’s subsequent revenge; the reunion of Shiva and Sati/Parvati; the genesis of Karttikeya and Ganesha; the creation and destruction of the magnificent celestial cities jointly known as Tripura. This is brilliant stuff on its own terms but I really like the quality of Menon’s prose and the way he brings a strong, individual voice to these oft-told tales while retaining their basic flavour. A big challenge for any translator of mythology is to be florid when the stories demand it (and boy, do some of these stories demand it!) without getting ridiculous, and Menon manages this. His descriptions are more precise and intense than any other English translation of these works I’ve come across. Sample:
An earthquake shook sacred Gangadvara. As in a dream, Daksha saw a mysterious and malignant cluster of stars at noon. The sun was blotched with black patches; a dark ring glowed balefully around the star. The quarters were squalid and gloomy, strange comets fell out of the dim heavens. Vultures circled low over the yagna, darkening the sacrificial platform; jackals howled at the perimeters of the conclave of rishis and devas. Like a pale scorpion, the evil nakshatra Netraka fell from the sky, into which it should never have risen at this time.

Mounted on Garuda, the Sudarshana humming at his finger, Vishnu faced Virabhadra. Heartened, the devas turned and came back to fight. Bhanukampa sounded Virabhadra’s conch, which glowed like moonlight. The devas quailed at the blast; they prepared to flee again. At once, in reply, Vishnu blew a deafening note on the Panchajanya, rallying them. He froze the gana army for a moment on its murderous, rapacious spree: Virabhadra’s forces stopped their ears with bloody palms.
There are many great passages in this book and plenty
that’s of interest, including heaps of sex and violence, and a nicely understated sense of humour. This kind of straightforward treatment (done well) is more effective in my view than those over-clever books by Roberto Calasso.

Very high up on my to-read list now is Menon’s two-volume translation of the Mahabharata. Tehelka ran some of the chapters as a series a couple of years ago; I read some of them then and was impressed by the freshness of the writing. (Having read at least eight English versions of the Greatest Story Ever Told, I didn’t think too much more could be done with it in a [relatively] short translation, but Menon’s writing made me feel like a first-time reader again, drawing me back into an epic I thought I knew so well.)

While on this tack: among the Mahabharata translations I’ve fully read, my favourite by far is the one by Kamala Subramaniam. I love the way she draws out the conversations between the characters, stressing their inner conflicts, holding their struggles up to the light; and her likening of Duryodhana to Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, marked by a single fatal flaw. Also appreciated some of her personal touches, such as the decision to refer to Karna throughout as “Radheya” – which becomes a simple but powerful reminder of what he considers himself to be: the son of the poor woman who raised him.

(Incidentally, Subramaniam’s version of the Srimad Bhagavatam is also one of the best single-volume translations of that work currently available.)

Monday, October 02, 2006

At the Qutub fest

Had an excellent time last evening at the Qutub Minar complex; the annual music festival is on and yesterday’s crowd-magnet was a very pleasing concert by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. They performed most of their big hits, including from Dil Chahta Hai, Bunty aur Babli, Kal Ho Na Ho and, of course, “Never Say Goodbye”. There was a nice unplugged medley section and they finished on an expectedly high note by playing “Where’s the Party Tonight”, “Rock and Roll Soniye” and “Kajara Re” in quick succession. (As you might imagine, the beleaguered organisers never did get the crowd to “stay seated so the people at the back have a proper view”.)

Shankar Mahadevan (who opened the show with his star-making “Breathless”) was in superb form, though he could perhaps have avoided mouthing the lines “Don ko pakadhna mushkil hee nahin, namumkin hai” when he sang the title track of the new Don – because Mahadevan is a very roly-poly little cootchie-coo and he was wearing leather pants and such pronouncements in such circumstances can only cause mirth (unless the idea was to make us think kindly of Shah Rukh in the role). Also in fine form: playback singer Mahalaxmi Iyer, who showed a considerable range and stage presence, and a new chap named Raman whom I hadn’t heard before – very decent renditions of the “Dil Se” title track and “Main Aisa Kyun Hoon” from Lakshya.

Much less well attended than the SEL show was the qawali by the Nizami Brothers earlier in the evening. That was lovely too (and more to my taste in terms of being a sit-and-listen show), except for a minor problem with the sound equipment. Since I know hardly anything about the form I won’t shoot my mouth off except to note that two of the little children who were onstage with the rest of the Nizami family seemed very bored. This family’s tradition in music goes back around 700 years and the pressures faced by each new generation to carry the legacy forward must be immense. I mean, what if some of them are tone deaf and just want to become astronauts?

Annie neatly encapsulates the charm of the Qutub fest in this post. Speaking for myself, I always get a little thrill from watching good contemporary music being played out in the vicinity of old monuments or ruins. When the performance reaches a point of great intensity, you can almost feel one era calling out to the other over the centuries; there’s the briefest hint of a connection between two epochs that would otherwise have nothing to say to one another. (What would the 12th-century denizens of this region have thought if they’d suddenly come across a Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy concert?) Reaching home late at night, the first thing I did was to watch a few minutes of my Pink Floyd at Pompeii DVD.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Spam query

Does anyone else get dozens of emails that have long and colourful special characters making up the Sender and Subject, and are dated “19 January, 2038” (which is a Tuesday, if anyone’s interested)?

This is all on Yahoo Mail, by the way. (No major problems on Gmail – whatever spam comes there goes straight to the Spam folder.) Would appreciate suggestions for spam-control because it’s very tiresome to have to keep bulk-deleting mails with subjects that go ¡¸¡¹¡¸¡¹ 5¤jª¾¦W¤kÀu¡ ª÷§`¤å¤l / ¹a¤ì³Â©`ü ¥Ã/Åy / »¤s¸t¡@¡µL ½X¼v ¤ù¡¸¡¹¡¸¡¹PQK±¥Î·§Ú³Ì±M·~¢pªL®i¦t and suchlike.

(One upside, if you’re looking for upsides, is that the date ensures that the mails appear at the very top of the Inbox – unlike some of the other spam I get, which is dated December 1955 and has to be searched for.)