Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bharat ek Khoj on YouTube

In recent weeks things have been happening to revive happy memories of my Doordarshan-cocooned childhood. First I discovered Shemaroo DVDs of the beloved TV serial Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, which used to be a Friday-evening fixture in the mid-1980s. Shortly after this, I found that several episodes of Bharat ek Khoj, Shyam Benegal's visualisation of Jawaharlal Nehru's Discovery of India, are now up on YouTube.

I shamefacedly admit to not following the show regularly when it first aired 20 years ago – it was too subdued for my taste. (What I did love, and made sure never to miss, was Vanraj Bhatia's beautiful soundtrack for the opening credits, accompanied by words from the famous creation verses in Book 10 of the Rig Veda, which are a rare instance of agnosticism/sceptical inquiry in ancient scripture.) But I'm enjoying it now. Haven't seen all the YouTube clips yet, but I've got through the Mahabharata ones along with a few others. Almost needless to say, Benegal's presentation of some of the epic's key scenes, spread over two episodes, is much earthier than the B R Chopra opus (which, incidentally, is also available on YouTube now). It draws on various artistic interpretations of the Mahabharata over the centuries, including a Kathakali performance that depicts, with gory relish, Bheema tearing out Duhshasana's entrails and using them to bind Draupadi's hair. Notable too are these two clips that show the dying moments of a repentant Duryodhana (played by Om Puri), in the company of Balarama and Ashwatthama as well as his grieving family – his blind parents, his wives and his son Durjaya. This scene is directly taken from Bhasa's play "Urubhangam" ("The Shattered Thigh"), which I mentioned in this post.

Also enjoyed little touches such as Roshan Seth's Jawaharlal Nehru primly stepping over broken weapons and other debris as he walks right onto the deserted battlefield before settling down to explain aspects of the epic to the viewer. (Note: excellent as this serial is, it isn't exactly faithful to Discovery of India – instead it uses the book's framework and Nehru's commentary to examine various facets of India's heterogeneous culture.)

P.S. While on Nehru, a quick recommendation: Walter Crocker's short, lucid biography Nehru: A Contemporary's Estimate, first published in 1966, just two years after Nehru's death, but now reprinted by Random House India with a foreword by Ramachandra Guha. Crocker was the Australian High Commissioner to India during much of Nehru's tenure as prime minister, and his is a sharply perceptive but affectionate portrait of Nehru as man and politician. Reading it, I had to keep reminding myself that the book was written very close to the events it describes - this is often hard to believe, because the level of observation and analysis (including philosophical reflections on the nature of power and the challenges it would present a man like Nehru) is such that you'd think it would have required the passage of several years. (Also hard to believe: some of the initial Indian reviews of the book thought Crocker was being too harsh. Perhaps it was because he didn't
shy away from matter-of-factly noting what he felt were Nehru's shortcomings.) More on the book soon.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Something vaguely resembling a year-end list

Won’t do a detailed post about my favourite books and films of 2008, but here’s a quickly thrown together list. Generally speaking, there was a decline in my reading and (especially) movie-watching this year, but even so there’s been plenty to choose from, and I’m sure I’ve missed a few names here and there. Wherever applicable, the titles below are linked to blog posts I've written about them earlier. (For the titles that aren't linked to...well, do a Google search if you're interested enough!)

Favourite new (that is, published in 2008) read of the year: Musharraf Ali Farooqui's excellent translation of the Hamzanama, The Adventures of Amir Hamza.

Favourite books published earlier but read for the first time this year:
Climbing Mount Improbable – Richard Dawkins
Unweaving the Rainbow – Richard Dawkins
Nehru: A Contemporary's Estimate - Walter Crocker (first published in 1967, reprinted this year)
The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan - Robert Kanigel
The People's Act of Love - James Meek
No Country for Old Men - Cormac McCarthy (a little pretentious in places, but very lyrical)
Last Evenings on Earth – Roberto Bolano
Austerlitz - W G Sebald
A Science-Fiction Omnibus – edited by Brian Aldiss
Phantoms in the Brain - V S Ramachandran
Same-Sex Love in India: A Literary History – edited by Ruth Vanita, Saleem Kidwai
Trying to Grow - Firdaus Kanga
The Summer that Never Was and In a Dry Season - Peter Robinson
The Music of Chance - Paul Auster

Other favourites among books published in 2008:
Empires of the Indus – Alice Albinia
Home – Marilynne Robinson
A Case of Exploding Mangoes – Mohammed Hanif
Netherland – Joseph O'Neill
The Age of Shiva – Manil Suri

Honourable mentions: books that I hesitate to put in something as important-sounding as a year-end list, but which I enjoyed a great deal
Sea of Poppies – Amitav Ghosh
Unaccustomed Earth – Jhumpa Lahiri
The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga
His Illegal Self – Peter Carey
Derangements – Rajorshi Chakraborti
Wild City – Ranjit Lal
Indignation - Philip Roth
Escape – Manjula Padmanabhan
The Zoya Factor – Anuja Chauhan
The Woman who Thought She was a Planet – Vandana Singh

Favourite movies released in 2008:
Anurag Kashyap's short film "Pramod Bhai 23" in Mumbai Cutting
Zibahkhana (Pakistan's first slasher movie. Rebellious teens, psychopathic killer in a burqa. So bad it was superb. Easily the best watching-with-an-audience experience of the year.)
Wall-E
Mithya
Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!
Aamir
The Fall (by Tarsem Singh, that great visual artist)

Favourite non-2008 movies watched for the first time this year:
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
Manorama Six Feet Under
The Lives of Others
The Satanic Angels (Moroccan musicians arrested for playing hard rock and for other “anti-Islamic” behaviour)
Jhoom Barabar Jhoom
Juno
Summer Interlude (Ingmar Bergman)
Zodiac (David Fincher)
Bonga (Kundan Shah's manic diploma film, made in 1976)

Favourite films re-watched (after having last seen them a long, long time ago):
Greed (Erich von Stroheim)
Sherlock Jr (Buster Keaton)
(Between them, a good indication that cinema might have been better off without the invention of sound)
36 Chowringhee Lane (Aparna Sen)
Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch)
Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges)
Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder)

Honourable mentions:
Bachna Ae Haseeno
Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na
Rock On!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Freelancer perils continued: the credit-card application

(A belated addendum to this post)

Or: How banks go from deference to derision in the wink of an eye when they discover that you’re self-employed.

The story begins with a call from a bank where I have an account (one that was opened when I was working full-time). The representative offers me a new credit card. I say no, once, twice, but he persists. It’s a very simple process, he says. There are no hidden costs. Please take the card, sir. He doesn’t actually weep, but the general impression given is that his family’s future and well-being are contingent on my decision.

So I throw my hands up and say yes, after pointedly telling him that I’m never actually going to use this card or even carry it in my wallet. Soon someone arrives at my house to collect an ID proof and to get me to fill what has been described as “a very basic application form – it’ll take only a minute”. An hour later, I’m on page 27 of this basic form, scrawling out the names, diets, ailments, litter-box colours and collar sizes of every cat I have cohabited with since 1981.

When I write “Same as home” in the “Office address” field, a small frown appears on the man’s face. He doesn’t say anything at the time, but a few hours later there is another series of phone calls, and the tone this time is just as authoritarian and disdainful as the tone of the initial calls had been meek and imploring. Each of these conversations follows an interrogatory pattern. By the fourth call, I’m on auto-pilot.

“Mr Singh?” says a voice, “You just made an application asking our bank to give you a credit card.”

“No,” I reply, “I did not make an application. I merely broke down and signed an application form under duress, because your salesman vowed to hunt me to the ends of the earth until I gave in.”

“Anyway, sir,” the voice interrupts, “I need to verify some details. Can I have the name of the company you work for, and your office address?”

“There is no company,” I say mechanically, “There is no office. I am self-employed. I work out of home. I have lived with five cats.”

“Sir?”

“I’m a freelance journalist!” I shout, “Freelance journalist! Why won’t you people understand this?”

“Just a minute,” says the voice, “let me note this down. Your company name is C Lal Associates?”

The conversation has now entered a surreal dimension, a place where the usual rules don’t apply. Having just read V S Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the Brain, I know that the human mind searches for ways to fill gaps that it can’t deal with. But I still can't imagine where the man got the “Associates” from.

“Look,” I say, “Just send me the card. I promise I’ll even use it. But no more phone calls, please.”

“Sorry,” the voice says, “but we can’t process your application. The details are not satisfactory. Please try again after a few weeks.” He hangs up, leaving my Christmas stocking empty.

So I’ll try after a few weeks. As no wise sage said, there’s only one thing worse than getting what you don’t want, and that’s not getting it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Translator's note

Overheard recently, an enlightening conversation between my cancer-afflicted nani and her attendant Dolly, a Christian lady. Dolly was relating the story of Christ in shuddh Hindi and at one point the following sentence occurred:

Yeshu ki ma Kumari Maryam thi. Unhone koi ganda kaam karke Yeshu ko janam nahin diya. Woh kumaari hi rahi.”

(“Jesus’s mother was the Virgin Mary. She gave birth to him without doing any dirty work.”)

On that immaculate note, season’s greetings to you all.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

'Excess' update

The fiction anthology is now available online (14 of the 15 stories, that is - one was left out of the web version on the author's request). Here's the link. Do try to get hold of the print version though - the layout is easier on the eye and the illustrations look better.

(Montage borrowed from Nisha's blog)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Ruskin goes to Select (and journalism vs facts)

(Carrying this theme forward)

Witnessed at the Crossword bookstore in the Select Citywalk mall, just a few minutes before a book reading by Ruskin Bond: a chirpy young TV reporter, mike in hand, asks children facile questions about Ruskin and his books:

Reporter: So tell me, isn’t it exciting that you’re GETTING TO MEET RUSKIN BOND TODAY? (She widens her eyes dramatically and simulates excitement with a series of facial contortions, clearly intended as a cue for the kids to do the same)
Stoical child: oh it’s nice, but you know, my brother and I met him at a book fair just last year, so...
Reporter (puts mike down, bares teeth): Look, just say you LOVE HIM and are THRILLED TO BITS about being here! All right? All right?

(Precocious child quivers briefly, complies)

Yet another instance of journalism holding up a mirror to society. I shake my head in sadness – partly because that serious-faced boy could have been me 25 years ago.

But I should clarify that the overall response to Ruskin’s session was very enthusiastic. Dozens of wide-mouthed children listened to the reading and asked questions, dozens of adults (including one magnificently energetic middle-aged sardarji) tripped over themselves in a bid to capture the “author-saab” on their camera-phones. Don’t recall seeing anything quite like it even when Salman Rushdie was at the Jaipur festival. Poor Ruskin looked a bit ill at ease, and who could blame him: he spends most of his time in the quiet hill-town of Landour, which is very poor preparation for a Select Citywalk crowd on a Friday evening.

(This seems like a good time to mention that Ruskin’s story submission for the Tehelka anthology was written in his own hand – he doesn’t use even a typewriter – and sent across by courier, since email is out of the question. The handwritten original is with me and I have no intention of parting with it.)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Tehelka's fiction special

I’ve been helping the good people at Tehelka put together their year-end special, an anthology of short fiction. The authors we commissioned were given no brief other than the word “excess” and the result is a varied and exciting collection of pieces about (among other things): a vampire flummoxed by the system of faith prevalent in India; a pacifist vegetarian dog in South Africa; a group of people setting off from various parts of the country in an attempt to escape excess; a surgeon who likes working on cancers of the mouth and also enjoys videos of anal sex and facials; a little boy playing a mushroom in a school play. The contributors are Altaf Tyrewala, Ambarish Satwik, Amruta Patil, Anjum Hasan, Kalpish Ratna (Kalpana Swaminathan + Ishrat Syed), Manjula Padmanabhan, Mridula Koshy, Rana Dasgupta, Rajorshi Chakraborti, Ruskin Bond, Sarnath Banerjee, Sudeep Chakravarti, Sunetra Gupta, Tishani Doshi and Vivek Narayanan.

The issue will be on the stands by the 26th or 27th of this month, so do look out for it. The redoubtable Nisha Susan, who has been anchoring the special and generally bullying me into doing things I’m very bad at (brainstorming, attending meetings, calling up and speaking with people), will also put up something about it on her blog soon.

[Earlier posts on some of the contributing authors and their work: Patil’s Kari, Chakraborti’s Or the Day Seizes You and an interview, Kalpish Ratna’s Nyagrodha, Swaminathan’s Ambrosia for Afters and Bougainvillea House, Padmanabhan’s Escape and an interview, Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled, Narayanan at Jaipur, Chakravarti’s Tin Fish.]

Update: just saw all the pages before they were released and the illustrations accompanying the stories are stunning; the Tehelka design team has done a fabulous job. I'm feeling excited about the special all over again - this thing could be a collector's issue just for the artwork.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Across the world, By Any Means

The name Charley Boorman looked familiar when I saw it on the book By Any Means (which Outlook Traveler sent across for review) but it took a Google search to figure out why. I didn’t know about Boorman’s work as an adventurer and TV series host, but I saw him as a child/adolescent actor in three films made by his father, the director John Boorman: Deliverance, Excalibur and The Emerald Forest. Once the connection was made, an old memory returned to me: a striking shot from The Emerald Forest, a fine “eco-adventure” set in the Brazilian rainforest, about an American dam engineer whose little son is abducted by a local tribe. Charley played the grown-up version of the boy and the scene in question is his first appearance in the film, a dramatic moment where he encounters his biological father again after a decade; you can see a bit of it in this trailer on YouTube. (I remember the scene well, because its tone and effect were similar to the moment in John Ford’s The Searchers where Ethan sees his grown-up niece – kidnapped by Indians years earlier – for the first time.)

Back to the present. Boorman is a motorbike enthusiast and his expeditions with the actor Ewan McGregor have been made into books and documentary series under the titles Long Way Round and Long Way Down. The idea for a new series arose when Boorman, while planning a trip to Australia to participate in another safari, realised that he wasn’t enthused by the thought of simply jumping onto a plane and flying from Ireland to Australia. “How about this,” says his friend Russ Malkin, “We go to Australia by any means we can other than taking a plane from Heathrow. We pick a route and cross each country, each piece of water, using a different form of transport. We jump on trains and old buses: we hitch a ride with some long-distance lorry rider somewhere.”

As it happened, Boorman and Malkin ended up experiencing many more forms of transport than these. Their journey from Wicklow, Ireland to Wollongong, Australia spanned more than 20,000 miles and took them through 25 countries over a period of three months (April-July this year). It also involved a staggering 112 different forms of transport, including a 12-foot Laser dinghy that took them across the English Channel; a tractor in Iran; a Delhi auto-rickshaw (which he describes as a “Bajaj tuk-tuk” in the book); an elephant in Nepal; a bamboo train in Vietnam; and, just to add a dash of luxury, the Orient Express from Paris to Venice.

The book version of By Any Means, though detailed and competently written, is very much a companion piece to the BBC TV series that emerged from Charley and Russ’s travels. There’s something superfluous about it, especially if you have access to the series. (Note: there are clips available on YouTube.) It doesn’t quite work as a travel book; it’s too rushed for that. At one point Boorman writes “On this trip the journey is the real destination”, but he might more accurately have said “On this trip the itinerary is the real point.” One gets the sense that this book is entirely fueled by the novelty of the concept: traveling through all these countries in all these different ways. At times it reads like a diary record of Charley and Russ’s attempts to meet this or that deadline, to get from a station to a port on time and to smoothen out last-minute visa hassles, all the while keeping their fingers crossed when they hear news about a natural calamity or political tensions in a country they are about to visit. The actual schedule (rather than the time spent in a particular place) is so much the point here that though we’re told, for instance, that they were in Dubai for a few days, we don’t get even a paragraph about what they did there; instead the book fast-forwards to the container ship that will take them across the Arabian Sea to their next port of call, Mumbai. (On the other hand, we do get whole paragraphs about mundane details such as when Charley very briefly loses a key in his Orient Express cabin.)

The few observations about the countries they pass through (“visit” would be overstating it) are fleeting and not particularly insightful. We learn that Tehran has a few women cab-drivers and that Charley and Russ had a conversation with one of them. (“Thank you so much, Fariba,” Charley tells her earnestly at the end of the ride, “You’re an amazing driver and what you’re doing for women is terrific. That’s the safest I’ve felt so far in Iran. Thank you.”) There’s a visit to a large Mumbai slum (Dharavi, though it isn’t named in the book). Boorman observes wisely at one point that “I’ve been to a few places around the world and I’ve noticed that the less people have, the happier they are to share.” When the boys pick up a passenger named Farti while driving a large van through Turkey, they make gentle digs at his name (while simultaneously apologising for their lack of cultural sensitivity) – on paper this doesn’t seem particularly offensive, but when you watch the relevant clip Charley and Russ look like a pair of frat-boys.

It would be well-nigh impossible for a book like this not to have a few interesting bits – I liked the Cambodia and Vietnam sections – but as a whole it isn’t worth the price (Rs 650 for the India edition, the cover of which shows an Indian tractor, an Indian ramshackle truck, an elephant and a Delhi auto-rickshaw). Watch the series instead. Or even better, watch John Boorman’s Deliverance.

(The official By Any Means website is here, with photos and videos from the trip.)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

God in the machine: notes on Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi

It feels a bit silly reviewing a Yash Raj Films opus starring Shah Rukh Khan. You know that the film is going to find its audience regardless of what you think about it; that you're being a killjoy and a pedant if you point to flaws of logic or to the thousand plot loopholes (you're simply not supposed to notice these things); and that if you didn't at least think of the film as decent paisa-vasool, you're best off not discussing it at all. But a professional reviewer doesn't have that option, and so the thing to do is to find some talking point and stick with it until the requisite word-count has been met.

So let me focus on the deep sympathy I feel for Tani, the heroine of Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. Not because she loses her husband-to-be and his family in a bus accident within the first five minutes of the film, and is subsequently orphaned when her father suffers a heart attack on hearing the news. No, these tragedies are quickly glossed over. The really tough thing about Tani's life is the decision she is expected to make towards the end of this exhausting movie. Choosing between two men can be difficult in itself, but when both men occupy the same body and you're expected to plump for the one with the bad haircut rather than the one with the six-pack abs...What's a girl to do?

The trouble begins when Tani's boring replacement husband Surinder, who works with the Punjab Power board, decides to electrify her life with an elaborate masquerade. He undergoes a makeover that involves shaving off his moustache, changing his hairstyle, wearing tighter clothes, acquiring a new set of biceps and generally looking a little more like Shah Rukh Khan than he did before; in this new avatar as the "hep" Raj, he becomes Tani's dancing partner in a local competition. (In the fine tradition of short-sighted heroines from Lois Lane downwards, Tani fails to realise that the mousy Surinder, with whom she stiffly has dinner every night, is the same person as style-boy Raj with whom she greedily consumes gol-gappas and goes on bike rides through the narrow lanes of Amritsar.)

Now here’s the rub (rab?): having gone to ridiculous extremes to create an exciting new persona that he knows will appeal to his wife more than his "real self" ever could, Surinder/Raj takes the higher ground and decides that his wooing of Tani can be deemed successful only if she falls in love with the dullard Surinder, not with his alter-ego. The basic flaw in this premise is for anyone to see: imagine Christian first passing off Cyrano's poetry as his own and then insisting that Roxane passes the "test" only if she loves him for his own bilge. (For this analogy to be fully satisfying, Christian and Cyrano would have to be the same person and Roxane would have to be short-sighted, but you get the drift.)

Anyway, given Tani's nascent feelings for Raj, the big question is: how does the film arrive at an ending that will satisfy everyone and uphold all the moral requirements? The solution is stunning in its simplicity. (Obligatory Spoiler Alert, though if you really want a spoiler alert for this film, you’re a loser and need a makeover.) In a short, unfussy scene set at the Golden Temple, Tani experiences an epiphany where she realises that her "Rab" (God) is Surinder. No, really – that's it. This movie has been invoking Rab's divine will at regular intervals long before this moment, but it's usually been done in an offhand sort of way, so we aren't quite prepared for a scene where He literally enters the confused girl's mind, fiddles with her synapses and sees to it that she makes the "right" decision. This is God as the ultimate Deus ex machina.

Which is not to say there’s nothing good about Rab ne.... At least 20 of its 170 minutes are watchable. There are a couple of charming vignettes, such as an early scene involving a rose stem, which hints at an unseen romantic side to the reticent Surinder, long before his makeover happens. Vinay Pathak could easily have phoned in his performance as Surinder's hair-stylist buddy Bobby, but in the context of this film it must be counted as a bright spot. In the Surinder-Bobby relationship and in Surinder’s remark to Tani that "maine kabhi lady se pyaar nahin kiya" ("I have never loved a lady"), we see glimpses of the ambiguous form that male bonding can take in small towns where interaction between the sexes is restricted before marriage. But this isn't particularly explored elsewhere in the film. Incidentally, the scene where Bobby introduces the word "macho" into a Punjabi sentence and then turns it into a refrain may prove to be a landmark moment in the history of profanity in mainstream Bollywood. Especially because Pathak does the bucolic Punju accent with gusto and the script requires him to say sentences where the word immediately following "macho" begins with a "D" sound.

But the best thing about Rab ne... is the voiceover with the "honeymoon in Japan" postcards that accompany the closing credits. If you've already bought tickets for this film, you should consider entering the hall three hours after the starting time.

P.S. I’m looking forward to the next Shah Rukh movie that isn't a meta-film with references to his Raj image and the obligatory song sequence where a bevy of SRK's favourite heroines (Kajol, Rani Mukherjee, Preity Zinta etc) fawn over him. The fantasy song sequence "Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte" looked like an outtake from Om Shanti Om.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

After the fall

The normal thing to do would have been to cordon off the section of the battlefield where Bheeshma lay on his bed of arrows. But since he had fallen on a spot right in the heart of Kurukshetra, this wasn’t feasible (try playing football with the centre circle completely out of bounds). Then someone suggested moving him elsewhere, but this too was problematic – the arrows were deeply embedded in the earth, and besides, all the talk about this particular patch of ground being Bheeshma’s “karma-bhoomi” would have made a shift awkward. One didn’t want sages buzzing about the place, yelling about protocol and generally disturbing the peace while the war was still on.
“Never mind, we’ll continue fighting around him,” said Drona, “just keep the elephants away.” So for the next eight days foot-soldiers tiptoed nimbly about the grandsire’s body even as they parried their enemies’ thrusts and blows. Unfortunately a couple of the servants hired to fan the pitamah and provide him with refreshments had their heads lopped off by stray arrows, but this was treated as collateral damage. The bigger problem was that as the war grew more intense, the facade of respect began to peel away. In the afternoons, when tiredness set in, soldiers developed the habit of resting their swords against the arrows sticking out of Bheeshma’s chest, and even taking a quick nap under his shadow. Some of the cheekier ones exchanged vulgar jokes – about how the old man had finally got laid at the age of 90 – within his earshot. “I’m no longer convinced that celibacy oath was worth it in the end,” the aged scion of the Kurus thought to himself as he sipped on some flavoured Ganga-jal, “but at least the service is good.”

Monday, December 08, 2008

Notes on The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet

From Vandana Singh's "A Speculative Manifesto", an essay included with her short-story collection The Woman Who Thought She was a Planet:
So much modern realist fiction is divorced from the physical universe, as though humans exist in a vacuum devoid of animals, rocks and trees. Speculative fiction is our chance to rise above this pathologically solipsist view and find ourselves part of a larger whole; to step out of the claustrophobia of the exclusively human and discover joy, terror, wonder and meaning in the universe...

...I said earlier that speculative fiction is about what cannot ever be, or what cannot be as yet. But it is also true that when it uses symbol and metaphor in certain ways, speculative fiction is about us as we are, right now. This may be the case even if the story is set on another planet, in another age, and the protagonist is an alien. Because haven't we all felt alien at some time or another, set apart from the norm due to caste and class, religion and creed, gender and sexual orientation?
If you take science fiction seriously, the last few sentences will probably seem like a statement of the obvious. But it's surprising how many people (including some who are sensitive, intelligent readers of other genres) think of sci-fi and fantasy as nothing more than escapism – good for a light break but not really relevant to larger questions about our world. I suspect that to fully appreciate Singh's observation, you need to have a somewhat slanted perspective on the world, and perhaps be a bit uncomfortable in your own skin as well. (And all the better if you think of life as one big absurd mess: in that case, what could be more "realistic" and "relevant" than The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?)

All the stories in The Woman who Thought She Was a Planet involve characters who have access to this tilted perspective and who are aliens in one way or the other, even when they are flesh-and-blood people leading mundane lives: a small-town Mathematics teacher obsessed with the idea of infinity; a lady on the verge of separation from her husband of many years; a Bihari man who takes along a stock of his cherished roasted black gram and sweet suttoo on a Mars mission. Some of these stories aren't sci-fi in any obvious sense. "Hunger", for example, which I liked a great deal: on the surface this is a straightforward tale about a woman hosting a party for her husband's colleagues and their wives, and how the occasion is ruined by the death of a poor old man on the stairway landing. But the interior life of the protagonist, Divya, is what makes this such a gripping story. She sees strangeness in almost everything in the real world around her (though in her dreams she sometimes feels like she's discovered "her home planet", the place where she really belongs). Her 12-year-old daughter is turning into someone – or something – she can't recognise; her husband's promotion has meant moving to a large, sterile house; she is haunted by a childhood memory of discovering that a dozen baby mice had slowly died in her room "while she had been reading her mystery books and sipping her lemonade" (this is one among a few indications of her intense empathy for species other than her own). Looking at a faded black-and-white photo the old man was holding when he died, she can't tell whether its subject is a woman or an animal "or something entirely different".

I thought the one weakness in the story was its ending – the defensive, over-explicatory final paragraph seemed out of place in a fiction narrative, though I liked it on its own terms:
She continued to read her science-fiction novels because, more than ever, they seemed to reflect her own realisation of the utter strangeness of the world. Slowly the understanding came to her that these stories were trying to tell her a great truth in a very convoluted way, that they were all in some kind of code, designed to deceive the literary snob and waylay the careless reader. And that this great truth, which she would spend her life unraveling, was centred around the notion that you did not have to go to the stars to find aliens or to measure distances between people in light-years.
This recurring theme – that all of us can be aliens in certain contexts – is a little overstated through this collection in general, but one has to remember that these stories first appeared in different publications at various times before they were collected here; a certain amount of repetition is understandable.

Another of the collection's highlights is "Delhi", a fine imaginative work about a man whose brain is wired in such as way as to enable him to experience "temporal coincidences – produced when one part of the time-stream rubs up against another and the two cross for a moment". This means that as he walks the streets of Delhi he might encounter apparitions from the past or the future, and briefly speak with them; or envision a futuristic Lower Delhi ("Neechi Dilli") where the poor, the criminal and the dispossessed live underground, in the now-abandoned tunnels of the Metro. I also recommend "Infinities", "The Tetrahedron" (which, like Arthur Clarke's "The Wall of Darkness", draws on the possibilities of the Mobius curve and dimensions that are inaccessible to us) and the title story. All these are worth reading for Singh's examination of her characters' inner lives and their encounters with parallel universes/multiverses – whether in the form of a giant portal in Delhi with invisible gateways that open out over the Thar desert, or a shadowy farishtaa glimpsed from the corner of one's eye.

(Earlier post with links to some of Vandana Singh's essays here)

DVD review: Rock On!!

[Did this for the Sunday Business Standard. Note: it’s a DVD review, not a film review. For the record I saw the film on the big screen and loved it – like most people I know, which is a bit depressing on some level!]

Until recently most DVD releases of Hindi films didn’t care about providing value-addition to the home viewer, but this has changed in the hands of the more enterprising and youthful filmmakers, who are now including extra footage on their discs. It’s a welcome step, particularly well-suited to movies that have a limited theatrical life but which subsequently develop cult status – recent examples being Johnny Gaddaar, No Smoking and Manorama Six Feet Under, all of which have had impressive DVD packages.

Rock On!! is more mainstream than the above titles, one of the most popular releases of the year, in fact, and you can argue that it’s a film best experienced in a large hall in the company of a rambunctious audience. But now, just three months after its commercial release, it’s available on DVD, and a very well-packaged and thoughtfully put together two-disc set at that – one that does justice to this solid entertainer.

Disc One has the movie, along with a feature-length audio commentary option. The commentary is by producer-star Farhan Akhtar, writer-director Abhishek Kapoor and director of photography Jason West (a good choice, because one of this film’s most underrated strengths is its superb camerawork). Some DVD commentary tracks are shoddily thrown together afterthoughts that impose isolated sound-bytes on random scenes. Not this one. Kapoor, Akhtar and West watch the film together from beginning to end and share their insights on specific scenes as they unfold. It’s professionally done, yet there’s a lot of camaraderie on display too – listening to them, you get the sense that shooting Rock On!! must have been a lot of fun. Their spontaneous laughter when the popular “dandiya” scene comes on mirrors the viewer’s reaction. (“I love Arjun’s expression in this one!” says Akhtar, referring to co-star Arjun Rampal’s deadpan act in the scene where the four proud rockers are forced to prune themselves down – wear kurtas, comb back their hair – to play a Nadeem-Shravan song.) The commentary is very much a popular-appeal one, focussing more on actors’ performances and the occasional behind-the-scenes anecdote than on technicalities, but West manages to get in a word or two about scene setup and photography.

Disc Two has a goodly selection of extras, including an hour-long “making of” documentary that provides glimpses of Farhan Akhtar’s initial singing audition (he performs U2’s “One”, among other songs) as well as notes on costume and styling, and bytes from Rampal, Javed Akhtar and others. The “deleted scenes” section is barely 10 minutes long – nowhere near as interesting as, say, the 40 minutes of additional footage on the Chak De! India DVD – but the amusing, MTV-style music video for “Pichle saat dinon”, an inventive take on the song’s lyrics, is a good inclusion. There’s also a “Karaoke” section that plays each of the songs with the vocals volume turned down relative to the music, and with the lyrics appearing onscreen, so you can croak along.

The one minor problem I had with this DVD is that when you pick an option from the Scene Selection menu, the disc plays only that single chapter, after which it freezes, makes an unpleasant whirring sound and returns to the menu instead of allowing the film to continue. This sort of thing is understandable when you select from a Song menu (because songs are usually discrete, standalone elements in Hindi films), but it’s unnecessarily complicated when it comes to regular scenes. It means that if you interrupt a viewing midway and then return to the film afterwards, you have to play the disc right from the beginning and then either fast-forward manually (which is a very plebeian thing to do on a DVD) or repeatedly click on the “Next Scene” button to get to the point where you left off. It’s also jarring to have a scene abruptly end in this manner: in fact, the first couple of times it happened, I thought my player was “skipping”.

But this is a tiny quibble. On the whole, the Rock On!! disc-set is worth the price (Rs 390; hopefully it’ll reduce further in a month or two). It helps, of course, that the film itself is a definite keeper.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

A case of award-winning mangoes

The Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize (the shortlist for which was announced in August) has gone to Mohammed Hanif's fine satire A Case of Exploding Mangoes. My review of that book is here. (Earlier post about Shakti here.)