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Saturday, December 27, 2008

"Ghajini": Aamir Khan and joie de vivre

(Originally published here on
I'm part of a theatre troupe in my college. I remember, about 18 months ago, it was my first day in the group, and the very first thing I was told was "exaggerate"...... A.R. Murugadoss sure seems to guy who knows the meaning of that word! For "Ghajini" is exaggerated with a capital E.....and this is likely to be the bone of contention among those who love it and those who trash it. It is a throwback to the "good old times", where Bollywood films were very much the sum of their parts, comedy, action, romance, tragedy; each emotion drawn out with a measuring cylinder, and doled out in the requisite amounts....(I understand many Tamil and Telugu films still rigourously follow this regime)

First, the obvious questions and the banal stuff out of the way.....Ghajini is NOT, repeat NOT, Memento, nor does it aspire to be. Ghajini is your more conventional revenge saga, with the anteriograde amnesia angle only adding the sting in the tale. Aamir Khan plays Sanjay Singhania, a telecom tycoon who falls for a bubbly, vivacious girl-next-door(who just happens to channelize the spirit of Mother Teresa every now and then),Kalpana, played by Asin. After the usual comedy of errors and rollercoaster-like romantic sequences, they are set to be married, when Kalpana rescues a bunch of girls who were being trafficked as part of an organ racket(if you can believe it), gets into trouble with the big bad wolf, gets whacked and Sanjay gets hit on the head.....voila amnesia!

So far so good. The screenplay is cliched, there are head-scratcher moments liberally strewn and the lingering, gratuitious close-ups and flashing pan shots are, I'm sure, cringe-worthy for many. But the bottom-line is: In spite of all this(or as I'm about to elaborate, because of all this :) ) Ghajini works........over the three hours, you cannot take your eyes off the screen. Here's why:
1. Aamir Khan: There's a considerable slice of the media which is enamoured by Khan because of what they perceive is the "different" cinema he pursues....he has long been painted as the "thinking actor". What they don't realize is that while Khan's versatility was never in doubt, his films have always strived to excel while staying very much within the general purview of "commercial" cinema. Take a good long look at Dil Chahta Hai, Rangeela, Lagaan, Sarfarosh, Mangal Pandey......of his mega-successful trio of DCH, Lagaan and RDB, RDB is perhaps the furthest off the line. Aamir simply imbues his films with his searing honesty and intensity, never, NEVER pulls his punches and has an effortless skill for getting under the skin of his characters. These qualities are on ample display here in this time......there is an unmistakeable sense of...I suppose the right word is joy; about him.

He excels in the romantic portions, bringing to mind the chocolate boy of yore, as well as the loveable imp of Rangeela, especially in the song Behka Behka, (check out the half-a-dozen Aamirs dancing in step!). And, my God, when he gets all bald and brutal, the angry, adrenaline-pumped, yes with all eight packs in place(and how!).....Aamir is mesmerizing. Again, there are no half-measures with Aamir. When he screams, he screams till his veins are about to pop, when he howls with pain, he sounds like a staked animal. Just can't take your eyes off that guy........

2. Joie de Vivre- If I had to describe the film in one catchphrase, this would be it. Ghajini is a film which steers clear of any pretentions about its artistic status......, I'm just too much in love with Gunda (Mithun-da's cult classic....if you've yet to see this one, your cinematic education is incomplete, trust me....) to call this one Aamir's Gunda......but yes, the spirit is very much there. When the baddie swings away with his bolted iron rod, he cackles in delight. Khan himself despatches scores of goons with a Rajni-like flourish and I swear, once or twice, I thought I even saw a shadow of a chuckle beneath Khan's gnashed teeth! Sometimes this leads one to laugh out loud even during the gory portions, but it's all part of the show, rest assured.

No one embodies the spirit of joie de vivre better than Asin. You will find it incredibly difficult not to like her....... She matches Khan shot for shot when they share screen space, and is effortlessly ebullient throughout. All this and minus the annoying accent inflicted upon us by the likes of Genelia D'Souza. The director gives her plenty of scenes to show off her acting chops, and for the most part, she's upto scratch.

3. Rahman- Rahman follows up the magnificent score of "Yuvvraaj" with another good soundtrack. "Guzarish" is incredibly easy on the ears, and its opening strains are used pretty frequently. "Behka Behka" is Rahman at his experimental best, with quirky and unusual rhythms. It helps that the cinematography of the songs, especially, is brilliant. "Kaise mujhe" is superbly sung by Benny Dayal who has already made waves with his spirited rendition of "Tu Hi To Meri Dost Hai" from "Yuvvraaj". "Aye Bacchu" is a snazzy, upbeat number which captures the cheerful spirit of Asin's character to a T. Ghajini's score might not be among Rahman's more memorable ones, but it is very much in sync with the film.1

There you have it, then. Aamir, joie de vivre, and Rahman is the recipe for success as far as Ghajini is concerned. A word about the director. I watched an interview recently in which Aamir described the "pocket rocket" A.R. Murugadoss. Aamir described how diminutive in stature Murugadoss was, before going on to describe the unbelievable energy levels of the man. That frisky, restless energy which pervades the film, I believe has its sources here.You can feel it in the way he approaches even the most trivial of scenes. The simple act of drinking water from a plastic bottle has never been rendered with such outrageous urgency, for one! The hero as well as the villain crunch and gnash their teeth with gusto, the bad guy is complete with gold chain and faux-comical's all there! For me, this is the masala film of the year.....a film which doesn't fight its lack of erudition, but embraces it.

In an year in which we've watched some brilliant and intelligent Bollywood films like A Wednesday, Mumbai Meri Jaan, Dasvidaniya, Welcome To Sajjanpur, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye et al, let's celebrate the new year with the ultimate no-brainer of them all....Ghajini!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Kafkaesque turns one

Here's something which escaped my notice......a week ago this blog turned one! An year ago, in December 2007, I was on vacation after my first semester in college. That was when I finally broke through my hitherto undefeated laziness and started to bang away at the keyboard....... and an year later, I'm happy to note that I'm still at it! Who knows what lies ahead.......


Thursday, December 25, 2008

Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns"

When Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" was published in 1986, the Batman franchise, owned by DC Comics was not in good shape. Ratings were steady but never competitive with those of the rivals, Marvel Comics. Miller was a young superstar whose work on the Daredevil comic strip had already drawn rave reviews. The onus was on him to resuscitate the dying series.

So what does he do? He begins by making the Batman an old, bleeding, fading man grappling with his own inner demons. We are told that the second Robin, Jason Todd, died in combat, which caused, among other things, the caped crusader to call it a day. Where lesser men would have brought fresh villains for Batman to bash up, maybe even exaggerated the Batman's skills, Miller opted to tone them down. And then trained his eye on Gotham.

Miller's Gotham city is eerily disturbing and fascinating in equal measure.It is a city which doesn't have huge arch-villains, it has 15-year olds committing acts of unthinkable violence. Where the cost of a human life is shockingly low. It is a city where anarchy is always waiting in the wings, just in case..... Above all, it is a place ridden with paranoia and ignorance.During a news broadcast, it is actually suggested that "the heat wave in the city has led to the recent spate of violent crimes"

Batman's old foes Harvey "Two-Face" Dent and the Joker have both been locked up in Arkham Asylum for years. Harvey's half-burnt visage and his twisted alter-ego have both been apparently put to rest by a duo of doctors who seem curiously keen to let him loose among society again. At the same time, a gang of nihilist young goons calling themselves the Mutants are growing in power and influence on the streets of Gotham. Meanwhile, veteran cop Jim Gordon(Batman's old ally, one who apparently knows his identity has Bruce Wayne) is nearing retirement and contemplates the fate of Gotham in the days to come.

Clearly the stage is set for a comeback. For me, here's where the novel transcends the genre. Bruce Wayne's monologue about the bat, whom he describes as "the ancient one, the purest warrior, the ultimate survivor..." is chilling. Here's what he has to say about the revival of the bat within "You are are are a rusty trap which cannot hold me......feel me within your soul......for I am your soul....smouldering, I burn you....burning you, I flare, hot and bright and fierce and beautiful." All this is set accompanied with images from Bruce Wayne's past.....with a series of stunningly vivid black-and-blue ink sketches, the incident of a young Bruce falling down a bat-infested cave; as well as that of the brutal murder of his parents, is reconstructed in breathtaking fashion. On an unrelated note, I couldn't help but notice how faithfully Christopher Nolan has followed Miller's sketches while filming the aforementioned scenes in the stunning "Batman Begins" !

Batman does manage to quell Dent, who though cured of his scars, has found out that some scars are too deep to heal..... In fact, in the scene where Batman finally confronts Dent, he says "At least, now both sides are even ...." and the frame shows Dent with both sides of his face scarred. Batman, realising this is how Harvey Dent sees himself, thinks....."Not fooled by vision, I see him as he is..." and then "A reflection....." as we are shown two adjacent frames, one of the Batman, and one of the fierce-as-ever bat.... this intelligent juxtaposition of words and art is sometimes hard to follow, as the visual tricks keep getting more and more subtler.

The next issue of the four-part novel deals mostly with how Batman takes down the Mutant gang and also the emergence of a new Robin, thirteen-year old Carrie Kelly. Frank Miller, in the tenth-anniversary special edition, says in the preface, "One of the first things we decided was that Robin has to be a girl." However, the underlying problem addressed is not about the mutants; it is "escalation" , the idea that Batman's presence might actually increase crime and attract criminal sociopaths from all directions. We are shown a visibly aged and watered-down Joker quietly watching television at Arkham asylum. When there is news of the Batman's return on the news, something seems to wake the Joker up from his lull........the gleam in his eyes his back, and he slowly breaks into the same old ear-to-ear grin......A pompous psychiatrist, Dr. Wolper, who is treating both the Joker and Harvey "Two-Face" Dent, comes on television to go on a long-winded rant against the Batman.

"Every anti-social act can be traced to irresponsible media input. Given this(the Batman), the presence of such an aberrant, violent force in the media can only lead to anti-social programming. Just as Harvey Dent, who is recovering fine,thank you, assumed the role of ideological doppelganger to the Batman, a whole new generation, confused and angry will be bent to the matrix of the Batman's pathological self-delusion. Batman is, in this context, a social disease....." In the climax of "Batman Begins", Commissioner Jim Gordon explains the problem of escalation to the Batman, introducing the character of the Joker which was portrayed memorably by the late Heath Ledger in the sequel "The Dark Knight"Gordon says "This guy, for instance......he has a penchant for theatricality not unlike your own..... leaves a calling card..."
The weakness of the media and the blinkers-on attitiude of the government are also key themes Miller addresses here. The government, in Miller's universe, is openly and notoriously cares only about "public perception". The newsreader on the TV says, "The Political Performance Commission has just awarded the President an unprecedented five credibility points for his handling of public perception during the recent economic crisis..." Here, Miller dons the hat of an unlikely prophet as he introduces the President, a pandering, bumbling guy who speaks almost entirely using cowboy metaphors. The President explains to Clark Kent/Superman (who has now become a government agent) why Batman must be reined in.

"Son, I like to think I learnt everything about running this country on my's corny, I know, but I like to think it. And well, it's all well on a ranch, I mean, for the horses to be of different colurs and sizes.....long as they stay inside the's even okay to have a crazy bronco now and then.... does the hands good to break him in.....but when that bronco kicks out the fence and drives the other horses crazy....well it's bad for business...."

Clark Kent(yes, nowhere has the word "Superman" been used....apparently the Government has kept the existence of the Superman under wraps. Bruce Wayne refers to him simply as "Clark" ) then is kept in the shadows for a while as the Mutant leader is captured and put in a jail cell, where the mayor goes to see him " for negotiations, with all the ceremony befitting a military procedure..." as Jim Gordon puts it.The weakness of the authorities is sensed by the Mutant leader, who brutally murders the mayor in his cell. The seething outrage of Gordon is captured beautifully in the next scene where he is restrained "by some idiot, who stops me from doing the obvious thing..." Very soon, there is a broadcast by the local authorities who literally plead the Mutants to reconsider negotiations.

Eventually, Batman manages to overpower the Mutant leader.....seeing their leader maimed, the Mutants disband into different splinter groups, among them the "Nixons" who wear Richard Nixon masks! Ironically, one such group becomes the "Sons of Batman" who resort to extreme violence against even petty crime(like breaking up an illegal card game with napalm). By now, the Joker is gearing up for his first public appearance in years, and something big, blue and fast is flying towardsGotham City....

The action hots up when the Joker announces his arrival in style, killing hundreds of people in the television studio at one go, with his killing gas(including the insufferable Dr.Wolper). The Batman shows a twinge of regret at not killing the Joker, "I'll count the dead, one by one. I'll add them to the list..... of all the people I've murdered by letting you live...." Meanwhile, Clark Kent(yes, if Miller doesn't use "Superman" neither will I!) comes to warn his old ally Bruce that sooner or later, he will be forced to take the Batman down. This encounter between the Man of Steel and Bruce Wayne is a treat.....there is the gratuitious page-length sketch of the Adonis-like Clark Kent, albeit minus the costume.Watching him, Bruce thinks to himself , "There he is...there's the sun and the sky and him. Then he ruins everything by talking..."
Clark Kent saves America from a Soviet nuclear missile, harmlessly exploding it in a desert, weakening himself considerably in the process. He is rueful of how Bruce was "ruining it all" with his obesessive ways.....I thought this was Miller's way of cocking a snook at other, more "conventional" heroes like Superman himself.

"The rest of us learned to cope.The rest of us recognised the danger-- of the envy of those not blessed.....Diana went back to her people.....Hal went to the stars..and I have walked the razor's edge for so long now. But you Bruce......with your wild obesession.....". (For the uninitiated, Diana and Hal refer to Diana Prince and Hal Jordan, alter-egos for Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, respectively. They were both part of the Justice League, which also featured Superman and the Batman.)
Later on, even as Superman is finally unveiled in all his red-and-blue glory, he says " We must not remind them that giants walk the earth...." It is hinted that superheroes have been all but stamped out due to public outrage against the growing vigilante justice,and that Batman was one of the major culprits in this. Clark says,

"You were the one they used against us, Bruce. The one who played it rough....when the noise started from the parents' groups and the subcommittee called us in for were the one who laughed....that scary laugh of yours... "Sure we're criminals" , you said... "We've always been criminals....we have to be criminals..."

Make no mistake, the operative word in the title of the novel here is "dark" , not "knight". Bruce Wayne is darker, more violent and even cold-blooded at times. He has no qualms about his methods and is a powerful allegory for rule of anarchy.
The Batman finally subdues the resurgent Joker, but not before he has killed dozens of children at a fair. Oh, yes, the bloodtrail is ever so thick right throughout the novel. The final action sequences between the two arch-enemies are superbly scripted and drawn. Reading those pages made me realize some of the madness comic-book aficionados are associated was just so thrilling and sheer fun! Being a recent convert at the comic-book-cum-graphic-novel cult, perhaps the effect was more pronounced for me. And finally, it all boils down to Armageddon, the final battle, the last showdown between the two titans: Batman and Superman.

The settings are spectacular: Gotham has descended into anarchy as the disbanded splinter groups of the Mutants are wreaking havoc on the streets. Meanwhile the entire police force of Gotham, led by a new commissioner, is after the Batman. When a 747 crashes into a skyscraper(again, eerily prophetic) it's the last straw: ordinary people are at each other's throats, clawing, fighting for food..... Bruce Wayne must rally around the people of Gotham to sanity, and gear up to face the Man of Steel.....
Without giving up the ending, I'll say this: in a novel which steers clear of the cliches of the genre while embracing its strengths, the ending is true to form. Who prevails in this clash of titans? Grab your copy to find out! For "The Dark Knight Returns" is undoubtedly one of the landmarks of its genre and paved the way for a grittier, smarter and denser brand of comic-books and graphic novels, as the same year, Alan Moore released a brand new series called "Watchmen" .....and there has been no looking back since.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Millar and Miller: Graphic Novels rule!

I have been reading three books simultaneously for the past few days....... Orhan Pamuk's "My Name Is Red", along with two graphic novels, Mark Millar's "Wanted" and Frank Miller's iconic 1986 graphic novel "The Dark Knight Returns". Will soon post reviews of the latter two(Pamuk's book is about 500 pages.......and I'm reading this one at a leisurely pace).While "Wanted" was very loosely adapted into the Angelina Jolie starrer recently, Miller's unforgettable work was one of the key inspirations for Christopher Nolan's " The Dark Knight" , which was undoubtedly the film of the year for me.

Graphic novels, as a rule, are more difficult to review than regular novels, because there is just so much to take in with every page.....and when you have someone like Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman or the inimitable Alan Moore at the of luck! Visual tricks, cultural allusions, mythological overtones and modern-day allegories fly thick and fast. I still can't bring myself to review Moore's "Watchmen" which I have read thrice....maybe someday I'll split the thing into a series of posts. So far, I've reviewed Amruta Patil's "Kari"(here) and Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis"(though that was a kind of a clubbed review along with that of the film). But given the amount of graphic novels I've been reading of late....something's gotta give!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Italo Calvino's "If On A Winter's Night A Traveller"

"You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel If On a Winter's Night a Traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade......"

With a beginning like that, you kind of know you are in for an intriguing read.
Italo Calvino has always been difficult to categorize for readers and critics alike. He was a raconteur one moment, a poet the other. He could write about anything, and he could write about nothing in particular. With a Calvino novel, you never quite know what you're gonna get. But this one was easily one of the best reads I've had for some time.

"If On a Winter's Night a Traveller" is a remarkable novel on many counts, the very first of which you will notice is that the unnamed protagonist is "you", that is the reader. For the purpose of this review, I will henceforth refer to "you" as "he" lest my grammar goes for a toss. The protagonist buys a new novel by a writer called Italo Calvino, but the novel turns out to be something else entirely, a little-known work by another author. His search for the unfinished novel leads him to another book, and then another, in what becomes a pattern of sorts. The novel is structured in that way, like a Chinese puzzle-box:alternate chapters are devoted to the book-within-the-book.

While the main action is engaging enough, it is in the books-within-the-book that Calvino showcases his full repertoire. They are atmosperic, shadowy narratives all of which contribute something to the overall impact on the reader.They are thrillers, adventure stories, psychological ruminations, erotica.... you name it. During the course of his quest for the real novel, the protagonist meets a fellow reader, Ludmilla, her overbearing scholarly sister Lotaria and finally realises he has become unwittingly involved in an international intrigue dealing with apocrypha, the concept of authorship and the impact of the written word.

Calvino uses these stray narratives to propagate some of his own pet peeves- Who is the author? What reallly is a story? The intimate and edgy relationship between the written word and the images formed by the reader's mind is a key and recurring motif as well. He satirizes the notion that a story is a discreet identity where everything has to be pristine and particular. At one point Ludmilla says, "I prefer reading novels that bring me immediately into a world where everything is precise, concrete, specific. I feel a certain satisfaction in knowing that things are made in that fashion and not otherwise....."

Right towards the beginning, there is such a hilarious description of the process of buying books, that I kept returning to it, before even finishing the novel. "But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn't Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category of Books Read Before Being Written..."This is one of many potshots Calvino takes on the pitfalls of genre fiction. This aspect takes full flight later on in the book, with the introduction of the character of Silas Flannery, a reclusive writer of assembly-line thrillers.

Flannery is a composite of many popular genre writers, among them Ian Fleming. There is a stirring passage where Flannery watches a young woman through a telescope, reading a book. He is in the process of writing another novel at that time, and he becomes obesessed with the idea that the woman is reading his novel, the work in progress, even as he types it out......this plot device is used to great effect to suggest that the book is made as much by the author as by the reader; that as we read a book, we change....subtly, imperceptibly, but we do. And funnily enough,in Calvino's case,so does the book!

These Borgesian flights of fancy notwithstanding, Flannery was the most fascinating character in the novel for me. He is a vehicle for Calvino to air his existential angst as a writer, to question the very roles of the reader and the writer. Sample this:

"What does the name of the author on the jacket matter? Let us move forward in thought to three thousand years from now. Who knows which books from our period will be saved and who knows which author's names will be remembered......perhaps all the surviving books will be attributed to a single, mysterious author, like Homer."

The themes of duplication and the author as creator gather steam when Flannery finds that all around the world, fresh translations of his novels are appearing.....but they seem to be novels he never wrote in the first place. Ermes Marana, a mysterious man working for the ridiculously named OEPHLW(Organisation for the Electronic Production of Homogenized Literary Works) seems to be behind this. He claims to have "cracked" the Flannery novel, and is now churning them out with the help of his organisation.

"A team of ghost writers, experts in imitating the master's style in all its nuances and mannerisms is ready and waiting to step in and plug the gaps, polish and complete the half-written texts so that no reader could distinguish the parts written by one hand from those by another......It seems that their contribution has already played a considerable part in our man's most recent production"

Calvino is not interested in winding things up: he intends to make things more complicated with each passing chapter.He has managed to create the literary equivalent of an anti-particle: this books is at once a homage to and a negation of the conventional novel and its norms, as we know them. While this might put off a few readers, my own take on the issue is: just go with the flow, and you won't regret it! The book is full of hilarious moments and painfully accurate satire set-pieces. The character of Lotaria is a gross caricature of "academic" critics. Following a public reading of one of the unfinished texts that the protagonist reads, Lotaria and her cronies immediately burst forth

"The polymorphic-perverse sexuality......"

"The laws of a market economy....."

"The homologies of the signifying structures"

"Deviation and institutions......"

Moreover, when Lotaria goes to see Silas Flannery, she reveals she has speed-read all of his novels in a rather unique fashion: programming a computer to sift through the words used in order of their frequency!(19-blood, cartridge, belt,commander,life,teeth,shots) She then proceeds to see those frequently used words to surmise what the novel is about. Flannery is flabbergasted and rightly confused.. "Now every time I write a word, I see it spun around by the electronic brain, ranked according to its frequency."
The overall air about the novel is "one of constant climax" (this phrase was used by David Denby of the New Yorker to describe The Dark Knight). Calvino, like Borges, is obesesed with the mystical power of books and they play a key role in this novel. As Silas Flannery says in the book,

"The romantic fascination produced in the pure state by the first sentences of the first chapter of many novels is soon lost in the continuation of the story:it is the promise of a time of reading that extends before us and can comromise all possible developments. I would like to be able to write a book that maintains for its whole duration the potentiality of the beginning, the expectation still not focused on an object."

This is a highly accomplished work by an acknowledged master(Random House certainly agrees... the edition I read was a "Vintage Classics" edition!).... post-modern, metafiction, call it what you will.....but beg, borrow or steal this one fast....I mean it! I'll cap it off with another one of my favourites from the book

"Your mind has interior walls that allow you to partition different times in which to stop or flow, to concentrate alternately on parallel channes. Is this enough to say you would like to live several lives simultaneously? Or that you actually do live them? That you separate your life with one person or in one environment from your life with others, elsewhere? That in every experience you take for granted a dissatisfaction that can be redeemed only in the sum of all dissatisfactions?"

Genius....pure genius.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Kafkaesque goes places(again)

After my foray into culminated in a full-time authorship at that totally cool forum, "Kafkaesque" found a mention , and the last post "Blessed are the Geek" was reproduced here, at which is an off-beat news site bringing us the latest in news and gossip from the Indian techie scene......blessed are the geek, indeed!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Blessed are the Geek

(Just back from my field trip.....this is an article based on an idea by my friend Onyeka Nwelue, about "IITians doing crazy stuff with the pen", as he put it!)
The name IIT(Indian Institute of Technology) throws up a lot of reactions when asked for a word association, but most of them overwhelmingly focus on the banal stuff: words like "technocrat", "cutting-edge" , "elitist", "Silicon Valley" "creme-de-la-creme" keep whirling round and round until they are entirely devoid of meaning or purpose...... yes, IIT is perceived as a land peopled mostly by alpha-geeks, a notion that has certainly been nurtured as much by its illustrious alumni as by the Dilberts of the corporate world(remember Asok the intern?). But as a student of IIT myself, when I look at the people around me, do I see people who will take over the biz-tech domains of the world.......?

Hmmmm...tough one.

The answer is, of course I do. There are people here who have the means to do exactly that, for their talent ensures that they are not bound by many of the things you and I might be(yes, at the outset, I might as well confess, I have tech skills which are negligible, to say the least!) But that's not all there is to them. They are artists, singers, actors and yes, writers.... it's just that these aspects of IITians have only been in the public eye relatively recently.

The beginning of our story is in the late 80's when a young man with unbelievably thick glasses, an unruly mop of hair and a degree in Mechanical Engineering from IIT Kharagpur(where I study currently) had an epiphany: he took a leap of faith and decided that the world of engineering and technology was just not meant to be for him..... and he enrolled in a journalism course in the University of Southern California. He went on to work at The Statesman, a highly respected Indian daily, and later at The Indian Express, where he's currently the managing editor.

Raj Kamal Jha had announced his arrival in style. In 2000, his first novel, "The Blue Bedspread" was published by Random House and it immediately garnered rave reviews from the high priests of the literary criticism arena. Sample this little nugget from Richard Bernstein of the New York Times:

" ''The Blue Bedspread'' is a brilliant beginning for a writer whose voice already shows a maturity well beyond his years."

By that time Jha was already an editor at The Indian Express where his haunting, razor-sharp editorial pieces were already becoming the talk of the town. When I read the novel about an year ago, I was intrigued and enthralled in equal measure..... the novel chronicles the story of a night in Calcutta, where an unnamed narrator(as Jha puts it himself, "In a city of 12 million names, it doesn't matter") is narrating to his dead sister's child, the stories of his is in this seemingly random vignettes that he stitches together a narrative so original and so atmospheric that it seems as if the writer is right beside you, whispering in your ear urgently.... Jha has a unique talent for precise and delicate portrayals which engage all the senses, when he talks about Calcutta's odours and colours, one is moved enough to actually feel the rancid stench of the by-lanes, the sensation of the first monsoon showers caressing your bare skin. He is also a master at thought-process narratives which tend to focus more on the emotional rather than the material aspects of the story, a kind of post-modernist take on the much-abused stream-of-consciousness technique of Joyce.

His craft is based neither on the theatricality and over-the top exuberance of a Rushdie nor on the quiet minimalism of a Raymond Carver, to whom he has been compared in the past; but rather on a middle path. His work is deep-rooted in the realities of Indian life and the nitty-gritty of daily existence(that's the obvious influence of his day job as journalist) but his prose is evocative, layered and often deeply disturbing. The device of multiple narratives and dreamlike, lyrical narratives took on a whole new level with his second novel "If You Are Afraid Of Heights" where he even had "mirror characters" who tended to complement the other's narrative(they even had "mirror" names, Amir and Mira, Mala and Alam!).His third and most recent novel is "Fireproof" , a brilliant and unusual take on the 2002 Gujarat riots which Jha had covered extensively as a journalist at The Indian Express. As an aside, I strongly recommend an article Jha wrote on the riots , titled "John Brown and a dog named Chum" which can be read on the Indian Express website. This short piece will tell you more about the riots than volumes and volumes of yellow, dog-eared newspaper reports.

Around the same time Jha had his leap of faith, an IIT Kharagpur graduate with a management degree from IIM Calcutta to boot, started work at India Today, one of the country's leading magazines. Writing about absolutely anything under the sun, banging away at the keyboard, rushing to meet deadlines, Sandipan Deb felt truly at home. He went on to work in Outlook, a magazine started in 1995 with veteran journo Vinod Mehta as editor. Deb, along with Mehta, Tarun Tejpal(who went on to found Tehelka, the pioneer of "sting operations" in India) and others, shaped Outlook into a sassy new rival to India Today. Over the years, as an avid reader of Outlook myself, I enjoyed Deb's pieces on politics, business, celebrity, films, sports.....the list goes on and on.

In 2004, Penguin published Deb's non-fiction book "The IITians" which sought to explain the reason how India managed to create a world-class system of engineering and scientific education. The book explored the lives of several illustrious IIT alumni and some who had made their mark, albeit in fields light years away from engineering. It also looked at the madly overblown craze IIT has in India, especially small-town India.

What I liked about the book(and ironically enough, when I read the book, I was preparing for the IIT entrance test) was that Deb looked as much to his own experiences as to the experiences of an Arun Sarin(ex-CEO, Vodafone) or a Nandan Nilekani(Co-Chairman of Infosys, the IT giant). I remember the first lines of the book very well: "This first chapter has been incredibly difficult for me to write, absurdly so, because I make my living working for a weekly magazine, crunching out a thousand words on whatever the editor wants me to....". He then goes down to his old college with a friend, another alumnus, and starts to catch up.

He describes himself as "The Black Sheep" among IITians. It is this self-effacing humour which is one of the hallmarks of the book. Even when superlatives are flying thick and fast, you never get the feeling that Deb is getting over-the-top in his praise of either IIT or IITians. Indeed, there is a whole section on the problems the IITs are facing today, some of them involving draconian laws imposed on students.(Believe me, I know all about them!) "The IITians" is required reading for anyone wishing to know about IIT's or IITians,warts and all.

But both Jha and Deb are very much into quote-unquote serious literature/journalism. Of late, there has been the emergence of IITian writers at the other end of the literary spectrum. In 2004, the same year Deb's "The IITians" was published, an IIT Delhi graduate(and IIM Ahmedabad PGDM) Chetan Bhagat released his first novel "Five Point Someone-What Not To Do At IIT" . A hilarious take on the bildungsroman format, involving the misadventures of three friends at IIT Delhi, the book became an instant bestseller. Bhagat's underdog characters, humour which ranged from the wry to the slapstick, and snappy narrative won him a whole generation of fans, many of whom were not in the habit of reading fiction in English. The novel was the kind of book which is very difficult not to like. In effect, Chetan Bhagat did for Indian young adults what Rowling did for kids the world over: he got them to read. In India, if an English language book sells 5000-10000 copies, it's considered a bestseller....."Five Point Someone" sold lakhs and lakhs of copies.

Since then, Bhagat has published two more novels, one of whom "One Night@ Call Centre" was adapted into a Bollywood film "Hello" ,(whose screenplay Bhagat wrote). He has become a publishing phenomenon and also a bone of contention between critics who trash his work, saying that his work is basically "Bollywood on paper" and lacks any plausible logic or coherence; and those who laud Bhagat the entertainer.

Snobbery and inverse-snobbery flying back and forth, sometimes it is hard to separate Bhagat the writer from Bhagat the defiant celeb who declares he writes "for the common man" . I will say, however, that while it is a futile exercise to critically analyze Bhagat's later two novels, the overall quality of his work has taken a severe beating, ever-escalating sales figures notwithstanding. His latest book "The Three Mistakes of My Life" (following which The New York Times, no less ,did a profile feature on him) is riddled with shockingly juvenile bits of prose, highly cliched flights of fancy, and as was later found out, embarrasing factual inconsistencies. But the magic figure for Bhagat and his publishers, Rupa and co. :500,000 copies sold .......

The latest to jump onto this IITian-as-writer bandwagon is young Tushar Raheja, a 2006 IIT Delhi graduate, whose debut novel "Anything For You Ma'am" subtitled "An IITian's Love Story" was published while he was still in his final year of college. The novel, with its simple, uncomplicated storyline, became popular through word-of-mouth publicity. The 5000 copies of the first print were sold out within a month of its release, and there has been no looking back for the 24-year old who candidly admits “I have never been a writer. I find it difficult to form flowing sentences. I don’t have a disciplined approach to writing”. Now people might find this an easy buffer against criticism(“I knew I couldn’t do very literary stuff”) but clearly this is a brash new batch of authors who are unapologetic about their erudition, or lack thereof.

The novel itself is a study in over-simplification and hatchet jobs from cringe-inducing early 90's mushy Bollywood movies, with more than a dash of IIT thrown in. Having said that, Raheja is genuinely funny at times,and a natural raconteur. But the publishers went well and truly overboard with the blurbs when they dropped names like Wodehouse . Just because Raheja uses the word "bally" liberally does not warrant comparing him to perhaps the greatest humourist of all time.... Especially when the author himself distances himself from the purported norms of "literature".

So from the dark landscapes of Jha's dream-worlds to the cotton candy realities of Bhagat and co. , who is the IITian writer? Is he someone who has a unique and illuminating perspective on the world around him, or does he choose to escape into his own flights of fancy? I suppose the answers aren't so simple. From my own experience, I can say that there are plenty of people here, who are among the most culturally aware people you'll ever meet.....I have a friend who says his dream job is "pop-culture historian" ! The thing about this place is, and this is one of my favourite things about my college, no matter how weird or outlandish your tastes are, you'll always find kindred souls. Bookworms and movie-maniacs have a plentiful haven here. With the massive file-sharing network on campus, you have terrabytes of stuff at your disposal all day, everyday.

But there's also the other side. People often fight so hard to get here, they lose sight of what they really want from life in the long-term. Moreover, there's a sense of having reached a plateau sometimes. When you finally arrive here, sometimes after years of single-minded preparation, there seems to be a general disinclination to strain the grey cells, and opt instead for entertainment of the goofy, mindless variety. I, for one, am not prepared to take sides here. For all their supposed shallowness, Bhagat and Raheja are getting young people to read, and that is easier said than done. While I certainly wait for Raj Kamal Jha to dazzle us all with his inimitable prose again, I permit myself a smile when I see the likes of Bhagat and Raheja stacking the bookshelves.

And I most certainly smile when I see my name among the contributors for the annual magazine and think, "Hmmm...once upon a time, a guy named Raj Kamal Jha used to write in these pages...."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Aravind Adiga's "The White Tiger"

(My exams are officially OVER, leaving me with six days of absolutely nothing to do, the first of which I spent in Kolkata yesterday, mostly in the wonderful Oxford Book Store at Park Street ......among the prize catches were Philip Roth's "Sabbath's Theatre" and Zadie Smith's "White Teeth")

Aravind Adiga's "The White Tiger" is a remarkable novel in many ways (leaving aside the Booker brouhaha and the fact that it is a debut novel)The first, and in my humble opinion, the most important thing is that it is, quite simply so intensely readable......I know for a fact that a lot of very voracious readers actually avoid what they refer to as the "Booker-Vooker types" because of what they perceive as complexity in tone and content, inscrutable cultural allusions and sometimes off-putting literary gymnastics in general.

No such troubles here. Adiga's voice is instantly engaging, he talks to us but never preaches, never tries to play gotcha, and manages to be racy without being shallow throughout the length of the 330-odd pages. Moreover, all too often, his character Balram Halwai, "servant, entrepreneur, murderer..." and the "White Tiger" displays often startling insight into the way the world ticks, cloaked in down-to-earth hokum and sly humour.Having a first-person narrative is slippery ground at the best of times, and it requires a very steady hand at the wheel. (In this aspect, Halwai's saccharine-like tone to Premier Jiabao, to whom he tells the story; reminded me a lot of Mohsin Hamid's " The Reluctant Fundamentalist", where the central character Changez's dialogue with the American stranger lends a dangerous edge to the already taut narrative)

For the most parts Adiga has things under control, except perhaps the parts where he desrcibes the parts where he describes the young Halwai describing his father's death due to TB: I felt that the graphic descriptions of a government hospital in disarray, were akin to emotional pornography and looked more in place in an 70's Bollywood flick where the greatly aggrieved child would morph into Amitabh Bachchan's angry young man with a deft camera-stroke.

Having said that, Adiga's portrayal of ordinary village life(in this case, in a village near Dhanbad!) shines luminously. He fleshes out his characters lavishly. One thing Adiga will never be accused of is pulling his punches. And in the feudal system which has the average Indian village in a chokehold, he has got the soapbox of a lifetime. Whether it is the landowners(called animal names like the Stork), the pathetic obsequious peasants or greasy local politicians, Adiga digs in with obvious relish. He makes much of the "other India" the land which he calls the Darkness. It is this darkness that Halwai is so desperate to escape, and he leaves no stone unturned to realize his dream. The Darkness oozes slime, it reeks....and its inhabitants with it. Whether it is Halwai's painstaking efforts to educate himelf, or his pathetic work at the tea-shop or his overbearing stereotypically matriarchal granny, Adiga makes you laugh while making you sit back and think. Sustaining black humour is easier said than done... sample this passage where he talks about the way the poor stay poor:

“Go to Old Delhi ...and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly coloured roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages...They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they're next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.”

Here Adiga treads a fine line, for he opens a Pandora's box when he chooses to base his whole plot on the debunking of the "India Shining" blend the personal with the political, using one man's story as a mirror to the society as a whole. It has been done before, but never with such irreverent, take-no-prisoners styled wit.

In Halwai, Adiga has created a bona fide original, a truly unforgettable character, who leaps straight off the pages. He is street-smart, wildly ambitious and till the end, rigidly unapologetic till the very end. For all his supposed grief when he realized that he had to kill his employer, he never hesistated in the actual act itself. He is always very mindful of the fact that he is destiny's chosen child, the one who will make the miraculous leap from the Darkness into the Light. And for that, he is ready to do whatever it takes.......this is perhaps best portrayed when he talks casually about maybe having to kill his nephew, who knew about his crime, someday. Halwai is about as remorseful as Tom Ripley, and a lot more fun.

This is no mean debut. Adiga has at a single stroke, catapulted himself into the big league. Let's see how he fares in the days to come. A month ago, his second book, Between The Assassinations, which he supposedly wrote before this one, was released and has been doing brisk business,expectedly. I hope to get my hands on that one, soon, though I gave it a miss yesterday, in favour of Roth and Rushdie.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Persepolis Experience

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Okay, so nowadays I am on a graphic novel spree. Having devoured Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” (although an outstandingly original work,Persepolis is unmistakeably influenced by “Maus”) Alan Moore’s “From Hell” and closer home, Sarnath Bannerjee’s refreshing debut “Corridor” in the last few weeks, I have read precious little apart from graphic novels lately….. One of the topics that has been done to death whenever we talk about graphic novels or comic-books in general is how the medium is in sync with cinema(although this has its opponents, most notably Alan Moore, who commented that during the 80’s and the early 90’s he concentrated on making comic-books which were , well, unfilmable…….let’s see what he makes of the upcoming Watchmen movie…more about that in a later post!)

Therefore I was pretty excited about watching Marjane Satrapi’s animated film “Persepolis” . I read the graphic novel ( both volumes of it), on my laptop in one go, so jaw-droppingly good it was. It is at once an intensely personal memoir and a mirror which looks into Iran’s troubled past and asks some questions which cut uncomfortably close to the bone. Beginning with young Marjane or Marji’s childhood, we are led on a journey which tells us more about the oppressive regime of the Shah , and the subsequent revolt, than any number of history books could. By the time Marjane is a troubled teenager, a drifter and finally a somewhat mellowed young adult , we are totally engrossed by the simply yet beautifully told story.

Given that the film is co-directed by Satrapi herself, who wrote and drew the book, the film manages to capture the essence of the 350-odd pages over a mere 85 or so minutes. The film is full of highly poignant moments, like the one where Marji realizes how utterly lone she is in France, or the one where she gets expelled from her school for speaking out against the regime, or the one where she meets her favourite uncle in jail for the last time……. The direction is warm, sensitive and funny. In fact, perhaps because I loved the book so much, I felt a bit disappointed because some of the delicious scenes in the book, especially in the second volume, never make the cut in the film. This is one of the reasons why I believe that, ideally, The Persepolis Experience firmly consists of both the novel and the film, in that order.

It is unbelievable that “Persepolis” did not win the Academy Award for Best Animated Film, (though it did win the Prix du Jury at Cannes) pipped to the post by Ratatouille, which was funny but, frankly wasn’t even in the same ballpark as this unassuming masterpiece. The film is searingly honest, as it uses the cliches of the bildungsroman(the coming-of-age tale) to chronicle the horrors of living in fear and risking one’s freedom for one’s principles. The structure of the film is such that as the child Marji grows up , previously everyday incidents now take up sinister undertones as she starts to realize the complex dynamics of her homeland. Note that when Marji is brought upto date on the events of her homeland by her father, she reacts not as the adult she has become, but as the child she once was.

Her attempts to lead a life the way she deems fit, with all the trappings of American culture (complete with smuggled Iron Maiden posters) make for some darkly funny moments. The scene where she lets go of her boyfriend’s hand at the wheel stayed with me, as is the one where her mother is verbally abused by one of the moral police hounds. The often trouble nature of Marji’s own morals is all-too clear, as shown by the scene where she falsely accuses a random stranger of making lewd advances, just because she could…… But all is not gloomy and dark, as Marjane does encounter a truly religious person, albeit towards the fag end of the film.

At this point, I must admit that I am in complete awe( and when I say awe, I mean the college-kid droolfest variety)of Satrapi as a writer and an artist……part of it because she is every bit the classic “rebel” intellectual, always stepping on politically correct toes, never giving a damn about how her works are perceived, (a later book, Embroideries, has a story line about an Iranian mother of four who has no clue what the male organ looks like…..) perennially with a cigarette on her lips( she once joked about wanting to be the “world champion in smoking”) she cuts quite a figure and she knows it.

Persepolis will stay with you long after the credits have rolled down……it’s an experience you are unlikely to forget in a hurry.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Blogger's Block

It's been a lean few weeks as far as blogging is concerned, and I'm afraid the coming week isn't gonna be much better, either. My end-semester exams are round the corner, and after that, I have a week's holiday before I'm hauled off to the back of beyond for a field trip to study rocks and all the other good things in life.(I study Applied Geology) Hoping to catch up on the blog(among other things....) during that week. Some posts on the anvil are sure to involve-

1. Aravind Adiga's magnificent debut "The White Tiger" which bagged the Man Booker Prize this year.
2. The weird world of Tarsem Singh who has given us two truly unique, outrageously original films: The Cell and The Fall
3. The works of comic book writer Alan Moore: The path-breaking graphic novel Watchmen, V For Vendetta, The Killing Joke, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
4. My new-found love for animes.
5. Some other terrific graphic novels I read recently, like Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, and the evergreen Maus by Art Spiegelman(which I re-read)
6. Boston Legal, my all-time favourite television series, which will take its final bow on the 15th of December(at which time I'll probably be surrounded by vast expanses of metamorphic rocks, and little else).

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Master At Work : A.R.Rahman's "Yuvvraaj"

Okay, so I am the laziest bum that ever walked the hallowed sands of cyberspace.......can't get down to type a new post, so in the meantime, here's my post on my other blog, at can catch the original page here)

There is a very good reason why I have titled this post A.R.Rahman’s Yuvvraaj……because considering Subhash Ghai’s track record of late, (the seeped-in-cliches “Black and White” and the-lesser-said-the-better “Kisna” )the odds are that “Yuvvraaj” will be another Ghai film which will flatter to deceive…..and that should not come in the way of the fact that A.R.Rahman has given us yet another masterpiece of a soundtrack, one that(dare I say it?) might be his best yet.

The last time Subhash Ghai and Rahman worked together was the ill-fated Kisna, where Rahman contributed two tracks and a few instrumentals before he dropped out in favour of other assignments. Before that, they had famously collaborated in “Taal” 10 years ago, resulting in the creation of a watershed soundtrack which is still considered to be a landmark in the history of Bollywood music. The onus was, thus firmly on the maestro ever since it was reported that he would work on “Yuvvraaj”. Like “Taal”, this too had been billed as a grand musical.

Rahman does not disappoint. The album starts off with “Main Yuvvraaj” which is basically Salman Khan introducing his character, as the familiar strains of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony play on. The next song, the one which we have been listening to in the promos, is “Tu Meri Dost Hain” marks the beginning of the fun……Rahman creates a simple yet immensely powerful melody, one based on a steady Western Classical Orchestra sound. On this template, Rahman brings on the refreshing Benny Dayal(Pappu Can’t Dance and Nazrein Churaana from Jaane Tu..) Shreya Ghoshal(and himself for good measure) to weave pure magic on a track which will have you hitting the replay button again and again. A note on Gulzar’s lyrics: The old stalwart delights again… sample this

“Awaaz ka dariya hoon, behta hoon main neeli raaton mein….

Main jaagta rehta hoon, neend bhari jheel si aankhon mein…”

Rahman’s prodigious skill with Western Classical music is on parade for much of this soundtrack, including the next song “Tu Muskura Le” which, in the spirit of reunions, has Alka Yagnik hitting the high notes ever-so-sweetly again. This is again a keyboard-based track, albeit one in which Rahman doesn’t quite let his hair down. However, the track has an amazingly haunting quality, and as with so many Rahman songs, gets better with every subsequent listen. We then merrily segue along to “Mastam Mastam” which is characteristic of the recent Rahman(Guru etc.) subtle melody combined with earthy sounds and a general sense of joie de vivre. The highly innovative and thematic nature of the lyrics as well as that of the song is a standout feature.

The same “thematic” concerns continue with “Manmohini Morey” which combines classical Hindustani vocals set to a simple techno arrangement with the signature Grand Orchestra violins and cellos of the film keeping company. I suspect that these songs will be all the more impressive, when they shall be seen and not just heard. Rahman decides to have a bit of fun with “Shano Shano” which is a very unsual disco track, one which may seem lightweight in comparison to the melodious riches strewn around the rest of the album, but a highly infectious track nonetheless.

Next up is “Zindagi” which is a typical Rahman-soft track, featuring Srinivas(remember the soulful “Kaisi Hai Yeh Rut” from DCH?) whose honest-to-God vocals lend a delightfully fragile edge to the track. Finally, Rahman signs off in style, with the nearly eight-minute long “Dil Ka Rishta” which has as many as nine singers, including Sonu Nigam, Roop Kumar Rathod, rapper Blaaze and Rahman himself. I strongly suspect this will be the final scene of the film, as the melody has that operatic sense of climax about it.

There is no doubt in my mind that for sheer brilliance, variety and originality, this is the best Bollywood soundtrack of this decade. Ghai has smartly emphasized the Rahman-Gulzar combo in the initial teasers of the film.

Rahman had already done more than enough to ensure that his would be the career that would define the past 15 or so years of Bollywood music, but with “Yuvvraaj” he just raised the bar higher….. The only question in my mind is, what will he do next? The man who has already notched up more accolades and kudos at 40 that most musicians do in a lifetime(including the slightly cheesy epithet “Mozart of Madras” given by TIME magazine) has only himself to beat……

Finally, a word about the film itself: “Yuvvraaj” seems very much to be from the classic Ghai stable, with all the allure of grandeur, and his characteristially “epic” storytelling. The film stars Salman Khan, Anil Kapoor, Katrina Kaif and Zayed Khan, among which Katrina is a cello player and the rest are singers.(From the teasers, it’s Kapoor’s character which intrigues me the most, and I suspect a solid performance from the veteran will go a long way if the film is to work….) I sincerely hope that the film is good, because I’m going to watch it first day first show anyway, just to watch Rahman’s gems unfold on the large screen, where perhaps they might sparkle brighter still.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A New Innings: Kafkaesque at PFC

It's out in the open folks: I have a new blog! This is at PFC or and I was beyond thrilled when the Editors of the site invited me to be a part of the team.....especially as I had been following this website for some time now........and had submitted a few articles(like this one , and this) which they graciously published. And I am in very good company indeed: The authors on this site include many people directly associated with the film industry, directors like Anurag Kashyap, Sudhir Mishra, Navdeep Singh, Onir; as well as prominent movie journos like Pratim D. Gupta and Khalid Mohammad. I hope this is the beginning of a long innings!

Here's my first article as a PFC author(redirected from this page at

The Legend Of Johnny Depp

I was about 10 when I saw “Edward Scissorhands” for the first time.(It was also one of the first Hollywood movies I saw) The modern-day fairytale style of narration, I’m sure went a long way towards holding a child’s attention, and the novelty value of seeing a freakish guy with dozens of scissors dangling where his hands should have been…… all in all, it was a dazzling experience.However, even then, what really grabbed me, what really gave me shivers was the image of a chalk-faced, confused, vulnerable….. and so deeply child-like Johnny Depp. This performance would prove to be a turning point in what is already one of the most remarkable careers of his generation.

As my taste grew more evolved, I watched many more films featuring this amazingly versatile actor. The first among these, some three years ago, when I was in Class XI, was “Ed Wood”(not Pirates of The Caribbean, imagine!), Tim Burton’s marvellously funny and touching portrait of the maverick, flamboyant movie-maker of the 50’s(By then, I already had a retro fetish, for both Bollywood and Hollywood ). Depp’s performance in this film has to be seen to be believed. Talk about getting under the skin of the character…… from the moment he waltzs in on the screen, all you can do is sit and watch……and try to close your mouth. Depp’s chameleon-like ability to master, but not overdo, almost any accent(notice the finely-nuanced Scottish one he pulls off to perfection in “Finding Neverland”, almost a decade after Ed Wood) coupled with his manic energy and obvious emoting gifts are on display here.

After being completely swept off my feet by this film, I saw the infinitely more “mainstream” and “commercial” Pirates Of The Caribbean trilogy, in which Depp played the character for which he is perhaps best known now: the irrepressible, witty, swaggering and sometimes treacherous pirate Jack Sparrow. Now the POC trilogy very much falls into the big-budget Hollywood fare category. Consequently, it has all the pitfalls and cliches that one associates with said company. However, it is Johnny Depp, who steers the ship, so to speak, all the way along, especially in the first film “The Curse Of The Black Pearl”.(In fact, one of the principal criticisms of the later films in the franchise was that they had too little of Sparrow!) The overwhelming praise Depp generated culminated even got him an Oscar nomination, in which he eventually lost out to Sean Penn for “Mystic River” . (Perhaps it’s just my Depp bias speaking, but is this another example of an out-and-out comic role losing out in the Oscar stakes to a more quote-unquote serious role?)

In the last year or so, I have watched half-a-dozen more Johnny Depp movies, including “Sweeney Todd”, (my personal favourite among them), which was a departure of sorts for Depp. For the first time, he worked in a musical, and even though he has an untrained voice, did splendidly, garnering kudos from all over, and yet another Oscar nomination(NOT that it mattered). The cold fury in his eyes bring out the angst and the pent-up bile of a broken man to perfection…..and the songs were fun, too!

The other usual suspects included “Finding Neverland” a somewhat weary but genuinely touching and often brilliant take on Sir James Barrie, the man who created the immortal play “Peter Pan”. Once again Depp delivers in style as the shy genius who crafted amazing worlds through the sheer power of his imagination. “Charlie and The Chocolate Factory” was a joy-ride through and through, and Depp literally let his hair down as Willy Wonka, the wildly creative but reclusive chocolatier.

Some were more quirky(than usual, by Depp’s standards), like playing legendary Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s fictional alter-ego Raoul Duke in the screen adaptation of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”. Then there was “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” another gripping drama, in which Depp was overshadowed for once, by a 19-year old by the name of Leonardo Di Caprio……

Along the way, Depp has forged a highly productive partnership with director Tim Burton, one which has already given us films like Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Sweeney Todd. I am eagerly awaiting the upcoming projects like “Public Enemies”, from Michael Mann, the director of the majestic “Heat” and “Collateral”. Also on the anvil are “Shantaram” where we have the intriguing prospect of seeing Johnny Depp and Amitabh Bachchan share screen space. But the one to watch out for, in my opinion is, Tim Burton’s next film, “Alice in Wonderland” where Depp plays the Mad Hatter(who else?).

Long live the legend of Johnny Depp!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Musings on Life and Love: "American Beauty"

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In one of many poignant moments in Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty”, Lester Burnham(Kevin Spacey) watches his new neighbour, teenaged drug-dealer and video enthusiast Ricky tell off his boss at his part-time catering job, saying “You don’t have to pay me.” Upon seeing the boss confused, he puts on a okay-here’s-how-it’s-done tone and says ” I quit. So you don’t have to pay me.”Seeing this Burnham, who is trapped in a highly mediocre, humdrum job and a stagnant, rotting marriage, says, in unashamed admiration “You’ve just become my hero….”

Emancipation from the clutches of an “ordinary” and “ordered” existence is one of the key themes addressed in this masterpiece of a film. Lester Burnham has nothing to look forward to in his life. He has an average job, he has a career-obesessed wife and he has the All-American Surly Teenage daughter. But this soon changes when he spots Angela, the quintessential blonde, a friend of his daughter’s, and starts to lust after her. In perhaps the most famous visual associated with the film, he envisages her lying naked in a pool of rose petals.

From then on he decides to do away with the banal repetitiveness of his life. He quits his job(blackmailing his boss for a fat severance package), starts to work out, and refuses to be pushed around by his wife.But Lester is not the only one with issues. His wife Carolyn(Annette Bening) is a real estate agent trying her best to succeed at her job, only to find her efforts are in vain. She tries to maintain the facade of normalcy and happiness at home. Their daughter Jane has serious self-esteem issues and has been saving her babysitting money since ten “for a boob job”.

She desperately wants to be “pretty like Angela”. Add to this the new neighbours across the street: An Ex-Marine Corps who is obesessive about discipline, a semingly demented wife and their son Ricky, who has a flourishing drug-dealing business and is fresh out of a mental facility.

The film is choc-a-bloc with moments of startling insight. Ricky explaining the reason why he films(seemingly)everyday stuff, Lester starting to feel good about himself after quitting his job, Jane betraying a shadow of a smile after she sees Ricky compulsively filming her, Carolyn’s pathetic efforts to sell a house…….. these scenes are all carried off with a deft touch. They are very much satirical, yet somehow remain deeply sympathetic towards the characters. The quality of Alan Ball’s writing has to be commended here just as much as the obvious quality of Mendes’ vision.

What really is “ordinary” ? How far would one go to escape an “ordinary” life? Can beauty be found in the seemingly plain things of our everyday life? These are just some of the questions raised here. Twice in the film Angela, who desperately wants to be a model, says “The worst thing in life is to be ordinary”. But then we witness later on how insecure and ordinary she really is. There is much irony on display here, as the superbly done climax shows. Without giving out further spoilers, I would just say that this film is highly recommended for everyone.

The acting is of the highest order. Kevin Spacey shows why he is so highly regarded with a virtuoso performance as Lester Burnham, while Annette Bening is pitch-perfect as Carolyn Burnham. The other supporting acts are terrific too, with Wes Bentley standing out as Ricky, the apparent whack-job next door. To think that this was the debut for both writer Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes…… I had previously written about Mendes’ second film “Road To Perdition”, which I had enjoyed immensely, and I must say that my respect for his work has just shot through the roof. Now I’m gonna try and get my hands on “Jarhead” which was his third and latest film, released in 2005. Mendes fans are eagerly waiting for the Christmas release of “Revolutionary Road” in which he reunites the Titanic troika of Leonardo Di Caprio, Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Anita Desai's "In Custody"

I finished three books in the week: old favourite Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America", Anita Desai's "In Custody" and Patricia Highsmith's "Eleven" , a short story collection. More about the other two later, but first, I simply have to write about this luminous work by one of India's finest writers ever.

"In Custody" is about Deven, a lecturer at a Delhi college, whose obviously mediocre and banal existence is changed when he gets an assignment from his friend Murad, who runs an Urdu magazine: To interview Nur, the greatest living Urdu poet, now well past the peak of his powers, living the life of a recluse.

The trials and tribulations which Deven faces while trying to extract something useful from Nur, who is a shadow of the man he used to be; form the crux of the book. But it is really the beautiful exploration of the layers of everyday life that Desai revels in. During the course of this slim novel, there are several passages which make you gasp with recognition, such is the power and accuracy of her vision. Even when dealing with complex and nostalgia-ridden characters like Nur, Desai displays a deftness of touch and a unique, sensitive style which fleshes out the character like few others can do.

The oppression of women and their often "trapped" existence is a peripheral theme in the novel. Whether it is Sarla, Deven's wife or Nur's wives, the female characters in the story act as a sort of a barometer. Sample this simply-told yet devastatingly effective passage

"When he did get home, Sarla was standing in the doorway with her arms and her sari wrapped about her shoulders and her face bent under the thin straggling hair as she talked to a neighbour outside: the picture of an abandoned wife......"

Reading Anita Desai, we are reminded constantly that this could be any of us: the remarkable amount of details she provides; little things really, are sure to provoke a trip down memory lane. Although she has been criticised often on the grounds that plot takes a backseat in most of her books, my view is two-fold:
1) Plot movement is not always manifested in the form of actual, tangible and relevant events. The psychological evolution of a character is equally fascinating, and in the hands of a master(like Desai) perhaps even more so.
2) I couldn't care less either way: If Anita Desai decides to describe her impression of the first fellow she sees on any given day on the street; over the course of a few hundred pages, I would happily devour it.

Perhaps the best way to describe the book is a tragic comedy: seeing the pathetic Deven's futile attempts at relevance, his one shot at glory, one laughs and cries at the same time.My favourite Desai book remains "Baumgartner's Bombay" which is actually not one of her more fancied novels, like "Clear Light Of Day" and "Fasting, Feasting" both of which were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize(like "In Custody"). But after reading this one, I have to place it a very close second. Am now looking to get my hands on the 1993 Merchant-Ivory film "In Custody"..... it starred Shashi Kapoor, Om Puri and Shabana Azmi......more than enough reasons already!

RIP: David Foster Wallace

Amidst the hustle-bustle of my exams, I skipped past a lot of news...... especially from the literary world. Among them was the suicide of David Foster Wallace, one of my favourite contamporary writers. Wallace's exuberant, massive, immensely erudite postmodern tome"Infinite Jest" remains a one-of-a-kind , a bona fide original in the truest sense of the word.Time Magazine included "Infinite Jest" in its list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century.

Wallace burst on to the literary scene as a precocious 25 year-old with his debut novel "Broom of the System" in 1987 which got him attention as one for the future, but it was with "Infinite Jest" that he became the rockstar of the literary world. With his characteristic flowing hair and his bandana, he cut a very popular figure among young lit-enthusiasts in America and elsewhere.
Writing on such diverse topics as tennis(he was a regional level junior player) , the food and hospitality industry, mathematics and philosophy, his writing is characterized by a quirky, offbeat style, frequent usage of footnotes and esoteric words, and a compulsive, ironic sense of humour. Many of his articles can be found online ; one of my favourite ones is this one about Roger Federer.
You can also check out this interview with Charlie Rose

Wallace suffered from depression for over two decades, and in fact had stopped taking his medication due to severe side effects. David Foster Wallace was 46, an absurdly young age to die. With his death, the literary world has lost one of its most original and brilliant voices.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Abhi Dilli Door Hai!

In the wake of the Sowmya Vishwanathan murder case, I was watching a television interview of Sheila Dikshit, the Chief Minister of Delhi. On being asked her opinion on the whole business, she promptly put on a granny-knows-best expression on her face and replied, "It was pretty late-night,no? Hmmm.... you know these companies who hire young girls, even boys also, they should be responsible for their safety.... after 9-10 in the night(the murder took place after 3!)...they are morally responsible for this.....", and buttoned this with "Especially in a city....which people find to be know...." , and her expression did the rest.

Jaw-droppingly tactless and irresponsible as this statement is, what surprised me was the last part, where she seemed to indicate, "Hey, you and I both know that Delhi is crazy-crap dangerous.....of course you have to look out after yourselves....who do you think will do that for you- the police!?"

Now, I know that crime rates in Delhi have been consistently appalling throughout the past decade, and it has been home to several high-profile murder cases. While talking to my friend Abhishek, a true-blue Delhi guy in every way, I found out that the actual ground reality is much worse than the rest of India perceives it to be. I appreciate that guys like us, spending most of the year at a place like Kharagpur, basically insulated from serious crime, cannot possibly imagine what it feels like to work and live under conditions where you feel perpetually threatened.

But this sort of defeatism, and that too from the Chief Minister, is just not on. When the government starts to shrug and move on, you know you are in trouble. The image of a weary-looking Dikshit, with deadened eyes, facing the media, is not likely to boost the morale of the young professionals working in the capital. One is reminded of these lines from Yeats, through which he indicated the imminent end of Europe's then-ruling class..... they sound eerily relevant.....

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Kota Konnection

One of the better widgets attached to this page is the "FeedJit" feed monitor application. Basically, you get to know where exactly is your blog being read. A couple of posts earlier, I had posted about my trip to IIT Bombay for the IIT-IIM Quiz Fest...... and since then, all hell broke loose. Now, the basic readership still consists of my friends and acquaintances here at Kharagpur, and occasionally my other friends , at colleges scattered around India, would pop up . And then you would get the odd drifter from overseas, from delightfully named places like "Nol, Vastra Gotaland" to more routine ones like "Janesville, Wisconsin" or "Middlestown, Pennsylvania". Thanks to my friend Onyeka Nwelue, "Lagos" is a regular name, too. (Check out his terrific blog here)

But since the Bombay post, the most prominent location on the Kafkaesque
map has been Kota,
a small town in Rajasthan......
for those unschooled about Kota, here are the bare bones via Wikipedia

"The coaching classes of Kota, have year after year produced exceptionally high success rates in the all-India entrance exams to the IITs and medical colleges. However, the educational institutions have faced criticism for charging high fees and thus allowing only the more affluent students a chance to prepare for IIT. Many IIT faculty and some alumni also feel that the IIT-JEE should not be prepared for so intensely and in such a gruelling atmosphere. Even so, a large number of students, from all over the country prefer to undergo training at these institutions because of the generally high success rates they boast of. This is also due to the overall, albeit often misguided zeal among students and parents to pursue professional courses, especially engineering and that too at IIT's"

Sandipan Deb, the well-known journalist( and a graduate from my college, IIT Kharagpur!) was not as calculating when he blasted the bloody-minded culture of IIT-at-any-cost that Kota and others drilled into their students. In his superb book "The IITians", he lamented

"Imagine a young man of seventeen who hasn't been in a movie theatre for three years, who hasn't picked up a magazine in three years, who has never tried to woo a girl....... what sort of a teenager would he be?"

Apparently, the hits I have been getting from Kota have a simple explanation(this courtesy my room-mate)
This means that the students at Kota, who go through maybe 16 hour-days, day in, day out, actually find time to surf the web once in a while. But even then, they are on the lookout for something with "IIT" , possibly "IIT Mumbai" in their keywords....... (and to think that their quest landed them here, of all places!)

I wonder what the kids up there in Kota would have thought of the pictures, a group of clearly wild youngsters bumming around, appearing not to have a shred of care about the "hallowed" place they are in...... I'm afraid we have busted the picture they might have had of the typical IITian.......

Friday, September 19, 2008

Fast times at Kharagpur

I fall into an all-too easy trap for bloggers: The list post. Haven't found a lot of time to post lately, and my exams have started today, so I guess I'll just bore you guys with my playlist for the week:


1. Careless Whisper- George Michael
2. 1973- James Blunt
3. Iris- Goo Goo Dolls
4. Master of Puppets- Metallica
5. Come Away With Me- Norah Jones
6. With Or Without You- U2
7. Yellow- Coldplay
8. Comfortably Numb- Pink Floyd
9. My Father's Eyes- Eric Clapton
10. Mr. Tambourine Man- Bob Dylan

That's it from me for this week.....adios!!!!

Monday, September 15, 2008

IIT Bombay Pics

Here are some pictures from my visit to IIT Bombay as part of my college's team for Nihilanth, the IIT-IIM Quiz Fest(I'm the guy in the black full-sleeved shirt!!!!)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Trip to Maximum City

Had a whale of a time at IIT Bombay which was hosting "Nihilanth" the IIT-IIM Quiz Fest
Two days at quizzer's paradise......can't remember the last time I had such a fun trip!
(The icing on the cake was winning 3K at the Literature Quiz, cracking some real brain-teasers on the way.) More about this in detail later, with plenty of pics!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

When Legends Meet

Redirected from, where it was originally published.

Over the past 30-odd years, few actors have shaped the direction of popular culture like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. It was perhaps inevitable then, that one day, the twain should,indeed, meet.....( The awesome twosome did not have any scenes together in The Godfather II, which featured De Niro as a young Vito Corleone in flashback scenes, while Pacino reprised his role as Michael Corleone)

And meet they did, in style, in Michael Mann's 1995 stylish noir flick Heat. Make no mistake: The director's achievements are considerable. The film grabs you by the scruff of the neck and never lets you go till the end. The action scenes are some of the best ones you'll ever see, the sprawling Los Angeles nightline has been used beautifully for some stirring sequences, and Michael Mann the writer, too has a winner on his hands.

But more about all this later: For now let me drool over every cine-lover's wet dream: Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in action together. Watching the two of them, you get to understand why they are rated so highly, they seem to operate on a different plane altogether. They are also a study in contrast: De Niro supremely controlled, every ripple of emotion fine-tuned, every outburst cleverly unleashed, not a single muscle betraying that he could ever be anyone else than his character........... Pacino on the other hand brings a berserker brilliance with him. When Al Pacino is on the screen, you can never be sure of what's going to happen, he pulls off every scene with an insouicance and an is-that-all kind of an air, which makes every scene he is in, his very own.

To spice things up, in this film they are on opposite sides of the law: De Niro plays Neil McCauley, a career thief and heist artist par excellence, while Pacino's character is Vincent Hana, the tough-as-nails cop with more than a mad streak. Also in the film are Val Kilmer, who plays Chris, a longtime friend and accomplice of McCauley, Ashley Judd, who plays Chris's wife and cameos by Natalie Portman who plays Hana's troubled stepdaughter from his third wedding, and veteran Jon Voight who plays McCauley's fence.

What begins as a simple cops-and-robbers tale diverges and broadens out into a personal contest between the two stalwarts as they try to give each other the slip. Hana immediately realises that McCauley is no ordinary thief and the mutual respect the duo have for each other only grows. Mann knows when to keep his cards close to his chest. From the beginning of the film, it was inevitable that the two gladiators would ultimately confront each other. But instead of making it a wild-west gunslinger sequence, he has the two men meet over coffee.

This sequence, which runs for seven minutes or so is a miniature masterpiece in itself.(And it has since then been done to death in both Bollywood and Hollywood) Not only is it a masterclass in acting, it is also a perfect example of keeping things simple and not going overboard: skills many accomplished film-makers often forget they had. As McCauley and Hana reach a tacit understanding and admire each other, they both know that when the day comes, both of them would be equally ruthless.

Christopher Nolan, who is currently the toast of Hollywood, and deservedly so, said in an interview that one of the inspirations for "The Dark Knight" was "Heat". And indeed, when you look at the noirish treatment of the action scenes, or the massively lighted skyline shots of Gotham City, you understand what Nolan is talking about. Perhaps the biggest tribute to "Heat" was(I don't know if this is intentional)William Fichtener, who gets robbed in the opening heist sequences of both films!

The bottomline is: Go watch "Heat" , if nothing else, then for the chance to see two of the greatest actors of all time in tandem. I would say that this might be your only chance, but late this year, the two legends are at it again, this time both playing detectives, in "Righteous Kill" (Giving them company is Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, but that's another story.....)