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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Black Sunday at IIT Kharagpur

(With so much happening on campus for the past few days... I haven't had time to post here. Check this campus mag here, that I work for.....and once you are done reading this, you can check it out for the latest updates on this issue.)

Kharagpur readers.... you are not strangers to this. For others: On Sunday, the 23rd of March, a 3rd year student of IIT Kharagpur, Rohit Kumar died while on his way to the hospital in Midnapore, the district headquarters. He had sustained a head injury after falling off a rickshaw... but due to the callousness and negligence of the authorities at B.C. Roy Hospital on campus... was not treated properly. There was a 90-minute delay in issuing an ambulance.... there was no trained paramedic with him..... the horrorshow goes on and on.....

The students here had been angry about the pathetic medical facilities here for some time now.... (25 beds for over 7000 students, no MRI, no CAT scan...not even a 24-hour pharmacy) a few months back, about a thousand people attended an Open House meeting to demand the revamp of the hospital. Promises were made..... and forgotten.

This time, the students had had enough.

In a now-famous move, thousands of students gathered near the gate of the director's house and demanded that he come out and talk. After some aggresive and arrogant posturing by the guards and later, the Director, Dr.Damodar Acharya himself, the students decided to take matters into their own hands. They started to smash the window-panes of the bungalow. Bricks, stones, tree-branches.... whatever they could lay their hands on. Pretty soon, they were inside his drawing-room, which was soon to be a sorry mess of broken glass shards.

His car went next.... as it was upturned, and everything which could've been smashed in it was smashed with gusto.

Finally the Director was forced to come out of hiding.... faced with thousands of angry, indignant students, he immediately announced he was stepping down. Later on in the night, there was another massive Open House meeting, one which saw an unprecedented number of people.... The Dean of Student Affairs also resigned in this meeting, on principle of course.... (the principle being "Save Thy Neck" .... when he roared on mike " Behave yourself!" and "Kya problem hai! Iddhar aa kar bataao(translated: What's your problem,eh? Come here and tell me!); hundreds of sudents immediately obliged him by climbing on stage and literally breathing down his neck.)

The vandalism was unfortunate...but the anger and the outrage were genuine and justified in every way. Let's hope that nobody else has to lose his life for want of better medical facilities on campus.

May Rohit's soul rest in peace.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Gulaal and The Future of Indian Cinema

(Originally published here on

I saw Gulaal today in a crumbling, fading, bleeding ramshackle masquerading as a cinema hall….at least from the outside. Gulaal was sandwiched between two contemporary gems “Dil Ko Churaanewaali” and “Maa Kasam Badla Loonga”. (I would have uploaded the posters as well…but wasn’t entirely sure where PFC stands on this…) The name of the theatre(Bombay Talkies) was emblazoned in massive letters, which were slightly dangly, at best. The balcony seats were the prized possessions, at thirty bucks apiece.

So far so good…..

The tangy aftertaste of “Dev D” hadn’t quite left the palate, and the prospect of another Anurag Kashyap film meant I was schoolboy-on-springheels excited and a bit apprehensive, too… for what if it flattered to deceive?I’ve seen hardcore Sachin fans solemnly declare that their man is going to smash every record in the book; everytime he goes to bat. I’ve a friend who has more than a thing for Federer….everytime Nadal overpowers the Swiss ace(as he does so often now) my friend declares that this would be undoubtedly the last time such a travesty would take place….

As the marquee started, my thoughts were, this better be good.

150 awesome minutes later, all I could think was, “Which do I like better, Dev D or Gulaal? “

Anurag Kashyap said in an interview that Gulaal was his “angriest film”. Sure enough, anger of all sizes and shapes can be found… Kay Kay’s alternating quiet menace and searing blazes, the laidback sarcastic anger of Abhimanyu Singh , who is a revelation as Rananjay “Ransa” , the prince who loathes his royal family and everything they stand for. As he acknowledges himself, he drinks, womanizes and generally is a wastrel, but he has a mind of his own and is sickened by the dinosaur that is his father, His Highness and others of his ilk.

In fact, so good is Abhimanyu that he manages to outshine(briefly) the man from whom we’ve come to expect bravura performances as a matter of course.

By now, it is more or less accepted that it’s humanly impossible to blink while Kay Kay Menon is on screen. Yet again, he captures the imagination, like few others can, as Dukey Bana, the man who is willing to get his hands as dirty as you like, for his dream of a united Rajputana state.
Newbie Raja Chowdhary(who is also a co-writer) plays Dilip Singh, a bespectacled, serious young Rajput, who is initially disapproving of Dukey’s political machinations. Raja looks the part so much that for the most part, we don’t mind his often amateurish performance, which only gains steam in the second half. Aditya Shrivastava, another Kashyap favourite, plays Karan, who is the illegitimate son of the Maharaja, Ransa’s father. He and his sister Kiran(played by newbie Ayesha Mohan) are the alternate power centre to Dukey Bana.

Before the films starts, we are told that Gulaal was inspired from the song “Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye” by Sahir Ludhianvi…… (there is a song of the same name featured in the film)and also the other poets who had a vision of India. They would’ve tipped their hats to Kashyap, I’m sure…..because the writing here is some of the best I’ve seen in Indian cinema. The outrage articulated by these poets of yore has been captured brilliantly by using the idiom of the lost glory of the Rajputs.

In Sarnath Bannerjee’s wickedly funny graphic novel “Corridor”, a character quips, “People are like onions, baba….they have layers and layers.” He might have been talking about Dukey Bana, Kay Kay’s character. Dukey is genuinely outraged about the state of his people, and has seen his family suffer the anguish and the alienation associated with the transition to democracy. To that end, he is ruthless in order to gain the power to reverse this position. However, all too often, he becomes painfully aware of his limitations. Kay Kay’s blazing eyes are pitiless, masterful, holding us all in the illusion of immense power.

Kay Kay’s not-so imposing physique is slyly used here by Kashyap. There’s a scene where Dukey Bana screams in frustration, standing at one of the windows of his mansion. The frailty of Menon’s body is nicely dovetailed with the aggressive instincts of his character, coupled with the natural machismo of the Rajputs in general.

The female characters in the film are a study in contrast. Jesse Randhawa, previously seen in the “Jab Bhi Cigarette” number from No Smoking, plays Anuja, a character which is low on dialogue but high on impact, and Randhawa acquits herself reasonably well. The cool conniving bitch is played competently by Ayesha Mohan, while Mahie Gill, playing Dukey Bana’s mistress, has a couple of songs, a couple of funny scenes and that’s about it. But as I said in the Dev D post, at this point I’ll be happy just to see her at all. She has an intriguing mix of abandon and assertiveness….heady stuff.

Some brilliant supporting hands, by Deepak Dobriyal in particular,ensure that the action never slacks. (Seeing Dobriyal in this film, I couldn’t help but think of Kashyap’s post-filmfare comments about two years ago about how Dobriyal’s performance in Omkara was “*****ing better than Abhishek’s performance in Guru” :) )

The music of the film has to be commended. Theatre veteran Piyush Mishra, (remember Kaka from “Maqbool”?) has written and composed the songs. He also plays one of the most macabre cameos I’ve ever seen on screen. When I say he’s the boss as far as music goes, I mean that quite literally. For he is the sole character upon whom music is picturised…. A sort of deranged minstrel of reworked folk ditties and patriotic hokum, with a typical Rajasthani bahuroopiya, or masquerade artist, in tow. As the John Lennon-worshipping bard, Mishra is haunting, to say the least.

As things start to get out of hand on screen, Mishra gets more and more manic, becoming a sort of a collective conscience for us. If the use of music in Dev D was innovative, here it’s a masterstroke. In the anthemic chant “Aarambh” Mishra claims
“Jis kavi ki kalpana mein

Zindagi ho prem geet

Us kavi ko aaj tum nakaar do”
Perhaps fittingly, a couple of days back, Anupama Chopra called Kashyap the “Anti-Yash Chopra” !

The cinematography of Rajeev Ravi, who wowed us all with Dev D, is back with a vengeance here. The red coloured gulaal smeared over the faces of the Rajputs like war paint is an image which will stay with you long after the closing credits. Red is clearly the colour of choice here, whether it is the colour of the frequent bloodshed pervading the film, red is the fiery colour of passion……

Gulaal works above all, because of its searing honesty…. a throwback to the times when outrage was still considered cool. Films like this have the richness and the scope comparable to the best of modern literary fiction…. and to my mind few films fit this bill better than Gulaal. Answering my own question earlier in this post, I would say Dev D is still my favourite Kashyap film… but I suppose at the end of the day… I’m just barely out my teens, and the urbane chic “coolness quotient” of Dev D coupled with the natural chutzpah of Abhay Deol is irresistible right now. Perhaps, ten years down the line…..

Seeing how Anurag Kashyap has stamped his authority all over 2009 with Dev D, and now Gulaal, one of my favourite quotes springs to mind. In 1974, Jon Landau, music critic for the Rolling Stone magazine was sufficiently moved to say
“I’ve seen Rock and Roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen”.
Now this is precisely the kind of soppy prophesizing which was in vogue back then…..but Springsteen did become the Boss after all…….

So maybe, I’ve seen the future of Indian cinema after all.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Onyeka and I

Around August last year, when this blog had just about started to gather some momentum, I posted a really cheesy poem without giving much thought to it. As the blog didn't quite elicit too many comments, I was rather surprised to see a comment coming all the way from Nigeria.

That comment, the first of several since then, came from my friend Onyeka Nwelue, who at the ripe old age of 21, has got his debut novel "The Abyssinian Boy" , released by Dada Books. I haven't had the opportunity to read it, but I can tell you this: the man is undeniably, unbelievably talented...(check out his superb blog here)

Onyeka lived in India for six months on a "self-imposed" exile a few years back, where he was taken in by Abha Iyengar, the eminent Indian writer and social activist. The influence shows in "The Abyssinian Boy" which is the story of a child with a Tamil father and a Nigerian mother.

Over the past year, I've had the pleasure of interacting with him over several issues, both literary and otherwise :)Not only does he have a keen intellect, he has a self-effacing way and a child-like sense of wonder which make him special.

Recently he was at at a book reading at Abuja(the capital of Nigeria), talking to secondary school students. (The photos that you see are taken from another reading session at Abuja) . Also present there was Felix-Abrahams Obi, a writer based in Nigeria. He wrote this piece which I'm reproducing here... along with my response to it.

The Unsung Nigerian Writer in a Hip-hop World
- Felix-Abrahams Obi

She was staring at the computer when I grabbed a seat beside her to rest my tired body after a long stretch of activities to mark the World Book Day in her school; Regent School Abuja. With her right hand on the mouse, she clicked and navigated through various websites and top on the list was a social networking site. To kids in her generation, social networking, instant messaging, and music websites are the most popular because they are the shapers of today's culture. They are designed to attract and hold the attention of the young and even the older generations. We are now in a world where everyone aspires to become a celebrity; a kind of super star with the rare privilege of walking down the red carpet with the flashing lights of the paparazzi forming a halo around them. But it seems the contemporary Nigerian writer is seemingly wary of enjoying the spotlight like his peers and pals in the music/movie/comedy industry whose shows and concerts pull the crowds into opens fields and overcrowded halls. Yet the writer is as much an artist as all others. Upon whom the burden of recording of history and transmission of knowledge and wisdom rests upon their weary shoulders. This young girl was clad in a costume depicting her favourite book character like other pupils in the school. It was a special day to celebrate writers and lovers of books, and the school had opened its doors to some writers and lovers of books. As I settled into the chair, I engaged her in a short chat and asked if she would love to be a writer. She answered, 'Nope! I just love reading books'. Then I quipped, "But if no one writes a book, what then would you be reading?" She then got my drift and the message berthed in her heart, I supposed; that it takes a writer to write a book that others would have to read. And books are created and made by writers who have to depend on the goodwill of their literary agents, editors, publishers and the general public to remain afloat in today's world.

Most Nigerian writers and authors are not so well-celebrated and the economy has been harsh on their art. Many manuscripts are lying still in the hard drives of their computers, and many resort to self-publishing after series of rejections by the mainstream publishing houses. Unlike the 'full-time' hip-hop musicians, the Nigerian writer has to keep a 9-5 job to keep hunger pangs at bay. He has no access to government or private funds to attend literary conferences, arts residencies or fellowships where he can develop his art of writing. After a prolonged haul of frustrations, many give up their dreams and take up a career that ultimately leads them to the boardroom like the Toni Kan's of this world, and many others who are working in banks, Telecom andIT firms, the Oil Gas industries and many more.

To Mrs. Chiamaka Kalu-Uche, the librarian of the Regent School Abuja, the Nigerian writer needs to be encouraged and his books should also occupy prominent slots in the school's unique library that boasts of books that range from Greek classics to modern English and western writers. The children's costumes showed that they knew little about African writers as only a few dressed like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, Niyi Osundare, Tanure Ojaide , Mamman Vatsa or our female writers like Zainab Alkali, Chika Unigwe, Chimamanda Adichie , Akachi Ezeigbo , Mabel Segun etc. To domesticate the World Book Day which is celebrated internationally on the 4th of March and in the UK and Ireland on the 5th of March, she desired to have Nigerian writers read from their works to the kids at Regent School Abuja.

Top on my list was one of Nigeria's youngest novelists, Onyeka Nwelue whose trajectory as a writer has been on the rise since his maiden novel titled 'Abyssinian Boy' was launched couple of weeks back. He had made a strong impression on me when he eloped with another teenage friend from his home in Imo State to attend a literary meeting that was held at the National Theatre Lagos as a 17years old boy sometime in 2004.His passion to write was palpable to all and I wasn't surprised when he chose to go on a self-imposed 'exile' in India to write the manuscript of his novel, rather than proceed to the Senior Seminary to continue his training as a future Catholic priest. I contacted Onyeka and his publisher about the possibility of featuring at Regent School and the idea made sense to them even when the librarian could not promise any stipends or 'appearance fees' to any featured writer due to funds constraints, Onyeka still showed his willingness to attend the world book day event on self-sponsorship. And on Wednesday the 4th of March 2009, Onyeka landed in Abuja, proving yet again how far he can go to promote the cause of writers and writing in Nigeria.

There was a buzz of activities at Regent School and the excitement among the kids was palpable. They grinned from ear to ear, and like models clad in colourful costumes, they filed out to the blue-draped assembly hall for the session with writers and celebrities. Earlier they had a parade at the school's field and had fathers read favorite books for the kids in their respective classes, made bookmarks/door hangers, juggled with cross word puzzles and book character games. Some were made to be on the 'hot seat' to answer questions from their peers as a book character to elicit the emotions and thoughts of each character in their favorite book. The children also visited the book stands set up by Bibi Bakare-Weate, the founder of the publishing house, Cassava Republic, and was the official judge of the writing contest for the kids. Mrs Emem Okpashi's "All for Kids" outfit also displayed their educational products at their stand, as well as other exhibitors. Jerry Adesowo who reports for the nearly-launched NEXT Newspaper was on grounds to cover the event.

The expectant kids sat calmly on the rug-covered floor of the hall with their teachers flanking them on both sides like a defense shield. After an introductory speech by Mr. Robinson, a Briton and Head Teacher of the school, Mrs. Kalu-Uche introduced the special guests; Chief Chukwuemeka Chikelu (erstwhile legislator and Minister of Information and Communication), Mr. Collin Connelly (Deputy High Commissioner of Trinidad and Tobago, Mr. Onyeka Nwelue and I. In an earlier session Hon. Nike Oshinowo and Mr. Denja Abdullahi had read book excerpts for the lower primary pupils in the same hall. In this session for the upper primary pupils, Mrs Kalu Uche publicly recognized a little girl, Azume Ajayi , and a boy , Ogechukwu Flagg-Igbo respectively for their avid interest in reading books, and they were asked to recommend their favourite book to their peers.

Chief Emeka Chikelu read excerpts from his all time favourite book, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and another inspiring book titled 'Say it Like Obama" by Anna Lee, while Mr. Collin Connelly read excerpts from the book, "The Little Blue Boy". During the authors' interactive session, Onyeka Nwelue talked about his debut novel, Abyssinian Boy while I gave a synopsis of my short story, "A Date with Area Boys" which was featured in an anthology of short stories titled "Eko ni Baje" by Nelson Publishers in 2008. The kids asked questions that bothered on writing and there was the issue of what gains as an individual from writing. In my opinion, the writer has the rare privilege of documenting history and etching himself on the hearts of living long after he's dead and gone. We still read and interact with dead writers through their works and travel with them to remote climes and milieus that their astute minds had created.

Onyeka added a new dimension by reminding the kids that it is a hip thing to be a writer, and being hip is no longer the exclusive preserve of hip-hop stars and other celebrities. The writer is also a celebrity in his own right, and to 21 years old Onyeka, the older writers had adopted bland and unattractive lifestyles that may have seemingly made the young not to see writing as a hip thing. I may have been one of the culprits in Onyeka's as I was dressed formally like most writers in one of my best fitting suits. To engage the young and feel their kindred spirit, Onyeka made a fashion statement with his afro hairstyle. He also had a nice short-sleeved green top over his blue jean with a brown bag strapped across his shoulders and wore colourful beads on his right wrist. And it was this image of the writer as a hip celeb that he wants to project to the world and he has in some sense made that impression in the hearts of kids at the Regent School a personal cost with no one sponsoring his long trip to Abuja.

After the authors' interactive session, Mrs. Kalu-Uche had promised the kids a surprise, and from behind the curtains that shielded him from their bated eyelids, Jeremiah Gyang emerged and the kids roared in excitement at the sight of the popular singer and multi-instrumentalist whose debut album "Na Ba Ka" had hit the top charts few years back. He strummed his guitar as the children and their teachers, and guests clapped and sang the song 'Allah Na Ba Ka' along with him. He then read excerpts from the Cinderella story to the delight of the kids, who asked as well as answered questions that on the Cinderella story. It was obvious the children also want to be stars like Jeremiah Gyang as they asked him questions about his music career and none bothered to ask if he also writes, for Jeremiah writes passionately and this is evident in some of his blogs that I have read on facebook and hi5 in the past. The event ended on a celebratory note after the kids sang 'Happy Birthday" to their amiable Head Teacher Mr. Robinson who said that he has grown old enough to not answer the kids, the quizzy part of the song that goes " How old are you now..?

Jeremiah at my humble behest had agreed to Mrs. Kalu-Uche's request and invite to feature at the World Book Day for free, and he did that for the sake of the children ; an event that would have featured the Abuja-based R & B trio, StylPlus had they agreed on time. Jeremiah thereafter toured all the respective classes to read, sing and play with the cheery kids. The free appearance and alliance between writers and musicians must have made a strong impression on the children, and it wouldn't come as a surprise if these kids in the future turn out into hip writers and musicians. Though it's a lot more attractive for the kids to end up as musicians, they would really see writing as a hip thing when they can see politicians, business moguls, models, musicians, movie actors and other superstars also making exploits in the literary world. They would then realize that the culture of reading is a hip thing and they won't have to wait till another March 5th to wear the costumes of a favourite author or book character on World Book Day.

Though the reading culture is on a downward spiral nationally, writers must find a way to engage the teeming youthful population if we must remain relevant. Jumoke Verissimo, an eclectic poet and journalist with The Guardian last week lamented at an event hosted by Abuja Writers Forum that the gathering of writers oftentimes has writers as the audience. So we cook our literary food and consume same among our selves whereas arts should be shared with the public for whom the menu was designed.

We may have to find more creative and innovative ways to translate our writings from the present height to such a point that book reading will become fun like it used to be in the past. We may have to recruit premiership starts, supermodels, TV goddesses and music stars to cross over and become novelists and writers to have their fans root for our writings. For instance, once a music star crossover into acting like Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez and Beyonce Knowles, the movies charts at Hollywood. In Nigeria, our movie stars would rather crossover to music to gain more popularity.

I would have wished they crossed over into writing to show how creatively versatile they truly are, or is writing such a hard job that only a few have been able to tap into the mastermind of the Muse? If the playwright and dramatist, Tyler Perry could become a multi millionaire by turning his writings into movies, maybe writers should start thinking of diversifying their creative expressions to match the changing trends in our changing world. Most of the blockbuster movies and academy award winners have been adaptations of writings of novelists of the classical and modern era. And in today's hip-hop culture that is ruled and governed by the dictates of celebrities, the writer has to somehow find a way to become as relevant as the other mainstream artists. The time for a sequestered lifestyle is over for the writer belongs to this modern era. The 21st century writer has a duty to either write what will make him popular or write about what makes others popular and influential without compromising his creativity, intellectuality and more importantly, his spirituality.

Onyeka asked me what I felt about this particular piece..... here's my reply:

Hi Onyeka!

Obi does put forward several valid points. His chief concern is the poor health of the reading habit across youngsters in Nigeria. I, for one would take this one step forward and say that this is a global problem, and not just restricted to Nigeria or, for that matter, India. Soothsayers point at the rising number of young novelists coming from the subcontinent. This phenomenon has two explanations:

a)If you look closely, many of them are either foreign-educated or working abroad... or both. Look at Mohsin Hamid, Daniyal Muenuddin, Rana Dasgupta...
b)When you look at our sheer numbers, you get more of a perspective about the whole issue.

But I digress... Obi suggests that part of the problem is the image young Nigerians get when they think about professional writers. And from what I gather, you seem to share this opinion. The logic being, writers are just not upto scratch when seen from the judging eyes of your typical westernised pre-teen. They are mostly introspective, even the young ones, seldom flamboyant, and not all that gregarious. Adoloscents are more likely to be drawn towards actors or pop stars. Hence, Obi thinks you made a conscious decision to dress and present yourself in a certain way..... and you yourself think that "writers ought to live more popular lifestyles"

The thing is, I'm not sure if this can really happen, or if this is even the right thing to do.

In an interview, the Indian journalist and author Raj Kamal Jha once said two things which really got me thinking.... The first was "The few people who are damaged enough to love reading are essentially those who are comfortable with solitude..." and continuing in the same vein, he said, "People who feel the need to read will read. It's personal. Even a writer who is very full of himself will never say, "There are 150000 people who need to read me." With regards to this issue, I would especially stress the latter point.

So, while I'm not saying that any effort made to get youngsters to read is ultimately futile; I do think that trying to package writing and writers in a certain way is certainly pushing it a little.

And to suggest that actors or movie-makers should take up the pen in order to popularize reading is just wishful thinking.... to date, the only readable thing I've heard of in that direction is Ingmar Bergman's collection of screenplays...... and even he lamented the fact that he wasn't a novelist per se..... he thought that the novel was inherently a superior art form. (a view I don't subscribe to, by the way...)

By all means, encourage local writing, especially writers who practise their craft in their native tongue. There are few better ways to tell youngsters about their rich heritage....a seamless, coherent record of everything worth knowing about their past.

I can understand the fears of people like Obi and Verissimo..... I have seen some unbelievably talented regional Indian writers languish in oblivion simply because.........well, they never really left oblivion. But pragmatically speaking, trying to make writing "cool" can only be successful upto a certain limit.I'm sorry if I'm a wee bit pessimistic... but from what I've seen and felt...this is my opinion. For what it's worth, I think you did the right thing by presenting yourself the way you did at Abuja :)

Your friend,

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Novels have OST's...

I just became convinced of something I'd suspected for some time now: novels have soundtracks.

I just completed "Blankets" the superb graphic novel by Craig Thompson which I was reading on the laptop, while simultaneously listening to dozens of Coldplay songs. "Yellow" changed to "Politik" effortlessly, and then segued along merrily to "Lost", "Life In Technicolour" , "Sparks" , "Speed of Sound" , "Scientist" ....

The incredibly touching memoir and coming-of-age tale seemed to merge seamlessly with the soft strains of the alternative rock; coupled with the soothing yet darkly introspective vocals of Chris Martin....