Tuesday, April 28, 2009 0 reflections

Before the rains : a review

IT WAS DURING MY SEARCH for other works by Nandita Das that I came across ‘Before the rains’. Ordinarily I probably would have given it a go-by but considering it had Rahul Bose in it too and was directed by the talented Santosh Sivan, it seemed worth giving a chance. In the first few frames itself the movie had me wrapped. The breathtaking locales of an enchantingly wooded Kerala make for a perfect backdrop to this tale of epic proportions. When Sivan’s roving eye breezes past serene looking tea plantations and gorgeous gorge’s carved out of nature’s immaculate knife, one can easily see why he is considered one of the finest cinematographers in the country. Add to this the mix of warm locals buzzing around making small talk in Malayalam while keeping the prim houses of the English sahibs clean and you have an interesting concoction of stories ready to spill over.

‘Before the rains’ starts off by exposing us to the core plot right away. That of the illicit affair between British spice baron Henry Moores (Linus Roache) and his housekeeper Sajani (Nandita). They nuzzle into each other’s arms under the very roof that feeds her while collecting fresh honey from friendly beehives in the woods. Their seemingly hush-hush cozy little venture, though, has a silent confidant – T.K. Neelan (Bose), a handyman who works with the Englishman. He shares Henry’s vision of cutting through the mountains to make that much awaited road that will transform the tea plantation into a full blown spice manufacturing unit rich with cardamom and pepper. Of course, this has to happen before the monsoon rains so that the road can sustain it. TK does not completely condone what Henry and Sajani share but he understands what love is. Given his adherence of friendship and loyalty to Henry he doesn’t find it relevant to keep this a secret from Sajani’s husband Rajat and her brother Manas. People he grew up with playing in the very forest that Sajani now spends her awake time enjoying Henry’s indulgent kisses and hugs.

Rajat is a tough guy who has no patience for Sajani’s lies and deceit. Despite the lack of any concrete evidence against her, he knows something is amiss and suspects TK of being the guilty one. With things looking like this in walks Henry’s wife and son one day. Much to Sajani’s disappointment and frustration, her way out of her abusive husband’s life seems to be by bridging the cultural divide that separates her and Henry. Things don’t necessarily pan out this way when Sajani is beaten senseless one night and is forced to escape from her husband’s heavy handed clutches. She runs to Henry’s house (where TK also lives in an outhouse) and confesses her need to never have to face her husband again. Henry panics. This is a situation that he had not expected given the highest level of secrecy (and possible bottom line triviality) he had given the case thus far. It is then, on being rejected from Henry at such an important juncture, that Sajani, using TK’s gun, shoots herself dead right in front of their bewildered eyes.

‘Before the rains’ picks up momentum after this incident. The question of what is the right thing to do and who, more importantly, will do this becomes the focus. Will TK be the scapegoat for a murder that was inspired by Henry’s lack of character? Or will TK go out of his way to tell everyone that it was Henry who was the cause of Sajani’s untimely demise? What will be his true calling at such an hour – his ethics or his loyalty? Will Henry own up to his mistake and risk his spice project, and needless to mention his family’s respect, altogether? Will the gora sahib pull his strings to come off unscathed in a time when it is so easy to do so? These are questions that the movie addresses as the frames pass by.

Sivan’s understanding of local sensitivity in a place like Kerala (pre-Independence) is obvious in every frame. Right from the attire the people wear to the ‘Bharat Chodo’ slogans that ring out across the quiet town in tropical Kerala is straight out of history’s dusty pages. His bold showcasing of the flawed English colonialism sits bare as the one tragic incident stands to threaten an entire community. The subtle yet prominent mention of the price passion has to pay despite the odds being against a culturally diverse couple is very well showcased.

Performances belong to almost everyone in the movie. Right from Bose, who plays the silent yet defiant Malayali foreman of the English sahib to Das, who plays the victimized and misdirected mistress whose fate eventually does her in. Each character in the movie does justice to a plot that, despite its simplistic way of handling the most complicated of situations, exposes the shocking hues with which the Raj worked in colonial India. At a time when most of the movies coming out of India lack that much needed strand of human emotion, ‘Before the rains’ stands out like a breathe of fresh air that underlines only one basic human emotion – conscience.


Watch the trailor of the movie below

Friday, April 24, 2009 4 reflections

'A Raw Score' - another milestone

I self published my first book - what seems like an embaressingly amateur attempt at writing a book now - 'Existing in pieces' in December 2006. After that life kind of caught on but the itch to write something a little more cohesive and hopefully more interesting was still there. So, after much procrastination I now have my second release - 'A Raw Score'. Just for the record, the title was suggested by my fiancee Jaya. So a big thank you to her!

'A Raw Score' is a book that has come a long way since its inception. In fact it was 'Untitled' for almost a year before Jaya suggested the title a couple of months ago. The theme I always wanted to write about was the subtle nature in which the common man in India goes about the daily humdrum of an ordinary life. Despite the stereotypical assumptions about a setting like this I was convinced that there still existed possibilities to find some exciting and interesting episodes. Spots of incidents that would bring to light the celebrated heroes, the unknown perverts, the hopeless romantics, the hopeful patriots, the helplessly superstitious and of course, the unsung martyrs.

To bring this search of mine to reality, I decided to focus on some of the major issues that one might find in India - corruption, religion, politics, poverty, illiteracy, sexual abuse, communal disharmony, the 'urban' middle class and its many related issues among other things. These seemed like fragments that could possibly be stitched together to make one cohesive pattern that might give the reader a better insight into the lives of working class Indians who ordinarily are thought of as ... well just that, ordinary. Hence, 'A Raw Score' is another ambitious attempt to capture some of those bizarre, whacky and unusual instances of working class Indians in their many complex emotional roller coaster rides.

The artwork for the book was done by a dear friend and ex-colleague Helen Gil. Given below is a snapshot of the cover and also the link where a few preview pages of the book are available for your viewing.

Thank you.


Click here to view a preview/buy 'A Raw Score'

Thursday, April 16, 2009 0 reflections

'Firaaq'ing away from coherence

The name Nandita Das immediately brings to mind a dusky beauty with the subtleties of performance and a gentle reminder of the late Smita Patil-like straight forwardness. After her moving portrayal as the new bride caught between an arrogant husband and a caring sister-in-law in Deepa Mehta’s controversial movie ‘Fire’, she has made a variety of interesting choices in her performances. Some of them include well known features like ‘Aks’ with Bachchan Sr. and ‘Rockford’ by Kukunoor. But apart from a few such recognizable titles, Nandita’s choices seem to have been based more on heart than brain. Sure, she always had the choice to ascend the mantle of the much revered Bollywood but she didn’t do that. Instead she relied on her instinct and did what she felt was right for her inner self. An attribute I truly find worth a commendation. Commercial success of a movie doesn’t always mean that it has genuine quality. That said, having seen a few other works of this young woman I can safely say her choices were never influenced by anything more than a script which appealed to her. If not for anything else, it was her understanding of the sensitivity of human emotion that I found most noteworthy.

With this backdrop in mind I watched ‘Firaaq’, her directorial debut. One of the hottest topics that new and experienced film makers have chosen is the Gujarat riots of 2002. Be it Govind Nihalani with ‘Dev’ or Rahul Dholakia with ‘Parzania’. Almost everyone who has ever wanted to make a statement that was humane to the core has chosen that dreadful event as the theme. This is nothing new as communal riots and inter-faith rivalry has been the bread and butter of Bollywood and art house productions alike for almost half a decade. But what makes each attempt stand out is the coherence with which the strands of the story are held together. One has to understand this concept deeply before attempting to stitch together a piece that genuinely makes you feel…well, human. To see what I mean you can see ‘Garam Hawa’ by MS Sathyu any day. This is where ‘Firaaq’ becomes quite abrupt. At a running time of about 100 minutes, ‘Firaaq’ somehow seems like an incomplete fair.

So let us dig in. We have Paresh Rawal, a wife-hitting Gujarati goon with an extremely submissive spouse, Deepti Naval. The horrors of the atrocities meted out against people, especially the Muslims, is a nightmare that continues to haunt Deepti every wake moment. This extends to such lengths that she has to singe herself with oil just to make the hallucinations of riot victims knocking on her door go away. Then we have another couple, Sanjay Suri and Tisca Chopra, who are moving to New Delhi to start a new life after Sanjay’s business was looted in the riots. The fact that Sanjay is a Muslim is a hot potato topic that he is not able to come terms with. Then we have Muneera (Shahana Goswami), a Muslim woman who returns with her husband and child to find that her entire house has been reduced to ashes by the mob. With the aid of her Hindu friend she starts picking up the pieces of her life albeit at the constant risk of brandishing around as a Hindu. Then we have an orphaned kid Mouseen who is told to tell people his name is ‘Mohan’ since being a Hindu apparently is the only way to stay alive. Finally we have an archetype musician Naseeruddin Shah with a realist housekeeper Raghuveer Yadav. Shah lives in his own world of nostalgic stereotypes and is absolutely clueless about what is happening in the world around him. It takes a few minutes of television watching for him to see the depth of hatred that has seeped into the society he seems so proud to be part of.

With such diverse themes running parallel to each other, there was a need for more clarity between the characters about what all this means to them. This is exactly where ‘Firaaq’ runs into incoherent zones. On the one hand Nandita tries very hard to convey the intensity of human emotions by making a bunch of victimized Muslim men plot an absurdly unsuccessful plot to kill a fellow Hindu. On the other hand we have these multiple stories that seem to go nowhere. Yes, we do get it that these people have been affected by the riots one way or the other but then what does it mean for their present and future? Will they ever be able to get redemption for what they did and had to go through? Is there some appropriate closure that can be given to their stories? Should there not be a way to bring about some meaning to the extremely sensitive threads that were strung up to evoke real human emotion? Why start developing a relationship between a character and the audience when a 10 second frame will capture what we should only guess is the ‘closure’? All valid questions but with incomplete answers.

Somehow I have always felt that cinema’s attraction towards human tragedy is quite insatiable. Film makers often choose these themes since the abstraction of portraying something like this seems to come easily. In that mould of abstraction, somewhere the theme starts separating itself from coherence. Ironically, ‘Firaaq’ which means separation, falls into that trap of ending up as another half baked attempt by an unprepared amateur. The slow moving shots and the long pauses without appropriate background scores (which might have been an attempt to capture ‘real human drama’) don’t make it any easier. Performances are quite consistent given that there is no ‘Bollywood’ face involved except for maybe Paresh Rawal and Naseeruddin Shah. Everyone else is a seasoned player in such features and so contributes his/her part quite effectively. The fact that some of the characters mostly speak English, while is real enough, seemed a tad pretentious given the overdose of verbose vocabulary they were fuelled with. I am not entirely sure what demographic audience Nandita had in mind but it seemed to lose points on all scores anyway. Also, the quickly vanishing and hard to read English subtitles when the characters speak very fast Gujrati don’t help the audience either. This is a clear indication that this was a movie made about the masses but for the classes.

I sincerely hope that Nandita’s second venture is much more deeply researched and a lot clearer with its vision and execution than this movie. ‘Firaaq’ ends up being a bizarre concoction of unfinished ideologies and abrupt strands.


Saturday, April 11, 2009 0 reflections

Dev.D :: a review

Documenting B- grade sleaze with A-grade class

There is an insanity in Anurag Kashyap’s eyes that craves to experiment with raw human emotions. The reason this yearning of his appeals to me is because it attempts to break the cliché that Bollywood is so infamous for. Be it the overrated Chopras, Bharjatyas or Johars, everyone invariably uses glitz and glam to cook up just another love story. Sure, the variable component is always how many karods of ruppaiyyah they spent in putting up ridiculously unrealistic sets. Whatever the premise, the bottom line is always the same – a simple love story. But then isn’t there more to it than looking at life through rainbow colored glasses? Is there not a strand of our existence that sits up, yawns, scratches the bum carelessly and says – ‘Was that really worth the success it got?’ I have asked myself this question umpteen times and 90% of the responses were always an uncertainty. The tragic reality of aam Indian’s taste in movies is that the wrong movies are heralded as super hits. The consequential effect this has is that year after year we continue being subjected to the same old familiar BS we adore with such reverence. Maybe it was that uncontrollable reek that made me watch ‘Dev.D’ in the first place even if it meant having to re-visit a story already told.

The first thing I had heard from here and there about ‘Dev.D’ was that it was a ‘modern take’ on Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s famous novella ‘Devdaas’. It was only after seeing it that I realized as to how it was much more than that. ‘Devdaas’ is a script that has been visited twice in B-Town’s history. Once by the legendary sobbing superstar Dileep Kumar sa’ab and the second time by the stammering success story Shah Rukh Khan. I have seen both of them and found that both of them stuck to the basic premise. Arrogant rich boy Dev finds his fancies in childhood sweetheart Paro. Being of different economic backgrounds there is serious resistance to this blossoming romance and so Paro is married off to someone else while Dev drinks himself to death while finding comfort in nautch girl Chandramukhi’s court. Dev eventually dies a heart broken lover without the shadow of Paro’s love. As much as I had expected ‘Dev.D’ to be similar to this plot what I ended up seeing was superlatively refreshing to say the least.

From what I could fathom the only similarities between the third version of the novel and the former two were the names of the main characters. Apart from that everything else has been blown to smithereens in Kashyap’s take. In ‘Dev.D’, Devdaas goes from being a character in a novel to a metaphor of any cocky young man. Our Dev isn’t afraid to ask his Paro if she touches herself. He isn’t scared to ask her if she could send him a topless photograph of herself via the Internet and he doesn’t flinch calling his father by his first name. And Paro? Well she is not the timid and submissive damsel as seen in the previous versions either. This one actually ties a mattress to her cycle and heads to the farms for a session of mad monkey lovemaking with her Dev. She photographs herself topless, gets the film developed, scans the photograph and emails it to Dev in London. She isn’t afraid to grab his arms and smother him with kisses at the first opportunity. The list of such brazenly relevant modifications to Chattopadhyay’s original work goes on. The Dev in this feature is not so much ‘in love’ with his Paro as much as he is obsessed by the idea of loving her. He yearns for sex – plain and simple. No expensive duets to be designed for this emotion to come through. No colorful dancers gyrating in unison in the middle of a sarson ka khet. No sir. It is this direct no frills approach to human attraction that I found the most refreshing. He is a clueless loser who is a victim of his own self. Period. What is more? The ‘friendly’ Chunnilal in the original is a cheap pimp in this one who ends up being a close liaison with Dev in his visits to Chanda’s brothel.

Kashyap goes on breaking more clichés with the introduction of Chanda – the seductress. If Bhansali’s Chanda was an artist who sang melodious sonnets and referred to Devdaas as ‘aap’, Kashyap’s Chanda is a high school drop out with a notorious MMS sex scandal behind her. She then becomes a prostitute who indulges in all kinds of carnal pleasures including raunchy phone sex with those who are willing to pay. Even here, Kashyap keeps the character realistic and straight as an arrow. No emotional upheavals to put up with. No sensuous and humanitarian dialogs with a drunken Dev. Nope. This Chanda cares for Dev in a way only one heart broken soul can do with another – with silence. Kashyap breaks further moulds with Dev’s character too. Unlike his previous avatars, Dev isn’t hooked only to alcohol. The new Dev.D is into all kinds of highs. Everything that can be swallowed, sniffed in, sucked in and guzzled is on Dev’s list of ways to ‘forget Paro’ who he refers to as a ‘slut’ at one point. Could it get rawer than this? Unlikely I feel.

One can easily argue that Dev.D is nothing more than garish sleaze dished out in a format that is similar to the original Devdaas but I would have to respectfully disagree. It takes a bold film maker to get his female protagonist to say she has to use the potty when the male protagonist wants to undress her during a bout of ‘pity sex’. A feat, I am sure, no ‘established actress’ can mouth even if her life depended on it. It is in things like this that the movie goes from being a B-class dish out to an A-class path breaker. If not anything, what Kashyap has managed to do is show Bollywood his middle finger when it comes to documenting romance. I can safely say no one will ever dare to make another remake of ‘Devdaas’ after watching ‘Dev.D’ since it’s a benchmark too high to surpass.

That said, ‘Dev.D’ too has its share of flaws. I did feel that the climactic portion of the movie could have been handled with a lot more grit than what was eventually executed. Dev’s penultimate decision seems too quick and abrupt given his trail of poor decision making up to that point.

Music is an absolute delight. Out of the 18(!) numbers in the album each one is a masterpiece. Composer Amit Trivedi sure has a bright future ahead of him if he keeps creating such compositions. My personal favorites include ‘Dhol Yaara Dhol’, ‘Nayan Tarse’, ‘Yeh Duniya Badi Gol Hai’, ‘Pardesi’ and of course, the mass favorite ‘Emosanal Atyaachar’. Grade-A music that only makes the goings on all the more delightful.

Performances belong primarily to Abhay. This young man is making excellent decisions in his role selections and is quickly becoming a metaphor for ‘hatke’ cinema genre. I liked him in ‘Ek Chalis Ki Last Local’, ‘Manorama Six Feet Under’, ‘Oye Lucky Lucky Oye’ and now ‘Dev.D’. A very strong performer with a wonderful future ahead of him. Mahie Gill puts up a good performance as the hopelessly in love and clueless about Dev’s terrible attitude Paro. Her eyes speak louder than her voice and that was something which I liked the most. She captures the quintessential desi girl with apt brilliance. Newcomer Kalki Koechlin is a surprise! This French-Indian actress does a terrific job as Chanda, the misguided and abused young girl who is still coming to terms with a lost family. Her Tamil is quite eloquent and on further research I found out that she does speak it fluently.

‘Dev.D’ stands out like an eyesore of a scarecrow in the middle of a familiarly patterned sugarcane crop. A tad ugly perhaps to the unfamiliar eye but definitely unique. And for just that, Kashyap’s unique take on the timeless novel has my vote.

Friday, April 10, 2009 0 reflections

What dreams may come

or many years I have considered the dreams I see as an important source of information and reflection. Given the scientific and supernatural explanations that exist with dream interpretation, I decided to blog the three most comprehensive dream sequences I saw within the last week. Now, maybe they are all indicative of the same thing – the biggest decision of my life that takes place in July – but notwithstanding their symbolic value, I still wanted to see them in black and white, for once. There have been many dreams in the past that have been more in depth with their description than these but never before have I seen so many dream fragments connected to the same person and/or event. Hence, I felt the need to blog about it. So here we go.

Sequence 1

There is a long corridor that is painted red and green. I am sitting with my mother and helping her prepare some dish. My hands are soaked in the batter using which we are making the delicacy. At this point my brother comes running in with a pile of pink colored sheets. I immediately stop helping mom and start to chase him to retrieve those pages he has with him. After a brief pursuit I finally bag the sheets that have blue colored writing all over them. Some of the sentences on them are so badly crossed out multiple times that I cannot read a word of what the original thought was. On closer inspection I realize that they are actually love letters from Jaya. I recognize her handwriting and continue reading them as everything around me begins to fade out into a white glow. I can hear my mother shouting from inside the house warning me that she will tear up the sheets if I do not return to help her. I ignore her and continue reading the contents of the letters. Most of it is now incoherent to me but the one line which I cannot forget is – ‘How can something that is cause for my pain also be the medicine too?’ The air fills up with the aroma of a thousand roses as I continue reading the letters one by one...

Sequence 2
I am in a crowded bus surrounded by every relative I have known my whole life. Aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces – everyone is there. I find myself wondering how a bus would be enough to fit all 100+ of them! I then turn around to find my aunt Indu sitting next to me and enquiring me about something. I respond something incoherent while one of my cousins comes over and tells me they need to stop for some tender coconut water as everyone is quite thirsty and tired from the journey. I look outside the window and find dark green signs all over the city we are in with something written in Tamil. I do not know the language yet I find myself telling them that there is one coconut shop right around the corner. The bus stops and we all get down one by one and start ordering the coconuts. The man who sells the coconuts seems familiar. I do not know where I have seen him before but it is only after I awoke from this dream sequence that I realized who he was. More on that later. We ask him for directions to a river nearby and he speaks in fluent Kannada and tells us that the river is about half a kilometer from where we are. I ask him how he can speak such wonderful Kannada in what seems to be a predominantly Tamil speaking place. He says something I do not recollect properly now. We get back on the bus and I go to the driver to give him directions to the river. To my surprise I find that the driver is the same person who was selling the coconut water just a few seconds ago! I ask him how it is he does two things at one time to which he says something, again, I cannot recall. We arrive at the river that seems to be at the end of a dusty lane and we get ready to cross it. Someone suddenly remembers that Kamalu ajji (my late maternal grandmother) is also with us and needs a boat to be transported across the river. I turn around to find the driver and my brother both carrying a coracle and heading towards where we stand. We put the old lady on it and set her afloat only to realize she hasn’t been given a paddle! I turn to the driver to ask him for a paddle when I realize I am the only one there. All my relatives, the driver, the coracle – everything and everyone has vanished. It was only after waking up that I realized the driver and the coconut vendor was Krishna, Jaya’s elder brother...

Sequence 3
This one was the most descriptive among the three I am narrating here. I am inside a fort like enclosure with very high walls. A giant wooden door stands in front of me through which I am trying to look at an approaching procession. There is a lot of cacophony and musical instruments that are giving the procession a regal flair. A giant elephant is carrying a small mantapa inside which seems to be seated a woman with a veil covering her face. I try my best to open the Herculean wooden door but without success. I find myself wearing ragged clothes and I am also barefoot. Weird looking insects buzz around me and mock me telling me how it is impossible for someone like me to get a glimpse of whoever is in the mantapa on the elephant. I ignore their jabs and start running along the wall to see if there is an opening somewhere so that I can get out of the fort. But no matter how fast I run (and believe me, I was running real fast!) the wall doesn’t seem to end. If anything it continues to grow taller and wider. Eventually I hear a voice booming behind me telling me that the only way I can get past the wall is if I manage to get fire in my legs. I take a deep breathe and jump as high as I can to find that indeed, sparks are flying out of my feet and my foot is blazing with a dull glow as if it were ignited. I fly past the merciless hardness of the wall and cross over it in one giant leap. On getting to the other side I realize that the procession is headed to where I was standing before – inside the giant door. A pathway is surrounded on both sides by five-foot tall grass blades. I push my way past them and approach the procession slowly. When I realize I am at an arm’s length from it I once again kick myself up to be able to fly like before and to attempt reaching the mantapa atop the elephant’s back. But to my surprise I find that the higher the leap the farther the procession gets. This means that there is just no way I can ever reach the mantapa and see who the woman behind the veil is. Those pesky insects return to mock my attempt and take jabs at my meaningless trials at getting to see the princess. I continue watching in silence as the procession passes me by in all pomp and glory...

Monday, April 06, 2009 2 reflections

Shatranj Ke Khiladi - a Ray classic

Being from a particular region in a country like India comes with its goods and not so goods. People from one part of the nation don’t necessarily always know of the legendary works of art that happen in another place. Like people in Orissa being unaware of the deep rooted humanitarian movies that come out of the Tamil movie industry or folks in Kerala not aware of some genuinely wonderful pieces of cinema from West Bengal. One cant do too much about this divide given that the Herculean and almost obnoxious presence of ‘Bollywood’ continues to act as the fort that isolates several pockets of creative work in their own shells. Sad but true.

Then there are some film makers whose movies transcend language and region. Film makers like the late Academy Award winner Satyajit Ray sa’ab. OK - I will admit. Except for a few brief scenes from ‘Pather Panchali’ I have not seen any other movie of this great man. Reason? Well, either it was the lack of the need to have to sit through a language I know nothing of and having to squint at the badly framed English subtitles or it was just plain desi callousness that believes the majority is usually right. You know, the classic Indian thinking that has the ‘if everyone says it then it has to be great’ attitude peppered all over it. I am sure there are millions out there who will still tell you that Satyajit Ray was an amazing movie maker without having seen a single frame he might have shot. Considering I too have indulged in such blatancy every now and then, ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’ seemed like the only chance I would get to savor Mr. Ray’s cinematic beauty. After all, it was indeed the only Hindi/Urdu movie he made in his life, isn’t it? Hence when I found the chance I took it.

Set in the late 1800s in the then Hindustan ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’ runs with two main stories parallel to one another. One – the larger of the two which shows a determinedly boorish English General Outram (a much younger looking Sir Richard Attenborough) pitted against Awadh’s incompetent yet culturally aware Mughal King Wajid Ali Shah (a generously rotund Amjad Khan). The company wants to take over Awadh which remains the final province that is still run by royalty. So it decides to look past a decade old treaty that had promised that Awadh’s royalty would never be lost. But, knowing the way the company ruled the sub-continent, the poetically humane King’s defiance is brought under test as the concubine infested regal refuses to budge from his throne.

The second interestingly laid out strand is that of old buddies Mirza Sajjad Ali (a wonderfully flawless Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir Roshan Ali (an effervescent Saeed Jaffrey). These two upper middle class noblemen who sit around all day sucking at their well made hookahs and ignoring their frustrated spouses are absolutely obsessed with the game of chess. It is as if nothing – not even the lack of pawns to play with – can stop them from going at it well and good for a few hours each day. While Sajjad Ali’s wife (Shabana Azmi in a small but well placed role) decides to find solace in the housekeeper’s stories, Roshan Ali’s wife (a chubby and visibly mischievous Fareeda Jalaal) chooses to find solace in the arms of a much younger man (a nervous Farooque Shaikh) right under the nose of her unsuspecting husband.

Ray beautifully juxtaposes the story of two chess players with the moves that take over their province and their lives as a foreign power enters their land. While the King is confronted by the orders of the Union Jack under the umbrella of the soulful songs he has composed, the chess players continue to find ways to get a good spot to sit down and well - play a good round of chess. A game, as it turns out, that ends up putting their friendship at stake just like the throne of their clueless King.

The one thing that comes off as obviously as the attention to pretentious ‘paan holders’ by these Lucknawi laat saahebs is Ray’s understanding of the human condition in those times. The beautiful focus to detail of the surroundings only amplify the saga that unfolds eventually while the red vested British army marches into the Awadh province. Cinematography is crisp and captures the fading lights of the royal reign quite effectively. What struck me as more amazing was Ray’s wonderful acknowledgement to the way such potentially affluent cultures used to work during that era. The fact that people in them would rather spend more time on keeping their indulgences alive than worry about their future under the Raj was an eye opener to say the least.

Performances wise everyone does his/her bit effectively. Seasoned actors Sanjeev and Saeed chip in a beautiful contribution. A young Amjad Khan (still fresh from the finely baked success as 'Gabbar Singh' in Sholay) delivers an earnest performance as the King who has his heart in the right place but his head in the wrong spot. As mentioned earlier, a tight lipped Sir Attenborough with a fluent Tom Alter play the scheming Englishmen who are preparing for Awadh's fall with orders from Her majesty the Queen.

All said and done ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’ definitely stands out as a Ray classic that is truly a testament to his life as a master story teller. What's curious though is that the movie is based on a story by the legendary Shri Munshi Premchand. Could there be a better example of two Hindus coming together to design such a sensitive and relevant epic about the Muslim reign and culture? Unlikely, according to me.

Sunday, April 05, 2009 4 reflections

Sacred Chants - Tunes for the restless soul

Dear reader,
I don't usually document anything religiously inclined since, well, I am not too religious myself. However, when it comes to music I believe it is the one thing that, regardless of language and faith, can be equally experienced as a soul stirring engagement. That said, I came across a beautifully composed album called 'Sacred Chants Vol.2' whose songs I now present using the streams below. Also : Please follow the links at the end of this blog post to download these songs for your personal hearing pleasure. Enjoy! ..ShaKri..

Invocation (Sri Rudram Lagunyasam)

Gurupaduka Stotram


Mahalakshmi Ashtakam





Annapoorna Stotram

Download the songs using the links below: