Thursday, September 30, 2010 8 reflections

In memory of a genius

Some people appear like a bright flash in the black of the night sky. We, wandering commons, look up in awe and wonder, watching them unfurl into various fascinating shapes, textures and patterns. A genuine smile of unabridged enthusiasm floods our hearts as we soak in each and every moment of their presence in our humble midst. After a minute of such dazzling display, the light vanishes. Boom! As if it never existed in the first place. Its pitch dark again - except, this time its darker than before. Such was his presence in our lives.

It has been two long decades today - September 30 - since Kannada film maker, actor, maverick and genius beyond mortal comprehension - Shankar Nag – passed away suddenly one day in a tragic road accident. I was 12 years old then and the only memory I have as a reaction to hearing the news was that of absolute shock. That emotion lasted a good minute. Once that minute passed by, two extremely juvenile and excruciatingly immature questions crossed my mind – One, does this mean no more Malgudi Days? And two, does this mean there is no school tomorrow?

Today, 32 years old and still in desperate need for some critical wisdom, I can't help but feel pity for that ridiculous version of myself who couldn't think beyond a stupid holiday. As the entire nation drives itself insane with meaningless speculation about the verdict on the Ayodhya issue, I am sure around the world there also exists a good group of folks like me who are silently paying their humble respects to Shankar today. This, as I see it, is the true loss for a nation which has come such a long way in trying to gain a foothold of its own in a world where nothing seems good enough. As the courts decide the fate of a piece of land everyone is claiming to be so divine that mortals are now judging its future, the true context of a loss as huge as Shankar's certainly needs to be acknowledged. We build our bridges today, we sing our songs, we send our movies to the Oscars and we dance in front of huge posters of our regional stars. Yet, what makes me cringe with disdain is how we might never really know the answer to that all illusive question – 'What if Shankar had still been around?' A man who hadn't even turned 35 had set afire so many brilliant milestones both on and off screen, that one is forced to wonder what miracles that talented gentleman would have whipped out had his presence still been in our stink pool of misplaced jingoism and nauseating hero worship called the 'Kannada Film Industry'.

Can you imagine the ferocity of projects had Nag and the likes of Kasaravalli or Karnad joined forces? Phew! It gives me goosebumps just thinking about the possibilities. The range of extremely well crafted, smart, sensitive and most importantly, relevant cinema that would have flourished all over the place seems to transcend all limits. No room for nonsensical 'macchu' movies directed by folks who cant think of an original script even if their life depended on it. No place for semi-literate film makers who still stick to the age old formula from the 80s by packaging it with Bollywood-like wrappers and imported damsels. Good bye remake movies that only amplify the fact that Kannada film makers and audience are both beings beyond hope of ever managing to shine in the light from the fires in their bellies! Ah – the possibilities. Endless. Literally, endless. I won't even begin to discuss what might have been had Nag (who had already managed a national presence with Malgudi Days) stepped in to start making collaborative projects which could have included the likes of Naseeruddin Shah, Anupam Kher, Om Puri, Nana Patekar et al. Breathe-taking options emerge.

So long, Shankar. Wherever you are, whatever you became, know this – we will never forget you. We will forever keep you alive in our thoughts, actions and inspirations. You will live in our homes through your movies, your words, your productions and your vision. Thank you for coming into our lives, even if it was for such a brief moment. And if you ever decide to be born again as a Kannadiga, please come back as a film maker. I am sure we will need you desperately even then.


PS: A website dedicated to Shankar:
Saturday, September 18, 2010 4 reflections

Still no country for Ekalavya

A picture, it is said, is usually worth a thousand words. I sometimes feel if that were literally true how much time and effort would have been saved for mankind by just displaying pictures to one another all the time instead of writing multiple paragraph emails explaining something. I recently read an article on Twitter that discussed the possibility of limiting any email to up to 3 sentences to avoid email overload. Not a bad idea, I felt. Except if the writer decides to get creative with where the full stop would go. Give Salman Rushdie this challenge and he might write an entire short story with just those 3 sentences! No wonder that verbose gentleman is not on Twitter.

But I digress. So the reason I mentioned pictures was because of the photo you see attached with this blog post. Yes, it is my thumb and yes, it is hurt. The cause for this injury, given the popularity of the spot, is a culinary incident involving a tricky knife. Whys and hows of the accident are quite irrelevant here. No sooner had a band-aid been placed to remedy the cut than it struck me of how invaluable the thumb was, is and shall remain. The only difference being, back in the days of royalty it was used to demonstrate mastery at shooting arrows while now we use it to, well, do pretty much everything from punch in the keys on our mobiles, game controllers and iPods to spacebars, gameboys and remote controls. Yes, the king of the human finger collection (with the middle finger being an interesting exception) seems to be the thumb.

The accident also reminded me of that popular tale from the Mahabharata where a lowly tribesman named Ekalavya gets so good at archery that he almost defeats the pampered poster boy of the Pandavas – Arjuna. Sly maharishi Drona then, having seen how invaluable the thumb would be for a million more generations, decides to ask Ekalavya to sacrifice just that as part of his guru dakshina – the thumb. This, of course, is a tale from another world but it made me wonder if something similar could take place in today's day and age. A dedicated student might definitely end up submitting his beloved mobile or mp3 player to honor his teacher but would never follow Ekalavya's example and slice off what appears to be the real trigger to all comfort in the world – the thumb (or any other finger for that matter).

This cross referencing of a thumb's critical role from the days of the Hindu epic till this day seemed like an interesting thing to explore. Now that I have done that, my next attempt would be to actually try and attempt the 3 sentence formula for an email the aforementioned article was recommending. Would be tricky at first, I am sure. But hey, I bet everyone were equally alarmed when Twitter said it was only going to allow 140 characters for a message! That is going pretty well so why shouldn't this catch on as well, isn't it? A definite thumbs up from me!


Thursday, September 16, 2010 2 reflections

Whistles of a lifetime

I remember it like it was just yesterday. As I stepped out of the comfortable shelter of my home in India back in 2000 to explore alien waters, there was no prophet in the world who could have possibly predicted the milestones that’d end up dotting my rather multi-layered life since. As reminders of my beloved roots, I took with me a dozen things – a few Hindi and Kannada audio cassettes (this was an age when a tape based Walkman was still around), good old rasam and sambar powders for the kitchen, a photograph of Lord Balaji and of course, my first Butterfly pressure cooker.

This rather eventful memory came back to me as I read a piece in OPEN recently (‘The Final Whistle’) as to how there is a chance Indians might finally abandon the pressure cooker in due course. With the advent of a wide range of cooking options, I suppose that is still possible. But I just can’t imagine the plateau I belong to – South India – getting rid of this modest whistle blowing miracle for the next century at the least. Given its inherent versatility, I doubt Indian kitchens will ever really call it quits when it comes to this ‘chote kitchen ka bada kamaal’, as it were.

One of the initial memories of using my first cooker was an immense feeling of absolute elation when it went off on that rainy evening in my apartment in Caracas. Yes – I had successfully made a bowl of rice! That I later managed to have it with some chutney powder and oil is another story. It took me almost a month to get my lentils to cook well. Something about the water levels I wasn’t quite sure about. But rice? With my friendly cooker friend it was a non issue. I still remember my neighbor knocking on my door with wide eyes and enquiring if I had set off the fire extinguisher! I had to show her my miracle from India and explain to her that this was how rice was cooked back home. She suggested I use parboiled rice instead which only needed to be boiled and didn’t need equipments that sounded like an army tank to prepare. Nevertheless, she got used to the ‘Pssh..pssh…pssssshhhhhh!’ noise a few days later as she realized I wasn’t going to compromise on how I made my rice. Her parboiled rice didn’t have a face in front of my reliable jasmine rice.

Since then my cooker renewal cycle has been a standard 3 years. Considering the carefree lifestyle of a bachelor, by the time the third year of a cooker’s life came around, it actually did look like something that had been involved in a major war. When I got married last year, the one thing my wife asked me specifically was if the cooker I had was, well, ‘decent enough’ for the two of us. I wasn’t sure what she meant by that then but one look at it when she arrived in Copenhagen, and she shook her head in disapproval. ‘This should be interesting…’ she said examining the colorful exterior of the hero who had the word ‘Prestige’ embossed proudly on his weathered shell. He certainly was prestigious indeed for having prepared wonderful hot rice and vegetables and daal for me on many a sub zero winter night! As the entire city ran for shelter from the heavy snowfall, I’d be sitting cozily in my 5th floor studio apartment watching ‘Malgudi Days’ and enjoying soft tamarind rice with potato onion sambar. Ah! What wonderful moments they were.

But all things do have an expiration date. This summer while vacationing in India, I found myself right in the middle of a pressure cooker shop with my wife. Before I knew it, I had selected a new and obviously larger version with bigger containers and a much steadier grip. On the way out I turned to her and asked ‘We can still use the old one for emergency purposes, right?’ She, having been familiar with my bizarre affection for the old fella, smiled and nodded her head in approval.

So that’s pretty much it. We now make lip smacking dishes with the new fellow who has been quite consistent thus far. But I do occasionally open the kitchen closet and throw a quick glance at my old buddy who saved me with just one whistle on many an occasion. In search for all the larger things in life sometimes we tend to forget the small things that helped us out at critical times. In my life as a self-taught cook, I can never forget the role a cooker has played. For that, I join those who pray it never vanishes from Indian kitchens.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010 2 reflections

The con of man

I have started re-reading Narayan sir’s classic “The Guide”. Despite having read the tale almost half a dozen times, I always find each renewed attempt a fresh encounter. Over dinner, last night, my wife and I were discussing Narayan sir’s life and works and how, in a bizarre twist of fate, Dev Anand and co. ‘misguided’ the novel’s original content in their Hindi adaptation which went on to become Navketan productions’ biggest milestone. As I continued going through the days of a hero with shades of humble villainy (or vice versa?) called Raju today, I was taken back to the time my family and I, back home in India, had visited our community’s matha.

Now, for the uninitiated in the Brahmin ways, a ‘matha’ essentially is a religious establishment which has, as all good ashrams do, a guruji and a very strict code of protocols to adhere to. That these protocols sometimes can be flexible, despite what the house might claim, is another issue. But nevertheless, my thoughts ran back to that day when I was taken there by my parents to submit our respects to the aged guru.

I had never really been to many mathas before. Considering I don’t really think of myself as an extremely religious person, I hadn’t found the need to periodically go to a place where I had to fall at the feet of another man. As ‘Railway Raju’ puts it (I mentioned I am quite into ‘The Guide’ these days didn’t I?) only the Almighty deserves such reverence and no human. If I ever were to add the only exceptions to that thought, it would be a teacher and a mother; the only two extraordinary humans who always give more than they receive. For them, I shall forever bow.

Apart from these exceptions, I don’t see myself intentionally getting down on the ground and saluting the feet of another mortal. But given the fact that respect in India as I know it is more out of fear than anything else, I decided to follow suit and stood in line to accept the holy water from the 90+ year old gentleman who had taken a bath for the 15th time that morning. His conviction to such rigorous rituals, I thought, was truly worth commending even if I still don’t technically understand the scientific concept behind it, if there is one. When mom’s turn came to accept the holy offering she chose to cleanse her hands with what she thought was the first serving of the water. Seeing his ‘gift’ disrespected thus, the aged guru immediately snapped. He mumbled a few words of rage and yelled at my 65+ year old mother for not knowing how to accept offerings of such divinity. He, of course, did go on to give her a second serving, but with a lot of obvious and visible rage and contempt.

As I reflected on the sermons that Raju comes up with in the book, I couldn’t help think back to that day. This was probably why once I reached the ‘age of reason’ (as George Carlin would say) I had decided never to consciously go to any matha and try to please a complete stranger into blessing me with a miracle I probably didn’t deserve in the first place. For one thing, such blessings are meaningless since the swami doesn’t really know who I am. And for another, they usually don’t work. What really bothered me though was how my mother was treated by that ill tempered swami who was more worried about the water than the faith mom was bringing to his presence. This suddenly made the whole thing seem like one giant void. A farce. A namesake. A street play.

I read each day of fake gurus getting caught with either a woman or a wonder of another kind. Yet I see people continue to seek their blessings and sit through their hymns and endless speeches. Up until recently I was convinced it was the gurus who were the real conmen in such scenarios. Those wile cunning creatures who had somehow figured out the right formula to combine worthless philosophy with homebody ingredients to serve up a new dish each day. But now that I think about it, maybe it’s not them after all. It is our faith, as humans and as creatures capable of basic empathy, which is the real con. It is here, that faithful followers have possibly managed to cheat their beliefs into thinking that they are inferior creatures who need the divine light held bright by the enlightened men in saffron robes (and a few dozen BMWs and Mercs parked outside his ashram for divine interventions and such).

I find all of this very confusing. ‘The Guide’ was written back in 1958 by Narayan sir. At such an early age in our land’s post British history we had already been given a brilliant example of how faith can be such a lethal potion if served in the right cups. But I guess even after 52 years we still aren’t done being conned. I do not deny that there are indeed spiritual leaders in India who are doing some excellent work in the societies they live in, but I somehow suspect the ratio of our Nityanandas and Chandra Swamis is definitely an overwhelming majority. Nothing else can explain why in a land of such ‘overwhelming wisdom’, we are still talking about illiteracy and poverty as being our immediate concerns. Maybe our ‘Railway Rajus’ were the only ones who managed to read Narayan sir’s book. If so, then somewhere up in heaven, Narayan sir is shaking his head in great disappointment.

Saturday, September 11, 2010 2 reflections

Ganapati bappa morya!

The soft fumes of the black chandan stick perk up the festive atmosphere almost instantly. The twangs and pauses in the priest's nasal assistance for the ceremony on the mp3 file only validate the already pious seeming environment. As the background score progresses, so does my appreciation of the first Hindu festival I have celebrated since I moved overseas. A time that, I am sure, will remain as one of my fond memories.

I can still recall my time in India when I used to celebrate this festival with my family. We would begin by carefully picking up the best possible Ganesha idol from the local market and walk back home, barefoot, with the idol placed cozily on a silver plate peppered with mantrākshata. A special wooden enclosure would be reserved for the event as we'd then cautiously place the idol in the designated spot and get busy with the minutest details of the necessities for the prayer rituals. Draped in a silk sari, mom would spend the day making a several mouth-watering delicacies while we, draped in equally shiny silk dhotis, would help dad with the prayer procedure. The fragrance of incense sticks and the short lived camphor on the mangalārati would fill the air as coconuts would be broken and offerings would be made to Lord Ganesha.

After what would seem like an extremely long wait, lunch would be served. A fresh green banana leaf would be decorated with a dozen different culinary items by mom as we'd be instructed to always begin our meal with the payasam, daal tovve and the koshumbari dishes. Attempting anything otherwise was strictly forbidden. As we'd spend the next half an hour requesting repeated servings of amma's signature dishes, dad would spend the time explaining to us how festivals in India hadn't changed at all since his days as a boy. 'Just another excuse for Brahmins to get fatter bellies!' he would joke as he would help himself to another serving of amma's excellent tamarind rice.

All this, and more, came back to me as I took over the role of priest today. It was a rather interesting experience as, despite not being too religious myself, I did manage to find the same peace and satisfaction as I remember from my days in India. With the timely assistance by my lovely wife (and her various delicious dishes - images below - that spruced up this festive occasion!) we managed to pull off a pretty decent debut of a festival as a married couple in our warm Danish nest away from home. Hopefully this start will usher in further events that we can continue to celebrate so that our familiarity with our roots is maintained as our lives as international citizens continuous to explore new horizons. We certainly look forward to all of them.

[(L-R): Drumstick Sambar, Eggplant kadi, Green chana vegetable, Badam kheer, Cucumber Raita and Vegetable Pitla. There was also carrot koshumbari and coconut-jaggery payasam!]

Wishing everyone a wonderful Gauri Ganesha festival! May Lord Ganesha, in His infinite grace, kindness and wisdom, grant all of us the pink of health and consistent rainbows of success.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010 3 reflections

Udaan - A movie review

Historically, Hindi movies have mostly either oversimplified the complex pangs of adolescence by either peppering it with abundant sexual innuendos or by packaging it as an 'out and out' love story with goons, fights, screams and oh yes – songs. Every decade has its share of such tales that are carefully choreographed to capture, what the makers are convinced, the right vein with today's Indian youth. With time, hence, such movies have either become 'Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na...' or 'Rockford'. Two extreme categories with its own audience lapping up whatever appeals to them.

With such a preface to this midway cinema, as it were, I began watching Anurag Kashyap's productorial[sic] debut – Udaan. Considering I am a huge AK aficionado (Black Friday, Paanch, Dev D, Gulaal) I had managed to carefully avoid reading any reviews that might influence my viewpoint before I got a chance to see the flick. Given the fact that anyone and his uncle who has access to the Internet is a reviewer these days (present company included), the best way to judge a movie, as I have experienced, is to just watch it. And watch Udaan, I did.

One of the first things I noticed in Udaan was the minimalistic use of the background score. Nothing kills a movie more quickly than an ill timed piece of audio during a scene that is designed to be sensitive. Also, Udaan is almost entirely shot using a hand held camera (not the offbeat YouTube/LSD style though) sans the 'Bourne vibration'. A blessing indeed. Every expression – silence, melancholy, regret and rage – is captured at the right distance and in the right shade. When narrating a tale of a boy's coming of age, I think these two paramaters – distance and color – plays an extremely critical role. Too much or too less of it, of course, will kill the narrative instantly. Udaan scored big points in this department right from the get go.

The second thing I found endearing in the movie was the obvious lack of B-City's prescribed emotions. Despite the rage that is bubbling inside the teen protagonist (etched into justice by Rajat Barmecha) the restraint he offers consistently almost confused me into questioning myself - 'Wait...why is he behaving like I would? Isn't this supposed to be a movie?' This is a reaction I have rarely found myself expressing during a Hindi movie. Notwithstanding the shades of an 'American Beauty' like relationship the male protagonist and his father share, the context in which the tale unfolds is very authentic. A small city single parent who has no patience or comprehension of love wants to bend his free spirited son to his will. An extremely relatable scenario in middle class India. Udaan cuts through the cow manure of over the top emotional frenzy and keeps it simple. It is in such echoing moments of naked reality, that it finds apt redemption. The characters speak volumes by just a casual glance here, a friendly pat on the shoulder there. A subtle smile here, an abrupt pause there. An art form that hasn't found complete mastery in our cinemas but has some brilliant examples dotted along its century old time line. Udaan proudly joins the ranks of such a genre where despite the look and feel of something supposedly 'filmy', the treatment it eventually gets makes it shed all the fake skins until the bones are exposed.

What also makes Udaan work the best – apart from the points above – is the transition the protagonist makes from being a wayward son to a responsible parent figure. A transformation that goes through a natural metamorphosis without the contrived instances of the illogical that burns, distills and clarifies his soul through a series of fortunate and not so fortunate events. What makes it even more appealing is the liberal use of some fine and well placed poetry to drive home the point. If I'd recommend Udaan for something, it would be to experience this mode of story telling that is such a critical need of the hour.

My regards to the team of Udaan for maintaining the tradition of serving us some bitter yet refreshing lime in a market that is so eager to cater to us the deep fried yet nauseating clichés. Looking forward to the next serving.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010 8 reflections

Nothing doing...

As we walked out of our staff meeting today, one of my colleagues turned to me and said – 'Did you notice? Of the ten items on that agenda there wasn't a single new one. At some point, in the last five years, we have discussed it all till we went blue and here we are again. Just talk talk and talk. No concrete solutions. Its ridiculous, don't you think?'

I returned home weathering the late noon traffic as these words buzzed about me like late evening mosquitoes. It was just yesterday that I had seen 'Peepli LIVE' that was talking about pretty much the same thing. A whole lot of cow manure for absolutely nothing. A careless media that uses a hapless farmer's sad plight for its own profit as the country watches, mute with unbridled enthusiasm, at the drama that unfolds on a possible reality television suicide bid. Problems? A million. Solutions? None.

What's worse is while the movie might have gone on to please the audience with its rustic charms, the reality of it is there is not the slightest chance of a change at ground zero. No governing body will suddenly have a major bout of conscience injected into it and no
sarkaari babu will immediately start pushing papers in a fierce resolve to help the down trodden. No. There will not be an atom of a change that will occur in any farmer's life anywhere in India – LIVE or recorded. The rich producers behind the feature will get richer(as I am sure they already have) and the audience at which it was aimed at will go on with their lives as ever before. Status, undeniably, quo. A grandly laid out theatrical production in the garb of 'reality' and 'social cause'.

My colleague's words made me connect the dots between what he was trying to say and what movies like Peepli LIVE are all about. There is so much activity about 'burning issues' on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and even blogs all around the web. Special 'hashtags' are created for important topics that are pushed to the 'trending' categories and online users share it like there is no tomorrow.

But I look around and all I can see is what my colleague was mentioning in exasperation earlier today – talk. People forwarding each other links to some horrifying story of tragic proportions while the rest of us click our tongues and post sad smileys as a sign of 'protest' as smart Alec netizens sit in comfortable spaces of privacy with their stomachs full and opine on human hunger and depravity. We, the content audience that clicks the 'Like' option on Facebook and feels it has done its bit in helping the cause get more awareness. Seriously – its time we stopped kidding ourselves. This meaningless act of self-validation has no effect on either the victims or the consequences that led them to it. They get nothing as respite because some well fed know-it-all egomaniac clicked a link on the Internet and felt good about keeping his/her 'conscience clean'. The grief in this scenario truly transcends words.

Being a perpetrator of such nonsensical atrocities myself, the one thing I have now resolved to do (or not do!) is stop pretending I am helping a society by passing around a reported tale like a golf ball across a neatly manicured piece of online real estate. No more re-tweeting or forwarding links to ghastly acts of human rights violation since I am not a part of the solution. I am not the one dodging naxal bullets while trying to save a child or a dying man's life. I am not the one teaching tribal kids their ABCs and feeding orphans their mid day meal. I am not the one fighting corrupt governing bodies to defend the rights of the weaponless while putting my life at extreme risk. No – I am, sires, no one. It seems true what I had heard in a Kannada proverb once – Doers don't talk, talkers don't do.

If that blessed day does arrive when I actually find a way to apply my efforts in some productive manner that matters the last thing I will probably do is talk about it. We have an offensive overflow of that as it is, don't you think?