Thursday, September 20, 2012 12 reflections

Vinka's New Friend

Once upon a time, in a land far far away, there lived a little boy named Vinka. The place Vinka lived in was full of tall green trees that held the juiciest of fruits and huge velvety mountains that were home to the friendliest of birds and animals. Every morning the sun would rise slowly from behind those mountains and spread soft sunlight all around. Tree by tree, fruit by fruit, bird by bird and animal by animal, everyone would be soaked in its cozy warmth. The animals would come to the water front to get a quick drink while the birds would fly from tree to tree and sing many happy tunes. Soon the entire place would be drenched in golden curtains and butterflies would come out to dance. The place was truly a paradise.

But despite being surrounded by such beauty Vinka was a sad boy.

He was an only child to his parents so they showered him with all their attention. They constantly pampered him with all kinds of sweets and other delicacies. They took him to various fun places like the large park where jugglers came and showed off their tricks and magicians arrived grandly on sparkly flying sticks. They took little Vinka on various nature trails where they showed him birds that had wings but could not fly and monkeys that flew from tree to tree without any wings at all! They would show him flowers that were huge but lived on really short plants and fruits that were so tiny yet grew on the tallest trees!

But nothing, it appeared, could make little Vinka genuinely happy.

You see, Vinka was born with nose and ears that weren’t like the rest of the kids he knew. His nose was a bit longer than the ones he had seen and drooped a little towards his mouth. This made his nose look a little like an elephant’s trunk! His ears weren’t tiny and soft like the rest either. They were slightly large, a little rough to touch and stuck out from the sides of his head. The other kids would endlessly tease poor Vinka with the notorious chant “Vinka Vinka never sneeze! Your ears are banana leaves!” every time he made an attempt to befriend them.

All this hurt little Vinka very much and so he would run to his mother erupting into tears. He would hug her tight and ask her “Why ma? Why am I so ugly? Why am I not like the others? Why shouldn’t I ever sneeze? Why are my ears like banana leaves?”

His mother would comfort him with every pleasant word she knew. She would sing him his favorite songs, cook him his favorite dishes and tell him that everything would be alright. But deep down Vinka was convinced – nothing would be alright. He was somehow different and ugly and nothing could be done to fix that. He would have to stay unhappy for the rest of his life. His tears were the only friends he had. They were the only friends he could afford.

With things looking like this, one sunny day Vinka’s grand uncle, Uncle Dwaipa, stopped by.

Now, if there was one person in the whole wide world who could make little unhappy Vinka laugh and dance in joy, even if it was for just a little while, it was Uncle Dwaipa. He would bring along various curious items such as the wooden bear that could sing and dance at the same time! Or the mechanical clock that would tell Vinka the time of the day along with his name! Once, Uncle Dwaipa even brought Vinka a large colorful blanket. He called it the “Secret Mask of Happiness”. It had strange shaped holes and odd looking patterns in it. Whenever Vinka wrapped himself in it the world outside would look strange and odd too! Trees would look upside down. Birds would appear as if they were flying in the ocean. Why, even the kids who tormented little Vinka would appear with no heads or legs! Just floating torsos! His little spot of joy in a life filled with disappointments was Uncle Dwaipa’s blanket. He would wrap himself with it every time he wanted to have a little laugh at the world that was laughing at him.

But that day when Uncle Dwaipa visited, Vinka was in a terrible mood. The moment Uncle Dwaipa walked into the house he knew something was very wrong. Sure, he had walked in before when Vinka would be weeping or some other commotion would be taking place. But never before had there been such a deafening silence in the house. Uncle Dwaipa immediately rushed to Vinka’s room to find him sitting in the corner covered head to toe with the “Secret Mask of Happiness”.

“He has been like this for a few days now!” Vinka’s helpless parents complained to Uncle Dwaipa. “He eats very little, doesn’t want to go out. He even doesn’t sleep properly! He just sits there like that most of the time...” his poor mother said breaking off into sobs. “Please help him!” his father added with sad eyes. “We have tried everything. We have no one else to turn to…” “Let me have a moment with him” said Uncle Dwaipa in his deep baritone after a brief pause. Vinka’s parents left the room slowly. Uncle Dwaipa walked up to Vinka and sat on a large wooden stool right next to him.

“Hello Vinka!” he said and tried to remove the blanket.

“No!” Vinka shouted struggling back. “I don’t want to talk to you! Go away!”

This was very serious matter indeed, Uncle Dwaipa observed. Never before had Vinka reacted like this. All the distractions that he had devised for little Vinka now seemed to have served their purpose. No more mechanical toys, no more magic blankets, no more mind boggling tricks would do. Uncle Dwaipa knew exactly what he had to do next. It was time.

“Very well” he said untying his large bag. “Then I guess you do not want to meet your new friend.”

Vinka’s curiosity was tickled just a wee bit but he shook his head vigorously from within the blanket.

“Ah alright then” Uncle Dwaipa continued. “I guess I will play with your new friend myself. It is such a pity you will never know how brilliant your new friend is!”

Saying thus, Uncle Dwaipa began humming a cheery tune and pulled out something from his bag that seemed quite heavy. Vinka did not react. He continued blinking in the dark of his magic blanket.

“Ah let us see here then” Uncle Dwaipa said placing Vinka’s new friend on the lap.

No sooner had the new friend been produced than Vinka’s nose picked up an unfamiliar fragrance. It wasn’t anything like he had ever smelt before. It was like a mixed concoction of old trees, young leaves and fresh honey. Or was it like the mixture of roots, barks and mud? The sounds it made too were nothing like Vinka had ever heard before. They were like a mix of dry leaves, coarse sand and gentle breeze. Or was it like the mix of shifting feet, water ripples and rain?

Vinka couldn’t tell!

His slightly oversized nose and ears were now starting to itch. He had to find out what it was Uncle Dwaipa had brought.

“Ohoho! This is a good one. Yes it is indeed” Uncle Dwaipa guffawed. “Just look at his big crooked teeth! And he is trying to eat this little man! How stupid! The man has a sword hidden in his shirt!” roared Uncle Dwaipa slapping his thigh and letting out a storm of laughter.

Outside the room Vinka’a parents looked at each other with questioning eyes.

“O no! Don’t do that you silly ape!” Uncle Dwaipa continued, the rustling sound accompanying his monolog. “That blind crocodile will eat you because it is not really blind! It is all a drama you clueless beast!”

From the corner of his eye Uncle Dwaipa could notice a blanket wrapped figure stirring in increasing curiosity. He could sense the rising levels of impatience emanating from that blanket. It wouldn’t be long now.

“Five and five isn’t eight you silly bird! Did you not learn mathematics? How much is five and five? Everyone knows that! Even our Vinka does! Don’t you?” asked Uncle Dwaipa now turning towards Vinka.

“It is ten!” screamed the little boy finally flinging off the blanket and jumping onto Uncle Dwaipa’s side.

What he saw next was the most beautiful thing he had ever laid eyes upon his whole life. Uncle Dwaipa held in his lap a large box like object which contained hundreds of rectangle-shaped, smooth-surfaced, thin slices of bark. The top edge of all these slices had tiny holes in them through which slim strands of threads ran and held them all together. This mechanism made it possible to turn the slices back and forth! And on each of those smooth barks he saw such colorful illustrations! There was the blue of the sky, the red of the berries, the green of the grasshopper, the yellow of the flowers – it was like a rainbow of shapes. It was, Vinka thought at first glance, even better than the magic blanket. This new friend did not change his vision of things that weren’t different in reality. On the contrary it remained as it was and allowed Vinka to choose what he wanted to see. This was better than magic!

As Uncle Dwaipa slowly turned over each slice of bark more colors and more drawings became visible. Vinka now saw creatures in them that he had never seen before. A boy with three heads and four arms! A girl with large angry eyes, her red tongue sticking out in thirst and ten arms! A creature that had the head of a horse and the body of a man! Another creature had no body at all! Just a flying head that could look around and spit out fire whenever it yawned!

Vinka quickly elbowed out the large frame of Uncle Dwaipa and buried his face into the barks. His slightly long nose and slightly large ears were alert now. He would giggle when a large bellied king was chased by a very short man holding an even smaller wooden umbrella in his hand. He would cackle when a boar-faced beast with two long white horns was shown running away with the entire earth in its hands! He couldn’t stop laughing when he saw hundreds of tiny sweaty men trying to wake up an incredibly large and extremely sleepy giant!

“Who are these people Uncle Dwaipa?” Vinka asked amid bouts of laughter.

“They? O, why they are all part of a very long and the most adventurous story!” said Uncle Dwaipa taking the little boy in his arms.

“Which story Uncle Dwaipa? Tell me tell me! Please tell me!” implored an impatient Vinka.

“Not today my dear child” said Uncle Dwaipa in an assuring tone. “Today I want you to play with this new friend of yours. Look at these people, these creatures and see how different and odd and crazy they are. How strange yet how interesting they look! The next time I come you should be ready to tell me one story using them. But remember you can only tell me one story so make sure it is a good one! Can you do that?”

Vinka thought about it for a minute. This was an interesting challenge. All these days his mother would tell him stories. But he would never be able to change them the way he wanted to. Now he was being given a chance to make up his own using such a wide range of absolutely hilarious characters! He liked the idea immensely.

“Yes! Yes!” he screamed. Despite his small stature Vinka grabbed the collection of barks from Uncle Dwaipa and keenly began looking at the drawings one by one, clapping to himself in pure joy. Uncle Dwaipa got up and walked out of the room leaving Vinka with his new friend. Outside the room his parents stood waiting with eager and puzzled eyes.

“Do not worry” Uncle Dwaipa told them. “Vinka may no longer want to go out and play. He may no longer wish to see magicians perform tricks. He may no longer want to befriend other kids. But that is alright. I have introduced him to the only friend he will ever need. But know this - from this point forward Vinka will never be sad again.”

Vinka’s parents looked a little relieved but questions still remained. Just as they were about to ask something they heard Vinka’s echoing laughter from the room. They had never heard Vinka laugh with such pleasure. They realized Uncle Dwaipa had created some magic, as always. So they didn’t say a word. They just looked at each other and smiled, happy that Vinka had finally found what he was looking for.

Uncle Dwaipa continued to visit little Vinka for several years after that day. Each time he would bring along a new better looking friend of the same kind. With each visit he would sit and listen patiently to the fascinating stories Vinka had made up using his imagination. He had given the creatures he had seen various names and added some amazingly interesting incidents to each one of them. He would stand and enact various scenes from his stories as Uncle Dwaipa and the parents would sit and watch their little boy with tears of joy.

Then one day, many years later, Vinka got another visit from his grand uncle. This time Uncle Dwaipa didn’t bring along any new friends. Instead he brought with him several blank slices of smooth-surfaced bark, a few big bottles of black ink and several beautifully carved sandalwood pens.

This time Uncle Dwaipa wanted Vinka to write something.

PS:Given that Ganesha Chaturthi celebrations are agog all around I wanted to use the premise of Ganesha being the scribe for the Indian epic Mahabharata at the behest of the sage Veda Vyasa (or Krishna Dwaipayana, as he was originally called). This piece is based on that idea where Vyasa (Uncle Dwaipa here) essentially trains Ganesha (Vinka here) for such a gigantic project by first introducing him to his own imagination.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012 1 reflections

Eega : Some thoughts

Teasers for Indian movies have always been quite revealing. In fact there are some movies that have such explicit teasers that they contain almost all of the best scenes the movie has to offer. Bitter experiences ensue later when the same movies are watched on the large screen and it is realized that the sequences from the teaser were perhaps the only tolerable portions of the entire thing. SS Rajamouli’s ‘Eega’ (‘Naan Ee’ in its Tamil avatar) is no exception in that department as the teaser pretty much captures the basic plot while also brazenly giving away hints about the predictability of the whole affair (a brave move for someone who is investing everything on a story based on a CGI character). Hence, to save us all time I shall focus on some elements that were not covered in the teaser.

The opening credits run with a background track of a child pestering his father for a bedtime story. With great reluctance the father begins telling the child the story of a housefly. This is an important sequence for two reasons: One, with just that the director sets up the premise for the entire film – it is a bedtime story. And two, because it is a bedtime story the idea that whatever is to follow, however fantastical and unrealistic it may be, will seek respite in that setting.

So the plot is as old as time itself. A young couple is head over heels in love with each other albeit they are yet to confess the same to one another. The fact that they are neighbors only allows the hero to apply some reflection based physics to impress the girl next door. Things seem a little too sweet to be true. All is color and song in slow motion amid flying autumn leaves.

Enter: the much needed antagonist. A playboy millionaire with a flair for money and women – in no particular order. As the teaser already reveals he manages to eliminate the competition by killing off the boy. As if to drive home the point of a harmless housefly being the real focal point of the plot the director makes the villain literally squash the hero with his bare feet – like an insignificant bug.

The girl is devastated by the news (of course she isn’t clued in on who did it…yet) as the villain swoops in to claim his prize. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the woods, the soul of the deceased young man has found home in an insect. Before you know it (and before the movie marker hits 25 minutes) you are introduced to the central character of the film – the buzzing housefly Eega.

As is evident from the teaser the rest of the movie is about how the housefly, generally deemed harmless by humans, can take on such an impossible task of plotting and killing one of us. What struck me as interesting was how the film maker here is so convinced of his vision that he leaves no stone unturned in getting us to look at the plot from the housefly’s perspective. We see the extremely-larger-than-life sequences of the visions the housefly has of the world around it. We are shown the titanic nature of seemingly trivial things like a water droplet falling to the ground when seen from the eyes of so small a being. We are led into a world of such small proportions that our existence as human beings fascinates us. The smallest of things we do so spontaneously are shown to have such catastrophic consequences in the worlds of beings smaller, much smaller, than us. These are sequences that act as gentle reminders to us about the fact that we, as a species, are not alone. We are not the only ones who matter in the big scheme of things.

The scenes that show how the housefly goes about bothering the villain are creatively done. If buzzing around and biting is the only annoying thing we thought a mosquito can do then seeing some of the outrageous things a harmless seeming housefly is capable of took me by surprise! There are scenes with just one human protagonist in them but the way Rajamouli utilizes the furniture, the carpets, the walls, almost all the props available in the frame to act as catalysts for the housefly to do it’s deed is remarkable. Everything from a glass of iced lemon tea to a bed sheet is used as a potential ‘actor’ in the scene. This is an achievement that the director deserves a pat on the back for. The ability to understand the importance of inanimate objects in a frame.

What is also curious is how much emotion is added to a rather dull creature like a housefly. Without the anatomy to give it expressive eyes the creative team of the movie still manages to get it to display anger, grief, shock and best of all – happiness – quite effectively. Since the context is completely Indian (and given our insatiable appetite for the whimsical) the antics the housefly indulges in are entertaining to watch. Once the villain has the plot figured out (that the housefly is the re-incarnated version of the young man he brutally murdered earlier…) his reactions aimed to kill the fly make up for the perfect clash: human vs fly, both wanting the other dead.

There is rarely a dull moment in the film after the first half an hour. It is perhaps for this reason that a lot of the plot holes can be ignored. One can tell that the director just couldn’t wait to start animating the fly and get the antagonist (Sudeep in what is arguably one of his most memorable roles thus far) to make his lethal moves in response. The CGI is well done, as mentioned earlier, and despite the predictable nature of the plot it makes for an engaging watch. Attention to detail, especially from the fly’s perspective, is remarkably accurate.

Performances belong largely to Sudeep (although the leading lady lights up the screen with her graceful presence quite often) and the CGI generated housefly. The two display remarkable chemistry despite the barrier of existence that separates them. Sudeep is extremely expressive throughout the film fully aware that it is through his act of rage and despair that his opponent gains life and worth on screen. And so he breathes hard, and often, to make both of them glow. What shows up as a result of this is a product of much honest hard work and dedication that is hard to ignore. The bottom line I took away from the movie was that of courage. Not just from the story’s perspective where a classic David vs Goliath method is used to deliver but also from a film making point of view where the director’s conviction with the story is so clear. For a director, known for his widely acclaimed commercial attempts over the years, to get his hands dirty with something so ‘out of tradition’ is worth appreciation. It shows his courage not just with the potency of the plot but also in the trust he has with the audience. An acknowledgement all film makers can take a leaf out of. Such an effort to ensure a bedtime story for a child is done justice on the screen needs to be lauded.

With ‘Eega’ what Rajamouli has done is created a benchmark where the protagonist of the story need not be a human. This opens up new ways to tell a traditional story. It offers room for stories that have the human element in them without the visible presence of them. It creates space for the much needed aspect of human existence – empathy. One can only hope both Rajamouli and the nation’s film fraternity continue to find new stories that hinge on this much needed human attribute. Even if they appear only in bed time stories.

Monday, September 17, 2012 0 reflections

Naked & Clothed - A poem

Naked & Clothed

On the naked wooden table lay pages clothed in words,
On the naked skin of each letter stood a clothed meaning.
On the clothed wrinkled bed sat a naked emotion,
On his wrinkle clothed face sat a naked tear shivering.

The naked breeze outside came clothed with the scent of a tree,
The naked flower by the window stood clothed in that glee,
It clothed the room with fragrance and its naked glory,
It clothed his walls with remembrance, with naked memory.

The naked pages fluttered slowly now clothed with his sighs,
Its naked essence dripped onto well clothed denials,
Clothed in a momentary respite the naked breeze brought along,
He clothed his sorrow further with a newfound naked song.

Yet the naked truth pierced into his well clothed heart within,
Sending many naked shocks into his regret clothed skin,
With the clothed words of venom his naked love had sent him,
His past now stood clothed with naked facts sans whim.

The naked wooden table now stood clothed with perspective,
As the naked words clothed him slowly, made him introspective,
Clothed now warmly with the naked sunlight of reality,
Clothed windows went asunder, his naked heart could finally see.