Saturday, October 24, 2009

It's Time to Take That Call!

(Published in The Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated the 17th of October, 2009)

“Oh tumi he! Kiman dinor murot kotha patisu tumar logot. Kene asa? Ghorot bhal ne?”

The speaker was one of those almost unbelievably genial, typical nice guys everyone wishes the best for. The spoken-to was clearly a close friend, judging by the look of delight on his face. After pushing my linguistic sensitivities to their full potential, I deduced he had exclaimed that it had been ages since he had heard from the speaker, and was keen to be assured of the well-being of the kith and kin of the same.

“Ki???” his face took on a shocked, traumatised look that nearly stopped me from shoving pasta into my mouth, “Bupai moi eengrazi buji nepao… Tumar bikrir jojona tu bhal…Bhal lagil tumar logot kotha pati…Ebar axomiya xiki ley bhal dore kotha patim diya.”

And then the smile was back. It was the first time I had ever seen him look triumphant and – could it be?? – evil. “These insurance companies, man!” he said, by way of explanation, “I speak to them in Assamese these days, man. I told them I don’t know English, but their scheme is wonderful, and it was really nice talking, and maybe we can talk more once they learn Assamese.”

Telemarketers…sigh…well, e-mails replaced letters, mobiles replaced landlines, palmtops replaced those ancient computers that groaned into life and they replaced door-to-door salespeople. The door-to-door salespeople would, at least, give up at some point of the day thanks to the angry afternoon sun and irate siesta-takers. But the breed of telemarketers, sitting in their air-conditioned offices, manage to sound bright and happy irrespective of what time of day or night it is.

Inspired by Mr. Nice-Genial-Guy, I have recently taken to speaking in Tamil when I get calls that begin, “namaste ji. Nandni Kishen-ji se baat karna chahta hoon.

“Aanh sollunga,” I answer, “illenga, adhu en peyar illai. Nandini Krishnan.”


I use my most obliging tone, and keep the conversation going, while my interlocutor gets bewildered, panicky and finally, hostile. “Madam, you can i-speak Inglish?” one of them barked to me.

It was the first time a telemarketer had displayed symptoms of human behaviour.

“Yes, I can, thank you, were you selling a Spoken English course?” I responded sweetly, and then hung up.

I had underestimated the constitution of these creatures, though. Encouraged by the dozen English words he had heard, the hostile telemarketer went on to make fourteen attempts at calling me (albeit from the same number) through the day.

Speaking Spanish worked slightly better, though. My “¡hola!¿quién?...Lo siento, pero no hablo ingles.¿Habla español?” (hello, who is this? I’m sorry, but I don’t speak English. Can you speak Spanish?) was met by a long silence, and then a telemarketer telling a colleague in an awestruck tone that I was speaking French. But I went on to receive five more calls from curious telemarketers trying to figure out which language I was speaking in.

It was while contemplating further evasive action that I came across that rare genius that makes you want to take a moment’s break from the rigours of life and pay obeisance in full.

I overheard a friend say, “yes, I am very interested in a loan…see, I am unemployed at the moment…Uh, I travel by bus…Well, I am leaving for the UK to try and find a job soon. I need a loan of three lakhs for my expenses here. I will pay it back once I come back from the UK…yes…yes…ok, I’ll wait for your call. But please don’t let me down, I’m depending on you for the loan…I’ll call you back at this number by five…hello? Hello?”

(With many thanks to a close Assamese friend who chose to remain anonymous, and a one-time schoolmate who gets too much publicity for his own good anyway.)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Movie Review: Unnaipol Oruvan vs. A Wednesday

It's hard to have to pit my favourite film icon against my favourite stage actor. Kamal and Naseer have always brought credibility to their roles - they make you forget it's them in a role, and make you empathise fully with the characters they play. And both of them fit seamlessly into the role of the ordinary middle-class family man who goes to the market and picks out vegetables for the wife. I had the advantage of watching A Wednesday with absolutely no clue about the subject of the movie - and watching Naseer try to file a complaint about his wallet being stolen made my heart go out to him, and hope he would get it back. With Kamal, though I knew the story, I felt the same pang of sympathy.

The movie opening in the Tamil version was more credible, in that the setting was timeless. In the Hindi version, the hoardings and traffic are a bit of a giveaway that not much time has passed since 'that Wednesday'. But the song at the beginning of 'Unnaipol Oruvan' gives the movie a rather religious bias. With the Hindi version, the religious identity of the Common Man remained secret, while the Tamil version seems to have a slant, although that's open to debate.

That said, the scripting in the Tamil version is brilliant. Realising it's hard to localise a series of events that happened in Mumbai, the writers have chosen to focus on the 'it-can't-happen-to-me-bomb-blasts-don't-happen-here' attitude. For a state that witnessed the assassination of a former Prime Minister, Tamil Nadu was, perhaps is, delusionally confident. The dialogue steers clear of cliches, which can't be said for the Hindi version, and the idea of using the numbers of blast victims brought in an added poignancy. There's one shot which threatens to descend into maudlin, but Kamal Haasan just about manages to recover from the moment in which he wells up. But the segue is less smooth than it could have been.

The dialogue in 'A Wednesday' is rather cliched, though. There was no foil to the bravado, and the geek's language and accent are a little more putting off than necessary. In 'Unnaipol Oruvan', Mohanlal's dialogue is set off by asides like, "Tamil-le pesu. English-leyaa solleetruppey? Chief Minister TV parthuttuppaaru" ("Speak in Tamil. Why are you speaking English? The Chief Minister will be tuned in to TV") and a reference to the alienation of a Keralite in the Tamil Nadu Police Force.

The handling of the Chief Minister's role in 'Unnaipol Oruvan' was a riot. From using Karunanidhi's residence for the shoot, to using a mimicry artist who had people wondering if the man had chosen to make a guest appearance, to making digs at the Tamil agenda of the DMK, Kamal's fidelity to reality in this particular aspect is no-holds-barred. While it could be argued that the Chief Minister might take a terror threat more seriously in Mumbai, it seemed to make more sense for the Chief Secretary to come over and put up bureaucratic roadblocks all over the place than for the administrative head of the state to come over.

But one of the disappointments of 'Unnaipol Oruvan' is that there is too much frame-by-frame fidelity. What could pass for a Mumbai chawl doesn't translate well into a Madras slum. The actor who wants police protection works as comic relief in the Hindi version, but comes across as rather silly in the Tamil version. It isn't funny, it doesn't fit in with the plot and it doesn't contribute to the film in any way. The vernacular channels in Hindi and Tamil don't do the same kind of stories or programmes. Yes, the one in 'Unnaipol Oruvan' was a different show, but no Tamil news channel has a retarded programme with two mannequins talking. The fact that every Tamil news channel has some political affiliation if not agenda, affords a lot of plot-play, and it's surprising that the filmmakers didn't exploit that for circumstantial comedy.

The TV reporter bit was one area where neither film scores. Why call up a single vernacular channel instead of creating a sensation? While both reporters are suitably annoying, the lines are way too cliched in both is the police's bizarre decision to trust them with information. Since the reporter's role didn't amount to much in the end anyway, it could easily have been done away with.

The end in the Tamil version in terms of what happened to the Commissioner of Police is rather more credible.

As for the acting, there's very little to choose between Kamal and Naseer. Kamal Haasan came across as more erudite for the literature he quotes and the self-consciously educated accent he uses, which stands in contrast with Naseer's usage of the usually fake 'Indian English' accent theatre has unfortunately adopted as an inherent characteristic. This makes Kamal come across as rather eccentric, while Naseer plays the meticulous planner. What I don't get, though, is why the Common Man's wife has to sound so unpolished in the Tamil version. She has a nasal voice and drags her syllables and sounds more like someone who has grown up in a shantytown than someone who would be married to an idealist who's gone off his rocker.

Mohanlal looks rather young for a top cop set to retire, but given that the actor himself is close to the government's retirement age, I let that pass. He does a great job of making the role his own, and plays it very differently from Anupam Kher. Where Anupam Kher brings in a hint of indecisiveness, Mohanlal brings in an edge of frustration that portrays India's tedious layers of protocol that restrict officials' powers even at a time of crisis.

Jimmy Shergill's portrayal of Arif was flawless, and he became the character in the film. While relative newcomer Ganesh Venkatraman doesn't do a bad job, some of his actions are a little too conscious - putting his necklet with the qibah on display, for instance, or making a show of listening in when the Commissioner has a private talk with the Inspector. The other characters didn't really have much screen time, though perhaps the Inspector's wife, who's on a train with a kid, should have ideally had even less.

The music in the Hindi film is in sync with the story - it pumps up your adrenaline when the action calls for it, makes you reminisce when the script calls for it and alerts you that you are supposed to mourn for blast victims. The music in 'Unnaipol Oruvan' is extremely unremarkable. A film like this needed the genius of a Raja or Rahman. The final track, which has verses from the Bhagavad Gita, is both out of context and jarring - it's best described as Kula-Shaker-meets-Himesh-Reshammiya.

I suppose every fan of Kamal Haasan or everyone who hasn't seen 'A Wednesday' is bound to think 'Unnaipol Oruvan' is out of the world. But if it hadn't been Kamal Haasan in there, would the film have worked for me? Not a bad film by any standards, but 'Unnaipol Oruvan' could have been a better film if it had chosen to iron out the kinks in the Hindi version rather than replicate most of it.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

My Introduction to the Chic Kharab

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 3rd October 2009)

One of the most fascinating discoveries I made right after my move to Delhi two years ago, is the word ‘kharab’. It goes with just about everything, and has the advantage of sounding as offensive as a swearword without carrying the label. I loved how switches are kharab, milk goes kharab, someone can make your mind kharab, this pen is kharab…I was in love with the word!

And then it happened. I remember that fateful day, as I stepped in from the winter evening into the heated interior of a salon. I smiled warmly at its occupants, only to be greeted with a look of intense pity and the damning statement, “madam, your skin is so kharab.”

I would have been less surprised if someone had told me my face was blue. I write with an ink pen and the finesse with which I handle it is rather pathetically at discord with the maternal love with which I care for it (no one else is allowed to use it, it lies on a bed of handkerchiefs and I bathe it every other day).

Back to the point – I was the only kid in school not to sport a single pimple, and not an extra pigment permeated my skin despite years of swimming and biking under the Madras sun.“It’s tanned, it’s dry, you have an oily T-zone, you have open pores, it’s bilcul kharab,” my interlocutor certified, as others gathered round.

And suddenly, as I looked at the mirror, I could see craters open up in my face, my skin grow a few shades darker, white patches peel off, oil spills on my nose and forehead, and pimples sprout across my cheeks. I shook my head to clear it, and then looked rather admiringly at the said interlocutor.

I think it’s a course they do. Before they learn how to thread and tweeze and wax and cut, they are taught how to depress a customer with carefully chosen insults, and then offer an array of treatments that would otherwise be laughed away.

“You should wax your hairline,” one woman suggested, and stared blankly when I shot back, “it’s a Widow’s Peak! It gives me my arrogant look!”

“Yes, madam, you’ll look friendly without it,” she agreed, after absorbing the information.

“I try very hard not to.”

“Or madam, laser treatment lelo. It looks very kharab.”

Lasers to me were those light sabers they used in the Star Wars movies (and I have to grudgingly admit, something my dentist used to seal a lot of white cavity-filling goop), but NOT something you target at your face to destroy a Widow’s Peak.

On the subject of hair, I’m one of those people who are actually grateful for the curls. I enjoy it when people with straight hair are envious of my mop, and refuse empathy when my curly-haired acquaintances wistfully ask me whether I would not rather have had easier-to-manage hair.

“Mine’s pretty easy to manage,” I say, running my fingers right through it, “I wash and condition it every day.”

It’s not just my USP, but the storehouse of my humour. Yes, I do find I’m rather less witty and slower on the uptake when it’s been blow-dried straight. It’s the reason I can wake up and rush to office, and look like I have spent hours styling my hair. It’s my claim to fame – I was once stopped and photographed by a hair products company at Covent Garden, and made two hundred pounds for the trouble.

So, when someone blasphemed, “madam, why don’t you go for hair rebonding?”, I turned back and said in my syrupy voice, “because I think people with straight hair look kharab.”

That was the last time I’ve heard the word used in that salon.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.