Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Movie Review: Avatar

It's not often you land up in the corner seat of the second row for an 11.30 am show on a weekday at a cineplex where you've once been an employee. 'Avatar' is being touted by amateur critics as 'The Matrix of the 2000s' and by acknowleged critics as 'in the league of The Lord of the Rings, with better visual effects'.

The brilliance of JRR Tolkien and the magic of his Middle Earth are such that one cannot write fantasy without being accused of ripping something off the worlds he created. So, of course, there's a Goddess Guardian Spirit, of course there are tall trees, of course there are ugly machines/warriors/Marines fighting long-legged, noble, naked ones and of course there's a twist in the end, and Five Armies come together but are almost screwed over until flying beings intervene.

But what 'The Lord of the Rings' could do with two dimensions, 'Avatar' couldn't do with three...and that is pull people into that world. Pandora didn't have the advantage Lothlorien did, but one wonders, does a three-houe (or nine-hour) movie require a thousand-page masterpiece to draw its script from?

It's sad that the importance of dialogue in cinema has declined to the degree that Batt Daffleck or whatever the duo is called, can boast of an Oscar. Look up the top hundred movie lines and it's likely the latest one you'll find is the speech by Morpheus that no one understood (until they read Sartre, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and thought they all sounded kinda familiar).

What happened to the craft of weaving words into a story? What happened to the impact of a moment of speech or silence? Why does music have to convey an epiphany every time? Foreign-sounding chants have been exhausted in film OSTs to the extent that an aficionado would be hard put to distinguish between any two. They can't induce poignancy any more than "it's not you, it's me" can be construed as a phrase of comfort.

And for some reason, hackneyed phrases that are a callback to the world we live in are thrown in for comic relief - in 'Hellboy 2', it was two mutants getting drunk and "oh, boy"-ing over a sad song, in 'Avatar', it was a Paraplegic-Ex-Marine-Turned-Avatar going, "I was kinda hoping you'd say that".

The 3D makes for a good watch, and the mountains and trees of New Zealand have been used well, but this one fails to capitalise on the scope the third dimension offers. When you watch a film in 3D, you want to be IN it, and you want people and creatures attacking you, while you empathise with whatever character you are at the moment. There ARE a couple of times when that happens in 'Avatar', but there are times when the camera chooses to focus on the fear-filled eyes of the hero or tear-stained cheeks of the heroine, rather than the causes of those.

As for the visual effects, yes, quite obviously, they were great, but we've seen great before.

Watch if: You like looking at big trees, strange creatures, modern-civilisation-destroying-nature's-gifts stories, or nearly-naked Zoe Saldana, or you are wowed by visual effects of any kind.

Do Not Watch if: You want something new.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Relativity and the Ramayana

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian EXpress, on 12th December, 2009)

“Chabhi to... kho gayi. Teen char mahiney ke pehle.”

The fact that the platform official couldn’t meet my eyes was due entirely to his squint. I was shivering on a bench at Ayodhya, at 10:30 p.m., and being told the key to the waiting room had been lost months ago. The monkeys that were huddling together were looking at me in pity. And I glared at their furry bodies, wishing I weren’t so conscientious about my appointments at the salon.

My teeth chattering, I asked how many hours the train was late by.

The platform official beamed and said, “siraf teen-char gante.”


“Hanh, hanh,” he nodded, smiling, “you’re lucky today. Usually, it comes in the morning.”

I vaguely recalled having read something about Rama taking the entire population of Ayodhya along to Vaikuntha. I empathised at that moment with the people, who must have thought they were trotting along to a community bath at the Sarayu, only to be given the “ooh, good news! You’re all going to drown and come to Heaven!” line. Death by water, death from cold…not much to choose from there.

“The station master’s room is open if you want,” Mr. Can’t-Meet-Your-Eyes said, usefully, when the noise my teeth were making began to rival the cymbals a group of singing devotees was clashing at regular intervals.

“Yeh to pehle bataanaa chaahiye tha, na!” I snapped, and he stared after me as I hurried along to the door marked ‘STATION MASTER’, wondering whether I had actually uttered a grammatically correct Hindi sentence. I was dimly aware that I had left my parents on the platform, but figured that since their intention had been to lose themselves in the footsteps of God, I might as well leave them to it.

Our trip to Ayodhya had been timed quite to perfection. It was the day the Liberhan Commission Report was to be tabled, and the day after all hell had broken loose in Parliament after a media leak. Thanks to which, the entourage of guides chorusing “hum yahaan ke Brahmin hain. Pandhra rupai leythe hain” and promising to show us round, hadn’t been the most painful part of the journey. No, they lost ground to the security checks.

It is my personal belief that the people who conduct security checks are carefully selected from among India’s most sexually frustrated citizens – and on an occasion like this, they do their job so thoroughly that you can’t, in good conscience, wear white at your fantasy wedding. While being groped, poked and prodded with a ferocity that would put ‘eve-teasers’ to shame, I noticed that the security staff seemed to trust their hands far more than that strange black equipment that beeps three times on an average. They simply didn’t have any bomb detectors – on the day the report was being tabled! Of course, one could argue that bomb detectors aren’t particularly useful in spotting axes and hammers.

I flung open the door of the Station Master’s room, to be greeted by a blaze of saffron. Fifteen men stared, while the Saffron Man who had been given pride of place – the station master’s chair – gave me a disapproving look and then went on, “so Dhashrath died alone, just like Shravan’s parents. What do we learn from this? Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.”

Having satisfactorily linked Newton to the Ramayana, Saffron Man sat back on his chair and closed his eyes – the fifteen others followed suit. A few seconds on, a synchronised snoring session began, that would only be interrupted by the arrival of the train, four hours later.

As I yanked at the door of my compartment, wondering whether my children would abandon me at a pilgrimage centre someday, I realised it was locked from inside, and the Ticket Collector was snoring too.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

What's Dew To You Will Always Find You

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, on 28th November, 2009)

This is a universal axiom, almost as sacred as Homer Simpson’s “Always make fun of those different from you” – there is nothing more depressing than waking up before the sun. Throughout my life, it has been a policy to wake up ten minutes before I’m required to be at work. I have mastered the technique of multi-tasking well enough to look perfectly presentable in that much time.

But a series of indescribable events led to my having to wake up at four in the morning on a regular basis for nearly a year. And there is nothing singularly more annoying at these times than that despicable category of homosapien known as ‘The Early Riser’.

My first encounter with this category was a former friend from college. The one time she stayed over at my place, she flung open the windows of my heavily-curtained room at seven in the morning, to let in the natural smoke-filled air and the early morning sounds of the mechanics at the shed next door banging away at components of cars.

“What…,” I said groggily, vaguely aware of a beam of hellish light penetrating my subconscious. That was the last word I was to ever utter to her.

The second specimen I met lived in my dorm at university. Another roommate and I made a habit of sitting in the heated kitchen with cups of tea until four in the morning to get through the cold London winters. Just as we were sinking into the conviction that Robert Browning was right when he said “God's in His Heaven, All's Right With the World”, and getting ready for bed, a scourge would seep into the kitchen.

It was the aura of another roommate, who found it prudent to wake up in the middle of the night and cycle about twenty miles to the Thames to go rowing every other day. He would whistle his way to the kitchen, beam at us and say, “good morning, everybody!” I would shudder, and my soul roommate would grunt. Wordlessly, we would direct an ugly look at the Scourge and stagger to our rooms, as he opened the windows to breathe in the smoggy mist and revel in the acidic dew.

And then there’s my landlady. On the few days I don’t have to wake up at four in the morning, she does. Just as I put away my book, pat my pillow, fluff up my duvet and switch on the heater, she waddles to the bathroom and starts filling up water. As the sound of running water hitting plastic assaults my ears, the idea of a cold water bath in winter sends a convulsive shiver up my spine. And then she begins to call out to her husband that their daughter-in-law must be the laziest creature God ever took the pains to create – she wakes up at the Devil’s Hour of 6:00 a.m.

I spend hours in bed thinking up suitable punishments for these people. I have stopped praying for a reprieve – I believe, and I’m sure every sane human being would agree with me, that God has done His best to make mornings cruel. I sometimes wish one of those cars populated by whoo-girls and whoo-boys that blast past playing hip-hop music would stop near the Early Riser, spill out their occupants and have them spill out the contents of their night’s gastronomic excesses over the Early Riser. I wish the birds whose chirps the Early Riser wakes up so eagerly to hear would be so moved as to bless the latter.

But for my part, I’ve convinced my landlady that waking up before sunrise speeds up osteoporosis. My last few weeks have been water-on-plastic-bucket-free.
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