Monday, July 30, 2012

Acorny adventure forges ahead

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 29 July, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/more-acorny-adventures)







Voice cast: Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Lopez, Peter Dinklage, Wanda Sykes and others
Directors: Steve Martino, Michael Thurmeier
Rating: 3.5 stars
Of course it begins with an acorn. In this version of animated history where a squirrel chasing its one true love is largely responsible for the shifting of the tectonic plates, the third dimension provides ample excuse for characters to fly towards and zoom away from us, accompanied by whoops and yells. However, what could have been a staid series of clichés is rescued by some brilliant timing, inventive characterisation, and occasionally clever dialogue.
Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo), Manny the Mammoth (Ray Romano) and Diego the Smilodon (Denis Leary) are back, joined by two wonderfully quirky characters – Grandma Sloth (Wanda Sykes) and Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage). Naturally, the main characters are having family trouble. Peaches (Keke Palmer), daughter of Manny and Ellie (Queen Latifah) has begun to rebel, and Daddy’s terrified of losing his little girl. Sid’s family abandons him after offloading his stinky granny onto him. And a lovelorn beaver has a crush of, erm, mammoth proportions.
We know how the story usually goes – geological disaster, followed by adventure, followed by epiphany, followed by happy ending. En route, Scrat the Squirrel (Chris Wedge), and the possum twins Eddie (Josh Peck) and Crash (Seann William Scott) make you laugh every time they appear. An Indian character with a ridiculous accent may be thrown in for additional laughs.
To their credit, the filmmakers fashion a romance that tickles rather than grates, with the introduction of Shira (Jennifer Lopez), First Mate of a pirate iceberg captained by the tyrant Gutt. The franchise needed a strong antagonist to perk up, and Peter Dinklage is quite perfect as the menacing commander of the high seas. Several songs with ludicrous lyrics and infantile rhyme, a delightful sequence with chipmunks and the surprise appearance of a character at the end make this children’s film rather enjoyable for adults.
But I do find it disappointing that each film in this series seems to have a progressively younger target audience. A case in point is that when Ellie asks if there are any questions as she leads an expedition for survival, someone comes up with: “When you take in water through your nose, does it taste like boogers?”
The film does take subtle digs at itself, and these are nicely accompanied by versions of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, varied in pace and instrumentation. With both 3D and computer graphics thoroughly exploited in the film, the chalk drawings as the credits play are a treat.
The Verdict: Ice Age 4 doesn’t offer much new fare, but that shouldn’t stop you from having a fun afternoon out at the cinema.

Stink Bomb, Version 2.0

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 29 July, 2012, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/stink-bomb-version-20)







Cast: Riteish Deshmukh, Tusshar Kapoor, Neha Sharma, Sarah-Jane Dias, Anupam Kher
Director: Sachin Yardi
Rating: 1 star
When a grown man has a car called Pamela, and lives with a man called Adi, do you really want to know his story? Sigh. Sid (Riteish Deshmukh) is an out-of-work DJ who pimps his conveniently horny dog Sakru for a living. Adi (Tusshar Kapoor) is an out-of-work actor whose introduction makes you want to walk out. He dresses up as Devdas and calls himself “Adidas”, he poses with an Ekta, and calls himself “Tiger”. He brands himself “Bra.One” and promises support as he cups his pointy chest armour.
When Sid tells him he should stop aspiring to become an actor, since his dad is neither Jitendra nor Dharmendra, it only serves to highlight the pathos of the two lead actors, who’ve failed to break out of low-brow sex comedies despite the influential families they come from.
The dialogue is an orgy of tawdry puns and unsubtle innuendo. Boards that read “Cumless Bhai welcums you” and “La Whore Ka Dhaba” are piled on to lines like, “Only one part of me remains black after using this fairness cream...my eye-balls”, “I’m Bhagyashree... call me BJ” and wordplay on the Marathi “fakt” and Urdu “fakhr”. Sid tells Adi he’ll buy sanitary pads because he’s going through a “bahut buraperiod”.  
Adi goes to a tarot card reader who tells him a woman whose name begins with ‘S’ will bring him luck. So, he falls for a Simran (Neha Sharma). For no good reason, Simran likes him. For no good reason, she says she’s lesbian. She also pretends her partner is Anu (Sarah-Jane Dias), the woman Sid has fallen for after causing her a wardrobe malfunction. Oh, Anu’s a model with a rich Daddy (Anupam Kher) who has Mummy issues. The Mummy is called Rosemary Marlowe – the audience stopped laughing about the seventh time that name was punned on.
Chunky Paney plays Baba3G, a fake spiritual guide who convinces Mr. Marlowe his parents have been reincarnated in two pugs. Of course, this begs twenty different variations of “kutte ka bachcha”. And then, there’s gay humour for the homophobic. Combined with Sid’s tendency to say “dicks” when he means “disc”, and his excitement when he sees the number 1769 – “ek saath sixty-nine”, this allows ribaldry to hit a new low.
The laborious references to Sholay and Deewar and Anand grate, and even cameos by Anupam Kher and Kavin Dave can’t save the film.
The Verdict: If you like this movie, you should probably be auditioning for its sequel.

Breaking ice with the pirates


(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on 28 July 2012, retrieved from http://newindianexpress.com/entertainment/reviews/article577807.ece)

Voice cast: Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, Peter Dinklage, Wanda Sykes, Seann William Scott, Josh Peck, Chris Wedge
Directors: Steve Martino, Michael Thurmeier
Rating: 3.5 stars
I’m one of those people who absolutely love Scrat the Squirrel, and the acorn he’s obsessed with. And so, we’ll forgive him the pre-film transgression that pitches us into Continental Drift, the fourth film of the Ice Age franchise.
The first few minutes had me worried. Peaches (Keke Palmer), the teen – or whatever the animal equivalent is – daughter of mammoths Manny (Ray Romano) and Ellie (Queen Latifah), has a crush on Ethan, the object of every female mammoth’s affection. And Manny’s trying to keep them apart. The rift between father and daughter becomes literal when Pangaea, or whatever the single prehistoric continent our old friends inhabit is called, begins to break as the tectonic plates move. Oh, great, a sap story with antics by Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo) and philosophy from Diego the Smilodon (Denis Leary), I thought.
Fortunately, the primary characters in this story are Grandma Sloth (Wanda Sykes), Sid’s horrifyingly filthy, toothless grandmother, and Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage), the sadistic captain of a pirate iceberg, complete with a crew of raggedy – and anachronistic – animals. This time round, it’s Diego’s turn to find love, and that makes me half-anticipate, half-fear an Ice Age 5 where Sid loses his heart to a slothette.
The best thing about Continental Drift is easily its comic timing. There are blink-and-you-miss-it frames that make one double up, and quips that work only because the timing is perfect. Watch out for the part where Sid shrugs, “My mother always said ‘Bad news is good news in disguise’”, and the comeback it begs. Then, there’s the scene where Grandma Sloth has her “first bath in decades”, grossing out even Sid in the process.
The first half-hour is a blur of excitement, as we’re hurled into the seas along with everyone we know. The death – or dismembering – of a minor character prepares us for the prospect of slightly darker humour in this edition of the series. However, the film slips back into the Hollywood cliché of finding British and Indian accents hilarious.
The antagonist is a formidable one, and Captain Gutt’s clashes with Manny set the pace in a film that’s a crisp 87 minutes long. An army of chipmunks, with its martial arts rituals and an unlikely camaraderie with Sid the Sloth, gives the filmmakers a chance to rib their brainchild. And they employ the staple devices – slow-mo and dramatic music.
Naturally, with a voice cast bursting with singers – Jennifer Lopez joins in this time – there’s a good number of songs. Thankfully, they’re short. And thankfully, they’re funny when they’re comprehensible. The film also has several encounters with sirens, all of which made me laugh.
The Verdict: You don’t expect great cinema from the fourth part of an animation franchise, but it’s entertaining enough.

A smörgåsbord of sick innuendo




Cast: Riteish Deshmukh, Tusshar Kapoor, Neha Sharma, Sarah Jane Dias, Anupam Kher, Chunky Pandey, Kavin Dave, lots of dogs
Director: Sachin Yardi
Rating: 1 star
The poster should have given me a hint. Clearly, the film is about two sex-deprived souls who will ogle at any round object and find it suggestive. Clearly, the filmmakers bask in the contempt of critics. I knew there would be dwarves and gay men and disabled people in the film to facilitate the crass humour that this genre revels in.
But I couldn’t have predicted how little the film would make me laugh. Or even entertain me. I dozed off during the interval and had to be shaken awake by a family balancing large popcorn cartons. I pity those families – to spend close to Rs. 2000 on a movie that could have been made on a daily budget of that much.
The presence of animals in the film prompts such lines as, “This is the only pussy you’ll ever get”, “Your doggy has style” followed by “Yes, I call it doggy style”, and “Pug la”. A woman nicknamed ‘BJ’, a family that “welcums” people to an event, a man who lisps the word “suit”, and random Marathi dialogues constitute the rest of the raw material for hilarity. Naturally, I slept.
Try this: “Oh, my God, Mrs. Godrej! She’s such a cool lady!” “Do you know her?” “No, no!” “Then how do you know ki she’s such a cool lady?” “Fridge banate hainna?” Then, there’s wordplay on the names of Nargis Fakhri and Diana Penty.
Riteish Deshmukh plays a DJ called Sid, thus allowing for the word “bajaana” to be punned on throughout the movie. A pug plays his macho dog, whose signature ‘line’ is a ‘look’ that’s accompanied by Akshay Kumar’s, “kyun thak rahe ho?” Tusshar Kapoor plays Adi, a wannabe actor who does ads on DSN – Daily Shopping Network – thus allowing for racist humour. Even Anupam Kher is reduced to saying things like, “One stick, so many balls” as he plays pool.
Do you really care about the story? Well, here it is – two fools fall for two hot chicks, who happen to be best friends. They pretend to be lesbian. The fools meet lots of real gay men who are friends with these fake lesbians.  And all this takes close to three hours, and a bunch of tuneless songs and badly-choreographed dances and skimpy costumes to play itself out.
The Verdict: The humour in this film is low brow enough to tempt a child in Class 5 to smirk and walk out.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Dear Oprah: My suggestions for your next India trip

(Published in Sify.com, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/dear-oprah-my-suggestions-for-your-next-india-trip-news-columns-mh1jNcdeibb.html)




(Picture Courtesy: Sify.com. Unauthorised reproduction of this image is prohibited.)



Dear Oprah,
First of all, I want to thank you for taking the trouble to visit my country and showcase its exotica and spirituality to the world. I mean, most people would have assumed the smell of “something burning” when the aircraft landed was that rubber-tyres-on-tarmac thingy. But you chose to go below the runway surface for symbolic significance. I was so touched I almost didn’t notice you showed us the Gateway of India and then landed in Delhi. And thank you for noticing the donkey-carts and hand-pulled rickshaws and snake-charmers – most people don’t. The Ministry for Tourism is, I’m sure, even more grateful to you than I am, though it makes us seem a little out of place in the G20 summit et cetera.
No ‘buts’ for me, though – well, except there’s a ‘butt’. See, I’m quite upset about this thing. When you began to visit the bathrooms in the slum, I really thought you’d dig deeper into our loo habits. Like, you know, you spoke about how we don’t have showerheads in slums, and you had Mr. Shantaram himself showing you around. You pointed out, “Few outsiders know the slums of India like Australian author Gregory David Roberts”. Of course, at this point, Danny Boyle may have gone, “Whaaaa....?! All those Oscars in your country don’t count?” Then again, he’s probably too preoccupied with the Olympics to care.
Wait, we’re getting sidetracked here. So, the toilets. I thought we’d get there when Mr. Shantaram spoke about where he went to empty his bowels, but I was shattered when you neglected to mention that “some Indians STILL wash their bums with their hands.” That would have given you an entire fifteen-minute segment to speak to people about how they manage to use their hands to eat and wash themselves. And we all have insightful answers ready. We eat and write with our right hands, because those are holy things in Hinduism, while we use our left hands to touch our bottoms. You’ll have to check about the left-handed writers, though – they don’t like to talk about it much.
While I was disappointed you chose not to linger longer on the subject, I think this would make a great focus point for your next visit to India. In fact, I have enough here for you to make a five-part series. Your obsession with the restrooms in the first episode really got me thinking. You were very concerned about whether people take turns in the bathroom. I couldn’t quite figure out what the dilemma was there, but I’ve decided to try and find some people who have group showers, so we can convince you some things are done the right way in India.
I’m glad you were able to capture a blind beggar, street food, elephants and camels on camera. However, I think you should speak to servants. Yes, we still have servants, you know. I think you should accommodate them in your next episode. Maybe get a group of five domestic help together, and ask them whether they are allowed to eat at the same table where they serve. You might also want to visit a house that has just been burgled, where you’ll find that suspicion falls on the help. You might want to film the police interrogating the servants. I’m sure they’ll be happy to go extra-aggressive for you.
On the subject of servants, I’m happy that you got five women to discuss caste while sipping tea from silverware. You did very well to show us video clips of sweepers and shoe-shiners as you asked these housewives about how difficult it is to transcend caste. You could so easily have confused everyone by telling the world India had a Dalit President and that the Constitution was written by a man from the caste now called ‘Dalit’, at the time ‘shudra’ or ‘harijan’. You exercised restraint, and kept your show straight and simple. Well done!
You know what, some of my girlfriends and I found out through your show that it was taboo to discuss love, sex, marriage, in-laws and dreams at kitty parties. Thank God you told us! I mean, we would have gone on wearing sleeveless blouses and sindoor and discussing all these bad-bad things till our fathers or brothers or husbands killed us, if it weren’t for you. We just realised what a narrow escape we had. Then again, maybe we’ll do it one last time when you come here next, and that way, we can have an honour killing on your show too. How exciting it will all be! I’ll need to check which of my friends’ fathers has a gun licence (mine doesn’t). Maybe the ones in the Army?
I can think of several other groups of people you need to speak to, but the foremost among them are the gay folks – not being able to come out is a specifically Indian problem, no? What it must be like to live in a society where there’s absolutely no challenge involved in saying, “I’m gay”! You can ask the Indian homosexuals on your show what they envy about American homosexuals, and call them wise when they tell you they probably face the same problems.
I found it very strange that you didn’t devote a special segment to hijras – you know, transgender people in India. I think it would make for great television – you could follow them around as they go to homes where there have been births or weddings or celebrations of any kind, to demand money. Then, you could follow them on to trains, where they demand money. You should also go to the beaches in Mumbai and to the park in Connaught Place in Delhi, where you’ll find them asking necking couples to stop and spare them change. There’s the Koovagam Festival in Tamil Nadu, which would give you that mystical connect between social evils and Hinduism that’s such a crucial strand of any show on India. Once you’ve neatly tied the prejudice against hijras to a myth, you should dance with them. You should also dance with tribal women from the North East – tourists always do.
Many Indian men are upset, because their problems have been ignored in your two-part series. There are things they need to sit down and speak about too, you know. I’m going to get male friends of mine to volunteer to talk about how difficult it is for them to see to their needs – you know, needs – in a society where premarital sex is frowned upon. I’m sure some of them have had multiple surgeries on their wrists. And we may be lucky enough to find one who’d used ayurvedic medicine for chafing, hopefully with disastrous results.
You must also speak to people who haven’t been able to rent houses because they’re non-vegetarian, bachelors, Muslims, or all of the above. I have friends who fit those tags too. Hey, you know what! We’ll also speak about how Hindus and Muslims can actually be friends. In fact, I tell you what – let me call a Sikh friend, Muslim friend, Christian friend, and atheist friend, and we’ll let your crew take lots of close up shots of us breaking bread together. Then, we’ll take turns at crying about how our ancestors murdered each other. We’re not sure how true these are, but wink wink, nudge nudge, who cares. Besides, you need to meet Indians who can actually act.
There’s some standard exotica you missed, and I felt particularly cheated because your show didn’t focus on sadhus with mobile phones, even when you spoke of the paradoxes that constitute India. Never mind, when you’re here, we’ll meet some of those, and some people who do the Great Indian Rope Trick too. We should also go to a rave party, where we’ll hopefully meet Israeli tourists. You might want to ask them about the symbolism of the Swastika in Hinduism. If we’re all stoned, it could make for great television. We’ll all cry at the end too, just in case the conversation falls flat.
There are some holy centres you should visit – like the ashram of Nithyananda, the godman who was filmed cavorting with a “yesteryear” actress (we Indians do love that adjective!) a couple of years ago, and has been given charge of a large franchise of mutts for his trouble. By ‘mutts’, I probably mean ‘ashrams’, but I leave that open to interpretation. Maybe Deepak Chopra can teach us to teleport ourselves to these mutts?
You were fascinated by the women in saris who rode “motorscooters”. Next time you’re here, I’m going to show you women in shorts with short hair who ride bullock carts. We’ll even find some people who wear Nike and Reebok and make them ride bullock carts. I don’t think the “paradox” factor came through in your two-part series. I’m blaming it on the absence of a sadhu with a mobile phone, but no harm in overcompensating.
I didn’t realise how unique it was that we prepared our own food and didn’t just microwave it. You see, I’d been misled by Desperate Housewives’ Bree Van de Kamp into thinking Americans cooked too.  I was also puzzled when you said the existence of widows in India, or the fact that their husbands’ brothers hadn’t been paying for their upkeep, didn’t make sense to you. Desperate Housewives led me to think there were widows in America too – and, you know, Rex’s and Karl’s and Mike’s and Orson’s families didn’t help Bree or Susan either.  Now, I’m annoyed with myself at having wasted so much time on that show, ya. It didn’t teach me anything about America. I think you should do a programme on America next. I can take you around American slums also – wait, what is the politically correct word for ‘slum’? If I don’t get a visa, one of my relatives will. But you may need subtitles for when we speak English.
There are some things I wish you’d brought up on this India journey. Like, this link between white being the colour of mourning in India and our colonial hangover is so obvious, right? I wish you’d analysed the link between widowhood and racism.
You know, Oprah, I especially enjoyed those episodes of your old studio show, where you didn’t feel like interviewing people who’d shot their own kids, or whose marriages were ending, or who were fat, or who were going to cut their hair after twenty years, stuff like that. On those shows, you’d give us tours of your makeup room and spa, or you’d get your interior decorator to do up someone’s home, or your designer to do up someone’s wardrobe, you know? I wish you’d got those people to come and give the slums a makeover. I’ve been wondering why you didn’t do that, but I suppose the Occupy Movement has confused you, like it has everyone else.
You also missed a proper Indian wedding, yaar. Go to a Tam Brahm wedding. Hell, come to mine. Yeah, I’ll get married to get on your show! You’ll be able to see grown-ups roll coconuts at each other, fight over stuff from a pot, break appalaams over each other’s heads, and get carried by their uncles. It’s pretty different from grown-ups who throw bouquets at other grown-ups who fight over them. I swear. You can also film rows of people waiting for places while rows of people eat out of banana leaves on metal tables. It’s like a soup kitchen, I tell you. I’ll cry on my wedding day, as I explain how the abolition of monarchy led to us Brahmins losing our royal patronage, so we’re forced to get by without crockery.
I know it would be a handy addition if my father cried on your show, so I think the wedding will be a good idea – the smoke from the fire could serve as a catalyst in working the lachrymal glands of the men in my family. If that doesn’t work, I’ll force my family to gift my husband an elephant as dowry, instead of a car. We’ll even sway away to our honeymoon on the elephant. Hey, maybe I can promote the Discovery Channel like the family in the slum did. I know what, I’ll tell you how my sex education came from watching animals mate. Umm, can we get NatGeo to play your show this time?
There are some aspects of your show I will not be able to compete with, though. Like that fish-tank thing. I thought that family was going to tell you they kept the fish for a rainy day, you know, for dinner. And then the kid tells you the fish die to save the family from black magic. I was going to bribe my maid to tell you how she steals my fish to feed her family of five, but then I realised I don’t have any fish. And if I buy them now, they could die before you reach India. Never mind, I’m sure I can figure out something about the spiritual significance of my voltage stabiliser. I think it means bad vibes will get converted into good vibes, but I’ll check with the electrician to make sure.
But you did get one teensy detail wrong – Vrindavan wasn’t the birthplace of Lord Krishna. It was Mathura. You see, his parents were in jail, and they kept making babies though his maternal uncle kept killing those. Oh, did I inadvertently answer your question about how couples find “alone time” in confined spaces?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why I'll never fly British Airways again



I have lovely memories of my first British Airways flight – I was 21, I was leaving for London for the first time in my life, and I was afraid this would be the last time I would live in India. The flight crew was very polite, someone actually helped me shove my suitcase into the overhead cabin, someone served me wine, someone woke me up for my meals, and the flight reached Heathrow on time. I would fly the London-Madras route several times over the next couple of years, the best ones of my life – the years I would treasure for the friends, the opportunities, the experiences, and the memories they gave me.
It was to relive those years in my head that I chose to fly British Airways for my trip to the Cannes Film Festival 2012. BIG MISTAKE.
I had checked with three travel agents, and the British High Commission about whether I would need a transit visa. As my stay in Heathrow would be very short, I wasn’t planning on leaving the airport, I had been resident in the United Kingdom for over a year, and had a high enough grade of Schengen Visa not to need additional clearance, I was told I did not need a transit visa.
At 1:30 am on May 14, as I waited for my boarding pass, a smiling employee of British Airways told me she could not let me board the flight. I explained to her that I had already checked about a transit visa, and did not need one. With a plastic smile plastered to her face, she brushed me aside, and began to attend to the next passenger.
“Look here, I don’t think you understand. I have a business visa, and I’m covering the Cannes Film Festival. I’ve already checked with the High Commission, and I don’t need a transit visa.”
“Ma’am, I completely understand, and I’m very sorry, but I need you to step aside. We can’t let you board this flight.”
“I’ll need to speak to the manager.”
“She’ll tell you the same thing, ma’am.”
“I need to speak to someone who has the authority to make a decision.”
“Ma’am, we are simply following procedure. If you’re going to the US, you don’t need a transit visa, but if your final destination is in Europe, you do.”
“I have already checked with three agents. And the High Commission. And I’m eligible for the transit without visa concession.”
“I’m afraid that’s impossible, ma’am.”
“Can you please call your manager?”
In walks someone called Gretchen or Gretel, with an even more plastic smile, and an even more brusque manner than the woman at the counter.
The same conversation is repeated.
“Look, I don’t know how many times I must repeat this, but I have already checked with the High Commission.”
“Ma’am, I’m afraid that is not possible, and you’ll have to wait for a transit visa. I can help you postpone your ticket by a few days, at your expense.”
Gee, thanks for clearing that up. Out loud: “Is there anyone from the High Commission I can speak to?”
“Ma’am, it’s 2:00 in the morning.”
“I have a watch. It’s 9:30 pm in England. Give me the number of your desk in London.”
“Ma’am, I’m afraid I can’t disturb them.”
“I believe this is an emigration-immigration issue.”
“Ma’am, I cannot let you board the flight.”
“Are you actually telling me you’re not going to let me go on a business trip, despite my having all the documentation right?”
“Ma’am, your documentation is not right.”
“You’re wrong about that. Can I speak to an immigration official in London?”
“Ma’am, I’m afraid I can’t help you with that.”
“My visa is of a high enough grade for me to be eligible for transit-without-visa.”
“No, ma’am, there are no grades in visas.”
Wow.
“So, what are you asking me to do?”
“Ma’am, you can try for a visa in the next few days.”
“I don’t need a transit visa because I have a business visa.”
“Ma’am, these are our regulations. If you want, you can try another airline.”
“Then, I’d like to cancel my ticket.”
“I’m afraid I can’t help you with that.”
“Excuse me?!”
“You’ll have to try our toll free number between 9 am and 6 pm, Monday to Friday.”
“By which time my flight would have taken off.”
“That’s right, ma’am.”
“So, you’re telling me I’m going to lose all the money on my ticket?”
“Unfortunately, yes, ma’am.”
“Do you realise what you’re telling me?”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“And can you refund my return ticket?”
“I’m afraid I can’t help you, ma’am.”
“Is there anyone here who can answer my questions?”
“Unfortunately, no, ma’am.”
“Can you give me this toll free number?”
And this British Airways manager at the Madras airport gives me the wrong toll free number for her own airline. Wow again.
Well, I rushed to the Emirates desk, where the staff managed to accommodate me on a flight that was scheduled to take off in two hours. They were also nice enough to find me a window seat on a full flight. You don’t know how grateful you are for those little kindnesses at moments of such high stress until you find yourself welling up over a window seat.
I told my parents what had happened after I’d got through emigration, and asked if they could take up the refund issue with British Airways.
My father spent a good chunk of the morning dialling the wrong toll free number, courtesy the manager who’d given it to me. When he finally got through, he was told I would have to handle it myself. He explained that I was in France, without a phone. He was told I would have to call up and explain that my father was authorised to act on my behalf. And I would have to do it within 24 hours of my flight taking off, and only during the working hours of this toll free helpline.
So, I woke up at 6:30 am, Cannes time, and made an expensive call which wouldn’t connect me to the toll free number, because, guess what, 1800 numbers don’t work even with the country code. British Airways had insisted they would. Of course, they were wrong about that too.
Apparently, an email to the effect that my father was authorised to act on my behalf was not enough. We had to do it all their way – my authorisation had to be channelled through their IVRS. After several hours of my wasting my time, and my father wasting his, British Airways finally agreed to accept my father was indeed my father, if he could tell them my birthday. Yes, my birthday. Because that makes so much more sense than an email authorisation. Because that way, everyone on my Facebook could be my father.
Several days later, I got this email from the Customer Relations division of British Airways:
Dear Ms Krishnan

Thank you very much for contacting us about what happened at the airport.
I am sorry we could not offer you a seat on your journey to London Heathrow.  I do understand why you feel disappointed, as you were not informed about the transit visa at the time you booked your ticket. 

When our own staff ask to see passports and documents, it is first and foremost an identity check.  It is an airline's responsibility to make sure every ticket is being used by the right person - and while we do also look at visas, it is the passenger's responsibility to be sure they have all the right documentation and visa stamps required by the country they're visiting.  

It must have been a very awkward situation for you, and I do sympathise.  For any applicable refund due on your ticket, I would request you to contact your local sales office.  They are better placed than us to help you with your ticket refund.

Thank you again for writing and for giving me the opportunity to respond to your concerns.  I hope you will fly with us again in the not too distant future.

So, here’s someone trying to tell me it was for my own good that his staff refused to let me board the flight. They were kind enough to take on immigration too. Awww. And, like everyone else at British Airways, he knew someone else who was “better placed” to help me.
Dude, you “hope [I] will fly with [you] again in the not too distant future”? Huh. I would have in the not too distant past if your misinformed desk personnel hadn’t refused to let me board despite my not needing a transit visa. And now, I never will again.
But it doesn’t end there. Several days of desperate calls later, I was told the amount would be refunded to my card in 5-6 weeks. On June 29 – by which time I had also registered on Emirates’ Frequent Flyer scheme – I called to ask why on earth the refund hadn’t come in. A baffled telephone operator told me he would check. Several minutes of being-on-hold-while-particularly-annoying-music-played (seriously, and I thought nails-on-a-blackboard was the worst) later, he told me the transaction would be made in 3-4 working days.
And that was when I lost it.
“Are you telling me you haven’t informed the bank to refund my card in six weeks?”
“Ma’am, I apologise for the inconvenience, but the transaction will be made in 3-4 working days.”
“I heard you the first time. But that means you’ve completely ignored my complaint for a month and a half.”
“Ma’am, I apologise for the inconvenience, but the transaction will be made in 3-4 working days.”
What’s the point, really?
But my credit card statement came in, and the transaction wasn’t reflected. Which means I would need to spend an additional Rs. 60,000 so I made good on the refund.
British Airways insisted they had asked the bank to transfer the funds on 9 July. The bank insisted they had received no such instruction. Several more days of desperate calls and ill-informed executives later, I finally got them to send me an email with details of the transaction.
When the amount was finally reflected, I discovered they’d kept 10 percent of the amount I’d spent on the ticket as “service charge”.
I also discovered I’d been right all along. I had not needed a transit visa, as I was eligible for the ‘Transit without visa’ concession.
And I knew that I would never fly British Airways again. The next time London calls, I’ll take the stopover at DXB, thank you very much.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Dafa Ho, Driver!

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, 22 July 2012, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/dafa-ho-driver)



Cast: Vickrant Mahajan, Kainaz Motiwala, Prem Chopra, Manoj Pahwa
Director: Vickrant Mahajan
Rating: Half star
The filmmakers likely chose to release Challo Driver on the same day as The Dark Knight Rises in the hope that some of the crowd that failed to get tickets to the Batman movie will lumber over to the crappy movie playing in the next screen. Chances are that they will never come out. Yes, it’s that awful.
If you want to make a low-budget film and don’t care how it does, you might as well do all the work yourself. And that’s the only point Vickrant Mahajan, writer, director, lyricist and lead actor, scores. That, and convincing Kainaz Motiwala, who’d managed to make something of an impression in Raagini MMS, to work with him, and prove to the world that she can’t act either.
Challo Driver is the love story of an idiot who takes up her friend on a dare to apply for the job of driver, and another idiot, who takes up his driver on a dare that makes for the skimpy plot of this flabby film.
This is the six-point philosophy the film seeks to foster:   
  • Driving is “different” and “daring” and “unassuming”
  • The best way to cure a chauvinist is to fall in love with him
  • The best way to drive is to wear a cleavage-popping tight shirt and a grumpy expression
  • Women drivers get salaries of Rs. 50,000 + perks, as long as they look like they want to star in item numbers
  • When in doubt, wear garish eye makeup
  • Music and air-conditioning are essential to a driver’s dignity

I knew cleaning cobwebs at home would have been more intellectually stimulating than watching the film when the lead actress makes this point: “If men can be makeup artists, why can’t women be drivers?” That’s when the feminists in the hall died.
As if to rouse them, the film harps on the dubious fact that women are involved in 37% fewer accidents than men. And then, to kill the audience again, it uses this line: “Mujh mein bhi feelings hain. Special feelings.” Let the forgettable songs begin.
The only tolerable thing about the movie is Manoj Pahwa, and he’s entertaining mainly if his Punjabi-isms remind you of someone you know.
The Verdict: The movie served to convince me that Saudi Arabia has the right idea about women drivers. And as I walked out of the theatre, I wished I lived there – this film would likely be banned for its immoral premise.


The finale: A human Batman

(Published in The Sunday Guardian on http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/a-fitting-end-to-the-legend)







Cast: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson
Director: Christopher Nolan
Rating: 4.5 stars
Batman’s my favourite superhero because he’s self-made, sans superpower. And the near-dystopian The Dark Knight Rises, emphasises the human nature of Gotham’s saviour. A primal movie that takes us back to Ra’s al Ghul  (Liam Neeson) and The League of Shadows, the last film of the Batman trilogy does have gaps in logic. But none of that matters for the powerful sweep of its storyline, for the expertise with which social commentary is slipped in, and for the empathy we feel for each of its many characters.
The story begins with a remembrance event for Harvey Dent, where Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) considers telling the people of Gotham the truth about Harvey Two-Face. We see the shadowy figure of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) hobbling on a terrace, lonely and crippled in the eight years since Rachel’s death. We’re then thrown into high-voltage action, and introduced to the villain of this film – Bane, a muzzled hulk, played with panache by Tom Hardy, who projects a terrorising presence, despite only having the use of his eyes.
With locales ranging from Mehrangarh Fort to New York, and echoes of real events, it’s easy to forget that these are the imagined scapes of a graphic novel series. And that may lead us to wonder at the relevance of an Occupy-like movement in a city destined for annihilation.
The film introduces a host of characters, including Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). The first half rests mostly in dialogue, while the second half is strangely slow-paced, despite some dizzying action sequences. But this is a film of nuance, and missing its subtler moments could make one dismiss it as ordinary. If you pay attention, and have read enough DC comics to know Talia’s story, you may be ahead of the film. Or not – I was taken in by the twists every time.
The story has more Bruce Wayne than Batman, and justifiably so – the point of Batman, the film says, is to be a symbol. The scenes between Alfred (Michael Caine) and Wayne are elevated from maudlin to poignant by formidable performances. It does have its fair share of clichéd comebacks and gimmickry, but the lovely timing compensates.
After despairing for over two hours, the viewer has to choose between being idealistic and pragmatic, just as Batman has done all his life. And you know when you see it that the film shouldn’t have ended any other way.
The Verdict: The Dark Knight Rises is one for fans of Batman, not of action. If you have the patience it demands, you’ll consider it a fitting finale.

This Driver is a Non-Starter

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on 21 July 2012, retrieved from http://newindianexpress.com/entertainment/reviews/article572686.ece)





Cast: Vickrant Mahajan, Kainaz Motiwala, Prem Chopra, Manoj Pahwa
Director: Vickrant Mahajan
Rating: 1 star
Remember those MGR movies that set out to strike a chord with the common man? You know, where he’d be the driver or gardener or fish-supplier or janitor for a rich family, and take the snobbish, spoilt daughter down a few pegs? And then she’s start clutching her bedclothes, as she fantasises about being ravished by him? And then, she’d find out her Daddy – usually her only surviving parent – was a fraud, and dump him for the driver-gardener-fisherman-janitor type, and move into his stinky hut, where she’d choke over coal-stoves, learn to wear a saree, get her hair oiled by his Mummy – usually his only surviving parent – and teach us all what qualities a good wife should have? Challo Driver takes its cue from those.
But, in the four decades or so since rich-chick-turns-sati-savitri happened, there’s this troublesome thing called Feminism that has to be factored into popular culture. So, here, this hot chick becomes driver. Because women can do anything. And well-qualified women can become drivers. And well-qualified, hot women can be paid Rs. 50,000 and perks if they can handle an Audi and its owner. And well-qualified, hot women drivers whose employers own an Audi can marry them.
No wonder Vickrant Mahajan couldn’t find anyone to star in this gross waste of everyone’s afternoon but the one film old Kainaz Motiwala – and himself. No wonder he couldn’t find anyone to direct it, or write lyrics for it either – but himself. That brings me to the songs – a bunch of Punjabi numbers that sound like everything we’ve heard in low-budget movies over the last five years.
As if the horrendous love-story of Arjun and Tanya is not enough, we must contend with their misadventures with each other’s families. The only good thing about the film is the Audi that stars in it. The only good thing about my movie experience is that I could forget most of it watching The Dark Knight Rises right after.
The Verdict: If you do waste an afternoon on this film, do take comfort in the fact that it’s likely to leave its makers too broke to inflict anything else on the world.

The legend ends, the tale endures

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on 21 July 2012, retrieved from http://newindianexpress.com/entertainment/reviews/article573697.ece)





Cast: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Director: Christopher Nolan
Rating: 4.5 stars
I don’t remember feeling so despondent at a superhero film, ever. Then again, no superhero has been beaten up like Batman in The Dark Knight Rises. When the film begins, Gotham is a quiet, happy city, where a cop jokes that they’ll be chasing after overdue library books next. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) delivers speeches instead of hunting down criminals – “He’s a war hero, and this is peacetime”, someone says.
 Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has sunk into the gloom of losing his one true love, Rachel. With a bent back, crippled leg, and barely any cartilage left on a body that has given its all – or most of its all – for the City of Gotham, he inspires pity, not awe.
When you’re on Wayne’s side, you’re waiting for the supervillain. Here, Bane (Tom Hardy), a man with his nose and mouth hidden behind a muzzle that amplifies his voice, and a penchant for wringing necks, makes you shiver. How will the broken Batman take on this monstrous creature?
It appears Wayne doesn’t plan to. Hell, his maid just made off with his mother’s pearls. That encroachment injects a shot of adrenaline into him, but the effect dies out within minutes of our time, and days of his. He doesn’t even care to see the new contraption Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) has been working on.
Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), one of those Left-wingers who believe in the ‘Other 99%’ and justify stealing on a Marxist principle, has entered into a deal with a devil, who has entered into a more sinister deal with a more sinister devil. And so it is that Bruce Wayne loses all his money, and Batman comes back to life, against the wishes of Alfred (Michael Caine). “This city needs your resources and your knowledge, not your body and your life,” Alfred says. Wayne accuses him of being afraid he’ll fail. Alfred replies that he’s afraid he won’t return, and he’s not burying another Wayne. And so, he must make a hard decision.
Despite the spirited presence of Catwoman, the tender ministrations of Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and the wide-eyed adoration of young Officer Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), it seems Batman can find no purpose in life. When Bane drawls, “I was wondering what to take first – your spirit or your money”, you know the order doesn’t matter. This is over.
The odd laugh is muted by the dark humour of the social commentary – where the world is ruled by sport and stockmarket games, where the anarchy that is so fashionable nowadays leads to a French Revolution-like kangaroo court, where events in the movie echo reality. The film is less about Batman than about people – about the brutality of the mob, the power of love, the intoxication of power, the determination of the desperate.
With arguably the best cast a superhero film has ever had, the film can afford to play with timelines, and timing. Yes, there are hackneyed lines too, but Bale, Caine and Freeman will make you grin anyway. To its credit, the film isn’t shy of ribbing itself – “He’s as dumb as he dresses”, a cop says, as Batman is cornered.
Despite faulty logic every now and again, the film draws us whimsically into its centrepiece – a fable that is rooted in The League of Shadows, that takes us back to R’as Al Ghul’s (Liam Neeson’s) love affair with a warlord’s daughter, and the terrible events that followed. It may take several viewings to fully understand the film, especially because some of the lines are bound to be lost in the cheering.
The Verdict: If you’re prepared for a Batman movie that is hauntingly introspective rather than action-packed, you’ll love The Dark Knight Rises.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Hunt for the Pandiya Treasure

(Published in The New Indian Express, School Edition, on 18 July, retrieved from http://newindianexpress.com/education/school/article569898.ece)



(Caricature courtesy: The New Indian Express. Unauthorised reproduction of this image is prohibited.)



It’s the stuff of detective movies and crime fiction. An unknown amount of money is stashed away in a Swiss Bank, it finds several claimants centuries later, and everyone from the CB-CID to the Interpol is called in to sort it out.
Two weeks ago, the Madras High Court asked the Union Ministry of Finance to crack the case of a secret account in Credit Suisse Bank, belonging to a ‘Pandiya King’, after the Central Crime Branch, Chennai, had filed a report saying he had held such an account.
In the court hearings since then, two people related to a Swiss national have been interrogated, an advocate has been called to the witness box, and the Interpol has got involved.
What is the case about?
The court case involves a property dispute among the legal heirs of Varaguna Rama Pandiya Chinna Thambiar, whose Sivagiri estate is very valuable, and includes land across the country.
Varaguna Rama Pandiya Chinna Thambiar was the last zamindar of the Sivagiri Estate. After him, the zamindari system was abolished, and the estate brought under State control. He had two wives, and two sons each through them. He also two sons through a mistress.
What is the Swiss connection?
N Jegannathan, one of the people who claims to be a legal heir of Thambiar, met a Swiss national Giuseppe Leipoldo Cassina, who was married to an Indian, Maya Patwardhan. Jegannathan told Cassina about having filed civil suits to establish his status as heir, and to access the money in Credit Suisse Bank. Cassina offered to help, for a 5 percent commission.
Jegannathan then handed over the Letter of Administration (LoA) to Cassina, along with the Power of Attorney (PoA) in 2004.
Cassina then tried to file a writ petition in the Madras High Court in 2005, to retrieve the money, apparently thinking he could speed up the process with the support of the Indian government.
But lawyers advised him that he couldn’t invoke the writ petition, since he wasn’t an Indian national. He then asked Jegannathan to hand over the PoA to Cassina’s sister-in-law, Vidhya Patwardhan.
The Madras High Court ordered the revocation of the LoA and connected documents in February, 2006.
In a letter dated March 13, the Credit Suisse Bank is said to have told Cassina it couldn’t locate the assets. Following this, Vidhya stepped forward, claiming she is the legal heir of Thambiar.
On June 15 this year, Cassina reportedly died in a road accident. But there are suspicions he was disposed of because he knew too much.
In a related case, the Madras High Court found that V Chockalingam, appellant and counsel for Jegannathan, had misused the LoA to sell some of the property. On January 9 this year, the CBI was asked to look into the matter.
What is the history?
First, it’s important to note that these Pandiyas are not of the royal lineage, which died out in the mid-eighteenth century, with the reign of King Sadayavarman Sri Vallabha Varagunarama Kulasekara Deva Dikshitar. They are zamindars who happen to share the surname.
Varaguna Rama Pandiya Chinna Thambiar was proprietor of the Sivagiri estate, which was taken over by the government under the Madras Estates (Abolition and Conversion into Ryotwari) Act, 1948.
In 1956, the District Collector of Tirunelveli filed a suit in a local court for taking over possession of the properties of the zamin (including the palace) and for adjudication of the rival claims. The Tirunelveli court held that Senthattikalai Chinna Thambiar, son of Varaguna Rama Pandiya Chinna Thambiar, and other heirs did not have any right to the properties. However, Senthattikalai Chinna Thambiar filed an appeal in the Madras High Court, which ruled that the property devolved on him, being the eldest male member.
Who are the claimants?
The two major contenders for the inheritance are N Jegannathan, whose relation to Varaguna Rama Pandiya Chinna Thambiar is not known, and R Padmini Rani, the wife of Thambiar’s grandson SKN Ravindranath and daughter-in-law of Senthattikalai Chinna Thambiar.
Padmini Rani claims Senthattikalai Chinna Thambiar didn’t get possession of, or compensation for, the property he was entitled to. She also says his properties should devolve to her, as her husband, who passed away in 1992, was Senthattikalai Chinna Thambiar’s oldest son.
But Senthattikalai Chinna Thambiar, who executed a Will on July 2, 1975, has many survivors. They include his widow Rani Kumaramuthu Nachiar, sons Varaguna Rama Pandiya Chinna Thambiar Dakshina Prasad, S K N Ravindranath (Padmini Rani’s husband), S K Jegannathan and daughter S K Mayilvarthini.
Now, the family members say they have made peace, to cut out “bogus claimants” to the property.
Incidentally, N Jegannathan says he is the grandson of late Prasanna Guhasankara V S Varagunarama Pandiya Thambiar, also known as Dakshina Prasad, another son of Senthattikalai Chinna Thambiar.
Yet another person appeared before the judges, claiming he was one of the legal heirs. He told the bench that he was the son of the second wife of the Pandiya, upon which he was asked to go to the civil court.
What’s happening now?
So far, Vidhya Patwardhan, and her father Prabakar, have been interrogated.  The Chennai District Collector S Jayanthi and Special Commissioner for Land Administration Jatindranath Swain have appeared before the Madras High Court. The bench has directed them to verify whether Jegannathan’s claim that the Sivagiri Estate owns over 100 properties is genuine and file a report.
The court has also asked why Jegannathan has not surrendered the LoA despite having been ordered to do so, and his counsel V Chockalingam replied that the documents were in the possession of Cassina. The bench said that it suspected fraud.
Chockalingam himself was called to the witness stand (the first time in history that the advocate of a case has been called as witness in the Madras High Court), and he claimed the British government stashed the wealth of Sivagiri Estate in Credit Suisse Bank, shortly before independence. He said Cassina had given him this information.
When the court asked when the Collector would file a report on the authenticity of Jegannathan’s claim regarding the properties, Special Government Pleader I S Inbadurai said the CB-CID was probing the issue, as directed by the Madras High Court.
Now, Inbadurai has asked that the help of the Interpol be sought in the matter.
WHO’S WHO?
Giuseppe Leipoldo Cassina: Came to India on a tourist visa, married an Indian woman called Maya in Mumbai, and settled in Chennai. He later divorced her with a hefty alimony, reportedly because his mother was not in favour of the marriage. Cassina is said to have died in a road accident on June 15, but there are rumours that someone may have masterminded the accident. He held Power of Attorney for N Jegannathan.
Maya Patwardhan: Wife of Cassina and mother of his two children. She is said to be in Switzerland, and efforts are on to bring her back to India and interrogate her.
Vidhya Patwardhan: Maya’s sister, who lives in Chennai. Cassina transferred Power of Attorney to her, as lawyers thought it would be easier for an Indian national to pursue the case. She is believed to be engaged to Giuseppe Cassina’s brother Paulo.
Prabakar Patwardhan: Father of Vidhya and Maya. Cassina reportedly transferred Rs. 1.50 crore to him before the divorce. With this, he is believed to have bought property in Injambakkam for Rs 28 lakh, deposited Rs 30 lakh in a Thane bank, and Rs 15 lakh in a Chennai bank.
WHAT IS BEING FOUGHT OVER?
1.       Movable and immovable properties in Tirunelveli and adjoining cities, worth several hundred crores of rupees
2.       Sivagiri Palace and adjoining lands
3.       Gold and silver jewellery
                                            FAMILY TREE
                   Varaguna Rama Pandiya (Periyadorai): 3rd Zamindar
                                                          | 
                                 Sangili Veerappa: 4th Zamindar
                                                          |
                                          Ramalinga: 5th Zamindar
                                                          |
                  Varaguna Rama Pandiya Chinna Thambiar: 6th Zamindar
                                                          |
           Senthattikalai Chinna Thambiar = Rani Kumaramuthu Nachiar
 _____________________________|____________________________
|                                     |                          |                       |
Ravindranath    Dakshina Prasad    SK Jegannathan   Mayilvardini
m. Padmini         
                                       
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