Thursday, August 30, 2012

Scams, terror, economic woes: Who will take over from the Congress?

Now that we know Ajmal Amir Kasab, lone-surviving terrorist from 26/11, household name, consumer of chicken biryani, occupant of a prison cell at a cost of close to Rs 50 crore of taxpayers’ money by some estimates, will be hanged, we can tick one item off the UPA’s to-do-list.
Of course, explaining Coalgate – which has enlarged the Congress’ world of cares – and burrowing its way out of the 2G scam could turn out to be a little more difficult than convincing a series of courts that a terrorist deserves death.
In the two terms that the UPA has been in power, the price of petrol has more than doubled, food inflation has spiked, the country has been through recession; scam after scam – cash-for-votes, 2G, Colagate – has sent Congressmen scurrying in search of loopholes; and the country has been through a spate of terror attacks.
Even as the Supreme Court indicts the media for its role in exacerbating the Mumbai terror attack, in its verdict against Kasab’s appeal (See pages 245-249 of the full order), those of us who watched in disgust remember all too vividly the sight of then Home Minister Shivraj Patil rattling off deployment figures and the plan of attack on live television.
If the UPA’s last term was marked by terror attacks, its current stint will be remembered for the scams, communal unrest, and most of all, for the clampdown on freedom of speech. Political cartoons are being wiped off textbooks; websites are being banned; ‘objectionable’ content is being removed from social networks; and people are being arrested for caricaturing Bengal’s Big Sister.
With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh looking increasingly despondent every time he faces the cameras or stands up to speak in the Lok Sabha, and UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi being hampered first by her “inner voice” and now by what the media has only termed her “mysterious illness”, the Congress has been trying to sound gung-ho about its “young” heir-in-waiting, Rahul Gandhi.
Aside from his numerous faux pas, The 42-year-old Rahul Gandhi is best known for regularly camping at Dalit houses and cutting into their limited food supply. He hasn’t handled a ministerial portfolio, and his crowning achievement could be breaking his considerable security cordon to mingle more freely with the crowd.
But unless an alternative presents itself, the UPA could be back in power in 2013, despite all the charges of corruption against it. And its leadership, and thus the Prime Ministerial berth, could be inherited by Rahul Gandhi.
What is the alternative? For decades, it was the BJP. However, in the absence of the liberal, poetic Atal Bihari Vajpayee, it has only been able to present us with two options – the once-fiery, octogenarian L K Advani, who now rides motorised chariots across the country; and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, on whose watch the Godhra riots broke out.
With the smaller parties waiting for whatever carrots the big names can throw at them, alliances have been more unstable than is usual in politics.
The antics of Team Anna – or should we call them Party Anna? – and Baba Ramdev have become fillers on newspaper front and middle pages. There is no Lokpal in sight, and the question of black money stashed away in Swiss Banks has become a conversation-starter.
What are we looking at, then, the next time we head to the voting booths? While we tweet about Emergency 2012, do we really have a powerful enough bloc in place to edge out the UPA? And if we were to vote against the stable mix of “economic growth” and rampant corruption, how much of a risk would we be taking?
While talk of a Third Front has cropped up every now and again, there’s so much infighting within the parties concerned that it’s rather difficult to fathom a delegation from each sitting down to formulate a gameplan.
What it boils down to, then, is that the Congress has complete control over what goes on in the nation, what with a party man having taken over the supposedly impartial office of President, and could continue to exercise this control for several years more.
Maybe we should stop agonising over why a country of over a billion people can’t win more than six medals in the Olympics, and start thinking about why we can’t produce a leader who doesn’t perpetrate or facilitate corruption.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Book Review: The Collaborator by Mirza Waheed

Title: The Collaborator
Author: Mirza Waheed
Publisher: Penguin India
Price: Rs. 499
Pages: 304

It was the cover that drew me in – the lone man standing on a tall wall, looking at a ring of magnificent hills. His head hangs, though, and while the image leaves one with the impression of something yearned for, there is only barren land on the other side, as if to mock the adage about grass being greener. What cinched the buy was an endorsement from Nadeem Aslam, that man who describes such horror in such lyrical prose.

The Collaborator begins with promise. One of Mirza Waheed’s strengths is his ability to convey the sense rather than the scene – he plays with language, and pulls us into the world of a boy slowly losing his mind to a hyperactive imagination. We see the visions he’s haunted by, we recoil at the smells he dreads.
The story is told by a protagonist who doesn’t truly belong anywhere, not even to Kashmir – he’s from the nomadic Gujjar community, but he grew up in a village where a caravan settled down several decades earlier; he’s seen as less Kashmiri than themselves by Kashmiris.  He doesn’t feel Indian, he doesn’t feel Pakistani, and he doesn’t like either country. That said, there is a tilt towards Pakistan, with references to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir as “Azad Kashmir”, notwithstanding the puppet government installed in that region.
Swinging between the present and the past, the boy, sometimes dreamily, sometimes wistfully, sometimes starkly, conjures up a history that no one seems to truly understand. We see his bewilderment at the gradual Islamisation of a village that couldn’t care less about religion. The mullahs came, the heroes came, the soldiers came.
The heroes are boys trying to be men – all dressed up, as if they were going off to a Great War, as if they were already envisioning their triumphant reception in a land freed with the help of altruistic militants, who would then go back to their caves in Pakistan. They sport the sunglasses, the fake branded clothing and footwear, the jeans, the guns.
The book wears a patina of neutrality for some time, looking at the other side too – the trauma of the parents and sisters, the interrogation of the brothers, that the heroes left behind. One gets the impression no one can be good here. It’s a land where fathers send sons out to war and glory the prospect of their deaths, where the militants mutilate people on suspicion, and soldiers torture people on suspicion.
You expect a book that drives at authenticity, that prides itself on being a voice from the ground, to have its research right. Which is why it jars when an Army man with the designation ‘Captain’ is referred to as the Commanding Officer of a special camp. And the tone of the book changes when he begins to rant about what the Army does with the boy-soldiers, and the young men, they shoot or catch; at what they do to civilians to meet the numbers the government wants. All of this – except the error with rank – may be acceptable in a work of fiction; but there is a clash when fantasy masquerades as reality. This appears to affect the author’s style too, and Waheed perhaps puts in more explanation than necessary, which disrupts the texture of the novel.
Where he is restrained, the writing is powerful. One particular chapter, titled The Milk Beggars, is so vividly written one can see the “milk beggars”, and hear their fatigued, desperate chorus. At times, though, the writing swings in a rather disorientating manner between subtlety and drama.
The story goes beyond the ‘Kashmir question’. The narrator mulls over being the one left behind – the one who didn’t go, the one whom people expect to go next, the one whose friends didn’t want him along. What does it feel like to be the only one left behind, and not know why? How does one find peace in that situation? Poring over every possibility? Coming up with imagined reasons? Living out arguments with his friends in his head? Dreaming of joining them someday? The mixed flavours of betrayal, of self-doubt, of anger, of sorrow, of loneliness are masterfully described.
One of the things I like about the book is the way in which it dwells on the power of music – the bonds it forges, the memories it brings back, the things we associate a song with, and the effect it has on us when a person we don’t like shares our love for a particular song.
But I find the manner in which the book treats religion rather disconcerting, especially the equation of India with Hinduism, and of all things bad or evil or cruel with Hinduism. It would be understandable for the narrator to do this if there were some indication of his being a bigot, or being indoctrinated, or even raised to believe certain things; or better, if we could sense a slow shift in his beliefs that prompted him to embrace a more rigorous interpretation of Islam, to be won over to a “side” in a Pyrrhic war. However, when the narrator is portrayed as an educated boy, and more importantly, as a reasonable young man who understands the pathos and pointlessness of both “sides”, who is as vehement in his anger at Pakistan as at India, it makes the writing appear agenda-driven when “garish musical devotion” (to refer to mantras) is contrasted with “sonorous azan”.
While discussing Partition – and Kashmir – one cannot really separate religion from politics. However, a person whose writing is so nuanced in describing the events centred on the building of a mosque in the village, one thinks, should surely be able to apply a similar filter and avoid stereotyping Hindus – and the Army. Are no Muslim soldiers posted in Kashmir? Do all Hindu soldiers posted in Kashmir subscribe to a set of rituals? Would sadhus be flown in to accommodate the whims of a Commanding Officer in a camp in Kashmir? This rather generous tinge of what borders on religious chauvinism takes away from the potency of an otherwise captivating closing chapter. 
When the book starts out, and later in sections, there appears to be a resolve not to play to the gallery. But when the gallery is as large as it is, perhaps that’s a little hard to resist.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

When Romance goes Bust

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 26 August 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Farah Khan, Boman Irani, Daisy Irani, Shammi
Director: Bela Bhansali Sehgal
Rating: 3.5 stars
When a 45-year-old lingerie salesman meets a 40-year-old 36B, chances are that he can’t do much about furthering the count of his dwindling Parsi community. But he may, perhaps, get laid. And that’s the kind of thinking that gets him into a soup – only, the thinking is done by the bossy 36B.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s sister makes her way from the editing suite to the director’s chair for the first time – a debut that may have been as overdue as Farah Khan’s shift to the other side of the camera.
Farhad (Boman Irani) has seen the underclothes of many women – but never on them. Blame it on the ladies in his life – his domineering mother (Daisy Irani) and adoring grandmother (Shammi). As they consign themselves to a life without progeny, Farhad persists – putting up matrimonial ads that are designed for younger folk to cackle about.
When Shirin (Farah Khan), Secretary of the Parsi Trust, decides she needs some support, she gets a lot more than she bargained for. As a courtship unfolds, we’re invited into the private lives of Mumbai’s Parsi community – yes, we can tick the stereotypes off a checklist, but thanks to the lead actors, we get our laughs.
For a story whose premise is so original – when was the last time a romance was sparked off by distended abdomens, or threatened by a demolished water tank? – the plot is surprisingly flat. It hinges on its novelty in dabbling in mature love, and on the ability of its actors to pull off slapstick humour (of which there’s a tad too much).
The cast is fully capable of carrying off a film without much flesh, in a manner of speaking. There’s something endearing about Boman Irani’s portrayal of Farhad – his attempts to woo are as funny as they’re inept. Yet, he gets us thinking about what we’d do if the love we longed for 15 years ago were to turn up just as we’ve resigned ourselves to singledom.
Farah Khan as the officious, temperamental Shirin, strikes a chord in this over-the-top film. Though it’s loaded with in-jokes, what with Farah’s real-life aunt playing her antagonistic mother-in-law-to-be, the movie is engaging because of its fine cast. There are some incredibly cute scenes and, like all good rom-coms, it may leave you feeling just a bit sentimental.
The Verdict: Though banal at times, Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi is a mostly enjoyable film that has its audience rooting for a couple that does the most age-inappropriate things.

Where the Eighties Come Alive

(Published in The Sunday Guardian on 26 August 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Liam Hemsworth, and others
Director: Simon West
Rating: 3 stars
Let’s be honest. If you were a girl born in the Seventies or Eighties, there were some men you wanted to marry – Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood, Mickey Rourke (before he did whatever he did to that face). And if you were a boy born in the Seventies or Eighties, there were some men you thought girls wanted to marry – Rocky (wait, what’s his real name, yes, Sylvester Stallone), Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris. These two groups form the cast of The Expendables series.
Well, them and Jason Statham. And Liam Hemsworth – you do wonder what he’s doing in this film, until he bows out with premature retirement and its consequences. Obviously, you’re not looking for a plot. You’re here to have fun...and fantasise about how some of these men looked when they had more hair and less muscle. Sigh. Fine, I’m only thinking of Bruce Willis now.
True, the script is awful, and the dialogue worse. But these are the men whom we loved for mouthing terrible lines when we didn’t know any better. Remember the Nineties, when we thought high side ponytails, scrunchies and knotted shirts were cool? On the plus side, Chuck Norris makes Chuck Norris jokes. Terminator parodies himself till Bruce Willis snaps, “You've been back enough.” Hell, they even joke about male pattern baldness.
To be honest, I spent a long time wondering if the whole movie was a spoof – I mean, surely we don’t have that much blood in our bodies? And how come an entire armoury’s lying abandoned just when they need it? And how do they find a village that hates the villain, Vilain (Van Damme)? Was that too alliterative? Jeez, was yet another head lopped off? Why am I looking for logic in an action movie partly scripted by Sylvester Stallone?
The fact that most of the film’s ensemble cast is in its 50s and 60s necessitates that most of the stunts be shot in the dark. But let’s focus on the positives. Where else would you see Jason Statham and Stallone coordinate their outfits and accessories? Or Schwarzenegger discuss grades of plutonium in a dreamily contemplative tone?
The story? Well, a kid wants to retire. A Chinese businessman needs rescue. Inevitably, these two strands lead us to a villain who wants to destroy the world. Of course, there’s a chick. Of course, she’s Chinese. That’s what you go with if you need someone who can do coding and break necks.
The Verdict: How can you miss a movie where Stallone is called ‘Barney’, and Willis and Schwarzenegger share a cosy car?

Where Size Matters and Age Doesn't

(Published in The New Sunday Express, on 26 August 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Farah Khan, Boman Irani, Daisy Irani, Shammi
Director: Bela Bhansali Sehgal
Rating: 3.5 stars
Very few men could get away with staring at a woman’s chest before opening the conversation. Farhad Pastakia (Boman Irani) can. Better still, women approve of the accuracy of his eye. Until Shirin Fugawala (Farah Khan) walks into his lingerie store. Now, Farhad has never been able to woo a woman. And that doesn’t change when Shirin walks into his store. However, that gives us plenty of grins and fun over the next hour or so, thanks to Boman Irani’s entirely believable portrayal.
 A 45-year-old man who lives with his overbearing Mummy, Nargis (Daisy Irani), and grandmother (Shammi), and sells bras and panties for a living, is unlikely to fit anyone’s vision of an ideal bridegroom. Worse, he insists on being honest about both his age and profession, to Nargis’ despair. Her attempts to correct his penchant for telling the truth make for some hilarious scenes. Both Iranis can carry off slapstick without making the audience want to groan, and that’s one of the biggest pluses in this film.
Because of some formidable acting, the clichés are tolerable. For instance, the constant demand for “good news” from relatives. And the stereotypes of Parsi eccentrics – the Miser, the Drunk, the Letter-Writer, and the Matriarch. There are times when the film gets a little too over-the-top – we’re not asking romantic comedies to be faithful to reality, but surely a discussion over supplying a watchman with hand-grenades is a bit of a stretch?
But that doesn’t take too much away from a film that’s enjoyable mostly because of how much it makes us smile. Irani excels as the shy bachelor, who is hesitant to make the moves on the woman he has a crush on. Farah Khan, in her acting debut, fits the role of the bossy Secretary of the Parsi Trust. And the love story focuses on the tender moments in the relationship – the first hug, the botched attempts at kissing, and the apprehensions that accompany the realisation that this could be The Real Thing.
Lines like, “I can really talk to you” find a foil in the spoofs of Bollywood songs. And the lead pair is complemented by the smaller characters. Daisy Irani, always a wonderful actress, excels in her role as the woman who will take on the entire Association to keep an illegal water-tank. Shammi looks every bit the doting grandmother whose little boy can do no wrong. And the characters who populate the Parsi community in the film endear themselves to us.
The Verdict: With just enough sentiment, and maybe a little too much slapstrick, Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi, makes for a pleasant enough weekend watch.

A Very Loud Blast from the Past

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on 25 August, 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Liam Hemsworth, and Nan Yu.
Director: Simon West
Rating: 3 stars
Maybe it was the publicity stills – that The Last Supper like pose; maybe it was the trailers – you know, the one with the plane crash and the tank rolling and the car zipping and the gunshots; maybe it was the fact that some of these people have kids who have kids who’re nearly my age; maybe it was the first Expendables movie. But I kinda sorta knew The Expendables 2 wouldn’t be a great film. And I kinda sorta knew I would probably like it more than I expected to.
I should be embarrassed to admit I had fun in a movie that prides itself on lines such as, “I now pronounce you man and knife”. But it’s worth your time, even when the script is co-written by Sylvester Stallone, to watch a flick where all these action heroes – or their body doubles – zoom across ropeways in single file.
This is the philosophy of the film: Blow things up, check. Carry big guns, check. Kill lots of people, check. Make fun of the bad-boy lines you made famous, check. Look beefy and dangerous when you’re in the 50-70 age range, check.
CIA Agent Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) wants payback from Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), in return for not locking him up in a dingy little hole. So, Ross and his band of mercenaries go on a mission to rescue a Chinese businessman – or so they think. Next thing you know, someone’s dead, and the Expendables are on a manhunt to “Track ’em, find ’em, kill ’em”, as the camera zooms in on determined faces.
If you’ve caught The Expendables, you know this crop has names that include Yin Yang (Jet Li), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), and Toll Road (Randy Couture). The plot of the sequel must have been even easier to cook up than those names. As must have been the name of the villain – Vilain (Van Damme).
Other attractions are: (a) the music – that to which Chuck Norris arrives, that to which gunshots are fired, and that to which the multiple vehicle chases and crashes are choreographed (b) The final showdown, which action movie heroes in their 30s and 40s have been salivating in anticipation of for decades (c) Waterwalls that can take down entire armies (d) Puns of the ilk of: “My big weapon is hanging right where it is.” (e) Rumours that Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood, Steven Seagal, and Nicolas Cage will star in the third edition.
The Verdict: When the director of Con Air makes an action film with an ensemble cast drawn from the 1980s, you know it’s going to be an hour and a half of guilty pleasure.

Good job, India, join your neighbours in paranoia!

(Published in, on 23 August 2012, retrieved from

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

First it was a ban on bulk texts. Which suited everyone who is allergic to being solicited to buy insurance, mobile internet, washing machines, degrees and credit, among other things, just fine. And then, we discovered that, according to the Indian government and our mobile service providers, sending more than five texts a day would count as “bulk”.
As our country went on to ban websites, ostensibly to prevent the “spread of panic”, blog posts began to turn up about how one could circumvent the ban. For a chilling moment, I was reminded of Pakistan’s ban on encrypted software used in VPN (Virtual Private Networks) in 2011. This basically meant the government could snoop into private emails and browsing data.
And as Twitter accounts get blocked, one wonders how far away we are from having access to Facebook “temporarily disbanded” – as was done in Pakistan, in 2010, when a row broke out over a contest calling for caricatures of Prophet Muhammad, on the grounds that it was “blasphemous”.
India has already clamped down on cartoons in forums ranging from textbooks to social networking sites, because in this country, we’re prone to blaspheming against those who’ve been anointed holier than the gods – our “political leaders”. And so we have “popularly elected” dictators of the ilk of Mamata Banerjee, who contrives to see red all over a city painted blue.
What can one say in defence of democracy in a country where committees are poring over CBSE political science textbooks, to weed out cartoons that are deemed offensive decades after they appeared in widely-circulated newspapers?
And what can one say in defence of freedom of expression, when personal Twitter accounts get blocked for voicing disapproval of the draconian measures they themselves are falling victim to?
Finally, India has something in common with the two countries it has warred with multiple times since Independence – intolerance of its own people and their opinions.
It appears that, like most things, our government has taken the Three Wise Monkeys maxim literally – if someone has an annoying voice, silence him; if something is going on that you don’t like – let’s say, farmer suicides, inflation, crime – close your eyes, and it will go away; if someone whom you haven’t yet blocked tells you you’re wrong, shut your ears till you do block him.
We have a long history of banning books and films that anyone – especially anyone who could potentially move a vote bank – has a problem with. And now, we’ve joined our neighbours across the borders on both sides, by gagging sections of the mass media.
Are we really expected to believe that all of this has to do with the mystifying exodus of people of North-Eastern origin, from metropolises across the country? Can we even be sure that this exodus has been triggered simply by hate websites and morphed images?
Surely, there must be a deeper insecurity, a sense of constant threat, maybe even prior experience of prejudice, in order to provoke people across socioeconomic classes to pack up their things and leave cities they have lived in for years, not sure whether they will ever return?
In that case, shouldn’t we be looking for the root cause of the problem, rather than shooting down communication systems one after the other?
When the ban on bulk texts came into force, I wasn’t particularly perturbed – sometimes, I thought, a drastic clampdown may be justified in order to push back the panic.
But as the ban creeps into more and more mechanisms, one wonders why we must pay with our right to speech for the incompetence of the people we have put in charge. Don’t they realise that, with every fresh knee-jerk reaction, they’re cutting off essential services that they themselves have earlier praised for helping organise relief at times of emergency and crisis?
If this is the direction our “democracy” is going to take, the government might as well make another Amendment to the Constitution, and alter Article 19(a) to include the statute that every citizen of India has a right to the freedom of speech when permitted by the government. What better way to honour that patriarch of the neo-Gandhi parivaar, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his slogan Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Djinns of Eidgah: A Powerful Performance

Cast: Rajit Kapur, Faezeh Jalali, Karan Pandit, Ali Fazal, Neil Bhoopalam, Ashwin Mushran, Meher Acharia-Dar
Director: Richard Twyman
Playwright: Abhishek Majumdar
There’s something hypnotic about the note that introduces The Djinns of Eidgah, written by Abhishek Majumdar (winner of the Metro Plus Playwright Award 2008) and performed by Rage Productions:
A boy picks up a football
A doctor picks up a toy
A girl picks up a story
A boy picks up a shoe
A soldier picks up his gun
A boy picks up a stone
A vulture picks up a bone
A Djinn picks up from where he left off...
The thing with stories about Kashmir is, they’re easy to sell, but hard to pull off. Most people know something about Kashmir, and the ones who know a little more think they know everything about Kashmir. Worse, the ones who know nothing about Kashmir have a stronger opinion than most others. I’m not quite sure where I stand, but if you’ve been a journalist in Delhi, chances are that you’ve heard several perspectives on Kashmir – that of the privileged Kashmiri who writes books and columns, that of the Army, that of the Indian journalist who had visited Kashmir, that of the Pakistani journalist who wants to save Kashmir, and many more.
Abhishek Majumdar’s story focuses on four people – a psychiatrist, whose jihadi son lost his life to an enemy he didn’t see coming; a 14-year-old girl, who has lost her mind after witnessing the murder of her father; her brother, who dreams of winning a scholarship to play football in Brazil; a soldier, whose punishment posting could drive him mad. The characters are a mix of the stereotypes, the moderates and the realistic. There’s a soldier who prays to Lord Hanuman, complete with puja bells. There’s a soldier who advises him to keep his religion to himself, who finds it in himself to wave to a child who’s broken the curfew. There’s a doctor who’s thrilled that her eight-year-old son could scream Azaadi, looking straight at the ‘Indian’ soldiers; there’s a doctor who believes Kashmiris must “talk to the ‘Indians’”. There’s a man who recruits stone throwers. There’s a boy who would rather take care of his sister while she trembles to the sound of bullets and screams.
When one is somewhat familiar with the Kashmir narrative, it’s easy to guess the trajectory of the play. You know there will be a twist, where someone turns into someone else; you know whom the climactic scene is likely to take place among; you know there will be a conversation about Indianness and perhaps the centrality of Devanagari to it; you know the debate about religion will come into this; you kinda know who will die too.
So, the onus is on the production to make the play hit hard, and this Richard Twyman and his team do quite wonderfully. The dreamscape of the play is established through a curtain of translucent beads, which is utilised in various ways to achieve different ends – sometimes, it is the divider between house and field, indoors and outdoors; at others, between reality and imagination; at others, between interlocutors, both facing the audience. And this leaves us with vignettes that haunt us – a girl waving at what she believes to be a “happy djinn”, unaware that she could have been shot an instant earlier; of a boy trapped in an “in-between place”; of someone crossing a boundary he has created.
If the sound design, with its carefully chosen music and significant silences, gives us gooseflesh, and startles us into empathy, the lighting design makes us see things – bodies without feet; a boy writhing, stuck in molten plastic; a crowd of frenzied stone throwers.
There were some discordant notes – the dialogues felt written, rather than spoken, for the most part. In that context, a lot of credit must go to all the actors, especially Faezeh Jalali, who instantly won over the audience when she made her entry as Ashrafi, carrying her djinn-possessed-doll, Hafiz. All the actors, for that matter, were completely believable as the characters they played. Rajit Kapur, as usual, takes his lines as if he were making them up on stage.  Karan Pandit, who plays Bilal (and unless I’m mistaken, was performing in another play in the same festival the next day), endears the character to the audience, and makes us relate to his selfishness. The scenes between Neil Bhoopalam and Ashwin Mushran, which provide most of the little comic relief in the play, went off well. Meher Acharia-Dar looks every part the self-righteous young Azaadi seeker, who doesn’t see why Kashmiris should negotiate with ‘Indians’. Ali Fazal, in a double-role, stands out for his body language, and for the haunting whisper in which he recites a verse of the Quran
There were also a couple of distracting factual anomalies in the script. The soldiers appear to be jawans, but refer to themselves as “officers”. While some lines and phrases were potent in their conciseness, others bordered on banal. A case in point is a particular ploy, which both the script and direction must have conceived together – that juncture of the story when the djinn in Ashrafi’s mind possesses a human being who will act out her desires. I felt the scene, which was brilliantly executed, may have been more effective if the dialogue had been more restrained. We’ve already understood what it says.
There is one particular turn I didn’t see coming, one which seems to brings home the idea that there is no good and no bad, or that everyone’s equally bad, in Kashmir. I can’t recall the last time I saw a violent play so realistically performed – the audience winced, ducked and jumped, especially during one scene of torment (not torture) and humiliation.
The play maintains its high intensity throughout, which may have prompted the audience to laugh at lines that were sinister, not funny. But I did think a play of this kind, with this subject, needed the intensity, and didn’t mind that my nerves were fried at the end.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A tepid attempt to thrill

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 19 August 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Henry Cavill, Bruce Willis, Sigourney Weaver, Roschdy Zem and others
Director: Mabrouk El Mechri
Rating: ½ star
Let’s say Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, some NGO that campaigns against using mobile phones while driving, and the Spanish Tourism Ministry were to collaborate on a movie. They’d likely make The Cold Light of Day. In other words, Israelis are bad. The CIA is bad. Most Americans are bad. They cheat on their wives. They don’t look after the honour of their women. They let chicks sunbathe in bikinis. And they come to Spain on holiday. Oh, look at all the lovely architecture!
Yes, that’s basically the plot of The Cold Light of Day, if you cut out all the chases, the torture sequences, and a series of hard-to-follow accents, most of which are fake – including that of poor Henry Cavill, who must switch from being a Tudor to being a California boy. And a whole lot of sub-plots that involve double-crossing and woman power.
No one should have to see films that deal with the CIA, Mossad, ISI and RAW over a single weekend. So, you’ll understand when I say I thanked God for small mercies when there was no CIA-Mossad romance in here. In fact, there’s no romance at all. How did that happen? Well, there’s a random twist in the plot that would make it rather repugnant.
To Henry Cavill’s credit, he manages to look equally dishy when he’s walking jet-lagged out of an airport, speaking agitatedly on the phone, and getting tortured. He plays Will Shaw, the son of Martin (Bruce Willis) and Laurie (Caroline Goodall). The family appears to be celebrating on a sailboat, because his seemingly geeky brother finally got himself a girl.
And then, it all goes wrong. Someone uses a mobile phone. Enter the Israelis, headed by Zahir (Roschdy Zem), who makes a feeble attempt to prove he has feelings too, before tying Will to a chair and doing bad things to him. Enter the hot-headed chicks, Jean (Sigourney Weaver) and Lucia (Verónica Echegui). Goodbye, logic.
Verdict: The best things about the film are Bruce Willis and Henry Cavill talking tough. That is, if you’re into hot, powerful men.

RAW-ISI, Bhai Bhai

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 19 August, 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif, Girish Karnad, Ranvir Shorey
Director: Kabir Khan
Rating: ½ star
So, is Ek Tha Tiger really not jingoistic?
Abeyaar, it’s the opposite. Its central theme is: Aren’t ISI and RAW agents human beings too? Shouldn’t they be allowed to fall in love? With each other?
Whaa? How? I mean, like, you gift each other state secrets on birthdays and stuff?
Probably. We’re supposed to find it ironic that RAW and ISI work together on hindering this particular romance. Between Tiger and Zoya. Before you ask, Salman’s Tiger – goes by Manish Chandra, writer. His real name’s Avinash Singh Rathore. Zoya Jung could be either Katrina’s real or fake name. I’m not sure whether she’s a hooker, mistress, maid, dog-trainer or student.
Okay...what sort of accent does Salman have in the film?
It’s poor Kat who’s got the schizophrenic accent. Salman speaks Turkish and Earnest. She knows Spanish, and sounds like a Londoner, New Yorker, Creole and Mumbaiyya at different times.
So the action happens in Turkey?
Well, no one gets any action. The closest is a near lip-lock. Katrina even spends some time in a burqa. She makes up for it in this songMashallah, where she’s thrashing about the ground and arching her back and all that. Housewives letch at Tiger in Delhi. Tiger doodh peeta hai. A milkman pours it into a vessel. No Mother Dairy for him.
I meant, action sequences.
Well, there’s a lot of vehicular damage in Dublin. Tomatoes splatter and pottery breaks in Iraq. Someone looks disgusted when Tiger and Zoya dance in Turkey. Cars crash in Cuba. They fly planes, strangle people, hang people, scare chickens etcetera. Oh, there’s some bhabhi sentiment thrown in.
So, basically, it’s got RAW and ISI abandoning all else to track these two down?
Spending tons of money too. I don’t know why they bother, because Tiger and Zoya are so dumb, they’d probably put up pictures on Facebook and do Foursquare checks-in.
Does Salman take off his shirt?
Duh. He also dresses up as The Afghan Girl, and goes tobogganing on a table.
What’s poor Girish Karnad doing in this film?
Trying to keep a straight face when he says things like, “Only India has the technology to divert missiles Pakistan fires at us right back to Pakistan.”
*Splutter* Any *gulp* hint at a sequel?
Well, there could be a homosexual spinoff starring Ranvir Shorey.
So, what’s the verdict?
There will never again be a film that’s simultaneously offensive to Muslims, Rajputs, South Indians, Cubans, tigers, RAW, ISI, physics, geography, history, doctors and pugs, Alhamdz.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Why mobile phones could kill you

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on 18 August 2012,

Cast: Henry Cavill, Bruce Willis, Sigourney Weaver, Verónica Echegui, Roschdy Zem and others
Director: Mabrouk El Mechri
Rating: 1 star
You know these road signs put up by our friendly traffic police that tell you using mobile phones while driving is dangerous? Spain should have those. In the sea. Because the plot of this entire film revolves around Will Shaw’s (Henry Cavill’s) obsession with his mobile phone. That is, until his father Martin (Bruce Willis) flings it into the sea.
Wait, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Will, who seems to be disillusioned with life and his livelihood, lands up at a family get-together in Spain. Why Spain? Because his Papa has a government job. This apparently pays well enough to take his entire family, including less-attractive-son’s pretty girlfriend out to sea on a sailboat. But not enough to conduct timely repairs on the boat.
Now, because Will is obsessed with his phone, and has been on it since the previous evening, he pays more attention to texting than steering, when Martin asks him to look after the boat so that Martin himself is free to climb a pole. Why you would climb a pole when you have three younger people on board who can do it, I don’t know.
Naturally, when the camera focuses by turns on the wheel, the mobile phone, and the sunbathing bikini-clad girlfriend, you know there’s going to be an accident. When it happens, for some reason, it is deemed right that someone from the family should swim to the shore to fetch a doctor, who I assume, would swim along too.
What unfolds over the next hour or so will convince you of the following:
  • Women with foreign accents are usually nice
  • Men with foreign accents are usually agents
  • Secretive men are usually agents
  • There’s no such thing as a well-paying government job
  • Not everything is as simple as it looks
  • When you’ve got your family into too much crap, you’re best off dying before your wife can divorce you
  • CIA jobs are hereditary

Like all good Americans, Will Shaw heads to the embassy when he needs help. Like all nasty Americans, the folks at the embassy refuse to help him. Like all good partners, Jean Carrick (Sigourney Weaver) materialises. Like all hot women, Lucia Caldera (Verónica Echegui) materialises.
Unknown director Mabrouk El Mechri then brings in bad Israelis, symbolised by Zahir (Roschdy Zem). The name reminded me of Paulo Coelho, which didn’t do the film or the character any favours. The long chase sequences then serve as a tour of Madrid, before the film teeters to a predictably soppy end.
The Verdict: Unless you’re against mobile phones, sailboats and logic, don’t bother watching this.

An insult to Intelligence

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on 18 August, 2012)

Cast: Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif, Girish Karnad, Ranvir Shorey
Director: Kabir Khan
Rating: 1 star
If you went to a CBSE school, you’ll remember this story by Keki N Daruwalla called Love Across the Salt Desert. You may remember something about “a smear of Kutchi added and a little of Sindhi sandpapered away”. And a camel called Allahrakha. The whole thing may have put you off love for the next ten years, across a salt desert or not. Just as you’re beginning to forget that story, along comes another that is set in the same agency Daruwalla himself retired from – RAW. Worse, it stars Salman Khan.
Yes, Tiger (Salman Khan) wonders, as he hops from mission to mission, killing to killing, and aunty to aunty, whether he is allowed to fall in love. He is encouraged by Shenoy Sir (Girish Karnad), who confesses over dal that he didn’t have an arranged marriage because, “jawani mein shayar thha” and poets fall in love. Why the barely coherent Tiger, whose biggest grouse is that he can’t answer the question, Tum karta kya hai?,  would interpret that as advice to fall in love, I don’t know.
However, before this heart-to-heart happens, we’ve met Tiger in Iraq, where he materialises behind a shower of cigarette butts, one eye cruelly narrowed as some token Hindu or Sikh bad-boy is exposed as an agent. A short ultimatum is drawn out in slow-mo, and followed by a long chase, with suitably dramatic music and plenty of vegetable carts waiting handily to be upset.
This film is different, though. For one, the top guy in RAW is not a South Indian, though he’s played by one. Secondly, the mission is not to steal a laptop that has all the evidence and information required to indict someone as a spy, and save the nation. No, Tiger and Gopi (Ranvir Shorey) must simply observe a mad scientist – his involvement in espionage is supposedly indicated by his chatting with students of various races.  Of course, the agents instead observe “the only woman with access to his house” – Zoya (Katrina Kaif).
Somewhere between observing shooting stars, damaging public property across the world, killing about ten people, and double-crossing several parties, Zoya and Tiger fall in love. And thus unfolds a miserable story with boring chases, terrible jokes and maudlin dialogue that makes us wish one of the guns trained on the camera could put an end to our misery.
As Salman searches for excuses to show off his new hairline and old pecs, Katrina searches for opportunities to bare her midriff to hide her lack of grace (this is rather crucial, since she’s masquerading as a choreographer). Oh, did I mention this is love across secret agencies? So, that’s the conflict. That, and the inability of their buddies from their respective Intelligence to shoot them in cold blood. Or the penchant their buddies from Intelligence have for indulging in long chases when a bullet shot to the leg would do the trick.
The Verdict: Right on the back of Jism 2, comes another insult to Intelligence that convinces us RAW would do well to sue Bollywood.

The Green Room: Production lets the script down

Cast: Abhay Manas, Arjun Fauzdar, Keshav Moodliar, Kriti Pant, Shekhar Murugan, Sonam Sharma
Director: Avijit Dutta
Playwright: Aditya Sudarshan
On Friday, Aditya Sudarshan’s The Green Room, winner of the Metro Plus Playwright Award 2011, was staged at the Metro Plus Theatre Festival in Madras. You expect an award-winning play to be good. As it unfolded, I found myself wishing repeatedly that the production had been better. That the lovely lines had found better expression. That each of the characters, so carefully crafted, had been better portrayed.
The first scene treads somewhat familiar territory – an actor’s angst after a performance, while a friend who’s involved in the production tries to relate, empathise, and cheer her up. In this case, the actor is Anamika, a pretty woman who dreamt of being India’s own Vivien Leigh, but is stuck doing Indianised versions of plays set in Manhattan – that makes for a very nice in-joke in an audience largely drawn from theatre. The friend is Malik, a Delhi rich kid – the nouveau riche nice guy who desperately wants to be into art, but isn’t quite made for it. And they’re dating, because she’s the hot chick from college, and he’s the nice guy who waited for her relationship with the cool dude to end.
The play really begins when he leaves. We’re shown little flashes of what Anamika’s dreams were, of how they were thwarted, altered, or encouraged by the people she met. And then, a 23-year-old theatre enthusiast, as idealistic as he is cynical, walks in. He is Feroz – he claims he’s a fan of Anamika’s, she calls him a stalker. In a sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious, sometimes whimsical, sometimes realistic conversation, we’re drawn into a conflict that most of us with a love for the arts, and the accompanying, somewhat grandiose, sense of social consciousness have faced.
In short, the script is brilliant. Many of the lines are delicious. The drama is in the tension between characters. Sadly, this means the play needs very good actors. Actors who make us believe they’re as real as us – a line in the play points out that each of us is self-obsessed to such a degree that we find it hard to believe everyone else is as real as we are. And Yatrik’s production falls short on this count.
The best execution of a role would be that of Malik – the actor’s accent, expression, and body language typified that of a Delhi boy who has the money, but not the sophistication, to live out his dream. His dream is an intelligent woman whom he loves, whom he longs to make a star. His dream is to belong to that elite group of intellectuals, whose elitism stems from their intelligence, exposure, awareness and knowledge, not from money.
The actor who plays Feroz lives his role in bursts of passion – there were times when he carried lines quite wonderfully, but his body language when he made his entry (a series of gestures that appeared to indicate his hands are itching to touch the sleeping Anamika) was at odds with his bent of mind and his apparent class.
The biggest disappointment was the lead actor herself – she looks the part, but fails to strike a chord with the audience. Her dialogues, especially in her interaction with Feroz, are so well-written that it often surprised me to think they were penned by a man – the little things that most women find offensive, like an assumption of familiarity, come through subtly. So does the struggle-of-sorts that most women face when they’re confronted with a choice between the pragmatic and sensible, and the dashing and idealistic paths. The actor took the lines in a whiny tone that made it hard to like Anamika. It didn’t help that she was trying to Indianise an American accent, or less likely, the converse. I found myself wondering how a young Shernaz Patel would have dealt with the character, what life an actor of her calibre could have brought into a role of this sort.
The scene between Feroz and Anamika needs to be calibrated skilfully to be believable. It didn’t quite build up as it should, and I suspect some lines were either forgotten or taken poorly. I did enjoy a little aside on floppy disks – a reminder of the late nineties – and quite moved by the fervour with which the actor playing Feroz took a particularly powerful soliloquy on what theatre can do, and why he believes in it. But the energy falls, and what could have been a charming moment of irony – involving which film the characters remember Vivien Leigh from – falls flat, only drawing a few titters from a section of the audience that didn’t see it coming.
The smaller characters – an ex-boyfriend, a theatre critic and a socialite-type – were abysmal. Honestly, how hard can it be to find three actors with normal accents, who can pronounce ‘boudoir’ correctly?  The problem when people who aren’t comfortable with English do English theatre is: (a) They fake accents (b) They focus so hard on getting the words right that they are unable to emote or pace their lines. This was exacerbated by painfully long gaps between scenes, and several lighting goof-ups.
There are some parts of the play that are something of a stretch – how many stage actors have managers in India, one might ask, for instance. But that’s forgivable in the larger context – when the ‘manager’ is in love with the actor, one might respond. The disillusionment with Delhi’s pettiness doesn’t really ring true for me – because there are many Delhis, and for every housewife who goes to the market next door in her husband’s chauffeured ‘Oddy’, there’s a group of people making politically incorrect jokes in Khan Market; for every girl who scrutinises a man’s family tree before going out on a date with him, there’s a group of bleeding-heart liberals organising protests at JNU; for every man who drops five names a minute, there’s someone fasting for some sententious cause in Jantar Mantar; and most people who shop at South Ex have also eaten at Paranthewali Gali. But there is the Delhi the play speaks of too, and it’s relatable when one sees it as Middle India, rather than Delhi Mentality.
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