Sunday, November 25, 2012

Lee outdoes Martel

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 25 November, 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Rafe Spall
Director: Ang Lee
Rating: 4.5 stars                      
When a film based on a Booker Prize-winning novel makes you wonder whether the book was as exquisite as the movie makes it out to be, it’s hit the mark. When I read Yann Martel’s Life of Pi ten years ago, I found it borderline New Age, and dismissed its literary value in the confidence of my all-knowing teens. My opinion of the book may not be vastly different if I were to read it again, but Ang Lee’s interpretation swept me into the story in a way the book didn’t.
Lee works a new character into the script – the writer who interviews Pi decades after the adventure, whose response to Pi’s narration is more believable than that of the insurance officials who play listeners in the book. The film pares the novel of its self-involved philosophical musings, and puts the remaining in the mouths of two incredibly talented actors – Irrfan Khan and Suraj Sharma.
The eagerness of the director to tell a story, and not simply relay it, is evident in the time he spends on setting the scene. The first half of the film wafts through Pi’s early years, each allusion to daily routine in Pondicherry a masterstroke in creating a vivid portrait of 1970s India. A Murphy Radio relays Emergency-related announcements, the cut of a blouse conveys the era. The crew must have had excellent researchers, because, try as I might, the only aspect of the film I found amiss – aside from the value of pi – was Tabu’s incomprehensible Tamil. The country is saved from Hollywoodsy exotification, thanks to the ironic narrative voice both Khan and Sharma adopt.
The use of 3D in Life of Pi outdoes Hugo, and made me forget Avatar ever happened. The cinematography luxuriates in this completeness, allowing us to delight in the stillness of water, the break of dawn, ripples from a flung can, luminescent plankton in the night sea, the morphing of a picture-story into reality. We’re drawn into the film, witnessing the loneliness of a boy, party to his dilemmas, and sinking into his mind as it progressively tilts toward derangement.
The screenplay is exquisite, staying with Pi as he loses strength and gains fortitude, as wisdom eats away at hope, as the fight to survive overcomes sentimentality. We relate to his “Excuse me” as he wades through clans of meerkats, his anthropomorphic betrayal when a four-legged companion plunges into the jungle without turning back. This isn’t a story about seafaring, exotic zoos and carnivorous islands. It’s a story about life, beautiful, misleading, dangerous, and kind.
The Verdict: Undoubtedly Ang Lee’s best film, Life of Pi is a lesson in cinematic excellence.

Saga of multi-generational incest

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 25 November, 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, Taylor Lautner and others
Director: Bill Condon
Rating: 1 star
The only thing that hurts more than a terrible film that looks terrible is a terrible film that looks beautiful. In Breaking Dawn 2, we’re drawn into the woods where the Cullen coven lives through an amalgam of scenery and body fluids that shows us just how much of a mismatch the limp storyline and the superb camerawork make. We meet Bella Cullen née Swan (Kristen Stewart), whose creepy eyeballs apparently magnify her vision.
Those of us who suffered the misfortune of watching the first edition of this two-part finale to the three-part series that is Twilight know that Bella is a human who was turned into a vampire on the verge of death, courtesy vampire husband Edward (Robert Pattinson). For some reason, she’s now stronger than he is. And we assume he’s supportive of equality for women vampires, because he sports an irritating “awww” look on his face every time Bella drinks blood, wants to hunt, or attacks people or vampires.
Turning into a vampire is also evidently a form of birth control, so now Edward and Bella can go at it without fear of procreating. This makes the version screened at Indian cinemas a deal shorter than that which hit theatres in the rest of the world, I’m told. Thank God for small mercies. When they’re not breaking furniture in the throes of carnal satiation and dashing through forests in pursuit of prey, they drink blood and play piano with a fuzzy joint family that could inspire Kyunki Vampire Bhi Kabhi Aurat Thi.
Their little daughter Reneesme (Mackenzie Foy) is the object of a paedophilic werewolf’s attention, but the werewolf – who once fancied her mother – doubles as her protector, and calls her “Nessie”. This serves as grounds for more rage for Bella, and elicits more “awww” from Edward, but everything goes back to normal with piano and blood. Till Irina (Maggie Grace) rats them out to the Volturi, headed by Aro (Michael Sheen).
What follows is a nauseating mix of more vampire romance, cringe-inducing dialogue, and a climax that’s let down by a twist. Here’s how the battle scene plays out. Think of any Indian movie from the Seventies. Replace Maa with Carlisle Cullen (Peter Facinelli). Bingo. The filmmakers highlight their obliviousness to all things believable by taking us to an Egypt that has Devanagari signboards.
The Verdict: The haunting music of Alexandre Desplat, the brilliant performance of Michael Sheen, and the gorgeous landscape are out of place in this travesty of fantasy.

Lyrical portrayal of a crazy adventure

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on 24 November, 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Rafe Spall, Gérard Depardieu
Director: Ang Lee
Rating: 4.5 stars
Life of Pi opens to Bombay Jayashri’s voice lilting a lullaby, as the camera follows a collection of the most exotic animals that shared screen space outside of National Geographic. This farm, we know, is so impossible in Pondicherry that, already, even before we hear of Francis Mamaji who was born with a wide chest and skinny legs, we’ve been brought to the edge of magic realism.
This is the story of a boy delivered by a herpetologist, named after a Parisian swimming pool, introduced to a trinity of religious trinities, and left adrift with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a tiger in the middle of the Pacific ocean. We meet the boy when he’s in his fifties, making wisecracks about the guilt “Catholic Hindus” carry around, as he tells his tale to an author (Rafe Spall) seeking fellowship in the wake of a novel that “sputtered, coughed and died”.
The character of the writer is presumably taken from Yann Martel’s Acknowledgments in the novel, where he mentions India being a cheaper place to live in than Portugal. And the film finds its voice through juxtaposition of the past with the present, given coherence by the narrative of the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan). The tones of the colour palette change as we move from the sixties to the seventies to the millennium, from Pondicherry to the high seas to Montreal.
I can’t recall when a more beautiful film was made based on a brooding fantasy novel. And this one is arguably better than the book, because it builds on it. Here, we don’t see just one aspect of the life of Pi, but his whole life – his family, his first love, his philosophical preoccupations, his adventure, his guilt, his sorrow, his new life. In the poetic fluidity of the film, the allegory of life and devotion that is the premise of the book draws us in. It isn’t cloying, it’s heartbreaking. It isn’t optimistic, it’s incidental. This isn’t an adventure, it’s life.
Somehow, Ang Lee makes us laugh far more often than the script warrants. Sometimes, it’s the genius of lines like, “Thank you, Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ”. Sometimes, it’s the timing of as simple a word as “idiot”. Sometimes, it’s a manual for survival that suggests “community singing” as a way to keep one’s hopes up. Most often, it’s the seamless manner in which the screenplay guides the actors, so that every coincidence irrationally pushes the story further into the realm of credibility. Among my favourite scenes is that of the family’s reaction to Pi’s search for religion. Another is the manner in which Piscine changes his name to ‘Pi’, convincing his schoolmates of it – though that’s slightly marred by his getting the value of pi wrong.
Even in his small role, Adil Hussain, playing a polio-afflicted zoo owner, shows us what a fine actor he is. And Tabu, except for the atrocious Tamil she speaks (seriously, why not dub?), is a decent fit. But the revelation in the film is young Suraj Sharma, who outshines Irrfan Khan, to make our memory of the teenage Pi more abiding than that of the adult Pi. He never hams, even when he has to do the most ridiculous things.
With a script that is so restrained, the overwhelming beauty of the film truly touches the audience. The graphics are so well done we can rarely make out how much of it is CGI.
The Verdict: Life of Pi is a mesmerising master class in storytelling.

Where vampires and werewolves eat our heads

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on 24 November, 2012)

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, Taylor Lautner, Mackenzie Foy, Michael Sheen, Dakota Fanning, Maggie Grace, Ashley Greene, Peter Facinelli
Director: Bill Condon
Rating: 2 stars
It’s already been a whole year since we last saw vampires making out. Apparently, Breaking Dawn 2 ends the shimmering-vampire-romance that The Twilight Saga was, and leaves us in the happy glow of fireplaces at which covens will raise toasts with animal blood.
Right, so it opens to Bella Cullen (Kristen Stewart) staying in isolation, having acquired supernatural strength, which Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) ingeniously deduces as a symptom of her “need to hunt”. As she chases after deer, hikers, and aggressive carnivores, the Cullen family is somewhat nervous she’ll eat her own daughter – and her own father. Thankfully, getting in her way is werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), who intends to marry an infant when it’s old enough. It helps his case that the infant’s father warmly grins in response to Jacob’s offer to call him “Dad”.
All right, now, if you’re grossed out, there’s enough of the saccharine in the film to make you diabetic. Apparently, the Volturi, headed by Aro (Michael Sheen) are looking for an excuse to attack the Cullens. It’s a complicated plan to recruit vampires with magical powers. Yes, take a moment to roll your eyes. The Cullens scour the world for “Witnesses”, who can testify that the child of Bella and Edward, Reneesme (Mackenzie Foy) is not an “immortal child”, created by a vampire bite; she was born this way.
Now, for the Witnesses. There are two Amazonian vampires who can hypnotise people, three Egyptian vampires of whom one can control the elements, one unfriendly Irishman, one flirtatious American Patriot who promises to follow his mate anywhere, and an assorted number of red-eyed bloodsuckers who seem to be celibate.
Of course, the gathering of Witnesses is yet another elaborate set-up for more romance. Sunlight and snowflakes appear on cue, and when vampires are bored, they either do a fist wrestle Battle-of-the-Sexes, or light bonfires and tell stories of old wars. Mating calls take the shape of electric shocks. Normal life involves driving Nissans and teaching teenage werewolves how to control their “urges”. Don’t ask.
If the characters were any less stupid, they’d have figured out a vague note is a clue before the Interval. But no, we must live through a slow – and unnecessary – subplot. The plotline is only outdone in its insipidity by the dialogue. Sample this line, spoken to some of the most beautiful music that has enlivened the screen: “My time as a human was over, but I’d never felt more alive; I was born to be a vampire.”
The climactic battle is the high point of a painful film – largely because you get to witness the death of vampires you wanted to kill yourself – but then, there’s a twist, and for some reason, the promise of more romance as a muscular half-vampire from Brazil lands up, half-naked.
The Verdict: Breaking Dawn 2 leaves you praying that the sequel it appears to hint at won’t materialise.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Over the top and over the hill

(Published in The Friday Times, Lahore, on 23 November, 2012, retrieved from

Picture Courtesy: The Friday Times

Cast: Ajay Devgn, Sanjay Dutt, Sonakshi Sinha, Juhi Chawla, Vindoo Dara Singh, Mukul Dev, Tanuja
Director: Ashwni Dhir
Rating: 1 star
You know how, sometimes, you make yourself a steaming cup of tea, know you’ve strained it with just the right amount of adrak, sip it and taste salt instead of sugar? If you watch Son of Sardar, chances are that this exact expression will remain on your face for over two hours. Except for turbans that seem to be tied better than Akshay Kumar’s in Singh is Kingg, and the mandatory chant of Wahe Guru, there’s practically nothing remotely Sikh in this film. Yes, there’s a ton of Punjabi. And there’s an oft-repeated line that goes, “Sardar par joke mat karna, aur Sardar ko joker nahin samajhna”, and which strikes one as increasingly ironic as the film plays out.
Surely, it’s about time the censor board brought in a rule that said ageing actors should stop turning to computer graphics for validation? I mean, buy a jet. Get a botox job. Play your own son, like Rajesh Khanna did so successfully for so long. Get your son to play the young you, as Raj Kapoor did so successfully so often. Endorse everything you can lay your hands on, like Amitabh Bachchan did before KBC made him rich again. But, for the love of God, don’t give us Zorro-like shots of yourself standing on two galloping, computer-generated horses. And don’t make us listen to lines like “aag hai; seene mein lagado, cigarette main nahin.”
I was dreading Son of Sardar even as I took my place. A film about sardars, starring non-sardars, has to be worse than a film about sardars, starring sardars. Even as the horses canter away, the producers of the film – Ajay Devgn and the missus – thank Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar. Oh, dear. The good news is, I can’t see how Akshay Kumar is involved in the film, unless he came up with the plot. Because it’s the sort of movie only Akshay Kumar could pull off. And Ajay Devgn isn’t Akshay Kumar.
Before we can get over the horses, we are forced to look at Ajay Devgn standing on the hour hand of a computer-generated Big Ben. And before we can recover from that, a gang of hooligans confronts Jassi Randhawa (Ajay Devgn, who else) on a tacky-looking set that is possibly intended to pass for a London garage. His turban unfurls in a scene reminiscent of the disrobing-of-Draupadi episode from The Mahabharata that aired on Indian national television in the 1980s. Only, it puts Draupadi’s never-ending sari to shame by walloping the bad guys of its own accord. Thanks, but no thanks, Divine Intervention, CGI has got this.
Naturally, this calls for an item number where the choreography is primarily a simple movement of the wrist. You know, this trend of moving a progressively smaller body part in Bollywood item numbers could eventually lend itself to dissertations on the subject a few decades into the future. Right, so the film quickly runs through a series of exaggerated emotions, which seem quite at home in backdrops straight out of the Flash Gordon era. These are propped up by elaborate auditory puns.
So, this is a film about bullet, tractor, bandook, unrequited love, and forbidden bloodlust. The sardar whose son the film stars has only an off-screen role to play. All I gathered from the first twenty minutes is that there is a family feud on that warrants the sacrifice of ice cream, fizzy drinks, and nuptial bliss from three members of the Sandhu family, headed by Billoo (Sanjay Dutt). All I gathered from the next forty minutes is that the Sandhu family has some vague rule about treating mehmaanon like baghwaanon, which promptly expires when the guest steps over the threshold, back out into the street.
The rest of the story hinges on a horny jilted bride, who clearly never read Great Expectations, or a manual on menopause, and middle-aged men with a weakness for overweight girls and...yes, computer-generated horses. The Sufi song that now appears to be mandatory in all Bollywood produce is forgettable, but the sight of Sonakshi Sinha winking as she swirls her tongue at the camera will, unfortunately, haunt us for rather longer.
There’s a chance you will enjoy the film if the number that denotes your IQ is lower than the number that denotes your waist size, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Why Kasab won't make a good martyr

(Published in, on

I’m fairly sure that, among literate Indians who are not members of political parties – and don’t aspire to be – and who lost no family, friends or acquaintances in the Mumbai terrorist attack of 26-28 November, 2008, and who are not fans of Bal Thackeray and Narendra Modi, I’m in a minority when I say I’m glad Ajmal Amir Kasab was hanged.
There are some who are thankful our batty right wing has one slogan less to throw at voters, but this isn’t why I believe it was right to hang Kasab. I believe he was rightly hanged because he was a terrorist who set out to kill, and succeeded in killing, tens of people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I’m not against capital punishment, though I do find it hard to justify it when the more pertinent arguments in favour of abolishing it are put before me. The most valid of these, of course, is wrongful conviction. In Kasab’s case, we know this doesn’t hold.
Another argument is that no government has a right to take a life, since it can’t create life, which I find somewhat absurd, even without the connecting clause. If someone presumes to take another’s life, what is his just punishment? It remains that nothing will bring anyone’s loved ones back, and that, at best, their kin may draw some solace. However, letting people off with a prison sentence, from which years may be docked off for good behaviour, isn’t enough of a deterrent.
In India, capital punishment holds only in the ‘rarest of rare’ cases, and attacking citizens of a country in pursuit of Heaven and an assorted number of virgins should fit that criterion.
I’ve often thought the worst punishment must be to know a painful death is close at hand, and wonder whether one will live to see the dusk of each dawn. In Kasab’s case, that was true. Jail officials described him as being nervous ahead of his hanging – a rare display of emotion in a brute criminal, who grinned through most of his trial. Let’s not insult our own intelligences by tut-tutting about “brainwashing” that poor, innocent boys succumb to. No one gets brainwashed without having an inclination to do what one is asked to.
The random comparisons between Kasab’s killing spree, and Bal Thackeray’s brand of parochialism, I would dismiss, as I would the contention that every terrorist deserves his loopholes in the noose. Kasab got a fairer trial than he deserved.
But the largest concern, especially after the Lashkar-e-Tayebba’s announcement, is that Kasab would become a martyr, inspiring hundreds of future jihadis to go forth and murder.
I don’t believe Kasab will make a good martyr, for several reasons.
First, what everyone will see are pictures of Indian Muslims celebrating Kasab’s conviction and hanging – including that of a childholding up a board that says ‘Hang him at Bhendi Bazaar’ – and a series of articles about the Indian Muslim reaction to his hanging, all of which quote Maulanas of various Islamic schools approving of the decision. No rose petals, no clemency, no hailing.
What people will see is a cruel madman who disgusted everyone so much that no one wanted to defend him, irrespective of religious and political leaning.
What people will see is a lonely prisoner who swore at policemen who wouldn’t make conversation with him, despite his attempts to learn and speak Marathi.
What people will see is a stray piece of cannon-fodder nabbed alive, a piece of cannon-fodder that ratted out everyone he knew to be involved, and everything he knew about the assignment he was given, during interrogation.
What people will see is a “stateless actor” whose country did not want to claim him, and denied that he was Pakistani till the media tracked his father down in Faridkot village, days after the attack.
What people will see is a man who forced his family to leave their village in humiliation, and disappear.
What people will see is a self-proclaimed mujahid who wolfed down chicken biryani in a country he had set out to attack, notching up a food bill of Rs 42,313 (and a medical bill of Rs 39,829).
And people will read the stories that came out after his conviction, that were further fleshed out after his death. Like, it was his father’s refusal to buy him new clothes on Eid in 2005 that prompted a miffed Kasab to first run away from home. Like, he worked for a year doing odd jobs and making Rs 3000 a month, before finding employment with a suicide squad. Like, his mother locked him up when he last visited his village, and he escaped at night to find his death.
And what a death. It didn’t have the glory of a public hanging. It didn’t have the pathos of angry human rights activists staging demonstrations in a dramatic lead-up to the final moment. It didn’t have the rage of bleeding heart liberals writing impassioned articles in defence of a terrorist.
No, Ajmal Amir Kasab died alone, in a dank jail, painfully, mechanically.
And he didn’t want to die. It was an ignominious death, a death following courtroom trials, and appeals for Presidential pardon.
Kasab died after being kept alive by security on which far more was spent than on his board and lodging. He didn’t die fighting a holy war. If at all, he died when he was fighting dengue.
The big story after his death was whether Pakistan accepted or refused a letter from India on the decision to hang Kasab. The big story of the evening was whether the Congress hanged him as part of political strategy, as if to make up for the lapses that allowed terrorists to land in this country on the UPA’s watch, for the garrulousness of a former Home Minister who rattled off details of the NSG commando operation as it was taking place, for the laxity in letting a scoop-hungry media cover the operation like a Hollywood thriller.
The Lashkar-e-Tayebba may have felt compelled to attribute martyrdom to Kasab through Reuters, but he simply isn’t good martyr material.
Dead terrorists don’t make good martyrs, especially when they aren’t killed in action. Let’s remember that the granddaddy of dead terrorists, Osama Bin Laden, was exposed as a crazed aging man with a penchant for Viagra and studying videos of himself.
Yes, Kasab was a pawn, and I’m not holding my breath for Hafiz Sayeed to be extradited here. But hanging a pawn counts, because it sends out a message – this country will not be kind to people who wage war on its citizens. A dead pawn doesn’t make a good martyr. And a dead pawn doesn’t make a big difference, so I’m not celebrating. But I’m relieved.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Yesteryear stars on a power trip

(Published in The New Sunday Express, on 18 November, 2012)

Cast: Ajay Devgn, Sanjay Dutt, Sonakshi Sinha, Juhi Chawla, Vindoo Dara Singh, Mukul Dev, Tanuja
Director: Ashwni Dhir
Rating: 1 star
About five minutes into Son of Sardar, I found myself wondering why they didn’t just give us an animated film. It would have been more believable to watch computer-generated characters riding computer-generated horses than men in their forties and fifties firing computer-generated horses and cannons at each other. And chances are, the expressions would have been a deal better than those that the cast of this film could produce.
The last film I saw with worse production quality was that fifteen-minute clip from Innocence of Muslims. On the subject, I doubt there’s been any film that offends Sikhs and Punjab to the extent Son of Sardar does. It starts out with Jassi Randhawa (Ajay Devgn) saying, “Sardar ko joker math samajhna” and guest star Salman Khan adding, “Pathan se panga math lo”. And the film does exactly the opposite.
To watch it, you’d think every Sikh over the age of sixty sits under trees with rosaries and kirpans in hand. Everyone else wears sunglasses, stores guns, and drives tractors. And when they’re not tending their farms, they train in akharas outsides Balwinder ‘Billoo’ Sandhu’s (Sanjay Dutt’s) house. The police are complicit in killings. If the cop is Puneet Issar, he’ll even deliver an enemy to “No Man’s Land.”
Oh, yes, now, here’s why the film lasts as long as it does. The children of the Sandhu and Randhawa household have inherited a family feud. The Sandhu family – or rather, Billoo on behalf of the family – swears off the things that matter most to them, until all the Randhawas are killed. One gives up marriage, one gives up ice cream, one gives up cold drinks, and one loses her marbles. They would have lived in denial, and died of old age had Jassi Randhawa stayed on in a computer-generated London. But no, he meets one of the Sandhu spawn, Sukh (Sonakshi Sinha) on a train, gets off with her, and makes frands with the family. They could have killed him, and died of Viagra/ice cream/carbonated drink overdose once they found out. But no, they’re restrained by a complicated custom involving the Punjabi version of “Athithi devo bhava.”
There are two aspects of the film that are worse than the plot – a propensity for rhyme, and a profusion of truly painful wordplay. Sample this: “Arre yaar, main Hindustan waapas nahin jaa paoonga.” “Kyon?” “Mujhe log ‘Hindustan Lever’ bulaayenge.” “Kyon?” “Kyunki main Hindustan ‘leave’ kar ke London aaya hoon.” Kill me now.
Even if your sense of humour is in sync with the scriptwriter’s, you’ll be foxed by an infusion of random sentimental dialogue towards the end. And you’ll be even more puzzled when a woman who must be closing in on 50 dreams of having two children, calling “Happy and Ing.”
The Verdict: The only part of the film that makes sense is that Akshay Kumar was involved in coming up with its completely irrelevant title.

Religion-riddled Romance

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 18 November, 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Shahrukh Khan, Katrina Kaif, Anushka Sharma
Director: Yash Chopra
Rating: 3 stars
Look, it’s Yash Chopra. So you know the following: Khatri lasses raised in England go to church; 2002 London sported ubiquitous Olympic signboards; Delhi girls will run around snow-clad mountains in chaddi-sized shorts and halter tops, while Kashmiris wear pherans; dirty dancing will get you in the mood for a sentimental song dedicated to Papa; a man who writes his diary over ten years could gift it along with his army jacket to a girl who’s stupid enough to nearly drown in shallow water despite being a national-level swimmer and deep sea diver; it’s easy to trace people anywhere.
Here, we see the Shah Rukh Khan we haven’t seen since DDLJ. You know, the irrepressible fool who falls on platforms, leans out of trains, flies out to random countries to surprise women who’re in love with him, the eyebrow-wiggling, lip-twitching Shah Rukh Khan who wells up at the first mention of ishq even as he flirts with death every day. And no one portrays the absolute craziness of sweeping romance like the Yash Chopra-SRK duo. In this film, we’ve finally graduated from botanical metaphor to actual making out.
The film opens in Ladakh, where Major Samar Anand (Shah Rukh Khan) goes about defusing bombs and resuscitating bikini-clad camera crew. The bombs are a tad less vindictive than the bikini-wearers, who stalk him after nearly killing him. If you listen to the lyrics of the opening poem, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, you kinda learn the whole story anyway. But the film takes us – very slowly – through Samar’s life, telling us how a London busker ended up in the Indian Army’s Bomb Disposal Squad.
It boils down to a contest between Jesus and Samar. A superstitious girlfriend can do that to you. “So, I can’t die, eh? I will walk in the valley of the shadow of death, dude.” Chalo Kashmir. Which we learn would’ve been blown to bits long ago if it weren’t for Major Samar Anand. We also learn the Army can be lax about rules regarding facial hair and protective gear, as long as you defuse a bomb before every meal.
There’s very little logic in the film. And if everyone were a little less sentimental – or a little less dim – it would’ve been over before the interval. But, inexplicably, something keeps you interested, even when you’re scared a character’s amnesia attack could send the film into an endless loop. It could be Shah Rukh’s wonderful timing, and unselfconscious hero-baazi. It could be that you need to leave your brains behind every now and then. But it works.
The Verdict: If you’re willing to suspend all sense of disbelief, watch Jab Tak Hai Jaan.

Low-budget Love

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 18 November, 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Ajay Devgn, Sanjay Dutt, Sonakshi Sinha, Juhi Chawla, and others
Director: Ashwni Dhir
Rating: ½ star
There are low-budget movies that are produced by the lead actor. There are low-budget movies that star the hero’s friends – and mother-in-law. There are low-budget movies with low-budget graphics. There are low-budget movies where the heroine’s back is broader than the villain’s. Son of Sardar is all of these. Worse, it’s apparently the remake of a Tamil film I’ve had the good fortune of missing. However, I did catch a line that seems to be plagiarised from a Rajnikanth movie – yeah, that’s like lifting a tune off Pritam.
The film opens to a terrible song whose lyrics include “MC,BC”, and which has phirangs trying Punjabi dance steps. Next thing we know, someone’s insulted sardars in the process of lighting a cigarette.  Say hello to cheap graphics as Jassi Randhawa’s (Ajay Devgn’s) turban unfolds and knocks out half the bad guys. One wishes it’d strangled the director before he foisted this horror on us. Because he goes on to foist “shayaris” on us. Shayaris like buddhe ke moonh mein toffee, aur mehmaan ke moonh mein maafi, achi nahin lagti.  Facepalm.
So, here’s the thing. Billoo Sandhu (Sanjay Dutt) has taken a vow of bachelorhood, until he kills off every last spawn of the Randhawa family. His bride-in-waiting Pammi (Juhi Chawla) lusts after him for the next quarter of a century, while we figure out whether the movie’s laughing at itself or trying to entertain, even as our brain cells commit hara-kiri. In a world where everyone has a nickname, you could take a while to figure out your guest is your mortal enemy. In a world where mehman is bhagwan, you could kill an audience before you kill him.
Tony, check. Tito, check. Sweetie, check.  Annoying kid who speaks of pegs and pyaar, check. Cameos, check. Sufi song with bhangrabeats, check. Obviously, this film is a long chase, punctuated by painful PJs and asinine dialogue, till all the couples magically land up together. Son of Sardar doesn’t end there, though. It culminates in a song that is choreographed like a toothpaste ad, and consists entirely of one incoherent syllable – “Pon.”
The only laughs I got were inspired by useful slugs like “This shot was designed with the help of computer graphics”. Gee, because we’re so sure Ajay Devgn can ride two horses standing up. Why not scratch an ‘S’ into a tree while he’s at it too, eh?
The Verdict: You’re left wishing numerological empowerment involved trading redundant vowels for decent ideas.

Vintage Shah Rukh, Vindictive Religion

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on 17 November, 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Katrina Kaif, Anushka Sharma
Director: Yash Chopra
Rating: 3 stars
Leh Market, Ladakh. A nervous soldier in a bomb suit studies an IED with some nervousness, as fellow olive greens lounge around, waiting for one man with stubble and sunglasses to show up on a cool-looking bike, and save tourists and little children from the wrath of terrorists. Samar (Shah Rukh Khan) shows up. As does a seemingly besotted young soldier, with a “bomb suit for Major Samar Anand, sir.” And that’s when we hear his story. He doesn’t wear bomb suits. He holds the record for maximum bombs defused – ninety-eight. To watch the film, you’d think he’d be closing in on a thousand in the ten years he’s spent in the Army. Because in the span of about three weeks, he’s already on to his hundred and eighth.
One bewildering rescue and a lost-and-found diary later, we find ourselves in familiar territory – Bollywood’s own London. London where Indians and Pakistanis bond on shared language, London where rich girl falls for illegal immigrant, London where people do stripper routines on the Tube, London where you could start working in a posh restaurant because you source “foie gras”...even if you call it “foy grass”, London where women will offer you five hundred pounds to teach them to sing a single song. We go to Hyde Park, the South Bank, Trafalgar Square, the Millennium Bridge, the Tower of London, and practically every line on the Underground. No wonder Samar’s always broke.
Now, let’s move on to Meera Thapar (Katrina Kaif), a racist NRI who wants to marry a gora, any gora, because Indian boys are so boring. You see where she’s coming from. Given that she wears the same expression when she’s kissing, singing, getting engaged, having sex, praying, and pole dancing, there’s no room for any more boring in her life. She has three loving parents (Anupam Kher, Neetu Singh and Rishi Kapoor in cameo roles), who obligingly disappear when she needs counsel. Pitting God against Lover – you’ll figure that one out when you watch it.
I’ll be honest now. I kinda sorta liked the movie. Yes, I noted every time the characters got the math wrong. Yes, I noted that the characters are between ten and twenty years younger than the actors playing them. Yes, there’s a doctor who sounds chuffed when she pronounces “retrograde amnesia”, and is so triumphant at having encountered a case she gets involved in a charade that can only end badly. And I don’t get why Akira Rai (Anushka Sharma) finds favour with the Major (though, to be fair, he does make her video a bomb defusing without a bomb suit) or with Discovery Channel (though, to be fair, they don’t know she let the camera dangle over a river every time she felt like flirting). And after Shah Rukh Khan, the best acting in the film comes from the men who play three horny soldiers.
But, against my better instincts, I found myself laughing at the wisecracks in the film. And I found myself rooting for a happy ending. And I realised I hadn’t glanced at my watch even once in the three hours the film spans.
The Verdict: There’s something about the Chopra-SRK combination that makes us indulgent; and a fetish for men in uniform doesn’t hurt.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Why does no one care about the right to choose?

(Published in, on 16 November, 2012, retrieved from

On Thursday, India woke up to the news that a 31-year-old dentist, Savita Halappanavar, had passed away in Ireland, because she was denied an abortion that could have saved her life. On Thursday, most of India went to bed, clicking tongues in distant pity, satisfied that if the woman had been in India, her life would have been saved.
It’s the ultimate validation of our choice to stay on in India – a tragedy involving an NRI – and television channels went on to milk it shamelessly, throwing points and scenarios at viewers. Like, Savita wasn’t Irish or Catholic, so why was she bound by the laws of Catholic Ireland? Like, if only she had been miscarrying in India, she could have had the abortion and avoided septicaemia, which was eventually found to be the cause of her death. Like, are stronger currencies and European standards of life worth leaving India for, when one’s life has less value in those countries?
One channel went on its regular jingoistic rant about India versus the world. Another channel brought in an Indian Catholic priest to weigh the issue of abortion against the life of a mother, and thrust its cameras and microphones on a family that was numbed by the tragedy.
Meanwhile, the actual issue is lost in a chorus of outrage against the abortion laws of Ireland. While the Constitution of Ireland officially bans abortion, a 1992 ruling by the country’s Supreme Court allowed the procedure to be legalised for situations when the woman’s life is at risk unless the pregnancy is terminated.
Though Irish governments haven’t passed a law to resolve the confusion, it appears fairly clear that abortions are allowed when the life of the mother is in danger. In the case of Savita, it is clear that she was miscarrying. And she seems to have been within her rights in demanding an abortion. Why did the hospital refuse to conduct the procedure, then?
Nothing will bring back Savita Halappanavar, but medical negligence is a serious offence across the world. And if the right questions are asked, there is a chance other people may not have to go through the same. Our breathless media chose, instead, to showcase the tragedy of a woman’s death, and scream about denial of human rights.
Yes, it is terrible that, in 2012, in a developed country that is part of the European Union, a woman died because doctors refused to let her abort. But Ireland is not the only country in which abortions are illegal. And it isn’t the only country in which religious groups are agitating for abortions to remain, or to be deemed, illegal. And it isn’t the only country in which politicians have caved, keeping vote banks in mind.
For decades, women across the world have been going to quacks or trying risky home treatments to terminate pregnancies. In many countries today, they continue to do so.
Just three months ago, a pregnant teenager in the Dominican Republic died from cancer-related complications, because she was denied chemotherapy, as abortions are banned in the country. The girl was 13 weeks pregnant.
As our omniscient news anchors thumped their tables, did any of them care about the real issue? And did anyone remember the Niketa Mehta case from 2008? Niketa and Haresh Mehta had approached the Bombay High Court when they came to know their foetus was diagnosed with a congenital heart blockage. Niketa was in the 24th week of her pregnancy, and abortion was banned. The High Court ruled against medical termination, and by the time the ruling came through, she was in the 27th week of her pregnancy.
If she hadn’t miscarried, the couple would have had to raise a child that would never be normal, a child that had already been handed a death sentence before he was born.
When Niketa did miscarry, our channels rushed with their cameras to her husband and mother, with eager journalists wanting to know whether it was a natural miscarriage, or an induced one. Activists can’t be callous now, can they?
It remains that in the twenty-first century, most of the world is tied up by complicated laws that govern abortions. It remains that in a century where women conduct Slutwalks to assert their right to wear skimpy clothes in public, many, many countries don’t allow women the right to choose. This isn’t about India and Ireland, or even about developing and developed countries. This isn’t about religion or nationality. It’s about laws overriding logic, and no one seems to care.

Book Review: The Teenager and the Art of Delusion

(Published in, on 15 November, 2012, retrieved from

Title:  The Illicit Happiness of Other People

Author: Manu Joseph

Publisher: Harper Collins

Price: Rs. 499

Pages: 341

There’s a certain Madras that only a real Madrasi, brought up in the swirl of its agglutinative language, seawaters, Margazhi season, heaving chests, trembling lips, twitching eyebrows, 50-foot tall ‘cut-out’s of film stars that fans would deface with alcohol abhishekams, politically-motivated relay fasts, cringe-inducing abuse, and culture of invasive “eve-teasing”, knows.

It isn’t the Madras of beaches and tree-lined streets, which rests somewhere between the rolling syllables of Brahm-Tam and the ambiguous calls of newspaper distributors, old-paper collectors, knife-sharpeners, vegetable-sellers and glorified rag-pickers who traded plastic ware for discards. It isn’t the Madras of dhaavani­-clad virgins and rice kolams and glass bangles and shy flirtations and high giggles and all that exotic nonsense.
The Madras that Manu Joseph creates in his new book, The Illicit Happiness of Other People, is the Madras that mattered to us before we began to recast it in the nostalgic mould of a name that has been wiped off the map.
Just as ‘Bombay’ means The Gateway of India, Taj Hotel and Worli Seaface only to people who haven’t grown up in it, ‘Madras’ means the Marina Beach only to people who haven’t grown up here. To us Madrasis, it’s one of the many things we take for granted.
And Manu Joseph’s second book allows us to take the city for granted to the extent that I can’t recall whether there was any scene involving the beach at all. Because this is the Madras that was incidental to our lives – yes, people were moving from Ambassadors to Marutis and gasping that the gears were in the wrong place all over the country, but at the time, no one had access to the rest of the country.
Illicit is set in 1990, when teenagers didn’t mumble, “Gonna Bessy” before stumbling out to their expensive bikes and shooting off to Elliott’s Beach in Besant Nagar. It is set in a Madras where the clichés were the reality. It was a city where there was a subtle contest between kids who lived in “apartments” and kids who lived in “independent houses”, each disguising an inferiority complex in supercilious pity. It was a city full of intelligent people with promising futures in America, where they would earn dollars, and visit before Fall, with Hershey’s for nieces and nephews who had the wrong English accent.
The context of the novel is key to understanding its concerns. While the main strand in Illicit is a quest which could happen anywhere, the characters who stand out are “the others”, sidelined because they don’t conform to the accepted gauge of intelligence, or success.
In Serious Men, Manu Joseph spoke of “the others”, too – the men who spend decades in research centres, hoping for that one big discovery that could win them the Nobel Prize (or at least, immortality in physics textbooks), knowing they would never be as famous as the people they’d grown up reading about. Because, honestly, how many science Nobel Prize winners can we name from the last twenty years?
Here, he deals with what he calls “the untold story”. It’s a story of failures – boys who failed such a crucial examination that the verb rose in status to adjective and then noun. They could never be good enough because they’d failed the JEE – Joint Entrance Examination – which would get them a coveted place in IIT.
It’s easy to see them as caricatures; but if one has observed the pressures of “IIT preparations”, knowing one won’t bother with them, as the main character Unni Chacko – and perhaps the author himself – has, one views them rather more sympathetically. Which is why a passage like this strikes a chord in the reader:
Sai stands in his spineless way, young but antiquated, studious but not clever, a thick steel watch on his wrist, his oiled black hair combed in the good-boy hairstyle. He looks like the past of an old man. He failed all the engineering entrance exams that he had taken, and scored just eighty-nine percent in the twelfth-standard board exams. So he endures the ignominy of studying physics in just another obsolete arts and science college where Jesuit brothers and blind people go to study English literature.
While the author does indulge himself in one-liners, he makes them stick in the reader’s head with the freshness of his simile. There’s a sort of careless everyday humour that appears intrinsic to his writing – it smirks at us from the flags of mountain-climbers, and from the grocery bags of annoyed wives. And they make us laugh not because they’re hilarious, but because they’re true. It’s true that most mothers survey their daughters with pornographic eyes, searching for sexuality hidden in innocent gestures, in a country where loose hair is equated with loose character.
I’ve felt earlier that Manu Joseph can weave images from words, and this is never seen as vividly as when he describes the work of a cartoonist. We’re able to visualise the cartoon strip, and they seem funnier for our participation in their creation.
It’s easy to forget that one of the most crucial issues in the novel is gender relations – mainly because Illicit seems too interesting to be about them. But as the generation of fathers-who-didn’t-know-their-children’s-sections gives way to the diaper-changing-daddies, one character posits the theory that men have disgustingly perverse fantasies about women.
These are best portrayed through the “eve-teasing” that always was, and still is, rampant in a city labelled “conservative” and “safe”, by a press that equates Delhi with India, and Bombay with Bollywood. Having described the taunting of women on buses by “flying squads of college boys”, and how their victims usually avenge themselves on a “harmless fruit” like Sai, the author adds:
There is an untitled comic by Unni about one of these squads, which shows how they do what they do, and how much they enjoy it. The comic ends in the distant future of the five boys of the gang. All of them are respectable men who go home every evening to a loving traditional wife and two adoring children.
One of Manu Joseph’s strengths as a storyteller is his ability to subtly intersperse his narrative with his characters’ worldviews, so that hidden triggers channel us towards certain ideas. Maybe it started with the line “All bras were white”, but I found myself thinking of a time when bras had cones, not cups, and cost thirty rupees. The Matriarch of Bras was a desi brand called Dolcevita, which cost eighty rupees and merited a mispronounced, but fake-accented, offer of “Daalsuhvitta” by snooty salesgirls who would demonstrate the advantages of an adjustable strap by making it short enough to fit a midget and long enough to hang on a 90-year-old feminist who’d burnt her bras decades ago. It was a time when access to branded clothing was limited to “Export Surplus” sales, where we’d leap at sweatshop produce with lovely cuts and mismatched stitches.
And from there, I began to think of a strange kind of urban poverty that all educated, middle-class people grappled with. It was a time when people didn’t invest in a foreign degree, two cars, and a flat before having the customary two children. People had ramps to wheel their Bajaj scooters into verandas, so they wouldn’t be stolen in the night. Every upper middle-class family had a scooter. Every rich family had a car. If you had more than one car, everyone knew you were cheating on your taxes, and would eventually land up in jail. People went by buses or autos or rickshaws when the one family vehicle was in use. When parents got sentimental, they promised their children they would go on one plane ride within five years.
It’s a situation that the generation that is in its twenties and thirties now – and even their parents, most of whom moved on to MNCs or underwent “salary correction” in a privatised market – have forgotten. But those were the circumstances that dictated the challenges, failures and societal roles of families, where the slightest misfortune could dock one down substantially in the points table.
It is the voice of this time, and these families of parents and teenagers, that Illicit listens to.
It would do the novel a disservice to try and summarise its concerns, but since it deals mainly with perspective, maybe I could trace what it may do to one. Despite its undercurrent of cinematic melodrama, the novel has a deceptively detached narrative voice. A seemingly mundane line about nurses speaking to Ousep Chacko in Malayalam, for instance, rings in the authenticity of everyday Madras, making the characters more real. Without our being conscious of it, they evolve into people we genuinely care about.
You may well up at the regret of a man who didn’t pick up his toddler when it smiled at him with outstretched arms. You may feel pangs for the older brother who reassured you the Home Minister was changing the value of ‘pi’ to 3, instead of ‘3.142857, bar’. You may cry for the enigmatic boy next door whom you believed could read your mind, because he was just so good-looking. You may yearn for the adolescent brilliance that faded when you realised there were things you didn’t know.
And you may wonder how much of what we see we can believe. How much does language distort vision? How is something given validation? Is Truth the exclusive privilege of The One? Or is it the perception of the mass? Are people who claim to have superior powers crazy, blessed, or gods? How much talent is someone allowed to have, before it consumes him? Are you better off dying before you’re discovered, or living to realise you faded before you fulfilled your potential? How many rejections does it take to go from genius writer to raving drunk? And what does it cost to be bad at math, especially if you call it “maths”?
Finally, you wonder how such quirky writing can be so thought-provoking.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Gaming, Reloaded

(Published in The New Sunday Express, on November 11, 2012, retrieved from

Voice cast: John C Reilly, Jack McBrayer, Sarah Silverman

Director: Rich Moore

Rating: 3.5 stars

I love this new trend of animation movies for adults that masquerade as entertainment for children. That's pretty much what 'Wreck-It Ralph' is, till it gets all mixed up, trying to please everyone.

The film was probably targeted at a generation that grew up on the cartidge based video games. How else would you describe a game where the bad guy is Wreck-It Ralph (John C Reilly), a misunderstood hulk whose calling in life is to pound buildings to rubble. Undoing the damage is Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer), one of those annoyingly cheerful video game characters everyone in Niceland loves - wait, do we have those anymore?

Ralph's journey to Grand Game Central, and his many adventures within are an excuse for the animation and design team to show off. For the audience, it's an experience. We jump in and out of games, we throw ourselves into the lives of characters when our hands are not on the controls, and we get pulled into an animated rom-com meets family drama.

Yeah, this is where everything gets predictable. Ralph wants to be a hero, for acceptance back home. His mission finds an echo in a character with a glitch - and, apparently, heart. But emotions aren't lacking in the gaming characters throughout the film - if at all, there's an excess of them.

You do assume there's going to be a dose of the saccharine in a Disney movie, though. Especially when you're in a land swarming with candy hearts. Unless you're in a show that's overflowing with parents and children, chances are that you'll actually enjoy the technical
brilliance of the movie, and chuckle at some of the cleverer dialogues.

The Verdict: A film that doesn't entirely sell out to an audience of children, Wreck-It Ralph makes for a happy watch, with a touch of nostalgia.
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