Monday, December 31, 2012

Melodies out of thin air

(Published in Open Magazine, January 1-13, 2013, issue, retrieved from

Like most Gujaratis born in Madras, 65-year-old Jagat Tarkas runs a business in an old part of the city. Tarkas owns the Bombay Sports and Trophies shop in Triplicane. He delights in analogies that draw from cricket. He looks like the neighbourhood uncle who walks in the park in the mornings, listens to Kishore Kumar songs in the evenings, and can be prevailed upon to sing a Mohammed Rafi hit or two at celebratory gatherings. You don’t expect him to peel off his pin-striped shirt to reveal a lemon yellow T-shirt that says ‘Licensed Whistler’ on the front and ‘Whistle your worries away’ on the back.
When I met him six years ago, he was running the Chennai chapter of the Indian Whistlers’ Association (IWA). This was a group of ten people, including 10-year- old Puja. He had emailed the radio station I worked for, asking for coverage of a whistling event he was organising in the city. Now the IWA has more than 400 registered members, most of whom are in Chennai. They have organised several whistling conventions in the city, at one of which they even set a Limca Book record.
Jagat’s association with the IWA began when he stumbled upon a website with yellow font on a purple background, run by Rigveda Deshpandey, a man who styled himself as ‘The Maverick Whistler’. Jagat called him up, and asked how he could become a member.
“He told me to audition on the phone, but I said, ‘It won’t come out properly, I’ll come to Pune and meet you’,” Jagat says, “I found there were only three fellows in [the IWA], two from Pune and one from Lonavla, and they would meet once in six months, whistle for some time and disperse. They were in touch only on mail.”
Jagat decided they should stage a show. He roped in a 19-year-old neighbour, Kruti Shah, and got the others to make the journey to Chennai. He emailed the media. On 18 June 2006, nearly 500 people turned up to watch five people whistle tunes of old Hindi songs, with an 8-year- old drummer providing background music.
“In that very programme, we found Puja,” recalls Jagat, “I told the audience I’d give them five minutes to perform. One man came and did something that didn’t sound like whistling. Then Puja came up and started crying. She was shy, her father had made her go up on stage. But when she could finally whistle, it was so effortless. That was a real find.” The story sets the eight people at the IWA meeting I’ve walked into reminiscing about their families’ attitude to whistling.
“In the South, especially, whistling is considered a Romeo act,” says Arunkumar, “Superstitious people say ‘It’s unlucky, you’ll blow your wealth away’. I remember, when I was about 17, my father heard me and was furious, and I wasn’t given food the entire day.” He pauses. “It was a beautiful song. Kahin Deep Jale from Bees Saal Baad. Later, my daughter would tell my wife to ask that ‘milk cooker’, meaning me, to stop. But when I joined the IWA, they realised it’s music. Raag is there, shruti is there, taal is there, bhaav is there, it’s not just this...” he says, as he demonstrates a wolf whistle. “Then my daughter got interested, and started performing in her college. They used to call her ‘Whistle Bhavani’.”
The association takes its whistling seriously. It collects annual fees from all members. Those who can’t afford Rs 1,800 a year are allowed to pay in instalments, or have others chipping in, as is the case of a sign painter they are keen to have as a member.
They meet once a month, after settling on a theme— rain songs, dance numbers, songs about flowers and so on—and search for ‘minus one’ tracks (instrumental versions of songs). They even hold contests. Things got easier once MR Subramaniam, a bearded man who organises light-music concerts, joined the club. He finds karaoke tracks, gets equipment for meetings (a microphone and amplifier), and helps invite judges for contests. “We call external judges: singers, keyboard players, flautists, someone with a sense of music,” Subramaniam says. “There are two categories for the monthly contest— Inspiring and Aspiring—with separate prizes.” They audition prospective members and train them.
“There’s a lot to keep in mind,” says Subramaniam, “Where to start, how to follow the beat, how to stop and fade in with the music, where to bring in emotions, how much to give the mike.” Most people end up contorting their faces and swinging their heads away from the mike, like Carnatic singers often do. “If they need to express themselves like that, we teach them mike management: how to press it against your cheek, like this”—he demonstrates—“ and move your hand in sync with your head.”
Says Jagat, “The problem is, most people want an immediate platform to perform. But we can only do two-three shows a year. Each costs us about a lakh [rupees]. And only 10-12 people can whistle at each. So of every ten new people who land up, only one remains. It’s all aaya Ram, gaya Ram. Like our Indian batting.”
Sitting among seven men is the pleasant-faced, husky-voiced Chaitanya, a doctor-turned-designer whose husband found an article on the IWA and asked her to audition. “We were told whether we’re good, whether we had potential, how we could improve,” she says, “And we’re given a lot of training before shows.”
Subramaniam, who’s eager to demonstrate his repertoire and says he can both sing and whistle in male and female pitches, handles the training. “Like an artist records a vision and translates it into a painting, we need to listen to songs and translate them into whistles. It’s difficult to take in something if you don’t understand it. Chaitanya doesn’t speak Tamil. So some of us explain the song, and tell her what the mood of the whistle should be.”
The association is especially proud of its women whistlers. “I’ll tell you why women are so good,” Jagat says, “Most men are addicted to something—cigarettes, Pan Parag, beeda, alcohol. And they don’t walk, cook, do yoga, or any household work. They just sit in offices all day, and are out of exercise. Third, most men are lazier than women; they won’t bother practising, but when a woman takes up something, she gives it her best.”
“A lot of girls also learn music,” adds Srikanth, a quiet man who would listen in on his sisters’ music lessons and implement their singing technique in his whistling.
“In fact, one girl came to me to learn whistling,” Arun- kumar cuts in, “We had a programme in our apartments, and I whistled Mere Sapnon ki Rani. The next day, someone came with betelnuts and money on a tray, like you do for your gurus, and said, ‘Can you kindly teach my daughter to whistle?’ My wife told me to put a board outside, saying ‘Whistling teacher’. More betelnuts would come.”
Chaitanya, however, detects a prejudice against women whistlers. “It’s a good draw, because people are curious whether women can really whistle. But, you know, whistling is seen as taboo in Indian society anyway, and only tolerated as a boys-will-be-boys thing.”
“Once,” says Jagat with a grin, “One of our girls was whistling, and someone asked, ‘Ghar mein baap-bhai nahin hai, kya?’ She replied, ‘Hai na, unn hi ne sikhaya hai’.”
As the others clutch their stomachs, Arunkumar tells us how Whistle Bhavani’s matrimonial match was arranged. When it was time for the bride to sing for the prospective in-laws, the groom’s family asked her to whistle instead. “For her wedding kutcheri, we’re all performing. Two hours of Carnatic whistling.”
They’ve even whistled at temples, says Subramaniam, whose garb indicates he’s about to make a journey to Sabarimala. “We’ve done a whistling programme at Koo- thanoor Saraswathi temple. During Ayudha Puja, people like MS Subbulakshmi used to sing there. And we perform every Tamil New Year’s Day, 14 April, at a Durgalak- shmi temple.” “It’s an art,” Arunkumar says, again.
“And it’s a science,” adds Jagat, “It’s good for the lungs, for the brain, and it makes you happy. We look after our throats. Some people take ayurvedic medicine, some people drink water or chew cloves during performances. We look at ways to improve. See, I myself couldn’t whistle tunes in the beginning. When I decided to try, I started with flatter songs, without too much up and down, you know... like Jalte Hain Jiske Liye. Or in Tamil, Kanne Kalaimaane, Neeyum Bommai Naanum Bommai. The emotion is intense, but tuning not much. Next, I tried slightly tougher ones like Yeh Shaam Mastani. The next step isNaal Podhuma, Oru Naal Podhuma [a song sung by Balamuralikrishna for the 1960s Tamil film Thiruvilayaadal].”
Can whistling be taught? “It can be fine-tuned,” says Jagat, “That’s our job. We see if you have potential, then we work on technique. We can coach. See, a team coach needn’t be a Test player.”
He asks me to try, and I whistle the first few bars of Yeh Shaam Mastani. The whistlers look at me, heads cocked, eyebrows knitted in frowns of concentration.
“You’re not new to whistling,” says Jagat. “You’re not throwing words into it. Some people will do this...” At this, he whistles a broken version of Dhoom Machaale. “You can hear them draw in breaths between words. You’re carrying a melody. But the whistling isn’t in sync with the emotion and nuances of the tune. Initially, play the song and perform with the song. Is Kishore Kumar saying ‘mastani’, ‘mas-ah-tani’, ‘mas-u-tani’, or ‘mas-i-tani’? You should bring that inflection in. Don’t go by lyrics alone. When he’s singing ‘ooo-ooo-ooo-oo-ooo’, see how many climbs there are. Once you sync with that, bring in emotion. You should sound like the evening is happy, breezy, fun. There’s a Tamil song, Ponaal Pogattum Poda. It means, ‘If it’s gone, let it go.’ You need to sound like you don’t care, you’ve given up. If there’s a question, like ‘Baat jab main karoon, mujhe rok deti hai kyon?’—he’s asking, ‘Why are you stopping me?’—your whistling has to show that.”
The association doesn’t restrict itself to ‘pucker whistling’, as what we usually do is called. It has teeth whistlers, roof whistlers, warble whistlers and other types. Sathyanarayana is a finger-whistler; Jagat’s nephew Abhishek can render an entire song drawing whistles inward and breathing out.
“One of our whistlers went to the Anu Malik show, Entertainment ke liye Kuchh bhi Karega. He whistled through his teeth, and Anu Malik said, ‘I think you’re playing something somewhere. You’re not moving your mouth. Demonstrate again.’ And he said, ‘I’m teeth whistling. And I can also do this while miming something.’ And he did the same thing, while pretending to shave,” says Jagat with a laugh.
IWA members have been to other reality shows too, apart from many whistling conventions. “It’s hard to compete with international whistlers for stamina, but no one has the melody we have [in India].”
“In China, we did a skit by whistling. It was a Bollywood type love story. A boy and girl fall in love, and we whistle a romantic song. The parents don’t accept it, so we do an angry song. Then, the girl and boy do a hartaal, so we do both angry and mournful songs. Finally, everyone comes to terms with it, so we do a group song.” That got them third prize and an article in a Chinese newspaper that none of them can read but each has kept.
Their big dream is to organise a televised whistling contest along the lines of Indian Idol. Jagat is absolutely determined to see it materialise. But for now, his pet project is convincing the Chennai Super Kings to let them whistle the team’s anthem, ‘Whistle Podu’, at IPL matches in Chepauk.

A year of gaffes: Why don't our politicians shut up?

(Published in, on December 29, 2012, retrieved from

As 2012 yawns its way out, and the year some believed they would never see dawns, it strikes me that this was the year our politicians outdid themselves. Not only have the most important of them said the most stupid things, but they have usually been politically, factually, and grammatically incorrect.
I remember that towards the end of 2011, Anna Hazare killed some of the momentum his anarchy-inducing movement had gained by dissing folks who drink alcohol. Now, when you’re going on a fasting spree in Delhi, chances are that a bunch of your supporters will be bleeding-heart liberals, whose activism is largely advocated in watering holes. He sort of saved Montek Singh Ahluwalia, whose earlier estimate that making Rs 32 a day would put one above the poverty line had hogged headlines.
This year, the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission was outdone by the long-reigning Chief Minister of Delhi, Sheila Dixit, who said a poor family of five could live quite well, on a diet of “dal, roti, gehoon, chawal” at Rs 600 a month. Never mind that they can’t cook any of that with the hike in price of LPG. Surely poor families can eat raw cereal, eh?
All the attention was taken from chow mein when former Haryana Chief Minister suggested women should be married off early to prevent rape, as they were in the Mughal era. And that also took the heat off Sriprakash Jaiswal, who had made what he considered a witty remark – “Like old wives, old victories give no cause for celebration.”
However, nothing that has been said this year quite tops the flurry of faux pas that rolled off our elected leaders’ tongues after the bus-rape case in Delhi.
Embarrassing President Pranab Mukherjee is his son Abhijit, with his crack about “painted-dented shundoris” who were, according to him, overage, protesting against the rape case, and “showing off their children”. I’m not even sure which of my sensibilities is most shaken, but I think it bewilders the linguist in me the most. ‘Painted’, I can figure out. But what on earth is ‘dented’?! I’ve heard the term used mainly with reference to cars – depending on where it’s being said ‘denting’ is either damaging a car, or repairing the damage. But how does one deem a woman ‘dented’, unless he’d mixed it up with ‘banged’ or ‘knocked up’?
As for Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, he’s put his foot in his mouth so often over the last week that I wouldn’t be surprised if he had toes sticking out of his ears. Defending his right to refrain from going to India Gate to reason with the protesters, he snapped, “It is very easy to ask the Home Minister to go to India Gate and talk. Tomorrow if any other party’s demonstration goes on, why should not the Home Minister go there? Tomorrow Maoists will come here to demonstrate with weapons.” This doesn’t appear to have struck him when he appealed to the protesters to give themselves a break during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India. Step back, Rehman Malik.  You have competition this side of the border.
While Rahul Gandhi, touted as the Congress’ Prime Ministerial candidate for 2014, has managed not to say anything stupid with regard to the rape yet, the usually reticent – and circumspect – Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh went and offended everyone who comes to Delhi in search of a better life, with his remark on “footloose migrants”.
In the same breath that he asked police not to lose sight of the human rights our citizens are entitled to, Singh told Indian Police Service probationers, “We have a large number of footloose young men who come to urban areas from rural areas in search of jobs, in search of livelihood strategies, and if they do not get well absorbed in the process of development in rural areas, they can become a menace in society.”
While we’ve been raising our eyebrows, rubbing our eyes, and shaking our heads, perhaps what bewilders us most is that we were somehow involved in bringing these people to power, and putting them on the podiums from which they spout their nonsense. From the looks of it, things won’t change in a hurry, but one wishes they would learn to shut up so we might fool ourselves just a little bit longer.

A subtle ode to survival

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on December 30, 2012, retrieved from

Cast:  Suraj Kabadwal ,Trimala Adhikari, Abhay Joshi, and others
Director: Manav Kaul
Rating: 5 stars
I can’t remember the last time a film made me well up within the first two minutes. Nothing upsetting happens. But the aura of aching despair that acclaimed poet-playwright Manav Kaul layers his debut film with is so pervasive that empty classrooms, a teenager’s memory of childhood, and the smile on a dark, wrinkled, obsequious face are all it takes to stir our empathy. Yet, the film isn’t depressing – with its quirky music, its comic timing, and the many ways in which its one song, Lal Gaind, is used, there’s something uplifting about Hansa too.
It’s hard to classify the film, and harder to analyse it. It doesn’t allow us to be detached enough to examine the lives of people we haven’t known, the mores of hillside villages we’ve only visited as tourists, the dangers we don’t associate with the innocence of rural life, and the inhabitants’ almost indifferent acceptance of whatever life throws at them, through the prism of a critic. To me, it’s a film made up of vignettes – a dripping paintbrush, a suspended ball, a lucky coin, a raunchy joke, a painted face, a cheap toy modelled on Mickey Mouse playing the drum, the mudguard on a lorry, a madman who defies death, the temporary kindness of thugs waiting to take over a house.
Kaul’s skill as a storyteller is in weaving so much into those images that we’re left not with an activist message, but a sense of deep respect for the people who live in these harsh landscapes, each of whom is lonely in his or her own way. We dislike some of the characters instinctively, and some appeal to us immediately. But, as the film progresses, we see each is simply looking out for himself or herself – there’s too much uncertainty in these parts for thoughtfulness. Nothing comes without strings attached. Which is why the tiniest friendly gesture means so much. Which is why some people are willing to do anything to protect those they love.
Hansa makes us think about the things we turn to for solace, when it appears that everything is going wrong. Times when the smallest stroke of luck becomes hugely significant, not because it matters so much, but because it gives us hope that things will turn out all right after all. Bolstering the story is the wonderfully-paced narrative, and the brilliant acting. Suraj Kabadwal and Nanu, playing the eponymous character and his friend, are naturals, while Trimala Adhikari’s soulful eyes convey so much that the dialogue can be kept minimal.
The Verdict: A film that shouldn’t be missed. Rush before Bollywood fare pushes it out of the cinema.

Short of the mark

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on December 30, 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Werner Herzog and others
Director:  Christopher McQuarrie
Rating: 2.5 stars
Right, so having just played Ethan Hunt, Tom Cruise has taken on another character that will spawn another franchise – Jack Reacher, brainchild of author Lee Child, whose original name is Jim Grant. Apparently, he came up with his character’s name while reaching for something at a supermarket. Facepalm.
And this is how the character is described: “Reacher is 6’5” (1.96m) tall, with a 50-inch chest, and weighing between 210 and 250 pounds (100–115 kg). He has ice-blue eyes and dirty blonde hair. He has very little body fat, and his muscular physique is completely natural.” And he’s played by Tom Cruise. Yes. Let’s all take a moment to rub our eyes, breathe, read again, and guffaw.
However, that doesn’t jar quite so much as the opening scene of the film – a shootout by a gunman in a public plaza, from a nearby car park. The fact that the film releases less than two weeks after the Connecticut school shooting won’t do its marketing team any favours. Worse, we’re shown the goings-on from the gunman’s point of view, so it feels like we’re playing a bloodthirsty video game.
Ironically, the character, who’s something of a modern-day Superman-sans-Kryptonite, is equipped with an accurate body clock that enables him to figure out what time of day it is, and wake up without alarms. He’s also got some instinctive sensor that alerts him to his surroundings at all times. One wishes the filmmakers and distributors had these gifts.
It took me a while to figure out why Jack Reacher, who has no licence, money, or livelihood, sees fit to join an investigation first against, and then in defence of, a former military acquaintance. I suppose it’s one of those films where you have to read the book first. All inclination I could muster to get around to doing that vanished, though, when a Russian character only known as The Zec (Werner Herzog) speaks of his first year in a Siberian prison-camp, and says, “I chewed these fingers off before the frostbite could turn to gangrene.” Umm.
The film is something of a textbook thriller, with enough abandoned places and coincidences to keep us as involved as we can be in something like this. However, the climax tends to drag on, and one wishes the good folks in the film would just pull the trigger and be done with it.
The Verdict: Do you really want to watch a Russia-versus-civilisation film, when even James Bond has got over it?

On a perilous slope

(Published in The New Sunday Express, on December 30, 2012)

Cast:  Suraj Kabadwal ,Trimala Adhikari, Abhay Joshi, Kumud Mishra
Director: Manav Kaul
Rating: 5 stars
Note: The film is playing at select PVR screens across the country.
What must it be like to have plenty of land, and no money? In villages across this vast country, families deal with it every day, living their hours out under the shadow of dispossession as those empowered by money and connections go about grabbing their land. As we visit tourist resorts, do we think of what must have been there before? As we take pictures of apple-cheeked children in the mountains, do we wonder whether they go to school? Manav Kaul’s charming story triggers so much in one’s head that I had trouble coming up with a title for this review.
He takes us to a village that appears to be somewhere in Himachal Pradesh, where Chikku (Trimala Adhikari) and her brother Hansa (Suraj Kabadwal) live, with an ailing mother and snappy grandmother. We stay with them for less than a week, and yet we feel we know their entire lives. We see the dangers they live with, the things that make them smile, and the cruelty of the deceptively beautiful surroundings they grow up in, which forces them to be adults even as they scare each other about ghosts, long for toys, and play ball.
What is it that brings normalcy to the lives of these people? Because their childhood instincts are the same as ours, as those of us who grew up in urban settings. They play cricket, they build secret playhouses, they hide toffees in crevices they believe no one will find, they prank each other, they have crushes, they want to get in with the cool kids, they resent being made ‘Dummy’ in important neighbourhood games, they want friends who are truly soul mates.
And yet, theirs is a life we have not known. A man has been forced to abandon his family, and run for his life, and they don’t even know whether he’s alive. The village bully, who has a soft corner for a spirited girl, tries to establish his standing by using English words, to the exasperation of his father. A lecherous villager (Kumud Mishra) offers money to a poor family, but the offer is conditional. An oily middleman (Abhay Joshi) goes about usurping land, snapping at the weak, and turning obsequious when a businessman arrives. A little boy sends messages to his “friend in the city” in the only way he can. A studious child swears he hasn’t given his mischievous friend up, even when subjected to what he considers torture. Throughout, there are subtle signs of how the village has adapted to the tourist potential of the area.
But the mood of the film is so well tempered that we’re given enough relief from the haunting wretchedness it brings home to us. From attempts to return a stolen coin, to a tea-slurping contest, and the antics of a madman who refuses to be cowed down, there are moments that lift us from its dark undertones. And what we take away from the film is the sense that hope survives despite all odds, life will assert itself in the most brutal climates.
The Verdict: If you don’t live in a city where the film is playing, it’s worth making the journey for it.

Cruise takes on gun crime

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on December 29, 2012)

Cast: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, Werner Herzog, David Oyelowo, Robert Duvall
Director:  Christopher McQuarrie
Rating: 2.5 stars
I suppose the biggest advantage with being a superstar with a lot of money is that, even if you’re a Scientologist, people take you seriously when you say you want to produce films. And so, British author Lee Child has spent a good while explaining to the media why Tom Cruise would make a good Jack Reacher. Thankfully, the military-policeman-turned-vigilante character is American, and that spares us the trauma of having to decode Tom Cruise’s British accent.
A book that declares, “He had no remorse gene – it just wasn’t there” doesn’t sound like it could be particularly well-written, so I turned to Wikipedia for assistance. Apparently, the character has no driver’s licence, always checks in with an alias, is agoraphobic, listens to “a music collection in his head”, and has a tendency to breathe, “That’s for damn sure.” You’d think that takes care of most of the dialogue in the film, especially since Reacher’s said to be the quiet sort, but the screenplay is written by Christopher McQuarrie, who gave us The Usual Suspects. He manages to sustain some of our interest for most of the film, but chances are you’ll begin to yawn towards the end.
So, the film opens with five people being shot down in an open square. The cops make an arrest, and the accused gunman asks for Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) after waking up from the coma. Old buddies and all that. So, Reacher gets in on an investigation that’s already complicated because the defence attorney Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), the daughter of the district attorney (Richard Jenkins). Of course, Reacher steps all over the DA and Lead Investigator’s toes just so he can be the tough guy, and perhaps make out with the hot chick leading the defence.
It’s all about Cruise – the only purpose most of the other actors serve is to exist, so that he can prove he’s better than all of them. Sadly, that only makes for a run-of-the-mill thriller we may feel we’ve seen before. There doesn’t appear to be much imagination involved even in coming up with names – the gun shop owner (Robert Duvall) is called ‘Cash’, and the Russian baddie ‘The Zec’ (Werner Herzog). That said, these two do give the movie something of a fillip, thanks largely to the actors playing those parts.
If the main aim of the film is to restore the audience’s faith in the American judicial system, it succeeds. If its main aim is to annoy American taxpayers about how their money is spent, it probably succeeds too. But if its main aim is to keep us entertained, it begins to sag at some point. Since the film has already been branded as the first edition of a franchise, we can only hope the direction gets tighter, and the characters more interesting.
The Verdict: Jack Reacher is yet another escapist action flick, partially disguised as a detective film.

Chulbul’s appeal fizzles out

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on December 23, 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Salman Khan, Sonakshi Sinha, Prakash Raj, and others
Director: Arbaaz Khan
Rating: 1 star
The family that produces the Dabangg series – the family to which the cop, the idiot brother, and the item girl belong – deemed it clever to begin the film’s trailer with ‘More laws to break’ and have it change to ‘More jaws to break’. So, maybe we should hand it to them for coming up with ‘Kung Fu Pandey’. But, given that Chulbul Pandey (Salman Khan) mostly uses furniture, ranging from tables to refrigerator stands, to defend himself, maybe we should go with ‘Chulbul Oakenshield’ instead.
This time, Chulbul’s got himself a transfer to a “bade sheher” – and our first laugh of the film is finding out he’s talking about Kanpur. Well, unless you count Arbaaz Khan’s dedication to his poor son, whom he deems the inspiration for this film. Seriously, G.One’s aspirations were nobler. We all know Dabangg, and therefore its sequel, requires one to leave one’s brains behind, but the film only makes us laugh at it, never with it, however low we tune our intellect.
Having made frands with his half-brother Makhi (Arbaaz Khan) over avenging their mama’s nebuliser-induced death, Chulbul is now out to get the real baddies. In the process, he lives the life that could be the envy of the entire cow belt, sporting floral-patterned shirts and impregnating a woman who wears sindoor with a negligee.
He breaks into song every few minutes, and his belt moves without a fillip from his hands. The choreographers bring in more innovation by making him pull his trouser legs and massage his armpits in the dance sequences. Chulbul’s heroics in this film include rescuing a schoolboy from kidnappers, a bride from abductors, and his sunglasses from breaking, the last in a Rajnikanth signature move.
Most of these missions involve multiple killings, thanks to Chulbul’s firing on all cylinders – literally. While everyone repeatedly asks why Pandey stages encounters instead of arrests, no one gets answers. Some are silenced by flirting, others by a disjointed script. There appears to be some social commentary on the media, but this, like the rest of the film, is lost in the limited time spared for anything that isn’t song or fight sequence.
The most memorable aspect of the film is Prakash Raj’s acting. His Bachcha Bhaiyya, like all Bollywood villains, is a Devi-worshipping don. He’s also a politician, with links to a Narendra Modi lookalike. Sadly, the glowering looks, angry speeches, and menacing presence that usually stand Prakash Raj in such good stead are wasted on this piffle.
The Verdict: When you can’t recall a single one-liner or PJ within minutes of walking out of the cinema, you know the film’s not worth watching.

Tepid holiday fare

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on December 23, 2012, retrieved from

Voice cast: Alec Baldwin, Chris Pine, Hugh Jackman, Isla Fisher, Jude Law
Director: Peter Ramsey
Rating: 2 stars
As far as film-critiquing goes, the one occasion I dread more than Valentine’s Day is the Holiday Season – while Hollywood compulsively churns out average movies starring a bevy of A-listers to commemorate both, Christmas releases will draw a large audience, mostly because we’re all bored out of our skulls, thanks to our sitcoms and dramas going off air for weeks. With a voice cast that mostly irritates, and a trite script with hardly any originality, Rise of the Guardians is easily one of DreamWorks’ most disappointing animation films.
We should have been warned when the trailers released, and we were introduced to the Easter Bunny, who goes by ‘Bunnymund’ (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy with the bug-like features (Isla Fisher), and Santa Claus who goes by ‘North’ and speaks in an accent that he claims is Russian (Alec Baldwin). Apparently with the intent of making the movie as internationally appealing as they can, the filmmakers have thrown in a multitude of accents – American, British, Slavic, and Australian. The ones that are genuine don’t grate so much, except that Jackman is occasionally incomprehensible. But all Alec Baldwin achieves with his miserable accent for North is to make us involved enough in the film to wonder which actor could have pulled it off better. I got as far as thanking the filmmakers for making Sandman mute, and not throwing Antonio Banderas’ husky tones into the mix.
Script? I believe it’s based on William Joyce’s children’s book series, and it does have the odd nice idea – like a tooth fairy who guards her store of children’s teeth, because their memories of childhood are stored in those. However, the danger posed to the purity of these memories by Pitch Black (Jude Law), the villain, doesn’t quite make sense. Neither do we see why Sandman needs any help fighting off Pitch and his army, because he seems the smartest of the Guardians.
As usual, there’s a character who’s something of a misfit – in this case, Jack Frost (Chris Pine) – and whose role in the adventure is a milestone in his journey of self-discovery. As usual, the villain’s British. As usual, the animation is quite beautiful, especially when Sandman spins dreams for children. But there’s nothing on offer for the unfortunate adults who’re accompanying children to the film, and the only thing we can do to occupy ourselves is figure out why the film doesn’t work.
The Verdict: It’s a corny cocktail of Arthur Christmas, Peter Pan and Monsters Inc.

Dabangging a dead drum

(Published in The New Sunday Express, on December 23, 2012)

Cast: Salman Khan, Sonakshi Sinha, Prakash Raj, Arbaaz Khan, Vinod Khanna, and others
Director: Arbaaz Khan
Rating: 1 star
I’m relatively sure I’m among those most relieved the world didn’t end on December 21 – if it had, I’d have spent half my last day on earth watching Dabangg 2, and the rest of it thinking about the film. While it is considerably shorter than the first edition, most of its running time is taken up by boring fight sequences, a forgettable comedy track, and a double dose of item numbers. The songs that aren’t item numbers strike an even more discordant note in the film, what with Kathakali and Odissi-or-Bharatanatyam dancers hitting on Chulbul.
The opening scene has Chulbul Pandey (Salman Khan) looking at the photograph of a boy. Next thing we know, the kid’s been abducted by a motley crew of bald and balding men, who’re already terrified of Pandey. As television crews, which are so ubiquitous in the film you’d think the makers had mistaken Kanpur for Delhi, swarm around the school to report on the kidnap, Pandey and his army ofchamchas have gone to the kidnapper’s den, to start off the first boring fight sequence. Someone gets hit on the crotch, someone’s position is given away by a mobile phone, someone is flung in the air, someone else’s bald head gets hit so hard it resonates like a tuning fork. Yawn.
The only line I remember is a rebuke from Chulbul to the father of the ransomed child over his willingness to give money to “maarne wala”, as opposed to “bachaane wala”. And Chulbul’s found several different modulations for “aate hain”. More power to Salman. He goes overboard in his attempts to act by supplying himself with several tear-inducing moments, but struggles to wipe the glycerine off his face convincingly. Then again, when the emotion is induced by the sight of Makhi’s sideburns, you kinda sorta get why it would be hard to bring conviction into the scene.
So, how has the story progressed from Dabangg? Makhi (Arbaaz Khan) is married, and he and Pitaji (Vinod Khanna) are now so attached to Chulbul they’re willing to leave home, hearth, and in Makhi’s case wife, behind to follow him a few hundred kilometres away. Having got married in the first film, Rajjo (Sonakshi Sinha) has to get pregnant in this one. Chulbul continues to win popularity with his police encounters, and the high point of a film is murder at a pandal.
Most of the comedy draws from Makhi’s stupidity. And the rest of it draws from Pandey’s interactions with his goons, his Papa, and fawning female reporters. As usual, the film is further undermined by disaster. The audience is forced to switch from trying-to-laugh mode to wondering-why-pregnant-women-always-go-to-temples-when-the-villain-is-at-large mode.
Ah, the villain. Prakash Raj’s thespian skills are wasted in this film, which requires him to look stumped and pissed at each of Chulbul’s inane retorts to his threats. His facial expressions are, as always, a treat. But even the climactic fight sequence fizzles out, and its only contribution to the film is finding yet another way for Salman Khan to go shirtless.
The Verdict: I suppose whatever usually appeals to Salman fans will appeal to them in this film too, but if you’re not one of those, you should save your money, time, and sanity.

Recycled story with recast characters

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on December 22, 2012)

Voice cast: Alec Baldwin, Chris Pine, Hugh Jackman, Isla Fisher, Jude Law
Director: Peter Ramsey
Rating: 2 stars
First up, an Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) who’s not fuzzy and cute, but has the build of a kangaroo, and is described as “standing on two very big feet, armed with egg bombs and an Australian accent”. Next, a Jack Frost (Chris Pine) who’s not an old man with twinkling eyes and a worn stick, but a slight boy with a penchant for mischief, and a yearning to be visible – no, we’re not being metaphorical. Then, a Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) with an army of Baby Teeth, who titter as they tuck away fallen teeth into custom-made safes. A silent, but cheerful, Sandman, who isn’t sleek and enigmatic, but tubby and somehow adorable. Finally, a Santa (Alec Baldwin) who goes by ‘North’ and puts on an accent that teeters between Scottish and East European.
If you want to make a fun Christmas movie, perhaps a cast that goes against all the pre-conceived notions the audience walks in with is a decent original idea. Sadly, the rest of the film treads the beaten path, down to long, blitzy action sequences, and existential crises. Even in the scenes or plots where we can’t make obvious connections to other films, there’s something cloyingly predictable about it all. That’s probably because the few sequences with originality seem to be a response to anticipated criticism – “See, we’re different fromArthur Christmas because here, Santa doesn’t have an army of elves, but an army of yetis!”
When the characters aren’t staring soulfully at the moon, they’re tearing across the world on Santa’s sleigh. This means we’re pulled through clouds, tunnels and whatnot over and over again, in an attempt to get us dizzily high. It works for some time, but then, you start thinking, “Meh”. The humour in the film mostly draws from lines that are supposedly funny because characters miss each other’s sarcasm.
The plot on which this film hinges is that there’s a Boogie Man who goes by Pitch Black (Jude Law), whose mission is to run the Guardians to the ground by convincing children magic, fairies, and the creatures they’ve grown up believing in, don’t exist. I say that’s a noble cause. I mean, they have to find out some time, and they’re better off without a weightlifting rabbit and a schizophrenic Santa for buddies. But he also gives them nightmares, by altering the shapes of the dreams Sandman weaves. Those parts provide for the best animation in the film.
The rest of the film disappoints, mainly because of its glaring unoriginality – Santa swears by altering the names of Russian composers (Captain Haddock recall, anyone?) The film can barely sustain itself, leave alone grow into a franchise like the Shrek, Madagascar andKung Fu Panda films.
The Verdict: The film may work for kids who get thrills from sleigh rides, but has very little to offer adults.

The Delhi bus-rape: Why the reactions scare me

(Published on December 20, in, retrieved from

I arrived in Delhi the day after a 23-year-old woman was brutalised on a bus – six men had raped her, sodomised her, and reportedly used a jack and iron rod to “teach her a lesson”, leaving her intestines so mangled they had to be removed. She and a man she was travelling with were beaten, stripped, and thrown out into the cold of the winter night.
The city was in shock, as was most of the country. But, while the incident itself is horrific, I find the reactions to it even more worrying.
The day after the rape, when Jaya Bachchan broke down in Parliament, camera crews from the national news channels ran around trying to do walkthroughs with her, all of which were flashed with an ‘Exclusive’ band.
Before long, all of Bollywood was on television. Aamir Khan, who has slapped around women in so many of his movies; Shekhar Kapur, who made the rape scene in his Bandit Queen as titillating as one could, bringing in a nude body double so as not to leave anything to the imagination; and others from an industry whose biggest hits are item numbers, an industry that has sanctified sindoor in the face of marital rape, that has endorsed marriage with rapists as a corrective measure for rape.
I’d be very surprised if some of them hadn’t been asked whether they planned to take their activism to the big screen, with the next films they made. And I’d be surprised if they didn’t think they were aiding a noble cause by making films that showcase the denigration of our society.
The first reaction I noticed on social media came from my male friends on Facebook, most of whom were apologising for being Indian men, a response I simply don’t understand. These six rapists, and their counterparts who violate women, children, men, and animals across the nation, are not representative of an ‘Indian male psyche’, if such a thing even exists.
Perhaps what exists, and what is most dangerous in the context of the safety of women, is an Indian psyche, a psyche that our cops and our women are not exempt from – a psyche that places the onus on women to be careful, and blames them even when they are.
I don’t believe women and men can ever be equal, and I do think biology is destiny – women do have attractive bodies, women are generally weaker than men, and clothes that make one look pretty will get attention from unwanted quarters too.
But in focusing on the issue of clothing, or of being out late, we’re getting lost in a discussion that has no relevance. India is not the only country where women get raped, and India is a country where men get raped too. Rape victims are asked what they were wearing in other countries too – in 1999, Italy’s highest appeals court ruled that women wearing jeans could not be raped, sparking off protests from women, politicians, lawmakers, and legal professionals alike.
However, the problem in India, and one that we refuse to recognise, is that we’re failing as mothers, as friends, as daughters, as sisters, as fathers, as sons, as brothers, in not being able to separate the sexual identity of a woman from her identity as a person. We don’t acknowledge that we don’t realise that women reserve the right to be sex objects when they want to be, and to be left alone when they don’t want to be.
After the incident, I find women terrified, paranoid, and jittery. A friend sighed, as she walked into a party in the afternoon, “When I was walking on the road, from the car, har aadmi mujhe rapist lag raha thha.” (“Every man looked like a rapist to me.”) As we were getting ready to head out to a concert, another friend turned to me, and asked, “Are you sure you want to wear such a short skirt over your tights?” When one of our male friends said he would escort us back home, we all laughed.
The cops were out in full force for a day or two after the incident – but they were mostly hiding near signals, waiting, as usual, for violators of traffic rules.
“See, this is the rape capital after all,” someone said, with a note of triumph, as we passed a copless road in South Delhi, “You keep saying you’ve had worse experiences with eve-teasing in Madras.”
“But,” interjected another friend, “This is the capital of the country. It should be safer than any other place.”
“The problem is that so many of these people from the villages keep spilling in,” someone else said.
“The only solution is pepper spray.”
I don’t even know what part of that conversation troubles me most. The fact that people believe rapes mainly happen in Delhi? Or that those are the ones that deserve attention? The fact that it doesn’t seem like a country capital, because the entire police force is out protecting VIPs and VVIPs, and neglecting our roads? The fact that people subscribe to the notion that rapists only come in from villages? The fact that we all need larger handbags now, to accommodate cans of pepper spray, just to make sure we’re not raped?
It doesn’t matter whether the bus had tinted windows or not, whether the cops were out on the streets or not. Six men out for a drunken joyride found it in themselves to assault a couple in inhuman ways, and not one of them thought they should stop before they did. Would it have made a difference if the bus had had curtains, which are still legal? Or if cops had been standing on the roads as the bus zoomed by?
Rape happens all the time in this country, and we’re always shocked. And we’re always searching for explanations, just as America does every time there’s a shootout. All of us are wondering if the men were mentally ill, if rape could be deterred by capital punishment or castration.
Perhaps we should accept first that there is no explanation. And no deterrent. That a horde of liberals will cry foul if capital punishment were made the normative punishment for rape. That even if it were, the perpetrators, or some of them, could worm their way out of it – think Nithari case. That there is no solution, and we will continue buying baskets woven by rapists lodged in jails. That every time a rape case works its way to the front pages of newspapers, and the prime time of news channels, our nation will get worked up, rage, grumble, mourn, analyse ‘expert’ opinions, and then get back to everyday life.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Playing to the gallows

(Published in The Friday Times, Lahore, on December 21, 2012, retrieved from

Cast: Akshay Kumar, Asin Thottumkal, Himesh Reshammiya, Mithun Chakraborty, Raj Babbar, Paresh Rawal, Sanjai Mishra
Director: Ashish R Mohan
Rating: 1 star
I don’t know why we have elections in India anymore. We should just let Akshay Kumar run the country. That way, everyone would have an education – because, did you know, when he beats up people in a Balloo di Dairy in Punjab, he retains the right to have it converted to Balloo di Paathshaala? If everyone in the country had an education, they would either be too busy to watch the movies he churns out six times a year, or would kill themselves when they hear lines such as, “She studied in London. Tenth pass. <Pause for laugh>.” Crime would grind to a halt – the baddies who survive Khiladi’s assault on their bodies wouldn’t survive his assault on their senses when he’s got them all to himself in the gallows.
The Pakistan Censor Board needn’t worry about Khiladi 786 – it isn’t any more offensive to Muslims than it is to all humanity. The title draws from Bahattar Singh’s (Akshay Kumar’s) belief that God has given him rahmat, but denied him mohabbat. To swallow that, we must believe God sneaks down to scribble ‘786’ on his palm, with a ball-point pen, after every shower he has. Or, we must believe he doesn’t have showers, which would explain the mohabbat-related hiccups.
The film’s USP is that hardly anyone has a name. All the Punjabis go by numbers – Sattar Singh, Ikhattar Singh, Bahattar Singh and Tahattar Singh. They even wear badges that go ‘70 Singh’, ‘71 Singh’ and so on. The camera zooms in on each badge, just in case we’ve forgotten to laugh. Oh, why are they wearing badges? Khiladi 786 sets itself apart from the stupid-supercop genre that Dabangg, Singham, and Rowdy Rathore belong to, by populating itself with fake-stupid-supercops.
Akshay Kumar’s Khiladi series, which he returns to after 12 years of churning out mindless comedy, was all about the action. The man tries to rise to the occasion by mixing the two genres, and ending up with an execrable film that should never have been made. The formula for his films is pretty much the same – he beats up the bad guys, smirks out a catchphrase, and then waits for the girl to fall into his arms, before beating up more bad guys. The girl is usually some khoob ladi mardani, whose exploits intimidate all other men, but impress Akshay Kumar, because he’s bigger, stronger, and he has a catchphrase. She falls for his macho, and gyrates through a series of love songs in exotic settings.
Here, the audience’s biggest disadvantage is that the love songs have been composed (and probably written) by Himesh Reshammiya, who is also credited with the absent script. As each nasal note quivered in my ear, I could feel my auditory receptor neurons dying. Worse, the tunes crawl into our memories, and refuse to leave. Reshammiya also stars in the comedy track, as Mansukh Bhai, a wedding broker disowned by his Papa (Paresh Rawal), and determined to prove his worth by finding mohabbat for Bahattar Singh.Mohabbat takes the form of Indu Tendulkar (Asin Thottumkal), the sister of Mumbai don Tatya Tukaram Tendulkar (Mithun Chakraborty), who comes with his own catchphrase. Defying the conventions of comedy, Reshammiya supplies himself with a sidekick called Jeevanlal Pranlal De Costa, played by Sanjai Mishra (more familiar to cricket-watchers as ‘Apple Singh’).
The movie might as well have called itself United Colours of Bhatinda. The song sequences don’t stop at featuring turbaned bhangradancers sporting fluorescent kurtas, and trucks sporting hideous paint. No, sir, the Seventies Singh family has an international horde ofbahuranis – a woman from Africa whose name is naturally ‘Mandela’, a woman from China whose ethnicity makes room for facepalm-provoking puns on ‘Cheeni’, and a woman from Canada who serves to reinforce the Punjabi-taxi-driver-in-Amreeka clich√©.
The filmmakers buffer the laughter quotient of the film by throwing in a dwarf. You see, nothing is funnier in Bollywood than a fierce Little Man with a high Little Voice. For most of Khiladi 786, we’re not sure whether the film is paying tribute to yesteryear Bollywood, spoofing it, or both. Poor R D Burman and Nirupa Roy (the Woman Who Loses Her Kids in the Mela) sort of get it in the face.
But it would have been worth the ordeal of putting oneself through a Khiladi film that is littered with the Most Unwanted of Bollywood if the box office collections were to convey to the producers – and Akshay Kumar – that the era of Khiladi is, thankfully, over.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Middle Earth stirs again

(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on December 16, 2012, retrieved from

NOTE: Since watching this film a second time, in HFR  3D, my opinion of the 3D usage has changed. It's simply exquisite! But do watch it in HFR, not the regular version.

Cast: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, and others
Director: Peter Jackson
Rating: 4.5 stars
There are some of us who spent part of our teen years poring over the title pages and maps of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, to learn the runes. We knew the songs of the Dwarves, the Elves and Men. We dreamt of Rivendell and Lothl√≥rien, we yearned for the lost languages of Sindarin, Quenya, and Rohirric. It’s my belief that it’s for those crazed fans that Peter Jackson makes his Tolkien movies.
It’s a tough ask to keep a lay audience entertained through a three-hour film drawn from a third of a 300-page book. But, for the fans, somehow, it feels like Peter Jackson’s plucked the strands right out of our imaginations, and thrown them on the screen. Just as it became impossible to imagine a Gandalf who didn’t look like Ian McKellen, and an Aragorn who didn’t look like Viggo Mortensen, it becomes impossible to imagine a young Bilbo Baggins who didn’t look like Martin Freeman, and a Thorin Oakenshield who didn’t look like Richard Armitage.
Peter Jackson pulls us into the story by telling us of Smaug’s attack on Moria, before we’re taken to the Shire and Bilbo’s lovely encounter with Gandalf, which starts with the deconstruction of a greeting. However, Jackson rarely takes liberties with the narrative, except to put in what appear to be nods to the Lord of the Rings series, with most key characters making guest appearances.
It’s a delight to watch the dishwashing rhyme come alive, and hear the song of the Dwarves’ lost treasure in the haunting baritone of Richard Armitage. With no need for a flashback to Moria, the camera stays in the hobbit hole, and we’re allowed to feel what Bilbo did in the book, to be stirred by a home in mountain caverns, by the glow of the Arkenstone, by the sound of arms being forged, by the clink of the delicate chainmail only Dwarves can craft, the things we long for without having seen. But it may be too subtle for an audience that isn’t familiar with the book. On the contrary, parts of the song – and film – are overstated, with a too-literal visualisation of the lyrics.
My biggest grouse, though, is with the 3D, which was completely unnecessary. The Lord of the Rings series was magnificent in two dimensions. 3D could have been used well enough, if it were taking us into Tolkien’s locales. But, to the horror of Peter Jackson fans, it is the 3D of cheap thrills, of weapons flashing at us, and Wargs jumping over us.
The Verdict: The film is gorgeous, but read the book before you go.

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