Friday, December 26, 2008

A History of Violence

Ever watched a film that is all melodrama and cliche? Full of stock characters, dumb villains, and corny dialogue? And an originally-meek-hero-with-steel-inside-who-saves-the-day-by-single-handedly-killing-homicidal-maniacs plot, a thousand variations of which must've been watched by anyone who grew up with Doordarshan Sunday-afternoon movies? "A History of Violence" is one more you can add to the list - at first sight, at least (or, rather, at first plot summary). As a thriller, in terms of plausibility, in terms of contrivances, it struck me as well below par. But as a metaphor for the world we live in - and I'm not trying to be blasphemous here - as a metaphor, it has more truth than... ok, I won't be blasphemous. :)

It - spoilers galore ahead, by the way - is the story of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a gentle, likable, middle-aged guy, who makes excellent coffee. But as no one is likely to pay money to watch a movie about a gentle, likable, middle-aged guy making coffee - especially when the movie has the title that it has - rest assured, a few shocking revelations are around the corner.

So there's little mild-mannered coffee-shop owner Tom Stall attending to his customers one day, when two Big Bad Men walk in with the intention of killing everyone in there. Tom then displays a heroic quality to him, that no one suspected him of, when he kills the duo, and saves everyone. As his wife puts it when he asks her whether she isn't sick of hearing about his heroism everywhere, "I kind of like it."

Tom's fame brings with it, though, ghosts from his past. Deadly (and, to be factual, fairly incompetent) gangsters, one of whom he didn't quite see eye to eye with, in the past. Gradually, his family come to realise that more than 20 years back, there was no Tom Stall. There was, however, an unhinged gangster by the name of Joey Cusack, who killed "sometimes for money, sometimes for fun".

"I went out to the desert and killed Joey Cusack. I spent 3 years becoming Tom Stall. I wasn't really born again until I met you. I was nothing," a rather apologetic Tom tells his less-than-impressed wife, who's all the more pissed at him because he'd told her he grew up in Portland, when, in actual fact, he, like Kevin Bacon, is from Philadelphia. Not only is his wife now not on talking terms with him, but... "If I go to the cops about you, will you have me whacked?," his son, who was all gung-ho pride after his dad's heroism at the diner, is now dripping sarcasm.

Tom isn't proud of Joey - in fact, he seems to despise him, the violence. But then again, as his enemies put it, "He's still the same crazy Joey Cusack." Where his loved ones see the caring Tom Stall, they still see, right before them, the monster who ripped out a man's eye with barbed wire. And then there is the way the supposedly long-buried Joey crops up every time Tom or his family is in danger. It is never Tom who does the rescuing. It is always Joey. As this excellent review puts it, it's about "the survival of the fittest. Not the good, the moral, the nice, but the fittest." Tom knows it too - all protestations to the contrary - as the quiet glee in his eyes when he sees his son kill for the first time stands testament to.

Tom isn't the only one whom the camera probes here. There is the initial thrill, the heady rush, as we see our hero Joey take on and eliminate those nasty, cruel villains, against seemingly suicidal odds. But then, rather than have triumphant music rise to a crescendo, we're treated to the effects of his violence. Suffice it to say that when it comes to showing gore and mutilation on the screen, Cronenberg knows few equals. Just as we're about to jump to our feet to cheer and clap for Joey, we're yanked back to our seats.

Violence destroys our relationships, builds walls between us, plants hate in our minds, makes us retreat into our shells. It vaporises any little tenderness we may have in us. It makes us throw out anything resembling logic or reason, and take actions far out of proportion to the perceived threat. Sometimes, we even play into the hands of our enemies.

But it does something else too. It allows us to survive. As "2001: A Space Odyssey" put it, with the most memorable cut I've ever seen, it was when we picked up our first weapon, and learnt to kill, that we started down the road to our space stations and our nuclear power plants. A species facing extinction became the most dominant on earth. That particular science-fiction film ends on a hopeful note - that maybe we will evolve into something more than we are now - but, for the moment, this is the world we live in...

Violence knows no religious, cultural or racial barriers. It is there, ever present. In our homes, in our schools, in the quietest of neighbourhoods, in the gentlest of people. For we couldn't do without it. It gets us our lands, our clothes, the food in our plates, and our facade of gentility. Our right to live, we earn through our ability to kill.

The film is no right-wing "us versus them" tripe. Maybe I'm just looking at it through the prism of recent events, but I detected a rich vein of irony when one character, a police officer, says, "You know, we look out for our own here." Turns out, the "our own" there is far deadlier and crazier than any of "them".

"I remember the moment I knew you were in love with me. I saw it in your eyes," said Tom Stall at the start of the film. The movie ends with him staring into his wife's eyes. What does he see now? Maybe he still sees love, lust certainly, and maybe even grudging, guilty admiration. But things will never be the same again in that family. To quote someone, "There's a certain lack of respect, a certain lack of trust."

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Simple Art of Shaving

My goal is to transform this blog into a vast repository of useful tips for day-to-day living. Thoughts on how to improve ourselves and our surroundings. Insights on how to lead a rich, meaningful life. Educating people on the necessity of using contraceptives not just to avoid having kids at a slightly inconvenient moment in time, or to avoid getting shackled to a slightly inconvenient partner, but also to avoid having them altogether - and if they feel they absolutely must have some, at least impress on them the need to leave the little blighters at home while going to the movies. Someday, I hope to start my own religion.

The topic for today is shaving. (Shaving the face, that is. Your own face.) Guys are expected to shave at least once a day. (Unless, of course, you’re trying to grow a beard. Shaving, oddly enough, it has been noticed, can stunt the growth of beards.) Having done an exhaustive study on the matter (100% of all females contacted refused to take part in my study, though), it emerges that the guys who don’t shave on a regular basis do so due to the activity irritating their skin to the extent that they cannot have a painless shave for another 2 or 3 days. For a guy, given a choice between pain and looking like an extra from “Grizzly Man”, he will always choose the latter. This is what separates us men from the illogical (women, for instance). As Scott Adams pointed out, your appearance mostly bothers only other people, as you rarely see yourself – save for the odd glance into mirrors.

But, let’s not get philosophical here. After all, I titled the post, “The Simple Art of Shaving”. So, rather than debate on the merits of shaving vis-a-vis not shaving, let’s see if there’s some way of eliminating any discomfort shaving causes you. I mean, we can all be considerate towards others if it doesn’t cost us anything, can’t we? On with it… The mistake that people make is, they try to shave before showering. No matter how hard you try, your skin at this point simply isn’t soft enough to get a smooth shave - as it would be if you had just had a shower. Shaving after showering is also a kind of a mistake, as it leaves you with the possibility of shaving cream left unnoticed on parts of your face. The logical conclusion? Shave in between showering.

Of course, this is easier said than done. For one, taking a hot shower (and let’s face it, cold showers are a slap in the face of those noble engineers who invented the geyser) tends to cloud up any mirrors in your bathroom. We all know that shaving without vision is like negotiating Eau Rouge in the rain, drunk and blindfolded. If you have more than one unoccupied bathrooms in your house, what you can do is simply switch to the second bathroom, for the shave. If you have roommates (or a maid cleaning the house), remember to wrap a towel around you, as you switch bathrooms, so as not to cause undue distress. The real problem, though, is that exiting a steamy bathroom while still wet is about as pleasant as Scotty accidentally beaming you from a swamp near the equator to a peak in Finland. Especially in winter, when, as per Murphy’s Law, the laws of Physics and Biology conspire not only to steam up the mirrors even more, but also to drive up the temperature difference between Cozy Bathroom and Cold, Cold Every Other Room even more.

The thing to do here is either wipe the mirror off with a towel, or with your hand. The hand seems to be more effective, as the mirror stays de-steamed for a longer period of time, but, personally, I hate touching a cold, wet mirror with my hand, while I’m showering. And the mirror still isn’t all that clear, leading to blind spots while shaving. The other thing to do is fill a mug with hot water, and splash it onto your mirror from a distance, covering as much of the mirror surface as possible, with the water flowing down the mirror slowly, gracefully, and evenly.

If done right, this ensures the clearest possible de-steamed mirror, of all the techniques discussed above. The mirror tends to stay de-steamed for longer, as well. However, repeating this process, while shaving, is not as easy as the hand \ towel wipe. And repeat you will, especially in winter. Also, it requires a true artist to do the water chucking just right, so that big, ugly spots, that make shaving nigh impossible, are not formed on the mirror. It’s all in the wrist action, and the follow through after the water leaves the mug. Learning to get it right can be a drag. Plus, in this day and age of environmentalism, I’m not sure how ethical this approach is. Make sure you don’t hit any light sockets or electric plug points with the water. I’ve heard that that can cause problems, including death – but not very often.

There you go. A complete, exhaustively researched article on how to shave more often, with less discomfort. For an alternative theory, here’s Johnny Caspar from the Coen Brothers’ “Miller’s Crossing” (a truly spectacular piece of film making, based on a couple of novels by Dashiell Hammett), which (the film, not the books) is a sublime gangster flick about a man and his hat.

"You towel down first with a hot towel, as hot as you can stand. Put the razor in cold water, not hot, because metal does what in cold?"

"I don't know, Johnny."

"That's why I'm telling you! It contracts. That way, you get a first-class shave every time."

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A drive in the rain ... and a plunge into the water

Seven months of swearing, being sworn at, honking, being honked at, crawling through traffic, and swerving around unannounced autos and jaywalkers, on Pune's crater-laden deathtraps should not be anyone's first seven months of driving. But it was mine. Nothing to be done about it now but say it's been a character-building experience. And then again, as someone said, "We can't have the happiness of yesterday without the pain of today." Or, for that matter, the happiness of the evening of August 8th, 2008, without the pain of the seven months preceding it. For that's the evening I drove on a road that seemed to me as broad as a Tendulkar bat in defence, as smooth as a lap of Spa-Francorchamps with Kimi Raikkonen, and as beautiful as any in a Wim Wenders film. A road with no intersections, no speed bumps or potholes, and no cyclists (motored or pedalled) or pedestrians tempting fate; above all, a road quiet enough to often stretch out to the horizon with no other vehicle in sight.

On this road, that evening, we set out to Khopoli. It was pitch black, and the rain was pouring down. We had one eye on the fuel gauge, as the petrol bunks we'd intended to stop at were out of fuel. The air-conditioning was off; the car buffeted about by the winds of the open windows. What we could see was limited to the beam of the headlights, and the glowing red of the taillights of distant cars. Until, that is, an occasional flash of lightning revealed menacing hills or vast open spaces - all in ghostly blue light. And "Layla" playing in the background. As pure a feeling as any. Finally, a glimpse of the food mall, and its companion petrol station, in the distance. At least, if the car stopped, we were close enough to walk and get a can.

The petrol station was anti-climactic. Turned out, we had 3 litres of petrol to spare. After all that nail gnawing, anything more than a few drops in the tank was bound to be a disappointment. Fuel-conservation mode over, the windows were up, the AC was on, and the rain hammered the windshield harder than ever. The scream of the engine - a sound I had not thought the little car capable of - with "Stairway to heaven" in the background, as we sometimes touched 140 kph on those deserted miles-long turnless stretches. The thrill of seeing cars faster than ours leave metres-long trails of spray behind; and occasional bursts that seemed to touch the skies, when they hit standing water. More lightning, and more glimpses of hills, and the vastness of the countryside. Then the Ghats, the fog, and crawling along at 40 kph, with the emergency lights on. Out of the fog, with the lights of Khopoli in the valley below. Adieu to the expressway.

The next morning was a thrill of a different kind. Started with a resolution not to go to the waterfalls, due to Bad Cold. This changed to "Ok, I'll see the falls, but will stay out of it." The others in shorts or track pants, and floaters; me in rain jacket, boots, and cotton trousers. Walking through the rain and the streams meant that the trousers got as wet as can be, and the boots were spouting water with every step I took. But the jacket kept the head and the upper body dry. The thundering of the falls announced itself well before we ever saw it. Five minutes of clicking pictures of my friends in the water.

Unable to resist any further, I took off my jacket, shoved my camera into my bag, and went down to the water. A wall of cold and spray thwarted my first two attempts. And then I sat shivering on a rock, with my back to the falls, unable to turn my face to it due to the force of the spray. A climb through treacherously slippery rocks to a second waterfall. Even closer to the falls this time, so even more thrilling. The rain hardened, and we made our way back. Stopped at a temple, and then climbed over railings and into a stream that had a mini rapid. A seat in the rocks that allowed you to sit with the water gushing above, below and all around your head. An experience to rival the one of the night before. A stop for Kanda Bhaji, and then a joyful hello to the expressway as we began the lovely drive back to Pune.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Beginner's Guide to Surviving a Trek in the Rain

A few days back, I was on my first-ever rainy trek up a hill-top fort (Rajgad). Here's my first impressions:-

1) Unless you're one of those chaps heading off into a hermitty retirement in a cave in the Himalayas, remember that you will have to climb back down at some point. "Duh," you think? Well, it's surprising how often people forget that climbing down is ten times as scary as climbing up. So, if you look up a steep incline, and just the thought of climbing it makes you feel religious, turn back immediately. Far better to piss off the rest of your party and be teased for the rest of your life, than have them eulogise you for your bravery at your funeral, is my philosophy.

2) As long as I'm spelling out the obvious... Picture this scenario. A narrow trail a foot wide. A huge rock to your left. A sheer drop to your right. Do you:-

    a) traipse along the cliff edge, whistling your favourite tune?
    b) do your best imitation of wallpaper and flatten yourself against the rock to the left, with a look of absolute terror on your face, and move at a pace of about 4 inches per hour?
    
If you answered "b", read on; if "a", you have the life expectancy of a villain's sidekick in a Bond film, and might as well stop reading this, and try and get more out of your numbered days.

3) Pride is a deadly, deadly sin. While a few photos of you crawling on hands and knees on the scarier bits, or slithering in the mud on your ass, may end up in circulation for the amusement of your near and dear, I'd take that any day over your near and dear scouring the mountainside with a plastic bag, searching for your remains.

4) Not really a survival tip, but try not to wear those cream-coloured cotton trousers you bought the day before. They're liable to change colour. Also, if you're new to trekking like I am, you tend to reason that as long as you're already sitting (refer to the "slithering in the mud" part of the previous point) and stay that way for the entirety of the climb down, you cannot fall, because, by definition, "falling down" requires you to be vertical in the first place. This is very sound reasoning. However, wearing cream-coloured pants tends to highlight this not-very-brave approach, by drawing attention to the seat of your pants once you're done with the trek, and pride regains its ascendancy.

5) About the "slithering in the mud" bit, I've been told that, when climbing down, facing the hillside, like you do when you're climbing up, is far safer - and more dignified - than having your back to it. Could be, but I couldn't quite manage it at Rajgad.

6) For guys. Don't be too macho to take anyone's hand. Take any hand offered, and hold on to it for as long as you can.

7) Try and let the people below you know that you're rubbish at trekking, and liable to tumble down the slope any second. They will then try and help you out whichever way they can. They will pause to point out footholds for you. They will take time out from their busy climbing schedules to advise on where to hold. They will even lend you a hand on occasions. This is not because they're all Mother or Brother Teresas. Rather, think dominoes. You see, if you take a roll down the hillside, you take everyone below you along for the ride.

In my case, when I told the girl below me that I was afraid I was about to fall down, her initial reaction was, "Well, keep at least 3 feet from me, then." But she gave it some thought, and apparently concluded that irrespective of the distance between us, if I fell, there was no way she could avoid being collected. From then on, her husband, who himself was just below her, and who is excellent at trekking, took a deep interest in my safety.

8) Chivalry is dead. If you see a pretty girl in trouble, don't hasten to her rescue. Let other gallant knights do the rescuing. There are many pretty girls in the world. And you have only one life. You do the math. This is, of course, assuming that the girl in trouble is not immediately above you (see previous point). In that case, pretty girl \ ugly dude, makes no difference. Either help them, or learn the manoeuvre below.

9) So what do you do when you're faced with someone directly above you, who has as much chance of getting to the bottom in one piece, as Clint Eastwood's mortal enemy has of surviving a Sergio Leone western? Well, you wait until a particularly steep fall comes up below you. Then you move to one side, reach up to him \ her, as if to give a hand, get a good grip, and then tip him \ her over the edge. It sounds harsh, but it's either you or them. Make sure no one sees you.

10) Well, this is not exactly a survival tip for you, but do try and make out the difference between an empty foothold, and one with someone's hand in it. As a general rule, if you happen to hear a loud "aiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeeeeee" followed by the person below you taking an aerial trip to the bottom of the hill, you've probably just stepped on the latter kind of foothold.

11) If there are monkeys around, try not to aggravate them. You can challenge them to all kinds of mano-a-simiano contests on flat ground, but on a climb down a hill, they probably have the upper hand.

12) You remember those lessons in school where they showed our ancestors using round logs to reduce friction when moving large blocks of stone and stuff? Well, keep this in mind when you encounter a lot of seemingly harmless little stones in your path.

13) However, if you happen to see a shiny big rock, with a slimy green coating, don't be an idiot and jump on it, just to avoid the little stones. The little stones are the lesser evil.

14) While on this topic, if you happen to come across someone who's fallen flat on his back, resist the temptation to say, "Be careful, be careful" in a quiet, soothing voice. Not only is the advice of no help after the fact, but it also falls in the "rubbing salt into the wounds" category, in my opinion.

15) We now come to the mind. For some reason, I kept visualising a heavy rock falling on me during much of the climb up. Try not to. Also, no matter how windy it is, you can't get blown off the top of the hill. At least, I think not. One of the most rewarding experiences of any trek is the strong wind blowing at you after a tiring climb up. Try and enjoy it, rather than wishing you had those extra pounds for anchorage, and conjuring mental images of you falling through the clouds.

16) A gigantic backpack with 3 changes of clothing, 2 towels, food and water to feed an army, the entire Jeeves collection from Wodehouse - bad idea. Keeping the size of the backpack to a minimum helps you balance better. Also, big backpacks tend to snag here and there.

17) If you're an unfit software engineer, rainwear is bloody useless. Correct me if I'm wrong, but rainwear is not for protecting you against the rain. That's only incidental. Its real purpose is to keep you from getting soaked. Now, if you're unfit, it doesn't make any difference whether there is rain or not, because you get drenched in sweat either way. Might as well leave the rainwear at home. Saves you some weight in luggage.

18) If you were to buy trekking shoes, take someone along with you who actually knows what they are.

19) Once again, we come to pride. If you see someone twice your age nimbly making his way down the slope at 3 times your speed, don't try and prove your alpha-male status by trying to keep up with him. Remember that it is good to stick to estimates for climbs down. Theoretically, you could reach the bottom of a hill, that should take 2 hours to climb down, in less than 30 seconds. But you wouldn't want that, would you?

20) When someone asks you whether you want to trek up Torna in the rains, don't say "yes" with nonchalant abandon. First, go to Rajgad, get scared out of your socks - listening all the while to horror stories of people who've actually been to Torna - and then, if you get back to Pune alive, delete the Torna girl from your address book.

That just about covers everything I can think of for now. Happy trekking!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Road to Purandar, Part 2 - "X" Marks the Spot

We last left our heroes on the perilous slopes of Mount Purandar. They are a mite perplexed on being told that they're standing on an invisible fort. So they proceed to a hall containing a mythical map that is supposed to answer all their questions. Will "X" mark the spot, or are their adventures just beginning? Read on to find out more!

We dutifully made our way to the hall. We did see a map (covered by graffiti) behind a statue of Shivaji. Looking at it, it indeed looked like we were on the fort itself. The mystery deepens. What about that temple that is an hour's trek from the fort? Behind the hall we saw a huge rock outcrop on top of a hill even higher than where we were. We reasoned that since we were already on the fort, and since the temple was supposed to be the highest point in Purandar, it must be on the rock, as we could see no higher points in the vicinity. We decided to get to its top - a decision we regretted for every minute of our climb upwards.

Several trails we took - all of them ending either with the trail narrowing to a few nanometers, or bees, wasps, spiders and other human unfriendly creatures stopping us. We also saw the bones of dead animals eaten by leopards and tigers. Of course, it might just have been the shells of some weird fruits we saw hanging on some bushes there, but that possibility is small. Several times we decided to go back. But every time we would see a new trail, and curiosity - the thing that killed the cat - and pride - that deadly sin - kept us going. A thought was starting to worry me.

"Do you know how to get back?"
"Eh, no. But that doesn't matter. We can see that statue on the ground over there. We can make our way to something as long as we can see it."

It seemed to me that there was something wrong with that logic. We'd been seeing that blasted rock above us for about 2 hours, without getting us anywhere near it. It was an unpleasant train of thought, though. There was no point following it.



To cut a long story short, after more twists and turns than we cared to count, we reached the top. It was beautiful. There was the rock hanging there right above us. There were some steps-like thingies that looked like the seats of an open-air theatre leading up to it. And a hell of a view, as well. No temple, though. Our reasoning faculties working overtime, we concluded that the temple must be on the rock itself. There was no question of us actually climbing that rock, but we saw a trail going up around one side of it. We took it. This was a trail that had a huge vertical face of the rock on one side, a valley on the other - and it was all of a foot wide. It looked like only a few goats, and Spiderman - on a good day - had ever used it. I had on a pair of "hiking shoes", that was about as grippy as wet ice. It was a lot of fun.

To cut another long story short, that trail lead nowhere. It just went on and on. After some time, we just gave up, sat down, and had lunch. At least Ashwin did. I hadn't had any breakfast, either, but starving was better than eating potato-chips sandwiches. We were tired and hungry. The sun was beating down on us. We didn't want to take that trail back. We started searching for helicopter rescue services on our phones. We didn't find any. We called up an old friend of ours, instead, and taunted her a bit. This done, we felt a lot better and made our way back. No number of words can express our joy on reaching the end of the trail that ran on the side of the rock, and reaching a proper trail - that had only a few bees, wasps and spiders to worry us - back down to the statue. This we did, and began to make our way back to the car. We reached that fork in the road again (where we had taken the right to avoid the kids), and out of morbid curiosity, took the road on the left.

We met some people there who told us that the correct way to the fort was to take that road until we saw a canteen, and then, behind it, the trail to the fort started. We saw people going up and down the trail. I don't know what that map back in that hall was all about (most likely, our map-reading abilities are on par with our highway-sign reading abilities), but now that we "saw all", we realised that the rock that we thought the temple was on had been the back portion of the fort, and we couldn't enter it, of course, because the entrance was up this trail that we saw people using. Logical, too. No point in building a fort and then allowing people who climb up any side of the hill to get inside it. We even saw the temple.

Ever been to the Taj Mahal? Me neither. But my point is, imagine that you did try to go there. But because some kids were there in the correct route, you took some other road, and ended up at its back entrance, or something. No way to go in. But you don't know you're at the back entrance because there's a deserted hall there with a map that says you're in Taj Mahal proper. Having no proof to the contrary, you believe it. "Isn't there more?", you still wonder. "It looks so different in pictures." And then, on your way back, when it's too late, you see its front in all its glory - from a distance. "Oh, there's the entrance," you say. "And that garden. And those other thingies." And you say, "Oh well, such is life. Besides, to a true traveller, it is the journey that matters and not the destination."

Anyway, thinking these thoughts we walked back, and saw a gate from which we were supposed to have entered. It seems we missed that too while coming up, and had taken a kind of detour through the army camp - typical for the day. We walked down that trail a bit, and as we didn't know how to reach our car down that way, walked back up to the gate. A gentleman standing at the gate thought we were nuts. He sees these 2 chaps enter through one entrance and then promptly turn around and head for a second exit. "Err, the fort's that way," he said, pointing up. We smiled sadly, explained a bit and were on our way.

We reached Pune at around 3:45 PM, and had a bit of lunch at Polka Dots (my first meal for the day). As a general rule, in movies, guys who return from perilous expeditions get to jump into the arms of girlfriends who look like Liv Tyler. Well, that's why they don't make movies about software engineeers. In our field, women who look like Liv Tyler - oh, forget the looks, ANY women - are about as common as a Rahul Dravid reverse sweep is. Amazing sleep, though. About 12 hours of it. A lot of good photos, as well, from the trip.

P.S. - Here's a link to Ashwin's album for Purandar. He has shamelessly appropriated some of my photos, though.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Mahjong for World Peace

Matthew Hayden has scored 8000+ runs, from 94 tests, at an average of 54, with 30 hundreds. VVS Laxman, from just one match less, hasn't even crossed 6000, with an average of 44, and a mere 12 hundreds. The former, an all-time great; the latter, merely a very good player - at least for the statisticians. But there are people for whom a game of cricket is not a piece of paper with some numbers on it; but a duel between artists with the bat, the ball, and their brains for brushes, and a field - green with grass, slippery with sweat, and red with blood - for a canvas.

Give these people a 30-second glimpse of Laxman dispatching, with an elegant wave of that magic wand that others call a cricket bat, between fast bowler and mid on, a short-of-the-length outswinger way outside the off stump, and they know, they just know, that all the statistics piled up by all the Haydens of this world cannot match that one brief glimpse of true, pure genius. So much for numbers...

Now, on a slightly different track, to Mahjong. A game similar to several card games where you "make a hand". Instead of a deck of 52 cards, though, you have 136 tiles. Importantly, the game starts with 4 walls. One player breaks the wall, to deal tiles to each of the 4 players. And then everyone takes apart the walls, tile by tile, as each player self draws. Add to this that Mahjong was invented by Confucius, a man who emphasised love for humanity, social harmony, etc, and factor in that the player who breaks the wall is called the "honour", and how much clearer do you want the symbolism to be!

The object of this game is not to win in the least possible time, as commonly believed. The reverse, in fact - win as late as possible. Anyone can win in the first few turns, going for a low-faan, high-probability hand. The real challenge is to go for a high-faan, low-probability hand, and win with a mere handful of tiles left in the wall. Tile by tile, brick by brick, you reduce the "walls of hatred, greed and fear" to rubble. Of course, in this affirmation for World Peace, you risk draws, you risk huge defeats. But it is this willingness to walk the tightrope between glory and disaster that separates the Laxmans from the Haydens.

This aspect of Mahjong can even be construed as a reflection on why there is so much trouble in the world. Even if most people were benevolent do-gooders (purely hypothetical, of course), that one person (represented here by a clean-reach-chee player) selfish (and boring) enough to put his own ends of winning in the first few turns, before the needs of the community, is enough to keep those walls keeping us apart intact.

We are all born with traits that naturally lead to walls between us; but can we rise above them; that selfishness, that desire to play it safe, that ruthlessness that comes from wanting to win, no matter how lifeless or unethical the means; can we instead use our passion, our hopes for a better world, even our lust for destruction, to demolish those walls inherent, while at the same time satisfying the innate urge to compete? Are we merely Robert Frost's old-stone savages, who move in darkness, and cannot think beyond "Good fences make good neighbours"? Can we show the grace, the sportsmanship, to accept the risk of the game petering out into a draw, or even of losing? For what is sport if you cannot accept defeat? These are the questions Mahjong asks.

Tell your grand children that you once won a Mahjong tourney with 5 consecutive hands of clean-reach-and-chees, and they will yawn. Tell them you discard all your edges and honours, as "all middles" is statistically more probable, and you will hasten your entry in an old-age home by a good 15 years. Tell them you never keep any of those pretty red dragons or the dark green ones because the probability of you getting the other two is less than that of seeing an act of sportsmanship from Michael Schumacher, and they will yell out, "Mom, I hope you're an illegitimate daughter, because I don't want any of his genes in me!"

Why go for a boring old "seven eyes"? Why not add a "mixed edges" and also a "mixed one numerals" to the hand? Give it a bit of character. So what if your chances of winning with this refurbished hand are only fractionally higher than the number of WMDs that Bush has found in Iraq? So what if you're going for "small dragons" and have only one of each dragon in your hand? "Nine treasure lamps" an impossible hand? Says who? To all the objections they can conjure, and a million more, thumb your nose, and say, in as defiant a tone as you can manage, "So what?!" The more improbable your victory, the more glorious your stand, the more your cojones.

Sachin Tendulkar could've left a head-high bouncer from Brett Lee, on top of middle stump, well alone. For that's what most would have done, consigning the ball to the trash cans of history - like so many other millions. But he didn't. He played this stroke, instead. A shot gloriously out of the ordinary. A shot played not by percentages, but with heart and boundless skill. A shot played by a warrior, against the fastest bowler in the world at his sharpest. A shot unforgettable for an audacity equalled only by its artistry. Tendulkar took the road less travelled. Why not you and me?

Or take Kimi Raikkonen. In 2005, at the Nurburgring, the Iceman was leading the race in a car that had one wheel hanging off it literally by a thread. The sound of the wheel bouncing off the tarmac, shattering his McLaren's suspension piece by piece, could be heard even over the wails of those incredibly powerful engines; the on-board camera showed a car vibrating so much that it is a wonder Kimi could see anything apart from a blurry haze. The percentage game? Pit the car, change the wheel, lose the victory, but still get third place. But what does a racer do? He waves the pit crew aside, dismisses all thought of grave injuries, and battles on for lap after lap, in a pile of metal disintegrating all around him.

At 300 km\hr, in the final lap of the race, the tyre tore lose, and he was thrown into the wall. A million hearts were broken around the world. But of the 2005 season, the image that endures is not of the champion holding aloft his trophy, but of a shattered McLaren against a tyre wall, seconds away from victory. Sure, it's an image of tragedy. But who will ever forget it? - in a few years, most people won't even remember who the champion of that year was, but the memory of Kimi and his fight against the odds will live on. If a man can risk life and limb just because he wouldn't settle for 6 points, when he could have 10, why do we set our sights on a mere 3 faans, when there are 20 to play for?

Where those sporting giants have an audience in the millions for their battles, us Mahjong players have to make do with a mere handful. But battle it is, nevertheless; if just on a table, with 136 tiles, and three other numpties to play against. Why be content with slowly bleeding our opponents to death with chees, cleans, all-middles and the like, when we could go all out for glory with "One numerals", "All greens" or "13 honours"? Sure, on occasions, to keep our hand and our chances of victory, we may have to ignore the hands of our opponents - and risk defeat. And why not? Why have a dull draw as your best hope, if you have even one chance in a thousand of a win? When others live and die in a blaze of glory, why play like accountants?

If an air-conditioned room with 5 people be where we make our stand, why not make it a stand that those 5 will remember for the rest of their lives? Why go with the odds? Why play the percentage game? Wage a lonely war, instead, in the hope, in that less-than-1% chance, that you will declare a 15-faan win, than have a 25% chance of a drab 3-faan win. Sure, you may be spectacularly busted, or you may be left high and dry, with tiles to go before you win, and tiles to go before you win. Take that chance! Take up arms against the sea of odds! Play with passion! Play with style! Play for World Peace! Attempt to "Mahjong" with the hands less played, for ages and ages hence, you might just say that that is what made all the difference!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Road to Purandar, Part 1 - The Strange Case of the Missing Fort

The alarm goes off at 5:15 on the Sunday morning of the 25th of February, 2007. "What the hell?", you think. And then, "Ohhhhhhhhh. The trek!" You part the curtains and take a tentative look outside. It's all dark. You glance at the soft comfort of your bed highlighted just right in the darkness. You notice the outlines of that beloved thick blanket of yours waiting to envelop you in her warm, sweet embrace (phrases like these are the legacy of a childhood where I did not always pay heed to the adage, "Do not judge a book by its cover.")

"Screw the trek."
The Voice of Conscience pops up, "But what about Ashwin? He's driving all the way from Aundh."
"Screw him, too."
The Voice of Conscience has one last try, "But that camera you bought. You've been wanting to try it out. That's why you set that alarm for this god-forsaken hour, anyway. Who cares about Ashwin? I began with him just to start the conversation. Think about the pictures you'll be able to take. Think of Bunuel, Lynch, Hitchcock, the Coens, De Palma. They must all have started this way."
"They woke up in the dead of the night to climb up a piece of rock?"
"Yes. Listen, I'm the Voice of Conscience. Would I lie?"
"Oh, all right."

So began the day. We were scheduled to start by 5:45 AM. This meant that Ashwin reached my place by 6:30, or so, and off we went. I guess I should start off with a description of the scenic route and everything. Well, to start off with, it wasn't particularly scenic - not until the last leg of the drive, anyway.

It was just some road that went through Hadapsar, and reached Saswad. From Saswad we took a series of turns that somehow miraculously got us on the road to Narayanpur (the village at the base of Purandar). On the way, we stopped at a tea-shop, and - to everyone's immense astonishment - ordered some tea. While the tea was being prepared, I went out to take some snaps of a tree that looked really promising from an angle close to the ground. After I was done with the snaps, I discovered that Ashwin had decided that since I was messing around lying flat on the ground, he might as well drink my tea, too. We continued on our way.

The road so far had been relatively good, and we soon came to a board that claimed to point travellers to 2 destinations - Purandar, and some other place that escapes my mind. According to the board, we were to take a road to the left of the highway to go to Purandar. However, according to the other arrow on the very same board, the other place lay somewhere near the core of the earth. Either that, or we don't know how to read boards. It was at this juncture, when confusion ruled our minds, that we saw a bus full of school children on the road to the left (had this been a movie, there would've been a long lingering shot of the bus, and some scary music playing in the background; you know, those "ominous portents" thingies - more on this later). We asked one of the teachers (or, according to Ashwin, parents; it seemed to me, though, that if so few parents can have so many kids, the family-planning messages really aren't getting across at all) who said, yes, this is the road to Purandar.

The road, from this point on, was pretty bad. It was just a few pieces of tar connecting potholes. But believe you me, compared to the road that wound up the hills towards Purandar fort, this was the equivalent of the autobahns. On reaching Narayanpur village, we debated on whether to trek up, or to drive. We settled on driving, as we also wanted to see a temple that was about an hour's trek from the fort itself. This was our first trek, and we did not want to over exert ourselves. Besides, we didn't have any food.

You wouldn't believe it, but Ashwin stays with his family, and they have a proper kitchen and everything, and the best he could come up with in the way of snacks was some bread, and some chips, which he said could be put in between the bread to make a sandwich. The first I ever heard of a potato-chip sandwich. And then there was the matter of water. He'd promised to get water, and all he got was about 1 litre, and a bottle of fruit juice, or something. No glasses even. On querying, all I got was a, "Well, I must have left the glasses at home - along with the plates, forks and the rest of the dinner set." No apologetic tone of the voice, either.

Anyway, that set us on that road-from-hell to Purandar. Apparently, somebody didn't want to tar that road. Not only that, he seems to have figured that since he was leaving it untarred, he might as well leave on it, by the millions, stones the size of the iceberg that sank Titanic - to finish the task, you know, and ensure the road is completely unusable. Up we went, until a place where a landslide blocked the road. We parked the car there and went up the rest of the way on foot. On the way, we passed the group of kids whose bus we had overtaken. They were sitting on the side of the road, and as we passed them, we thought, "Leaving these pests behind is a good idea. There's nothing that puts a damper on a nice, quiet nature trip as having a bunch of lousy kids around you." We came up against a gate marked "Army Land". We were a little hesitant about going in, but remembered a blog that said that though it was marked as such, it was fine to go in by foot. Still, cautious we were, as we didn't want to spend the rest of the weekend explaining to some colonel, "But that blog said..."

We passed a little pond, and then came upon the ruins of a church or something, and were stunned by the sight of those kids infesting the building - we had not seen them pass us. It turned out that there was a little shortcut that we had not seen. This would be the story of our trek.

We hung around taking "The Searchers" style photos hoping the kids would carry on. Leaving them behind proving unfeasible, we thought we'd let them leave us behind. This, they didn't do for quite a while, but our patience did pay off eventually. We hung around a bit more, giving the kids a healthy start. Fate would now play a cruel trick on us. We reached a fork in the road, with the statue of a chap with two swords, in the middle.

The road on the right was blocked (deliberately) by rocks. The left one wasn't. It had what looked like another old church, and a sign about a canteen down that road. Now, most of you folks reading this would probably reason that the road on the right was blocked for a good reason, and take the one on the left. Good reasoning, it would be, too. But the thing was, the road on the right had the enormous advantage of not having any blasted kids. The road on the left was chockful of them, and so the road on the right it was.

We walked up it, hoping to eventually reach the fort, which we could see way above and to the right of us. We tried a few dirt tracks that seemed to lead more directly to the fort, but gave them all up after meeting with several hardships on them. We reasoned that if somebody had built a nice tarred road, it would be a crime to leave it for some dirt trails. Besides, it was logical that they would build the nice tarred road for a reason, and that reason would be a fort at the end of it.

We finally reached the end of the road. There was another statue there, and not much else. We saw a family lunching there. The conversation went as follows:-

"Excuse us, but there's supposed to be a fort around here somewhere. Do you know where it is?"
"Yes."
"Well?"
"You're on it."
"What? This is a fort?"
"Yup."
"Oh."

A bit flummoxed, we were. Granted, we're not architectural experts, but WordWeb defines a fort as "a fortified defensive structure". And if there was any structure, defensive or otherwise - apart from a hall nearby - we couldn't see it.

"Umm, isn't there anything else around here? Some walls, I mean. Shouldn't a fort have some?"
"There's a map inside that hall over there."

And on this cliff hanger, I will leave you guys. Where is this mysterious fort? Will the map in the hall lead our young heroes to the fort? Any chance of the charming hunks hooking up with some hot babes on the way, Indiana Jones style? What other treasures could the map lead them to? Or does it merely hold nameless terrors that will test the mettle of the brave adventurers to the utmost? Stay tuned, same time, next week - or whatever - to find out the exciting answers to these questions!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Movie Turn-Ons, Part 2 (Film-Noir Dialogue)

I was aware of the parodies of film noir before I ever heard of the genre that owes its origins to the hardboiled fiction of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I first heard of them in a review for "Pulp Fiction" that said the movie was tinted by their echoes. Given how much I loved it, I simply had to find out more about these two guys. Now I have a collection of books on detectives tracking down dames with eyes the colour of "shadows on polished silver" (grey, in case you were wondering), and men "neither tarnished nor afraid", who walk the "mean streets".

Crackling with wit and dripping with atmosphere, their tales were of world-weary men who brought their own strange code of ethics to a dark world of unforgettable characters. The stories were vicious, bloody and ironic - where lines got so blurred that villains were sometimes more sympathetic than heroes; where, in fact, such labels often had no meaning (maybe this is more true for Hammett than Chandler). In "Red Harvest", for instance, it is the "villains" who display more heart and more humanity than the cold-blooded killing machine that is the detective, the nameless Continental Op. These were no morality plays.

For all that, they were also very affecting, for here were characters, on both sides of the divide, I actually cared for. (As Chandler put it, "Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish.") Then there are those encounters, those passages, that are such perfect mood pieces that long after I've forgotten who was murdered, or who the culprit was, the flavour lingers. These were no puzzles dressed up as stories, or a meticulous collection of mysteries and clues, all building up to a huge pay-off in the last page. Hell, sometimes even the author had no idea who did what (Chandler, more than Hammett). A world apart from the antiseptic whodunnits that I'd read previously.

Which brings me to my movie turn-on. Sure, black-and-white photography of Humphrey Bogart walking down dark, rain-drenched streets alone, in trench coat and hat, is a thrill like no other. But some other time, maybe. For now, it's noir dialogue. Snappy, double-entendre-laced exchanges at the pace of machine-gun fire. So outrageously over-the-top that they're more often cringe-worthy than anything else. But when they do get it right, there's nothing quite like it.

"Double Indemnity", co-written by Chandler, was made at a time when the Hays Code was in effect. I suppose the right thing to do is tut-tut at this censorship that must've neutered so many great movies. But it's hard not to take some perverse pleasure that Hollywood, too, had to go through a variation of the hypocrisy that the Indian establishment practises. So what if generations of Indians had to put up with gushing fountains and blooming flowers after a trying 3 hours of aggravatingly-idealistic boy wooing irritatingly-pious girl? Why, even the great Hitchcock had to be happy with trains speeding into tunnels! And what's more? The fact that the code was there, adds to the fun of seeing this oh-so-innocent insurance sales pitch, for instance, dance circles around it. Of course, reading it here is only half the thing. Watching it, elevates it to a whole new plane.


She: You handle just automobile insurance or all kinds?
He : All kinds: fire, earthquake, theft, public liability, group insurance, industrial stuff and so on, right on down the line.
She: (She sits back down and crosses her legs) Accident insurance?
He : Accident insurance? Sure, Mrs. Dietrichson. (Pause) Wish you'd tell me what's engraved on that anklet.
She: Just my name.
He : As for instance?
She: Phyllis.
He : Phyllis, huh? I think I like that.
She: But you're not sure?
He : Oh, have to drive it around the block a coupla times...
She: Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening around 8:30. He'll be in then.
He : Who?
She: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren't you?
He : Yeah, I was, but... I'm sorta getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
She: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr Neff. 45 miles an hour.
He : How fast was I going, officer?
She: I'd say around 90.
He : Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
She: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
He : Suppose it doesn't take.
She: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
He : Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
She: Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
He : That tears it. (Pause) 8:30 tomorrow evening, then.
She: That's what I suggested.
He : Will you be here, too?
She: I guess so, I usually am.
He : Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?
She: I wonder if I know what you mean.
He : I wonder if you wonder.


That was just a sample. From the evocative narration of our hero (a man confessing to murdering for... well... two very special reasons), to how the little man in the stomach is indispensable when it comes to detecting insurance fraud and dodgy brides, to how converting husbands to a little hard cash can smell like honeysuckle and how your footsteps sound afterward, to how you can mistake people for being smarter than the rest when all they are is a little bit taller, to some startling insight on suicide statistics (did you know that not one person has ever attempted suicide by jumping off the back of a moving train?), the dialogue is witty, cynical, nasty, touching too at times, totally unrealistic (it seems so, at least; however, if this is how people really talk in Los Angeles, my places-to-visit list needs updating), has more outrageous similes than you can count... and is eminently quotable.

In fact, you could just switch off the TV (if you were blind, that is, and extraordinary photography - or Barbara Stanwyck, for the matter - does nothing for you), and just listen to the movie. Ah, that's my cue. I just contradicted myself. My post's going downhill. I'm all washed up. You bet I'll get out of here, baby. I'll get out of here but quick.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Sachin Tendulkar - Baptism by Fire

Tomorrow, the 24th of April, is Sachin Tendulkar's 35th birthday. What follows is an essay I wrote on his 30th birthday. It's something I've been mailing every year on this day, to everyone in my address book. (With replies along the lines of, "I'm listing this as spam. Isn't this the same stupid thing you've been sending for the past 5 years?") Now that I have a blog, no more spamming.

Disclaimer:- "I detest cheap sentiment," said Margo Channing. But Tendulkar has been my hero since early childhood, and you have no greater heroes than childhood ones. And I'm probably past the age for new "heroes". So do forgive me my occasional hyperbole and cheap sentiment. One other thing. I haven't been able to verify the "successive boundaries" bit in the anecdote below. Five years is too long to remember all your sources. In case it's inaccurate, much as I hate John Ford, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend" is my defense.



Baptism by fire


1989. The Indian squad, on its tour to Pakistan, had this 16-year-old kid from Bombay. This was no ordinary kid, though. For a few years prior even to this startlingly early debut, he had had the eye of senior Indian cricketers and officials on him. He began his first-class career with a bang a year earlier - centuries on debut in each of the 3 major tournaments. At the age of 15, Sachin Tendulkar was already the next big thing in Indian cricket.

And so, after barely a year of first-class cricket, it was on to Pakistan. At the age when most of us were just beginning our Plus One, Tendulkar was to face Abdul Qadir and the pace trio of Imran Khan and his young finds - Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, a pair that would go on to terrorise batting line-ups for long, and stamp their class as one of the greatest cricket has known (until injury reduced Waqar to half the bowler he once was, that is).

He got his opportunity in the first test at Karachi. Remember, this was a boy who'd not even played Ranji Trophy for much more than a year, much less faced one of the best bowling line-ups in the world. The genius was always there, but not the technical perfection that makes us call him the Little Master today. Things got bad pretty fast. In his own words, he'd never faced bowlers of such pace before. The ball, more often than not, would thud into the keeper's gloves even before he finished playing his stroke. As he admitted later on, he thought that his first match in international cricket would turn out to be his last.

From the next test on, however, he vowed to stick around and see what happened, no matter what. In the words of Wasim Akram, "He never took a backward step." In the fourth test at Sialkot, India found themselves in more than a spot of bother, with them playing for a draw and a good deal of time left in the test. And then it happened. A Waqar snorter went through the grill of Sachin's helmet and smashed into his nose, bringing down with it the boy a nation was praying for. The sight of blood on the pitch had the non-striker waving frantically towards the pavilion - the medics were out and so was the stretcher. The trouble was, the young batsman didn't want to leave. For the kid with the blood-soaked shirt, retreat was just not an option. Waqar's next ball sped to the boundary. So did the one after. Tendulkar went on to score 50 odd - more importantly, he faced 190 balls. The match was saved. Thus began the legend.

Tendulkar made his international debut when I was 7 years old. I discovered him a year later, while playing with those bubble-gum cards, in the backseat of the van, on the way home from school. My next memories are of watching match after match, praying for three quick Indian wickets, just so that the dashing #5 would walk in and play those strokes no other could play. I've had no greater hero ever since. Right through all the years of school and college - from Enid Blyton to The Hardy Boys to Alistair Maclean to Arthur C. Clarke, from wanting to be a pilot, to being a scientist (until I encountered something known as Plus-Two Physics) - my flavour-of-the-month kept changing. But Tendulkar was always at the top. Always.

It isn't difficult to see why. To watch Tendulkar bat is to... (I've never been much of a poet). But I say this. Whenever he plays one of those magical innings that only he can play, the world seems a better place. You may have failed in maths, physics and chemistry (all in the same term); you may be in bed with chicken pox (with you resembling, more or less, a dart board after a particularly tough day in the office); your cable operator may be boycotting HBO the same month they're showing "The Untouchables" and "The Godfather II" - you may be suffering from any number of physical or mental ailments, but come a Tendulkar classic, and the picture brightens. Black-and-White turns full colour. You see larks where previously vultures seemed to hover. And you sing, "What a wonderful world". If a man can do this for millions of people over a period of 14 years, what more can you ask for? And sport is "just another form of entertainment"?

Genius, though, is not without its pitfalls. You're often judged by standards impossibly high - standards applicable to no one else. How else would you explain the labelling of a man who has an average of 51 (his career average being 44) in the grand finals of all tournaments he's played in (as shown in "Taking Guard" on the morning of the World Cup final) as somebody "who doesn't perform when the team needs him"? Wasn't it Harsha Bhogle's comment that if you woke up Tendulkar in the middle of the night on an overseas tour, he'd wake up asking, "Is it 20 for 2, or 30 for 2?" Yet, he has an overseas test average in the 50s, when an overall average in the 40s is considered a sign of a very good player. What about having top scored in no less than 2 World Cups, and also the distinction of being the player with the most number of "Man of the Matches" ever?

It isn't just about statistics. Things are changing for the better now, but was it that long ago when he carried the entire batting of this nation of a billion people on his shoulders; when he was India's "One-Man Army;" when people switched off television sets the moment he got out; when the opposition considered the match as good as won at the fall of the great one? The quality of any sportsman is best appreciated by his opponents, for it is they who meet him in battle and pit their talents against his. And it is here that Tendulkar can count some of his biggest admirers. The great bowlers of this generation - from Wasim Akram to Allan Donald to Shane Warne - have only one name to mention, when asked that question they've probably grown weary of, "Who's the best batsman you've ever bowled to?"

So carry on, Sachin. Delight us, entertain us, awe us. Craft ever so elegantly even more reasons for people to carry signs like this to cricket grounds all over the world, "Commit all your crimes when Sachin Tendulkar is at the crease, for even the Lord has eyes just for him." But the day must come when the great man scores his last run for India, and that thought is nothing less than terrifying. For a whole generation, introduced to the game by the Little Master, "Cricket" and "Tendulkar" are synonyms, and it is to him, and him alone, that Number Four in the Indian line-up belongs to. An Indian batting line-up without Tendulkar? To be two-down and watch a mere mortal walk in to what had once been the abode of a God? Unthinkable! "Where have you gone, Sachin Tendulkar? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you." Rahul Dravid once said, "On the off-side, first there is God, then there is Ganguly." And we all know who that God is - on the off-side, on-side, behind the wicket, straight down the ground; any damn spot on the cricket field. As a fan put it, "Who says there's no God? I've seen him. He bats at Number Four in the Indian test team." To those who know me, soak up all these references to the divine, for this is as religious as I'll ever get. Worshipping others' petty tools for power is not something I have time for, but a real God is an altogether different matter - and that is what Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar is.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Movie Turn-Ons, Part 1

I thought I'd have a post listing out my movie turn-ons - with about three, maybe. Why three? Because the Ramans do everything in threes. Once I started writing, it was clear that there was no way I could fit it all in one post - especially after some rather strong words, recently, from a couple of friends, on the length of my posts. Besides, I'm not a Raman. So what I'll do is, have a series of posts on the topic, each with one turn-on.

To start with, here's my all-time favourite. A shortened version was on my Orkut profile for a while, but I had to remove it because the length of the bloody thing meant that I wasn't able to add any more movies to the list. Here goes...

Any comedy set in a gloomy, scary, forbidding castle built on top of a hill. Well, it doesn't have to be on top of a hill. Or be a castle, for that matter. Just any big house will do. Ok, a house of any size, even. Hell, it doesn't even have to be a comedy. It could be "Saving Private Ryan", for all I care. So long as the scene itself isn't a completely serious one. The heroes may be in deadly danger, a la "The Temple of Doom". Or the whole set-up may just be vaguely spooky, a la "Young Frankenstein". An element of danger does add a certain something.

The characters having to wander around in the darkness, is a must - holding those huge candle holders with more than 3 candles. This, of course, means that if the movie is in the post-electricity era, a power cut has to be worked in. Either that, or the secret passageway (see below) has to be dark. It just doesn't take, otherwise.

A big, big plus would be if it were to be played out in a bedroom. One with one of those giant ornate beds. And a secret passageway from behind a secret door. Ah, now I remember why I mentioned "castle" and "big house". Small houses don't have giant ornate beds. Or secret passageways. They can, but it looks odd.

All the better if there are two characters. A guy and a girl. Near the giant ornate bed. With the candle holders. Those of you who don't know me must be starting to wonder whether they're reading the online journal of a porno director. As opposed to others who know, and therefore, don't wonder. But really guys, don't worry. This is a family blog. In fact, my earliest memories of The Scene are of Laurel and Hardy terrified to death in a spooky house (with candles and ornate bed). Sadly, I don't remember the name of the movie. Laurel and Hardy. What could be more U-rated than those two?

Over the years, between Laurel and Hardy, and "Young Frankenstein" (my most recent watch with one), countless are the films that have enthralled me with The Scene. But I never tire. Every time I see one, it just seems so fresh and full of possibilites. To those into that sort of thing, you could compare this with watching the sun rise, or a bit of stargazing. Whatever.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Film Makers in a Box

Sunday afternoons are the worst. Saturday nights being Saturday nights, I usually end up sleeping at something like 3 or 4 in the morning, and waking up around noon on Sunday. This throws everything off. I feel listless getting out of bed. Getting ready for the day is a pain. And then there is the question of lunch. In Pune, if you don't have your lunch by 3, you have to stick to burgers or pizza. Or skip lunch altogether. You could, of course, cook something, but that has never been my forte. The trouble is, when you have breakfast at 12, it's difficult to work up a good appetite before 3. Tired and grumpy, I feel all alone in the world. I usually have a bite of breakfast and go right back to bed, knowing full well that this means the night's sleep is going to be pretty much screwed, and that the following day at work will be about as productive as a session with an out-of-form Rahul Dravid at the crease. (But then again, on Mondays, there are lots of out-of-form Dravids in office.)

But not last Sunday. No sir. Up till the "feeling all alone in the world" bit, it was business as usual. And that is the perfect mood in which to watch Wim Wenders' "The End of Violence", which was shown on Zee MGM at 3, as the inaugural film of their "Sultans of Cinema" series. Well, maybe not quite the perfect mood. It's the sort of film where being a little drunk also helps. The title is about this system that is supposed to bring about an end of violence by video surveillance of all public places. But to achieve this end of violence, They have to go about killing whoever asks questions about the potential abuse of such a system. Some kind of irony, I suppose. (Don't think "Enemy of the State". These 2 films are about as alike as are, say, "Star Wars" and "2001: A Space Odyssey". ) At least, I think the plot was something along those lines. (There was a brief power cut, I was a little drowsy, and I switched back too late after ads on occasions. I really can't stand ads in the middle of a movie. Wasn't it Herzog who said that future generations will wonder how we could ever allow something as precious as the telling of a story to be smashed into smithereens by advertisements?) Anyway, it's not important. The film's more about these alienated souls who wander a gorgeous Los Angeles landscape.

And that got me thinking. This is the kind of movie that, with its pacing, allows - no, encourages - you to think random thoughts. How about putting directors in a box? Mind you, I'm not talking of stuff like "Generally, he..." No, it has to be, "In ALL his movies..." Of course, it helps if you've seen very few films of a director. The more movies you watch, the larger is the box - less things to pin on him. For instance, for many years, my box for David Lean was, "Likes to shoot an Arab-robe clad Peter O Toole in the desert." Not quite accurate. But, what the hell. We're all frogs in wells. At least, I am. Therefore, so are you all.

"Paris, Texas" had even more alienated souls wandering an even more gorgeous Texas landscape. "Wings of Desire" was about... well, maybe not alienated... but definitely lonely angels who've just about had enough of immortality (see post script), and also of people walking through them, sitting on them, not acknowledging their presence and what not. The humans in the film - definitely alienated. The mostly black-and-white Berlin of the film is a little bleak, but it's still exceptionally well shot. I've seen only these 3 films by him. So off goes Wim Wenders in the "alienated people in breathtaking landscapes; has a way with photographing beautiful man-made structures; minimal plots; characters (at least some of them) reconnect with the rest of humanity by the end of the film" box.

I think I'll put Antonioni in the same box - except that I'll remove that last "reconnecting at the end" bit, and put in a "can bore you to tears sometimes". (I'm thinking 'Red Desert'. And I know I'm violating the ALL films rule here.)

Who else? Werner Herzog. Well, I've seen 7 films by him. 6 films from the Herzog-Kinski box set + "Grizzly Man", which they showed on Discovery Channel last week. "Bleak world view; certified lunatics as lead actors; awe-inspiring photography of nature at its wildest; lead characters a combination of bravery, incredible ambition, equally incredible stupidity, massive egos; Nature hands Man's head on plate." This is harder than I thought. I had to develop selective amnesia to get in some of those points for the Herzog box.

Hitchcock. "Wizardry with the camera; people die; morbid humour."

John Ford. "Fantastic photography of John Wayne striking macho poses in vast open spaces; maudlin; specialises in moralizing that is as subtle as a sledgehammer; makes you want to throw a shoe at the screen whenever characters so much as open their mouths." I suspect, no matter how many films I see of him, this box is unlikely to change. "The Searchers", for instance, was one of my all-time favourite films when I saw it the first time. Each subsequent viewing makes me like it a little less, as I see past the stunning cinematography, and start listening to the characters. I still like "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance". But then again, I've only watched it once. I have a special grudge against this bloke. Such is his reputation that I thought nothing of splurging on an 8-movie box set of his. That was about 2 years back. So far, I've managed to watch about 3 movies, and the set is now stuffed somewhere at the back of a shelf - where I have to see as little of it as possible.

Brian De Palma. "Nudity, sex, violence; uses the camera like V.V.S. Laxman uses his bat - a wand."

I think I'll stop now. There are other directors I'd like to try this exercise on, but it's getting more and more difficult to put them in a box - I've watched more than a handful of movies from them. For instance, the "nudity and sex" bit as a box for ALL Brian De Palma films is a flat-out lie. I just didn't want a box with only one point.

By the way, in case you were wondering how my Sunday went, it went very well. Right after "The End of Violence", I got to watch the Bahrain GP, that saw Raikkonen driving to the lead of the championship. The highlights of the race, though, were the snippets of an-obviously-under-strict-instructions-to-hype-Force-India-whenever-possible Steve Slater talk of the "tremendous acceleration of the Force India cars from corners", while the other commentator was trying to point out that that was more a reflection of the problems of the McLaren behind, which, in any case, managed to get by after 3 laps. That, though, was nothing compared to this. There is exactly one line about the winner of the race (at the end of the article). The rest is breathless excitement for a team that finished 12th and 19th (out of 22 cars, minus retirements). Anyway, where was I? Yes, a film that makes alienation look so beautiful, and a good day for a superstar who drives things around in circles at great speed, who has nothing whatsoever to do with my life, and who is one of the richest people on earth, made me feel all happily connected with the rest of humanity. :)

P.S. - About the boredom of angels in "Wings of Desire". You see, these angels are not like the angels of popular imagination. We romanticize them too much. Wim Wenders' angels are nothing but celestial bloggers. They just sit around, observing the things around them, and noting them all down in a white notebook. And they have all been assigned locations. For instance, the angels in the movie are posted in Berlin. But you see, they were not posted there after the city came into existence. They were there on that piece of land even before life formed on earth. Luckily for Damiel and Cassiel, a city grew up around them. Now, spare a thought for the ones posted on the Poles, or maybe the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A few billion years of sitting around twiddling thumbs. And then civilization rises. Their colleagues get to watch laughter, tears, joy, wars, pain, death, sex, Bunuel, etc. And here they are studying patterns of currents, or watching glaciers melt. Wonder what the suicide statistics for angels are...