Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Malabar Op in Arunachal

The story so far... 

And now... 

I stared grimly out the car window. We were moving slower than a glacier. If I'd wanted to get stuck in a traffic jam, no city in the world offers as much scope and variety as Delhi. I could've just stayed there and saved the bother of flying across the country. I sighed, and told Mohnish that he was sitting on my coat.

It was only when we left the traffic of Tinsukia behind that my bleak, world-weary private-eye heart began to melt. The mazy, congested streets straightened out into a highway straight as an arrow. The countryside opened up, the trees and people vanished, and to the right and the left enormous fields appeared. And then, ahead, the Himalayas, shrouded in swirling clouds. It looked so near that I thought 5 minutes more on the road would have us crashing into rock (it was, of course, a couple hundred kilometres away).

While Malabar Ops are essentially men of the city, they're also loners. When the rest of the world sits around their dinner tables, sharing their stories and their jokes, when their pulp fiction gives them company, a glass of wine by the side, when they're dancing and drinking the night away, when they hold each other, the freezing winter cold a thing of comfort and pleasure, dreaming their dreams of forever; the Malabar Op haunts the night, a man always in the now, his footsteps ringing in the dark alleys behind sleazy bars, his hands deep in his coat, his breath misting up in front of him, his gait languid, but his eyes watchful. Even when he does endure the morning light and the throng of crowded markets and railway stations, it's as if he watches a film from the rows farthest. Nothing escapes his gaze, and he feels and he knows, but he does not belong.

And so, the fields stretching out to infinity and the Himalayas ahead with their snow and their clouds, they speak to his soul. The vast expanses without anyone in sight, the ageless* mountains holding promise of a land without time, ambition or private sorrows; all of it makes the Malabar Op painfully aware that only an Arunachali can buy land there, and makes him ask his friend's mother whether she could hook him up with an Arunachali girl with plenty of land.

We stayed in Mohnish's ancestral home in Chowkham. Stepping out of the car, I saw his uncle Rajingda waiting for us - a dapper man in his 50s, with an unhurried air, a golf cap, a cigarette dangling at his lips, and a cool, level gaze. We gazed coolly at each other. His son Ujjal tells me that his Dad was quite the terror in his younger days and that a favourite unwind for father and son is to watch The Godfather together in the evenings. Ujjal looks after most of the family business now, and cuts quite the cold, formidable Michael Corleone figure in his Pajero and his sunglasses. He's proud of the work his family have done over the years and when he took us around the village, pointed out the things they have built or given land for. His grandfather, Chow Khamoon Gohain, was the first MP from the North East.

A little after 2 in the morning, I was woken up by the howling of something horrible. It was very cold. An uneasy feeling gripped the pit of my stomach. I took out my flashlight and decided to snoop around a little. The house was old, and also rather big - made almost entirely out of wood. Snooping around in someone else's house in the wee hours of the morning demands a certain amount of stealth, but, unused as I am to wooden floors, my first few steps sounded like a cautious Godzilla making for a pile of fish.

The house was shrouded in silence and darkness. I crossed the drawing room and started with the room across the passageway. The giant tusks by the idols glimmered palely. I shone my flashlight around. The room was as big as my flat in Delhi. There was nothing for me there. I turned around. Something jumped at me from the corner by the doorway. My heart leapt into my mouth and when I swallowed hard, instead of settling back inside my ribcage, it went down the wrong way. I coughed and spluttered. I walked backwards out the door and down the passageway in rather a hurry. There was nothing by the doorway that I could see except a Naga sword and a Khamti shield. I don't know why I thought something had jumped at me.

Many Arunachali houses, built as they are by the banks of rivers known to flood on occasions, are built on stilts. This one was no exception. I happened to be near an entrance to the house, which meant that there was a flight of steps leading down. Walking backwards as I was, I was made very aware of its existence only on my way down, my head bouncing off wood every other step. Moving with remarkable agility (all things considered), I started to pick myself off the landing. I had my second panic attack in less than 45 seconds when I glanced up and saw a hideous face leering at me. Turned out to be the handle of a walking stick. Why would anyone want that on the handle of a walking stick?

I saw another set of steps going up in front of me. It took me into a giant room filled with all sorts of old furniture. A private eye with more talent at describing interiors would probably have done a good job of painting you a mental image. I caught sight of a chair that I later learnt was sat on by the Dalai Lama. Sensing a shape above me, I turned around rather slower than the last time I'd sensed a shape, and glanced upward. It was just a crafted deer head. In order to have a better look at its antlers, I tilted my hat back and took a couple of steps back. I shouldn't have. I tripped over a chest (bought from Jew Town, Cochin, and quite beautiful to look at in daylight, really), and landed with a crash on my back. Flailing about, I knocked a vase down, and cracked the leg of a stand.

I felt like I'd been mugged by the Crazy 88. But my training kicked in instantly. I listened. Not a peep. In the last 5 minutes, I had made as much noise as a bunch of Indian close-in fielders about to get suspended by Mike Denness for excessive appealing. And yet, not a soul stirred. I decided that folk who could sleep through a racket like that couldn't have that much on their consciences. I limped painfully back to bed and sleep.

P.S. - Photos courtesy PK.

*He also points out that the Himalayas are hardly "ageless," and are, in fact, 70 million years old, which makes it a young pip, by mountain-range standards.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Malabar Op in Guwahati

The story so far... 

And now... 

The 7 AM cold was biting. I pulled the coat tight around me. I'd slept for all of two hours the previous night, and had every intention of sleeping through the two-and-a-hour flight. That resolution lasted for all the time it took for the snowcapped line of the Himalayas, stretching unbroken across the horizon, to make its appearance - this was my first glimpse, and there would be no further sleep. The pilot pointed out Mount Everest as we passed by, but the Himalayas are one of those ranges without bright-red labels on each peak, and I'm not sure that what I thought he thinks is the peak is the same as the one he thought we thought he thinks is Mount Everest.

Mohnish and PK, who were travelling from Pune, landed at Guwahati airport about half an hour after I did. Mohnish took one look at my bag, and asked me what the deal was. I told him: PK'd given me the impression that we'd have to wash our laundry by hand. Private eyes are tough, street-wise and ruggedly charming. They're good with guns and wisecracks. But not laundry. So I'd brought along 10 sets of clothing, 2 backup sets, a towel, a backup towel, a jacket, a backup sweater, slippers, and my Jean-Pierre Melville and Jim Jarmusch collections. Mohnish remarked, a tad more waspishly than was warranted, that there are, in fact, washing machines in the North East. PK giggled girlishly in the background. I let him have a cool, level stare.

Mohnish's cousin, Paul, picked us up from the airport. He stopped once on the way to show us the Brahmaputra. Very nice river. Dinner was at Mohnish's aunt's. She was an exceedingly pleasant and gracious host, and her daughter, a little on the quiet side, looks very much like Liv Tyler. So it'll surprise some of you that I'll be devoting blog inches not to either of them, but to Mohnish's uncle - a widely travelled man, who has apparently killed and eaten practically every species on earth.

His favourites (or perhaps least favourites) are pigs. He's machine gunned them in Bangladesh with an AK-47. He's rigged landmines to transform a formerly intact pig, with a family to care for, into little pieces of pork. And he's shot at them with tanks on the Indo-Pak border - prompting them to go "Oink! Oink! The Pakistanis are on the other side!" He even managed to get PK - who just 2 hours earlier had declined Paul's polite rum offering on the grounds that he'd be on an alcohol-free diet for the next 10 days - to partake of his stock of 16-year-old Fenny. 16-year-old Fenny, according to the two of them, is quite the modern miracle, as it proves that there are, in fact, Goans capable of laying off a bottle of Fenny for 16 whole years.

Of course, these trivialities didn't distract me from the business at hand. I kept a close eye on PK and Mohnish. Apart from the fact that they always seemed to want to sit together, there was, so far, nothing suspicious to report.

We had to wake up at 5 the next morning to catch the bus to Tinsukia. Being on the east of India, the day starts and ends very early here. My biological clock, regrettably, does not take the reasoned approach. It says "pooh" to science, and clings to IST like things in a Fevicol ad.  If the watch says 5 AM, then irrespective of what the light-meter says, it goes into a sulk, protests against this travesty of all that is good and holy, and drags my whole body down with it. But then, you can't really argue with bus schedules either. It ought to have known that it was fighting a losing battle from the start.

And so, early next morning, Paul dropped us off at the bus-stand from where we would catch the Volvo to Tinsukia. He had been very helpful and kind (no force on earth could persuade me to wake up at 5:30 in the morning for someone else - but he did it with a smile); and so, when he happened to mention that he likes South Indian girls, I naturally offered to introduce him to a few if he ever found himself in South India. "Why don't you start by introducing yourself to South Indian girls?" PK remarked. I drew my hat over my eyes and went off to sleep.

Tinsukia's to the north-east of Assam, and very near the border with Arunachal Pradesh. The bus journey to Tinsukia from Guwahati takes a little over 10 hours, is of singular beauty, and might just be worthy of Tolkien-type descriptions. Apparently, there are paddy fields and houses with fields of mustard and green hills and tea estates and even a stretch where rhinos can be spotted. But I'd had 6 hours of sleep the previous two nights combined and I slept right through the ride. Sorry.

That evening, relaxing at Mohnish's mother's house with a cup of Assam tea (in Assam, they just call it "tea"), we made plans for the next day. Mohnish's brother would drive us over the border to Arunachal Pradesh, to their ancestral home. This time, we'd start at the more reasonable hour of noon. That settled, we prepared for bed. PK asked Mohnish for a foot massage. Mohnish stared at him. There was a whatchamacallit in the air. I furrowed my brow and took out my notebook.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Malabar Op takes a case

I had long since grown tired of what I did for a living. Of patching and spit-polishing islands of code in the thousands upon thousands of classes that no one else seemed to care for. With every passing day they got a little longer, a little uglier and a little more incomprehensible. And no one gave a damn; not even the ones who owned it. And so, out of this desire to do something that mattered - to help people, for a few bucks a day and expenses - the Malabar Op was born.

I wanted a one-room office with my name and the legend "Private Eye" on a dirty stained-glass door. I wanted to write of long, lonely hours in a dusty office with just my phone and a blue bottle fly for company. But then, I wasn't rich. I had no savings to speak of. I couldn't afford a suitably rundown office in a suitably ramshackle building in a suitably seedy part of Delhi. And even if I did, given that my day-job office was in the Gurgaon of a thousand gleaming glass buildings, the commute wouldn't be pretty.

I did the next best thing. I created a page on Facebook. I am the Malabar Op. I walk the mean streets tough and unafraid... but I care. I'm here to help, to set things right. And I'm discreet. Could you "like" my page, please?

Two weeks. The Gtalk icon on the desktop was smooth and oval and white. I had no messages, no inquiries. I wanted a girlfriend. I wanted a vacation. I wanted a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and thermal underwear.

It wasn't Gtalk that would give me my first job. Early one Saturday morning, the doorbell rang. It was cold and wet and miserable. The sun hadn't been out for 3 days. It rained sometimes, and there was a fog out that was as heavy and thick as the blanket that enveloped me. I should be up and about, I told myself. The fog would lift soon. I shouldn't miss the few hours of relative bright, before the darkness crept in at what would still be afternoon in bright, sunny Cochin. "I've already put the garbage out. It's by the stairs," I yelled and snuggled back into my pillow. The bell rang again. I mumbled a meaningless curse, and opened the door.

Her hair might've moved gently in the wind, playing with misty tendrils of early-morning breeze... had it been one of those mornings. Sadly, it wasn't; there was just the dreary stillness of the fog. That's what you get if you try and make a cinematic entrance in mid December. I tried to look tough and unfathomable, with just the tiniest hint of reproach for the hurt of all those years ago - but tempered by a cynical, pessimistic knowledge of human nature - and also laid-back, wise and mysterious. But it's difficult to pull all that off in bad light, dressed just in thermal underwear.

"It's been a while."
"Well, are you just going to stand there? I'm cold. I didn't bring my boots. All these Delhi women are wearing boots."
"No, I... uh, won't you come in? Make yourself comfortable. I'll be right back."

I didn't have time for a shave or a shower, but I managed to find my coat and hat.

"What on earth's the matter with you?"
"I normally do my laundry on Saturday afternoons. You caught me at a rather inconvenient time."
"I see some slacks and t-shirts in that open cupboard over there..."
"Oh, those are deprecated."

I hadn't supposed that I'd ever meet her again. What could she want out of me now? The years brought back memories sharp and pungent. I felt like a pig in the Rann of Kutch that had just been fired at for pork by a T-55 tank.

"So, I hear you're going into the bedroom-peeping business?"
"Well, it's just something I thought I'd try out. And I don't do divorce wo..."
"Right, right. How's it going?"
"Not very well, so far."
"I figured as much. Listen, I may have a job for you."
"Oh?" I said warily.
"You remember Mohnish?"
"The chap with the pig fetish. Is he still in your project?"
"He's been spending a lot of time with PK recently. He's even taking him to Arunachal, when he's going on vacation in a couple of days' time."
"I want to know if this is more than just good, wholesome, fully-compliant-with-Section-377 (pre-July, 2009) male bonding. Maybe you could go along with them and find out."
"Let's call it a matter of the heart."
"What do you care? You just married a vegetarian."
"I didn't say it was a matter of my heart."
"What do you charge?"
"1250 bucks a day and expenses, plus 12.5% VAT. 5000 bucks retainer."
"How long would you take?"
"About two weeks."
"How do you figure that?"
"That's all the leave I have left. Sleuthing doesn't pay the bills, yet, you know."

Monday, November 8, 2010


There's no festival I hate more than Diwali. You would expect a "festival of lights" to appeal to any lover of movies; but the thing is, over the years, it hasn't been so much a treat for my eyes as an assault upon my ears. Year after year would I dread the approach of winter, knowing that an extended weekend was barrelling toward me during which I would be doing nothing but lie curled up in my bed, hands over my ears, and the restaurant home-delivery numbers in a crumpled-up piece of paper by the bed-side.

Going for a walk in the evening? Stay well away from those hedges and that wall - they might just be hiding a yard with crackers that you feel as much in your chest as through your ears. A drive? Be careful about driving over those strange-looking stones placed right in the middle of the street; those might just be "bombs" - and the chap who's lit the fuse isn't around because he's already hauling his ass way over to the other side of the city. Staying at home isn't all that much better either; there's only so much a window can do to stop a 20-kiloton cracker right beneath it - and can you really wear noise-cancelling earphones for hours on end, days on end?

All of which is why one year I escaped to Cochin during Diwali, just for a bit of peace and quiet. Diwali isn't celebrated with so much fervour in the southern states, and even if it were, people there have sense enough not to convert entire cities into the Iraq from "The Hurt Locker." So long as you avoid specific areas like temples, football grounds, etc, where people assemble to celebrate, the rest of the neighbourhood is all peaceful and quiet - where you can enjoy such subtleties as the chirp of birds, a conversation with someone else, or your own thoughts.

Naturally, all this curling up in beds makes for a very lonely few days - more so because I usually avoid the parties my friends invite me to: those tend to have crackers that are bad enough out in the open but, in the confined space of someone's porch, are something else altogether. This year, though...

It's like this. There's this guy I'm friends with primarily because I happen to think his wife is hot. So when she invited me over to Noida for her Diwali celebrations, and since the dude happened to be in Cochin for the holidays - a distance of over 2500 kilometres - naturally, I didn't say no: it was the first chance I've ever had of being with her without him poking his nose in between.

The itinerary was simple. I'd drive over to Noida in the evening. Since most of Arushi's friends no longer live in Noida, we'd then tag along with her little sister (so long as we agreed not to call her Choti), and make rounds of the neighbourhood gathering up Choti's friends. Once our numbers swelled to a satisfactorily intimidatory figure, we'd gatecrash a party.

I reached Arushi's house a little earlier than planned, and so was around to see them deck the house up with little lamps - every room, doorway, tabletop and windowsill. When we had dinner, it was with only the lights of the dining room on; every other room was lit by the glow from the diyas. It was the first sign that this Diwali would be one that would have a little bit of magic in it for me, and so expectant was I that I did not let even the crash and boom of the crackers that had started to make their presence felt outside ruin my hope.

Presently we made our way outside. By now, the crackers and the rockets were out in full force. The gate of their colony was the rendezvous point, and slowly Choti's friends started trickling in. The plain delight with which they greeted each other brought up that little voice that makes its appearance once in a while to tell me that perhaps I should seek out company more often than I normally do. It was apparent, though, that some of them hadn't seen each other in quite a while - like when an old friend, having just made her appearance, enveloped a startled Arushi in a warm hug.

Old friend: "My, my. You've changed so much!"
Arushi: "I'm her sister. Choti's over there."
Choti: "Don't call me Choti. Besides, I'm taller than you."
Old friend: "Ah! I did wonder how Choti had gotten so short. But otherwise, you two look so similar..."

While we were so waiting, the spot we'd picked being a sort of cross-roads, proved a prime spot for observing folks indulging in their cracker-bursting and their rocket-launching. Arushi, Choti and their friends were part of an anti-cracker group - they hadn't burst any since school - for reasons including child labour, air-and-noise pollution and safety. In fact, they told me that due to the schools educating their students over these matters, the bursting of crackers have come down drastically over the years. I find this hard to believe for no reason other than that if this is what drastically-reduced cracker bursting is, then my imagination comes a cropper in visualising what a few years ago must've been like.

But my prejudices did not prevent me from admiring some of the rockets on display. The chap who was at work down the street was having a particularly bad time at getting his angles right: a substantial number seemed to be fired directly into the flats on the higher floors. It's a measure of the general goodwill easily apparent all round that not even one resident rushed down with blunt objects in hand. But when he did get it right, some of them were a sight to behold - chief of them being a "sperm rocket," for lack of a better description, that launched off its pad with a huge bang, exploded way up above with an even louder bang, and then split up into 5 or 6 lines of fire that each terminated with a little explosion of its own. Gandalf would've been proud of that one.

Since a couple of friends were still playing truant, we decided that Mohammed must go to the mountain. Now, I wasn't drunk or on drugs; this is the testimony of a man fully in control of his faculties that you're reading. And I swear to you that there never was a lovelier colony. Ever seen those cheesy ads or those old movies where a Romeo woos his Juliet, and the houses are all boxed in together - breathtakingly beautiful but patently unrealistic? The houses are all one-or-two storied, with tiny yards, and two-people-abreast-wide little lanes running between them. They're surrounded by picket fences sometimes, hedges sometimes, and the lawns (when they are there) are just the right size to make Juliet's first-floor window within perfect range of a fence-leaning Romeo's pebbles. Just about everything screams "prop" and "studio shot."

And so I tell you now that there's nothing cheesy or unrealistic about those ads or those movies; there are those who live in such places. Of course, my companions - spoilsports that they are - tried telling me that a lot of the effect was due to the coloured Diwali lighting that would tinge anything with dollops of romance, and, further, without the cover of darkness I would notice a lot more peeling paint and unkempt yards. But who cares what things look like in the glare of the sun? Some of us are children of the night - especially pebble-armed Romeos - and know nothing of the day save the last slanting rays of it that sometimes catch us as we wake up.

Sadly, there's no such thing as perfection, and so it was that all the atmosphere notwithstanding, there were serpents in paradise. The narrower the streets and the smaller the yards, the louder the crackers, the more places for them to spring from unexpectedly, and the closer they are to you when they go off. No company of bomb-disposal units in war-time were ever more cautious or more deliberate in each step than us walking down the streets to track down the last of Choti's friends - sometimes doing nothing more than tying a packet of sweets to the doors of those not at home.

Our rounds done eventually, we made off for a party on a terrace, and relaxed in the slightly-nippy evening air by talking trash of those at the party better looking than us, more talented than us, or with beauties for girlfriends. In between, rude-sounding crackers would go off and sometimes rockets would turn the whole sky a shade of green or purple. By the time I started my drive home to Delhi a little after 2 in the morning, the crackers were silent, but there was a fog thick enough to ensure that I couldn't see more than 10 feet ahead of me, and would've made my drive hell had I had to navigate via landmarks, or even follow anything but a straight road home. Fire-crackers creating a fog large enough to envelop two cities... It boggles the mind. I wish the schools all the luck in their crusade.

Will I look forward to Diwali next year? Not by a long shot. But will I dread its arrival? I've seen enough to like about it for that to be pretty unlikely.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Romeo, Juliet and a When

For millions of people the world over, the words "Romeo and Juliet" instantly bring to mind an artist unrivalled for his skill with words and strings; one whose name is, to borrow from an advertising catalogue, a byword for excellence. His creations are of such beauty and power that even the Gods themselves - Tendulkar being one - have confessed to feeling weak in the knees when listening to him.

And on a day when he got up from just the right side of the bed, felt his feet finding his slippers at just the right place, and found his newspaper - unspoilt by rain or forest fire - on the front porch with just the right tidings, he let loose a challenge into the morning air: he roared "Carpe diem!" After finishing up with the roaring and clearing his throat, Mark Knopfler strode purposefully into his study, and wrote what will be known for all time as humanity's legacy: Romeo and Juliet.

Now comes the strange part. We get into bare-fisted fights over Bessel Functions and non-linear partial differential equations*. We debate endlessly on whether a pizza is a pizza when we start making it, or only when it's taken out of the oven. We burn books for a misplaced comma in countless, soporific texts. But the true Words of Wisdom, in what is beyond challenge the greatest song ever written, we allow to be mutilated; to have its meaning and its power sheared away by an inability to listen and to understand.

When you can fall for chains of silver, you can fall for chains of gold
You can fall for pretty strangers and the promises they hold

If you have tears, prepare to shed them now; for never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo and their leading "when" - sometimes omitted, sometimes replaced by a banality as "Well." Would we allow "The Third Man" to be seen without that image of Harry Lime leaning thoughtfully in the dark street, a sardonic smile on his face revealed by an unexpected flash of light from the window high up? Would we allow the Continental Op to be shown a weak, corrupt man, jaded beyond recognition; or Philip Marlowe a mumbling, vicious idiot? Would we allow a very tall man to flick boogers up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? And yet, web page after web page, we find when-less.

You see, in the When lies the Answers. It tells us how we love, why we hate, and lays the foundations on which mathematics is built. It even admits that love does ensnare us from time to time; but only until we see before us the shadow of something that holds - but does not make - the promise of being as gold compared to the silver that we have.

And that, my friends, is why men with wives and kids** in Baltimore go for a ride, and, like a river that knows not where it flows, never go back. Those lines tell us where we find the strength to smile at our friends while we scheme behind our masks. They explain every body, with a knife through its heart, in every gutter. They hint at what makes us doubt that the stars are fire, that the Sun doth move, or that Truth be a liar. And isn't that what makes life worth living; without that doubt, wouldn't such a thing as love, to take just one example, be not only commonplace but also lacking in all passion?

Now consider Knopfler's lines without the "when." You can wake up in the morning, you can go to the office. You can make sure you're the conformist line on your manager's spreadsheet, and then you can catch the bus back home. You can soak in flashes of light and sound blended, talk to other carbon-based bipeds maybe, have sex with willing quadrupeds, or read poems about trees and hills and fences and lakes. And after a few years, you can die.

*Or so claims Arthur C Clarke.

**While this is a song I love, a friend pointed out the sexism and adultism it hides - would it have hurt Springsteen to rephrase it as "spouse and dependents"?

P.S. - Something (I forget what exactly), Sreenivasan said, is like an award-winning film: the film-makers intend one thing, the audiences see something very different, and the award jury divines something else altogether that is neither of the first two. But I suppose that doesn't hold here. After all, it's obvious what Knopfler intends: here is the great man telling us all that the meaning of life isn't 42.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Of Priggishness, Prudishness and Prattishness

It's been a while since I've taken a swipe at the censor board. Now, it may be misdirected in this instance, as the snipping was on a TV channel, and the TV chaps may have done it all on their own. Still, since the censors' rating of "A" on the back of a DVD case always leaves me wondering how much they've snipped; and this prevents me from buying the film - no matter how badly I want to see it - I'll bag on them, anyway.
"Oh, Holden, I beg you, please. Don't drop 50 stories in my opinion of you by falling prey to that latest of trendy beasts: lesbian chic. It's oh-so acceptable to be a gay girl nowadays. People think it's cute. Got this fool picture of lipstick lesbians in their heads like they all resemble Alyssa, while most of 'em look more like you. Screw that all-for-one shit, all right? I gotta deal with bein' a minority in the minority of a minority, and nobody's supportin' my ass. While the whole of society's fawning over girls on girls, here I sit: a reviled gay man. And to top that off, I'm a gay black man. What is it about gay men that terrifies the rest of the world?"

To find out who all those people are, and what the context for that quote is, you'll just have to watch "Chasing Amy." The reason I brought it up, though, is that the snip-snip-chop-chop men and women have managed to convey the same idea in a way that Hitchcock would approve - all visuals and no reliance on dialogue; specifically, by showing Alyssa and her girlfriend at it until I half expected to see pieces of their faces flying off the TV, and then when it comes to the part where Ben Affleck and Jason Lee snog, they snip sneakily away. Not a thousand words each by a thousand gay men could've got their point across better than our guardians from vulgarity did with the judicious use of their scissors.

I've noticed I'm becoming all crusty and intolerant. It wasn't that long ago that I was boasting to all and sundry that the gay sex in Almodovar's movies don't bother me at all. But had I paid more attention to the world around me, I would've seen sooner that the likes of Antonio Banderas and Gael Garcia Bernal are in a different league from most other men. And my tolerance for seeing this latter group in the buff, much less anything more intimate, is very low. I've just about had it with sitting on the couch next to the lockers in the gym to tie my shoelaces, only for some guy to place his third eye about 2 feet from my face. It's not like there aren't changing rooms there. And those have doors too.

And this isn't just with the men. The contraptions in the gym ensure that I get my fair share of glimpses of what the censor board would call an indecent angle. Time was when I'd give myself a mental high-five. Now, though, unless the girl in question fits Gimli's descriptions of Galadriel, I find myself turning away with the dismayed look of a Shiv Sainik spying a couple holding hands on Valentine's Day or displaying some other signs of corruption by the Decadent West.

I think I'm growing old.

Speaking of gymming, one of the attractions of my gym is that it has a lot of really good restaurants just near it. Despite the wealth of choice, the one place that keeps drawing me in is Haldiram's and its masala dosa. Now, it's hardly perfect: they distribute coconut chutney in the same quantities that lembas were in the Mordor stretch of Frodo's and Sam's journey, and the staff there are the grumpiest bunch of sourpusses ever assembled on one spot since Saruman's Uruk-hai had the misfortune of meeting Fangorn's Huorns at Helm's Deep. But still, since you can take a Mallu out of Kerala, but you cannot take his craving for masala dosa out of him, I find myself there time and again.

Since it turns out that I'm not speaking of gymming at all, but rather of Tolkien, I might as well admit that I've finally finished reading "The Lord of the Rings." While my efforts spent reading it were no less epic than the Fellowship's Quest, they were well rewarded. I'm in awe of Tolkien's imagination: for over two months, he marooned me in another world. But I do have some quibbles: the book seems a little obsessed with racial purity, lets us downs by showing only the Elveses as free (relatively) of ssexis'sm, and is very directionist (being from a part of the world that is regarded as the East, and also because I'm from the South of this segment of the map, I was doubly offended).

But my major complaint is that the writing deteriorates through the series. "The Fellowship of the Ring" isn't too bad, but "The Return of the King" is all but unreadable. To paraphrase Fawlty, "Why don't they speak properly?" Apart from the chapters where the Hobbits find themselves in forests, the sections that had Gimli, Legolas and Aragorn were what I enjoyed the most; but even Gimli catches the mush-talk disease after meeting Galadriel, and Aragorn gets insufferably pompous as the story wears on. And, having had to endure the descriptions of Faramir's and Eowyn's courtship, I can see why Tolkien left all the romance to Peter Jackson. Also, aren't these people supposed to be fierce warriors on a desperate mission? So what's with all the weeping and wailing and speeching whenever someone gets a bit of a scratch or falls into a little pit?

I wish Tolkien had taken a little inspiration from "The Big Sleep." Even before I ever saw it, it was already amongst my favourite films. And now, having managed to get a copy, it has risen higher in my estimation, if such a thing were possible. For dialogue, for sleaze, for atmosphere, for unforgettable characters - in other words, for embodying noir and every associated image to perfection - it has few equals. I could watch it a dozen times and not tire of it.

P.S. - For a very critical appraisal of the first LOTR film, you may go here.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Sonata for a Good Man

I proclaim my love for films at every opportunity. And yet, the only time I've written of why I watch them, I claimed that their appeal is that they allow me to sit rooted on one spot for hours on end, with an empty thought bubble over my head. This just won't do. If I cannot talk honestly of wonder and of awe, of wisdom at 24 frames per second from cultures I know little of, of strange and terrible people and places - and all this from the comfort of my sofa - then the least I can do is try and come up with a damn good lie.

What better way to pay homage to the ennobling power of cinema than by writing about a film that is itself a metaphor for why we watch films? Now, thinking too long hurts my head, and the 30 seconds I allotted this threw up three: Hitchcock's "Rear Window," De Palma's "Body Double," and Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo."

The first film seems to think that we're cold, self-obsessed creatures, who look screen-wards - forever judging, forever condemning - merely because we want to say, "See? That's what people are like, and that is why I want no part of them." The second film, more darkly humourous than the first, adds to this that perhaps we watch because we're perverts who like to get our rocks off on-screen, as we can't get any off it. And the third, wittier than the first two put together, writes us off as people who escape into a reel because we're cowards who cannot face up to anyone or anything in the real world; and even when cinema does offer us a pearl that we could use in our lives, we're inclined to dismiss it as "unreal," and of no value in our world of bricks and mortar, of flesh and blood.

Since all that was uncomfortably close to the bone, let's look instead at a fourth: "The Lives of Others." The traditional disclaimer first. I don't give out the whole plot on this one, so you're safe on that count. However, the last I watched the film was a few months back, and, as I'm on vacation, my copy is thousands of kilometres away. So I may get a couple of plot points and quotes wrong; but then, you don't really come here for authenticity, do you?

The film is set in East Germany, a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its citizens are subjected to scarcely believable levels of monitoring by its secret police, the Stasi. One of the more prominent of citizens is Georg Dreyman, the playwright. We're told that he's perhaps the only writer who's both popular in the West and not a subversive. Indeed, while we never see him openly supporting the ideology of the oppressive regime, and has several friends who are subversives, he seems to have no opinion on politics. One of his friends, so exasperated by this, screams at him: "You're not human if you don't take a stand!"

He lives with his girlfriend, the lovely Christa-Maria Sieland. She's an acclaimed actress, who's just picked up an unwelcome - but very powerful - admirer, the minister Bruno Hempf. Hempf, despite all his other flaws, is a man of great self awareness, and knows that in a straight fight with Dreyman for the affections of Miss Sieland, his chances aren't too good. Fortunately, he has the Stasi at his disposal, and sets agent Gerd Wiesler the task of finding some dirt on Dreyman.

Wiesler is as efficient and cold-blooded as they come. Where he differs from his superiors is that he genuinely believes in communism, and everything that he does is in his fanatical devotion to the cause, and not for personal gain.  His interest in Dreyman isn't the career furtherment that would come with pleasing Hempf, but the chance of rooting out a dissident, which is what he suspects Dreyman is. And so, he and an assistant, having bugged Dreyman's flat to the inch, set up station in the attic of the apartment building. The two of them take 12-hour shifts to monitor Dreyman round-the-clock.

Dreyman being the apolitical man that he is, gives Wiesler virtually nothing to hang on him. But slowly, the two artists' world of music, literature and love snakes its way past his defences. Wiesler isn't a man who says much, and even if he were, loner that he is, there's no one he could confide in. Showing his gradual transformation, therefore, is a job brilliantly done. If there's one scene that underlines the emergence of the new Wiesler, it's the one of him reading a poem of Brecht's that he picked up from Dreyman's apartment. Perhaps it makes him realise that nothing lasts forever, not even their stern Republic, and that it is futile ruining innocent lives trying to defend it. Or maybe he finds the idea of saving a frail cloud from being blown away by the wind more interesting than keeping the walls of a fortress - one that may claim to protect the ideals he lives for, but has men as Hempf at its heart - in order.

His new-found compassion is just in time, too. The suicide of a close friend who had been blacklisted by the government, and maybe his discovery of Christa's affair with Hempf, forces Dreyman to leap down off his fence. And Wiesler  must now choose between doing his duty and following his conscience. I will spoil the movie no further for you than say that the first half of the movie struck me as taut political thriller, and the second half as deeply affecting melodrama. (I watched it just after I discovered Almodovar, and couldn't help feel that the second half had a very Almodovar-esque feel to it, and was also rounded off, like many of the Spaniard's films, with a sublime, punchy ending. My companion for the screening, who hates Almodovar - and loves this film - told me very emphatically, though, that I'm a dolt and Very Mistaken.)

There is this scene where Dreyman, playing a piece of music titled "Sonata for a Good Man," asks, "Can anyone who's heard this music - I mean truly heard it - really be a bad person?" The inspiration for the film, apparently, was a quote from Lenin that if he listened to Beethoven's Appassionata more often, then he wouldn't have the heart to bash people's heads in, and finish the revolution. The director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, says, "I suddenly had this image in my mind of a person sitting in a depressing room with earphones on his head and listening in to what he supposes is the enemy of the state and the enemy of his ideas, and what he is really hearing is beautiful music that touches him."

Of course, no movie's going to change your life in a couple of hours - unless you be a fruitcake of the highest order. But given time, the wand of cinema isn't quite so imperceptible. "A film is a ribbon of dreams," said Orson Welles. "The camera is much more than a recording apparatus; it is a medium via which messages reach us from another world that is not ours and that brings us to the heart of a great secret. Here magic begins."

Before waxing eloquent of magic, let's acknowledge the flip side: magic cuts both ways. As my mishearing* of these lines goes, "If God can be for us, He can also be against us." If cinema has the power to shape us, to define us, and to give us beauty, then can it also not rot us from the inside? But then again, to quote the very wise Billy Loomis, "Now Sid, don't you blame the movies. Movies don't create psychos; movies make psychos more creative!" And how can that be such a bad thing? Even here, cinema does a service.

In my darker moods, I feel I live in a world as of the Wraiths**; but unlike them who live in shadows, what I know is ceaseless white light. A world of fluorescent lights, white marble spotless clean, and bright-blue swivel chairs. A world shielded by the air-conditioning and the tinted glass from the race of bipeds outside - that dangerous place of nights and dawns and dusks. A world of polite smiles and vicious emails. Of allegiances and hatreds that burn brightly, and then inevitably flicker and harden into apathy once you spy the cracks in their walls - but not before, for the briefest time, you feel pity, affection even; and you see that they're no better off than you, that they too are merely wraiths as yourself, and that they once belonged to that race beyond the glass.

This being the world I sometimes find myself in, how can I not love a movie as this one? - that tells me that no matter how far down the rabbit hole I've gone, there's always hope. And that we do not really need great talents, or herculean effort, to pull ourselves out; a little taste, patience enough, and the tiniest bit of courage will do. That is the message of this film. And that is the hope of all who sit in a darkened hall, waiting for that beam of light.

All right, enough of cheek and tongue. Ingmar Bergman will now lend some gravity with: "Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls."

There are many films that strike me as more imaginative, and many also as better crafted. But no other film has managed to reach down into the dark rooms of my soul as this one has. I've seen it several times now: twice in a hall, with hundreds of other people; other times with just one or two friends; and then, sometimes, alone at home. For me, the last is the only way to watch it. If I could use the inch-perfect ending of the film, and borrow the words before that memorable freeze frame, "This is for me."

*I've since found out that this is called a Mondegreen. And not all that I mishear are improvements over underwhelming Bible quotes, either. "If love is a red dress, well, hang me in rags," makes more sense and, I suspect, is more lyrical than what I heard it as: "If love is a red dress, then hand me earwax."

**I've been reading "The Lord of the Rings" for over a month-and-a-half now, and have reached only the middle, yet. So, in all likelihood, I'll be inflicting my "try too hard to be Tolkien" variations on you for a few months more...

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Movie Turn-Ons, Part 4.5 (Cheesy Sci-Fi: The Thing from Another World)

Spoiler Alert: the things of this world are terribly rude to the visitor thing, and you shouldn't read any further, if you don't want to find out how.

One other note. Howard Hawks is credited only as producer. However, given the quality of the film, and that he's one of my favourite filmmakers*, I'm going along with the claims that he ghost directed it.

The Thing from Another World (1951)

So... we have these military types clearly bored, up in their base in Alaska, when a scientific facility near the North Pole informs them that there has been a crash. They gather up a rescue team, headed by Captain Patrick Hendry, pack in a journo named Scotty, and fly off. Even before they reach the site, they're aware of strange goings on: their magnetic compasses are thrown off by a few degrees - possibly caused by the addition of about 20,000 tons of metal to the Earth's crust, about 50 miles from the research station. Of course, no aircraft - that they know of, interject the scientists pointedly - weighs that much.

Over at the crash site, they see an aircraft buried beneath the ice. In a stunning scene, the rescuers, in an effort to estimate the craft's size and shape, spread out and form a perimeter around the outline below them. It turns out to be a perfect circle. A flying saucer... finally! Digging the saucer out being impossible, they decide to use thermite to melt the ice over it. It melts the ice all right, but it has side effects: it sets the saucer on fire.

A gigantic explosion later, they're all seen sprawled on the snow, picking pieces of alien alloy off themselves. So much for their hopes of getting their hands on "the key to the stars." Scotty - a little on the bitter side, due to permission to report the story ("the biggest since the parting of the Red Sea") being withheld - is bitingly sarcastic. Indeed, the US Air Force probably has had better days. As an aside, when they return to the research station, they find a message from General Fogarty, suggesting they use thermite to free the craft, in case it's stuck in the ice. (Scotty: "That's what I like about the Army: smart, all the way to the top.")

They now notice something else - a former occupant of the saucer, also buried beneath the ice. "More thermite?" someone asks tentatively. Nah, they stick with axes this time. A while later, the block of ice, with alien inside, is dumped in a store room.

The lead scientist, a Dr Carrington, with an impressive array of laurels to his name - including the Nobel - wants to defrost the alien. Captain Hendry, though, isn't quite as keen. He wants to confer with Fogarty, up in Anchorage, first. The alien has a distinctly sinister look, you see, and Hendry looks like he's seen his fair share of sci-fi films.

Let's now take a few minutes for character descriptions. The film is, on the whole, populated by extremely likable people. The military, for starters, aren't portrayed as a bunch of stuck-up morons, and are even  - judging by a couple of remarks - heart-warmingly anti-nuke. Hendry, while perhaps on the conservative side, is patient with - and willing to listen to - even the most trying of people, puts up with quite a bit of ribbing by his men, and is an excellent, level-headed protagonist.

He also has a romance thingy going on with Dr Carrington's secretary, Nikki. The two of them even share an interesting moment with a bit of rope, that I hadn't expected to see in such an old film. Nikki isn't the typical sci-fi heroine. She's intelligent, witty, willing to roll her sleeves up, and doesn't scream even once (yes, I count).

The only ones who come across as slightly stuffy are the scientists - particularly Dr Carrington, who, further, is sometimes downright suicidal. A lesser man than Hendry would've dismembered him by the half-way point of the film. It must be said, though, that the other scientists are portrayed in a more favourable light, particularly as the film progresses.

One thing leads to another, and an electric blanket ends up accidentally on top of the frozen alien. An inopportune time for accidents like that, as a storm has just cut them off from the rest of the world. The alien wakes up the soldier on guard duty, with what the latter interprets as a series of blood-curdling moans; but given that the former had spent much of the preceding day in a block of ice, he might merely have been asking politely for a cup of coffee.

The soldier, after firing a few exploratory shots at the alien, decides that screaming and making for his captain may be healthier. By the time the larger party gets down there, the alien has already made his way outside, and is in a kerfuffle with the sled dogs. Despite bets to the contrary, the alien comes out on top, minus a terrifyingly-clawed hand that was won by one of the dogs.

Scotty has a field day with witticisms. "We're liable to become famous. So few people can boast that they've lost a flying saucer and a man from Mars all in the same day. Wonder what they'd have done if Columbus, having discovered America, then mislaid it?"

Study of the severed hand reveals that the alien is a vegetable, and is practically indestructible: a "super carrot," to quote Scotty. He revises this to "intellectual carrot," when Carrington hands in his analysis that this is a planet on which vegetable life has undergone a similar evolution to what animal life has gone through on ours, and that the alien is also very likely mentally far superior to us. ("Its development was not handicapped by emotional or sexual factors.")

Just after the scientists point out to their incredulous audience that even on Earth, "intelligence in plants and vegetables is an old story; older even than the animal arrogance that has overlooked it," the hand covered with dogs' blood starts to move. "Miss Nicholson. At 12:10 AM, the hand became alive."

Apparently, the alien vegetable lives on blood. We may be no more than a field of cabbages to it, notes Carrington. While no one else seems to relish the reversal of roles in human-vegetable relations, Carrington is near orgasmic and is determined, more than ever, to communicate with the alien. And so, everyone spends five minutes listening to him spouting noble scientific principles.

The others beg to differ, particularly after two of Carrington's colleagues are found hanging upside down in the green-house, their throats slit. They're further alarmed when they discover evidence in the green-house that the crash seems to have brought out the maternal side in the intellectual carrot (he actually looks like an 8-foot greenish man). Most of them have clearly read "The War of the Worlds," and wonder if this is the start of an alien invasion, that would end with us as livestock.

From here on end, the film is a series of competently-filmed encounters between the alien and the humans, with the balance of power swaying one way, and then the other, before the humans emphatically declare victory by making a kebab (vegetarian) of the alien.

Just before the final face-off, Carrington attempts to sabotage the human plans, and makes a last-ditch attempt at peace talks with the alien. The latter's utter bafflement, on being confronted by Carrington, is pretty funny. I bet you'd be bemused too, if, just when you're starting to make salad, one of the vegetables, stems flailing, starts babbling repeatedly, "I'm your friend," in a tone getting progressively shriller.

All in all, a gem of a thriller. It's brisk, and builds tension very well, without ever losing its sense of humour: the characters engage in repartee even when things are at their bleakest. It also manages to convey the incredible cold, and the sense of claustrophobia, with the alien impervious to the cold outside and the humans boxed in by the Arctic storm. Plus, probably because it precedes "The Day the Earth Stood Still," the film uses a proper score, and not the annoying collection of clicks, beeps and techno-wails preferred by the sci-fi films of that era.

The only disappointing aspect is that, while the alien does have his moments, he seems a few braincells short of a cabbage. When the humans set up a trap, to try and fry the alien with electricity, they need him to stand on one particular spot. The sight of nearly a dozen humans staring at him expectantly, one of them with hands poised over a switch - and another throwing axes at him, to guide him back on track, whenever he wanders off - doesn't throw off any warning bells whatsoever, apparently. For heaven's sake!

Can you imagine Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, feeling slightly peckish, and then getting killed by a field of cabbages defending themselves? Perhaps it's an indication that the aliens are more inward looking than us, and do not send their best and brightest across space. But still, a bit of a let down. For everything else, though, two thumbs up, and whole-hearted approval.

I will leave you now with the words of Scotty, as he beams this message to the waiting news corps

"North Pole. November 3rd. Ned Scott reporting. One of the world's greatest battles was fought and won today by the human race. Here at the top of the world, a handful of American soldiers and civilians met the first invasion from another planet. A man by the name of Noah once saved our world with an ark of wood. Here at the North Pole, a few men performed a similar service with an arc of electricity. :a few sentences snipped here for lack of drama: And now, before giving you the details of the battle, I bring you a warning. Every one of you listening to my voice, tell the world; tell this to everybody, wherever they are: watch the skies, everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!"

Coming up next: "Creature from the Black Lagoon"

*The only Howard Hawks film I've seen yet is "Rio Bravo," and I wasn't too enthused by it. However, I'll put that down to John Ford turning me off Westerns for life. Besides, Hawks directed "The Big Sleep" and "Scarface." Granted, I haven't seen either, but I think both films are marvellous testaments to the art of filmmaking.

In my opinion, Hawks is second only to Fritz Lang - none of whose films I've seen, but whose "M," "Metropolis," and "The Testament of Dr Mabuse" are three of my favourites. The one time I've seen Lang, it was as an actor; in "Contempt," where he appears as himself. The trouble is, that film contains several scenes of Brigitte Bardot in the nude, and I can't remember anything else about it, sadly.

P.S. - John Carpenter (sometimes known as Wes Carpenter - and, presumably, John Craven) remade this movie as "The Thing," in the early eighties. Having seen several films of his, he's not amongst my favourites, naturally, and I therefore didn't rush out to grab a copy. However, if you've just put the original in your "to watch" list, I suggest you add the remake as well - if nothing else, it'll give you gloating rights on the comments page here.

P.P.S. - "Psycho" is generally considered the first of the slasher films. "The Thing from Another World," released nearly a decade before Hitchcock's film, seems to me to have the better claim - especially since the Thing is a natural predecessor to the likes of Jason and Freddy; much more so than Norman Bates. Perhaps it's its "sci-fi" label that has robbed it of credit?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

I've been reviewed, or: how to ensnare throbbing felines

Rushing out of my car to catch the shuttle, I forgot to turn off the parking lights. The attendant whiled away a slow day by watching the lights grow dimmer and dimmer, until they were fireflies in the twilight. He could've informed my office. But no. To him, it made more sense to sit there swatting mosquitoes, and probably preparing a speech, with just the right mix of commiseration and disapprobation, to lay on me in the evening.

Only, I didn't get back in the evening. I got back, trudging the 2 kilometres from office, at 4 the next morning: things pop up at work, sometimes. And it was a Saturday. In early March. A time when we pleasant-weather-starved Delhiites should be out, enjoying the cool breeze, soaking in the sights. Not me; not that evening: I was hunched over my keyboard.

The mechanics' not being open until 10, I grouched my way back to office, with the prospect of another 6 hours in front of my computer. It was then that I stumbled upon Ask And Ye Shall Receive, aka "I will fucking tear you apart." Somehow, my mood seemed just perfect for a prolonged stay there. Filled with a loathing for the world beyond description, I glanced theatrically up at the stars (ok, ceiling covered with row upon row of fluorescent lights), muttered a "go ahead, do your worst," and submitted my blog for review.

A very pleasant rest-of-the-weekend - and a quick recounting of blessings - later, I regretted my rashness. To paraphrase Hammett, I adjusted myself to drained car batteries, and when no more of them ran down, I adjusted myself back to them not running down. That said, I continued to be a regular reader of their reviews, and have come upon a few blogs that I'm now a subscriber to.

There the matter rested, in Tolkien style. When submitting my blog, I was like Frodo - just coming of age. The days turned into weeks, the weeks into months, the months into years* - I'm now a wizened hobbit of 50 - before the story picks up again.

And pick up, it did, in ominous fashion: my blog - the announcement came, to screeching violins - headed the list of doom. I should've rejoiced; welcomed the forthcoming criticism with an open heart. But instead, the feeling was rather one that the audience of an old Malayalam movie would've known, on the sight of the hero's younger brother getting on a motorbike, all light of heart due to engagement with childhood sweetheart, having won over her family after much initial opposition. There's no more effective indicator that, in 45 seconds' time, he would get pulped by a lorry laden with plywood.

Mordor was rising, and scary creatures were afoot on the boundaries of my shire. The first: "Let's see: two Indian blogs, one that immediately made me want to kill myself and the other that first made me scratch my head, unsure of who I wanted to kill." I screamed. Reason having reasserted itself, I asked myself, "Might I not be overreacting?" No, I wasn't: that was a regular reviewer there. A short pause for breath, and I was all set with a couple more. A few "get a grip, asshole" looks helped me regain a degree of composure, but whatever-it-is-that-has-icy-fingers had just put my heart in its firm grip.

After the initial panic, my customary calmness in the face of adversity took over. Battening down the hatches, my face set in grim, hard lines. "These guys don't know who they're messing with," I told myself. I would imagine I looked a bit like Sam Spade in the presence of a man who's just, say, head-butted Brigid O'Shaughnessy - or, I would've, if he were more like the rest of us, and not prone to dreamy looks before indulging in a bit of violence.

I prepared myself for an offensive. I would accuse them of racism, of sexism, of not knowing art if it jumped up and bit them on their collective rear ends. I would whinge so long and so hard that even the worst review on their shitty little site would look like an 8-year-old's homework. But above all, it would be a private whinge; an email, and I would move on, not uttering a word to a soul. No mention at all publicly of even their existence.

But when the review finally came, they did not tear me apart. The reviewer, Forcemeat (with an avatar as vegetarianism-inducing as the moniker promises), seems to have taken a liking to my blog. I didn't set his world alight, mind you - if I've understood the rating correctly, it was more of an "above average." Still, it was very un-ripping-apart-like, and has caught me distinctly on the wrong foot. After all the huffing and puffing, I feel deflated.

I suppose the right thing to do is to display an Olympian disregard for the opinions of mere mortals. Or, maybe, thank him graciously enough, while self-deprecatingly pointing out how some of the plus points he's noted are not really plus points at all; thereby underlying my supreme coolness, and my invulnerability to failings of the flesh.

But the thing is, I'd feel cheap doing that - especially when he's clearly taken the pains to read even the longest posts of mine, and has referred back to posts of years back. We all have our attacks of conscience now and then: this is one of my rare ones. Further, the review is beautifully written, makes valid criticisms and contains delightful winks that no one apart from me would probably get** - a tete-a-tete on the world wide web.

So, there's little left for me to do, Forcemeat, except thank you warmly for your time, and hope that you'll continue to drop in here when time permits.

*All right, all right, it's been just 4 months.
**Well, not unless you memorise much of my blog.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

In the footsteps of giants?

Up until very recently, my idea of an artsy evening was slouching on my sofa, tucking away chips and cola, watching "Bats: Human Harvest" on HBO. If anyone were to tell me that there are higher forms of art out there, they would get Raymond Chandler in my best bugger-off voice, "There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that."

Mr Chandler; your Philip Marlowe, despite being inclined towards the odd whinge - which is a habit I despise, and would never indulge in - has kept me entertained for many an hour. But I'm sorry: I've decided to go over to the other side. I'm now what is known as a connoisseur; of the sort in "Cinema Paradiso," turning my nose up at the popular, and spitting contemptuously on the lower classes from my seat high up on the balcony. Also, to mark my ascendancy, I'm brushing up on my French and Latin, which shall soon be sprinkled all over my blog. So long, ignoramuses (ignorami?). It was nice knowing you.

All right,  that's enough self-congratulation. Let me get right to the point. A few weeks ago, I got to go to my first-ever book reading - with a real, live author and everything. I forget where it was exactly (there was free beer), but I do remember that it was in the basement of a mansion in a nice, quiet part of Delhi.

His name is Ambarish Satwik. Interesting chap, too. He began by bemoaning the general lack of scatological writing in Indian literature. From what I could understand of the mixture of Hindi* and English in his graphic novel, he's on an epic quest to make up for 5000 years of lost time. His reading was excellent, and had all of us convulsing in fits of laughter with his poker-faced delivery. And this other story of his, further hardened my resolve to never, ever get married.

He was followed by an artist exhibiting something that, even several weeks later, I can't make head or tail of. The title had the words "Mountains", and either, or all of, "Misty," "Smoky" or "Pink" in it. To describe this properly, I need to give you a mental image of the basement.

There was a projector set up so that the projection would be near a corner of the room, on a glass partition that separated the room we were in from the next. There wasn't much space; so, while most others were facing the section on which the projection would happen, the only spot I could get to was along the partition, facing the projector.

I was well away from where the projection was to be, though, and so figured I wouldn't be obstructing anyone's view. My view wouldn't be great, but I could live with that: it didn't seem like the sort of thing that would interest me. Besides, it was a basement with no air-conditioning, and I think I've mentioned somewhere or the other that Delhi in the summers is freaking hot. Unfortunately, the two exits could be reached only via much profanity from people whose hands and feet I'd step on. So I stayed put.

The lights dimmed, and something that looked a lot like a guitar, but wasn't quite one, made its presence felt. No contribution yet from the projector. But that's ok. David Lean and Stanley Kubrick, for instance, have started with a pitch-black screen and an overture. I was interested, all of a sudden: this guy was already rubbing shoulders with giants.

Meanwhile, someone starting cleaning the partition behind me. I was annoyed. It didn't seem the right way to treat high art. She was moving across the glass, slowly, squeakily toward the projection - which started up, by and by, and looked like a Rorschach blot in motion. Or maybe it was dancing bulls. I lost interest. Boredom crept in. The heat was getting to me. I wanted more beer. I wanted out.

I was staring at my shoes, immersed in self pity, wishing the window cleaner would move on and take her squeaking with her, when something started to pierce my shell of self absorption. I looked up. People were staring, giggling; there was even the odd camera flash. Having the "situational awareness of a dead goat," to steal a phrase from I-don't-remember-where, it took me a while to piece together the mystery.

Apparently, the "cleaning" behind me was part of the performance. She was smearing a wax-like thingy on the glass. What the whole thing signified, I cannot say: perhaps some comment on the transience of life, or maybe on entropy (spotless glass to begin with, getting progressively dirtier), or something. There wasn't much for me to do, other than blush a bright crimson, mutter a "Why the hell didn't somebody say something?" and creep sheepishly away. Thankfully, at that point, something malfunctioned on the projector, and they had to start the whole presentation again. I was no longer the centre of unwelcome attention.

I'm no expert on psychology, but I do know that there's only so much of watching the smearing of wax, in a hot basement - even if accompanied by music and dancing bulls - that people can take in a day. One 20-minute stretch, they can manage to sit politely through; but a repeat immediately after - and this time, with no one in front of said presentation, pulling pained expressions while studying his shoelaces - well, that's asking for too much. There was much loud whispering and exiting. I stole out, too, careful never to be within throwing-of-blunt-objects distance of the artist.

Outside, I felt a little better when I noticed worse philistines than me about. For instance, there was this group on the lawn behind me, who thought the restlessness of the audience was part of the show, and spent a fair while discussing that and other inanities, until I just about wanted to scream. But then again, Tarkovsky, on being asked why he kept the camera trained for 10 whole minutes on a dude, who was raising excitement to a fever pitch by sitting, reading a newspaper, in a moving car, famously came back with, "So that the idiots leave before the actual movie starts." Perhaps something earth shattering took place in the basement after the rest of us left. Besides, I thought of my contributions to the evening, and kept my trap shut.

I suppose the thing to do now is to wind the whole post up, with a succinct "lessons learnt", or how it all added up to a significant chapter in my life. There aren't any, and it didn't. However, since we all have a little bit of whimsy in us...

My ultimate fantasy career has always been "film director." Strange then that when my debut came, it would not be behind the camera, but rather on stage... after a fashion. Perhaps it's fate hinting that my future lies in following the footsteps of the likes of Lilette Dubey and Anthony Hopkins? I can already hear those of you who know me, muttering faintly, "No, it isn't." Still, there it is. The evening that launched me from the low brow to the high brow.

*My Hindi's not too good, but Dr Satwik helped improve it tremendously, with a few essential words that I simply must try out when I can manage to get a girl alone.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Do the Right Thing

The movie review set me thinking. While I've never found myself face-to-face with a hideous alien; after a lifetime of living in India, I do know a thing or two about having very narrow standards when it comes to judging on appearances - especially the fair-and-lovely benchmark.  It isn't really racism: colour of skin isn't that much of an indicator of race in this very diverse country. Besides, we don't really discriminate on colour in an overtly physical way. It's rather understated, and ultimately is merely about what we consider attractive.

Casteism, if anything, would probably be the closest thing to racism that we can boast of - there seems to be much hair-splitting on that subject, though. Now, throw as much rhetoric as you can, and you would still fail to describe the horrors of casteism. Any conscionable blogger would write about it, particularly in view of the ongoing debate. But it is a war waged mostly in India's villages, and is not something I have direct experience of. In any case, no one has yet accused me of being a conscionable blogger.

Colourism, on the other hand, I've seen all around me; and even indulge in, whenever time permits (remind me to write a post on how jam-packed modern-day schedules are, and how it doesn't really leave us with enough time for the finer things in life). But hack that I am, I think I'll hitch a free ride by using a word that instantly brings to mind the worst of discrimination, all over the world. Right then, that's "racism" we settled on, yes?

Oh, and don't worry. I'm not about to bore you to tears by frothing up with righteous anger. Frothing up takes energy. Besides, I'm not really against racism. Being as human as the next man, I need to be able to despise - freely and without guilt. Is there a simpler way to judge and condemn than by colour of skin? Admittedly, there are more sophisticated means of identifying subjects to discriminate against, but for sheer ease-of-use, nothing else comes close.

Take a look at the IMDB Top Films. How many in that list are all sweetness and sunshine? At the time of writing, you have to scroll all the way down to #29 to find the first one - the nauseating "It's a Wonderful Life" - and then to #45, to find the second, "Amelie." What would we blog about, what would we film? Where would we get our little rises if there are no faces to grind our boots with?

Further, as a friend pointed out, racism is part of our identity. We grow up with it. We pass it down, from generation to generation, with love and care, careful to preserve every ounce of it. It is our rightful inheritance. And is there another nation that guards its cultural heritage more zealously?

All people are equal? What rubbish! If we can discriminate based on looks, intelligence, wit, talent, language, religion, etc, then why not colour? What's the difference? Why the half-hearted attempts at political correctness; why make me stand in front of the vice-principal's room for an hour, merely for calling a classmate a crow? (And he had started it, by tripping me on the staircase.)

The only gripe I have here is that we seem to be practising this whole racism thing upside down. We were occupied by the British for 200 years - and, judging by the cast of "Lagaan," the colonisers were white: not black, not brown, not grey, not yellow, not blue. White*. Also, it's the predominantly-white societies that we look to, with hawk-like eyes, for any hint of racism; and when we do get our evidence, what a good job we do with the whingeing - which is fair enough; after all, it isn't the Moors who treated us like second-class citizens in our own country.

So why is it that we simper at anyone with a lighter shade of skin than ours, while treating darker skin with something approaching disdain? An Iranian tourist - she of pearly white skin - told me how well, how magnificently, she was treated while on her visit here of a few weeks. Isn't that just wrong?

So, here's what I propose. We drop everything we're doing right now, and make our way to the nearest chemist, or wherever it is that we can get our hands on one of those fairness creams that have a  money-back guarantee. From what I can remember of the ads, they come with some sort of a strip that lets you measure "improvement" in skin tone; presumably, it has all possible shades of skin colour: from pot-with-no-self-awareness black, to sambar brown, to pasty white.

Whenever we come across a tourist, we hold the strip up against their foreheads, and if they happen to be two shades lighter than the median we've marked out, we condemn them to the cool treatment; our covert stare will have an element of distaste. Those two shades darker, on the other hand, we stare at with admiration; we fawn at them; we'd want them to pat us affectionately on the head, while not forgetting to fleece them, if we can.

On the local front, things are, admittedly, not quite so black and white; and I'm not writer enough to summarise it in a few lines. A couple of things that come to mind is asking specifically for dark-skinned partners in marriage ads; further, those of us of darker skin will not dilly dally in describing our colour. No more "wheatish" or other obfuscations. We go ahead and declare proudly: "brown" or "black."

Let the ones with the lighter skin come up with shame-faced  euphemisms: "tooth-paste-ish," "an unbecoming coconut-chutney coloured," "semiya-payasam skinned." Kids tripped on stairs will accuse the offender of being a... polar bear? (That isn't very good, is it? I'm open to suggestions.) Of course, since only dark skin shall turn us on from now on, at the next IPL, there will only be black cheerleaders (assuming we'll still be importing them). When chaps like him come back to India, we will impress them with our growing racist maturity, by asking, in a tone willing to believe the very worst, "What are the white people like?"

All I'm campaigning for is enlightened, logical racism. Is that too much to ask for?

*A quick Google search astonished me with the info that white folk come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and political views; apparently, not all of them have tried to colonise India, either. There are some who prefer racing and reindeer; there are others who absolutely detest motor racing, and would rather make chocolate, cuckoo clocks or all-conquering tennis champs. A chap named Napoleon had his differences of opinion with other white folk, notably the ones across the French Channel. And yes, some white Aussies have been known to refer to other white folk, separated by the Tasman Sea, as sheep shaggers. I acknowledge all this, but am still sticking to my guns; the time-honoured pejorative, "They all look the same," being my underlying philosophical premise.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Well, that's another fine Messi you've gotten me into, Leo!

Having never been a football fan, I'm a little surprised the World Cup hasn't bored me to tears. Don't get me wrong. I'm still no fan, and, by the looks of it, never will be. There's something just so incongruous about muscle-bound men doing an impersonation of 11-year-old Vineetha - when, in Maths class, I used the compass on her from the bench behind: "Ma'am, ma'am, he poked me in the back. Send him out, the beast!"

Now, being a fan of a sport that has the likes of Stuart Broad, Sreesanth and Shane Watson playing it, I'm in no position to claim that, footballers aside, sportsmen are paragons of virtue. But the odd overzealous challenge, or handling the ball, is one thing; diving to get someone from the other team sent off, is another. Is there anything more distasteful than players converging on a referee, demanding that an opponent be sent off?

And I've lost count of the number of times I've seen this in the last few days; you can't get 5 minutes of a game without someone flat on the ground, clutching various body parts, teammates making a collective exhibition of breast-beating worthy of a Prem Nazir film. I still don't get why these blokes are not hauled up in front of a referee after the match is over, and sent packing on the next flight home. They're making their sport virtually unwatchable. The beautiful game, indeed!

What I'm driving at is, under normal circumstances, I'd sooner describe an hour spent scraping chewing gum off the underside of my boots, than write about football. But there are still times when football grabs me by the throat, makes me look up from my book. Before going into that, though, let me admit to my biases first. Long ago, when such things were still around, my dad had this videotape named... well, something or the other. It was a 90-minute summary of the World Cups between 1958 and 1986. Only two of the tournaments still stick in my memory. One had a group of orange-clad men doing something remarkable, something startlingly different from anything that preceded them.

The second tourney of my memories... now, that made even the first pale in comparison. A short, stocky chap* working magic with the ball at his feet, seemingly single-handedly inspiring his team to victory - and a boy's ever-lasting allegiance was won. From then on, if he happened to catch a striped sky-blue shirt on a football pitch, that is the corner of the field that held his heart. Not that it happened often; once in four years is all.

You may find it curious, therefore, that in-spite of all the hype anointing Lionel Messi as the next Maradona, I never paid much attention to it. Come to think of it, if you follow sports much, you probably wouldn't find it all that curious. India's just starting to buckle down, staring grimly at the prospect of the next Tendulkar being discovered every other day, up until the year 2201. It had to be something exceptional that would pique my interest enough to watch a ghastly football match, and this article certainly was that. In the match (some club game) I finally did watch, though, for all the entertainment value he added, Messi might as well have not played at all; football was back in the ignore list.

But then, the World Cup started, Africa was on every tongue, sky blue was back on TV, and I settled down,  book in hand (just in case), to watch the Albicelestes have another go at the title. Admittedly, I can't judge for myself if Messi is the next Maradona. After all, all I've seen of Maradona is about 10 minutes of a highlights package. Not that I care. To watch the pint-sized Messi being surrounded by three, four defenders, and still dribble his way through what looked like a brick wall just a few seconds earlier, has me now kicking myself for ignoring all those recommendations over the last couple of years.

Sure, I have enough of a bone to pick with football in general to justify not watching it for any reason whatsoever. Even the fact that he seems to be a fair sportsman, not given to falling over, bellowing like a wounded buffalo, on a feather passing within 5 metres of him can be explained away cynically, like a friend of mine did: "He's merely doing what's best for him. He does better by remaining on his feet, than being face down on the grass."

But, if nothing else, as a sci-fi fan, how can I not watch in awe, not be spellbound, by the little Argentinian bending time and space to his will? Just where do those sudden bursts of speed, and changes in direction come from? This is not The Hulk battering his opponents into submission; this is The Flea** weaving and winding his way through, in intricate patterns effortlessly planned out in a fraction of a second. How many days would it take a Brian de Palma to come up with an equivalent reel on film?

So, for the rest of the tournament, you'll find me swallowing my pride and asking football-fanatic friends for tips and information, after years of bagging on them. I shall also be willing the Argentinians on, with rather more than my usual detached interest. And even after that, whatever the result, long after Africa is bid goodbye to, I'll do my best to catch Leo Messi in action, whenever I can.

*As if to give me even more reasons to support Argentina, CWB opines that Tendulkar, for his "ability to score at will and carry a team" is like a non-mental Diego Maradona. With such close ties between the Argentinian coach and my favourite sportsman, how can I not support El Diego's wards?

**"Emergency meeting of illiterate millionaires" is pretty much my favourite summing up of the on-going festivities in South Africa: I shouldn't expect too much by way of imagination from the footballing fraternity. But still, the most talked-about player of his generation; someone already compared to legends of the sport; someone who can make even people like me, who have no particular love for the game, write posts professing wide-eyed admiration; and the best you can come up with for him is The Flea? Really?

P.S. - His name being just perfect for punning ("messimerising performance" is getting really old, though), phrases like "don't Messi with Tevez" abound everywhere I turn to. In the match against Greece, with the Greeks needing to win to go through, I came up with one of my own: "The Greek shall inherit the Earth; but not if the Messi-ah has a say in the matter." A really clever mix of World Cup commentary, religious allegory, and Monty Python references - even if I do say so myself. Now, if only I could find a way to work it i... ah! Looks like I just managed it. Thankyouverymuch. Enjoy the quarter-finals.

P.P.S. - A quick Google search to check if my post title is original, confirmed what I've always suspected: there's nothing original about me, never has been, and most likely never will be. Well, at least, the article in question points out that even someone like Messi is far from perfect.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Movie Turn-Ons, Part 4.4 (Cheesy Sci-Fi: It Came From Outer Space)

As always, let me warn you of spoilers ahead. Also, a lot of the background stuff comes from the very informative audio commentary, by Tom Weaver, on the DVD. 

It Came From Outer Space (1953)

First up, the title. What's with the "it"? If they mean the spaceship that crashes fierily in the Arizona desert, that's the first of very few appearances, all as brief as this prologue; the movie's all about its travellers. "They Came From Outer Space" has a much better ring to it, too, eh?

While the spaceship is making its fireball impersonation, our hero* for this film - the astronomer, Putnam, with a lovely house on the fringes of the desert - is canoodling under the stars with his lady love, Ellen; talking, as astronomers tend to do, I suppose, of horoscopes and stuff. He's just taken his telescope out, when the biggest meteor he's ever seen crashes nearby. Thankfully, the telescope is not a metaphorical one: he's able to confirm the location of the crash.

He hammers down the door of a helicopter pilot, and they go off investigating. The pilot and Ellen wisely stay at the lip of the crater, while he climbs down into it and sees the spaceship. And just in time, too: a landslide buries the whole thing under two tons of rock. Of course, no one else will believe him; he's the designated nut for the rest of the film.

We know better, though. There are aliens out there! The original treatment for the film was written by sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury. He did not want the alien seen at all, except in very brief shots; wanting our imagination to make up a creature so horrifying that, had his dialogue been kept, it would've been described as

"Think of all the bad things, all the bodies you've dredged up out of rivers after 6 days, all the bodies you've found that had lain in the hot sun for a week, think of being thrown into a pit full of 10 billion black widow spiders and tarantulas and mice and snakes; think of that."

The film-makers remain true to this until near the end, when they give in to temptation. For the most part, though, all we see of it is a giant cyclops' eye, and a body trailing icky fluorescent goo on the ground. The camera takes the aliens' point of view quite a bit. Sadly, the alien whose eye we borrow seems to have some sort of severe optical problem - and it apparently left the corrective lens back in the spaceship. Still, from the world seen through its eye, particularly judging from the reactions of the inhabitants that have the misfortune to look upon it, its form is just as horrifying as Bradbury would like to have had it described.

The aliens, doubtless for excellent reasons of their own, start kidnapping people. They're also shape-shifters, and can take human form. Putnam is on to this fairly quickly, and spends half the film trying to convince Sheriff Warren that aliens are amongst them; there's a hint here of the paranoia of the wonderful "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." All of this is done very well, very atmospheric; nowhere more evident than when two telegraph men are listening in on what is very likely the aliens wire-tapping the telephone lines, with accompanying dialogue of

"...It might be somebody up that way tapping the wires, or back that way, listening to us, like we're listening to him... After you've been working out on the desert fifteen years, like I have, you hear a lot of things. See a lot of things, too. Sun in the sky, and the heat. All the sand out there with the rivers, lakes, that aren't real at all. And sometimes you think that the wind gets in the wires and hums and listens and talks."

And a little earlier

"It's alive... it's alive and waiting for you. Ready to kill you if you go too far. The sun will get you, the cold at night. A thousand ways the desert can kill."

The aliens kidnap Ellen, and just when we're about ready to believe the worst of them, the movie springs a wonderful surprise: the aliens reveal all to Putnam. They're on Earth by accident, a malfunction on their ship marooning them on our strange world. All they need is a bit of time to repair it; they're not the least bit interested in us. Still, they know enough of us to not reveal themselves: "Had you fallen on our world, it might have been different. We understand more." I can't help get the feeling though, that if they'd used their powers to appear human to us all the time, and, further, avoided the temptation of kidnapping scores of people for no discernible reason, they probably wouldn't have drawn too much attention to themselves. I'll put this break in reasoning down to culture shock.

Sheriff Warren has, by now, been convinced of the alien presence and decides they're evil. The man, apart from being prone to bombastic pronouncements on the weather, also has an interesting approach to law enforcement; his technique consists chiefly of sneering at the citizens he's sworn to protect, and, when pushed to action, forming a lynch mob.

The aliens, convinced now that they will be destroyed, throw an extraordinarily hissy fit. They prepare to blow themselves up, and take the Earth along with them. Where's the noblesse oblige? Where's the resigned shrug, the wry smile and the dignified martyrdom befitting an older, wiser civilisation than ours? Tsk tsk.

Anyway, Putnam convinces them not to; and, rounding up a busy afternoon, keeps the mob at bay, too. The aliens complete repairs and blast off. Putnam, eyes shining, delivers the obligatory Hopeful Dialogue, gibbering for a while about the time not being right, and speculating confidently that someday in the future, it will be. Everyone lives happily ever after. The end.

The film's director, Jack Arnold, has this to say,

"We are prone, all of us, to fear something that's different than we are; whether it be in philosophy, the colour of our skins, or even one block against another in a big city. Because your form is different than theirs, you wanna hate, you wanna kill; that is your first reaction. Until we're mature enough to meet something different from ourselves on a higher level - without being afraid of it, without recoiling in horror - only then will we be worthy of meeting whatever else is there in the cosmos."

Here's a bit of unused Bradbury dialogue that would've gone to Putnam:-

"We find a spider horrifying. But then, we are equally horrible to it - with our hidden bones, and our flesh covering our bones, standing upright with only four limbs - we are the spiders' nightmare. The human race can build rockets and go to other planets, but when we get there and see the spider civilisations and the ant civilisations, the bird civilisations, we won't understand them; they won't understand us. There might be complete civilisations made up of giant, intelligent bees, black-widow spiders or humming birds. Men would instantly destroy civilisations as these. How did we treat the American Indian? We killed them, or put them on reservations. How have we treated the Africans? Exploited them, used them. If men treat other men this way, what won't he do to things like giant insects and insects from other worlds?"

A mite heavy handed. Then again, it's not like the parts that did make it into the film are any less subtle. Besides, whatever Bradbury's good intentions, it's obvious that the filmmakers themselves were not above feeding the paranoia of their audience. Maybe the alien POV shots, and the horrified expressions of the people seen through it, can be explained in retrospective as a comment on us. But what of the portrayal of the aliens as bumbling and childishly vengeful?

All that aside, it's still a nice, moody sci-fi flick. For a change, the aliens are here neither to preach, nor to conquer. The film has a pretty snide wit to it, too. Oh, and if you watch all the way till the end, you'll see a certain Kathleen Hughes get a giant credit; she also appears on the cover of the DVD case. This is rather mystifying, especially given that she appears for all of two minutes in the film. Turns out, this is one of the first-ever 3-D sci-fi films. Watching it at home, the only thing in 3-D was the TV set itself; on jumping to that scene again, though, it's easy to imagine how she must've wowed the theatre audiences. Big kudos to the filmmakers for exploring the possibilities of 3-D.

*Thankfully, a rather more likeable one than Meacham from "This Island Earth."

Coming up next: "The Thing from Another World"