Sunday, April 29, 2007

Singapore's new Media(Corp) scene hots up

Three of us were on our way to the Indo Chine Forbidden City at Clark Quay for MediaCorp's Trade Networking event on Friday. All of us were going there in batches.

A colleague called on the mobile phone of another colleague. She was sitting next to me, so I could overhear: "Why's the Forbidden City forbidden us from entering?"

It turned out that they were at the back door of the venue and were supposed to approach it from the front gate.

No big trouble at all.

The event, that officially kicked off at about 4.30 pm, turned out well. The attendance was good and people seemed to enjoy the chilled out atmosphere. All MediaCorp websites were on display. The figures bandied about were astronomically impressive. These websites attract several billion hits and millions of unique visitors.

All this is the result of hard work and some smart thinking.

Lucas Chow, CEO, MediaCorp also said, "MediaCorp has been preparing itself to engage in the New Media Frontier. I'm proud to say our efforts have been rewarded with high traffic and industry recognition."

"The inclusion of New Media into the marketing mix has become today's buzzword for the savvy marketeer. Smart advertisers are looking at stretching their dollar across multiple platforms," said Timothy Goh, Vice-President, New Media Business/CRM.

But do all advertisers appreciate the immediate, one-to-one, interactive and measurable benefits of new media advertising? I hope they do. As Mr Chow rightly pointed out that it's now common for a person to watch television on the Internet while answering email at the same time - this trend described as media meshing is what advertisers need to be aware of to reach consumers from more than one platform.

In US alone, out of 76 billion total media revenues, an increasing share is coming from the internet. More and more newspapers are taking the internet seriously and monetising it successfully. Google and Yahoo are signing up with media companies there. I'm sure the same trend will be reflected soon here, and local advertisers and media companies need to intertwine their marketing needs and delivery platforms. With Web 2.0 in full swing now, can we afford to miss the bus?

Read CNA's report and watch the videos here.

Writers blogging?

Except for a few, most established writers don't blog. Why? I'd like to think that they already are famous, they have a fan following, and anything they write can be monestised through their agents. Lack of time, in a honed set pattern of nocurnal or diurnal writing, can be a good, classic excuse.

Also, many writers, like Neil Gaiman says in a Time Out interview, would not like to give away in the blog "the raw proto-material that may eventually melt down into a story." That is definitely not helpful for a writer.

But yesterday, as it emerged during a discussion with friend and fellow blogger Deepika, one more reason was added to this list. Many writers, as she put it (and you have to trust her words because Deepika meets on an average a writer a week, if not more), are still living in the age of fax machines. So, blogging would be a little too much for these technological luddites.

No offence meant to these writers. To each his own, and as long as they keep writing those lovely books, we are not complaining.

However, all old or established writers are not nay sayers to this technological marvel. Some have in fact found a rebirth through blogging. An example is Penelope Farmer who writes on her experience in this Guardian blog, 'Getting published through the blog door':

Old writers don't die these days; they write blogs...

I wrote anonymously, as Grannyp - a spur of the moment name, stolen from the Archers: (oh the irony - having declined to be called granny by my grandchildren, I am known as Granny across the web). I had no expectations of a wider audience. But as I wrote I began to wonder about other blogs and to look them out. I added comments to some. The writers of those blogs began adding comments to mine.

The book I'd been writing, like its predecessor, was turned down - that this happens frequently these days to writers of my generation was no comfort at all. I felt too discouraged to start another. But I am a writer still; my blog's audience may not have been huge but it had one; it wasn't like writing to the wall, the way I was beginning to feel.

I dared put one short story on my blogger site. Still bolder, I began putting up, chapter by chapter, over several weeks, my most recently rejected book, Lifting the World, about a child who lives next to a building site and becomes obsessed by tower cranes. Though this obsession had baffled the editors who'd turned it down, it too gradually drew an audience.

Meantime I'd started corresponding, blogwise, with your own wonderful Dina Rabinovitch, to whom I'd confessed my real name. She promptly outed me on her blog - something I objected to at first. But when the last chapter of the book went up, I outed myself with the permission of my family. Here I am, I said, author of Charlotte Sometimes and all that. (And no, I don't mind that book being my calling card, though written so long ago. After all this time I'm grateful to have one.)

And I've started on another book. Old writers may not die, but they do have to move on. Thank God for the internet.

I also thank the internet, because, without it, fledgling writers like me would be seen and heard nowhere. All my initial short stories were published in online journals, and now they are finding their way to print. And most importantly, I have been able to connect with some likeminded people through this medium. What more can one ask for a start?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Indian writing flavour of the 'month'

The other day I was in the company of my Sri Lankan friends. The discussion included mostly cricket (the world cup was dragging to an end), some cinema (Fracture was somewhat hollow despite the presence of Anthony Hopkins and The Namesake was brilliant) and, of course, books (Tariq Ramadan's book on Prophet Mohammad was mentioned, among others).

The hostess of the evening, at one point, mentioned Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss. 'I'm stuck somewhere in the middle of the novel,' she said. Why was she not able to move on, I asked her. Was it the structure of the narrative that was coming in the way? The structue, no, I woudn't go that far, she said. What was it then, I insisted. She's dealing with so many things at the same time, so much goes on there on those pages, it is sort of difficult to keep pace with...--something like that was her answer.

Well, I too am yet to finish the novel but I found it to be very intelligent and superbly evocative. It is a densely written book, and its bonsai size (pages) could be deceptive.

Any way, Kiran just had a chat with CNN's Anjali Rao in Talk Asia and has some interesting insights to share. For example, here is her take on Indian writing:

It's funny, this whole fashion of Indian writing. In a way, I don't think that it's really quite fair. I think if one book is popular, publishers immediately go after another book and another one and they start supporting writers from that part of the world, which is wonderful for Indian writers. But I was talking to a young Nigerian woman, a wonderful author, and she said she was told India was the flavor of the month and it was much harder for her. So there is this downside to all of this, but it is certainly true that it's wonderful to be an Indian writer.

Is she referring to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (author of Half of a Yellow Sun) who is competing against her for this year's Orange Prize?

Read the whole transcript here and watch the videos here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Fractured narratives

These days watching a Hollywood film is like reading a newspaper article. You take your chances at your own peril.

In the last few weeks, I have watched Antoine Fuqua's Shooter, Walt Becker's Wild Hogs and Gregory Hoblit's Fracture. Different films, different genres, but nevertheless, all disappointing in one way or another. Disappointing because I take great care in choosing the kind of films that I watch (there is not much to choose from, honestly, talking on a weekly release basis) and I still miss the mark.

Shooter felt like a Bollywood film transported to America with an all American cast--it is so cliched that it even ends with the bumping off of a powerful politician, the film's villain. Instead of Mark Whalberg, you could have Sunny Deol (as the shooter) and Saeed Jaffery as the politician-villian, and Jackie Shroff could have played Danny Glover's part. To Fuqua's credit, he builds the story up very well, but somewhere mid-way the film begins to become less taut and more predictable. You don't expect this from the director of a movie like Training Day.

Wild Hogs should have been called Mild Hogs. It is a concept film, with a one-line plot, that must had had the studio bosses marvel at the concept.

Hey, what about a bunch of middle-aged guys trying to relive their past on their shining Harleys on a trip to the Pacific!

Wow, what an idea! Everyone jumped with excitement.

And, sure enough, they had a film ready with a star-studed cast! Excuse the others, what are John Travolta and William Macey doing in this film?

By the way, Macey's the most interesting character in the film. His geeky, blubbering and fumbling characterisation will cheer you a great deal.

But is this what Hollywood can produce in the name of a comic caper? One episode of Seinfeld can trigger more laughter than this comic poseur of a feature film.

Fracture, by far, is still a better film. A legal thriller of sorts, it justifies its existence. The subject of a husband killing his wife for sexual promiscuity is as old as cinema. Also, though there isn't anything great or new that Anthony Hopkins has done in this film, you do get to see all his trademark histrionics--the vacuous look, the twitching of facial muscles, the menacing gaze, hiding the smoldering lava of anger underneath. That itself is a treat as how often do you get to see actors like Hopkins.

Hopkins gets to mouth some clever lines, playing around the theme of the male sexual organ (you see, he killed his wife for cheating on him!). In a scene where he is telling the judge that he killed his wife because she was having an affair with another man, he says: "My Dick is good." His prosecutor, Ryan Gosling, is also in the room. Then, he smiles, and clarifies that Dick is the name of his private investigator. In another scene, he asks Ryan (who plays the role of a never-losing attorney) if he can call him "Willie." Ryan's name in the film is Willy Beecham. The humour may have been lost on him but we know!

Ryan Gosling is a surprise--I was watching him perform for the first time. Despite being a newbie, he admirably stands up to Hopkin's scene-chewing screen presence, making us interetsed in what he does and how he does it.

In a particular scene, Gosling takes a moment to take a crucial decision in the courtroom: the typical moral dillemma before a hero. We don't know what way would he go: Will he take the easy but morally wrong way or would he keep his high values intact? Everyone in the courtroom holds his/her breath, and so do we. Gosling is very effective in that scene.

Fracture's weakness lies in its storyline. Beecham's line of investigation is full of loopholes which is implausible as he is the best assistant attorney in the DA's office. Hopkins supposedly plays cat and mouse games with Gosling but there aren't enough such games in the story. Beecham's on-off romance with Rosamund Pike sort of distracts us from the story.

Overall, although there are some switcheroos (thanks James McCain) in the film, its open-ended conclusion kind of takes away the satisfaction of watching a wrong done right. How could it be? The writer seems to have lost the plot because the film's moral algebra is intact. So, what's the easy way out? Make it open-ended!

It was time Hollywood came out of its formulaic ways. One thing that I can straightaway think of is that they better stopped going by those focus group discussions!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

How to write those good 'bad' reviews?

Most book reviews are serious stuff but very often they are not interesting reads. It applies to both fiction and non-fiction book reviews.

Recently, Prof Amitava Kumar referred to the James Wood style of book reviewing. He noted: "... Other critics appear pallid and unambitious in comparison. Just look at last Sunday’s NYTBR: nearly everything else has the texture of tissue on a rain-soaked pavement."

The Italics are mine. I loved that description.

Well, that is a standard other book reviewers can only aspire to, but for the less talented, here is a formula: It comes from FT's Gideon Rachman, and though it only provides samples of non-fiction work as examples, I'm sure it can find a larger application.

Here is Rachman's formula:

If you publish a book, you are asking to be taken seriously. A “good” bad review does precisely this. It engages with the text far more vigorously than the usual tepid praise by a reviewer who has flicked quickly through a volume. And the best savage reviews are usually very funny...

A really good bad review usually follows a couple of rules. First, the target should be a worthy one. It is no fun watching a Harvard professor squish a young academic from a minor college. That is just cruel. The reviewer needs to be taking on someone with a large reputation and a big ego.

Second, the review should mix in personal abuse with intellectual criticism. This sounds counter-intuitive. Surely, the reviewer should rise above the merely personal – otherwise the review will look like a mere settling of scores? Not at all. A really good bad review needs a certain savage energy and humour – and this really only happens, if the reviewer is personally offended not just by the book but by the person.

Rachman has provided links to reviews that target Bernard-Henri Levy – France’s most fashionable philosopher; Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International; Tom Friedman, possibly the world’s most famous newspaper columnist and George Soros, a globally-celebrated financier and philanthropist. Read them all. They are amazingly written.

I especially liked Taibbi's review of “The World is Flat”. This one really made me reassess the logical plausibility of a Friedmanian postulate.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Peacock Throne

History can often be a treacherous territory. Though history is written by the victors, they may not necessarily come out winners in the end. As nations and communities march from one historical movement to another, those who control the levers of power change. New rulers emerge, often those who were once subjects themselves. They seige the seat of power and then reinterpret and rewrite history. How the past is evaluated thus depends on which side of the divide one finds oneself.

And the whole thing becomes even more complicated for those who, as pawns and players on the chessboard of politics, dwell in a location that was once a seat of power for centuries. Chandani Chowk, the jewel of Old Delhi, where Sujit Saraf sets his second novel, The Peacock Throne, is one such place.

The choice of Chandani Chowk as the novel's setting is important because of its historical importance. That's where the seat of power--The Peacock Throne--was located for centuries. What does that baggage of history do to its people? What do they do with it?

In a scene set in Red Fort's Divan-i-Khas, Ramvilas, a political go-between of Chandani Chowk's seths, describes the Peacock Throne to Gita, a Nepali prosititute of GB Road, his beloved: "That is where the Peacock Throne stood. Thousands of diamonds, sapphires, rubies and emeralds, watched over by two peacocks. Enough to build entire cities, equal to the revenue of entire provinces! And this man--this wasteful lecher--is whom we call the greatest builder of all. His sons fought over the Peacock Throne. When one sat on it, he was worst of all four!

"... It still stands here and every one wants to mount it. The prime minister, the chief minister, ministers, MPs, MLAs, councillors, Naresh Agarwal, Harilal, Sohan Lal, Parvati, every whore and every chaivala in Chandani Chowk. He who sits on the Peacock Throne rules the empire of Hindustan."

A tad too erudite for a character like Ramvilas, but such are the kind of people who live in this fictional Chandani Chowk. From a smooth-skinned prostitute, Gita transforms into the the head of Stree, an NGO for hookers. Ramvilas who works for a seth in his perfumery, is a political fixer. But Gita and Ramvilas are not protagonists of this novel.

For that purpose all we have is a simple Chaivala (tea seller), Gopal Pandey, whose story is central to the narrative. Then there is a sikh character, Kartar Singh, whose son was killed in the 1984 anti-sikh riots of Delhi. But he and his wife were miraculously saved by Gopal Pandey.

Kartar Singh, having abandoned his electronics merchandise business (due to the competition from cheap Chinese electronics goods flooding the market) and havala and cricket bookie businesses, grows political ambitions. Kartar Singh believes that Delhi is a city of 'bastards'. "Too many people come to Delhi; they do not belong here,' he grumbles. He is defeated in assembly polls by Suleman Miyan, the bete noire of Hindu nationalists, himself a Muslim communal politician. Suleman Miyan uses his chamcha, Ibrahim Miyan, and an social worker-turned-journalist, Chitra, to carry out his political agenda.

Chitra, however, has her own agenda, symbolizing the ambitions of a power-hungry mediaperson. Chitra's NGO, Sparrows, has Mussabir and Gauhar, a Bangladeshi illegal immigrant, who get by their lives by trading their bodies and doing odd-jobs for the political fixers. "There are only two ways to make money in this world, pigeon fights and getting your arse fucked," says Mussabir.

In an ironic twist, Suleman and Ibrahim send the two Muslim boys to Ayodhya as kar sevaks to blow up the Babri Mosque. One of them never returns, the other goes into hiding. Gopal Pandey, who used to see his dead son Mukesh in the Bangladeshi Gauher and allowed him to sleep in his tea kiosk, gets heartbroken. "All my sons die," mourns Gopal. "Even Gauher." In the earlier part of the story, Gopal's son is set on fire by Ramvilas, during a protest against the Mandal commission, on the behest of the seths, the council members of the Hindu nationalist party.

Trading on these dead bodies are the seths of Chandani Chowk whose brand of politics feeds on the Hindu hatred. They want to undo the damage done by a secular Nehru to India. Seth Sohan Lal has nothing but despise for Nehru: "A man who fell for white women and grovelled before white men, who peddled unmanly, impractical and self-defeating pacifism with impunity, making India ridiculous in the eyes of the world... How he had pandered to the Musalmans and danced with Naga and Mizo tribals!"

In an episode in which the Bangladeshi boy Gauhar pissess on the samadhi of Mahatma Gandhi in a public protest, Seth Sohan Lal does not much mind the pissing act in Rajghat: "It was time someone pissed on the Mahatma, even if it had to be a one-handed Bangladeshi. Who was the Mahatma anyway? A fornicator, a dirty old man with scandalous ideas, a man gone soft on Musalmans, a man endowed with senility with a dangerous degree of power, thankfully stopped before he could lay waste the new Indian nation with his constant appeasement of Musalmans. Worst of all, he was the man who foisted Nehru--a Musalman in Hindu garb--on the country."

Addressing a rally of whores, MLA Harilal Gupta justifies the claim for Babri Masjid: "Why do Musalmans claim this structure, which they call Babri Masjid as if it really were a mosque, when Raam Lalla himself chose to walk into his temple? We will build out temple there, my sisters, we will build it on that very inch of land!"

On the other hand, Suleman has own reasons to foment Muslim communalism. He thinks that Indian Muslims missed the bus to Pakistan 45 years ago, and now "all fifteen crore of us in this country are WT (without ticket)." "We are an army of WT passengers and the conductor is coming toward us," he says.

Explaining to Gauhar in a Madrasa setting why he needed to destroy the Babri Masjid, he says: "Hindus are unmanly and effiminate. They will strike against the walls and they will fall to the ground. Do you think they will so much as scratch a masjid protected by Allah? And if they do not,who will punish them for the sin? A Musalman must bring down retribution on their heads. Once the masjid has fallen, the Musalmans of India will not sit still...Before the dust from the Masjid settles, our armies will crush the kafirs who have come to attack. But unless the masjid falls the Musalmans will not be aroused. It is important that the masjid fall--it is necessary!"

Coming through these characters is an India that is far from its lofty image of a great nation. Is this the real India, the reader might wonder. Those who know India at the grassroots levels, who have tasted the dust of its streets and kuchas, would vouch for it. That is at least how things were in the 1980 and 90s. As novelist Salman Rushdie noted in an essay in 1987: "J K Galbaith's description of India as 'functioning anarchy' still fits, but the stresses on the country have never been so great. Does India exist? If it doesn't, the explanation is to be found in a single word: communalism. The politics of religious hatred." (The Riddle of Midnight: India, 1987)

To the credit of Sujit Saraf, The Peacock Throne is the acknowledgement of an India, a vast swathe of its billion plus people, who believe that a proud Hindu India should come out of the poisonous penumbra of its Mughal, nay Muslim, past and rewrite the fate of this country. In the 1990s, India's liberal and secular intelligentsia referred to this group as the lunatic fringe, but they did not accurately gauge its power and its ability to manipulate the religiously hidebound masses of India. The result was a fanatical Hindu wave that enabled a Hinduvta-oriented party occupy the Peacock Throne for the first time in independent India.

However, it was a short-lived experience, as forces of globalisation made people worry more about roti than Ram. Clearly, the making of history never stops. Sujit's tapestry of narrative, however, would have been richer if there were characters who could have balanced its darkness, but perhaps, everyone gets soiled in the drain of politics.

In this novel, Delhi hardly exists beyond the Chandani Chowk. There is even a disregard for New Delhi as Suleman says at one point: "I myself hate this city, this so-called New Delhi. This is not Dilli, this is not India, this is Englistan. Look at these people! Poodles of the English sahibs. These are the people who should fear me because it is them I shall first destroy."

But if Delhi is about power and politics, then it is definitely a Delhi novel, even though it does not have a larger than life protagonist. Gopal Pandey, the central character, hardly looks like a hero--an ordinary Indian who is more a pawn than a master. But that's how all ordinary poor Indians are. In the world of Indian politics, what's true of Gopal Pandey is also true of millions of other Gopal Pandeys living in the nooks and crannies of India, plying their trade or ploughing their fields or merely serving their masters and manipulators in the great game of democracy.

It's a novel in the tradition of realistic literature. The story often becomes predictable, its minutiae even annoyingly boring in places, for those who are aware of the historical events being dealt with here. What saves the narrative though is the touch of its common-man humour that carries the work into the realms of parody, satire, and even mock epic. But this kind of blatant realism is a dangerous territory for a work of art. As Saul Bellow once noted, the more realistic you are the more you threaten the grounds of your own art. In that sense, The Peacock Throne, despite being an important work failes to rise to literary greatness as its author doesn't meet the challenge of depicting Old Delhi's reality in some extraordinary fashion.

[Excerpts from a soon to be published review]

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The ‘I’ in the iPod

If one were asked to imagine how many consumer products are so exciting that they deserve books written on them, the answer would be difficult to come by.

The Sony Walkman? The Mac machine? The Mercedes Benz? A few possible contenders but are you sure?

You may not be but if you’d asked Steven Levy, Newsweek’s Senior Editor, he wouldn’t be uncertain in his choice. He would go for the iPod which he calls the “Perfect Thing.”

And not for nothing. That is the title of his book on the iPod: The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness (published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. 2006).

Though Farhad Manjoo, the Salon staff writer, calls it “a title that seems to skip past the boundaries of mere affection and into a land of wild-eyed cultish idolatry,” Levy’s tome on the tiny contraption provides interesting perspectives into the ways it has affected our lives.

Launched in October 2001, the iPod has become “the signature artifact (sic!) of our young century, selling more than 60 million units in its first five years.”

Impressive! And why wouldn’t it be as it seems that everyone—from George Bush in the White House to Dick Cheney in the war room to the Pope in the Vatican and down to the bloke sitting next to you in the MRT—has one.

Want more stats to impress you? Here it is. According to a 2005 survey, the iPod is more popular on American college campuses than beer. Anybody for an ad on the iPod vs. the Tiger Beer?

The post-iPod world

The post-iPod world, according to Levy, is split in two: “Those locked into iPod reveries and those griping about how they have lost contact with the cooler part of the world.”

Levy talks about the “iPod wars” in New York’s subways—“ musical sumo matches where two iPod wearers spontaneously confront each other, thrusting the screen in each other's faces with a song cue.”

Though we haven’t seen such musical machismo on Singapore’s public transports, we have surely encountered hordes of music lovers plugged away from reality with their iPods on our buses and trains.

If one were to believe Levy, one could deconstruct a person’s character by looking at his iPod playlist. “Playlist is character,” he says. Dick Cheney's iPod features the Carpenters and the Pope's has Beethoven, Chopin and podcasts from Vatican Radio. What do you make of it? Play your own shrink and wallow in the mud of “musical voyeurism”.

The iPod has not just made us musical vouyers, it has changed the way music is being made, distributed and consumed. The à la carte option in the iTunes store has changed the age-old linear experience of listening to music. Now people can buy only the good songs, and cherry-pick the music they listen to. That makes us a “skip-forward generation" in Levy’s parlance.

Not just that. Manjoo has noted how music portability of iPod like devices has changed -- for the worse -- the way engineers record music. Record labels now use a very low dynamic range when they're mastering new albums because they want to ensure that people can hear new songs in noisy settings.

However, apart from music, the iPod’s contribution to Podcasting cannot be underestimated—the process of uploading and downloading content was empowered by Apple’s player. The phenomenon is significant as, in the understating of Indian communications expert, Indrajit Banerjee, it contributes to the globalization of the local.

The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman talked about it in a podcast on globalization: “…You are seeing now the power of this flat world platform for more and more individuals to upload — upload their own culture, their own story, their own music, their own styles — through blogging, through podcasting. And they’re going to be huge forces of homogenization in this flat world.”

A device for portable cocooning?

On the downside, Levy has admitted that the iPod is far from perfect: its skin is scuffable, its digital rights management is all too-confining. That is about its obvious shortcomings. What about its impact on our social lives?

In the personal sphere, the iPod has perhaps made us more alienated from each other.

Levy says that we are forming technological bubbles around us—a phenomenon termed as "mobile privatization" by sociologist Raymond Williams in 1974. The iPod has been advancing the “movement of portable cocooning that's been underway for decades”.

He further notes that when the breakthrough device in personal audio, Sony's Walkman, came in 1979, it provided us two things: escape, as it shut out the world to us, and enhancement, as it transformed our world into a soundtrack, reshaping our “perception of the crappy world around” us.

Levy believes that the iPod takes this phenomenon a huge step further: “Because it holds so much of one's music and can play back the songs with near-infinite variety, its addictiveness far exceeds that of the Walkman. Because it is more compact, it goes more places, with more ease.”

But this portable cocooning is a general truth about the Internet age. Thomas Friedman has said that technology is dividing us as much as uniting us.

Linda Stone, the technologist who once labelled the disease of the Internet age “continuous partial attention” — two people doing six things, devoting only partial attention to each one, has remarked that we’re so accessible, we’re inaccessible. “We can’t find the off switch on our devices or on ourselves. ... We want to wear an iPod as much to listen to our own playlists as to block out the rest of the world and protect ourselves from all that noise,” she said. “We are everywhere — except where we actually are physically.”

NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. In a globalised world where chaos, connectivity and communications are the buzz words, shutting out the rest of the world for a couple of hours a day brings some sanity to this panic planet.

Thank you for that, iPod.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Out of Gogol's Overcoat

Namesake was one movie I was waiting to watch. Last summer when I visited Kolkata, coincidently, Mira Nair too was shooting her film there. Though we never met, I was aware of this fact all the time during my stay in that city. We both were exploring the city in our own ways.

Though I hadn't read Jhumpa Lahiri's novel on which Mira's film is based (I only read it just before watching the film--which made my viewing of this film a rich experience) I was curious about the film because Mira had decided to make a film out of it--imagine putting aside projects like filming of Hari Kunzru's The Impressionist and the remaking of Munnabhai MBBS with Chris Tucker, to film Jhumpa's novel. There must be something compellingly good about it.

That apart, I am an admirer of Irfan Khan's acting. I have liked him from his television days, and his understated performances always impress me. He has a certain way of delivering his lines which I find naturalistic, non-filmy. He has a great body language. Tabu is fine--She is like the Nargis of our times. When she was making her debut with Prem (along with Anil Kapoor's brother), all we knew about her was that she was Farah's sister. I certainly did not anticipate that she would turn out to be such a good actress. Now perhaps Farah is known as Tabu's sister. Both Tabu and Kareena have surprised me, for the exact reasons, though I would admit that Kareena looks a little too glamourous for her roles. Not her fault, and I don't think she can help it.

It was interesting to see how Mira had reinvented the novel (along with her scriptwriter friend Sooni Tarapoorwalla), how she had made it more dramatic, fit for a movie experience. While the novel begins with Ashima (Tabu) starting her life in the US, a demure pregnant Bengali lady, one night making jhaal mudhi in her kitchen, the film goes for a real dramatic start. You see Ashoke Ganguly's steel box being carried by a coolie in Calcutta's Howarh station. Ashoke is on his way to Jamshedpur to spend his holidays with his grandfather. On the train, he meets a Bengali moshai--a man who had spent two years in the UK--who advises him to pack his bags and see the world. "You'll never regret it," says the gentleman. Then we see Ashoke reading Gogol's collected stories--a book miserably tattered--just as described in the novel. Soon, the train meets with an accident. Everything goes black. The scene changes. We are introduced to Calcutta in all its myriad colours and through the city we get to meet one of its charming denizens, Ashima (Tabu). Just before that we are shown fleetingly that Ashoke did not die. But how, this was not explained at that point of time. And there lies the mystery of Gogol's Overcoat (his famous short story that has been referred to again and again in the text and the film).

Why did Mira choose this event to dramatise her story? There is a reason, and we'll come to it soon.

Decades later, when Ashoke gifts Gogol's collected stories to his son, Gogol aka Nikhil (Kal Penn) on his graduation (in the novel, on one of his B'Days, if my memory serves me right), he tells him: "We have all come out of Gogol's Overcoat." And Nikhil is like, what do you mean Baba? "When you grow up, you will understand," says Ashoke.

After Ashoke's death and Nikhil's realisation that his wife is having an affair with a French guy, Nikhil (Gogol) remembers what his father once told him. "We have all come out of Gogol's Overcoat. You will understand it when you grow up."

The film had started with Ashok's train journey, with Gogol's book in his hands, and the sudden realisation that one needed to explore the world, as opposed to what his grand father used to say: Reading books is travelling, only without moving an inch."

The film ends with Nikhil travelling on a train, realising what his father had told him about Gogol, about exploring the world. That's where's the film's beginning and end tie up beautifully, like a narrative coming full circle in its theme. The search for a name and identity, the search for life and love in an alien land, becomes a metaphor for the immigrant experience too. Gogol had spent much of his life outside his land of birth, Ashoke had told Nikhil-- a fact that emphasizes the immigrant aspect of the story.

Gogol and his story, The Overcoat, also emerge as major metaphors in the film. That story had saved Ashoke's life, and that's how the entire family had come out of Gogol's Overcoat.

The movie has some very powerful scenes. I can never forget the scene when Ashima comes to know of Ashoke's death in far off Cleveland and does not how to react. Her cries outside the house, amid the bright Christmas lighting, her lonliness in the moment of her greatest grief, is as poignant as it could get. It shows the poverty of relationships in an immigrant land. In times of sadness, you need a shoulder to cry, and you find none. That is so heart-rendering, so inhumane of a society.

Irfan is brilliant in some scenes: One is when he calls Ashima from the hospital just before his death, and the other is when he insists that Ashima must say I love You to him in the Victoria Memorial park.

Some of his scenes with Kal Penn are also very good. Strangley though, in the opening credits of the film, Kal Penn's name comes first. I think it should have been in this order: Tabu, Irfan Khan, and then Kal Penn. Nevertheless, it attests to the richness of the narrative that it is difficult for one to pinpoint the protagonist of this film.

The film is well-shot. Some shots have been framed in the tradition of Satyajit Ray's. Like the shot of Ashima lying on the bed in her New York apartment. The shot is an extreme close up of half of her face, her large eye most prominent, somewhat hidden by her arm. That is classic Ray. Nitin Sawhney's background score is competent, although at times it sounded like a documentary film's scrore.

I have, however, two problems with the film.

When she was making the film, Mira wanted to make it a portrait of two cities--Calcutta and New York--as well. While she has captured the colours of Calcutta beautifully, she has not shown New York that much sympathetically. Except for the bridges and the yellow cabs, the cities have nothing in common. In terms of crowd, being cavernous and crumbling, and human interactions, the two cities come across as diametrically opposite.

The other problem that I have is with the movie's transitions. One moment a characater is in Cal, the next moment he/she is in NY. I think she wanted to keep the pace faster and didn't want to use captions like 6 months later or 12 months later. But this kind of cut-to-cut editing can leave some viewers confused. Thankully, I had read the novel, so I knew the transitions. But what about others?

These minor hiccups apart, Namesake is definitley one of Mira's best films. If you haven't seen it, you should. And if you have, please share with me what you think of it. If you have a heart, you will come crying out of the theatre. That, at least, was my experience.

Friday, April 06, 2007


1. Gastronomic divide

One day I walked into a South Indian restaurant in the central business district. It was crowded with people, all Indians, both from north and south. Not surprising as it was lunch time on a working day, and CBD is full of Indian professionals. Almost everyone was having a thali meal which included a mound of rice on a banana leaf (cut round to fit the shape of the steel plate), surrounded by eight small round steel bowls, containing spicy veggies, rasam, sambhar, curd and a sweet dish. A crisp papad lay at the top of the rice. Spoonfuls of pickles and two deep fried red chillies further bejewelled the plate. This was meal no 8. There was a long queue in front of the counter where one paid for one's order. I also joined the line.

And I began to think. Why do Indians eat such large quantities of food? If a Chinese or a Causasian here saw the amount of food on a plate here, they would say, Serious! (I know that many of them like Indian food too but that is once in a while, right?)Whereas, they eat, in contrast, very small portions of food, mostly salads, fruits, and less starchy food--which many Indians consider to be ghaas phoos.

Why is this difference in food habits? Do Indians eat such large quantities of food because they have been underfed for generations (their elite always stomached most of the food throughout history)? And the first world people eat so less because they always had plenty to eat, as they have not been at the wrong side of the colonial plunder? Although it happens in the name of healthy eating, perhaps there is some element of divine justice working here in this gastronomic divide.

When my turn came to order food, I ordered a meal no 8.

2. 'Oh, you are so sick'

I went to the Picture House to see the latest Academy Award Winning Best Foreign Language Film, The Lives of Others (German).

I paid for my ticket at the box office but just after handing me my ticket the girl issued me a warning: 'Just a reminder, sir. Food and drinks are not allowed in the Picture House.' Thanks, I said and left for the elevator. I liked the idea of no food and drinks rule in the arthouse theatre. Most of the films running in this theatre are foreign language films. Imagine a frugal viewer's plight when he is torn between the beauty of the projected mis en scene, the fast changing subtitles, and the real-life love scene involving the couple just a few seats away from his. Why would anyone want to mix the excitement of unfolding snack packets and filling the small theatre with the smell of junk food to the already available sensory feast?

I had a corner seat. The film started well, and within minutes I had the feeling that I was living in East Germany, and was part of the friend circle of the playwright hero. The film was turning out to be extremely exciting--the writer was staging a play, his live-in actress girlfriend was being seduced by the culture minister, who wanted her all for himself and to remove his rival out of the way, he put the Stasi to watch him, the writer, day and night. One anti-state act and the writer would be put off in jail. Enter the mysterious Ulrich Mühe (he looks like Kevin Spacey, only so German) as a Stasi agent who spies on the playwright and his girlfriend. From here the film takes a different turn.

Anthony Lane of the New Yorker has written a brilliant review of the film, and since I can't better that (nor do I have the time to do that), I leave you with his review: "It is a tribute to the richness of the film that one cannot say for sure who the hero is. The most prominent figure is Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), yet if you passed him on the street you wouldn’t give him a second glance, or even a first. He would spot you, however, and file you away in a drawer at the back of his mind. Wies--ler, based in East Berlin, is a captain in the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, better known as the Stasi—the state security service, which, by the mid- nineteen-eighties, employed more than ninety thousand personnel. In addition, a modest hundred and seventy thousand East Germans became unofficial employees, called upon to snoop and snitch for the honor—or, in practical terms, the survival—of the state. “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” Jesus said. The German Democratic Republic offered its own version: watch thy neighbor, then pick up thy phone."

Did you notice that sentence: "It is a tribute to the richness of the film that one cannot say for sure who the hero is." Exactly my feeling! Like a keen observer, Lane has noticed even the minutest details in the film and has extracted meaning out of them. If you read the review, you would notice, like when he says, "the meagreness of Wies-ler’s lonely dinner (a tube of something red, squeezed onto a bowl of something white)" that's really being very keen.

You must see this film if you haven't already. If for nothing, see this film for Muhe. Or for the bewitching Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). She has such a beautiful smile, so restrained, so innocent.

As the film progressed, so did the romanticism of the couple sitting a few seats away from me. Not only was the young girl doing a deep mouth to mouth to her man, after some time, she even began to straddle him. Soft giggles came from their side.

When the film finished, with Muhe clutching the novel dedicated to him by the playwright, I felt a sense of relief and accomplishment. Any film that has a writer in it as a character is so hugely satisfying to me.

As I walked towards the exit, I saw a young lady chiding a not-so-healthy looking man who was sitting after one seat next to hers in the same row, with an office bag in his lap. "You know food and drinks are not allowed in this theatre...and your bag is full of drinks...Oh, you are so sick!"

And her frail frame huffed out of the theatre. The man remained glued to his seat. I also came out of the theatre, looking for the angry young woman. I missed her in the crowd.