Friday, December 25, 2009

Review: Avatar

This review contains SPOILERS
Avatar is not a movie meant to be seen. It's a movie meant to be looked at. A lot of money was poured into the cauldron to make James Cameron's vision a reality, but money alone cannot account for the sheer beauty of Pandora. Over and over again the movie gives us gorgeous vistas, awe-inspiring floating mountains and fantastic creatures that look like amalgamations of prehistoric and present day beasts. Light plays an important role, as nearly half the plant and animal life seem to be bioluminescent. Creepers glow when stepped on, unearthly, spiral orchids give off gentle yellow light and are sucked into the ground when touched. My brain tells me it's all CG, but me eyes find it difficult to believe . When James Cameron says it took twelve years for technology to catch up to his vision, he isn't lying.

But if the visuals are the films strongest selling point, the story and dialogue are the weakest links. While not particularly bad, Avatar employs every hackneyed cliche, every stock character and every predictable plot twist to tell the tale of a soldier who starts sympathising with the enemy and jumps ship to fight the good fight. Sam Worthington is Jake Sully, a paraplegic marine brought to the alien planet of Pandora as a replacement for his twin brother who was murdered in a voice-over. Since he is genetically identical to his brother, he has been indoctrinated into the avatar program. Avatars are lab-grown Na'vi, natives of the planet and are basically shells into which the consciousness of certain handpicked humans can be transported so they can mix freely with the local population.

The reason for this incredibly convoluted diplomatic exercise has to be laziest Mcguffin in cinematic history, a mineral called, of all things, unobtanium. Apparently it sells for twenty million dollars a kilo on earth. Why, we never have the privilege of knowing. Of course, evil suit-man who represents the organisation financing the operation and fanatic military leader who is charged with protecting it, would rather just blow up the locals and take the unobtanium, if only it wasn't such bad press. So the strategy is to infiltrate them with avatars, introduce them to earthly pleasures like roads and schools and diplomatically drive them out of their happy hunting ground. Of course avatar-Jake gets to be part of the local Na'vi tribe, and of course he realizes that their way of life (which is somehow almost identical to Native American philosophy) is so much better than his, and of course he falls in love with the local princess, and of course this makes the Na'vi general angry because HE was supposed to marry the princess, and of course they fight, and of course the princess renounces him when she learns of the truth, but only temporarily, and of course he ends up saving the world against the evil white man....oops, earthling. Not a step outside the tried-and-true.

The story would be a deal breaker in almost any other film. But to Cameron's credit, he keeps it moving, and does not allow the viewer to get bored. The characters may have no shades of gray, but the scenery is usually a riot of colours. Set-piece follows set-piece, whether it's a a battle with some of the local fauna that look like jet black jaguars blown up a hundredfold, to Jake's first flying lesson where he takes control of his dragon-like mount to soar and sweep and glide through the air as the camera savours every little nuance of this gorgeous world Cameron has created. And then there are the battle scenes. Shots of giant steel mechs clanking into battle against the twelve foot tall Na'vi, or the humongous airships firing rockets at dragon-mounted warriors are done with remarkable precision. Any good battle scene needs to be choreographed like a piece of music, with the tension rising and falling at precisely the right moments. The final battle of Avatar, which is more than half an hour long, proves Cameron's still got it.

Another high-point of the movie is Cameron's attention to detail. There is no doubt Pandora is a fully realized world inside his head. Little things like how the Na'vi have four fingers but the avatars have five (presumably to help the human mind adjust to the new body), to the dragon-flame decals that adorn every mech, plane and tank by the humans. Experts were brought in to develop a Na'vi language, and botanists were consulted to ensure the plant life of Pandora follow basic biological principles. While not dramatically influencing the experience, such attention to detail definitely help in making Pandora feel like a living-breathing world of its own.

Cameron's handling 3-D is also mature, as he eschews gimmicks like things rushing at the screen in favour of more subtle uses for this technology. Sure there are moments where spaceships zoom by and animals rush at the camera, but mostly it's about using the added depth to immerse rather than shock. Glowing embers seem to pop out of the screen, sheer drops stretch out to eternity. Instead of making the viewer flinch every moment, the 3-D builds a cocoon of visuals around him, cradling him into this world.

The problem with Avatar, and the reason why the review seems to teeter between two extremes is where it's bad, it's very insipid, and where it's good, it's mind blowing. The story has been told a hundred times before, and mostly told better. The visuals on the other hand, are truly revolutionary. Never before has a world been created from scratch with such depth and precision. If the lack of a story kills the whole experience for you, avoid this movie, but if images are more important, or if you know what to expect and go in with a mind open to enjoying the good bits, Pandora is a hell of a ride.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Review: Lord of War

Disclaimer: This review contains SPOILERS.

Nicholas Cage is an actor who can't seem to take his role anything but seriously. I have a suspicion that the man just can't do camp. Which is why Ghost Rider was such an incredibly jarring movie, even for a certified comic book geek like me. However, in a movie like this, where everything hinges on his character and his unique point of view, Cage's faith and intensity raises what could have been a mediocre movie into a very good one.

Cage plays Yuri Orlov, an Ukranian - American who witnesses a shootout in a restaurant and realizes that the only people who profit from random (and not-so-random) acts of violence are the people who deal in the hardware. Pretty soon he is selling his first submachine-gun and realizing that he is a bloody good salesman. In a profession where a customer can blow your head off using your own product, Yuri's silver tongue and quick thinking come in handy not just in keeping him alive, but also in making him very rich, very fast. Helping Yuri in his ascent is his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto), who has reservations but goes along because Yuri is family. However, it is clear that Vitaly, although almost as quick witted as Yuri, is far more deeply affected by the violence their products are used to perpetuate.

All this happens at a breathless pace and about 40 minutes in, Yuri is already at the top of the heap and the film starts branching into multiple subplots as he has an affair with a model( who he has loved ever since he saw her on billboards as a young man), juggles mercurial clients and suppliers, outwits rivals, and evades the law in the form of Interpol agent Jack Valentine, who knows what Yuri is doing, but can't nab him because he is too by the book to break - or even bend - the law himself. His run - ins with Valentine are almost black comedy, as he uses various ingenious (but never violent, at least, not directly) ways to remain just out of reach.

Cage plays Yuri with a hint of a swagger, but not too much . After all, many of his customers are temperamental people who would be too happy to put his own products to use at even the hint of a perceived insult. But he knows he's good at what he does, and continues to justify his profession with various rationalizations just so he can continue to keep dealing in weapons. As he says in a rare moment of vulnerability, it's not the money, it's because he's good at it. Utterly unaffected by morals, Yuri will sell to anybody (except Osama, but not for the reasons you might suspect). So good is he at distancing himself from the violence he peddles every single day, that when he is forced to pull the trigger himself for the first time, he goes through severe hallucinations and feels he is 'cursed'. In his own way, Yuri is a dreamer, walking through a bubble of self-created hypocrisies where he is simply a cog in the machine, where his actions mean nothing because someone else would take his place anyway and where he does no evil because he is not forcing anyone to use his guns.

The movie is shot beautifully. From the huge Ukranian army bases where stacks of guns and gunships lie unused, to the dingy war - torn streets of Liberia where the dictator's son brandishes his gold plated AK-47 in the middle of abject poverty, all have a gritty feel to them. However, the visuals are perhaps a little too heavy handed in their use of symbolism. Take the shot where a vulture is standing over a prone body as Yuri enters his hotel in Liberia, or the little girl asking him if her severed arm will grow back. They all try to hammer home the point that what Yuri is BAD. A pity really, because even if you never sympathize with him, you understand Yuri. You see that he comes alive only when he's making a sale or eluding the law. People chase their dreams all the time. It's a pity his involves selling helicopter gunships to warlords.

If the film has an issue, it's that it tries to be too many things . It's best seen as a faithful look into the world of international arms smuggling through the eyes of a fictional dealer. Unfortunately, it also tries to be a thriller with Valentine repeatedly attempting to close in on Yuri. This does not get enough time and as a result, end up being rather choppy sequences of confrontation between the two separated by periods where you almost forget Valentine even exists. There is no tension, and almost no feeling of Velentine slowly closing in on his prey. Ethen Hawke is perfectly serviceable as the steel eyed agent, but really gets almost no screen time. I guess it was necessary to have some kind of closure to the story, but it could have been handled better. However, it is still a brilliant and authentic look at the gun-running and what it means to the world at large.

There is an elegant sequence where the camera slowly rolls over an AK-47. In most action movies it would be basic gun-porn, but here it really shows how Yuri sees his products, as smooth, beautiful, elegant, reliable, even sexy machines. The fact that the voice-over in that sequence has a distinct sigh to it and it cuts in right after he's started undressing a woman in a hotel room is not a coincidence. I guess it's also why many ordinary, law-abiding people get excited by guns. Sometimes it's best not to think too far. Yuri made an entire career of it.

PS. This movie might have one of the best opening credit sequences I have ever seen. Here it is in its entirety.

Friday, November 27, 2009


"Where were you when it happened?"

Every generation has them. Every country, every civilisation, race, culture, anything that binds people together beyond the call of blood. Moments of dread, fear and grief so profound that reverberate in public memory for years . You could ask a complete stranger in the subway the above question and he would tell you as if it happened yesterday. Every so often, we become so innocent, so cocooned in our world of the mundane and usual that it seems like it would last forever. And then something like this shatters that glass palace we live in and reminds us that it's a different world out there, with dangerous misguided men and women and children who kill because they feel it is right and honourable to do so.

When Rajiv Gandhi died I was a child standing at the mezzanine of my grandparents house, wondering why all the adults were so agitated. When the twin towers fell I was at home, idly flipping through channels until I stumbled on CNN. When Benazir Bhutto was assasinated I was at KFC with a friend, talking of this and that.

And 26/11? I was waiting for my nine hour shift to finish, tired and hungry, staring with dread at a blinking red flash on my computer screen that indicates breaking news, because that could mean I would have to stay beyond my regular hours. Of course, I had to stay back, but by then, the dread would be replaced by a completely different kind of dread altogether.

Leopald Cafe was the first battleground. The buzz still was that it was gang warfare, but there was this undercurrent of tension, a certain catch in their voices betraying fear and apprehension. "Maybe if I don't say it out loud" they seemed to think "Maybe it won't be true. Maybe it won't be the worst." Terrorism isn't a word that was suggested for quite a while. But when it was, it was like someone had turned on the tap. Fear, panic, dread, apprehension, anger all came gushing out . Television anchors wailed, people turned white. Bits and pieces of footage were permanently etched to memory. A speeding car rushing by, accompanied by the crack-crack-crack of gunfire and images of people hitting the ground. Security camera footage of a man craning his neck, his posture more curious than panicky, before crumbling to a heap in stop-motion. A human life snuffed out in an instant. Father's rushing by with their children, his body a frail shield even as he looks around fearfully, not knowing when , or where the next strike would come from. Police crouching behind barriers, clearly in over their heads, their ancient rifles and insufficient training no match for the ten terrorists running roughshod over the financial capital of one of the largest countries in the world. A nation brought to it's knees by a few misguided and violent young men armed for death. Blood on the streets . Gunshots in alleys. And then, in that cold November night, flames licking at the dome of the Taj, chilling the heart of our country to its very core.

A maelstrom of images as the siege of Mumbai went on for nearly sixty hours. Battle lines were drawn and the enemy was, if not cornered, at least restricted to certain locations of their choosing. Taj. Oberoi. Nariman House. CST. The death toll was a neverending counter from our nightmares . But after the initial shock, after it had sunk in that this was war, people went on with their duties. After all, an advantage of being a journalist is, tragedy usually means much more work. Shock and anger can be drowned by the sheer slogging necessary to get the job done. So 26/11 went by. So did 27/11. Images replaced other images. Commandos dropping from a helicopter on the roof of Nariman House. Looking through their sniper rifles. Panic turned to controlled chaos, and then, waiting for the inevitable. Nine of them died.One hundred and sixty six of us. Could it have been worse? Sure. But as the ninth man fell, as Ajmal Amir Kasab was dragged out and taken to custody, as the stories of valour rolled out, as names like Major Unnikrishan and Tukaram Omble entered the history books, did we win? I don't see how. For three days these men had held one of our biggest cities hostage. For three days they had killed, tortured and maimed our citizens and our guests. In those three days they told us that even our highest and mightiest could be brought down with ten ordinary men from the villages of Pakistan. Terror was not new to India, but this was a different beast. We lost the battle. Time will only tell if we win the war, or if the war CAN be won.

Post 26/11 things happened. Some people lost their jobs. Some people pointed fingers. Anger was palpable. For once, India was one nation. Certain politicians went underground, realizing that their mantra of language based hatred was perhaps not pragmatic when so many men from all over the country had fought and died for Mumbai. Of course they would resurface, and of course people would vote for them, but for a while at least, there was blessed relief. Stricter security measures were announced, some even implemented. Diplomatic pressure was applied to our neighbours, although many would agree, not enough. In a few days, normal life resumed. People walked the streets again, albeit with a little more fear in their hearts. But, it hurt. It hurt because I know that this happened not because they were strong, but we were weak. It hurt because sometimes it feels like there are no Indians anymore. That the social fabric of the country has become so fragile, so infirm, that the slightest tap can send a spiderweb of cracks running through its surface. It hurts because we find it so easy to hate and ridicule each other on the basis of religion, caste, language, class, income. The flag has become a patchwork quilt, coming apart at the seams. As a journalist, I try to be impassionate about things. I try to be wry, and cynical, just so it doesn't affect me. But I feel like I have lost my Country. As if I don't know what it means to be Indian anymore. And it really really hurts.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Day to Cut the Crap*

Today is World Toilet Day. Yes. There is a World Toilet Day. This was news to me. I think at this rate we need more days in the calendar, cos 365 just isn't cutting it any more. Even with the extra one every four years, it's a bit of a tight fit. There are, of course , the big daddies of the circuit. The internationally recognised ones, celebrated world over. The frontrunners of the field. The Children's Days , the Teacher's Days, the Father's , Mother's Days.

Then there are the others. The World Aids day. Earth day. World Day for Water. World Breast Cancer Day. And finally, crowding and jostling for space in a limited calendar like amateurs at the beginning of a quarter marathon, come the also-rans. Now I don't want to say that these are not worthy causes , because they are. But damn if most of them don't make you go 'Huh?!'. World Day for Safety and Health at Work. World Maths Day. World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development. World Day to Combat Desertification. World Day Against the Death Penalty. The thumb rule, one seems to notice, is that the less awareness the day has, the longer and more complicated the name. I firmly believe that somewhere out there there is a World Day for the Reorganisation and Proper Cataloging of Libraries to Ensure that the Thoughtless Idiots who Borrow Books and then don't Return them out of Sheer Laziness, the Inconsiderate Bastards, are Adequately Punished being rigorously observed by one very pissed off librarian.

And the UN, of course. The august body seems to do little these days other than express dismay, send out ineffectual letters to rogue states expressing further dismay and passing resolutions to observe special days. Most of which are met with shocking indifference by the general world population. As an example of general apathy, let us look at the No Honking Day '''''celebrated''''''' on 7th April. Believe me, the extra quotes are justified.. For a while, it even seemed like it would a minuscule difference. Like a singer with limited ability but a good agent, it got it's share of publicity. There were posters all over town, it was mentioned in the 'cool' teevee channels that the kids like to watch, it managed to get school kids off studies for a day as they went around pestering motorists and handing out fliers about the evils of noise pollution (Which is apparently as bad as jamming a syringe full of cocaine directly into your eye socket, if those fliers are to be believed). Hell, it even got the Big B to promo the hell out of it. By that, I of course mean that he put a sticker on one of his cars. Well the newspapers mentioned the hoopla exactly twice. 'No Honking Day today' screamed the headlines on April 7th. 'No Honking Day a noisy failure' they screamed the next day. Yes, the No Honking Day was the equivalent of an Indian Idol copycat reality show winner. Moderate promotion. No real career. Now go back to your daddy's loft and get a degree.

All right,so I'm being mean. The truth is, that even if these special days manage to shake ONE person out of apathy, it has done a good job. After all, none of these issues are minor issues, and hundreds of thousands of people all over the world who suffer need to have the spotlight shone on them. If it needs a special day with an overly complicated name, so be it. And that brings me back to the topic of our discussion tonight. World Toilet Day. Seriously? Not World Sanitation Day. Not World Right to Hygiene Day. Hell even World Proper Plumbing Day would be less ridiculous. Why would anyone choose a name that is sure to generate snickers from the average man? Why would you they with a name that would guarantee, absolutely guarantee newspaper write-ups with headlines featuring cringe inducing puns like this? This is a serious issue. Many, many people die or are severely affected by debilitating diseases because of poor hygiene standards the world over. So why would you choose a name that is almost pathetic in its eagerness to invite ridicule. What kind of organisation would name its special day, the WORLD TOILET DAY ???

Oh. Ok then.

*See what I mean about horrendous headlines?

Saturday, November 14, 2009


What can I say? I'm a fan. You come here, you got to take the occasional bout of superhero worship.

Empty lights
The heat on the street's giving way to
Winter nights
A silent moon
Faded and cold by the clouds
Lies in ruins
It dies stillborn
Black shadows cover it like a shroud
The noise is loud
In his head, theres doubt
In his heart, steps he takes
Like a runaway car
He's cut the brakes
He's moving on, no telling when he'll stop
Don't tell him now,
Too late anyhow
Just another angry strike
There's nobody there
The ground slips away
He's falling in empty air
He wants to live, but doesn't know
How to live he can't grow
Out of the shadows, he'll crash and burn
Tumble off the edge and into the urn
Darkness spring to life
Strangle, choke, the clubs and knives
Teeth and claws
A bloody mess
He's begging them to stop
He don't know why
His fear real, his life a lie
A breath of air, wafts in from the dark
He holds on, sputters back to solid ground
In the knight sky, shining like an ark
Brighter than the sun, he has found
His primal call, training takes over
No more ducking for cover
Moves like a serpent, a cobra's strike
The shadows scatter and run
Now he's having fun
The crack of skulls, the snap of bone
Anguished screams of those who hide
He's larger than life, the streets are his own
Alone he will answer, the call for a saviour
He's the darkness that stands in the light
Fear itself, he's the darkest knight.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Forgotten Planet

Remember the feeling of settling down with a book?
The warm summer afternoons, with what seemed like an infinite highway vacation time stretching to the horizon. The heat would be burning up the dusty alleys outside, but if you closed the windows, turned the fan on and kept an ice cold bottle of water at hand, things would be just right. Dad was off to work, mom taking her afternoon siesta. The bed would be the softest thing you ever touched, and the pages would be crackling with promise. The window would be open just a crack, so a stray sunbeam could brighten up the pages. Along with it would come smells and sounds of a summers day. The muted chirping of pigeons and sparrows, the smell of dust. It was a world worth getting lost in.

Reading was something to be done for pleasure . I never read to learn. Never read to 'improve myself'. I would flitter merrily from book to book, freely dipping into Dickens, Bibhutibhushan and the scholarly works of Franklin W. Dixon with equal relish. I would laugh, cry, whimper, rejoice and sometimes despair. I would dream myself into the stories and do the right thing. I would shelter the homeless family shivering in the gutters. I would explain things to the feuding brothers so they could get along better. I would take down the vile, cackling monster. Reading empowered me. Reading gave me courage and knowledge and faith and all those things that make me what I am. And it did it on the sly. Here I was, thinking I was having some innocent fun, and somehow, it was slipping me life lessons?!

I didn't have favourite authors then. Nor favourite genres. Never had the luxury. Books were there to be read, and so I read them. All of them. Anything I could get my grubby little hands on. I didn't know treasure from trash. I read 'em all, and learned to separate the grain from the chaff later. My parents didn't mind care much about what I was reading, so I had a free reign. Selection based on literary merit was something that happened to other people in other worlds. I read to fill a gigantic hole in my being that, thankfully, never filled up.

I have so many books to read now. Every single one of them bought for a purpose. There's a Raymond Chandler I bought because, well, I was in the mood for a noir novel. I bought The Ascent of Money because I wanted to learn more about the financial crisis. I buy books to learn about history, philosophy, science. And sometimes even to entertain myself. I have been looking for a thriller for a while now, but of course I steered clear of Sidney Sheldon. He's fluff, you see. I have choices now. I have specific wants and desires that need to be fulfilled by books. I have critical thinking so I know what's bad and what's good. If I go back to some of my childhood tomes, I know I would be amazed and mortified at some of the stuff I digested. And of course, it is inevitable. It is, after all, evolution. It's what happens to human beings. Choices according to personality. Books divided into fiction and non fiction. Classic and modern. Science fiction and fantasy. History and Science. A hundred more labels. There are internet forums and reviews to help you choose. Little boxes on websites labelled 'Customers who bought this book also bought...'. Pick and choose. But sometimes I miss those summer days of simplicity, when a book was just a book. A mystery between two covers. And you never knew what you were getting into, and what you would get out of it. I miss not knowing what to expect. I miss seeing a book and feeling I HAVE to read it, just because it's there.

There are so many books for me now. It's just that sometimes, sometimes I wish I could go back to the days when there was just one me for all the books in the world.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Candle and the Windbags

Lighting a candle is suddenly in vogue . Hardly a disaster goes by without us being urged to light one up. An act that is otherwise almost always accompanied by grumbles and curses and "The power situation is getting worse everyday" has become synonymous with showing solidarity with the victims of 26/11 when done in the middle of the road. The melted candle wax economy is booming but other than that ? I understand why candle-lighting, in addition to ribbon-wearing has become the symbolic act of choice. It does give your face a very cool glow (or, in the case of ribbons, gives you a snazzy accessory . Just remember to colour co-ordinate) that looks awesome in photographs . Nothing screams "I support the sufferers of (insert cause here)" like shining a flickering spotlight on your own face.

What I don't get what purpose this serves?. Do candle-flames have superpowers?.Are they are like little flaming supermen who jump off their waxy fortresses of waxy solitude and zoom into action, stopping earthquakes in China, riots in India, brushfires in Australia and humiliating cricketing defeats in South Africa? If I went out and encouraged people to wave burning newspapers around, would cops buy the theory that I was doing it to eliminate hunger? No. They would bounce me off the funny farm and throw me in jail.

Of course a major reason for the resurgence of this trend is Rang De Basanti. It was a movie about how the young generation should speak out and act against corruption, and if that doesn't work, shoot up radio stations. THAT, I'm cool with. But there is a scene in there where approximately half the population of Northern India shows up for a candlelight vigil. That kind of jolted.the 'nations youth', who immediately went out and lit up. Their cigarettes, that is. But they sure talked a lot about how finally there was a movie with a message for the youth, and how everyone except themselves should do something about it. Since radio stations are surprisingly well guarded and it's much easier to get candles than guns at your local grocer's (plus an attack on a radio station would just mean more vigils anyway), candlelight vigils have kind of become de facto response to any major event. Or even non-event. You could light a candle for peace, poverty (elimination of), corruption (decimation of), disease (eradication of) .You get the point. The fact that it is about as effective as a stern letter from the United Nations seems to have slipped our collective minds.

Of course, this has been a been a boom for the media, especially television. Those sure look pretty on screen. Make sure you get the shot of the flames reflecting off the photograph though, otherwise the producer is going to bitch. Plus, it's easy to get sound bites, no one would push you around, and people are generally nice to you. A good break from the OTHER kind of protest marches, where they have to worry about bricks cracking their skulls, or worse, their camera lenses open.

Now, I know there are genuine emotions involved here. At least sometimes. And yes, in case of specific tragedies, or victims, maybe it does help bring some sort of closure to the ones affected. But mostly, its a cop out. Lighting a candle for poverty? World peace? Really? Its the real life equivalent of forwarding an e-mail to ten people about the poor boy suffering from a debilitating bone-marrow-turning-to-chlorophyll disease and for every mail you send WHO is going to donate one cent to save the boys life because clearly a child's life should depend on random strangers and the size of their address books. It's the aethist's version of a confession. It's cheap, easy and no one actually has to do ANYTHING. And no, lighting a match and holding it up near a wick does not constitute as DOING something. The problem's still there, but hey, at least I did my bit. Well I'm saying it's getting old. Change the gimmick. And if it can't be done, at least up the intensity a little. Make it look like you REALLY care. This Diwali, stand up for national unity. Fire up a blowtorch.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Bloody Good Fun ?

The boom of the shotgun gave way to an uneasy silence, as the last of the infected fell at my feet and bubbled away to nothingness. Even the music that had been pounding in my ears was gone. Instead there was a soft rustling, like reeds brushing against water. A bird cawed in the distance. A faint green aura meant my recent victim had left behind something valuable, some gold perhaps, or better still, a healing herb.

I leaned back and took the headphones off. My palms were sticky with sweat, my forehead felt like it had been recently irrigated, and my heart was trying to outdo the shotgun in the decibel department. Fingers still slightly shaky, I shut down the game and closed my eyes.

Resident Evil is not a series I am intimately familiar with. Indeed, my first experience with the series was it's much vaunted predecessor, Resident Evil 4 (how'd you guess?). However, this is not a review. There are plenty of those online. This is just a question that popped into my head while playing the game. Putting it simply it's this. How real is too real?

The game starts at a marketplace in a tiny African village. The entire feel is ominous, and I would say it is the single scariest portion of the game. I walk along the dirt path, and walk into a group of people kicking a sack around. The kicks are angry, violent, meant to hurt. The sack is thrashing around, and its clear there is a living creature inside it. As I instinctively approach the group, to man, they all look at me. Almost involuntarily, I back off. The piercing stares are so REAL, the threat of violence so imminent that in spite of being fully aware of being in a video game, I feel a chilling apprehension. As I slowly move towards my target in the other direction, never taking my eyes off them, the crowd continues to stare at me. Unmoving. Unblinking.

Of course, the above image doesn't do the sequence justice. To understand exactly how brilliant the graphics and how accurate the facial expressions are, one HAS to play the game. As an introduction to a scary game, it performs fantastically. But when it came to the actual game, and these people charged, slavering, gnashing their teeth, more rabid animals than man, THAT'S when I started wondering. These people were too accurate. Too human. Of course, Capcom is very good at making the enemies just a shade on the unreal side, so it's not very difficult to line them up in your sights and blow their heads off. But what next? What about games like Grand Theft Auto, that sticks firmly to reality. An over the top, outrageous reality, but reality nonetheless. In the previous GTA'S it was easy to mow over pedestrians in a tank because the characters, while anatomically correct, looked nothing like real human beings. They looked like toys, and rolling over them and seeing the same blood patch appear for every single victim was like pretending to shoot up your G.I.Joes. A slice of guilty free fun. But things are changing, aren't they? The uncanny valley has nearly been breached, and photorealism is not too far away. So what happens then? What happens when blocky, toy bodies are replaced by mangled corpses that look so real that it's like being at the site of a horrible shootout? Would the insanity of video games would still be fun? And what would it say about those who enjoy that.

Games are already trying to make sure things don't get too real. Enemies in Mirror's edge are so padded and armored they might as well be robocops. If you choose to harvest the little sisters in Bioshock, the game (thankfully!) fades to black instead of showing the playing character perform gruesome surgery on a child. The upcoming Borderlands has taken a step AWAY from realism and looks pretty, but cartoony. Resident evil itself makes it clear that the waves of enemies are simply monsters in human form, victims of an incurable plague that has wiped out there humanity. So it's not really a bad thing when you make their heads explode in a burst of plasma. So far, so good. But still I'm uneasy. There's a reason why Tom and Jerry is for kids and Cannibal Holocaust isn't, even though the cat and the mouse do things to each other that would make even the most conscientious torturer sit up and take notice. It's all about presentation. There's still some way to go before we have the technology to blow off the limbs of a foe with successive shotgun blasts and watch the twitching body fall to the ground, the latest physics technology making the entrails spilling out of the hole in its gut as realistically as possible. Question is, do we want to go there?

I have defended video games all my life, and will continue to do so. I still believe that good games are the most immersive form of fiction known to man. Nor do I want developers to hold back out of political correctness. But I truly believe that graphical ultra-realism wouldn't contribute anything to the medium. After all, Agatha Christie didn't need to stain the pages of her books in blood. I look forward to the future of games, not because I want to see decapitated bodies, but because I want to experience fantastic stories. Let's focus on that for now, shall we?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Horn Cease!

Someone once said the car was an extension of a man's sexuality. Don't ask me who, it doesn't matter. Well if that be true, then for some, honking has to be the equivalent of stroking oneself. There is no other explanation as to why they engage in it with such frequency and vigor. You know who I'm talking about. You hear them before human eyes can possibly see them. The car may be any make, model or size, but the horn would definitely be the shrillest, loudest, pitchiest sound source invented, guaranteed to be the simulation of physically taking a cheese grater to the eardrums. The road may be as empty as central Thar or clogged as far as the eye can see, it doesn't matter. Speaking the universal language of 'beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep' the acoustic army wades into battle against peace, good taste and common sense.

The horn is a tool. It's a way to warn the oblivious of several tons of metal headed his way. The Microsoft Encarta dictionary (I was too lazy to look up anything else) describes it as as "automotive emergencies noise-making warning device". See that word there? EMERGENCIES? Unless you are absolutely brain-dead on the road and have the motor reflexes of a five-year-old with Parkinsons riding a roller coaster, every moment you spend on the road cannot be an emergency. So why the desperation to make some noise, so to speak? Why do these people need an earsplitting accompaniment to every move they make on the road? Is it an adrenaline thing? After all, in this age of road rage, when every Tom, Dick and Hari can become a frothing maniac with a gun at the slightest ding to their chrome, speeding can kill in more ways than one. Then there are cops hiding behind bushes, trackers in hand. Is this how the thrill seekers are lashing out? By making some noise? Has 'button to the plastic' replaced 'pedal to the metal' as speed junkies stage the world's whiniest rebellion ever? I don't know. All I know is, something needs to be done.

Now obviously, putting pictures of bicycle horns with a big red slash across them has not worked. Shocking, but true. Despite slathering enough posters throughout the city to prop up small building , the Delhi no honking day on January 1st too was not a rousing success, as it quickly devolved into the not giving a fuck day. So I suggest few alternatives. Honking SWAT squads armed with mini-nukes in every street corner is clearly off the table, what with Obama pushing for further nuclear disarmament. So I will need the car industries help with this one. It's simple really. Just a set of four speakers attached to the driver's seat that feed the sound of the horn inside the car. Only louder. That should deter some, but what about the people who are already deaf, thanks to playing 50 cent on rotation in their car stereos? Well, then comes the next step. Any time the driver holds the button down for three seconds,the car would deliver an electric shock. Not a mild, this-is-tingly kind of shock, but a heavy duty, high voltage, driver-grilled-to-perfection shock. Sure, there would be a few deaths. Pileups would be a problem for a while. But after the horrified screams have subsided, after the smoke has cleared and the explosions have stopped, you'd be free to step out and walk in peace and silence. And it would all be worth it....

Until that is, a car ploughs into the small of your back. You'd never hear it coming.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The frontier of dreams

The final frontier.
There is an image from my childhood. A dark background, broken up by little pinpricks of light. Slowly moving towards me, then gliding off the edge. A single musical note, broken up by tiny little tinkles. Each one for a star maybe? A promise of heroics to come. And a voice.
The final frontier.
The music would rise, rise, rise and there it was. Whipping past, speeds measured in warp, the vessel of my dreams, the brave, the tough, the fantastic Enterprise. And a child would sit open mouthed, his head filled with images of space battles and strange aliens, of vile villains and swashbuckling heroes, phasers and photon torpedoes. A crew of men and women who would trek through the stars and have amazing adventures just so I could watch them in awe.
Star Trek was not a weekly treat for me. When it aired here, we didn't even have a colour television, much less cable. No, Star Trek was something I could indulge in only when I was at someone else's house. A relative, a friend, anybody. If it was five in the evening and they had Star Plus on the dial, I would beg, plead, whine and ignore the ugly glances from my parents just so I could watch. I would pay later, but Trek was worth it.
Much of the subtlety of Trek was lost to me as a child. I didn't realize how revolutionary the multicultural crew was. I didn't always understand the underlying themes and messages on contemporary society the show was so famous for. Nor was it just the concept of reaching out into the unknown that drew me in. Star Trek, above all, was like a flare going off in the depths of my imagination. It showed me what stories could be when they broke free of all the traditional trappings of time and space. It taught me that real storytelling was not about lasers and guns and starships exploding(although they were a lot of fun too), but about people and how they were with each other.
When TNG came around I was ready. This time I really GOT the show. Picard, with his calm and authoritative demeanor was a captain far closer to my own heart. Data's quest to be more human resonated within me, made me ask myself what it really WAS to be human. This Trek crew was not immune to faults and failings, hardly superheroes. Even in a starship hurtling towards the unknown, they were the ones I could relate to more that anyone else on TV. TNG was a show that took risks. The borg weren't simply a scary alien race. They were representative of a political ideology that is very much present today. Trek debated on the meaning of being human, and whether soul and sentience were the same. Trek made me question happiness and it's costs. Trek made me think and wonder. It didn't give me answers, but made me ask questions.
But more than the philosophy and ideas, it is emotions that drive the Trek universe. Hope burns the brightest. Hope, not of a perfect day, but a better day. Hope that today's minds would understand that tomorrows world was theirs to shape, and make the right choices. Hope for humanity, hope for the world, hope for the universe. That is why it doesn't matter when ships explode with a bang in the vacuum of space.Or when treknobabble is employed to explain all emergencies and their solutions. Star Trek's science can be questionable bordering on the ridiculous, but few can argue the quality of it's fiction. Gene Rodenberry and the Trek cast and crew who came after him knew that to tell stories that evoke wonder and joy and sorrow and all those things that make us human, it is necessary to dream. To envision. To break barriers.
To boldly go where no one has gone before.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Gastronomic Gene

We were at Berco's, stuffing mediocre Chinese food down our gullets.
"So how many courses DOES an average Bengali meal involve?"
"Erm, I don't know,....four, maybe five ." I replied between sips of Fruit Beer (which was great) and mouthfuls of some starter or the other (which was merely adequate).
My co-lunchers eyebrows shot up high enough to ruffle her hair.
"Really, that many? Wow. We have like three on average."

Snobbery. It's as Bengali as Tagore, holidays in Puri and checking fish gills to gauge their freshness. Sometimes justified and sometimes not, but get two NRBs together and you can almost feel the air crystallize around them as they give the cold shoulder to their adopted home and compare notes on how such-and-such is just better in Bengal. Then there are the reverse snobs, snobs who believe they are better than others (mostly other Bengalis) because they believe they aren't snobs at all. Yes, wrinkling our metaphorical noses is just something we are genetically good at.
And of course, like all deeply held beliefs, this sense of superiority too is also a bunch of horse-eggs. Except food. From an early age I have eaten everything that was placed before me. Most of the times, those things were even edible. And slowly I have come to realize that, when it comes to pleasures of the plate, Bengalis take their vittles very, VERY seriously.
Part of it, of course, comes from us being game for absolutely anything. No dish is too weird, no ingredient too taboo. A certain Bengali pretend-singer of jibonmukhi (and thus, by god given right, an expert on all that is Bengali) once regaled a TV audience with an anecdote about how, on a recent trip to Australia with a few other Bengali gentlemen, they had gone to a restaurant for lunch. Apparently one of the nameless gentlemen, after frowning at the menu for several seconds, had called the waiter and asked "Ekhane kangaroor mangsho pawa jae?" ("Do you serve kangaroo meat here?"). The singer, who is reputed (by his PR people) to have abandoned all material pleasures in his pursuit of culture and the arts (well, except for his 4-packs of Marlbaros a day, his pot and his 2 mistresses) is of course one of those reverse snobs, mocking all things Bengali. Thus, the purpose of this anecdote was simply to reinforce the pot-bellied Bengali glutton stereotype, while making it very clear that HE wasn't part of THOSE Bengalis, oh no. At the risk of alienating my vegetarian friends though, my heart swelled with pride. At-a-boy I thought. Go for it. We are not conquerors. We are not fighters. We don't invade. We surrender, and then we take their cooks.
I have a mother who bought a non-stick pan back when they were expensive and we were staunchly lower-middle class just so she could make Dhosas. When she recovered after a long illness, my father gifted her a mixer-grinder. Before all you feminists out there (yes, I still pretend people read my blog) scream MCP, let me remind you that I have seen her completely unaffected by gifts of clothes and jewelery and books and whatnot, but on seeing that mixer-grinder, her face just lit up. She loves to cook, she loves to experiment, and among Bengalis, she is not unique. Just go around any random school playground in Bengal, popping open tiffin boxes, and if they don't call the cops, you will be faced with a dazzling array of snacks, meals and whatnot. Admittedly, some of the creations can be quite terrifying. Back when I was too young to know better, I had once agreed to swap tiffin boxes, contents unseen. I had been promised noodles, and I knew I had sandwiches, so licking my lips I flip open the lid. The unholy concoction that lay within was, technically, noodles yes. But, and this is where the story falls apart, it was noodles cooked with turmeric, peanuts and tamarind. I shit thee not. Too meek to protest, I finished the yellow mess. I still get letters of complaint from my taste buds, and I can't say I blame the fellows. The taste....lingers.
Anyway, my point is, even the devil spawn noodles proves my point about Bengalis being ready to experiment with anything and everything that has been proven to not be actually poisonous, and even then, they will give it a shot if there are qualified medical experts standing by. Compare that with say.....butter chicken. The de-facto chicken dish of the north. The culinary poster boy, so to speak. Is there a dish more derivative, more unimaginative, more boring ? Ingredients are exactly four. Cream, butter, chicken, and tomato puree. Some cashew nuts, maybe, and a thimble full of spices. The first mouthful is exactly the same as the last. It's like a guided tour through an empty museum. And the guide speaks only German. If there ever was a book called "Exotic North Indian Cooking", it would be the smallest book in the world. Here is how it would go.

Take normal food
Add enough butter to clog the arteries of a small town

OK that was harsh. There are stuff I like here.. The Dal Makhnis. The Palak Paneers. The Mutton Raras. But compare that to a Bengali Shukto. Anything between five to ten vegetables go in that dish alone. Or most Bengali meat dishes, which will have at least one ingredient apart from the meat. Usually the humble potato. Even the Biryianis are incomplete without a whole potato, dum cooked and steaming, straight out of the handi. Variety, experimentation and a willingness to try anything. It doesn't always work out great, but when it does, it's awesome.

Friday, July 24, 2009


Let's start this at the beginning. It was 2004. No it wasn't. I have a terrible memory for dates. Or even years. Don't trust a single word I say about the when, because I've either forgotten and confused or flat out lying. Anyway, it was some time after the whole Harry Potter craze (back when the craze was still about the books) had erupted. And like all crazes, this one too had antagonized me simply because everyone else seemed to love the little boy wizard and his broomstick. Odd I would be so aggressively anti Potter, because I have always loved fantasy. Even before I read adult or young adult fantasy, or even KNEW fantasy existed beyond the strictly-meant-for-preteens books I read as a child, I loved the IDEA of fantasy . So anyway, one night between 2004 and 2007, I was at my grandparents, bored and restless. I couldn't watch television of course, because the little angel would hear the wisps of the tendrils of sound and that would just ruin his education and career. I mean come on people, it's a child's future we're talking about here! I had nothing to read, unless of course I wanted to know the inner workings of the Uzbek novels of the blurgh! period, generally categorized in the library under the "suicidally depressing" category. Oh, and there was this book the little prince had brought home from school so that he could rip it up in one of his periodic fits of rage and his mom would have to buy a new copy as replacement. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I knew nothing about Harry Potter, didn't know this was the second book and actively hated the hoopla around the series. I picked up the book, partly to spite it, partly to fall asleep at the third page.
Now I know, according to the rule of the cliched narrative, at this point I am to give a significant pause and say how the book wowed and amazed me and blew me away.

The book wowed and amazed me and blew me away. It really did. It was strange. I have seldom categorized books as unputdownable. This one was. Now don't get me wrong. At no point was I under the impression that I was reading one of the classics. I didn't (and still don't) consider Rowling to be a literary great. Maybe someday, but not now. So what was in that book that made my look up, bleary eyed and exhausted , eight hours after I picked it up and realize that I had finished the book in one go? Where was all my cynicism, and antagonism towards 'fads'? Rowling had weaved a world of magic, an imperfect, rough-around-the-edges world, but one that had the curious ability to transport me to it, warts and all. I SAW platform 9 and 3/4. I FELT the terror when the basilisk bared its fangs. I HEARD the whimpering voice of Pettigrew as he desperately went from character to character, begging for mercy. I was buying what Rowling was selling, and buying it in spades. I tracked down the other three books that were already out, and devoured them. I appreciated how the books started out as cheery fairy tales with horror-lite woven into them, but grew progressively darker as the series progressed. Yes, sometimes it was infuriating. Rowling's completely arbitrary magic system (point and wave, boys, and whoosh! happens) and her habit of introducing characters and artifacts that were strictly meant for single use only were head scratching and infuriating. But still I read on. I read on when the fifth book arrived, and couldn't afford to buy the sixth, so borrowed the book (something i rarely do). And yes, the seventh book was predictable, but can you blame Rowling? After a billion rabid fans dissect and analyze and pour over the preceding six chapters of the saga, no eventuality is left out of consideration.
Rowling has had her share of detractors. While the critics were all praise, at least for the initial set of books, criticism grew, as it always does, with the series' explosion in popularity. Even as the last four books went on to become the fastest selling books in history, some literary critics chose to heap scorn upon Harry, calling the books "derivative","ridden with cliches", "written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip".
I have more respect for critics than most people. I am a fan, a true fan of movie critic Roger Ebert, and I do believe that sometimes the mass audience is just plain wrong about the merits about any work of art, and it takes a true student, a true lover of said art, a critic to be exact, to tell us what is good and bad. But I also believe that sometimes critics so gleefully focus on the negative, maybe for effect, maybe because it irks them that the audience chooses to elevate flawed creations over better-crafted, more perfect ones, that they forget why people love to experience the arts. Is Harry Potter derivative? certainly. Rowling has cribbed from a vast landscape of literature, from Tolkein to Twain, to create her world of wizards and muggles. But she has done so with care, she has done so expertly and she has done so with a love for her own creation that shines through to create something that , even as a cocktail of borrowed ideas, is truly unique. True, there is no poetry in Rowling's language. She does not weave words like some authors do, words that seem to take a life of their own to enter your mind and set off little sparks of ideas and imagination . When she tries, she fails and the end result is pure, unadulterated pap. Her words are bricks, unremarkable and dull in themselves, and yes, sometimes cliched, but she uses them to create what is there in her own mind, and take you on a ride through HER imagination. So Diagon Alley comes alive and bustling with fantastic creatures, similar and yet distinct from the bustling markets of Ankh Morpork. So the halls of Hogwarts, stolen from so many other school stories by Blyton and Wodehouse become her own, with their looming Gothic architecture and portraits that have lives of their own. And Harry, Ron and Hermoine become more than the troubled jock, the stuffy brain and the good-natured comic sidekick to become creations and flesh and blood with an unique team dynamic. Snape evolves from being the antagonist, to the cool, brooding anti-hero in a black, to finally becoming a real man, with a history and a reason for his actions. Dumbledore is revealed to be more than a roguish headmaster or a godlike being with superpowers, he is a general who makes mistakes and is not above using a troubled boy to win a war. Harry Potter starts out as school stories and fantasy stories with all the stock character sets, but evolves with its readers. Rowling has made mistakes along the way, but Hogwarts hasn't missed a step.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Delhi on Auto-Pilot

"Jhandwala chalenge?"
"Aap kitna dete hai?"

"Pachas dijie"
Huh ?? I mean humminy humminy huh?? In my two years in this city, I confess I have completely failed to understand the thought process of Delhi auto drivers. Neither rain, nor drought, nor a blizzard. Empty autos positively littering the streets. I have JUST informed the dude that I pay thirty for the ride, so why exactly does he even expect that I am going to pay the twenty extra bucks? Time an again I have had this conversation with auto guys (allowing for differences in denomination and destination, of course.) and time and again I have failed to understand what exactly it is in my expression that makes me look like a retarded millionaire who would dole out extra money for absolutely no reason.
However, I will give this to Delhi autos. They are extremely good losers. Seldom have I lost a bargaining battle with them, (the trick is to not appear desperate and when they quote a figure too high, act as if they told you to stuff a live rattlesnake down your pants, startled incredulity with a tinge of have-you-lost-your-fucking-mind.)and while all hostility and/or desperate pleas that I am snatching the last crumbs of stale bread from the lips of their starving children, once the bargaining is over they are good humor personified. Some even strike up friendly conversations, as if five minutes ago they weren't arguing with me that a mere fifty bucks over and above the meter is just way too little. The fact that I would pay the extra money just to get them to shut up is, of course, another issue altogether. Nor do they haggle over the money(again!) at the end of the journey , as many Calcutta auto drivers do .
Of course that does not excuse them from the horrible habit of asking you to change autos in the middle of the trip. Noida autos do this more frequently than others, and they generally drop me off without a word of warning at the Delhi border, making me feel more like a piece of contraband or a Mexican illegal immigrant. And of course the unwritten rule here seems to be that the more inoffensive, short, semi balding runt your original driver was, the more intimidating and incredibly hulk-ish the alternative seems to be. You know, the kind you hope is merely a horrible axe murderer and not something worse, like a previously convicted axe murderer who has developed a taste for prison rape. Of course they always end up being nice people in general, but it's hard to notice that when I'm trying to meld with the fabric of the backseat every time he glances in the rear-view mirror.
I do love the adorable little hunks of metal they strap to the front seat backrest though. Officially, they're meters. Unofficially, they're the keep-cops-away magic box. And of course they have to be on, so some enterprising gentlemen keep them on all day long. This has, of course, led to some bizarre instances. Like when I came home from CP one night. Fare : 50 Rupees. On the meter : 278 Rupees. Or on one of my regular trips to Noida. Fare : 130 rupees. On the Meter : 544 Rupees. But nothing quite beat the moment when an auto I was on got stopped by the cops a few minutes away from home. It looked like a routine check. The cop popped his head in and asked " Ap kahan se a rahe hain?"
" Karol Bagh" (Karol Bagh is about a kilometer or two away from my house)
The cop looks at the blinking meter . 944 Rupees.
I walked home that night, but I couldn't help but feel a twinge of sympathy for the guy who forgot to just restart his meter all day. Poor fool.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

All the world's a boss fight

First there was a yellow circle. Then it opened up just a little and moved. Right, left, up down, at the press of a button it went 'wakka...wakka...wakkka' Death to little dots. The ghosts were oddly colorful considering their very touch meant death, at least to our intrepid, hungry hero. Then there was a blur. Cars, plumbers, castle rooms that were little more than squares of '-' and 'I'. There was also a woman in a red hat and a red coat, looking back with an oddly seductive smile and a gleam in here eye. But the prince was no blur. Never did rescue the princess, I was never very good with time management anyway, but the prince was good. Fat soldiers, thin soldiers, hell his own shadow was no match. His trusty sword and random Erlenmeyer Flasks filled with potions. Tried again the next time he came around. Things were prettier, more colorful, but again, those damn floating heads got in the way.
Fast forward a few years, and the world got darker. Persia was a memory, Trishtram was the present. Clickity, clickity click went the mouse, until it joined the broken pile and the devil was trapped in the stone, and the stone was trapped in the hero. On the second trip, there was no sword or shield, but the chainsaw was a fine replacement. So was the double barreled shotgun. Oh and when things got too hairy, there was a big fucking.... well, you know.
Of course monsters were par for the course, as were monster trucks. For a while they were fun. Sheer madness. But suddenly there was a boy Joseph. See, he had this mark on his arm, and he could call....things. Monsters, dragons, elementals. And there were three others. They didn't go to hell, but they did go everywhere else. From sun kissed monasteries where the beautiful tiled floors almost gleamed in spite of the green creepers between them, to long lost cities that a god's grief had turned to stone. Towering spires scraped the sky, their tips hidden behind the cotton ball clouds. For the first time I saw cities, and people and marketplaces. They almost vibrated with life, a world where not everything was about me. A real world. For days I traveled, and finally, the false god was dead. The new god had risen. My work was done.
But the devil does not lie still. His world had not been vigilant, the hero had not been strong enough, and I was needed. But who was I? The strong, the holy, the lithe, the fiery or the cursed? Long white hairs flew in the wind as I raised hell, to fight hell. This time hell was right here, on earth. No living breathing world this, for there were so few left to breathe. Minuscule patches of safe haven, a handful of survivors, selling the tools of survival, and then, hours of battle. The stronger I grew, the tougher they became. But I would not be stopped. The brothers fell, first the Lord of Hatred, then the devil himself. Spears of bone ripped his red hide, and with one last anguished scream, he fell. There was one more, the angel said, but he would come later. In the icy wastes of the barbarian lands, deep in the World stone keep, evil would rise its destructive head. But I was the fury of nature, beasts at my beck and call, plants at my command. Destruction was no more, but the worldstone was shattered. It had to be done, said the angel. But what did the future hold? Only time will tell.
For a while, the past was forgotten. Gods wanted to be entertained, and humans were the pawns. Only humans? No. There were others. Hulking mechanized brutes of steel and rage, bizarre creatures from other worlds. Death was not an option, just a moment to catch a breath. Kill or be killed, an endless cycle of birth and rebirth, punctuated by the anguished cries of my fallen victims. In many arenas I fought, and rose to the one in the sky. There waited the wise one, the one who craved liberation. With a streak of light as fast as thought and as red as rage, I fulfilled his wish. The god's were sated.
I would fight again, but not for gods or trophies. It was a fight for survival, and I would not have a lifetime to do it. Just half of one. But that's another story. for another day......

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Literary Dimension

A good bookshop is just a genteel Black Hole that knows how to read. - Guards, Guards by Terry Pratchett.

Nosing around in one of the many bookshops I frequent (as much as moolah permits) in an around Delhi, the quote really struck home. Of course , its not just shops, but anywhere books choose to gather. I remember slipping into the school library during a period when our mathematics teacher was not feeling so hot (teaching 57 unruly kids packed in a small room and as resistant to learning as possible without actually rioting and a paycheck so little that bank tellers laugh at you when they cash it is apparently not great for health. Who knew?). Our librarian, being a nice grandmotherly woman let me in the Backroom, where all the uncatalogued books were kept. Delicious new packing boxes were spread all over the place, and I was in heaven. Anyway, long story short, she discovered me four hours later, oblivious of the time, when she was locking up. I had missed the entire school day. While I realize that admitting to cutting classes to read books puts a dark streak on my cool as ice, almost James Bondish image, I will not deny that story. In fact I am proud of it. bookshops are as integral to my life as breathing or KFC. I spend an extraordinary amount of my free time in bookshops. And that is probably when I miss Kolkata the most. There, the bookshops had Coffee bars in them . Here the coffee bars have a corner for books. Ok no, thats a lie. There are decent enough bookshops here. But nothing like a miles of aisles that Landmark(nee Starmark) sported. Or even the smaller but no less interesting Oxford. Bookshops in Delhi are , to put it nicely, dull. The same square rectangular room. The same two or three bookshelves set up like gun racks in an armory.And then there are the assistants. Oh, how I love the assistants. It's not difficult to attract their attention. Just stop for more than five seconds before a bookshelf or even squint a bit and there they are. Step one in their holy mission to irritate and bother is to ask you if they can help you with anything. Of course the only way they can actually help anyone is by tying a reasonably heavy weight around their ankles and actively looking for the nearest large body of water. But since it would be pointless to explain that to them, plus you might get thrown out and still have an hour to kill. So the safest thing to do is mention the name of any writer who is not on this months bestseller list. First there is a frown. Then an imperceptible call for assistance from the corner of his mouth. Of course, the colleague who he was calling has already sauntered away to assist someone who made the fatal mistake of stopping to tie his shoelace. Step three would be to scoot forward to the check out desk where an acne ridden teenager who would rather have maggots feed off him than be here is listlessly playing Solitaire. Considering he was hired simply because he could distinguish between a mouse button and a shirt button and has enough motor skills to point and click, he isn't very helpful either. Ah, but he has his ace in the hole. He has the DATABASE! With the flourish of a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat, he types in the name, and with an equal flourish, he announces that there is no such author by that name. Not just that, he doubts if such an author ever existed or even such a name can ever exist and you sir, are pond scum of the worst kind. Ok he doesn't say ALL those things but his tone speaks volumes. This is your cue to lean forward across the desk, look at his monitor and gently inform them that it is not NEL GAYMAN, but NEIL GEIMAN you want. Still suspicious, and now convinced that you are nothing more than a troublemaker, he types in again. Ah-ha ! Just as he suspected, there is no such author by that name either. How dare you disturb his afternoon reverie, how dare you annoy the assistants, how dare you...at this point you can cut him off and tell him that you completely understand his irritation at NEEL GEMAN not finding a place in their inventory, that is still not who you are looking for. Of course, by now he is frothing at the mouth and search is already on for a reliable straight jacket, but somehow, he manages to type in the correct name. At this point he calms down a little, and with the cheerfulness of Hitler turning in a class report about the second world war , informs you that according to his database, such a writer does exist (although he is obviously still not convinced), they are not stocking any of his books now, very sorry, do you want to place an order and more importantly leave a deposit?? This would be your cue to hand him the two Neil Geiman books you found half an hour ago and ask for the bill.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Meat Puppet

Feeling like an empty room, a bother to even exist, I am irritated by the need to make sense of it all, thoughts keep crowding my head, shapeless and formless, made of vapor and color, no form really, just a painful reminder of how I am, empty and vapid, nothing making any sense, I force myself to it but it slips away to the other side, I have nothing to say, wish I could keep saying that all the time, nothing but a meat puppet of instinct and confusion, frustrating and irritating, words are there but not for me, for me no shape no structure no form, wish I could be like the ones I admire, bend them to my will, make them like animals in a circus ring, whip them into submission and see them dance the way I want but what do I want really, to follow the rules, what happens when the rules are so hazy and blurred that you wonder if there are any rules at all, when you know there are but won't reveal themselves to you, feel mediocrity and incompetence but to make peace with it is just unacceptable and to fight against it is impossible, shameful hurtful little reminders of a being that wants to fly but cannot , not because it's wings are clipped but because it never had any, slugs shouldn't dream of open skies, but slugs don't have imagination do they, , where exactly does imagination take you, nowhere really, just makes you more aware of what keeps you trapped and tied , want to talk and communicate but like trying to pour water from an empty vessel, how to create things that don;t even exist. even for this i have to stop and think, not meant to be like this, just a stream, but keeps getting interrupted by other streams, mind like a cobweb, no straight lines, no one way to go, every knot an intersection, an accident waiting to happen, waiting to knock me off course , no thoughts just silly little ideas that spark and die, no depth, no meaning.

Monday, January 26, 2009

When the Slumdog had his day

It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter that Who Wants to be a Millionaire is apparently a live show. It doesn't matter that a slumdog speaks perfect English. It doesn't matter that the show's host tries to feed a contestant wrong answers, as if he had a stake in keeping the kid away from the big prize. The movie never asks you to believe it, just accept it. There is a reason why most people who have seen Slumdog Millionaire either love it or hate it. It's a movie that asks you to check your cynicism at the door. It's like magic. You know none of it is real, because how could it be. But believe for a moment that it IS, and you will be dazzled, intrigued and entertained.
Slumdog Millionaire has become an international sensation, another , possibly the brightest feather in the cap of Danny Boyle. It has a 95 percent rating on Rottentomatoes.com and an 8.7 user rating from IMDB after nearly forty thousand votes. And like all things that were never meant to be this big but did, it has attracted criticism from all quarters. Right now there seems to be three major gripes against the movie. Let's look at them one by one.

1) Slumdog Millionaire is not a 'believable' or 'real' movie. No it isn't. When did it claim to be ? It's a modern fairy tale (and if you think it's a little too brutal to be a fairy tale, read some of the stories before the Grimm Brothers degrimmed them for the kiddies.) set in the slums of Mumbai. It could be set in the slums of Mexico city, or Cape Town, or New York or any city where abject poverty lives side by side with BMW's and skyscraper's. It's not about reality. Jamal is not a real kid from the slums. Like I said, the fact that he can speak perfect English doesn't matter precisely because the movie doesn't even try to be real. The setting and the surroundings are rooted in realism, but the story of Jamal shines through as wildly implausible, improbable and heartwarming. It's not how things COULD be. It's how things SHOULD be.

2) Slumdog Millionaire does not paint a TRUE picture of India . This one actually makes me laugh. You don't say ??!!! Name me one movie, one single movie that captures India perfectly. Slumdog is not a movie about India, or even Mumbai. That's just where it's set. It's a movie about Jamal, a boy who was born in the slums but goes on to win a television quiz show and the heart of his childhood sweetheart through a series of extraordinary coincidences and sheer grit. Also, more than a little helping of brains. When the little Jamal, covered in shit, holds up a grubby hand defiantly clutching an autographed picture of Amitabh Bachhan, he does not represent all slum children. He is just the joy of achievement breaking through.

3)Slumdog Millionaire is a typical masala movie that Bollywood has done a million times before, and has been scoffed at for its trouble. I won't disagree with this statement entirely. Yes, it is a very masala movie. And Bollywood has tried to do it before. But never has it been this smart, this slick, and this beautiful. The child actors here look and act like little children. There is a hard edge to their innocence, as there should be. They are not obnoxious little angels, as bollywood has traditionally tried to represent children. They don't give sage advice to the elders about communal harmony and the goodness of man. Coupled with smart editing, a riotous use of colour, and the very effective-in-building-tension KBC music, Boyle may have made the perfect masala movie.

So does slumdog deserve the accolades it is getting? I vote a resounding yes. It will not be nominated for many awards in the acting category, although Ayush Mahesh Khedekar as the youngest Jamal gives a heartrending performance as brilliant as Darsheel Safary in TZP. Dev Patel has a limited range of expressions, most of them being some variation of bewildered, but his sullen anger in the opening scenes comes off well. Frieda Pinto is in there for too short a time (she comes in about 80 minutes into the movie) to judge, although she is competent in what she does. Anil Kapoor overacts as usual, but makes the character work as a slimeball . The problem with his Prem Kumar is that he is given no motivation to be this antogonistic towards Jamal. Is he jealous that a street kid could make it this far? Does he truly believe Jamal is cheating? There are no answers. Irrfan Khan does a bad guy/slightly less bad guy thing he is so adept at. But the stars of the movie are The child actors, the sights and sounds of Mumbai (and Agra), and a script that wraps you up if you let it, and gives you a thrill ride to remember.