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The Border-less

5052744574_cc6c7338be_oHas this ever happened to you? You are traveling on a long distance international flight and are staring outside the aircraft window, planet Earth is slowly trundling under you and you see a stunning vista of a vast desert or snow-capped mountains or a little town in a verdant valley. You think to yourself – what place/what country is that? Then, you turn to the little screen in front of your seat and switch on the “flight info” channel to look at the location of your aircraft on the world map. You see that its Algeria or Kazakhstan or Austria because the screen shows the digital aircraft flying over a conveniently penciled-in world map with borders and names of the countries. You are pleased with the recently acquired knowledge and you shift your gaze back to the scenery outside the window.

The point I am making (if it isn’t obvious), is that boundaries and nations are artificial and aren’t apparent when you look at the Earth from up above. Elementary, you think, and elementary it is. What I really want to say is that the creation of these artificial boundaries has led to the phenomenon of a) being attached to, b) identifying oneself, and c) subsequently taking pride in ones “nation”. This is commonly referred to as “nationalism”. It has been around as long as we have been marking the planet with “this nation” or “that kingdom”.  I strongly believe that “nationalism” is an orthodox, divisive, and a regressive concept, an unnecessary by-product of the our race’s act of creating nations. You can very clearly draw parallels of nations and nationalistic beliefs to the creation of religions and religious beliefs. Both are equally divisive, equally unnecessary, and highly volatile when people from antagonistic beliefs (nationalistic or religious) get together.

From early childhood, we are told, nay – we are indoctrinated to be “of a nation” and to be “proud” of being from our nation. While this may seem innocuous, it actually instills a false sense of pride that somehow my nation is better than any other. Those of us who grew up in India would remember the countless recitations of “saare jahaan se accha hindustan humara” and “hum sab bharatiya ek hai“.  I find it quite ironical that we are taught a lesson of unity on the foundation of divisiveness – as in “we are united as Indians”- subtext being – we are not united with the rest of the human beings who belong to other nations . In my opinion, such nationalistic indoctrination is no different from religious indoctrination of children. Don’t get me wrong, teaching children their heritage, their culture, their arts, is one thing, but teaching them that theirs is the “best” or “better” than anyone else’s in the world, is what I take objection with. This may sound like a “mountain out of a mole hill” issue, but it won’t take you long to go through any history book of the world to understand how nationalism has been used (along with religion) to wage many wars.

Of course, the extent to which one adheres to this nationalistic pride varies from person to person (just like how people vary on the scale of their religious beliefs/fanaticism). Regardless, of what the degree of ones nationalistic leaning is, it clouds the way we look at the world. Objectivity gets lost when pride takes over. I have seen seemingly open-minded, well-read, well-travelled people get agitated when they hear criticisms about their nation, regardless of how reasoned that criticism is. The roots of this irrational reaction can very well be traced to the early indoctrination of nationalism. Take this to an extreme and you can very well see how some individuals took (and continue to) full advantage of a mass hysteria of nationalism in their populations for their own egoistic conquests. Fanning nationalistic emotions are as easy as fueling religious sentiments and are time and again used by the ones in power for exercising control, wielding power, and vanquishing reasoned voices. I see it happening in my nation of birth (India) and my adopted nation (United States).

One may say that this world without boundaries is an idealistic, impractical, and a naive idea – and that’s a fair statement. But, for any naive and impractical idea to take root and thrive, all it takes is enough of us to believe in it. In my travels, I have come across people who share my view of the world, who are absolutely border-less and do not care what nationality I, or anyone else wears. So I believe, I am not alone in this romantic border-less view of the world. I am not very optimistic that we will realize this vision of the world, but for now I find solace in actively trying to propagate this idea (this blog post is one such active step). Trying to stay away from conversations which have nationalistic leanings and not associating myself with groups that are purely based on the basis of national origin or language is a passive way of dealing with this. What gives me most joy however is when interacting with the little ones – when I try to bring up the idea of belonging to the world and not to a certain nation – this notion summed up so beautifully in the Sanskrit shloka:

”अयं बन्धुरयं नेति गणना लघुचेतसाम् | उदारचरितानां तु वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम् || ”.

Loosely translated as : This one is a relative, the other one is a stranger, these are traits of a narrow mind; for those with an open mind, nothing less than the entire earth makes up their family.

I can only hope that this border-less idea of the world reaches critical mass in my lifetime and eventually all political and physical maps are rendered irrelevant. All we would be left is the natural and truthful beauty of a topographical map of the planet!

(Photo from NASA’s flickr feed)

For Kaka Puri

शेरों में जिनके जयपुर के रंग है और

गीतों में पंजाब की बदमाशियाँ,

बातों में जिनकी मशोबरें की वादियों की गूँज और

आँखों में स्यालकोट की यादें ।

चार दिनों के लिए ही सही,

पर काका पूरी, आपके आने से पंसारी में जैसे राजस्थान, पंजाब और हिमाचल आ बसा ।

अगली बार तक हम इन तीनों के सहारें शामें काट लेंगे।

Gulzar Kuch Khoye Huye Nagme – 20

Song: Thok de killi

Movie: Raavan (2010)

Composer: A R Rahman

Singers: Sukhwinder Singh, Am’nico

Songs on social issues are few and far between in commercial Hindi movies, and those with poetry that stirs the right kind of pathos are even rarer. Gulzar has written songs on a number of social issues from his early days – Haalchaal theek thaak hai from Mere Apne about the state of the  youth in post independence India, Ghapala hai from Hu Tu Tu on the rampant corruption in Indian governance, Fatak from Kaminey on AIDS awareness. In this song from Mani Ratnam’s Raavan, be brings forth the angst of the people involved in the Naxalite movement – their marginalization by the Government (Dilli), and their overall pathetic state in a country that treats them as backwards and disposable (पिछड़े पिछड़े कहके हमको खूब उड़ाए खिल्ली दिल्ली..).

In all of the songs listed above, Gulzar writes from the point of view of those directly impacted by the issues, and not from the point of view of an observer of the cause and effect of the issues. By doing this, it’s as if he uses the voice of the victims of these issues (be it the unemployed youth in the Mere Apne song or in this song’s case, the Naxalites). He also uses humor in describing the pathetic situation of the victims, and since the voice is first person, it never becomes a mockery of the situation, instead brings out a sad, yet celebratory acceptance of the facts.

While there is much violence in the choice of his words: Thok de killi (to hammer a nail), ghooma de danda ( to swing a thick wooden stick, usually to beat someone), there is that very Gulzar-esque sad humor in lines such as:

“केला वो खाते है हमको फेंके छिलका छिलका – they eat the bananas and throw the peels at us (for us to eat)”

While the above elicits a smile in agreement from us, he gracefully switches to utter despair in:

“सहते सहते अब तो गर्दन घर रख कर जाते है
We have endured so much now that we keep our heads at home before we step out
छोटी हो गयी कब्रें बिन मुंडी ही मर जाते है
(as a result), the graves have become smaller since we die without our heads!”
 I don’t think there can be a more heartbreaking way of describing the state of these people – who, as per the Constitution of the nation are as equal as those who reside in Dilli. Gulzar underlines this demand for “equality” in the closing lines:
“अपना खून भी लाल ही होगा खोल के देख ले खाल की चिल्ली – Our blood will be also turn out to be red if you peel off our skin”.

ठोक दे किल्ली, ठोक दे किल्ली

के दूर नहीं है, चलेगा दिल्ली
सबको घूरे आँख दिखाए, तानाशाही करे डराए
ओ बाकड़ बिल्ली। ओ ठोक दे किल्ली
घूमा दे डण्डा उड़ा दे गिल्ली
इतराये वितराये जब भी हद् से आगे सदमे आये
आँख में काला काजल ओये नाक में नत्थी कान में झुमका
पाओं पहने बिछुआ और दांये बायें मारे ठुमका
आसे पासे सबको घूरे
देखे और दिखाए तेवर
मुजरे का नज़राना मांगे हीरे पन्ने नगदी ज़ेवर
पिछड़े पिछड़े कहके हमको खूब उड़ाए खिल्ली दिल्ली
झूठी सच्ची सेहली हमरी ठुमरी जो भी केहली
हमने एक तिहाई ले घुंगरू जोड़ के छत पर टेहली
झूठी है मक्कार की छैय्या न कोई माई न कोई मैय्या
कूट कूट के कपट भरा है बेताला ता ता थैय्या
पिछड़े पिछड़े कहके हमको खूब उड़ाए खिल्ली दिल्ली
ओ ठोक दे किल्ली
रात का माल रातों ने लूटा चाँद तार्रों के गुच्छे चुराए
दिन निकलना था अपना भी निकला
किस में दम है के सूरज बुझाए ?
आजा मिलके बैठे हाल सुनाये दिलका,
केला वो खाते है हमको फेंके छिलका छिलका
पिछड़े पिछड़े कहके हमको खूब उड़ाए खिल्ली दिल्ली
सहते सहते अब तो गर्दन घर रख कर जाते है
छोटी हो गयी कब्रें बिन मुंडी ही मर जाते है
सदियों चलता आया है ऊँच नीच का लम्बा किस्सा
अब की बार हिसाब चुकाले चिर के ले ले अपना हिस्सा
अपना खून भी लाल ही होगा खोल के देख ले खाल की चिल्ली
ठोक दे किल्ली।

Safed kameez


आज शाम बादल कुछ ऐसे खुले जैसे अचानक कपड़ोंसे भरी सन्दूक खुल जायेँ

ऊन सी मोटी मोटी बूँदें सड़क को डुबोने लगी

और बिखरे कपड़ों में तुमने दी हुयी वो सफ़ेद कमीज कीचड से लथ पथ होने लगी

It was April 2000, I was living in a basement apartment in Manchester, New Hampshire. I had been in the United States for two months. The subzero temperatures of Northern New England were disorienting my biology, which was used to dealing with 100F temperatures in April. A strange place, cold days, colder nights, and nobody to call a friend. Naturally, I resorted to watching movies to kill my time. I bought a VCR and a JVC TV with some assistance from a colleague. There was a Blockbuster store near my apartment and I would rent random movies. One such movie was, “Scent of a Woman“, rented only because it starred Al Pacino. While Mr. Pacino chews up the entire movie, one other actor that stood out in his small role as the super-rich kid, George. I had no idea who this actor was, but his performance left a mark nonetheless. In the same week, I watched Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Boogie Nights. I spotted the same actor playing Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-1000-x-1000-1another supporting character, Scotty J who is hopelessly (secretly) in love with the lead character, Dirk Diggler. I had to look him up, and found out that the actor was Philip Seymour Hoffman (PSH). I still didn’t quite grasp why I was enamored by his performances, especially when they were smaller roles in the bigger scheme of both of these movies. Nevertheless, I scanned the Blockbuster store for more of PSH’s movies and rented – The Talented Mr Ripley, Magnolia, Almost Famous, and State and Main. In each of these movies, he played supporting characters and I was completely taken by each one of them.

To me, the greatest achievement in a performance is when I am never reminded that it’s a performance, when the character and the person playing the character become one, when they seem like people who could “be”. For every performance an actor has to adapt to the role, but yet, their personality somehow shines through the characters they embody (I don’t mean this in a negative way). For example, think of roles essayed by these legends of cinema – Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Amitabh Bachchan, Meena Kumari, Jack Nicholson, Dilip Kumar, Humphrey Bogart, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, etc. I bet my cinematic eyes, there isn’t one performance that you can point out with enough conviction, where you could say – “I didn’t for once think that this was Al/Meryl/Jack/Amitabh…etc.” This is not to say that this makes them inferior actors, but to say that their personas are/were bigger than the people they played on-screen. Somewhere, their real star-self lingered on. With PSH, it’s the exact opposite – he makes the character he is playing bigger and more palpable than him. No matter how good or bad the movie, no matter the genre of the movie, no matter the quality or the target audience of the movie – whether it be artsy films like the Paul Thomas Anderson movies OR the low-brow Ben Stiller/Jennifer Aniston rom-com “Along Came Polly” OR the corny disaster flick “Twister“, PSH was always 100% in the character.

After the character gigs, Hollywood took heed and cast him in lead roles, one such being his Oscar-winning performance as Truman Capote in “Capote“. While, I enjoyed the movie and his performance, it left me a bit “meh”. (Bring on the brickbats!). Let me explain the “meh”-ness. No doubt, it is a powerful scene stealing performance, but that’s what takes it away from what I expect of PSH- he is at his best when he embodies the characters who are away from the spotlight, who are not meant to be the “focus” of the narrative drive and our emotional attachment to the happenings in the movie. What he does with these side characters is remarkable – he brings them to life when the writers, the director, the cinematography, are squarely focused on the lead characters and the central narrative. It was this quality in PSH, that drew me to him. When he became the central character, the rest of the film-making machinery was also with him, and so in my head it meant – his performance got all the support to make it shine. I cannot emphasize enough that, this in no way made him a lesser actor, NO – I am merely talking about my perception about his performances in supporting versus central characters.

In part 1 of this series, I talked about why Farooque Shaikh was so dear to me as an actor – he connected with me at an emotional level, primarily because I watched his movies in the formative years of my life (early teens). His characters were recognizable and familiar (for the most part) and there was a sense of comfort watching them. Whereas, most of PSH’s characters lived on the sidelines of the worldly definition of “normal” – they were as unfamiliar (to me) as they can get. Many of them were twisted, evil, self-centered, uncool, reckless, pathetic losers, – people you would voluntarily avoid association with. And yet, he portrayed them with such a perfect mix of compassion and craziness that you saw the “human-ness” in them. Thus, PSH”s connection is more at a cerebral level. I got to watch his movies at a time of my life when I understood the art of “performance”, the fact that I knew that movies are all make-believe and yet I “believed” in his characters, believed that they are “real people”, he prodded me to understand these characters and empathize with them no matter how alien they were to me.

When the news of his untimely death flashed on my phone, I had a massive knot in my stomach, a gut-wrenching scream of “no” echoed between my ears. I did not know PSH as a person, but knowing the way he died, I can say that he had many demons inside of him that he battled through his living days. Did these demons, these battles make him what he was as an actor? I do not know, I do not care! He remains, to me a performer who made me keenly aware of those who live on the sidelines, he shone light on people who we quite regularly (to no fault of ours) ignore and carry on with our versions of a “normal life”. He showed that these un-normal people are “people” too with a beating heart, just like the one inside my anatomy. For that I am ever so thankful that such an actor existed and enriched my movie watching experiences.

Here’s a wonderful visual tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman.


6 BlindMost of us have heard the old parable of the six blind men and an elephant. To summarize it briefly – Each blind man is asked to feel a different part of the elephant and describe the animal. Of course, each one describes it in a very different manner. The moral of the story being that the perception of a matter is highly subjective and it is imperative to know the entirety of the matter in order to arrive at a reasonably well-formed view, and thereby the “truth” of the matter.

So why do I invoke this parable now?

Recently, I have been surrounded by over 20 college interns (from various cultural/ethnic/economic backgrounds) who are helping out with a major event at our office. With a group of youngsters congregated in a small space, the environment becomes rife with many a colorful conversations. Given the proximity of my office from them, I get to hear every detail of these conversations. They range on all kinds of topics – Russia/Ukraine, Tinder, the missing 8-year-old girl who the city has been frantically searching for, which food trucks are the best, dating woes, hotness of a girl/guy, etc. While I enjoy this free entertainment, the number of times I heard them pass “judgmental” statements has startled me quite a bit. A few examples of these judgmental statements – “The Peruvian brothers truck has the best roast chicken….Yelpers are raving about it”, “Russia wants to bring back USSR”, etc. While these seem harmless, on listening the conversations a little more, these statements were from perceived information, information that they had not actively gathered and deducted but stumbled upon due to the very fact that this information is not only available in “excess” but is available with easy “access”. (The guy who said that Peruvian brothers’ food truck had the best chicken, had not eaten there himself!). When I pointed this out to the group, that they are passing judgments on things without collecting sufficient data (or first hand experiences where possible), I got quizzical looks from most of them. I admit, I must have come off a bit patronizing in my tone and very quickly, I realized that what I was saying was futile.

This subject goes beyond the formation of “snap judgments”. There is a sense of entitlement in a lot of us, of having and standing by an opinion with little to no credible information to back it. In a world where such opinions can instantly be transmitted to thousands, it only adds to the perpetual vicious loop. This may not sound like such a huge issue, but it beckons to look 10 or 20 years from now. I do not have kids of my own, but I look at my friends’ kids who are in the 1-5 year age group and I imagine what their world would be like in such an environment. How will they form opinions? How will they pass judgments? What impact that may have on their lives and the lives of others they have influence on? Its one thing to coexist with a generation which did not have ready access to information and had to cautiously and painstakingly gather it (anyone over the age of 30 may fall in this category – but I have also seen many 30 somethings pass judgments purely on hearsay!) AND an entirely another thing where all of the humanity will be coming from a place where access to information is a mere finger flick (or a voice command) away – a finger flick where the odds of landing the wrong information are exponentially higher as newer information accumulates at an unfathomable  rate.

The last decade has seen this massive explosion of “excess” of information and easy “access” to information (or misinformation). The immediate effect of this is that we have to deal with the herculean task of perceiving the facts from this constant unstoppable flood of information (in corporate jargon – drinking from an open fire hydrant). It is all very overwhelming – for every point there is a counterpoint, for every fact there are a million myths. The result is that we give up on sifting through the mountains of data and exasperatingly form a snap judgment, not because we want to, but because it is the easy way out. Very soon, I see this tendency to arrive at a judgment become a habit (if it hasn’t already) for the current and future generations. I don’t know how to say it without sounding preachy, but the fact remains that this habit will create a toxic environment if we don’t exercise caution and educate our children about the merits of a procedural approach of arriving at reasoned opinions on matters – no matter how small or big the matter may be.

The “snap judgment” phenomenon has become so commonplace that you don’t even notice it anymore. And I confess, I have been party to this myself more than I would like to admit. But, I do still have a part of my brain which keeps me in check and allows myself to retract my judgments and not repeat this behavior.

On re-reading what I wrote above, the entire piece sounds pessimistic and preachy, which is hardly my intent or deliberate style. I still have faith in us as a people who have the ability to course correct ourselves. This trend of “snap judgments” may just be a side-effect of the Information Explosion phenomenon. And by saying this I also do not intend to make a villain of the Information Explosion. It is certainly one of the greatest inventions of the last 50 years. However, the rate at which it is evolving is what makes it unpredictable and cautions us that if we don’t orient ourselves and our future generations now, we may not have the luxury of time to course correct.It will be people walking around like computers – all “information” no “knowledge”.

Our educational system, to an extent teaches us the benefits of data gathering, and data analysis prior to arriving at conclusions in the matters of academia. This however, does not translate too often to life situations – where we soak up information from the first convenient chunk of data we can lay our eyes/ears/hands on and just run with whatever suits our thinking.

If I had children of my own, I would narrate the six blind men story over and over to them – and not just for their benefit, but mine too, since it’s so easy to get carried away in the strong currents of the flood of information around me. The merits of the moral of this parable cannot be emphasized enough in these times, times when we have all become “judges” in our own right, times when these next generations will be the change agents, leaders, and policy makers of the world. I would not want me and them to be in a world where there are Six Billion blind men.

I do not usually get affected by the death of celebrities. Occasionally, I may feel a bit for them or their families out of a normal human reaction, but that’s all. However, this was not the case for two actors who passed away recently – Farooque Shaikh (FS) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (PSH) – actors who I have loved, admired, and respected.

This two part post is my little tribute to these two men who have left an indelible mark on my movies-loving self. Without comparing the two in their craft, I want to highlight a few similarities in their work – they were unconventional looking as per the showbiz definition of how an actor should look like (or at least how a lead actor should look like), they seemed to not care how big or small their character was in the overall scheme of the movie, they almost always rose above the material given to them -no matter how inconsequential their roles were, and they managed to leave you with a feeling of having seen a whole person, a person with a life, and a story of his own in any character they played .  You could believe that the characters they played went about their lives even after the movie had ended.

Farooque Shaikh

FS2My earliest memory of FS is from Chashme Buddoor. I remember watching it in the early 1980s in Aurangabad – I may have been 6 or 7 years old and am sure was unable to understand the movie, given my underdeveloped acumen for lives of adults. However, there were two scenes that stayed with me –  the Ms Chamko scene and the song “Kaali ghodi dwaar khadee“. Once in my teens, I rewatched the movie on Doordarshan and have loved it dearly and watched a number of times since then. During these same years, I watched a number of FS’ movies on Doordarshan  – Katha, Kisise na kehna, Garam Hawa, Noorie, Saath Saath, Umrao Jaan, Rang Birangi, Bazaar, etc. Remember, these were the late eighties/early nineties, a time when Hindi movies were all about mindless action oriented revenge sagas or over-the-top social dramas. You can very well say that it was an era of an absolute nadir in overall cinematic creativity.  FS’ movies were in the opposite spectrum as compared to these movies – they were mostly about light-hearted escapades of the everyday man. The revenge or social dramas – we mostly watched them in the theaters, but FS’ movies were reserved for the television screen. My logic for this was: the big stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra, etc. were too big to fit on a TV screen (i.e. the characters they played were too big) and hence needed the big screen, FS1while FS (and Amol Palekar) were like my uncles or the two brothers in their early twenties from next door who were just beginning their independent adult lives. There was an immediate familiarity with the characters FS etched  – they were people I knew, and hence regular enough to fit on the Dyanora TV set we had and safe enough to be welcome in our living room. I also remember I used to be terrified of the movie villains of those days – Amjad Khan, Ranjeet, Ajeet, etc. In FS’ movies, there was nothing to fear for, there was never a sense of danger or darkness in them – they had a homely, comforting feel to them.

After the 80s and the 90s, there weren’t many movies that FS featured in. In the recent past, he was having a second coming of a sort. In this phase he etched characters which were quite different from the movies of his younger days :

- The manipulating secretary to Supriya Pathak’s Chief Minister (a contemporary from his younger years)  in Shanghaai . This was such a different character from what we expected of FS. It was a departure from him being the naive/likable guy in his earlier films to being the sinister one. Of course, he was stellar in this small role and brought out the right amount of bureaucratic sliminess that is required of this character.

FS4- The soft-spoken photographer Jayant from Listen…Amaya: He was paired with Deepti Naval after many years. I doubt if anyone will disagree with me when I say that FS and Deepti are one of the most endearing on screen pairs we have witnessed. Their chemistry was effortless and when they were on the screen together, the lightness they conveyed was unparalleled. The Ms. Chamko scene I mentioned above is just one of the scenes that is a testament to an effervescence and lightness that many actor pairs (and even real life couples) can only wish for. In Listen Amaya; this chemistry was still very much present and as effortless as it was in their first movie together. Them two were just two peas in a pod.

- The father to Ranbeer Kapoor’s Bunny in Yeh Jawaani hai Deewani: His role is quite miniscule. In the few scenes that he has with Ranbeer you can tell what a seasoned actor like him can do with mere gestures. Watch the scene where Ranbeer insults his step-mother (played by Tanvi Azmi). FS and Tanvi just look at each other after Bunny has left the room, a look that conveys that they get why Bunny is the way he is, without having to say a single word.

In his younger days, he didn’t always play the every-day middle class youth of the pre-globalization urban India, but also etched some serious roles,  mostly in Muslim social dramas:

FS5- Sarju in Bazaar with Supriya Pathak: Everyone from the 90s had an audio cassette of Bazaar and Saath-Saath in their college days. The Bazaar side of the cassette had some dialog preceding each song. Having listened to them a million times, I can’t imagine the songs of Bazaar without the preceding dialog. Prior to the song “Fir chiddi raat“, the cassette had a flirtatious exchange between FS and Supriya Pathak where he is being a chudiwala(a door-to-door salesman of bangles – a profession long lost) who is trying to woo Supriya’s Shabnam. His enunciation of the Hyderabadi Hindi in “ab dhaani chudiyaan kahan se laaon, yehich itti mushkil se mili” still echoes in my ears.

- The lovelorn Nawab in Umrao Jaan: How does one portray a complete smitten-ness when one is a Nawaab without coming off as lecherous or juvenile : well, watch him yearn for Umrao in “In aankhon ki masti” (of course only if you can take your eyes off the luminous Rekha’s portrayal of Umrao Jaan Ada).

I believe he would have played a number of interesting characters in his second phase. Hindi cinema is dishing out films on a plethora of interesting subjects and I am sure it would have made good use of him. But, that’s not to be and the loss is entirely ours.

Not dwelling on what cannot be – he continues to live in his characters with me just like he does in those who grew up watching his films. Wouldn’t you agree that there isn’t a dull afternoon that cannot be cheered up by re-watching Chashme Buddoor or Katha? Dear Farooque Shaikh – Shukriya for all the heart-warming memories. I miss you.

Rani from Rajouri

It is a risky undertaking to make an entirely character driven film and doubly so when the character is female. No matter how well the character has been etched, the scenes have been staged, or the attention to detail in production design, or the cinematography, or the lighting, or the background music, or the dialogues, or the locations – all of them matter to nothing if the actor essaying this central character hits one false note in his/her performance. So it is of utmost importance that this actor completely “gets” the character and makes the audience root for him/her from the “censor board certificate” to “the end”. If the audience continues to cheer for this character even beyond the “the end”, then the actor has managed to pour life into the character which extends beyond the time we spend with him/her in the cinemas. By saying this I am not discounting other film-making departments, but emphasizing the importance that when the film’s core is a character and not its plot, then a large amount of heavy-lifting is invariably done by the actor playing this character. Examples in the recent past of a plot-driven and a character-driven movie are: “Kahaani” and “English-Vinglish“, respectively. In the former, Vidya Balan‘s role could have been played by another competent actor and we would have enjoyed the movie equally, since the hook is the mystery of her missing husband and the whodunit aspect of it. However, in English Vinglish, Sridevi’s Shashi is not in any kind of danger or trying to uncover any dark mysteries, it’s merely a journey of self discovery of an insecure person – there is no edge of the seat-ness to her quest. The success of that movie, hence, lies largely on the actor who plays Shashi.  

motion-poster1Vikas Bahl’s “Queen” is on similar lines – a journey of self-discovery of a girl – Rani Mehra of Rajouri - played by Kangana Ranaut. The movie is essentially plot-less, and relies entirely on us rooting for Rani in whatever happens to her. She is in almost every single frame of the movie : right from the opening sequence where she is beaming and smiling ear-to-ear because she is getting married (which seems like the only dream she has had until then) to the last frame of the movie where she is still beaming and smiling ear to ear, but for an entirely different reason. Everything that happens to her in the middle of these two scenes, we go with her with the flow of events, because of Kangana’s daring and carefully calibrated performance. After having witnessed her journey, I can confidently say, I can think of no other actor playing this character other than Kangana.  I was unable to tell if I was falling for the actor Kangana or the character Rani.

There are numerous occasions in the movie where a lesser actor would have hammed away: there is a scene where Rani is drunk and is dancing on the sidewalk to a song (from the nightclub she was at prior to this scene) which is playing only in her head. She is trying to get the attention of a taxi-driver who is standing by his taxi and is busy (or is pretending to be busy) with his smart-phone. She has no dialogues and continues to perform some awkward contortions to get the cabby’s attention who probably encounters many such drunks in his profession and hence continues to ignore her presence. It is silent acting of the highest caliber. What follows after this scene is a montage of scenes where Rani is spilling her guts out about her broken marriage, her upbringing, and  the predicament she is in in front of random Parisians and her new-found friend Vijaylaxmi ( A drop-dead gorgeous Lisa Haydon with a French accent and a pair of lithe, endless legs). Her performance here should be shown in acting schools on how to do drunk scenes. We laugh with her and we queen1-dec22empathize with her. Never for once does her performance make us laugh at her.  Kangana’s raw and infectious honesty in the portrayal of Rani makes Rani a flesh and blood person. I forgot its a performance.

I had not seen any of Kangana’s movies in their entirety save for Tanu Weds Manu, which had its moments but the movie as a whole was quite a muddled affair. Kangana’s performance of Tanu was too affected and too self-conscious in my opinion. I am not sure if it was the director’s ask or her interpretation of Tanu, but I had a hard time believing in her Tanu. In this movie too, there is a scene where she is drunk/high and her performance is off-key. To me, one of the joys of movies is observing actors grow in their craft, just as we non-actors season in whatever we do with time and experience. I must say Kangana has shown a remarkable growth from Tanu to Rani/Queen. It might be a bit presumptive of me to say that this is one of the top 10 performances in character-driven Indian movies that I have seen. I will reserve that judgment until I have watched Queen a few more times over the next few years, to see if her act ages well with time. At the moment, I am basking in the joy of having known Rani from Rajouri.

An Evening on Floreana

Rarely do I find myself completely taken in by my surroundings to an extent that I get in a trance like state where all things “me” dissolve and disappear (no, I am not talking about being under the influence of psychedelic drugs). I found myself in this state, on an afternoon on one of the islands of the Galapagos archipelago, an island called Floreana.


To get some geographic bearings, the Galapagos are a group of islands straddling the Equator in the Pacific Ocean about 600 nautical miles from the coast of Ecuador in South America. These islands are mostly known to the modern man due to Charles Darwin‘s famed voyage of the Beagle and his eventual inspiration for the greatest discoveries of the past century – The Theory of Evolution by means of Natural Selection. The Galapagos islands are thus, revered in the scientific community as a laboratory of “life” itself.

It was November of 2013 and I was with a random group of 15 tourists from around the world on a small ship which was taking us from one island to another. Most of these islands are not inhabited by humans and are preserved with great diligence by the National Park Services managed by the Republic of Ecuador. As a result, save for the islands where there is civilization, the rest of them are untouched and lack any facilities that we take for granted that come by default with civilized settlements. Floreana falls in this category. It was late afternoon, and we made a wet-landing (the actual boat/ship is anchored near the shore and people are ferried to the shore on a small motorized raft called ‘Panga’, since the islands have no facilities for harboring large boats) on the northern shore of the island called ‘Punta Cormorant’.

Galapagos_Islands_topographic_map-enAs we waddled in the waters of the Pacific and walked to the dry land, we encountered a number of endemic species that are common to these islands. This was my third day on the trip and the presence of the wildlife had become the new normal, I had started to expect them to be around. It was about 4 PM and the Sun was still fairly high in the sky. It’s rays shining off brilliantly from the gentle waves of the ocean. We walked past the beach and ventured inland. The marked trail that we were walking on was surrounded by plants which were unique to these islands, plants which had adapted to trap as much moisture as they can during the dry season.  There was a gentle breeze which combined with the warmth of the Equatorial Sun was making me feel a bit intoxicated. My reverie was broken when our naturalist, JV, started narrating a story of some strange people who had made Floreana their home in the late 1920s.

Dr Fredrich Ritter, a German doctor and one of his patients, Dore, decided to leave their lives in Germany and begin a new life on Floreana. They had occasional visitors who were drawn by a sense of adventure, but then left rather quickly due to the harsh living conditions of these islands. In the early 1930s, a certain Mr Wittmer arrived on the island with his wife and a teenage son. They set up their own place on the island and lived there with little to no contact with the Ritters. This peaceful co-existence was disturbed when a mysterious woman from Austria, who declared herself as a Baroness arrived on Floreana. She was accompanied by her two German lovers and an Ecuadorean lover. The Baroness led a flamboyant lifestyle and anointed herself as the Queen of Floreana. The legend goes that the two lovers had a spat and there was also a feud between the Baroness and the Wittmers. The Wittmer had a pet donkey which was found dead, shot allegedly by one of the Baroness’ lovers. Then mysteriously the Baroness and one of her lovers disappeared from the island, never to be heard from again. The Wittmers claimed that they had left on a boat for Tahiti. There were accusations by Dr Ritter, that the Wittmers with the help of the second lover of the Baroness, murdered the Baroness and her other lover and disposed off their bodies. The strangeness continued, a few months later, Dr Ritter was found dead from apparently eating a sick chicken. This was also considered strange since, the Doctor was known to be a devout vegetarian. Mr Wittmer’s wife, Margaret who died in 2000 and did not shed much light until her dying day on the mysterious disappearances and deaths. She continued to claim that the Baroness had left for Tahiti. The descendants of the Wittmers and Ritters still live on the island. These events were the subject of a documentary called “The Galapagos Affair”.

As JV was narrating these events, I started to view the place in a different light. I started to imagine the lives of these people as they lived on this spectacular and yet inhospitable place. Far from the civilized world, far from any hints of societal rules and dogmas. I imagined living in a place like Floreana, and strangely enough I found myself quite “OK” with that idea. With a smile, I brushed these thoughts away. We continued to walk and arrived at a small beach which is known as the “green beach” due to its green tinted sand crystals. As I descended on the beach and the scenery unfolded in front of me, it was a sight like no other. The water was crystalline blue and the sand a strange shade of green. There were sea lions sleeping on the beach as the gentle waves washed ashore around them. We had walked all the way to the Southern end of the island and the Sun was behind us. The fluffy white clouds were catching the late evening Sun and were glowing all kinds of orange and pink.

The Green BeachI stood still, I had never been in a place of such absolute isolation and such singular beauty, where every single element entirely belonged within itself while being connected harmoniously with every other element. I felt I was an uninvited visitor, I felt like I was a massive disturbance. I made my way to the water, while standing in ankle-deep water I let the lapping water take away the feelings of being an alien. I started to feel less and less aware of myself.

We wanted to go back to the Southern shore before the Sun set, and decided to walk back. After about a 20 minutes walk, we came across a small fresh water lake. It was late in the evening now, and JV said that this lake at this time is usually visited by pink flamingos. At a distance we did see a flock of flamingos feeding themselves by dipping their unique beaks in the waters of the lake. There was nothing to do but stand still and try to be as invisible as possible, and observe them.




IMG_4415As the Sun started its rapid descent into the Ocean, we walked back to the beach where we had landed. Just as we were emerging from the trees, the Sun had touched the water. There were a few mangrove trees dipping their branches and roots into the ocean and under one of these branches a few sea-lions were napping quite contentedly (these sea lions, they don’t do much, than swim and nap – a fine lifestyle if you ask me).

IMG_4405I made my way away from the rest of the folks in our group and stepped into the water. The water had taken in all the gold the setting Sun was throwing at it. I had never felt so inconsequential, so “island of my own” before – I, on an island, on a planet which is an island, looking at a Star which is an island in itself – all of us islands drifting, constantly drifting. There were no thoughts in my usually chaotic mind (those who know me, know that this thoughtlessness is an exceptional rarity), there was no purpose to my standing there, to my breathing in and out, to my being! I had no idea that another friend I made on the trip (JB), was quietly taking pictures of my silhouette, while I stood there for a long time. I think her pictures quite beautifully captured the state of my being and my mind (thanks JB). I was a mere dark outline which had blended into the island, an island which has stood there for millions of years. I was a mere blip (if that) in the celestial certainties of this planet and its universe.

IMG_7165I have come to believe that travel makes me know myself a little more, it helps me understand what I am, and what I have. This was never more truer, than that day on Floreana. I found a bit of myself that evening. A few months back, I was having a conversation with a good friend about what brings each of us “true” happiness. I can very assuredly say, that what brings me true happiness is when I find myself in a place where I do not have to make any effort to feel one with the place – when the place becomes me and I it. That happened on Floreana, and I will be ever grateful for having experienced it.

The SquareI am neither an activist (not even the arm-chair/facebook/twitter/etc. kind) nor an Egyptian, and yet, I found myself visibly shaking as I was watching “The Square“. I went through a roller-coaster of emotions through the 95 minutes of this extraordinary film – I was exhilarated, shocked, enraged, overjoyed, frustrated – I felt utterly hopeless and extremely hopeful – I felt defeated and I felt victorious.

The film shows the tumultuous period in Egypt’s ongoing revolution over the past two and a half years. It’s primarily focused on the happenings in Tahrir Square in Cairo – beginning from the first gathering of people in 2011 to protest against the 30 year totalitarian regime of Hosni Mubarak (which was heavily supported by the “pro-democracy” West), to the Egyptian Military taking over after Mobarak’s fall, to then the Muslim brotherhood seizing the power with Mohamed Morsi as it’s leader and to the latest departure of Morsi. The revolution continues.

The film depicts how a movement with no clear leadership is shaping Egypt’s history at this very moment. It shows how people unite on a singular idea of “basic rights and fair governance”. How the fall of one regime brings out the opportunism in another faction leading to a newer version of the very thing the people protested against in the first place. It also shows how these opportunistic leaders pit people against people – a friend against a friend – to foster their hold on power. (None of this should be new news, the leaders of the free world and the not-so-free world have been doing this for years). What makes watching it unfold in this film  so impact-ful is because it’s happening NOW – and not just in Egypt. Its happening across the globe – its happening in India. There is similar movement of the people for “basic rights and fair governance” – a movement which is chaotic, which lacks a clear leader, which lacks a clear direction. But there is a sense of restlessness in the people. There is a need for change. What ‘The Square’ demonstrates is that this ‘restlessness’ this ‘need for a change’ is enough. So what if there isn’t a clear path, so what if there isn’t a clear leader! Ahmed, a bright eyed boy, with a sunny disposition and a fire in his heart, who is a key character of the film, says something to the effect that “just the fact that people have realized that they can do this…is for him hope enough”.

That was the hopeful side of these events. But revolutions are never without a cost. The collateral damage in the power struggles of the power hungry are almost always people. The Square shows this with a stark nakedness – it has some incredibly shocking scenes of everyday people being literally run over and crushed by military tanks. I do not mean to romanticize these events by writing about them here. I am barely qualified to write anything about what people who are actually fighting across the globe are going through. I am a mere observer. What I want to say is, across the globe, its these people who just want to lead a peaceful life are the ones who bear the brunt of the greed for power of the few. It reminded me of a few lines from a song from one of Gulzar’s long forgotten movies “Hu tu tu”:

tin tin taare, log bechaare,
til til marne waale, til til tarne waale,
keedon aur makaundon jaise log bechaare…
tin tin taare log bechaare…

ghiste ghiste fat jaate hai..jooton jaise log bechaare..
tin tin taare log bechaare…

pairon mein pehene jaate hai jalse aur julooson mein,
sageenon se seele sipaahi wardi ke malbooson mein,
goli se jo fat jaate hain…..cheethadon jaise fenk diye jaate hai saare…

tin tin taare…tin tin taare…..log bechaare.

This film has been nominated in the best documentary category in the 2013 Academy awards. Whether, the film wins this award or not is entirely besides the point. As mentioned above, I am neither an activist nor someone who has had to fight for anything remotely close to what people are fighting for. I almost feel guilty writing about this film, but yet, I want to urge each one of you out there to watch it. To watch it just for the sake of those who are literally laying their lives for nothing more than basic human rights.


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