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The year was 1985, a time when one of the most exciting things about the week was the screening of a Hindi movie on Sunday evenings on the state owned (and the only) television channel Doordarshan (DD). Everyone in my household would finish their chores and be ready for the 6 PM start of whatever movie was chosen by the overlords at DD. One such Sunday evening, our Black & White Dyanora television showed us a movie called Choti si baat. Of course, these were the days of no internet, and hence no ready access to Chhoti_Si_Baatinformation on the movie one was about to watch – unlike current times when you get to tune yourself before watching any movie – you know the cast, you know the genre, you know the reviews, the IMDB/tomatometer ratings, etc. As a 10 year old in 1985, I had no such baggage. The only thing I would be interested in a movie was what we kids called “dhishoom-dhishoom” – aka action scenes – stunts, car chases, gun fights, sword fights, galloping horses, sword fights or gun fights on galloping horses – you get the idea. Due to the previously mentioned lack of the internet, there was no way of knowing whether the movie I was about to watch fed to this violent appetite of mine. However, I had figured out a way of finding out whether the said movie may have any of the dhishoom-dhishoom, I so eagerly wanted to see – I had figured out that if the opening credits showed “Action” or “Stunt coordinator”, there was a good chance that I will be a happy camper by the end of the movie. And if the credits did not mention these, well, it was time to find something else to do. After watching the credits of Choti si baat, it was quite clear that there won’t be any action – moreover one look at this Amol Palekar chap (the “hero” of the movie) and I knew it was a hopeless pursuit.

As a result, I ended up watching bits and pieces of the movie. Two things I remember from this first watching of the movie  – 1) the heroine of the movie (Vidya Sinha) did a lot of standing around at a bus stop followed by walking around on the streets of Bombay while being followed by the lame Amol Palekar & 2) the heroine and another character played by Asrani  along with Amol Palekar eating what looked like some delicious food at a cozy & comfortable looking restaurant. The restaurant/cafe is what left a mark on me : I distinctly remember thinking that this is unlike any restaurant I have seen in the movies – to remind you this was the 1980s, restaurants in Hindi movies were large, mostly windowless rooms with chandeliers and plaster of paris statues of half-naked women! These rooms would be filled with men in ill-fitting suits sitting around round tables while a svelte woman pranced seductively around them. These mustachioed men would cast occasional lascivious looks at the camera while sipping their beverages and puffing their cigars. The restaurant in Choti si baat, was nothing like these unattainable places, it seemed like a “real” place, a place where “real” people go – the decor had simple paintings, bamboo curtains, there was a hubbub that had a genuine restaurant-ish vibe about it and no svelte woman was gyrating about since this darn place seemed quite cramped – almost like a narrow hallway. There were no chandeliers for lighting, natural light was flowing in, you could

see the greenery outside, table fans were hung from the walls, a clumsy looking menu board could be seen in the background, the tables were too close to each other – overall, it was all very “non-filmy”. I distinctly remember, the 10 year old me wanting to go there and eat whatever the characters in the movie were eating.

Years went by, and as I started to get interested in music and movies, I happened to stumble upon Choti si baat once again in my college years. I must say this might be the first movie of the romantic-comedy genre that I enjoyed entirely – for its grounded characters, for its easy humor, for the wonderful lightweight performances by Amol Palekar, Asrani & Ashok Kumar, for its wonderful music (especially – Lata’s soulful Na jaane kyon and Yesudas and Asha’s lovely duet Jaaneman Jaaneman) and most importantly for its nonchalant depiction of realism by it’s director – Basu Chatterjee. The realism of his rom-com movies is unlike the ones from the rom-com movies of this decade, where the realism seems to be deliberate and created out of meticulous production design. Examples: Wake Up Sid, Life in a Metro, Band Baaja Baraat, etc. Seeing the restaurant scenes again, brought back memories of 1985, brought back that longing of going to that restaurant. This time around, I paid attention and the Asrani character says the name of the restaurant “Cafe Samovar”. I had no idea what Samovar meant, but the name somehow just sounded so perfect for that place.

Years passed, and every once in a while whenever a Choti si baat song would hit my ear drums, I would think of Cafe Samovar and the desire to go there would be awakened. I lie not when I say, I could literally picture myself in that place. I googled the place and found out that it’s in the Kala Ghoda neighborhood of Bombay inside the same building as the Jehangir Art Gallery. Knowing where it was, made my desire of visiting Samovar even more stronger. It was just a happy coincidence when I found out that loves Choti si baat too and would also love to go to Cafe Samovar someday.

I have visited Bombay numerous times over the past 20 years, sometimes staying there for weeks, but never acted upon the desire to visit Cafe Samovar. Until one sweltering muggy day in June of 2014 when me along with A, my brother, his wife, and his son found ourselves in Bombay. Come hell or high water, I had set my heart upon having lunch at Cafe Samovar that day.  After a bit of wandering around looking for the gallery and getting drenched with copious amounts of sweat in the process, we found it and made our way to the cafe which is tucked away in the right corner of the lobby of the building. We saw the sign of the cafe on its narrow doorway and as soon as we entered the IMG_4764restaurant I had a sense of being transported back almost 29 years after I had first laid my eyes on this place on the black & white screen of our telly. When one anticipates and desires something for a long time, the actual event, or the place, or the thing that one was looking forward to does not usually live up to ones expectations, leading to heartbreak and disappointment. This, however was not the case with Cafe Samovar, the moment I entered the narrow hallways, it was exactly how I had imagined it in my head for all these years. Sunlight was streaming in through bamboo curtains, tables were arranged too close to each other, there was non-pretentious art work hanging on its walls, there was a comforting hubbub of people, servers, conversations, whirring of the fans from the walls, clinking of silverware on ceramic plates, fragrance from parathas/chole/kheema wafting in the humid air – it was all too blissfully perfect.

We settled into a table and ordered a plethora of things – I ordered what Nagesh ordered in Choti si baat  – kheema paratha! We also had chole, dahi wada, neembu paani, lassi, egg curry, aloo paratha, etc. As the food arrived, we IMG_4766gobbled it up with much love and fervor. It was delicious, satisfying, and what can I say, but you had to be me to really feel how I was feeling! I was sitting there in Cafe Samovar lapping up every moment and I hear my name being called out from a table two rows from where we were sitting. Needless to say I was quite surprised and saw in the general direction of the sound to find an old friend from college beaming at me. PB and I had not seen each other in over a decade, and it was quite pleasant to meet him. He was on a day trip to Bombay with his wife and they had decided to come to Samovar for lunch. Serendipity or Choti si baat, whatever it was, this added to the whole experience of Samovar. IMG_4768After catching up with PB, exchanging our phone numbers, and paying the bill, we left the cafe and browsed a bit in the art gallery.

A few weeks back, I got a text on my phone from PB that Samovar has closed. There was a small cloud of sadness that followed me for some time, but it cleared off pretty soon, and was replaced by a feeling of contentment of having been there, and having experienced its “being”. I am not going to get in the matter of why it closed etc. Simply because, I do not want to know and will leave it to the fact that, it’s the way of the world and life – Old has to go to make way for new.

We all keep the memories of places and people we love and are no longer around, inside of us. It’s a natural human condition. Although even before Samovar closed, I had brought one little relic of Samovar into Washington DC. I put Kheema Paratha on the menu of a cafe (Pansaari) run by a friend. A and I can frequently be found making and serving food at this cafe. Everytime I explain the food to the customers at Pansaari, I upsell the Kheema Paratha – and when they order it, I get a warm feeling. This is how I have managed to keep my Samovar alive.

P.S: Writing this post has been a good reminder that what and who I love today, may not be around tomorrow. Loving them fully and unconditionally is the only way to keep them alive for as long as I am alive.

ना जाने क्यों होता है यह ज़िन्दगी के साथ, अचानक ये मन किसी के जाने के बाद, करे फिर उसकी याद

छोटी छोटी सी बात….

Free?

I have come across people who claim to be “free” or “free spirited”or “free flowing”or “un-tethered” and other such synonymous phrases. I quite admired their choices and their way of living. But then, over time, I learnt that these folks are guarding their secrets (to be fair, who isn’t?). However, that contradicts with what I think of a truly “free” person. “Free” is not someone who is not bound in relationships or to a job or being accountable to someone else’s well-being – “free” to me is someone who has absolutely nothing to loose AND nothing to hide. It is these who are truly free and these kinds are hard to come by – I haven’t met any.

So to the ones who claim to be “free”, I say the moment you started guarding anything, you lost your freedom. You are now tied/tethered/bound to that which you are guarding. Your secrets now hold your freedom hostage. In order to be truly “free” you must have nothing to protect. Else, your claim of “freedom” is merely a boastful lie.

Learnings from 2014

  • We are all racists, I am and you are, you may deny you are not, but I assure you, you are
  • It will never be out of fashion to drop everything you are doing for a friend in need
  • A song to be good must have good words, composition isn’t enough
  • Kids can be evil and babies can be ugly
  • Religion/s should perish
  • Border/s should vanish
  • Foxcatcher is a steaming pile of poo
  • The guiltless have a gala time
  • Angry activism is counter-productive and alienating
  • Indians have a low tolerance to humor aimed at India/ns
  • If you stand against or for something, don’t just fucking stand…DO something (just tweeting & “liking” shit on Facebook isn’t DOing)
  • Americans scare easy
  • Everyone lies and judges, often at the same time
  • Real and honest food has no short-cuts
  • Science and mothers can be wrong
  • Acting ones age maybe the norm, but the opposite is not ‘exceptionally’ wrong
  • Being guarded and in control is dull, not to mention, exhausting
  • True Detective is worth all the hype and then some
  • Conservation for the sake of it is a convenient cop-out
  • Normal is relative, Normal normal is a fucking bore
  • Atheists need to relax (see angry activism above)
  • Kangana Ranaut can act
  • Must teach kids to question the uniform more than to respect the uniform
  • Louis CK is extremely funny and extremely sad
  • Giving & letting in will always make me happy
  • I hurt those I love

With that, I resume another Gregorian year!

A list of movies and a tv show that reached out to me in 2014 (not in any order of liking):

2014 movies

Boyhood: I had liked the first two “Before” movies of Linklater, but by the third installment I got weary of the pseudo-existential-crisis of two self-absorbed individuals. So when Boyhood arrived in the cinemas with its back-story of having been shot over 12 years with the same actors aging in real time as the fictional characters they play, I approached it with excitement tempered with a bit of skepticism about the “12 years in the making” being merely a gimmick. All skepticism disappeared in the darkness of the cinema once the movie started, it touched me and talked to me. It was life unfolding on the screen – no big melodrama, no cinematic-ally styled conflicts and resolutions, just daily life in all its beauty and pain. Sounds dull? But so is everyday life if you had to watch it on the screen.

Ankhon Dekhi: The only movie where I got misty eyed this year. Babuji is tired of the lying world after being party to an incident which he regrets when he finds out how wrong his actions were, actions which stemmed from hearsay and not his first hand experience. There on he decides to believe only in those things that he has seen and experienced with his own eyes. What follows is a delightful take on life, love, family, relationships, everyday life, and subsequently death.  The house that Babuji and his family inhabits is captured so beautifully on camera that I have not felt so “lived in” in a house since Satyajit Ray’s depiction of the house inhabited by Arati and Subrata  in Mahanagar.

Snowpiercer: An experiment to thwart global warming fails and the world freezes. All of humanity has perished except for a few hundred who are on a train called the Snowpiercer that’s circumnavigating the planet. The train houses a microcosm of the global society – class, income inequality, power struggles, all of it! A visually arresting piece of film-making that shows a mirror to the existing state of the world and delves into evolution and creationism at the same time.

Queen: A film about self-discovery of a diffident girl-next-door. The film is a triumph in the genre of character driven cinema. Have written at length about this one here. Kangana is my pick of actor of the year (male or female).

A Most Wanted Man: Phillip Seymour Hoffman‘s last lead role and as expected he owns the part of a disillusioned CIA operator who is struggling to find the validity of his work and his life in the murky world of espionage and the war against “terror” waged by the super-powers against an enemy which they try to manifest to maintain themselves as a relevant force for global peace.

Highway: Another movie about self-discovery with a mix of the Stockholm syndrome plus parts of Dil-se plus an oedipal complex plus a road movie! Imtiaz Ali’s most honest movie in my opinion (save for the last 15 minutes – which I am willing to let go of) with a heartbreaking performance by Randeep Hooda (who is right there with Kangana as far as performances of the year go). The Indian highways and the scenery that forms around it is a thing of un-capturable beauty but Anil Mehta’s cinematography presents it with its natural raw quality without overtly romanticizing it.

True Detective: The police procedural aspect is a mere excuse for this gripping human drama. Matthew McConaughey’s Rustin “Rust” Cohle must go down as one of the greatest on-screen fictional characters of all times. Rarely does one see a character with such integrity and genuine-ness in fictional contemporary art. The ugliness and the beauty of humanity was never laid out so starkly. Rust mouths some of the most memorable dialogs about human nature and human evolution like the one below which is my favorite quote from this year :

I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, this accretion of sensory experience and feelings, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody’s nobody. I think the honorable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming. Stop reproducing. Walk hand in hand into extinction. One last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”

Satya-vachan!

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P.S: I read the list above and I realized that all of my picks of the year are on the themes of self-purpose, self-worth, and the quest of why-we-exist. It cannot be merely a coincidence, it cannot be!

Best Hindi Songs of 2014

2014songs.001

2014 was an average year, musically speaking (of course in my non-academic-no-formal-knowledge-of-music opinion). There wasn’t a whole lot of experimentation or “newness” in the compositions or arrangements. Almost all the usual names played it safe and stuck to their respective strengths (does not automatically indicate that their music wasn’t good). If I had to choose one soundtrack that stood out in experimentation and mixing different genres to a mild success was Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s Kill/Dil (punjabi rock, spaghetti western sounds, Haryanwi folk).

Here are some of my picks of the year.

Legend: Song/Movie/Composer(s)/Singer(s)/Lyricist

 

Zehnaseeb/Hasee toh Phasee/Vishal-Shekhar/Chinmayee, Shekhar Ravijani/Amitabh Bhattacharya

A dulcet tune sung with an equal dose of sweet-ness by both Shekhar and Chinmayee. Vishal-Shekhar leave the instrumentation to a minimum (compared to their other compositions) and Amitabh’s lyrics convey direct emotions, which is unusual for a mushy romantic song such as this. His use of “ameer/garib” reminded me of one of Gulzar’s forgotten compositions from Khatta-Meetha: “tumse mila tha pyar kuch acche naseeb the, hum un dino ameer the jab tum kareeb the“.

Patakha Guddi/Highway/A R Rahman/Jyoti & Sultana Nooran/Irshad Kamil

Earthy singing, earthier poetry, and a soaring tune – this song is a thing of timeless beauty. After a few meddling soundtracks (Lekar Hum Deewana Dil), Rahman struck back with a soundtrack which grows with repeat listening (just like the movie, which remains one of my favorite movies of the year). Irshad Kamil’s words are lit with a sense of wild abandon – his metaphor for a firefly as “patakha guddi” (firecracker doll – damn it the translation shits on the essence once again) is brilliant. I love the song in its entirety but the lines that have me in a tizzy are:

Rasta naap rahi marjaani,
Patthi baarish da hai paani,
Jab nazdeek jahaan de aani,
Jugni maili si ho jaani..

(this damn girl wanders a lot,
this naughty one is like rain water,
as soon as she gets near the world 
this firefly of a girl will be dirtied..)

Now, if you haven’t seen the movie, these lines are the definition of the Alia Bhatt character – Heera.

Heera/Highway/A R Rahman/Shweta Pandit/Sant Kabir

Santoor, flute and Oboe and Sant Kabir’s beautiful words. Listen to this with your headphones on, it sends me in a trance everytime. Who knew we would listen to Kabir in a hindi movie in 2014?

London Thumakda/Queen/Amit Trivedi/Labh Janjua, Sonu Kakkad, Neha Kakkad/Anvita Dutt

The entire soundtrack of Queen is exquisite, regardless of the fact that some songs remind you of Amit’s previous work (such as Kinaare = Naav from Udaan). While his music stands on its own merit, I am surprised how he teams with film directors who weave his music seamlessly in their films, and Queen is no exception. Every song flows with the narrative and establishes a mood for the characters and the situation they are in. This boisterous song right in the beginning of the movie creates a personality of Rani which no amount of dialog and scenes would have : she is giddy about her upcoming wedding, she is shy but open to a bit of mischief, she adores her family (watch out for the glances she throws at her parents). Anvita Dutt’s lyrics are fun and inventive where she blends London landmarks (Big Ben, Trafalgar, Southhall) with earthy Punjabiyat, effortlessly. I swear, if this one doesn’t get you shaking your hips, well then I must say, you are not invited to my party.

Raanjha/Queen/Rupesh Kumar Ram/Rupesh Kumar Ram/Raghu Nath

A minimalist song, about heartbreak and that crushing pathetic feeling of having been chewed and spit out by the one you loved the most! The lyrics, the singing pack a massive emotional wallop on their own but are also mighty effective on the screen as well when Rani is dumped by her fiancé and her whole world has been turned inside out. I do not know who this Rupesh Ram is, but I hope we get to hear more of him. On an aside note, watch Kangana go through the stages of an emotional breakdown in this song from a state of shock to utter despair – she has her lips slightly open and a blank stare at the beginning of the song – she is still digesting the shock of being dumped – and then gradually her eyes well up and her grief comes out in uncontrollable spurts in the rickshaw, but she holds it in since she is not the kind to have a breakdown in a public space, then she arrives at her home where the wedding decorations are now almost mocking her and seeing her family she is at once engulfed in self-pity, shame, embarrassment (for them and then for herself), and not to mention a bleeding heart which is about to explode any second. This song to me is the “hook” scene of Queen, this is where we as the audience undergo the pain that Rani is going through and want her to come out of this, the rest of the movie is all about us rooting for her. A false note in this scene would dampen the impact of her tragedy, and Kangana hits all the right notes. After this scene, we are on Rani’s team all through the end – cheering her through her adventures.

Aaj laagi laagi nai dhoop/Ankhon Dekhi/Sagar Desai/Kailash Kher/Varun Grover

A small song from a small film that went unnoticed. If I had to choose my favorite film of 2014 – it is this. This song is a perfect summary of the journey of the central character of the film – Babuji. Babuji decides that in this duplicitous world, he is only going to believe things that he sees with his own eyes – literally. Everything else he considers as fictional. In such a state, all attached and perceived meanings from all objects are erased and what remains is matter in the purest form. The song is an allegory for Babuji’s transformation in “seeing” the world with a renewed sense of truth.

ke deekhe dhuli saaf man ki chadariya,

bina daag sari dagariya,

duson disha aaj sawariya liye naya roop,

aaj laagi laagi nayee dhoop..

Bismil/Haider/Vishal Bharadwaj/Sukhwinder Singh/Gulzar

At the outset, let me say, this is my favorite soundtrack of the year. The Gulzar-Vishal team delivered after the not-so-great-but-still-decent soundtracks of Ek thi daayan, Matru ki bijalee ka mandola, and Dedh Ishqiya. Haider is based on Hamlet and this song is a play within the play where Hamlet(Haider) enacts the murder of his father to an audience of his Uncle Claudius (Khurram) and mother Gertrude(Ghazala). It cannot get any more meta than this! Gulzar’s lyrics narrate the story with all the violence and melodrama but with a Kashmiri core, since Vishal’s adaptation is set in war-torn Kashmir (yes, I choose to say “war” and not “terrorism” – why? that’s for another time). Vishal’s composition is also laden with Kashmiri sounds and instruments and Sukhwinder sings with the required gusto, angst, and pathos. On a completely aside note, if I had to ever choose a top 10 list of best choreographed and directed song sequences of Hindi cinema, this one will certainly be on the list.

Khul Kabhi/Haider/Vishal Bharadwaj/Arijeet Singh/Gulzar

Arijeet Singh is going from strength to strength. In another year, Vishal would lend his own voice to this trademark slow burning jazz song, but I am glad he let Arijeet sing this one, and boy does he deliver. The melody and his voice are like soft snow-flakes falling lazily without so much as a whisper.

Gulon mein rang bhare/Haider/Vishal Bharadwaj/Arijeet Singh/Faiz Ahmed Faiz

This old classic ghazal penned by Faiz and sung in the past by such stalwarts such as Ghulam Ali and Mehendi Hassan is reimagined by Vishal in his own style and sung once again by Arijeet Singh without feeling burdened by the history of this ghazal.

Aao Na/Haider/Vishal Bharadwaj/Vishal Dadlani/Gulzar

A grunge rock song in the same soundtrack that delivered Bismil, Khul Kabhi, and Gulon mein rang! Vishal Bharadwaj – you can write, you can sing, you can work the camera, you can compose in almost every genre – what the fuck man? Is there anything you can’t do? Oh yes, you can’t sing rock – that’s when you get Vishal Dadlani to fill that handicap. And sure this other Vishal can open up his throat for this kind of a sound without breaking a sweat.

Kill Dil/Kill/Dil/Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy/Shankar Mahadevan, Sonu Nigam/Gulzar

S-E-L, Shaad Ali, and Gulzar team up once again quite successfully with their third outing after Bunty aur Babli & Jhoom baraabar Jhoom. Just like the previous soundtracks, here too they manage to create an environment and imagery with their sounds and words. I have not seen the movie, so can’t comment on how the songs flow with the narrative. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t say that this is a stellar soundtrack, but it is interesting and daring enough to make me revisit some songs. The title song is definitely one of the tracks I play often – Shankar and Sonu Nigam seem to be having a lot of fun with this one.

Sajde/Kill/Dil/Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy/Arijeet Singh, Nihira Joshi-Deshpande/Gulzar

Arijeet had hit it big with Ashiqui 2, but honestly I thought those songs were inundated with sounds and words to force feed an emotion – a very 1990’s approach to film music. With 2014, he got to sing with long established composers like Vishal and S-E-L. Two very different camps of composing and he excelled in all the songs that were dished to him. While he sang Vishal’s slow songs with aplomb, he hits the high & low notes in this excellent composition by S-E-L. He is ably supported by Nihira Joshi – the last I heard her was in Salaam-e-ishq where she sang the remixed version of Babuji Dheere Chalna. BTW, that sound of hitting a tennis ball in this composition is a quite innovative, no?

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Before I wrap this post up, let me talk about Gulzar. This year he wrote songs for three movies  – Dedh Ishqiya, Haider and Kill/Dil – movies that could not be any farther apart from each other and, in all of them his poetry adapts to the starkly different worlds of these movies. This man has been writing for Hindi cinema since 1956, that’s just 3 years short of 50 years . Think about that for a minute. This consistency and commitment to ones art at the ripe age of 80 is remarkable – that he manages to convey the emotions of the characters (less than half his age most of the times) is miraculous. Gulzar-saab, I am lucky to have lived in the times when you have been around. Your words bookmark events of my adult life. Wrapping up 2014 with these lines from one of your creations :

kuch bhi nazar na aawe

ankhiyon mein jaala lage re

dil waali naukari ne maara….

zindagi uljhaa hua sauda hai, 

umrein leta hai ek pal dekar,

main baawra…baawra…baawra!

I can’t see anything (without you),

my eyes are covered with cobwebs,

this job that my heart does (of loving) has ruined me..

life’s such a tangled transaction,

it takes away a lifetime from you by giving a single moment….

i have gone insane..insane..completely insane!

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

IMG_5216

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.

 

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