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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Review: Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel 

Eagerly expected books with talking animals having seemingly meaningless but verily spiritual and metaphysical discussions inveigle the reader into their cocooned world leaving him with the necessary option of retreating into more everyday realities or endeavour to cut through the chatter and experience a feeling of oneness with the ambition of the author. Martel’s Beatrice & Virgil follows his Life of Pi with an experimentative format about an author who valiantly attempts to address the events associated with the Holocaust in a novel manner.

In a visible trope, the character Henry, in ways resembling Martel, bides his time after an award-winning novel on animals, determined to represent the Horrors of the Holocaust in artistic frames structurally and aesthetically different from past depictions. He has laboured arduously to escape from the straitjacket of historical realism for five years coming up with a flip-book, which has a novel for fiction one side and essay for reason on the other. This has two sets of distinct pages attached to a common spine upside down and back to back. Once his effort faces ignominy and ridicule at the hands of his rather more prosaic publishers, he retreats with his wife to another city, eschewing writing altogether amusing himself with theatre & music.

One day Henry receives a package in the post, with a letter and Flaubert's tale The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator, which is a fable on a youngster with a penchant for killing hapless animals. The package also includes sections of a play on two characters named Beatrice and Virgil, standing in a road, by a tree, jabbering idiomatically. Later they offer elemental platitudes about something they call the Horrors. Clear references to Godot & Diderot ! The letter writer lives next door to Henry, is actually called Henry too, is a taxidermist at Okapi Taxidermy and as it happens Beatrice is a stuffed donkey, Virgil a red howler monkey on her back; they are his "guide to hell". The taxidermist has requested author Henry in completing a play called A 20th Century Shirt who agrees and soon struggles with the desultory methods and arcane allusions which the taciturn and unresponsive former persists with.

The book then optimistically uses images of the Holocaust ( which is the Horrors that the animals describe ) to blend history, mystery, allegory and metaphysics as the author Henry experiences pain, fear and suffering vicariously through the animals’ lives. The futility of it all is recurrent in “How are we going to talk about what happened to us one day when it’s over ?” The breadth of its ambition is only infrequently matched with the honesty of its characterizations and while it is awash with recursive and pointed parallels, the fulfilment that the reader yearns for battling certain saturnine truisms is never quite realized fully or satisfactorily.

A 6.5 on 10, then.


Saturday, July 10, 2010

The $64000 Question—Big Money, Just Imagine 

The Idiot Box has a duty to perform-not only does it attempt to titillate & tantalize in its blind expansive ambition to bring more followers into its claustrophobic embrace, it also strives purposefully to drag its viewers to a Below-Mean-Sea-Level intelligence above which it actively renders unprofitable to rise. And it performs it with the sassiness of a Boxer in Animal Farm.
That there are some 150+ channels in India alone is no accident, most catering to a Least Common Denominator across socio-economic classes, miles of disparate geographies and a sameness that does not exist in any form in real life.

Perhaps to usurp the lucrative space that forms the interplay between in-your-face “entertainment” and moolah before the Grizzled Blogger steps up in October, a new path-breaking TV game show begins tonight.

The host speaks with a strangely am-locked-in-a-cupboard-and-can’t-get-out demeanour and throttled voice, the participants painstakingly embody the audience that the show is intended for.Clean-shaven man, made-up wife and bright-eyed children. “Just watch TV” is the refrain verbally & visually, and the content caters to all family-members in the form of sauce-boo-boo cereals, Reality Bites, cartoons, screened films and advertisements—most helpfully self-referential, of course !

“No boring questions that test your General Knowledge, Mathematical Ability, Analytical skills or knowledge of World Affairs…all that you need to win is a love for watching television! 'Big Money' gives all the TV addict families a golden opportunity to make use of all the hours spent watching TV!” – says it all, doesn’t it ?

Since it is suuccch an interesting format with an unmatched combination of lassitude and learning, who can resist tuning in every hour or whenever aired ?
Axe-lent, axe-lent, raady for Next !


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

My Father the Hero 

Shyam Benegal’s Well Done Abba is his latest film but sadly for a plethora of largely unconnected reasons, some way off his best. For once, the story moves away from glitzy India, even physically, to the Bharat that begins where the Worli flyover mythically ends.

Drawn from sources as diverse as — Narsaiyyan Ki Bavdi by Hyderabad-based Urdu writer Jeelani Bano, Phulwa Ka Pul by Hindi author Sanjeev and Still Waters by actor-writer Jayant Kriplani, the effort is picturized as a set of real-life vignettes that driver Armaan Ali ( Boman Irani ) experiences in his native Chikatpally ( loosely placed somewhere in the Andhra hinterlands) which he narrates to his employer who threatens to sack him for overstaying his leave.
These revolve around his trying to procure a Government-issued well on his land in the wake of attempts of reining in his free-spirited daughter Muskaan ( Minnissha Lamba) in turn wooed by the simple do-gooder Arif ( Samir Dattani) and the chaos inflicted by his Uncle Fred-ish brother & his wife (Irani again with a hamming Ila Arun)

While his inimitable touches rooted in the cadences of small-town India are all there—the mores of rural Muslim life, the God-like photographer who is somehow a window to the world yonder, the almost-theological passion that one follows antics of neighbours with, long SMS’es typed out in chaste Hindi, they all fall prey to a harried and breathless portrayal as the plot struggles to find a precarious balance between the harmlessly comic, tongue-in cheek cynicism & world-weary resignation that most village lives have to learn to endure. One is never sure if Benegal depicts a minor incident to draw attention to a larger vision or merely shares the goings-on leaving the viewer to interpret on his own. There is a gentle droll humour that suffuses most frames which is strangely jettisoned when more serious topics need dealing with, for which a jarring simplistic preachy tone is summoned. This extends through the film whose final shot culminates with a motley bunch of evil power-wielders get their come-uppance on a dais which collapses beneath them seemingly under their collective avarice

Expectedly the repertoire of socially relevant issues is staggering. Benegal touches on the unholy nexus around contracts & Government jobs, the travails and attendant desirability to be below the poverty line ( BPL ), the trauma of indebtedness & urban migration, the Right to Information Act, reservations for women in panchayats & even shady matrimonial alliances with Sheikhs. Still Chikatpally doesn’t appear to have the soul of a Sajjanpur for all its trying—the dialects, costumes and sets are all dutifully in place. There is a passive distance that most characters maintain about anything resembling serious opinion. Contrast that with the flippant way in which subjects as weighty as upper-caste rape & Naxal retribution is introduced in Welcome….

The acting is a mixed bag though all the Benegal regulars are around. Irani overreaches himself in the prankster twin avatar and is good in parts as the composed father. Lamba for all talk of putting up with her lot always seems to have time to fly kites and gets increasingly curmudgeonly as the plot unfolds and is coy only in her fledgling romance with Dattani who one must restrain from acting roles, so bad is he. Her screechy woman-of-substance demeanour and progressive erudition is not borne out by the facts we are provided with and for that alone, hers makes for the most dissembling part. Ravi Kishen as the uxorious engineer is superb though paired with a wasted Sonali Kulkarni.. Fine actors such as Yashpal Sharma, Rajit Kapoor, Ravi Jhankal & Lalit Tiwari have little to do. And while some songs blend into the story well, there is a “bawdy” song on a truck which almost feels like one of those blooper post-film montages where everyone lets their hair down and has a blast. Only wish Benegal had done that more frequently in this honest & well-meant venture. Only wish All was Well !


Sunday, April 04, 2010

Stand up for your rights ( but sit down when wronged) 

The culmination of many a formal/official occasion in my student life had been the crisp and purposeful rendition of the National Anthem. And being slow on the uptake and getting longer in the tooth, I appear to have missed an interesting change sprung on us by supposedly well-meaning citizens. For what is now is played at the beginning of a film in cinema houses appears to be not the functional 52- second version but an ornate and bedizened unrecognizably mangled travesty of the tune I am so familiar with, as are most of my fellow Indians.
An exhibition of mindless grandstanding, the Bharatbala & Rehman score is a disordered parade of elderly have-beens who brandish their musical wares to the tuneless accompaniment of calisthenics. The performance makes one cower & cring all the more as it is seemingly interminable in its two-minute length. The tawdry production values and affected crooning point to an eminently avoidable performance.
Whatever the artistic merits of this monstrosity may be and however noble the intentions of the people who put their best efforts into its production, this is not India’s National Anthem and Thanks for small mercies. I cannot be asked to stand up to this brazen aggrandizement and I shall not.


Friday, December 25, 2009

The Day the Music Died 

It has been a soulful and melodious journey while it has lasted the course but as Nelly Furtado sings-Flames to dust, lovers to friends, why do all good things come to an end ?

Announcing what appeared to be a business design flaw beyond redemption or correction, the company announced in a distinctly unmusical aside

“On December 31, 2009, the WorldSpace satellite radio broadcast service will be terminated for all customers serviced from India. This action is an outgrowth of the financial difficulties facing WorldSpace India’s parent company, WorldSpace Inc, which has been under bankruptcy protection since October 2008. The potential buyer of much of WorldSpace’s global assets has decided not to buy the WorldSpace assets relating to and supporting WorldSpace’s subscription business in India," said the company communication to the subscribers.”

Am not sure if what was available in the public domain on the financial model would have ever passed muster, even if India were treated as a separate market. A subscription-only model ( of INR 2000 per annum ) eschewing all commercial broadcasts and advertisements with a no-profit-no loss partnership with select receiver manufacturers, may have foundered earlier than it did And while pay-for-radio is as alien a concept as public hygiene and civic sense in India, the 4.5 lakh subscriber base here was never really going to threaten to even break even. Content Aggregation and Studio costs, as well as royalty moneys to contend with in addition to salaries would mean a lot of heavy metal in the Liabilities column dominating over the wafting and fragile strains of a distant raga on the Assets side. And is mostly the case, Commerce won.

As one of the most fervent supporters of WorldSpace, this announcement will mean a discordant note for me in the new year. Again, it might mean a return to my old Skipper radio set coaxing it to burst into sound one last time, and perhaps looking for and finding ways to listen to the same channels through other media. I now surely need to lavish attention to my huge audio-cassette collection once more. Who knows, maybe a neo-convert to that Thin White Incrustation ? And at last, the crows and pigeons can settle comfortably once more on my radio antenna, there will be no more music to disrupt.

So take the photographs, and still frames in your mind.
Hang it on a shelf in good health and good time.
Tattoos of memories and dead skin on trial.
For what it's worth, it was worth all the while.
It's something unpredictable, but in the end it's right.
I hope you had the time of your life.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Matches are made, in Poker Heaven 

I realized it the minute I left the cafeteria with the Lankans needing 40 from 36 with 5 wickets in hand. And I was wrong by all of one run !

The rest of my tea-sipping fans wanted to know how exactly I did it—predicted the victor and the margin, when SL had the match in the bag.

For that, one has to go back almost a decade when I saw the last two hours of an India-S Africa match, long after which I came to the sad but inescapable conclusion that that was perhaps the first match that was fixed. The scene was eerily similar—India versus a strong ODI outfit in Kochi, full house, India plays well but is still outplayed only to win it in a close but not that-close finish. A day where over 300 was made by the Proteas for the loss of only three wickets ( two of them in an unexpected Dravid over) and India chase it down without ever appearing to try hard enough ( This must not be confused with the third ODI of the inaugural India-SA series where 287 was chased down without a whimper –that may have been the first match which was thrown )

So for all some zany batting orders, the very entertaining Angus McAllister impersonations of Sehwag & Dilshan and some candid remarks on the quality of cricket on Dhoni’s indeeveejwals , like the wise old Poirot said, I know and that is enough. Time will bear me out.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Teda hai par mera hai 

India has come a long way from the 80’s time when the epitome of a child’s aspirations were a BSA SLR bicycle, a wad Wrigley’s chewing gum, a Mon Ami pen set and perhaps a North Star pair of shoes. However for most adult males, ownership of any of the famed Priya, Chetak, Super or Classic set of Bajaj scooters was sufficient to grant a visible halo of middle-class respectability, familial attachment and belonging and rootedness that languidly promised upward mobility. At a time where even colour TVs were indeed an owner’s envy, four-wheelers were beyond reach and most took succour and grudging pride in these odd-shaped vehicles.

So when the Bajaj group announced their decision to move away from manufacture of all scooters this week, it does perhaps herald the passing of an age. A move away from a comfortable familiarity, a diffident aspiration and a compromised ambition, for good. For sheer symbolism, nothing quite served as a tempered conduit for India’s grounded dreams to reach through to acquisitiveness and materialism.

Santosh Desai looks back at some of these memories in an evocative piece


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