Saturday, August 27, 2022

Festering Wounds and a Fractured Identity

 Operation Bluestar, was authorized by Indira Gandhi in June, 1984 to clear the militants led by Bhindranwale and his armed supporters who had taken up residence in Amritsar’s famed Golden Temple, the Sikhs’ holiest shrine. The deadly military action which left thousands dead dealt a crippling blow to secessionists fighting for a free Khalistan and the national media at the time was full of praise for Ms. Gandhi. Some felt that this tragedy could have been avoided if the PM had used diplomatic means to reach an accord with the moderate leaders of the Akali Dal especially since some of their demands were considered reasonable.Matters came to a head when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her own Sikh bodyguards, five months after the ill – fated operation. National fury over her death and Rajiv Gandhi’s call for a pogrom resulted in anti – Sikh riots and genocidal violence against the community.




The Anatomy of Loss by Arjun Raj Gaind unfolds across a sea of suffering as heinous brutality is deliberately perpetrated against the Sikh community. Interestingly, the author chooses not to dwell on the political/ ideological nitty gritty that contributed to the tumultuous events of 1984. Rather, his is a deeply personal narrative based on real events that intimately examine the long-lasting emotional ramifications bred from a toxic miasma of hatred, intolerance, rage, and an unwillingness to forgive or forget a tragedy.

Haunted by his past, the protagonist, Himmat whose childhood is lost forever in the vicious upheaval brought on by a political assassination, is unable to move on. He was only eight years old and in the middle of an idyllic vacation with his maternal grandparents in their farmhouse when the shocking news reaches them. The ramifications are swift and shocking. Gobind, his beloved grandfather, a poet and professor shaves off his beard of which he is inordinately proud to try and disguise his identity, revealing himself to the little boy not as the vaunted hero he has looked up to but a very human and frail old man. That very night, Gobind’s best friend seeks his help to save his son, only a few years older than Himmat, who has been taken into police custody. Out of concern for his own family Gobind refuses. He changes his mind in the morning, but his intervention ensures he is taken into custody himself, beaten and tortured, despite his advanced years. Though his brave wife manages to free him, his effort is in vain, and Gobind earns himself the implacable wrath of a senior Inspector.

Anxious to protect Himmat, Gobind decides to leave Amritsar with his family. In his single – minded quest, he makes the decision not to intervene even as a great injustice is being played out before their very eyes, though Himmat begs him to help. This horrifying incident is the final straw that breaks the weakening bond between the two of them leaving Himmat feeling adrift from all he has ever known and cut off from his own identity.

Himmat is a finely etched character, whose raw and bleeding psyche is laid bare and exposed to the minute scrutiny of the reader to disconcerting effect. The constantly festering agony of one who has been unceremoniously exposed to the ugliest side of human nature is in no small part due to the crimes of the past, when the Sikhs were repeatedly persecuted in Mughal, British and Independent India. Through his protagonist, the author draws attention to suppurating wounds left on the collective psyche by unspeakable tragedy and the long-term damage done, when the embers of anger and despair are constantly stoked by self – serving politicians that perpetuates the cycle of hate leaving no room for healing. Yet, Gaind also suggests that there is always hope thanks to the resilience of the human spirit.

An incredibly affecting book, narrated with heartbreaking candor and deeply felt emotion, it is hard to put down. Gaind does a fine job of reconstructing personal trauma. Himmat moves to London and tries to drown his pain and impotent frustration in booze, chiromania and is even recruited by disgruntled youngsters like himself who still believe in the dream of Khalistan. But no amount of self – destructive behavior brings him closer to elusive peace or much needed closure until he is able to reach deep within, with only a little spectral help to find the strength to forgive and fully become the man with the heart of a lion, he was always impossibly close to being.

An edited version of this review appeared in The New Indian Express. You can read it here.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Muting manic Mother’s Day celebrations

Every time Mother’s Day rolls around, I become Scrooge and spend the time rolling my eyes at all the heart-warming mommy dearest pics and touching tributes that pop up while I am infinity scrolling through Instagram. Mothers are likened to Goddesses or Superheroes and there is a lot of sentimental gushing about unconditional love, delicious meals cooked with an overabundance of care, selfless sacrifice and the rest of the slop nearly every film made in the history of Indian cinema has normalised.
Take that recent film about a gangster who is actually a monster with mommy issues which went on to smash box-office records. The protagonist is so hung up on his dead amma and unresolved Oedipal Complex that he goes on to sucker thousands of poor miners into thinking he is their saviour while exploiting them to fulfil his insatiable greed for gold, abducting the spoilt heroine and Stockholm-syndroming her into becoming his wife, with the view to bringing forth a child whom they are convinced will be his dearly departed mother reborn. Apparently, this unholy fixation exonerates him for all his abominable crimes and the audience is urged to worship him for venerating his mother. Never mind, that his mum gave him awful advice on her death bed and galled him into becoming a ravening capitalist who murders his way to the top. 
 
The phenomenal success of this film on top of other fragments of unassailable evidence gathered over a lifetime has forced me to conclude that the vast majority of men are in love with their mommies and are unable to get over the fact that society does not allow them to wed them. So most males who are not incels spend their lives feeling sorry for themselves because their wives or girlfriends, both real and imaginary, don’t pamper them, feed them ghee-drenched meals with their hands, tend to their ouchies, and tenderly massage their scalps the way Ma used to. Some go on to make movies about women who devote every atom of their beings towards the fulfilment of their precious sons’ petty needs. And the others grow up to become serial killers, rapists or just plain insufferable. 

 All mothers, without exception, will tell you that motherhood is not all that. The miracle of birth is actually a horror show that involves nine months’ worth of nausea, puking, occasional loss of bladder control, mood swings, uncontrollable cravings, bloating, etc. which is just a preview of the painful and life-threatening labour that follows. And just when you think the hard part is over, you are confronted with the unbearable truth... The worst is yet to come and you are on the hook for the rest of your life. This is unpaid, gruelling labour which will come close to killing you and there is no way out. At some point, nearly all mothers fantasise about hurling their kids out the window and making a break for freedom. The fact that mums refrain from their worst impulses and do the best they can with an impossible job is surely cause for celebration. But let’s not be silly about it. 

 This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express

The worst laid plans

Every morning, when I force my eyes open after a couple of hours spent hitting snooze every time, I am harangued by the annoying alarm and resisting the urge to stay in bed for the duration of the day and blowing off my chores by pretending to be sick, I vow to be better. Today is the day, I tell myself, that I shall succeed in escaping this unproductive cesspool of a swamp I have been stuck in for longer than I care to admit. 

 I swear to begin work on my next book, which I assure myself will not only be an international bestseller but the winner of every prestigious prize there is, not to mention getting me a record-breaking movie deal. Then I shall use all the moolah raked up by its runaway success to literally clean up the streets of India, so that everything is totally shiny, sparkly and Instagram-worthy. 

 People will be able to head out into the great outdoors without being assaulted by the unassailable stench of garbage and assorted wastes. That will be my legacy to my beloved country. All I ask for, in return, is the Bharat Ratna, so that I will have something to brag about to the grandkids who will no doubt be bored to tears by my umpteenth retelling of the time I shook hands with the President of India, who told me that I was a National Treasure (or for all I know called me an uppity Jackass! Who the hell understands Hindi anyway?) and I thanked him most prettily in a mixture of English and Tamil. 

 There is a distinct possibility, that these things will happen sooner rather than later, I reassure myself. After all, the plan is to crawl out of bed, tweet about Ukraine, finish the monotonous tasks that will only take an infinity to complete in its entirety, whip out my laptop from wherever I hid it and get started on my book, which is going to be epic. And I really mean to do it. Soon. 

 It’s just that the Chennai Super Kings have lost a bunch of matches lately and I am yet to get over Dhoni’s ill-timed decision to hand over the captaincy to Jadeja. I just have to share my thoughts regarding the crisis on a WhatsApp group composed of true-blue CSK fans. For some unfathomable reason, there was a lot of acrimony regarding my well-meaning views harshly expressed with pithy GIFs and emojis. Somebody suggested that Rayudu, Bravo and Dhoni himself be dropped. What followed was a bloodbath!

 Needless to say, that unsightly episode put a spanner in my plans. But it doesn’t matter. I am determined to get started… Once I have realised my fitness ambitions of achieving a rad bod with under 2 percent body fat. It is a realistic plan for an author aspiring to become an actor. I am going to do it. But first things first. I have to stop hitting snooze. 
 
This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express

A Bad-Mood inducing Brooding Batman

After two years of being cooped up at home, over Covid-related concerns that not even a currently raging war in Ukraine can dispel, I ventured out to catch the latest blockbuster Hollywood has churned out in the Superhero oeuvre. How bad could it be, I reasoned, even if the Twilight dude whose screen personas suggest he is forever suffering from severe indigestion, had been roped in to fill Christian Bale’s oversized Bat shoes. There were further concerns.
According to Twitter buzz, the new Caped Crusader was even darker than in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy which was single-handedly responsible for making it a cardinal sin for superheroes to do anything less than simmer endlessly in all things sepulchral. This was every bit as ominous as the trailer which gave the definite impression of a film desperate to be deemed a masterpiece, but I am a sucker for caramel popcorn and determinedly ignored the warning signs. 

 The film certainly lived up to my worst fears. Nowadays, it won’t do to make fun films based on comic books. Current cinematic offerings have to take after Booker Prize-winning weighty tomes and be every bit as dense and dismal but with none of the magically conjured soul-stirring sadness that makes the books worthwhile. 

 It is practically a prerequisite for not only the protagonist but every other character to be tormented souls with tortuous backstories and trauma enough to set up a shrink for life. Robert Pattinson tries so darn hard, managing to convey little more than the unavoidable fact that the Batsuit has made it impossible for him to have a bowel movement. 

Furthermore, the narrative has to be overstuffed with socio-political commentary, weighty themes like duality, good versus evil, which, hold your breath, are actually two sides of the same coin! The hooey keeps looping back and forth in sickening spoon-feeding style to give the impression of complexity lest it becomes confused with pedestrian popcorn fare. 

 The villain cannot be allowed to be a run-of-the-mill megalomaniac who likes to blow things up with maniacal glee a la Jack Nicholson and create masala-worthy mayhem. Instead, he is a monster who has torn free from a nightmare, fed on the decay of a corrupt society, and erupted with the vengeful fury of a volcano spewing forth the ugliness befitting a terrorist. Mercifully, female characters have more to do in these films besides being bodacious. Their bottoms are more artfully displayed. Besides they get to brood and kick booty just like the hero! 

 All that canny crafting may be catnip for the critics but the dearth of organic emotional beats leaves the heart groaning with impatience and a simple longing for the earlier iterations of Batman, even the one where studio executives greenlit a Batsuit with nipples on it. 

 This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express

The price of distraction

Johann Hari, former star columnist of The Independent, suffered a fall from grace after he admitted to charges of plagiarism and viciously attacking his professional rivals anonymously on Wikipedia. However, he has bounced back with bestselling books tackling high octane subjects such as addiction (Chasing the Scream) and depression (Lost Connections).
His latest book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, explores the growing attention crisis that has reduced a majority of the human populace to tech–addicted zombies. It is a topic anyone who has felt they have been taken hostage by social media will be able to relate to easily. 

 In fact, even as I read the book, I could not help but Google Hari and devote more time that I could afford to spare on the aforementioned scandals spat out by the search engine that had made him notorious as well as successful. But the problem of our lost focus tackled by the book is real and needs to be addressed. Hari sets about it with gusto having travelled the world for the better part of three years gathering research, talking to experts, and laying out the material in typically provocative style. 

The book is replete with personal anecdotes—Hari dwells at length on his digital detox at a small town in Cape Cod in Massachusetts, US, with no smartphone or the internet for three months, visiting Graceland with his godson who had lost himself to gadgets and findings from studies, interviews with scientists, scholars, activists. He does a commendable job of breaking down the science and statistics to make it more palatable for the average ADHD (Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder)-afflicted reader. 

 Incidentally, in one of the more interesting chapters Hari bewails the ‘collapse of sustained reading’ as a direct result of the hostile takeover of human cognition by big tech rightly stating that books are the ‘medium through which most of the deepest advances in human thought over the past 400 years have been figured out and explained and that experience is now in freefall.’ 

 In another fascinating passage, Hari draws on the work of pyschologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to discuss the possibility of defending ourselves from the constant barrage of personalised distraction by training the mind to enter a state of flow where ‘you are so absorbed in what you are doing that you lose all sense of yourself, and time seems to fall away, and you are flowing into the experience itself. It is the deepest form of focus and attention’. Artists and athletes often experience this. The human existence is rendered most fulfilling in this zone, and entering it armed with a meaningful goal and commitment could be a worthwhile pursuit. 

 For the most part, the book emphasises the systemic factors that have robbed humanity of the ability to focus, the ruses employed by tech giants to keep people glued to their screens, thereby, sacrificing collective attention on the altar of avarice, directly contributing to a toxic atmosphere of negativity and outrage that has severely compromised civilised discourse, led to a proliferation of fake news and increased polarisation and radicalisation to the point where we are no longer able to unite for a worthy cause and bring about much needed reform. Hari also outlines the roles played by climate change, poor dietary choices, sedentary lifestyles and pollution in deteriorating attention spans. 

 So far, so good but none of this information is as shockingly revelatory or jaw-dropping as Hari’s highly frenzied style of writing would lead you to believe. After all it is no secret that social media and assorted apps routinely sell personal information to the highest bidders and that these details are used against users to better uphold the interests of surveillance capitalism. The science is also nebulous and as Hari admits, ‘We don’t have any long-term studies tracking changes in people’s ability to focus over time.’ Even the evidence put forward, as Hari freely states, has been strongly contested and there seems to be little consensus on the subject. 

 Consequently, one can’t help but feel, that the ‘scientific facts’ have been selectively interpreted to bolster Hari’s own perspectives and simplistic approach to the problem of reclaiming our lost focus. Some of his suggestions and interventions will no doubt prove to be useful for individuals but the ‘attention rebellion’ he calls for is likely to remain every bit as remote as the odds on my own successful resistance to the siren call of social media and those infernal notifications indicating that someone liked or retweeted my crap. 

 This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Post-Valentine’s Day Peregrinations

The week after Valentine’s Day is very revealing. We see it in all those empty heart-shaped confectionery boxes looking bereft without the decadent candy that has disappeared down overly indulged gullets. In deflated balloons and pesticide-drenched, dried-out, long-stemmed red roses that lie outside overflowing trash cans, because this is India.

Those cutesy pics and reels of couples on Instagram who are enjoying candlelit dinners, hugging oversized and overpriced teddy bears, slow-dancing or opening gifts with extra-wide smiles to overcompensate for the fact that they are not feeling as elated as they are supposed to feel. 

 Most of all, there is a pervasive sense of discontent as couples who saw a little too much of each other during the pandemic contemplate the joys of being single again and single people who have been roundly reproved by the spiteful for not having a significant other to celebrate a commercial holiday that has cashed in on outdated notions of courtly love, wish they were part of a loved-up couple. 

 Like the mythical Ouroboros, which means ‘tail-devourer’ in Greek and is represented by a tail-swallowing snake or dragon, it is a never-ending conundrum. Most of us are in love with the idea of being in love rather than what it actually entails to be in a relationship, even on the off chance that it is a loving and fulfilling one. 

 Because deep down, we know that even the grandest of passions, at best, serves as a backdrop against which the humdrum monotony of existence plays out at snail’s pace even in a world with its increasingly fast and furious rhythms, if it has not crashed and burnt out already. Love is irksome because it is demanding, takes up more time and effort than is feasible and dies anyway.

 Even so, even the most curmudgeonly and cynical amongst us can seldom resist the irresistible allure of amour and the magic it promises. Everywhere we are confronted with the smoking ruins of curdled romances and the sheer devastation wrought by desire turned to dust. Infinite stories, their never-ending permutations notwithstanding tell us that tragedy is the only outcome we can expect in a love story and we know it is true because it feels like we experienced these stories ourselves even if it was only in a dream and that they are merely echoes of worse ones we have lived through. 

 And yet, we need to believe in not just the highly improbable but even the impossible possibility of a love story that will somehow bypass the near-certainty of a squalid ending and remain as splendid as it was in the beginning. Ultimately, we are all fools in love or hoping to be that fool in love, because we will always choose disaster over dreariness. 

 This article originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Schism between Science and Spirituality

Two years into a raging pandemic, Corona continues to have most of civilisation in a chokehold. As expected, people haven’t taken kindly to the fact that their prayers, wishes, science-approved vaccines and safety measures have done next to nothing to make it go away. Needless to say, fear, fraying tempers and fraught emotions have come to the fore, creating a toxic climate that claims as many victims as the variants of a virus. 

 People need to present this calamity with a united front and yet, we have seldom been more divided. We can’t agree on whether the vaccines are lifesavers guaranteed to save humanity or a placebo concocted by the pharmaceutical companies to make trillions and profit from collective suffering in collusion with heartless capitalists. The double-jabbed and the vaccine sceptics are butting heads leading to explosive results with World No 1 tennis champion, Novak Djokovic, being the most high-profile casualty. 

The outspoken Novak Djokovic has been one of the most visible vaccine sceptics and his stubborn stance has endeared him to his fans who were infuriated at the public humiliation of a great champion by slimy politicians while earning him the dire wrath of most others. His detractors sought to drown him in a wave of social media-engineered derision, mocking his spiritual beliefs and the pseudoscience he supposedly peddles. 

 This inability to find a middle ground in light of the ever-widening chasm between science and spirituality is our biggest failure in modern times and it needs to be bridged. We must make the attempt to develop a system of knowledge that is free from the fallacies of science and the failings of religion. In the tussle between faith and intellect, neither can hope to subsume the other which is how we have arrived at this hopeless impasse. 

 It wasn’t always this way. Ibn Sina—polymath, philosopher and physician whose innovative theorising in metaphysics elevated the soul to the realm of the intellect—gave the world the Canon, the foundation of modern medicine which was taught as a textbook in Europe and the Islamic lands. Michelangelo was a devout Catholic who risked eternal damnation to perform dissections on corpses to satisfy his scientific curiosity about anatomy which he felt was crucial to enhance his prowess as a sculptor and painter. 

 India’s great mathematicians like Aryabhatta and Brahmagupta managed to find a way to reconcile the demands of their faith with science, making unequalled contributions to the study of numbers even as they gazed upon the stars. These are the giants we must emulate. After all, differences in race, culture and beliefs notwithstanding, diversity is a beautiful thing especially when the divisive elements find a way to beat the odds and coexist in truth and harmony. 

 This article originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Fractured lives and fickle fortunes: The House Next to the Factory is a confident debut

Sonal Kohli makes an ambitious and confident debut with her collection of short stories, The House Next to the Factory, which makes for a wonderfully textured and satisfying reading experience. Set sometime between 1980 and 2010, these nine inter-connected stories focus on not just the inhabitants of the eponymous house which consists of a post-Partition immigrant family but the lives that are touched by theirs as well. In the process, it explores the potent forces of culture, community, circumstances as well as the crisis of identity with an insightful gaze.
Good short fiction is characterised by blank spaces that leave much to the imagination and dark voids that succeed in captivating the reader while often leaving them confounded with the mysteries of ambiguity and lack of resolution. An interlinked collection of stories such as this one with its fragmentary format and episodic narrative style does not hew to a particular template but lovingly builds a world packed with intricate detail and characters who are bursting with life just like in a novel but without the overarching unified plot. Thus Kohli, by borrowing from the best techniques of short and long form fiction manages to create something unique that feels organic and true to the lived human existence in all its multihued and sordid splendour. 

 Kavya, who is not always the protagonist, seems stifled by the strictures within the suffocating confines of the house but she is not without the gumption to strike out on her own or rebel against the expectations that weigh her down. She sets out in search of a nun. Originally, a senior who had the same bus route, she becomes Sister Celina before returning to her old life. Kavya has heard the scurrilous theories spun out seeking to explain the ex-nun’s decisions but she goes in search of answers or just the chance to re-connect making it a personal odyssey which just leaves her with even more questions than she set out with in the first place. 

 A well-loved tuition teacher whose students include Kavya’s brother and cousin is struggling to pick up the pieces of his life after a personal loss when his world is almost shattered again in the aftermath of the anti-Sikh riots. An aunt of hers moves to England but her heart remains with a good friend who encouraged her writing and is heartbroken over the loss of her unborn child. Her grandmother has survived the Partition and is fortunate to witness her family’s fortune grow in leaps and bounds thanks to her sons who are called the Steel Brothers, but her poor friend is not so lucky in life or love. 

 Kavya’s mum’s relatives have a man Friday who has found comfort in the arms of a lower caste widow but will this newfound happiness be snatched away from him because his life is subject to the whims of his employers? The Steel Brothers buy a house from a mother and daughter who are struggling to make ends meet after the loss of the man of the house and have done well by themselves and their family but everything seems to hang by a thread. Kavya and her lover have drifted apart and find themselves in Paris and Landour respectively as they continue to grapple with chequered pasts burdened with history and a future in flux owing to the grievances of a precarious present. 

 The charm of these stories lie in their stubborn refusal to fit into any particular format. Rather, each tale meanders along whimsically staying faithful to its own demands and ending of its own volition. The stripped down prose is effective and instrumental in guiding the delighted reader into the inner lives of these characters. A lesser writer would have tried to cram in exposition but Kohli is that rare talent who exercises remarkable restraint to let each story just be, thereby amplifying the magic considerably, pulling off something truly special. 

 This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Moonstruck with Matrimony

Whenever I have a column due, I start thinking deeply about life and its many issues. For instance, I have never been able to figure out why people are so enamoured with the antiquated if anodyne institution of marriage. Of course, the rewards and incentives are many for those who wed and stay that way thereby ensuring that society as we know it does not fall apart.

 After all, no government wants to be saddled with the responsibility of raising children from broken homes, providing economic support for recently divorced women who have no accommodation in the job market, or supplying medical care for former spouses who have nobody to foot the bill. And heaven forbid the supposed suicide risk posed by the Lonely-Hearts Club makes the government look bad for not caring in the least about mental health. Never mind, that married folks pose a similar threat though they are more likely to kill each other rather than themselves. 

 It also has to be conceded that in the rarest of rare instances that marriage actually works it is truly a many splendored thing which is a bulletproof cocoon that provides safety, security, a sense of belonging, and that invaluable feeling of being loved and cherished. Yet, by that logic, though the Stoics swore that a good King was the best form of government and we know the ancient Greeks knew what they were talking about, none of us have the least inclination to trade democracy for that elusive creature - the perfect monarch! Further, since a majority of married folks are every bit as unhappy if not more so than their unmarried counterparts, one wonders why wedlock is still considered the most desirable relationship goal.
So why is marriage idealized to such a degree? Why are we filled to the brim with outsize romantic notions when Vicky Kaushal and Katrina Kaif tie the knot? The latter is being lauded for finding and landing her Mr. Right even though I maintain that her greatest achievement is earning the right to call herself an actor even though she can’t act and couldn’t manage the feat even at gunpoint. And while my social media feeds are gushing that the duo are the very picture of the fruition of couple goals, I maintain that they are a textbook example of a long line of power couples who have used their relationship for monetary gain while making it all look lovey-dovey. 

In light of the unlimited foolishness on display one can only hope that someday, we will be committed to knocking down outdated institutions instead of cementing them further simply because we have been stuffed to the gills with fairy tales that have conditioned us to erroneously equate a happily – ever after with marriage. 

 This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Existential Hacks from a Confirmed Cynic

We are all told not to be so hard on ourselves or on each other. Naturally, that applies only as long as we are living our best lives which means being productive all the time; eating right and eliminating sugar, red meat, dairy, maida, coffee, tea, alcohol or anything at all that might be a reason to live; working out at least 6 hours a day to flaunt an envy – inducing physique because everybody knows that all talk of body positivity is only for fatties with low self – esteem; married, preferably to a member of the opposite gender and same caste; raising the perfect family that includes son/sons with daughters being optional; making enough and more money that gives you the license to be licentious and get away with all manner of excess; having over a million followers across social media and winning national and international awards for excellence every year to validate an entirely pointless existence. 

 We are told to slow down and take the time to smell the roses. Of course, anybody with a brain knows better than to slacken the pace because that would mean allowing one’s competitors, rivals and random fellow racers to get ahead in the game of life, leaving the slowpokes choking on their dust and the acrid taste of failure. As for smelling the roses, unless there is a reel with the potential to go viral, to be made in the interest of keeping it real which is the credo the new breed of humanbots aka Instagram influencers live by, it is an overrated pastime, that is unlikely to change your life in a significant way. 


We are told that we ought to be happy and content with what we have without constantly striving for more of everything. Now, it goes without saying that such a laidback, zen approach is the enemy of ambition and getting ahead in the rat race, unless you are a Godman who has successfully found a way to monetise the spouting of ideological, pseudo religious claptrap. And it is possible to be happy and content with what you have without forever hankering for more, just as long as you already have amassed everything worth having using fair means or foul. 

 We are told that there is no need to be perfect all the time. Or even the best. That it is okay to age gracefully or not have a plan. To trust, surrender and let it all go, allowing life to flow and unfold in a manner that might ensure that we receive all the things we ever wanted and more. Unfortunately, that is a fool’s move which may just see you lose everything and get hit by a truck because you chose not to see it coming. 

 This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Somnambulism to the Rescue!



Everybody wants to be a part of the solution to life’s many problems. Nowadays, that usually means calling out someone or something on social media adding to the cacophony surrounding celeb/celeb children’s misbehaviour or the trending cause célèbre. It is the simplest way which requires next to no effort to feel like something meaningful has been done even if it hasn’t. And of course, every activist out there feels they have not earned their stripes if a vigorous attempt has not been made to ‘disinfect’ popular art by calling for the ban or boycott of films, music or books that are deemed offensive for whatever reason. The tone has to be strident, passionate, outraged, excessively intolerant and reeking of righteous fury to be considered acceptable. 

 Naturally, none of these things are ever likely to be effective in fixing whatever it is that needs to be fixed but never is. The reason is simple enough. We have all allowed ourselves to become increasingly divorced from a reality which was never less than dull, dreary and depressing on the best of days. Being an adult mostly means looking for increasingly creative means to escape the humdrum of monotony that is part and parcel of life to cope with the demands of personal as well as professional problems and pressures that pile up in a never – ending conveyor belt of unceasing awfulness. 

 So we disappear into make – believe worlds which have become easy enough to access through the internet, smartphones, gaming devices and tech toys that offer so much by way of entertainment that is such a relief after the drudgery and dismal sameness of the real world. Virtual reality is so much more fun and it is easy enough to immerse ourselves in films, binge – worthy television shows and world – building games that are a wonderful way to kill time which otherwise seems to stretch on forever in tepid tedium. 

 Which is why we are so much more comfortable raising our voices when something is deemed offensive or unacceptable in the arts or celluloid. We cry ourselves hoarse when crimes against women are treated flippantly in a film or women are inappropriately portrayed. Whereas in real life when we witness injustices perpetrated against women, it is easier to pretend that it is her fault and therefore not our problem. We viciously attack a celeb kid who has been arrested for possession of drugs but we couldn’t give less of a crap about the dangerous drug dealer types destroying the neighbourhood because everybody knows that if you do interfere, chances are you will wind up in a body bag minus your limbs or worse. Hence it is hardly surprising we are all tigers in La La land while being pussy cats everywhere else. 

 This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Benefits of being Besotted with IPL



The second leg of the three – ring circus aka the Indian Premier League (IPL) is currently happening in the UAE. Naturally, this will be the only thing, folks in these parts will be talking about till the big final scheduled to be played on October 15th, although endless discussions about King Kohli’s bombshell of a decision to step down as T20I and Royal Challengers Bangalore captain (what’s up with him?) will also be entertained. I think this is a good thing and the reasons are manifold. 

 At this point, we all need a little something to get fired up about and take our minds off Covid which continues to tax us sorely, global warming, the situation in Afghanistan, an ailing economy, the definite possibility that we are entrapped in the Matrix since we have been reduced to living our lives solely in the virtual medium and other horrors of insomnia inducing magnitude. 

Let’s face it, it is fun to get caught up in the frenzy of sport even when engaged in a heated argument online with haters who foolishly assert that Chennai Super Kings fans jumped onto the CSK bandwagon only because they are hung up on Dhoni when every individual who bleeds yellow knows that the reverse is true. And there is nothing like out – trolling the trolls for burning through vast stores of endless frustration and pent up rage which might otherwise manifest in harmful ways. 

 When your team wins or your favourite players rock your world with other – worldly prowess you tend to bask in the lingering afterglow of their success which enables you to feel much better about the fact that you spent the day curled up in bed with a box of doughnuts because you simply could not summon the energy to do anything at all that might be construed as constructive. 

A thumping victory in addition to making you forget the sheer awfulness of existence also puts you in a more forgiving frame of mind whether it comes to yourself or the construction workers who insist on dumping their trash outside your house despite your repeated admonishments not to do so. You resist the urge to hire hooligans you can’t actually afford to knock some sense into their heads and take the Gandhian path by snitching to their supervisor and casually mentioning that you are a distant relative of the local MLA, wagging your finger in a friendly manner. 

 Of course, when things don’t go well for your team, you deal with elevated blood pressure, added stress, and an exacerbation of existing problems. But you risk it anyway, because sport teaches you that in life, you have to take the bitter with the better. 

 This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express

When Wokesters attack Jokesters

Gene Weingarten, Washington Post humorist, wrote a column where he lists his intense dislike for certain cuisines and food products like Balsamic Vinegar, Hazelnut, Anchovies, Indian food, Old Bay seasoning which he compares to “dandruff from corpses mixed with rust from around the toilet fixtures at a New Jersey rest stop” among other stuff. 

 Now, this reminded me of my childhood at a boarding school in Yercaud, where it was fashionable to diss whatever was served to us, even if it was actually decent. For instance, a wit once remarked that the Sabudana kheer/ Javvarisi payasam tasted like Frog’s eyes. Naturally, an even more caustic wit responded with “Does that mean you have tasted Frog’s eyes?” We all doubled over with a hysterical case of the giggles! Now that I am all grown up and sophisticated, obviously I had to wonder if Weingarten had been rooting about in graves and loos, sampling the grossness on offer and I collapsed in gales of laughter, impressed as always with my own sense of humor. 

 Not many found Weingarten’s piece funny though. In fact, most insisted that it was not only offensive to Indians but downright racist because Weingarten had written that Indian food was “the only ethnic cuisine in the world insanely based entirely on one spice” and then compounded his error by adding: “if you think Indian curries taste like something that could knock a vulture off a meat wagon, you do not like Indian food.” 

 The great Indian diaspora was up in arms and the charge was led by a fire – breathing Padma Lakshmi, who wrote that the column “is unintentional anti – humor, regurgitating an unimaginative, racist joke with no punchline.” Ironically, Padma Lakshmi’s memoir- Love, Loss and What We Ate was accused of bias by Sharanya Manivannan who wrote “The casteism, classism and colorism on display are guilelessly entitled, with neither self – reflectivity nor shame”. 

 The outrage built to such an extent that the Post felt compelled to issue a correction over a silly joke and Weingarten apologized. He had written disparagingly about a cuisine which he knew little about. But honestly, not all Indians like or even have sufficient knowledge about all kinds of Indian food. I am no fan of whatever it is they serve in Bangalore in the name of sambhar and know next to nothing about North – Eastern cuisine. That says a lot about my preferences and ignorance but I don’t think I deserve to be raked over the coals for it. Neither does Weingarten. 

 Of course, it is not nice to hurt people for a few laughs but it is equally awful when those committed to making us chortle in these dark times are accused of racism and forced to apologize by humorless posturers. 

 This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express

The Stirring Stories of the Stupendous Six

Kavitha Rao’s Lady Doctors does an excellent job of unearthing the stories of the forgotten pioneers, who paved the way for women in the highly sought after medical profession, braving unbelievable odds to not only achieve their ambition of becoming doctors but raising their voices against a host of societal evils to bring about much needed change. These ladies came from widely differing backgrounds but they were all rebels who dared to embark on a highly unconventional course that met with resistance every step of the way. All were scorned on the basis of their gender, some were forced into child marriage, dealt with abusive husbands, fought the restraints imposed on them by caste and custom, but all soared to hitherto unattained heights and threw open the gates of knowledge and empowerment for women everywhere. 

 Anandibai Joshi was India’s first woman doctor. With the support of her husband, who tended to beat her into realizing his vision for her, she flouted caste rules and went across the ocean to study. A conservative at heart, she adhered to ancient traditions and her religious beliefs indicating a fierceness of spirit that makes it clear that her achievements were her own. And in her gentle way, she spoke out against the tyranny women were subjected too in the domestic sphere and with heartfelt passion insisted that society would benefit from the contribution of its daughters. 

Kadambini Ganguly was a working mother, who was the poster girl of the progressive Brahmo Samaj and enjoyed the support of an understanding spouse. Yet, this mother of eight who was the first to practice as a doctor was branded a whore by a conservative paper. The fiery Rukhmabai Raut dared to walk away from a child marriage, refusing to live with her husband, braving the courts and societal censure levied by the likes of Bal Gangadhar Tilak to pursue her love of learning. Haimabati Sen, widowed at a tender age and cast aside by all, endured poverty and every manner of hardship to make something of herself. 

 Muthulakshmi Reddy, a legend in the South left behind an incredible legacy. She fought a valiant battle to win women the right to vote, abolish child marriage and the Devadasi system and embarked on a number of social welfare schemes that led to the establishment of the monumental Adyar Cancer Institute and Avvai Home for forsaken and destitute girls which continues her excellent work to this day. 

Mary Poonen Lukose, the first Surgeon General and trailblazer’s exemplary work saw the foundation of the health care system and high literacy percentage Kerala can rightly take pride in. While India has no dearth of heroes whose praises are sung on a daily basis with umpteen statues and monuments raised to commemorate their deeds, it is shocking that this legion of extraordinary gentlewomen has been relegated to the forgotten nooks and crannies of history. Rao deserves a medal for her painstaking efforts to scour through the scanty material available on their lives and deeds to reconstruct their magnificent deeds and phenomenal achievements. Thanks to her efforts, memorable portraits of the lady doctors emerge and with a deft touch, Rao also highlights many of the problems pertaining to caste, domestic abuse, and gendered discrimination women face to this day. 

 Modern women will definitely empathize with the struggles endured by the founding mothers of medicine in India, particularly with regard to the harassment they faced, lack of faith in their abilities, being forced to give up hard won honors to soothe ruffled male egos, and walking that tight rope balancing their duties on the personal and professional front which usually called for Herculean effort on their part. It is sad that the more things change the more they remain the same, but thanks to the stupendous six, women will never lack for inspiration to spread their wings, head to the stratosphere and whatever lies beyond. 

 This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Why do Women Put up with It?

Even as the global pandemic continues to leave a trail of destruction, reports reveal an increase in cases of domestic violence across the world, most likely brought on by the emotional toll and isolation of successive lockdowns. Every time, we hear about someone who is in a poisonous relationship, the most frequently asked question is, ‘Why didn’t she leave especially since she risks getting killed if she stays?’ It all seems so simple to those who don’t have to deal with violence. But then again, if a woman were to walk out of her marriage or a messed up relationship, she is damned for being inconstant and incapable of sticking it out for the long haul when it comes to matters of the heart. 

 There is always someone who will then launch into a diatribe on ‘modern’ women who have nothing on the model wives of yore who drank nothing but water sanctified by their husband’s feet, dirt – encrusted and desperately in need of a pedicure though it may be. Then they will compose lengthy Whatsapp forwards to be widely disseminated about how the ravages of Covid may be traced directly to feminists synonymous with wanton women who are responsible for the deterioration of our revered customs which had shielded us thus far from mutating viruses, demons armed with nuclear weapons and assorted apocalyptic scenarios. And all because ‘feminazi’ types refuse to accept that it is a husband’s prerogative to slap his wife around. After all, it is well known that to spare the rod is to spoil the wife. While this kind of reasoning prevails, is it reasonable to expect a woman to save herself and ignore age old precepts binding her to the ironclad dictates of tradition? 

 Experts agree, that it is surprisingly difficult to bail out of an abusive relationship. The reasons are manifold. Often, it is the mere suggestion of leaving that causes the violence to escalate making it a dangerous choice. Victims who have taken a battering emotionally or physically are left feeling that they have no control over their lives. It is common for those who have been brutalized to feel as though they have been reduced to something less than human and suffer from a diminished sense of self-worth. We underestimate the capacity of emotional abuse such as gas lighting to undermine an individual, leaving victims convinced that they are somehow to blame for what happened to them. That it was some error on their part that resulted in a beating or a barrage of verbal abuse. 

 Money is always a factor. Many victims are financially dependent on abusers and are reluctant to break free with no resources to fall back on. Most are simply afraid, cowed by sustained physical assault. Others seem to believe that selfless love is enough to counteract toxic masculinity. Some feel compelled to defend their aggressors because they can be charming and sweet when not inclined to put their woman’s head through a wall. It may even be construed as an act of kindness, if an ice pack is tossed over to ease the throbbing of a wicked bruise. These don’t begin to cover what all the victims are undergoing or the myriad reasons they opt to stay. Only one thing is certain. It will take compassion, concern and all the support in the world to help victims of abuse make it to safety. Not criticism or censure in the name of culture. 

 This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Friday, August 06, 2021

NAVARASA: Bolstered by some Brilliant Performances and Little Else

 

Navarasa now streaming on Netflix

Edhiri: Karuna

I like what the Bard wrote about mercy in The Merchant of Venice– “It is twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” One of the nicest things about being human is the capacity for forgiveness, especially when it is extended to those who are deemed undeserving of it by a spiteful society. Bejoy Nambiar’s Edhiri tells the tale of Dheena, played by a superb Vijay Sethupathi who finds a vent for years of suppressed emotions in an unplanned act of violence and he is left broken to pieces by the crushing burden of remorse. Interestingly enough, the short focuses on Revathi’s character as well, who is directly affected by his actions and the climactic portion reveals that she too is traumatized by the albatross she bears around her neck.

The storyline is engaging and boasts some excellent performances from Sethupathi, Revathi and Prakash Raj and yet, it doesn’t add up to an entirely satisfying whole. The gradual unraveling of multiple layers of angst and agony feels a tad rushed, like the characters would have liked a little more room to breathe…

Summer of 92: Haasya

Priyadharshan’s Summer of 92 has the dubious distinction of being the worst of the lot. Based on an incident from Malayalam actor, Innocent Vareed Thekkethala’s life, it is supposed to be hilarious but it is anything but. Velusamy (Yogi Babu), a successful comedian returns to his native village, is feted in his school and delivers a speech that is supposed to inspire and tickle the funny bone. There are stinky poopy jokes, lame attempts to pass off cruelty to animals as humor, scribbling scandalous gossip on loo walls, and increasingly desperate attempts to make the viewer laugh. Needless to say, none of it works and you venture a tentative smile in relief only when the credits roll.

Project Agni: Adbhuta

Project Agni reveals that director Karthick Naren is a huge fan of Christopher Nolan and his film is what you get, when you get your geek on and spend way too much time poring over the auteur’s work and fan fiction churned out in his honor. The result is a poor man’s Nolan film which is much ado about nothing in particular. Aravind Swamy is a genius type named Vishnu who calls his pal, Krishna (Prasanna) who is with ISRO to tell him about a major scientific breakthrough. Incidentally his assistant is named Kalki. Clearly no grey cells were severely taxed when these names were thought up and the same can be said about the script though there is a lot of talk about the ancient Sumerian civilization, aliens, the laws of time, conscious, subconscious, dream states, etc. It is supposed to come together with an explosive twist but it all fizzles out with a weak pop.

It is too bad because Arvind Swami and Prasanna are remarkable actors who elevate this material to a level of respectability it does not earn.

Payasam: Bhibatsa

Vasanth’s entry is Payasam which is an interesting title since the sweet treat does not normally incite disgust or revulsion. So every time the camera zoomed in on the delicacy bubbling away even as guests who have arrived at a wedding are already drooling in anticipation as they wait for the festivities to be concluded so they can savor it, I expected someone to throw up into it…

It couldn’t have been the easiest rasa to work with but given that one of the characters portrayed by Aditi Balan is a widow who is looked at askance by some of the guests for her “inauspicious” presence at an auspicious event, one can be forgiven for thinking the film might zero in on the disgraceful treatment meted out to widows. However, the story places the spotlight on one man’s (Delhi Ganesh) jealousy over the good fortune of his nephew and his subsequent actions. It is a weird interpretation that never quite sits right.

Peace: Shanthi

Karthik Subburaj takes another stab at making a film about the Eezham conflict after the unmitigated disaster that was Jagame Thanthiram. This time around the results are much better though it is doubtful that a rebel would spend so much time waxing eloquent about the “mannu” they are fighting for. A small rebel faction with Master (Gautham Menon), Nilavan (Simha) and a couple of others are in the hot zone when a little boy crosses their path. He is determined to head into no man’s land in his quest to find his little brother Velaiyan.

It is a dangerous mission but Nilavan risks his life to help him. The twist here is touching and Subburaj should have left well enough alone. Instead he tacks on a climax that is supposed to tug your heartstrings but merely has you rolling your eyes.

Rowthiram: Raudra

Arvind Swami makes an impressive debut as a director with Rowthiram, which is the pick of the lot. Arul (Sreeraam) is an aspiring football player who lives with his down on her luck mum, Chitrama and sister, Anbu. In the opening stretch a bullying boor is attacked with vicious intent by Arul and the film tries to understand the boiling rage that drives this young man. Of all the films, in the anthology this is the one with the most emotional resonance. These are likeable characters who are doing all they possibly can with the wretchedness of their situation. I only wish that the actions of a desperate woman who is willing to do anything for her offspring had not been so harshly judged by the film or said offspring.

Young Sree Raam (you might remember him from Pasanga) does exceptional work here and deserves special mention for more than holding his own against a roster of towering talent.

Inmai: Bhaya

Rathindran Prasad deserves credit for not taking the easy route to conventional horror in depicting Bhaya. Inmai is more ambitious in scope and gently explores the terrifying tendrils of fear that takes shape from guilt, trauma and monsters that lurk in the deepest caverns of memory. A moody, slow – burn of a short that has some truly rousing and effective moments.

Siddharth sinks his teeth into a meaty character and is in fine fettle. Parvathy is not bad but it is Ammu Abhirami (formerly seen in Asuran) who nearly steals the thunder with her electrifying performance and those evocative eyes.

Thunindha Pin: Veera

After all the emotional wattage which prompts you to take a breather between the shorts, Thunindha Pin directed by Sarjun has some high voltage action against the backdrop of a magnificent forest. Vetri (the intense and immensely talented Atharva) is an idealistic rookie who is gung ho about finding himself in the middle of the fighting against the Naxalites. Needless to say he is in for a rude awakening. The conversation between the beleaguered soldier and his captive who refers to himself only as Comrade (Kishore) who is a kingpin among the Naxalites is interesting and Kishore is brilliant. But in terms of portraying conflicting ideologies and the men who are driven by their passionate beliefs the film falls hopelessly short of anything close to satisfying.

Guitar Kambi Mela Nindru: Shringara

Contrary to what a lot of men seem to think, few women would take it as a compliment when an aspiring suitor constantly likens them to their mommas. I wish somebody would tell that to Gautam Vasudev Menon. And I would suggest he read Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex or Freud’s fascinating insights on boys who are fixated on their mothers. Romance is supposed to be his strength and there are a few surprisingly sweet moments here which harken back to his best work but overall this film is a misfire.

Suriya is miscast as a gifted musician who is all set to explode on the international stage. So is Prayaga Martin who plays his love interest, Nethra and simply cannot manage the reaction shots required to sustain a close – up. Karthik’s music with its riffs on Beethoven and Ilaiyaraja is charming but it does not quite manage the feat of conjuring the magic Harris Jayaraj’s did for GVM’s earlier work.

All in all, Mani Ratnam and Jayendra Panchapakesan’s Navarasa is not quite a delicious, nine – course repast but it does deserve props for effort directed towards a worthy cause and some memorable performances.

Abolish the Curse that is Caste

 


Not a day goes by when the news headlines fail to report something about the troubles associated with caste – based discrimination which has forced members of the lower castes to live in poverty, restricted to low – paying menial jobs that are considered undignified and unclean. In 1947, having won freedom from the white sahibs who incidentally considered all the brown chaps to be inferior without exception, India framed a brand new constitution which formally banned the practice of untouchability and other caste – related evils. It was a noble sentiment, even if it did next to no good.

Over seven decades later, not much has changed. The caste system compounded by the class divide remains a pernicious, malignant presence, tainting every single aspect of society. We read about atrocities committed against Dalits, shake our heads dispiritedly over something that happens with unfailing regularity, condemn such diabolical deeds on twitter every time the topic is trending while remarking in private that nothing is ever going to change because caste is too deeply entrenched in our country. Everybody knows a couple or two who married out of their own caste and talk about how their folks were cool about it, which points to a brighter future but even in the Puranic age, these things happened - the exceptions which never changed the status quo.

We must abolish the caste system if there is to be the faintest chance of our great - grandchildren not having to listen to holograms informing them that a Dalit woman was raped and murdered, while her protesting relatives were burnt alive to silence their screams. Again. To rip out such an ancient evil by the roots, we can start by doing away with the community certificate entirely, even if it is there for the ostensible purpose of doing the right thing by the downtrodden via affirmative action programs in educational institutions and the employment sector. The quota system doesn’t really seem to have helped the people it was supposed to. Rather, it has perpetuated the very evil it was designed to prevent.

By ensuring that the caste identity we cling to is eliminated, we may just manage to secure equal rights for all. Future generations will grow up not knowing or caring which caste their ancestors belonged to. And if we can provide quality education for all our youngsters especially the ones who can’t afford it, perhaps in the future, everyone will be guaranteed a fair share of the pie. Or payasam. An added bonus is that the politicians will no longer be able to manipulate the vote banks on the basis of caste. Isn’t that reason enough to burn up those community certificates immediately if not sooner?

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Sarpatta Parambarai A Helluva Fight

 


I like sports flicks even if they are not game – changers in that rousing genre. The Longest Yard, Remember the Titans, Rush, Dodgeball, the entire Rocky franchise and Creed are films I have watched more times than I care to remember. Million – Dollar Baby is one of my all-time fave films and it never fails to reduce me to a miserable puddle of tears. In short, I love sports films, unless they are made in India. Here people do weird things like cast Priyanka Chopra as Mary Kom, give Farhan Akhtar a chance to log in a whole lot of gym time to play Milkha Singh unconvincingly or whoever it was he played in Toofan, etc. Even the critically acclaimed Irudhi Suttru was a disappointment because I felt it was about a lot of things but the boxing itself which it was purportedly all about wound up somewhere at the bottom. Which is why Pa. Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai was a refreshing change.

After the promise Ranjith showed with the excellent Madras, he went on to make the awful Kabali and Kaala which prompted me to set the bar really low for Sarpatta Parambarai but the film, while not lacking in the ideology he cares so much about and which yields mixed results cinematically speaking, treats the material with a certain dignity and has such innate respect for the sport of boxing, you can’t help but be charmed.

Set in the 1970s, against the backdrop of the emergency, Sarpatta Parambarai tells an oft told tale of an underdog, Kabilan (Arya), who rises from the dumps only to fall so that he can rise again. None of this is groundbreaking, but Ranjith can be counted upon to freshen this stuff up. It helps that Ranjith always opts to work with a powerhouse cast. Pasupathy, who plays coach Rangan is just pure dynamite! He conveys so much with his eyes and subtle use of body language, that it is impossible to take your eyes off him. The man is a study in understatement! John Vijay who is an Anglo – Indian father figure to Kabilan is excellent. The supporting cast of boxers - Santhosh Prathap as Raman, John Kokken as Vembuli and Shabeer Kallarakkal as Dancing Rose are so good, they easily eclipse Arya who is in his element in the training montages and inside the ring where he does a decent job of conveying intensity and aggression but in all the other scenes it is obvious that he is the lightweight among an impressive array of heavyweights. He is particularly horrendous in a scene where he has an emotional meltdown and wallows in self-pity. But the good thing about his character is that he is no saint, and despite his sins, you do root for him.

Kabilan’s journey is an impressive one although I found it hard to swallow that a rookie could take out pros in successive rounds with next to no training. Why do we keep showing this in our films? It doesn’t happen that way folks. Excellence in sports takes so much more than talent, aggression or inspiration. Boring things like endless training, hard work and dedication are called for. A couple of training montages before a big match is just not going to cut it. Just once, I would like to see a protagonist who lives, eats, sleeps, breathe his chosen sport allowing for no distractions. I doubt a project like that would be green – lit but I daresay it takes just that kind of maniacal commitment to achieve sporting glory!

Be that as it may, of course we have to talk about the caste as well as class divide that is always present felt in Ranjith’s films. There are characters like Thanigan (Vettai Muthukumar) who would prefer the likes of Kabilan to beg for alms in front of their homes, shovel up cow dung or slave for them but draw the line at him going on to represent and win for their Sarpattai clan. His devilry to stop the progress of Kabilan is reprehensible, unpalatable and in the climatic stretch, somewhat unconvincing. One wishes Ranjith would temper his passionate beliefs with just a touch of balanced perspective because ironically, while he has raised his voice against those who would trod upon the rights of lower caste members and blue – collar workers, he seems to endorse those boxing clans like ‘Sarpatta parambarai’, ‘Idiyappa parambarai’ etc. though it is almost a given that it must be a struggle for aspiring boxers to gain acceptance to these clans with the inordinate pride some of them take in their identity and their reluctance to let outsiders in. Sounds familiar? I have always wondered at the bias displayed by people who raise their voice against bias.

That aside, critics always rave about the ‘powerful’ women characters in Ranjith’s films but I beg to differ. Bakkiyam (Anupama Kumar) as Kabilan’s mum, Mariamma (Dushara Vijayan) his wife and even, Sanchana Natrajan who plays another character’s wife while solid performers are given nothing to do but scream and berate the men in their lives in an endless litany. The interminable shrieking is at the shrillest pitch possible and really grates on the nerves. It is commendable that these women make the men earn their respect, but I would have appreciated them more had they gone about it in a less hysterical manner. And I really wish, that a woman who repeatedly whacks her son with a broomstick isn’t applauded as ‘feisty’. Abuse is abuse whether it is a man or woman meting it out and I wish folks would stop treating it like a perfectly acceptable thing.

However, grouses notwithstanding, Sarpatta Parambarai has some beautiful moments. I loved that Dancing Rose berates his buddy’s less than honourable conduct while later bolstering the same fallen comrade by telling him that there is no shame in a loss if you have fought with honor and given the best you have got. I misted up at that. Incidentally, he is the only character who is a decent sport. Everyone else with their mulish clannishness including the hero would have done better to exalt the sport of boxing more than their petty rivalries.

Another aside worthy of a mention is when coach Rangan returns from jail and has a private moment with his wife, where they exchange a look of heart melting fondness though they are in the middle of a crowd… Ranjith does his best work when he brings out these small, intimate moments that establish the bonds shared by his characters and these triumph over the more epic stretches he stages though they are effective too. Ultimately, Sarpatta Parambarai may not quite deliver a knockout punch but it is definitely a helluva fight!

 

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Equal Parts Brilliant and Problematic

 


I’ll start by admitting to being a huge Quentin Tarantino fan. I have watched and rewatched his films so often, I can probably write a thesis on his work in my sleep. I’ll also confess that with The Hateful Eight and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it seemed to me like the auteur was losing his touch. Especially since his work was never characterized by emotional range or soul – stirring substance and with these two duds, no amount of his quirkiness and trademark flamboyance seemed adequate for the task of making amends for the overriding superficiality smothered in swagger and style.

Even so, when Tarantino announced that he was making the transition from auteur to author, I was intrigued, for obvious reasons. And the man, didn’t disappoint. The book is impossible to put down and the novel format is perfectly suited to Tarantino’s love for lavish detail, verbose asides to meditate on the minutiae and making of films, tendency to digress from the main narrative for long detours into Hollywood by lanes for some shop talk and celeb worship. Unlike the movie, with its leisurely to the point of lethargic pace, he cranks it up a notch while drawing his readers by hand into the inner lives of his characters. There is Rick Dalton, the actor whose career is headed towards the rocks, Cliff Booth, the stuntman and Dalton’s sympathetic sidekick who may be a little too good at killing and Trudi Fraser, the memorable child actor who schools Dalton on method acting and expresses her aversion to being referred to as ‘Pumpkin Puss’. All of them make for intriguing companions.

Tarantino’s pen lingers on the real life figures as well – Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski, Charles Manson and his ‘lost girls’, although the attempt is less heartening. Manson, for instance he dismisses as a hack who would have sold his immortal soul, existential philosophy which was supposed to herald a new order and his adoring followers for a record deal he does not have the talent to secure. All this makes for riveting reading and turns out to be an incredibly visual experience comparable to watching and having your mind blown by the best of his films.

Tarantino has long reveled in being a provocateur, and his unapologetic audacity is his biggest strength, giving his work a raw honesty that is shorn of anything remotely resembling wokeness or political correctness. After all, he is the guy who saw fit to rewrite the history of World War II as an outrageous revenge fantasy but every once in a while, his penchant for lowbrow cinephilia and consequent creative decisions can be in surpassingly poor taste. Never has it been more apparent than in his portrayal of Bruce Lee in the film version of OUATIH which had the departed superstar’s daughter, Shannon Lee up in arms against Tarantino for the disrespect and blatant mockery of a bona fide legend who battled impossible odds to achieve his cult status but unfortunately, did not live long enough to see his efforts pay off. As always, Tarantino stuck to his guns, and has doubled down in his book to make a case for Bruce Lee suffering from an inflated ego and insisting he was disrespectful to American stuntmen, who he claims refused to work with Lee because he would purposely tag them in fight scenes (landing real blows with his fist and feet).

Tarantino claims he has plenty of evidence to support his claims regarding Lee but be that as it may, one can’t help but think this is unfair to Bruce Lee. The glam factory, like the rest of society has always been hard on those belonging to minority groups, failing to recognize their talent or giving them opportunities to shine and holding them to ridiculous standards while conversely, their white counterparts are literally allowed to get away with murder. This is exactly the sort of systemic racism, actors with the ‘wrong’ skin color have battled for eons now. And the decision to have Mike Moh portray Lee and his trademark mannerisms with exaggerated excess to achieve a certain caricaturist effect sticks in the craw especially if you are a rabid fan of the great martial artist (like me) even if it is to establish that Cliff Booth as a war veteran with medals of valor to prove his prowess as a killer can easily take the Dragon out. In light of the tragic fate that overcame Bruce Lee and later, his son, Brandon Lee, this whole arc is insensitive, to say the least.

It is particularly galling given how unabashedly sympathetic Tarantino is to Cliff Booth himself, who definitely murdered his wife (this scene is mined for romance and it is an outrageous flourish that is wildly entertaining and surprisingly sweet) and has killed three civilians and managed to escape the law every single time. Worse, is Tarantino’s near slavish devotion to Hollywood’s golden couple of the 60s – Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. He clearly has nothing but respect for the former and love for the latter (who is never less than a beautiful, blonde angel), evident in his treatment of both which is disconcerting with regard to Polanski. Tarantino takes great pains to pay suitable tribute to a fellow auteur (I confess to being an admirer of Polanski’s brilliant body of work myself) and establish his undeniable genius but in a departure from his garrulous style keeps mum about the Polish director’s conviction for the rape of a minor which resulted in him absconding from the USA.

Naturally, this makes one wonder why Polanski merits such adoration while Lee was hauled over the coals for allegedly being disrespectful to American stuntmen who in all fairness are more than likely to have treated him with less than the respect that was his due, since at the time Lee was a ‘Chinaman’ working as the Green Hornet’s sidekick. It just smacks of racist and exploitative overtones, given that Tarantino famously trotted out Uma Thurman clad in the iconic yellow jumpsuit Lee wore in The Game of Death, for his smash hit, Kill Bill, which was marketed as a homage to the martial arts legend.

Even more disturbing is Tarantino’s cavalier treatment of the pedophilia rampant in Hollywood. He asserts that Charles Manson used his underage girls as ‘catnip’, pimping them out to those who may serve his ends. Naturally, since he is the villain of the piece, none of this is glorified but the entire thing becomes a shade off - putting when an underage character insists on being called ‘Pussycat’. She offers sexual favors to Booth, who in an uncharacteristic move demands that she show him proof of her age before turning her down. This character then goes on to reveal that she had a sexual relationship with Charles Manson at the age of 14 and proceeded to marry someone (at the cult leader’s suggestion) and dump him shortly after, because the move would ‘free’ her to escape her parents and join him and his hippie followers. At no point, is it suggested that she is a victim on account of her age, susceptible to the machinations of smarmy cult leaders. Instead she is portrayed as a poster girl of the degenerate hippie culture Tarantino clearly despises.

This attitude of the auteur turned author becomes even more troubling when Mirabella Lancer aka Trudi Fraser, an eight-year-old actor gets her flirt on (in the book) with the much older Dalton, her co - star. She talks to him of love and marriage while going off script in an exercise to understand their characters better and later, calls him at an unearthly hour for the ostensible purpose of reading their lines together so they can kill it on the next day’s shoot. Dalton protests very weakly about the inappropriateness of it all before indulging her request. While it is apropos that the inappropriateness of it all has been stressed, it also makes the reader wonder if Booth was not speaking for Tarantino himself when he admits to liking a fictional character, who is “unconsciously racist, consciously misogynist”. After all, at the end of the day, Tarantino can really be an INGLOURIOUS BASTERD of the highest order, even when he is at his dazzling best.