Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The Little Things is a Gargantuan Fail


Sometimes, it is hard to decide what to watch on Netflix/Amazon Prime/Disney – Hotstar etc. because there seem to be way too many choices but nothing that is really worth your while. So you are happy when a film like The Little Things comes along because Denzel Washington plays the lead. And if that were not enough, Rami Malek who was brilliant in Bohemian Rhapsody and Jared Leto (you hope he is chomping at the bit to make amends for his horrendous turn as the Joker) round out the trio of luminous Academy Award winners. Naturally, you have to watch the film and hope that your expectations aren’t doomed to damnation and it is not a criminal waste of time.

Unfortunately, The Little Things disappoints at every turn. Joe Deacon (Washington) who was a bit of a legend back in the day as an L.A cop is caught in a downward spiral after getting divorced from his wife, botching a major case and suffering a heart attack. Currently, he is out in the boondocks at a place called Bakersfield stuck in a dead end job for a man of his supposedly superior talents. But when a serial killer on the loose, is making merry and racking up a body count, Deacon finds himself in the thick of things. Naturally, he is haunted by his past and sees victims from his cases at his cheap lodgings. It has gotten to a point where it seems there is no lead character be it in a movie or series who is not weighed down by a horde of demons from the past.

Jim Baxter (Malek) meanwhile, is a star on the rise but though wary at first, he is drawn to Deacon whom he has very effectively replaced and they form a partnership. Before long, the duo zero in on the prime suspect, a creepy dude with the required crazy eyes and serial killer vibe named Albert (Leto). What follows is supposed to be a thrilling cat and mouse chase with applause worthy gravitas but it is largely a drab and dour snooze fest that goes nowhere.

The Director John Lee Hancock has trouble finding his footing from the get go. He seems intent on striking a self – important note, trying to prove that the material is above the usual stuff in this genre, offering something more substantial than the cheap thrills and guilty pleasures afforded by standard slasher fare by modeling it along the lines of Seven. However, the somberness and tacked on solemnity notwithstanding, the film is nowhere near as smart as it wants to be. Neither is it remotely satisfying since it lands with an ungainly thud in the no – man’s land between highbrow and trashy entertainment.

As for the triple threat match between the three Academy award winners, it is Denzel for the win. The man is incapable of turning in a lousy performance and were it not for him, this film would be unwatchable. He has a certain flair for elevating the most unpromising of material and making every frame he is in, shine. There is a scene where he is the recipient of an unexpected kiss from a sweet little girl and the unguarded tenderness and delight he effortlessly evinces convinces you that few actors can simply be in the moment and respond organically like a real person would the way he can.

Malek and Leto would do well to learn from the master. The former is so mannered it is painful to watch him and one shudders at the prospect of him taking up the challenge of playing an effective Bond villain. Leto’s exaggerated manner and desperation to prove that he is deserving of another Academy award is even more excruciating.

The trio plod to a problematic climax that would have raised a lot of disturbing questions about acceptable behavior from cops with compromised moral compasses had it been effective. But since it is a crash and burn, there is nothing to do but walk away from The Little Things without a backward glance and smack yourself on the head for not choosing better.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Mare of Easttown: A Morbid Murder Melodrama that Mostly Works


Mare of Easttown (Disnay Hotstar) may be described as a murder mystery but it works more as a drama, or more accurately, a melodrama. Marianne (only her mother calls her that) Sheehan played by Kate Winslet is quite a character, holding on to more pain than she can bear after losing her son to drugs, depression and suicide, going through a divorce, raising a grandson whose drug addict mom wants him back and handling a demanding career which comes with crushing pressure to deliver while shouldering the grief and trauma of others. She has been dealing with mounting public fury over the case of a girl who has been missing for over a year, led by the victim’s mother. If all that were not enough, Mare is called in when a teenager and single mom is found dead. The suspects include Dylan, the father of her child, his girlfriend Biranna who assaulted her hours before her death, a Priest with a suspicious past who gave her a ride to the scene of her death, and Mare’s ex – husband who was buying things for the victim’s baby and is suspected of being the actual father.

Kate Winslet is extraordinary. It is refreshing to see a lead actress who has not lived on celery stalks all her life or been botoxed to within an inch of her life to give the failed impression of reluctantly imprisoned youth. She looks like her character – an exhausted woman who does not have the strength to bother with her appearance or even run a comb through her hair which is mostly scrunched up into a messy pony tail. The crows’s feet, wrinkles, and excess pounds are allowed to show and yet, Winslet is resplendent like only she can be as she delivers a powerhouse of a performance, making the viewer empathize and root for Mare, even when she is at her most intractable or unlikeable.

Thanks to Winslet and a wonderful supporting cast which includes the likes of Evan Peters (you will remember him as the delightful Quicksilver from X –Men), who plays Detective Colin Zabel, brought in because the powers that be feel Mare needs more than a little help and Jean Smart, Mare’s mum, Helen ensure that the seven – part series is never less than engrossing. Both these characters bring in some much needed humor to lighten the proceedings which is otherwise a bleak, unsparing look at small – town America devastated by drug troubles, poverty, crime and other horrors which will always be beyond anybody’s ability to fix.

Yet, for all its pluses, Mare of Easttown leaves the viewer feeling somewhat unsatisfied and flat. The big reveal in the end is also not as devastating as it might have been. Perhaps it was overkill with all the concentrated angst that was packed into every one of the subplots… So many characters with a drug habit and suicidal tendencies. So much poverty and unremitting hardship. So many broken relationships. Such overwhelming pain, rage, grief and bitterness. With young girls driven to prostitution by desperation and murderers who kill because they are simply evil and also for reasons that are profoundly moving, it gets to be a little too much. Buffeted with a relentless stream of distress, the viewer switches off after a point and a key character’s sudden demise does not have the impact it ought to have.

With the tragedies getting piled on, one is hard – pressed to believe that every character on the show has to deal with so much destructive crap on a daily basis. After all, one of the biggest issues with life is that too many have to deal with boring monotony and the sameness of a humdrum existence for too long to the point where the prospect of sordid drama actually sounds enticing. In Mare of Easttown though, one character is dealing not just with the trauma of a missing daughter but is simultaneously battling cancer. Another has to deal with family trouble brought on by a junkie brother who is stealing from her and scamming her friend whose daughter is missing etc. Mare’s best friend has to cope with a cheating spouse, a daughter who has Down’s syndrome and is being bullied in school and a son who is acting up because he is privy to a very adult secret. You would think that the writers couldn’t possibly add to her cup of suffering but they do! The hits just keep coming for Mare and everyone in her life and after a point it is one too many.

This is definitely the golden age of television, but I am afraid that a recent trend is that a lot of purportedly good shows suffer from way too much writing and the result is a certain gassiness that is hard to take. Character arcs suffer too because so much mandatory care – laden baggage is crammed into their backstories. But despite the bloat, Mare of Easttown is worth watching. Because, if I haven’t mentioned it already, Kate Winslet is in it.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Treasured Trifles


During the course of the pandemic, some have had it better than others. And they are reminded of it constantly. The loss and bereavement left in the wake of Covid and its mutant strains has been chronicled with punctilious effort across the digital network, making it impossible to remain unscathed by the volcanic eruption of collective grief over the passing of loved ones, lost opportunities, reduced circumstances and dead dreams. It is a harrowing time marked by a voluminous outpouring of sorrow. Most try to do what they can to offer comfort or a kind word. The more empathetic absorb the sadness into their own hearts to lighten the burden of others. Subsequently, there is a miasmic heaviness of spirit that affects all and an overwhelming buildup of compassion fatigue that afflicts not just those who are in the line of fire and committed to helping victims of the pandemic but even among those who are stuck at home with loaded pantries and unlimited screen time.

There is mounting pressure to be positive at all times and count thy blessings which are usually manifold, when taken by themselves and particularly so in light of the tragedy suffered by others. Which is why the so – called trivial losses which might include a cancelled vacation, dancing at a relative’s wedding, a chance to avail of a scholarship to study abroad, even the disruption of a routine life which included regular trips to the mall or shooting the breeze with friends tends to be dismissed. If folks are inclined to dwell on all the fun they missed out on over the course of the past year and a half, there are attendant feelings of guilt and a proclivity not to acknowledge private regret for all the things one might have looked forward to or lost out on. Because the paltry even if precious is not supposed to matter when weighted against the big picture. 

However, the truth is every individual is the sun, moon and stars in his/her/insert gender – neutral pronoun world and all else spins around this nucleus of the all - important self. A toothache may attain far more significance than all the starving people on the planet or the sad predicament of children left orphaned by the pandemic. The ennui that sets in from being holed up at home, frustration over thwarted aspirations humble though they may have been, loneliness that creeps in on cat’s paws even when close to loved ones, yearning for a means that currently doesn’t seem available to drink more deeply from the cup of life… these persistent feelings are by no means insignificant and it does not reflect badly on anyone to grieve. For what could have been. What wasn’t. And what might never be.

This column was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Jagame Thanthiram: Goofy Gangsters who are not sure if they are into Gore or Gooey Sentiment


Karthik Subbaraj is an ideas man. This is evident at the conceptual level of his arresting body of work which abound with some doozies and yet, none of it really amounts to anything in his films. I blame his writing skills (or rather it’s lack) for the failure of his intriguing ideas from cohering into an entirely satisfying movie. It is just too bad because parts of Jagame Thanthiram shine with Subbaraj’s especial brand of flamboyance, whackiness and singular stamp as a director who is almost always worth paying attention to.

Jagame Thanthiram starring Dhanush who has a whale of a time playing the petty gangster Suruli who finds himself working for a white supremacist after a truly asinine sequence of events, has difficulty making up its mind about the kind of film it wants to be. On the one hand you have the murderous gangsters who are stuffed to the gills with coolth (it is a distracting Tarantino hangover, because nowadays even Tarantino seems to find it difficult to pull off what he used to with such inimitable flair) and then you have the sentiment and seriousness surrounding weighty issues like racism, anti – immigration politics and the refugee crisis. The tonal shifts between the two are so jarring it makes it impossible to enjoy the fun parts or take the serious portions seriously.

Suruli is a somewhat unconvincing creation though Dhanush does his best and has some exemplary moments when he is not himself nursing a Rajnikanth hangover. His character is a clever, cruel, callous fellow who is always saying witty stuff moments before blowing a guy’s brains out or making homemade bombs to blast his enemies into oblivion, snorting with laughter after being dumped on the day before his wedding and thinking nothing of betraying someone if the price is right. It is all supposed to be good fun, yet, inexplicably a sob story is all it takes to make him turn over a new leaf while retaining all those savage elements of his earlier persona. At various points in the movie he is referred to as a rat but one character tells him he should try being a fox (or was it a wolf?) and this becomes a mutant metaphor for Suruli as well as Jagame Thanthiram because both fail to come together given the unmixable mix that went into the composition.

Aishwarya Lekshmi, plays the heroine who is named Attila (after the Hun?) and has more to do than is usual in a Tamil film committed to worshipping on the altar of the hero’s star power, but I am tired of being grateful for small mercies. Her role is to propel the narrative forward with a flashback about war – torn Lanka and the ensuing refugee crisis. But it is hard to buy any of her actions. After all she has been through it seems unlikely that she would be in such a tearing hurry to hand over her heart to a trigger – happy, violent gangster with a history of screwing people over just because he professed to being cool with her widowed state and bought her son a gift. Like the others in this film, she has her murderous moments too and they are every bit as convincing as her lovesick state.

Normally, white men in Tamil films are caricatures and the English dialogue is hard on the ears. Despite some effort to amend this sorry state, Peter Sprott who is the big bad racist gangster played by James Cosmo is a bit of a caricature and the dialogue is embarrassing in places and no amount of f – bombs dropped with casual abandon can salvage the situation. And seeing the man wield an ‘aruvaal’ to slay a rival gangster was unintentionally hilarious.  

Subbaraj is obsessed with his twists and they worked in his first film, Pizza but these have been yielding diminishing returns since then in addition to compromising the emotional arcs of his characters. A veteran gangster makes an inexplicable decision to place his trust in one who has just slaughtered some of his best men including his right hand. So when he pays the price for it, you are not moved enough to get worked up on his account even though he makes a powerful point about treachery being the bane of his people just before he croaks. For similar reasons it is hard to respond to the ubiquitous ‘mother sentiment’ when a mother is waxing eloquent about how murder and thievery are forgivable because circumstances drive a man to do these things whereas treason is never justified.

Of course, some of Subbaraj’s messages which have been shoehorned into this unwieldy mess of a movie are laudable. I liked Suruli’s remark in response to a character who tells him that some among the British resent that their beautiful, shiny white country has been ‘blackened and browned’ by immigrants. He points out that the Brits seemed happy enough when they had conquered as well as looted India and attempted to whitewash it. In another instance, Suruli makes an excellent point about how Indians ought to root out their caste bias because outside India so many Indians are treated the way the lower castes are treated here. Some of the dialogue teems with wit and the occasional scene crackle with energy and Subbaraj’s trademark inventiveness. Santhosh Narayanan’s music is a plus and works wonderfully to create mass moments. In places, it even elevates the mediocre material. Overall though, Jagame Thanthiram has too many misses and far fewer hits, making this oddball venture a massive letdown.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Worthwhile Pursuits

When in lockdown mode, I always promise myself that I am going to make it to the other side having padded up my resume to sizeable proportions in addition to pursuing worthwhile pursuits that don’t include wishing that this is all over. The idea is to eat right, work out diligently, follow it up with yoga and meditation, read as many books as possible, write up a storm and churn out a Booker Prize winner, take a class to learn how to invest my meagre income brilliantly, practice my adavus diligently so that I am not the despair of my dance teacher, spend quality time with family members and reach out to friends for support while the rest of my country deals with an Apocalypse Now type situation.

In the interest of furthering my noble ideals, I swore off social media and WhatsApp because it became increasingly obvious that it is entirely possible to while away all of time while doom scrolling on Twitter or checking WhatsApp forwards for anything that is remotely interesting or true. This precipitous decision was further prompted by the suspicion that I am eventually going to disappear into the digital void leaving only my spectacles behind in the physical realm we occupy. Plus, the fact, that I now consider a day to have been productive if I remember to wash my hair.

It wasn’t too much of an ordeal, especially since I am allowed OTT. I played more with my pups and talked to my daughters about how the pandemic is making us all feel besieged, which is why we all need to remember to be nice to each other, stay calm, blah, blah. It was quite the rousing speech, and I felt the kids had totally imbibed the wisdom I was trying to impart. But that was before they got into a shouting match and swore they were no longer sisters. I would have intervened but I was busy fighting the husband for the last scoop of dark chocolate gelato. 

When one is not vertical scrolling away to ignominy, there is plenty of time to reflect. I realized that I haven’t done any of the things I was supposed to have done by now. There has never been a good time to follow through on my plan to make like Ibn Battuta or Marco Polo to explore the unknown. I am yet to learn French cooking at Le Cordon Bleu or earn a doctorate in Criminal Psychology. I still can’t drive a car to save my life and haven’t rocked a pair of stilettos ever. These things make you question your entire existence. Which is why I decided to write about it in a bid to make today feel like it counted. A little.

This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Choose Hope over Hate and Hurt


Currently, India is on its knees, rocked by a new vicious strain of a virus on a rampage which has led to a national catastrophe and a terrifying spike in the infection and mortality rate. Every time somebody calls, sends a message or puts up a desperate post on social media it is either a plea for help or dire tidings. The worst part is this unmitigated disaster could have been averted with a little advance planning and common sense. They warning signs were there after all, but the government was busy patting itself and sanctioning the building of central vistas to commemorate its successes. The citizenry, convinced that Coronasura had been beaten engaged in reckless, irresponsible behavior. Now the entire nation is besieged by disease and heartbreak.

It is bad enough the response to the renewed threat has been shockingly inept with hospitals and health care personnel hopelessly overwhelmed and the ineffectual vaccine rollout seeing less than two percent of the populace vaccinated. But there is worse. Heartless black marketers are stealing and selling lifesaving drugs and oxygen cylinders at exorbitant prices while all around there are desperate people trying to save their loved ones. Experts are predicting 1 million deaths from Covid -  19 by August while there are others who are insisting that we crossed that figure already.

Yet, it would never do for us to give up and surrender to hopelessness or anger. Because to do so would be to run full tilt into an even greater tragedy. Now more than ever, we need to believe that we can still turn things around. To do that, we need to have faith in ourselves and those around us. We need to pitch in and help in whatever way we can. Share information and resources on social media not vitriol and fake news. If possible help by preparing nutritious meals for the sick and frontline workers, instead of criticizing others. Reach out to the less fortunate with money or timely aid and help them access essentials like food, medicine, a good internet connection or a lifesaving vaccination shot. Amplify the voices of those in need and question those in power when confronted with evidence of incompetence or rampant corruption.

 If you don’t feel like doing any of these things because you are scared senseless and you just want to stay at home and vegetate in front of Netflix for a momentary respite from a world that is crumbling around you, that is fine too. At times like this, we need to support each other. And when it gets to be too much let us remember that the bad thing about good times is they don’t last and the good thing about bad times is they don’t last either.

This column was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Battling the Rodent Menace


These are bizarre times. Headlines heavily laden with alarm inform us that India is battling a record Covid surge that makes 2020 look like a dream year. Hospitals are running out of beds, oxygen, and anti – viral drugs like Remdesivir while the infection and death toll is steadily mounting. There are urgent calls for increased vaccine rollouts even as concerns are raised regarding the risk of blood – clots from the AstraZeneca jab (Covishield in India). The situation is dire, but you wouldn’t believe it judging by the widespread participation in innumerable political rallies and religious gatherings held across the length and breadth of the country. Hundreds of thousands congregated on the banks of the Ganga in Haridwar to celebrate the Kumbh Mela while large crowds religiously attended super spreader election rallies held in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and West Bengal, blithely ignoring safety norms. And that is not all.

Most people who were haphazard about using masks and practicing social distancing to start with, seem to have given up completely and go about their business, determined to ignore the menace that is this pandemic. Celebs vacation in Maldives and Goa, ‘inspiring’ their followers to live it up instead of cowering at home, terrified of an allegedly killer virus that has stubbornly and inconveniently refused to disappear in a puff of smoke.

Those godawful pics of naked sadhus and devotees cavorting in the river, the crowds thronging election campaigns and similar displays of folks flagrantly flouting health protocols evincing a blatant disregard for the greater good makes one wonder about India and Indians. Over the past few years, we have taken to bragging about the glories of our culture, heritage and civilization conveniently choosing to ignore the harsh reality. Which is that as a nation and people, we more closely resemble the armies of rats converging en masse on towering garbage dumps given to public defecation, a tendency to mindlessly procreate, a propensity for spreading disease and causing endless pandemonium with reckless disregard for rules. It is a crying shame and a scathing indictment of us, as supremely unworthy citizens.

Perhaps, now that we have taken a good look at ourselves and vomited copiously, we can work towards being a better version of ourselves. Education is key and it is worrying that educational institutions have been shut for over a year now. With digital access lacking for students in impoverished households, most risk being left behind even as the rest of India plods on with callous indifference. And it is not only the young who need educating. We need to give serious thought about ensuring that adults can aspire to become political leaders, parents, devotees and sexually active individuals only after completing requisite courses to minimize their innate capacity for screwing up.

 This column was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Thoughts on Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan


How do I put this? Karnan is one of the best films I have seen in recent times and truly deserving of that over used phrase ‘epic’. A towering tale of oppression with a protagonist (played by Dhanush) who is one among the downtrodden and refuses to take the path of least resistance, inspiring the others in his tiny village to rise with him, the film is often hard to watch. The opening scene features a little girl in her death throes while the rest of the world is callously indifferent, literally trundling along the highway of life and it sets the tone for what is to follow. A skinny, hooded fellow is being taken away by the cops. There is blood on his hands and the cops are shown at their brutal worst as they beat the handcuffed man to within an inch of his life. You shudder at that display of graphic violence so reminiscent of what happened to Jayaraj and Benix and set aside your cheese popcorn which suddenly tastes like privilege.

Mari Selvaraj’s craftsmanship is excellent and he seldom sets a wrong foot forward. Unlike most others in the Tamil film industry who have handled this sensitive subject, there is no sense of propaganda, torture porn, or excessive messaging in place of good cinema. With infinite sensitivity and command over his narrative, he portrays the damning divide between the haves and have – nots. Even in the 90s, in the fictional village of Podiyankulam, these wretched people have none of the things that most of us take for granted. There is no electricity or running water in their homes, education has been denied to them for generations, and there are no hospital facilities for miles. All they want is a bus stop so they can get the hell out of there in search of jobs, send their kids to school, take a heavily pregnant woman to a hospital or simply make a better life for themselves and their own. But they are systematically thwarted at every turn by those who would rather see them remain slaves to their whims. It is hard on the conscience and a slap in the face of a smug society and its fat cats gobbling away with unlimited greed, the limited resources of a land that has failed its poor.

Karnan is replete with rich emotional content and the writing is exquisite for even smaller characters are etched with delicate strokes that takes you into the heart of the other India that we have all left behind. The hero’s older BFF (played by Lal) has never forgotten his dead wife, Manjanathi and there is a tender moment between him and a sweet old woman who calls him Manjanathi ‘purusha’ (husband) which reduced me to a puddle of goo. The cops have shades to them too and Mari Selvaraj rises above the common tendency to portray everything in black and white. All the villagers are not paragons of virtue. Some are cowardly and self – serving. One among them makes an inappropriate suggestion to the hero pertaining to his sister and is bashed up for his impertinence but this character played by Yogi Babu has his moment of redemption. Even among the cops, there are those who don’t have the stomach to see helpless citizens bashed up just because an officer’s ego has been bruised. Said officer would like to have been seated while conducting an inconvenient interrogation but his needs are forgotten when the youth sent to fetch a chair is called by his bedridden grandmother who needs help answering a call of nature. The expression on the cop’s face is priceless and the scene is gut – wrenching for it portends what is to follow.

The villages led by Karnan are not above taking the law into their own hands, so great is their rage at having been failed repeatedly by the law, bureaucratic red tape and a country and its people who are perfectly content to leave them behind in the dirt. In the pre – interval stretch said to have been inspired by the Kodiyankulam riots of 1995, a bus is stopped with a hurled stone and even as the passengers flee in terror, the vehicle is attacked and taken apart by a horde of angry young men in an act of wanton terrorism that somehow feels inevitable. It is terrifying, especially when you can’t help but think that if this is based on real events, then there must have been casualties unlike in the movie where everybody save the attackers have melted away into the surroundings…

The performances are excellent. Dhanush is extraordinary whether he is playing the savior of his people, or the angry youth with a loving side to him or in a tearful dance at the climactic portions where he conveys the anguish of one who is painfully aware of how much his people and he himself have lost and the heavy price paid for a few gains that those more fortunate than them have taken for granted for yonks. It is powerful, poignant and heartbreaking stuff. This is one actor who seems to have committed himself to creating a superlative body of work for himself and his efforts have paid off in rich dividends for himself as well as cinema lovers. Natarajan Subramaniam, who plays the bad cop deserves mention for a wonderful performance too as do the rest of a well-cast ensemble.

Did I mention the music? Santosh Narayanan’s score is tremendously rousing and used wonderfully. Kanda Vara Sollunga is an instant classic and I keep hearing it in my head. The other tracks are also monster hits and they work even better onscreen and contribute to a satisfying theatrical experience.

Much has been made of the fact, that this film is an interpretation of Karna from the Mahabharata. There are characters named Duryodhana, Draupadi, Abhimanyu, and the villain is Kannabiran, and the director’s purpose in doing so, appears to be to question the existing status quo and our own definition of right and wrong when it comes to those with power and money and those who lack these. Of course, the role of religion in enforcing an ancient evil that is the caste system is also examined and Mari Selvaraj subverts traditional religious tropes by depicting headless deities and grama devatas who are usually those among them whose tragic fate have seen them elevated to Godhood. The visual imagery and heavy – handed symbolism is overdone in parts and I would have liked a closer look at the struggles of women in this milieu but these are minor quibbles in a film like Karnan where so much works beautifully. Take a bow, Mari Selvaraj. Karnan, which follows on the heels of his remarkable Pariyerum Perumal, is a powerful film which is going to haunt me for a long time.

Dealing with Indecisiveness


It is hard for me to make up my mind. Should I go bonkers, cooped up at home during the pandemic or risk getting infected by stepping out and living a little? Should I work harder on losing the weight I piled on during the lockdown or encourage myself to love mine own self even if said self is dangerously close to bursting at the seams? Should I follow through on my occasional urge to leave home with nothing more than my backpack (and all the credit cards and cash I can stuff into it) to explore the furthermost contours of the world or stay put and continue to cope with the humdrum monotony of the daily grind?

Shaking my head like a Bollywood heroine in the utmost throes of theatrical despair, I scold myself a little for being obsessed with pathetic non - issues that are of little consequence to anyone other than me. Then I turn my attention to whatever is trending on Twitter, figuring it has to be better than Instagram and Facebook, which have perfected the art of packaging envy incited by filtered images that give the impression of perfect bodies and lives, and using it to sell overpriced products which will supposedly give us the superficial satisfaction that only pretend perfection can. Twitter is always interesting for those who thrive on chaos or depend on it for stimulating ideas that can be worked into columns. It can also be conflicting as hell.

Is the HBO documentary Allen Vs Farrow a scathing indictment of a predator who groomed and married his step – daughter in addition to molesting his own daughter or is it PR/ activism on behalf of Farrow given how much key information has been omitted that may have exonerated Allen? Is Megan Markle a poor little rich girl who is a victim of racism and violation of privacy or is she merely playing the victim and bemoaning the loss of her privacy while revealing intimate details about the sex of her unborn child to the entire world? Did Kamaraj, a Zomato delivery executive punch Hitesha and break her nose or did she whack him with a slipper and injure herself to grab some sympathy likes for herself?

Perhaps, it would be simpler to fixate on my own stuff. Should I humble brag about an award I have been nominated for? Or acknowledge that I don’t have a shot against my brilliant fellow nominees and forget about begging everyone I know and don’t to cast their votes for me? I could always listen to my mother and disappear into a weight loss facility. Or stock up on Patanjali products that promise solutions for everything from obesity to finding inner peace and making up one’s mind.

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Unpromising Politics


If you have the stomach for it and tend not to throw up when confronted with all things revolting, it is always amusing to watch politicians in action when elections are around the corner. They step out wearing crisp ethnic wear, sporting bad dye/toupee jobs, palms folded together reverentially, flashing sincere fake smiles while waving from top open vehicles, trundling past giant hoardings of their photo-shopped selves and strategically placed loud - speakers promising the citizens that the candidate is ‘The One’.

These sterling individuals who repeatedly reiterate their unswerving commitment to making their constituencies an indubitable slice of heaven are usually accompanied by a motley crew of not – quite gentlemen togged out in ill – fitting traditional gear in assorted hues of white the supposed color of purity, flaunting sunglasses, gold jewelry and the odd recurved blade or two, which their attire doesn’t quite conceal. These bear an uncanny resemblance to ruffians in masala movies who serve as the muscle/fawning toadies of the villains who are mostly there to impress upon the masses that they better vote for their exalted leader or else...

Usually there is a lot of speechifying at rallies where the audience are lured in with promises of petty cash, booze and chicken biriyani. Most seeking to become elected or re-elected representatives of the people, for the people and by the people usually can’t speak worth a damn but clearly they have found a way around their limitations and managed to channel their inner Cicero meets Deepak Chopra with the right dosage of inebriant even if it does cause them to slur over their tall promises.

Speaking of promises, there are many of those made in rousing speeches delivered at volumes guaranteed to bust eardrums and via paid advertisements across social media. The impoverished, minorities and women are assured that their rights will be the top priority and not the rich men who actually run the country. Aspiring candidates swear on their lives that the evil that is the caste system will no longer deny people their due, religious rights of all will be upheld, and women need not worry endlessly about being gang – raped, murdered, harassed, or being denied opportunities for career advancement. Hell, even house – wives will receive a much deserved salary, they are told. Law and order will be maintained, there will be beautiful, fully – furnished houses for the poor with as many toilets built as temples/churches/mosques. Quality education will be free for all, development will proceed unhindered and soon, the entire country will look twice as pretty as Switzerland in Spring.

Of course, the oft frustrated Indian voter doesn’t buy any of it but they can’t look away either. Because despite the awfulness of it all, dirty politics makes for one riveting spectacle.

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Interview with Abigail Dean, Author of the Excellent Girl A


Girl A  by Abigail Dean is an exquisitely crafted literary thriller and is one of the finest books I have read in a while. It is an agonizing tale of sustained abuse suffered in childhood, but the author chooses not to dwell compulsively on most of it. Instead she takes us through the nightmare that continues to cast long shadows on the lives of victims and their desperate struggle to flee the monsters that continue to stalk them from their memories of a traumarized childhood. Though, I like to think of myself as hardboiled, I wept at various points in the narrative. Small wonder this debut novel has taken the literary world by storm! 

Sharing the unedited version of my interview with Abigail Dean:

1.      Lex Gracie is a fascinating character – resilient, intelligent and remarkably strong. It was an interesting creative choice you made not to focus on the gruesome particulars of what went down in that ‘house of horrors’ but on the far reaching effects of abuse and its prolonged impact on the psyche of victims, even one, such as Lex who seems to have made it, given how gritty she is. What prompted this decision? I’m very interested in true crime, but one of the questions I’ve always wondered is: what happens next? There is often a lot of media attention on a particular case or crime, to the extent that certain photographs or buildings acquire an odd infamy. But for the people actually affected by those events, there are so many months and years and decades after: how do people live then? In Girl A, I wanted to explore that quieter time, which is so often hidden from the public view.

2.      The dynamics between the siblings seems to be complicated particularly the relationships between Lex – Ethan and Lex – Delilah. It intrigued me that Lex seemed more willing to forgive Ethan and his dubious decisions prior to and in the aftermath of their ordeal than her mum. Do walk us through the process you followed to peel back the layers of their collective psyches to reveal the raw and still bleeding wounds within. Creating the different dynamics between the Gracie siblings was one of the best things about writing Girl A. They may have grown up in difficult, traumatic circumstances, but they share the same alliances, rivalries and barbs as any other siblings. Lex loves her older brother, Ethan, despite questions about his complicity in their parents’ abuse. As the oldest of the siblings, they bonded as children over books, over their love of school – and it’s that old allegiance that makes Lex stick by Ethan, despite the fact that he’s become a very questionable adult.

3.      There was hope permeating the book, even in the aftermath of gut – wrenching grief, trauma and loss. Do we dare to remain positive despite being confronted with evidence of unspeakable evil and human capacity for inflicting harm no matter the number of restraints placed to prevent it? Lex is such a strong, resilient character. She’s the heart of Girl A, and her perspective – wry, humorous, cynical – really does fill the book with hope. As a reader, I usually find that it’s the scenes of human connections, even in the darkest circumstances, that move me the most.

4.      Girl A was refreshingly non – judgmental on many levels seeming to point towards circumstances brought on by factors like grinding poverty and unholy influences (that creepy Jolly!) as the perpetrators of monstrous cruelty. But to what extent do you think individual folly and broken systems are responsible for societal evils leaving aside variables beyond our control and what can we do to prevent others from suffering the fate of the Gracie siblings? I’m glad that you found Girl A non-judgmental. It’s crucial, for me, to have characters who feel like real people, and real human beings are rarely simply good or evil. I don’t have sympathy for every character in Girl A, but I try to have some understanding for each of them, however misguided their actions become. There are many moments in Girl A where the community is complicit in ignoring the children’s suffering – where people try to step in, but fail to do enough - but that’s not intended to be judgmental, either. I don’t have the confidence to assume I would act differently. It was one of the things I found most uncomfortable, writing the book, and I think it’s a question for each reader to ask themselves. 

5.      You have mentioned drawing inspiration from true – crime stories like Fred and Rosemary West, Jasmine Block and the notorious Turpins. How did you go about researching these cases as well as the experience of severe trauma brought on by prolonged captivity and sustained abuse? I was aware of a number of cases through my interest in true crime, so the focus of my research was psychology, rather than real-life events. Each of Lex’s siblings has a very different reaction to their childhood, and I read into what those reactions might be. They range from Delilah’s suggestions of Stockholm syndrome to Gabriel’s uncontrollable rages, which pursue him into adulthood. That said, I also want there to be ambiguity in Girl A: how much of each character’s reaction can be attributed to what happened to them, and how much is simply who they are?

6.      Girl A has been welcomed with thunderous applause and record sales, deservedly so. The screen rights have been sold to Sony. How is the view up there in that stratospheric sphere of elusive success? Just as surreal as it looks, I think! As a writer, you spend so long working in isolation, obsessed with the characters and the story. The most amazing thing, for me, is that my characters are out in the world, there for people to love and detest and challenge – as I’ve done with so many books myself. I’ve received a few messages expressing particular contempt for Jolly and JP, and knowing that you’ve sparked those kinds of feelings in readers is the absolute best.

7.      Do share a glimpse into the next book you are working on. It is eagerly awaited… My second novel follows two characters in the aftermath of an attack: one loses her mother in the atrocity, and the other believes that the whole thing was a hoax, and sets out to disprove it. Like Girl A, it deals with themes of trauma behind the headlines, and with the different perspectives of different characters, just as the Gracie siblings each remember their childhood in a slightly different way.

 An edited version of this interview appeared in The New Indian Express.

Ramayana with Anuja


Hi folks,
Very happy to announce that 'Ramayana with Anuja' is now available on YouTube (12 episodes in all). Working on the series was one of the bright spots in a mostly miserable 2020. We shot under challenging circumstances, practicing social distancing, donning masks, and flinching every time someone coughed or cleared their throat. My mum was in her element - rocking the mother hen mode as she bullied us into drinking gallons of tender coconut water (yum), herbal teas (meh), nilavenba kashayam (double yuck) and other foul smelling concoctions that tasted as bad as they smelled. But thanks to her efforts (and a pinch of luck!), we were able to complete shooting without any dreaded Covid - related mishaps. Thanks mum!
The entire experience was intense, immersive and so memorable. I really hope I did justice to Valmiki's Ramayana and it is with a great deal of nervousness that I am sharing it with you all. Hope you enjoy it!

Do check out the entire playlist right here.

P.S: Please do post your thoughts in the comments section and share the link with anyone at all who might be interested :) Thank you!

2020 and Beyond: Bad Years and Worse Ones


Pic courtesy of PTI and TNIE

The demise of 2020 was boisterously celebrated across the world, with reckless disregard for social distancing. After all, it is now almost universally acknowledged that annus horribilis does not begin to describe the sheer awfulness of the year gone by. The coronavirus has laid waste to global health and economy. Worse, there seems to be no respite from social evils as hardened criminals continue to do their thing, the undeserving continue to enrich themselves and the powerful ride roughshod over the poor and weak, the way they always have and no doubt, always will.

Yet, an overwhelming majority had such high hopes for 2021. Almost as if they were certain that an army of fairy Godmothers were hard at work, zooming across the length and breadth of the planet, wielding their wands with superheroic élan, sprinkling pixie dust on the problem areas that seemed to be erupting and suppurating every which way, while their elven helpers sat over a billion, bubbling cauldrons filled to the brim with magical potions designed to rejuvenate and renew all things rotten and ruined. Needless to say there can be but one outcome when such unreasonable expectations are allowed to skyrocket Рdisappointment. With a side of depression and desolation.

The year has barely begun and already it seems to be doing little more than regurgitating the contents of the toilet bowl that was 2020 with explosions of noxious nastiness. Vaccines are being rolled out but people don’t seem keen on being jabbed. Large scale protests against the establishment are escalating and the system strikes back by imprisoning protestors young and old, while clamping down on freedom of speech. Elsewhere, hunky dory isn’t the term being used to describe the prevailing state of affairs as the exit of an orange – headed menace led to massive upheavals violently staged by his rabid followers. Meanwhile, those nations worst affected by the pandemic continue to battle it with indifferent success often trampling on fundamental rights in the name of the greater good. Seldom before has the great majority of the human populace worn such a collectively grumpy mien or been this uncooperative and intransigent.

To make matters worse, the Nobel UN agency has warned that we can expect things to get steadily worse this year, since famines of terrifying proportions are expected and the funds needed to tackle the impending catastrophe are fast dwindling. None of this is heartening. But the good news is that it can’t be all be bad news. Now that we have removed the jinx on 2021 by refusing to set ourselves up for disappointment we can steady ourselves with the knowledge that there will be precious moments of hope and happiness to tide us over this year as well. And the crappy ones ahead.

Enough with the Love Stories


The controversial ‘love jihad’ ordinance recently enforced by the Uttar Pradesh government for the purpose of preventing ‘canny’ Muslim men from sweeping ‘clueless’ Hindu girls off their feet in order to get them to change their faith has provoked vehement opposition. This is an ugly measure that spits in the face of secular India and deserves to be overturned. Yet, these unholy methods implemented in the name of all things holy got me thinking about deep – seated issues related to the institution of marriage, that extend beyond the obvious bigotry and hatred that fuel these inane legal precepts. 

Why do we persist in believing that falling in love and getting married are essential to a wonderful life despite evidence to the contrary? Practically, every popular movie or show, features variations of extremely good – looking young people getting smitten, prancing around in exotic locales and dealing with messy matters of the heart before driving into the sunset towards that happily ever after, the fairy tales promised us was the inevitable culmination of every love story. Every once in a while, the lovesick in reel life and more alarmingly in real life are assaulted or slaughtered by sick creeps. Terrifyingly, these lovebird killers are cheered on by fanatics who foolishly believe that it is not in keeping with Indian tradition to fall in love or have consensual sex outside of an arranged, endogamous marriage.

These extreme reactions to cozy twosomes has always been perplexing to me. Lovers, even the interfaith ones are mostly a self – indulgent lot given to stewing in a sickening syrup of all things sensual and superficial, sanguine in their deluded notions of the enduring power of that fragile, fickle emotion called love, which is as likely to last forever as an egg sandwich left in the sun. Eventually when a relationship regresses to a legally sanctified union, even the most besotted come to realize that marriage is where affection goes to die, in a paroxysm of pain brought on by resentment, regret, and an absence of shared joy.

Marriage was originally designed for boring practical purposes to serve a society devoted to perpetuating the human race by raising batches of brats together. It was never intended to be a perpetual source of personal fulfillment or an adventure ride, replete with romance. Therefore, it is about time we stopped defining a good life in terms of fleeting connubial bliss to counter dangerous ordinances framed by harmful halfwits targeting harmless twits. Let us resolve to secure a better future by refusing to invest so heavily in the trivial pursuit of a non – existent state of transcendental togetherness especially if there is risk to life, limb and more. We will do just fine without the love stories, tragic or even otherwise.  

 This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

When the Quotidian Crashed into the Quirky


In recent years, Indian publishers seemed to have given short story writers the short end of the stick which is why is it lovely that 2020 threw up some beautiful collections by authors at the top of their game like Nisha Susan. Two – time Commonwealth Short Story Prize Winner, Anushka Jasraj also makes an assured debut with ‘Principles of Prediction’.

Jasraj has crafted 13 stories featuring a host of characters who are mostly from dysfunctional backgrounds and entirely dissatisfied with their lives, prompting them to embrace the preposterous with mixed results. In the story after which this collection is based, the reader encounters a weather forecaster, who has mommy issues so debilitating, she is pushed to the brink of sanity. ‘Notes from the Ruins’ and ‘Entomology’ take the tired old love triangle for a spin and makes one wonder when this tedious trope will be trashed. In the ‘Circus’ a young woman decides to run away. But not to join the circus of course but to live with the lion – tamer since that is the sort of thing that makes little sense outside the mad hatter’s world these characters inhabit. In ‘Westward’ Soraya meets Sigmund Freud who wonders what her father would make of her fear of dogs. ‘Drawing Lessons’ is about an unhappily married woman who has dreams where real life friends try to make her see where her sexual inclinations lie and say stuff like ‘Amazon women cut off their breasts, so they can be better warriors.’

The star of ‘Elephant Maximus’, is Cassata who is a cat – napper not to be confused with a cat burglar who decides to kidnap an elephant. Then there are the fortune tellers and others of their ilk in ‘Venus in Retrograde’ and ‘Numerology’. In the former, a young man is haunted by a ghost he invented who may or may not be and in the latter, a young girl waits for a long time to read the last letter, her mother left her, which contains a list of things an astrologer put down to decode her future. The private investigator in ‘Feline’ finds herself inconvenienced when she desires the subject she has been tailing at the behest of his ex – girlfriend. These spaces are the most hard to swallow since they appear to have been built and not lived in.‘Radio Story’ on the loss of freedom and love is the most affecting story of the lot. 

The writing is clever, awfully so. Fragmentary to the point, where it is just plain frustrating. Filled to the brim with characters whose character arcs are sketched out by means of cryptic clues that tend to confound more than clarify. Mostly though the collection abounds in the realms of the absurd and is overly spiced with an abundance of quirk for quirk’s sake.

Those looking for simple, enjoyable reads with three, cleanly demarcated acts are in for disappointment since Jasraj tends does not bother with tying up loose ends with neat little flourishes. She prefers to leave the reader dangling fretfully or bursting with questions that have no answers. Those with the patience to unravel the carefully stacked layers will be rewarded with the occasional strokes of brilliance and rare insights into the futility of human existence but these are few and far between.

This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Domestic Woes and Dirty Truths


There are many tedious, irritating, mind – numbing jobs in the world but housework has earned its place somewhere at the very top of the list. The reasons are painfully obvious. Nobody likes to scrub the toilet or pick out little pieces of food from the sink, sweep and swab the floors till they shine, do battle with the indefatigable dust demons, cook umpteen meals for the family, clean the stove, make sure the clothes are laundered, neatly ironed and folded, shop for groceries, clean the fridge, get rid of stinky garbage in an environment – friendly manner…The list is endless.

Worst, of all household work is drudgery at its most unforgiving. It is a thankless job that offers little by way of satisfaction or compensation. No matter, how hard you work to stay on top of domestic chores, there is no respite, since you have to do it all over again, mostly on the very next day because those tiresome tasks are not going anywhere. And of course, it is unpaid labour, which is far from glamourous and does not earn one respect or appreciation.

In India, the smart choice is to dump this tortuous job on maids who are usually paid a pittance and fobbed off with remnants of discarded meals, sweets that could prove ruinous to diets or damaged articles of clothing in lieu of adequate remuneration. Heaven help those who can’t afford maids!

Let us talk about the division of labour here. Despite the strides made to empower and liberate women, when it comes to household work, we still do most of the heavy lifting. Of course, men who pitch in every once in a while by half – heartedly vacuuming, doing the dishes, or running the washer/dryer are covered in praise for their minimal efforts. Whereas all women are expected to take responsibility for home and hearth, irrespective of whether they have a job or not. Because a woman’s worth is still measured by her homemaking skills.

Kamal Haasan’s promise to provide salaries for housewives as part of his electoral campaign and Shashi Tharoor’s endorsement of the same is not going to cut it, simply because the onus of housework will remain with women. Of course, the value of unpaid domestic labour needs to be recognized but it is not merely a question of payment. Equal load sharing among all members of the household is more important. Or we could simply stop caring and decide that messy houses with a far from spotless tub or an overflowing sink does not necessarily carry the mark of the slovenly but is an indicator of a home full of busy people who have better, more rewarding things to do with their time. This indifference may hold the key to happier households!

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Humour with a Heart


Mysterious screaming heard in the decrepit stairway of a suburban housing complex, evidence of domestic abuse, a suicide case that may just turn out to be cold-blooded murder, thefts involving wedding gifts as well as hefty chunks of cash, and a mounting body count. It is hard to imagine this material being milked for laughs and yet, that is exactly what Kiran Manral, author of The Kitty Party Murder deftly manages to do with oodles of warmth and wit to spare. Her last book was the haunting Missing: Presumed Dead which was a disturbing study of the bottomless despair that those afflicted with mental illnesses suffer from which in turn traps victims and their loved ones in an endless spiral of self – destruction and grief. Manral’s latest offering on the other hand is replete with delightful humour guaranteed to leave you laughing up a storm.

            Why are humourists critically and criminally underrated? The world itself does not offer much by way of good cheer which is the all the more reason we need books, movies and just about anything else that makes us laugh ourselves silly and feel gloriously alive. The Kitty Party Murder is just the thing to make the pandemic – induced blues go away, forcibly driven back by gales of raucous laughter that is totally worth making your family members and dogs wonder if you are utterly and irredeemably nuts.

            Kanan Mehra aka Kay, who formerly graced the pages of Manral’s The Reluctant Detective, is a thirty – something housewife who wouldn’t mind some excitement in her life just as long as it does not disrupt her routine which features lunching with the ladies, shopping, deferring working out, mediating disputes between her domestic help and dealing with her adorable son whom she refers to as the brat and the workaholic spouse. Like the very best of comic fiction, Kay’s world is funny, filled with snark, biting observations about human nature, occasionally dark and entirely enthralling.

            Nearly every sentence is packed with jokes and ideas that demand you savour each line for a truly rewarding read. And while the humour itself is wicked it is also humane. Kay, might be given to abusing hyperbole and an extremely critical narrator but she doesn’t let anyone off the hook, least of all, herself. She goes on at length about her cellulite, recalcitrant paunch, Nutella habit and lackadaisical approach to life even when she is ordered to investigate a supposed suicide case by infiltrating a kitty party group and unearthing their deepest, darkest secrets. One can’t help but admire Kay’s je ne sais quoi and enjoy the joyful romp across her quirky world with its abundance of mirth, keen observation and biting satire. 

This review was originally published in The New Indian Express.