Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Artist: Art, pure and simple

Take a hackneyed plot: Successful actor, struggling actress (female actor?); the rise of one spells the downfall of the other. If SLB were to do this film, he'd up the glamour quotient extravagantly, to dazzle the viewer with lavish sets, colourful costumes and musical set-pieces.What someone who thought a little differently did was to capture a sepia-tinted era; to bring back that experience when the moving picture was taking its first steps into public consciousness.

In a time of spectacular 3D visual effects and multiplexes falling over each other to provide mind-blowing sound, The Artist came as a melodious, peaceful song. The black-and-white was visual relief and the flowing music a perfect complement to the story. What lifted the film was superlative work by the actors, because when there are only visuals and no dialogue to support it, the actor's face and body language are the canvas on which the director can paint each scene. In fact, without the support of dialogues, the visual medium is explored to the fullest, where everything you see on screen has a role to play in the story.

Perhaps the success of the film was proved by the two annoying gentlemen sitting next to us in the cinema hall. They crunched and slurped noisily with wisecracks thrown in, as the movie began and they realized it was a silent film. But as the film progressed, very little was heard out of them, apart from laughter at the apt moments.

The Artist was an experience like no other; it showed once again why cinema is a visual medium, and how minimally stories can be told.


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Camus Effect

The journey from childhood to adulthood is fraught with experiments--with substances, relationships, books, music.... We see, hear, touch and taste the world around us to discover not so much the world, but ourselves.

Among the authors recommended for "serious" reading in my growing-up years, was this group of "dark" writers, including Camus, Sartre et al. Having discovered a lot of negativity around me anyway, I decided I didn't want to mess up my life any further by injecting thoughts about the futility of the human condition. Therefore, a lot of my life's early lessons were based on Ayn Rand, Ramdhari Singh 'Dinkar' and and to an extent, Richard Bach (whom a friend once inexplicably called a "fraud").

Age, however, may have debilitating effects on the body, but has a wonderful way of opening up the mind. It was thus that I opened Caligula with much anticipation, and was not disappointed at all.

The tragic story of the Roman king who wants the "moon" or the "impossible" was greatly fascinating. And I realized how wrong it was to call Camus' writing "dark"--for though he speaks about the helplessness of human beings, one can also see that life is still worth living. It has to be age that makes me feel greatly comforted in the fact that none of this humdrum of life really matters, for all of us are destined to one final end. And it is because of that final destination that the journey should be made worthwhile.

"Men die and are not happy," says Caligula. The path that Caligula takes subsequently is perfectly logical, which was Camus' way of showing the logical conclusion of nihilism. But, in the process, Camus also suggests possibilities of other paths, other ways of extracting meaning out of what can be termed a "meaningless" existence.

There are times when the daily process of living does makes one wonder whether there is any meaning in all of this. Works like Caligula answer that well.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Train to the past

I boarded the Metro from Krishi Bhavan, having followed very clear instructions from concerned parents about how to buy the token and how to use it. The cleanliness of the station, the silence and the discipline were amazing -- it seemed like I had descended the stairs to another world, where rickety buses, shouting conductors hanging out of the doors and rushing hordes of people didn't exist.

The train was 'wow' and the journey was great fun, as I observed fellow passengers, trying to make out how many were regular travellers; how many, like me, were excited, yet apprehensive; and how many were not really there in the train. I disembarked at the DU station, came out, and stood still. A couple of cycle rickshaw guys saw my uncertainty as the opportunity to make a fast buck, but I 've lived long enough to see through that. I didn't know which part of the University I was in. I looked around for familiar landmarks, but much has changed and 10 years is a really long time. Finally, I was able to make out Chhatra Marg and gladly moved that way.

Better dressed students, more cars and mobile phones, more parking, more cycle rickshaws and facelifts to certain areas was my impression of DU, until I entered D School. It was as if I'd never been away. The building's facade was much improved -- seepage ridden walls had been repaired and the canteen looked, to use a less-used word, posh. Ratan Tata Library was under renovation, but everything else was the same, from the colour of the walls to the bench outside the office.

Voices from the past followed me down the corridor, and many faces that I'd all but forgotten suddenly came back. The new-look, much cleaner canteen served filter coffee as before, and, it tasted just as it had all those years back. I wonder if they have a patent on that recipe. Even the man behind the cash counter and the man serving the coffee were the same as a decade ago. The entire experience was like being reconnected to a part of me that I'd forgotten about, that I'd left far behind in the race of life. It was wonderful to be able to find that bit of my life again, to get re-acquainted with the time gone by.

I took the familiar route through Kirori Mal to Kamla Nagar, and was assaulted by the passage of years. The bookshops facing Kirori Mal had given way to those hallmarks of retail culture--branded goods showrooms, Barista, et al. A walk down one radial revealed that the infestation was widespread. There were very few signs of the neighbourhood shops or the humble restaurants that I remembered; everywhere I looked, I could see big showrooms, the 'Hey look, I've got money' syndrome, and exhortations to spend, spend, spend.

The nostalgia trip did me a world of good, though I wish I hadn't been jolted back to reality so suddenly. The one thing that was unchanged, and I was glad of that, was that the biggest stockist of Hindi literature books in Kamla Nagar still existed, and I was able to add to my collection significantly with his help.

Just read...

"क्या भूलूँ क्या याद करूँ", the first part of Dr. Harivanshrai Bachchan's autobiography. I got this one a couple of years ago from one of the bookshops in Connaught Place, and could come round to reading it only now.

It's the story of a common man, who began his life in a 'mohalla' in Allahabad. The scale, however, is breathtaking, as the writer talks about history, mythology, culture, religion, social issues, art, literature, family, and of course, poetry. Nowhere is it preachy, nowhere is it a dry discourse. The writer weaves in all the influences that have shaped his life so effortlessly, with so much feeling and in such simple, rich language, that I felt part of the story he was narrating.

This is one of the books I read voraciously. After a long time, I've come across a piece of writing that is so human and yet so thought-provoking. It's been a marathon read till 2 am almost every night, until I finished it. And any book-lover who met me in this period didn't even need to ask, "What are you reading?" before I launched into my impressions of the book. My husband, of course, has had to bear the brunt -- I've been exploiting his limited grasp of Hindi literature and yet, his interest in poetry, to wax eloquent.

The second part is waiting to be read, and I'm waiting to read it. It was quite an intense and absorbing experience, but more than me, those around me need a break.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

कुछ सुंदर पंक्तियाँ

हाल ही में फिर से हिन्दी साहित्य की ओर जाने का मौका मिला, तो ऐसा लगा जैसे वर्षों की तलाश पूरी हो गयी। यहाँ दो पंक्तियाँ जिन्होंने दिल को तरंगित कर दिया:

- कवि कुछ ऐसी तान सुनाओ कि सब कुछ उथल-पुथल हो जाए...

-जब भी अतीत में जाता हूँ, मुर्दों को नहीं जिलाता हूँ
पीछे हटकर फेंकता हूँ बाण, जिससे कम्पित हो वर्तमान

मुझे किसी भाषा से कोई आपत्ति नहीं है, मैं उनमें से भी नहीं जो सोचते हैं कि अंग्रेज़ी की लोकप्रियता से हमारी संस्कृति भ्रष्ट हो रही है। लेकिन फिर से हिन्दी पढने से अपने समृद्ध साहित्य की ओर मेरा ध्यान गया। मुझे लगा कि जो हमारा है, उसे हम क्यों भुला दें? क्यों उसे संजोने की, उससे कुछ सीखने की कोशिश न करें? हमारी भाषाओं का साहित्य हमारे अतीत की कहानी है, हमारा सच है। उसे भुलाना मतलब अपनी जड़ों से नाता तोड़ लेना। क्या तभी आज हम इतना भटक रहे हैं? क्योंकि हम अपने कल से नाता तोड़ चुके और आज में अपना अस्तित्व ढूंढ रहे हैं?

हिन्दी से फिर से नाता जोड़ने से कुछ ऐसे महापुरुषों से भी मेल हुआ, जिन्होंने अपने समय में भाषा को बढ़ावा ही नहीं दिया, भाषा को अपनी संगिनी बनाया। उनमें से एक हैं भारतेंदु हरिश्चंद्र, और दूसरे हैं संत कबीर। इनको पढने से भाषा की ताकत का अनुमान हुआ, कलम की ताकत क्या होती है, इसका पता चला। कबीर के बारे में तो सचमुच लगता है कि इतने हजार वर्षों बाद भी, वह जो बोल रहे हैं, आज के बारे में बोल रहे हैं। और क्या साफ़, सपाट भाषा में बोलते हैं कि बात सीधी दिल तक पहुंचे, सोचने पर मजबूर करे। अंत में इनकी कुछ पंक्तियाँ:

पोथी पढ़ पढ़ जग मुआ, पंडित भया न कोई।
ढाई आखर प्रेम का, पढ़े सो पंडित होई॥

काकर पत्थर जोड़ के, मस्जिद लिए बनाय।
तो चढी मुल्ला बांग दे, क्या बहिरा हुआ खुदाय॥

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Strike two

Fellow citizens, beware of being a public personality. Especially beware of being a public personality in Mumbai. And if you have the misfortune of being both, better learn Marathi pronto.

If certain individuals in Mumbai are to be believed, not speaking the language, even though you've stayed here for decades, is tantamount to being a traitor. Never mind that Hindi is our national language; never mind that you, as an individual, have made significant contributions to the pride and culture of your country.

What's the point of all this? Gujarat is all for Narendra Modi, not because of his ideologies, but because of all that he's done for the economy and security of the state. Ditto for the State Government in Delhi. Given that Maharashtra is plagued with even bigger problems, aren't there many other grassroots issues for over-enthusiastic politicians to handle? Issues that would give them the necessary political mileage and lots of positive press, and in the process, also create some benefits for the aam junta.

Marathi is already a compulsory language or a compulsory third language in many schools, and generations of non-Maharashtrians speak it with more comfort than their so-called native tongues. Vijay Tendulkar's plays are just an instance of how popular Marathi literature is.

And if the concerned gentleman feels so strongly about his Marathi antecedents, why not organize poetry reading sessions and other literary activities that would induce people to know and appreciate the language? Why is it that so many public reading rooms are closing down, when the Marathi language has such vociferous well-wishers?

As usual, issues are made out of non-issues for some quick brownie points; while the real issues languish by the wayside, along with the scores of people they affect.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

mi mumbaikar

In the big cosmopolitan city of Mumbai, my locality is a microcosm, a small sample of what the city at large stands for and entails. One of my first thoughts after coming to Mumbai was how easy it was to integrate into the city and its lifestyle. Despite Shiv Sena bandhs, loud exhortations about 'immigrants' and the growing stronger by the day 'Marathi manoos' stand, my faith in the city's fundamental pluralism is unchanged.

But that faith suffered a serious dent recently. Overnight, nearly every shop in my locality has undergone a transformation. Hastily painted cloth banners or signboards or strategically inserted words in the original signboard proclaim shops' names in Devnagri script, ostensibly to say that the shop does have a Marathi signboard. Never mind that people haven't bothered with translation; the speed with which the change occurred meant that the Marathi language had to make do with transliteration from English to Devnagri.

When you've invested lakhs of rupees in setting up a business and spend most of your living hours in growing it and make it profitable, it's fairly understandable that you don't want a bunch of hooligans swooping down to attack and loot your enterprise. Principles and culture don't come into it--it's all a matter of saving your life and belongings.

And that's where politics of the 'danda' scores. Common people are vulnerable, because their livelihoods often depend on the very resources that are attacked by politicians and their supporters in the name of community or religion or culture.

If it's a matter of a mere signboard change, most traders would willingly oblige. Consumers wouldn't care much about that signboard, most of them find it a blind spot after the first few visits anyway. Most languages, including Marathi and English, don't lose or gain; they're too powerful on their own to even suffer the slightest scratch. MNS and Raj Thackeray gain a few column centimeters of print space and a couple of airtime hours; some lawkeepers get a chance to earn their wages; some people are disgusted, while I guess some do feel that it's a victory for the 'Marathi manoos'.

At the end of the day, all that I feel is a bad taste in the mouth and a frown in the mind. Not enough to anger, nowhere near enough to galvanize into action. Just a mental shrug and a sinking thought of where all of this will end.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Memories of a weekend in Alunda...

Alunda is a typical village off NH8 that links Mumbai to Ahmedabad. The closest town is Wada, which is probably the size of, or smaller than, Lokhandwala. In good weather (read roads that haven't been ravaged by the monsoon) and average traffic conditions, the distance between Borivali and Alunda takes about two hours. My in-laws have built a cottage on a plot in Alunda. Their society is surrounded by the hills and lies adjacent to a vast tract of adivasi, agricultural land. Here are some impressions from a recent visit to that haven of silence and peace.
  • The first view from the bus of a green carpet of paddy fields, tall grass, lush trees and swollen rivers and ponds
  • A lazy afternoon with the sound of the wind through the garden, the occasional birdcall, and the constant tinkling of wind chimes
  • Untamed greenery almost five feet in height, growing thickly, running over every bit of available soil
  • Watching spiders build webs to catch their dinner; a bulbul's nest on a frangipani tree; a chameleon concealing itself on the trunk of a drumstick tree
  • A spider and its tiny web on a leaf, caught under a dewdrop in the early morning
  • The ride back home in a Qualis, accompanied by the owner of the car who wasn't too confident about driving on the highway; the local panwallah who acted as driver due to his prior work experience as a truck-driver; and the local odd-job man who came along because "I want to see Mumbai, aur hamare gaaon ki gaadi jaa rahi hai."

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

e by Matt Beaumont

A new author, a new format, and generous helpings of contemporary, Dilbertian humor. The book's called e, and it's written as a series of e-mails floating through the computers of the various characters that inhabit an advertising agency.

The story's told brilliantly and the characters etched out wonderfully through the e's, as they're called. You get to see everything from petty office politics to high-level corporate intrigue, crises, deadlines, affairs... you name it and it's there. I've never been on edge to know what would happen next in a book that's supposed to belong to the humor genre. Apart from a couple of P. G. Wodehouse classics, I've never read a humor book more than once. And very rarely have I laughed out loud at something I'm reading in a crowded Mumbai local. Clearly, this book was a harbinger of many firsts.

The Unchanged Value of Things

As a child, I remember making an 'eeks-I'm-going-to-throw-up' face at the sight of cream or 'malai' in my glass of milk. I also remember my mother trying to use every bit of malai. She collected it in a bowl by skimming it from the top of cold milk, one or two teaspoons every day, till she had enough to make butter. She would then spend a precious evening making pure ghee from that butter. When she kneaded atta, she ran the dough through the empty milk vessel, to collect the cream stuck in it. If they could have afforded it, my parents and many more people of their generation would probably have bought and used full-cream milk; my parents often talked about the taste of curd made from that milk.

Today, my generation can afford full-cream milk. We can buy a whole pack of cream from the supermarket without a second thought. But, when we see malai or ghee, we think 'saturated fat' and 'high cholesterol'. We'd much rather buy olive oil, which is much more expensive than pure ghee or cream ever was.

To a generation that valued it, it was out of reach. To a generation that can reach it, it holds negative value. Makes me wonder whether value is the inverse of what money can buy.