Friday, May 30, 2008

Bachpan ke din

In early 2007, while in India, I visited Sewagram, a small village near Nagpur. This place is famous for an Ashram of Mahatma Gandhi. It was a hot April afternoon and there were not many visitors at the Ashram. I had the whole premises to myself. It's a very peaceful, simple and a quiet place. Regardless of what your opinions are about Gandhi, it's quite a humbling experience to see the lifestyle of this man who shook the mighty English empire.

Anyway, as I was browsing through Ba Kuti (Kasturba Gandhi's hut), I came across a bunch of little kids who were also spending the afternoon at the Ashram. They were from a nearby school and their teacher had left them on their own in the Ashram for a little while. I started chatting with them and they were quite intrigued by the camera hanging around my neck. I happened to capture some photos using my less than amateurish photographic skills. I feel that their expressions conveyed a lack of any judgment, opinion and bias. Their smiling faces are simple and pure. If you look at pictures of adults, you can see a hint (sometimes more than a hint) of the corruption from our experiences while growing up. Adulthood robs all of us from this "simplicity". I guess this is what is called "The loss of innocence".

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sydney Pollack - R.I.P

He was no Spielberg, Hitchcock, Wilder, Welles or Scorsese when it came to making movies that were trendsetters or genre-benders, but he did make movies that made a distinct mark of their own. Sydney Pollack - the director, producer and actor died today at the age of 73.

I have seen some of the movies that he directed, which include his famous pairing with Robert Redford - Out of Africa (for which he received his only Academy award out of the three nominations), The Way we Were and Three Days of the Condor.

Out of Africa remains my personal favorite amongst the movies he directed. The movie had all the right ingredients of a classic - stellar actors in Redford and Streep, an epic tale, sweeping cinematography of the lush African landscape, a soul-stirring score and a great script . This movie is about a story of a married Danish Baroness, Karen(played with aching honesty by Meryl Streep) falling in love with a lonely, dashing and free-spirited hunter, Denys (who else but Redford could have played him) . If you have seen the movie you will realize the intensity of the following dialogue:

Denys:You've ruined it for me, you know.
Karen: Ruined what?
Denys: Being alone.

If you haven't seen it yet, go rent a copy today and experience it.

Sydney Pollack also appeared as an actor in movies such as Eyes Wide Shut , more recently in Michael Clayton (which he also co-produced) and had repeat appearances as Will Truman's dad on Will and Grace. He also formed the production house Mirage along with Anthony Minghella who passed away earlier this year. Together they produced movies such as Cold Mountain, The Talented Mr Ripley and Michael Clayton. Both of them will be missed.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Travel Idiots

“Travel Idiots” is a term I use for those who constantly whine/complain when visiting different destinations. To me, travel is experiencing a different place, a place that is unlike where you are from, a chance to soak up the food, sights, sounds and the little unpleasantness that comes packaged with unfamiliar surroundings. However, if I am traveling with people who are constantly whining about why the place is so different, I scream inside me – “WHY IN THE FIRST F’ing PLACE DID YOU LEAVE YOUR SAD LITTLE SACK TO COME ALL THE WAY TO ROME AND COMPLAIN ABOUT NOT FINDING TACO BELL OR NOT UNDERSTANDING THE SUBWAY SYSTEM?”

People have fears of all sorts of things - monsters, darkness, rapists, serial-killers, earthquakes, heart-disease, fire etc., what I fear the most is being stuck with these Travel Idiots on one of my travels. And when I say travel, I don’t mean that I have to be in an exotic destination, it could be the town in the next state 100 miles from where I live or it could be the North Pole. This creed of whiners will complain about everything:
Parking whiners:
- They are visiting New York City or any other big city and complain that parking is hard to find or is expensive. My answer to them “Did you not know this beforehand? If you did, why did you not leave your gas guzzling butt ugly mini-van in your fancy suburban house, or if you intend to bring it because of your lazy ass babies then be ready to shell out a hundred bucks for parking or go around blocks a thousand times looking for a spot on the street.”
Public transportation whiners:
- They are visiting San Francisco and complain that the pubic transport system is hard to follow, “It’s so much easier and intuitive in New York City, this is just old fashioned and plain retarded”. To them I say “Can you get to Fisherman’s wharf from where you are standing in your Subway from New York City? So you are stuck with this for now, so while you sit there and criticize to your heart’s content, I am hopping on this slow and rickety cable car, buh-bye!”
Weather whiners:
- They are visiting Rome in July and are whining about the heat and humidity, I say to them “of all the beauty that is around you, of all the centuries of history residing next to each other or on top of each other, of all the sensual pleasures the city has to offer, you are complaining about the heat? You deserve to be butchered in the Coliseum at the hands of a Gladiator”
Food whiners:
- They are visting Asheville or Austin (or some such place that prides itself in allowing only local restaurants to run businesses within its city limits), and are craving for Applebee’s or Pizza Hut and will go to the world’s end in looking for one (yes, there is this group of folks who actually consider Applebee’s as a gold standard in dining experience. More power to them). To them I say – “you should have never left your strip-mall heaven Suburbia, United States”.
Language whiners:
- They are visiting Switzerland and complain that they cannot follow directions or restaurant menus – “Is it French? Is it German? How do I know what I am ordering?” To them I say “why come all the way to this Alpine heaven and then want the menus and the food to sound and taste the same as wherever you came from?”

The list goes on and on, you get my drift.

To me the very essence of traveling is experiencing a different place and everything that comes with it – the good, the bad, the ugly; opening myself up to the idea that it will be different; it will not be like whatever I am used to. It could be dirty, it could be clean, I could have a horrendous lunch or a great dinner, you enjoy it regardless – you say “well that was something new…hmmm didn’t know artichokes could be made to taste like feet”. You get lost on a random street 20 blocks away from the museum you wanted to be at, you say “ohh well, let me check this neighborhood out now that I am here”. You see that the only restaurant in the village is serving whatever they cooked that day, you say “let me try this, I am not going to be in rural Greece again, am I?” You want to sleep so bad after a day of exploring Rio, and you come across a street festival on your way to your hotel and decide to stop by and end up spending the night reveling with the locals. Whatever it is, remember you will not be at that place again ever (in most cases)!! You have plenty of time to sleep when you die, I say. For now, travel and wherever you go - be a sponge, soak it up and bring it back with you, it will enrich you in more ways than you can imagine.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Juno - A re-review

Someone once said that "Each one of us is born to play at least one role in our lifetime". This applies to Ellen Page's performance as Juno. She was born (or "borned" like a character in the movie says) to play Juno. Watched this little miracle of a movie again today on pay-per-view.
Juno is written by first time writer Diablo Cody and second time director Jason Reitman (impressive directorial debut with Thank you for smoking) . The movie is a comedy about a mid-western teenage girl who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant and the events that follow. The movie deals with a very serious subject with quirky wit and non sappy sensitivity.

The movie might make some viewers cringe with its outward callousness towards the issue of teenage pregnancy. However, underneath that outward appearance is a fact that once it happens, there are only two ways to go about it - just as Juno says - "nip it in the bud" (there it is - an example of the callousness....) or "have the baby". If the girl decides to have the baby, it's the family and friends or any other support system that she might have that will be elementary in making the girl's life easier after she has committed this ghastly mistake. Juno is essentially about that. It's about family and friends accepting you no matter what mistakes you commit (you get pregnant or you are caught cheating at a test...not the same ballpark, but you get my drift).

Coming back to the movie - the script and the dialogues are extremely witty and funny. I have not met any teenager who talks like Juno does. She is way too smart for her age, but then she is one of a kind. She uses a hamburger phone and wears flannel but still uses lip-stick. She seems strong and mature for her age, yet she is confused when it comes to grown-up decisions and about the choices life has to offer.

Other than the main character of Juno, the supporting cast has been written with great care and detail - Michael Cera as Paulie Bleeker plays a typical geeky diffident teenager with his now characteristic subdued and awkward demeanour.

Alison Janney as Juno's stepmom Brenda is fiesty and very much the under-educated lower middle class middle-aged woman who does not necessarily like her step-daughter's haughty nature, yet feels protective and instictvively motherly when towards her when the situation demands of it. Watch out for her in the scene in the clinic with the radiologist.

J.K.Simmons who plays the character of Juno's father, Mac Mcguff, is a far cry from his cigar chewing editor of the Daily News in the Spiderman movies. His character is obviously upset by his daughter's situation - he says after knowing that Juno is pregnant "I thought you were the kind of girl who knew when to say when". But he also understands his daughter and the choices she has made and gets to accepting them and tries to make the best of the situation.

Jason Bateman (of Arrested Development) and Jennifer Garner play the couple Mark and Vanessa, who will adopt Juno's baby - "They looked pretty even in black & white", says Juno after seeing their picture in the local newspaper. Their relationship and characters are very well-defined even in the littel screen time they have. She is the prim-proper soft spoken rich wife, he - a boy trapped in a man's body and a ill-fit marriage. Their fights are also very quiet just like the pastel colors of the walls of their house and furnishings.

Olivia Thirlby plays Juno's air-headed best-friend Leah who is the exact opposite of Juno - she is pretty and comes out as a very shallow person compared to Juno. After my first viewing of the movie, I thought a girl like Juno can never be a friends with a girl like Leah, but then I realized that when you are young you do not choose your friends, you become friends with whoever stays next door or whoever sits next to you at school.

Rainn Wilson (Dwight Schrute from The Office) plays a miniscule role of the drugstore clerk and has some of the movie's funnies lines.

There are scenes of incredible strength in the movie, to name a few:

- When Juno finds out that she is pregnant there is a scene where she makes a noose out of rope-candy and pretends to hang herself from a tree, and then ends up eating the candy in frustration. The scene speaks of a lot of things (IMO), she wishing that killing herself would be easier than facing the situation, but then comes to terms with herself and eats the candy signifying her strength and her innocence at the same time

- The scene where she breaks down in the minivan on the side of a road after realizing that Vanessa and Mark are breaking up and that her dream of giving her unborn baby a dream home is not going to happen. Her facial expressions show the emotions she is going through, her naivety that she believed that there is a perfect family somewhere out there (unlike her own), her realization that Vanessa is probably good enough to single-handedly raise her baby, her breaking down under the pressure (note her quivering lip) of knowing that she has to make a deicision about the life of the thing growing in her yet again and then the eventual making of the decision

- The scene when she comes back home after having made the decision in the above scene where she plucks a flower from the yard of her house and gently rubs it on her pregnany belly - "Sometimes you don't realize how much you love your own home unless you have been some place different". This is where IMO she comes to terms that other houses and families might look pretty and cool but her own family or home is not that bad at all.

- The scene where Juno's dad is caressing his daughter after she has delivered the baby and says "You will be back here honey someday, on your terms". What a scene and what a line!!

There are many funny and witty lines in the movie that draw a chuckle even after the movie is over. Few examples:

Juno to her dad - I'm losing my faith in humanity.
Juno's dad - Think you can narrow it down for me?

Rainn wilson the drugstore clerk seeing Juno shake the pregnany test stick with a positive result - That ain't no etch-a-sketch. This is one doodle that can't be un-did, homeskillet.

Leah after Juno tells her on the phone that she is pregnant - It's probably just a food baby, did you have a big lunch?\
Juno screaming with labor pains asking for the spinal block (epidural) - You mean I have to wait for it to get worse? Why can't they just give it to me now?
Brenda - Well, honey, doctors are sadists who like to play God and watch lesser people scream...

Juno to Paulie looking at his running shorts - Wow your shorts are like especially gold today.
Paulie - My mom uses color safe bleach.
Juno - Go Carol.

Vanessa asking if Juno will accept them as the parents for her baby : You think you're really going to do this?
Juno MacGuff: Yea, if I could just have the thing and give it to you now, I totally would. But I'm guessing it looks probably like a sea monkey right now and we should let it get a little cuter.

More quotes here.

It's hard to believe that you actually smile at the end of a movie about teenage pregnancy. The issue is definetely not something to smile about, it's a hard fact of the society we live in today. Not all girls are fortunate enough to be like Juno, majority of them end up messing up their own lives and their babies' lives, but we can only hope that at least some of them have an ending like Juno had.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Mere Piya Gaye Rangoon

The world is trying to help the devastated Irrawady delta as a result of the Cyclone Nargis. The military junta in Burma has been much criticized for its method of dealing with the tragedy. India shares a sizeable border with Burma and has had close ties with the country in the colonial days. There was a large Indian population in Burma in the early 20th century. Indians had businesses, jobs and owned a lot real estate in this city. Rangoon, in those days was a thriving centre of commerce and a beautiful city. It was also a vacation destination for the rich Indians from cities such as Calcutta and Bombay. One such mention of Burma and Rangoon in the Indian pop-culture of that era can be found in a song from a movie named Patanga made in 1949. The song was sung by Shamshad Begum (I do not know the male voice). The song is a playful melody and must have been a smash-hit in those days.

The military junta drove out most of the Indian population from Burma. Today, India is nothing but a silent observer to the tragedies that unfold in this once close neighbor of hers. Hopefully a hundred years from now, Burma will be a democracy and will re-establish its relations with India and the Indian people. Until then hoping for quick recovery for those affected by this tragedy. Click here if you would like to do your bit to help in this tragedy.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

How to PIMP a Sunday afternoon

Back in the days when I was living in Pune, one of the default things to do on a Sunday afternoon was to head down to a street food hawker on Aundh Road at around 3:30 PM and enjoy a freshly made wada-paav, two cups of extra sweet chai - one to wash the wada pav and the other to savour with the Gold Flake. This was a routine which went undisturbed if we were in town - rain or shine.

Wada-paav is extremely popular in the Western part of Maharashtra - esp in Bombay and Pune. It evolved and became popular as the working man's food. It is usually sold on small thelas - a make-shift table on wheels: the kind like hot dog stands. These thelas can be spotted at busy street corners, railway stations, bus stops, parks, outside cinema halls, outside Government office buildings - they have become a part of the street decor. A popular wada-paav seller sells his stock within a couple of hours of opening and making the wadas (it usually coincides with the time people leave offices but its not the rule). The working class lines up for their daily hit of the deep fried oily wada-paavs. The wada is made of a mixture of cooked potatoes mashed in fried onions with salt and other spices. This mixture is then dipped in a paste of gram flour which is mixed with water and made into burger style patties. These patties are then deep fried in peanut oil until dark brown. The wada is then placed on an open paav (a paav is like a hamburger bun except much smaller) with garlic chutney sprinkled on one side of the paav and the cilantro-green chutney on the other (these chutneys vary from city to city, street corner to street corner). Usually the paper plates on which this is served is nothing but a 8 inch by inch torn piece of an old newspaper (makes for some interesting reading after you have finished eating the wada-paav). One important accompaniement which is served on the side is lightly fried green chillies, which leave oily stains on the newspaper plates - sometimes in very strategic places, ensuing hilarity.
The most common beverage with the wada-paav is hot chai. Yes, even in 100F temperatures, you will see people eating the hot and spicy wada-paav and sipping on hot chai.

Today "A" decided to take me back and help me experience that mildly spicy, warm, oily flavor of deeply fried potato and gram flour wada. The result was 8/10. The wada paav came out perfect taste wise - mildly tangy because of the green chutney of cilantro and green chillies, the occassional sharp taste of garlic from the slight dash of the garlic chutney, the warm mildly spicy wada with the crisp slightly burnt onions and the side of sauted green chilly. The chai on the side was also perfect, sweet and milky. The ensemble was perfect.

As soon as I bit into the warm wada-paav, and the fried-lightly-salted green chilly, I was there on Aundh Road. The wada was hot enough to be chewed comfortably without burning my mouth and spicy enough to feel the heat when it settled in my stomach. The hot sweet tea was only accentuating the many flavors. "A" brought the house down on this one. Wada-paav can be hardly considered cuisine - but it takes just the right amount of everything to make it taste the way it does on those thelas.

Why then you would ask, I gave "A" 8 out of 10? One point was deducted for the absence of the Gold Flake cigarette and the other point was deducted for the lack of the smell of the fumes from the exhausts of the hundreds of vehicles passing by while you enjoy this unique dish. I must say the cigarette smoke combined with the exhaust fumes complete the experience. For this Sunday, I will have to do without them.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Movies for a Lifetime - 1

This is a series about movies that have truly, deeply moved me: made me happy, horrified me, or made me sad – essentially movies that have left a mark forever. Some of them are universally acknowledged as timeless classics some of them not. It’s my list, not necessarily in any particular order of liking. They are all near and dear to me. The idea is not to review these movies, but to try and explain why I felt a certain way about them and why they are so dear to me. One thing is common for all these movies, at the end of each one, I found myself with a contented expression and a feeling of fullness in my heart. It’s kind of a feeling of eating a delicious meal after being hungry for a long time, or after drinking a cold glass of water after being thirsty for a long time. A word in Hindi/Marathi describes that feeling aptly – “Santosh” or “Trupti”.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Year: 1960

Psycho is known as the most well crafted movie in the Horror/Thriller genre. Personally, yes it was scary and creepy; however, I was more saddened at the end of the movie than scared. When I first watched Psycho (the Hitch version not the Gus Van Sant one), I knew it was a horror movie but my knowledge about the movie ended there. As soon as the movie started, I was eating out of Hitch’s hands. By the end of it, I was shivering with excitement and yet was weighed down by the tragedy, by the loss of youth – of Marion’s as well as Norman Bates’. There will be folks who would call me sick or judge me for feeling sad for the Norman Bates character, but to them I say – “To each his own”!

The movie succeeds in every aspect of film-making –pacing, editing, camera-work, just the right combination of suspense, humor and anticipation. In the performance department, the Norman Bates character was immortalized by Anthony Perkins. This role was his claim to fame, and sadly became him for the rest of his acting career. Tony Perkins did many a good roles in films and theater but he could never get rid of the “Norman Bates” character from himself – just like the “Mother” had become “Norman Bates”.

One small quirky genius of a moment comes in the last few seconds of the movie. Pause the scene at 1:17 seconds, then pause it again at 1:18 seconds: do you see the skull of the mother super-imposed on Norman’s face? It might just be me, but if it truly is what it I think it is, then I bow to Hitch for keeping it so subtle, so so subtle!!