Friday, November 4, 2011
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Going to the theatre and getting lost in the fantasy of it all is easier than you think. I challenge you to go to a local theatre for the first weekend show of a big new opening and not be gripped by the passion of the audience around you. Sometimes it’s more infectious, more entertaining than the movie itself. There is whistling, there is truly innocent laughter, there are tears and there are fist-pumps. Often, the national anthem is played before a film and everyone will stand and sing. Most would probably get up and sing during the film if they knew the words. This is actually something that has happened to me once, that I’ve experienced personally, where the entire audience sung the last emotionally charged word of a masterful duet like they were singing it to their soul mate. It was a film called Roja and its soundtrack is one of the all-time greats. A R Rahman won an Oscar for the awful, awful music in Slumdog Millionaire – but the music in Roja, Bombay, Dil Se, Rangeela and Lagaan is something that will set him apart from his modern peers and raise him to the pedestal of the old masters of the charming 60s and 70s.
The songs from that era (note how much I’m referring to music, when discussing Bollywood) are without a doubt the most wonderful in Indian cinema’s history. By songs, I include the videos as well as the actual tracks themselves. They wouldn’t be complete without the terrible lip-syncing and 60’s haircuts – all filmed in glorious speckled black-and-white, of course. The grainy tunes from my parent’s cassette collection can make any long-drive turn into a dream-sequence. I’m not sure any frenetic modern dance numbers will surpass those romantic ballads for sheer whistle-ability.
More often than not however, a trip to see a Bollywood ‘fillum’ in a theatre fails to deliver anything but clichés, a cold and sore ear-drums. There is so much dross churned out by the industry every year. But people will always go to watch their favourite stars, almost as if ‘it might be good’. It’s peculiar. Too many times do film-makers, actors and studios get away with making terrible movies that adhere to the strict ‘Bollywood checklist’. Only recently have film-makers started to break from traditional patterns and try to address modern issues or look at old themes with fresh perspectives.
Bollywood is not a genre; it is a pass-time. It is a drug. Bollywood movies are where normal people with average lives, go to watch perfect people live fantastical lives. They go for the heroes – the leading men whose biceps seem intent on tearing at their bizarre item-number outfits. They go for the heroines – the pristine goddesses who wash their grandparents feet, pray to God twice a day and are always, always the victims of some sad circumstance. They go for the inevitable story – the timid start, the bold end and all the implausible adventures in between. They go for the music. Ahh, the music. The music that usually overshadows the movie itself. You’ll find people saying, “It was a decent movie yaar... but had really nice songs. I’ll go watch it again with my family” or “what a waste of time...total flop... she can’t dance at all”. Film titles are deliberately misspelt, because ‘numerologists’ say that having too many of a certain letter is a bad omen. It’s all a bit surreal.
This is not Indian cinema – its Indians going to the cinema. Bollywood is closing your eyes and dreaming. Film is opening your eyes and seeing.
There are fantastic movies out there, made by Indians but not really appreciated by Indians, which deal with the country, its people and its issues. I want to tell you about three of them – three that I implore you to watch if you have the chance. They are categorically not Bollywood – no silly songs, no cheesy dances and no ridiculous plot. These are films. These are art, in my opinion. These are Indians holding the mirror up to society and really looking. These films, in my opinion, are movies you interact with, rather than simply consume.
Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries)
Amir Khan was one of India’s most famous Bollywood heroes. He started off staring in the usual song and dance routines but then began to take an active interest in writing, production and direction. As time went on, his movies actually dealt with ‘issues’ while still keeping the basic Bollywood ‘formula’. One of his more recent offerings, however, has broken from the traditional Bollywood model altogether. The thought of an Amir Khan movie without songs, set in Bombay really excited me and the film itself didn’t disappoint.
Dhobi Ghat, it must be said, doesn’t reinvent the wheel, as far as international film-making goes. It follows the ‘intertwining story’ pattern of movies like Pulp Fiction, for example. There are 4 separate sub-plots that meet each other only a few times in the course of the film. Amir Khan stars as the brooding artist, Monica Dogra as the Indian-American investment banker back in India for some soul-searching, the excellent Prateik Babbar as the poor, small-town boy aspiring to be a Bollywood hero and Kriti Malhotra is the first voice you hear in the movie and whose beautiful character I will not spoil. I loved all their performances, though Amir’s felt a little forced at times. Prateik Babbar’s mannerisms as the timid street kid were just superb.
Watch this movie for its beautiful musical score and for its clever utilisation of the city of Bombay. It is a place that has inspired many writers, artists and film-makers but I suspect Amir Khan, like his character in the movie, has fallen a little (more) in love with the bustling, grimy and always romantic metropolis. Without being too pretentious, the film shows India’s contrasts (yawn) and its complexities (yawwwwwn) in a very clean, unassuming manner. It is a film I recommend to all my European friends, to get a sense of what my favourite Indian city is really like. It’s even on Youtube in High-Definition with English subtitles.
John and Jane.
I saw a very well made trailer for this on TV and decided to give it a watch. Check it out here.
Ashim Ahluwalia’s dark, poignant, nuanced take on call centre workers is something to behold, if you’re a fan of documentaries. Even if you’re not generally into them, this beautiful, quiet film will give you a well-round insight into the lives of call centre workers. You know, the ones who answer the phone with the lie, “Hi this is Michael speaking”.
There is something eerie about the double-life a call-centre worker leads and I think the film has captured that very well. There is the clash of cultures (being Indian during the day and American at night), the stormy work-life balance and perhaps most importantly, a seismic shift in what this generation Indian youngsters are exposed to vis-à-vis their parents’. The money, the partying, the crazy hours... it is a very real, largely unexplored part of modern India that goes unnoticed in global coverage.
I love this movie because it goes one step further than simply showcasing the nocturnal life of a call-centre worker, but exploring the impact that speaking to people on the other side of the world (and clock) has on their lives. They all have to go through ‘accent training’ and learn about American culture. At the end of the movie, one young man simply says, “Now I would rather be American”. Think of the implications of that, if you will. This movie will very subtly change your opinion about fake-accent Michael.
Slumdog Millionaire won a lot of awards. It was a very carefully crafted piece of marketing, with a (to some) catchy musical score, big name director, romantic story line and fantastic on-location filming. But it was just Bollywood with funny English accents. If you want a real look at the many facets of life in the slum, you simply must watch Salaam Bombay.
Directed by Mira Nair, this slightly older movie (1988) was nominated for an Oscar, a Bafta and a Golden Globe and won the Audience Award and Golden Camera at Cannes. It is truly a masterpiece.
Personally, I loved the change in the female character in the film, who goes from being a scared, young, exploited girl to embracing the husband whose bought her and, indeed, bought her love. The paradoxical plight of the prostitute who had to take her child along on a, ahem, house-call was also riveting. You feel sad for nearly all of the film’s characters and because I watched it a few weeks after watching the fantasy of Slumdog Millionaire, it hit home harder than I could have ever imagined.
If you love great films, great direction and want to get a sense of life in a slum for its variety of residents is really like, then this is the closest you’ll get without actually visiting Dharavi. Don’t watch this film on a sunny Saturday afternoon, expecting a happy ending and a movie that will smile at you after the credits and wave goodbye. This movie that, from its quiet start to its heart-wrenching end, will stay with you, engage with you and hopefully change you. There is no song and dance in the slum, only human beings.
I have nothing against Bollywood. There is a reason why it succeeds (all over the world, not just India) and there is a reason why people in the West loved Slumdog. I would love to see more diversity though. Not just in style, but in casting, direction, cinematography and theme. I hope that, as the country changes and embraces Western thinking more and more, more Indian films get made and appreciated. We are seeing the first signs of it, with movies exploring homosexuality, fidelity, gang violence and religion. They still cling to the tried-and-tested Bollywood script but they are a step in the right direction.
I hope that one day, Bollywood becomes a genre; perhaps one of many strings in Indian cinema's bow rather than it's only arrow.
Monday, June 27, 2011
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
The crackling of the frayed power cables overhead and the unsheltered concrete roof made it seem like you were being fried. The sun was at the highest point in the summer sky and the few slivers of shadow were packed with those clever enough to find their spot in the relative cool and stick to it. The ratio of 25 men to every woman firmly reminded you that you were in India.
I was at my local RTO in Bangalore to get my driving license. I’d come a month earlier and gone through a similar process to get my learner’s permit. Today however, was the big day where I’d hopefully be unleashed onto Indian roads – or rather, they’d be unleashed upon me. I had absolutely no idea how the process worked and so, like a doddering mental patient, I was being ushered along by the instructor from the driving school I’d been attending. Ii was hell. The heat was unbearable and I was glad that I had worn shorts and chappals instead of jeans and shoes. My biceps at least doubled in size (to that of a 6 year olds) from wiping the sweat off my forehead.
All around me, hundreds of men of all sizes bustled for place in the seemingly ever growing queue to reach the hallowed plastic tiles of the Regional Officer’s room and get the all important seal of approval. My driving instructor was a well meaning fellow but he really didn’t care about me or the rest of the hopeful candidates from the school. I suspect he’s been through this process over a hundred times and has seen it all before, but he should have told us to stand in line while he paid for our applications at the cashier rather than making us wait, doing nothing for an hour and then telling us to stand in the daunting queue.
Anyways, after taking my picture and thumb print for the biometric card, I walked to the area where the tests would be conducted. And waited. And waited. After 45 minutes, the instructor was back and started sending the ladies off in the car in groups of 3 with the officer from the RTO and another instructor from the driving school. God forbid the ladies would have to wait in the sun like we did. After about an hour they were done and he started sending sent the men off. Since there was only one car in which our driving school’s students could take their tests in, they happened in batches and took about 20 minutes each. I was curious to know what the test actually involved. One by one people would walk back, shake their head in an affirmative manner and then leave. “Is it really that simple?” I thought.
By now, it was past 1pm and the heat and unrelenting sunlight were unbearable. Like Sauron’s Eye the Deccan fireball watched us all, without blinking and without remorse. I had been waiting around doing nothing for close to three hours as everyone else had been sent to do their tests with the mysterious RTO officer. Finally, it was my turn. I would be with the penultimate batch of the day. I was nervous as I walked up to the little red Hyundai i10. There were two other candidates from the driving school with me. I opened the back door and was greeted with the scornful and rather irritated expression of the RTO officer. He was dressed like a cop, in those infamous khaki clothes. He even had those shoulder straps like army officers do. Bless him. As I sat down next to him in the cramped rear passenger seats he said something shrilly.
“What kind of clothes are you wearing? You’re going to the market or what?” he spat. I didn’t know what to say.
I was wearing an $80 Arsenal replica jersey with formal brown shorts and Kohlapuri slippers. Is that what he wears when he goes to the market? I looked down to my feet and mumbled, “Sorry sir”.
The first candidate got into gear, took a left turn on the deserted back road, and was told to stop at a corner. He then reversed round the right hand bend and came to a halt about 20 yards away from where he’d stopped.
“Wo-kay” said the grumpy middle aged RTO officer, the few hairs that lived on his bald patch glistening with sweat as the door opened.
“Ya come here” snapped the instructor from the driving school in front seat, towards me. I hastily got into the driving seat, slipped off my chappals and started the car. I released the clutch smoothly like I’d planned in my mind for the last 4 hours and made my way down the empty street. There were no buildings in sight, just rubble and patches of grass on either side of the road. This was a truly forgettable part of town. I put the car into 2nd gear to a grunt of approval from the driving instructor next to me.
“Stop here”, said the RTO officer, “Long right hand reverse.”
I did just as he asked, taking the reverse right hander slowly and aligned the side of the car with the road. The instructor gave me the “all OK” signal with his hand. It had come off better than in any of my classes and I did my best to hide my happiness.
To put things into perspective for all those of you laughing at the back, I have never had any interest or motivation to take up driving because of
a) Always having a driver
b) Being very comfortable with public transport
c) Being petrified by Indian roads.
For me then, to have gotten this far in the test without making a single mistake after 9 classes was an achievement.
“OK, go” said the officer, interrupting my day dream.
“What? That’s it?!” I thought to myself in shock. I looked at the instructor who nodded his head upon an invisible horizontal axis like Indians do when something has been done satisfactorily. I got out of the car and walked towards the starting area. That was the driving test? Like most of my encounters with the fairer sex, it was nerve-racking and lasted about 90 seconds. One gear shift and one reverse – those are the only two prerequisites it seems to being allowed to drive in India. So much made sense now.
I waited for the last batch to finish their tests as I had to hitch a ride back with the instructors. When the car pulled up to the starting area for the last time and the officer got out and walked back to the RTO, the instructor who’d been in the front seat too got out and did something strange. He walked towards me shaking his head and frowning. This was not good.
“Fail ho gaya,” he said, walking past me and towards the other staff from the driving school.
“Haan sir, fail ho gaya”
“What the fuck?! Why?”?
Over the course of the next horrifying minute, the instructor explained to me how I’d driven very well and reversed perfectly. But. I was wearing shorts. The RTO driving inspector failed me because I was wearing shorts.
It took a moment to sink in. I gawked at the instructor in disbelief. He seemed as uninterested as the other guy who’d helped us with the processing. I asked him three times if he was joking but he wasn’t.
My worst fears were confirmed when one of the candidates who had been car with me said, “the officer failed you because you were wearing shorts. He took it as a sign of disrespect. He felt you were showing off your wealth.”
“SHOWING OFF MY WEALTH?! BY WEARING FUCKING SHORTS?!” I yelled, putting my hands on my head in utter disgust.
“I didn’t know this was a fashion show; I didn’t know there was a bloody dress code! Next time should I come in a suit?!”
Everyone seemed to show profound apathy, some of the driving school staff were even chuckling. It was not very funny to me. The worst part was that the inspector had disappeared off into the bowels of the RTO and these buffoons were hardly the types to go there on my behalf. What could I do? The instructor didn’t even drop me back to the driving school near my house like he promised.
I went home seething- complaining to anyone who’d listen. A few days later I went to get the official results of my test. The two female clerks at the office called someone, said my name, nodded upon that same excruciating horizontal axis and then turned to me saying I’d passed! What on earth was going on?! I’d passed?! Was that whole episode a joke? It couldn’t have been. Had the driving school guys gone and paid off the RTO official to change his mind? I didn’t care. Until the next day.
I got the call at 10 in the morning. The high pitched voice of the female clerk said, “Sir? Mr Shravan? Sir DL test fail hua.”
I went to the driving school and yelled and begged in vain.
“How much does he want?” I finally said. “How much does he want for his 'respect'?”
This wasn’t about money, they told me. There was nothing they could do – as far as they were concerned, it was my problem. But that’s India, isn’t it? That’s India in a nutshell. It’s your problem.
Look at the sheer ineptitude displayed at every stage of this simple process. One has to take 9 classes, in which one is asked each time by the sneering instructor for a sum of money - on top of the fee you pay the driving school at the start - as “Guru-dakshin”. At some point during this time one goes to one the worst logistically planned institutions in the land (of which there are many, so the competition is fierce) and stands in line for hours in the sun for a learner’s permit. No appointments or anything, because that would be too easy and painless. Then after a month this whole fiasco for the full driver’s license begins. The apathetic instructor, the corrupt government official and the highly exploitable public are the three protagonists in this tragedy. Why is everything a struggle? From getting a driver’s license to getting the damn Airtel guy to come home and fix the internet: every little thing is a battle between you and someone who wants to take the most money for the least service.
I understand what my grandfather told me years ago, about the public institutions that ravage this country. I dismissed him as a cynic but some part of his words rung true in my ears that day, “You have to meet one public servant – just one government officer – to realise why this country is the way it is.”
This episode was my first real encounter with institutionalised ‘bureau-corruption’ – that’s what I’m calling it, because it is a fine balance of the two that will keep my country in the dark ages forever. Below the 9% GDP growth and the other propaganda, there is a cheapskate waiting to short change you. Maybe he lives within everyone and those of us who succeed in life, find a way to pay him off or better yet, expose him.
Maybe I need to take my own advice and “go with the flow”. Or maybe I need to take off the rose-tinted glasses I always wear when in India and stop making excuses for day-to-day cheating that has become accepted - that has become institutionalised.
I hope that little encounter gave the RTO driving inspector’s inferiority complex the hard-on he so desperately desired. Screw this, I’m taking the bus.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Monday, February 14, 2011
When I got off the plane at Berlin Schoenefeld Airport on that mild October day, I really didn't know what to expect or what I was doing. In a strange turn of events, I had fought off my laziness and my inertia and my will to take the path of least resistance and gotten myself a German visa and a ticket to study exchange year.
As many of you know, I've moved around a lot in my life. I'm used to the packing, the double checking of passports-tickets-wallet-phone-keys and the checklist of things to do on arrival. I love traveling. After over a 100 flights, I still get that shiver of excitement when the captain revs up the plane's engines and your body is sucked back into the seat. I love people-watching at airports and being watched in return at cafes. They are, after my house, where I feel most at home. I love the fish pond at Changi. I love the race between the EU and non-EU lines at Gatwick. I love the KFC at Bangkok's transfer terminal. I love the sail like roof at Hong Kong. I love the blue-purple lights that line the runway at night in Bombay. I love the airport in the middle of Kenya, which was the size of our school car park. I love Dubai's vast array of migrant workers and their uncertainty about what they themselves are doing there. I love the cranky immigration officers at Heathrow and their surprise when I use my English accent. I know my way around.
And yet on arrival into Germany, I felt lost. It was the first time I was moving to a new home, alone. You feel you've got everything covered - and you have - yet when you arrive, there is no one to confide your initial observations in. There is no one to help decipher the language with. My dad was at home and I was at the wrong baggage carousel. And then it began. I met my first friend in Germany and I've never looked back. My tutor, Bart, arrived and got me my first Döner kebab and got me on a train to Frankfurt Oder, an hour away.
I'd always considered the UK to be the pinnacle of Western civilisation. I'd lived there when I was young, go to university there and always associated myself with its culture, at various levels. But after a semester in the land of Bratwurst and Bayern Munich, I have no doubt that Germany is the greatest country in the world. I do not make such a bold claim on impulse and love-drunk enthusiasm. I have experienced it, I have learnt from it and I am in awe at how a country can function without so many of the problems that others face and even take for granted. I am in awe at how cultured its people are - how friendly and welcoming they are to a total stranger who does not speak its language. Where do I begin?
If someone asked me the best thing about my experience over the last 5 months in Germany, I would say the people and the friends I've made. In my first two years in England, I accrued about 70 new friends on Facebook. I was reluctant to attend all the university events and didn't mix with a wide group of people. I was introverted and stuck tight to my friend circle. I grew tremendously close to them and do not regret anything about my time in Birmingham. But in Germany, at EUV on the Polish border, I was simply not allowed to keep to myself. I have over 150 new friends in a little over four months. I made 3 or 4 of my current best friends, on the first day I arrived. The first afternoon in fact. I went to the orientation event (a scavenger hunt across town) thinking it was for fellow exchange students. When the coordinator stood up on the bench and asked "is there anybody who doesn't understand German?", I was the only one to raise my hand. The crowd of about 70 native freshers who had all gathered in the courtyard outside the auditorium all turned to me and I sheepishly said, "sorry mate!". Within five minutes, no less than 10 eager English speakers had quizzed me on my name, home university and country of origin and had promised to translate the rest of the Scavenger Hunt for me as we went along. I was a passenger. I was ushered from place to place with such warmth as I've never felt before. These people - all my age or thereabouts - were genuinely interested in me and what I was doing there.
My thoughts of home disappeared. The image of my dad, pacing up the down our hall way had changed into one of him resting on the sofa, glass folded on his chest. We walked all around town until evening came, completing challenges and making friends along the way. I was the nucleus of the Gernglish speaking crowd, whether I liked it or not. The Scavenger Hunt finished at a bar - a recurring theme, as I'd come to find out in later months - and our team had won. I really didn't care, because I had 10 or 12 friends that I had not had that morning. I was part of a community in less than 5 hours. And it was no honeymoon - I am still close to nearly all of them to this day. They were warm and curious and fun loving and just like the friends I have in England and India. And do you know what? Nearly everyone else I've met in Germany is like them. Their attitude towards me is, anyway.
Their curiosity is not intrusive and excessive, like it is in India. And yet it genuinely exists, like it doesn't in the UK. It's a great balance. I smile when I walk down the street. I smile at people. I never smile in India. Maybe that's more to do with me. The shopkeepers and I have spectacularly awkward conversations about politics, sex and religion in their three words of English and my four in German. I can now order a subway sandwich with aplomb.
The public transport, the state of cleanliness and order, the punctuality and the ability to cut loose and have a great time are all probably the best I've seen after Singapore. What sets Germany apart from places like Hong Kong and Singapore is that while all the stereotypes about organisation and methodical execution ring true - and how! - centres for art and music and creative energy like Berlin exist and thrive and provide a fantastic theatre for exploration. Germany has its underbelly, like any country, but it does not spill out into spaces for public interaction like it does in the UK. All that stuff is there, all that comes to expect from a 1st world country who's cogs and gears have been refined and oiled to near perfection is there.
And yet there is one thing about my time there that I feel best sums up my opinion that Germany is the benchmark, the goal everyone else should aim to reach. It is unnervingly difficult to put my finger on it, but I shall try and articulate:
When I'm at the lunch table and I'm facilitating or over-hearing different conversations about current affairs or international news or pop culture, something odd occurs to me. The Germans don't feel the need to care about happenings in other countries and to compare their standards to those. As an Indian I'm used to thinking in terms of how well other countries do something. As a UK resident for 5 years, I'm used to discussing the rise of other economies, the superiority of other sports team over England's or, for argument's sake, some catastrophic event somewhere else in the world and what the British government is doing about it. In Germany there is simply not this sense of looking outside, of measuring against others or of wanting to feel adequate on a global stage.
My friends talk about their country's issues. They watch German comedians as well as international ones. They are not pawns to a small club of media outlets. There is not this sense of impending doom, of constant pessimism and unwavering cynicism. Its a pessimistic, cynical doom-monger, this is a shock to my system. And let it not come across that the Germans are self-obsessed. Far from it. My peers are amongst the most well informed I've come across. They read. Do I have rose-tinted glasses on? Maybe. Probably. But I'm only telling you what I've seen, what I've experienced. Young people in Germany are satisfied and when they aren't, they do something about it.
I know the country has issues. My friends have explained them to me in detail. It is no utopia (especially not for a foodie like me). But by God it is the closest I've seen in my short time on this earth. Forget the democracy, the export driven economy, the high standard of living, the roads, the art galleries, the nightclubs, the ability to deal with snow, the foreign policy, the history, the scenery and everything else. It is a country filled with sensible people who go out of their way to make you feel welcome and wanted.
I fear I have rambled. I shall conclude by saying: I love Germany. I love everything about it. I have not even mentioned the women!