More Bollywood musings

For those of you who are familiar with Bollywood movies the omnipresent Bachhans will practically be a household name. Of course there is the original first family, the Kapoors, which produced a steady line of handsome men and a steady stream of women who looked just like the men. Lost in all this are the lesser families. Like the one founded by Dharma paaji. The rule of the thumb has always been that the Deol men will down litres of creamy lassi, slap their thighs and enter into fights that will give them a good opportunity to flex those muscles. So it was indeed a surprise when one found out that Abhay Deol comes from this very line. For those of you who have ignored his career with great interest, here a couple of his movies that deserve a good word

Socha Na Tha begins like the typical 90s college flick. The young and impressionable rich Hindu hero is in love with his middle class Christian girlfriend. His parents naturally put their silver feet down. However instead of following the steady route of vicious dialogues by hero’s papa, sentimental dialogues by heroine’s dada, country bombs everywhere and love conquering all, the movie changes track. The hero’s parents come around but meanwhile the hero himself is discovering that he might actually be in love with Girl B (Ayesha Takia) and not Girl A (aforementioned Catholic girl). After some general soul searching and guilt tripping, the movie is sorted out in a slightly Bollywoodish manner. Abhay Deol fits in very well in the role of a confused young man who realizes first love is not everything. Ayesha Takia is cute. Most important of all, the hero and heroines have real conversations. Now we all know why today’s men suck at having decently entertaining date conversations. Having been brought up on a diet of Hindi movies most of them assume the path to true love involves fluttering of eyes, song with funny dance steps, marriage ceremony with coy blushing bride and the happy ending of a suhaag raat. I am yet to come across a Hindi movie where you can see the hero and heroine enjoy chatting with each other. For all its flaws, Socha Na Tha actually is unique in this one respect.

Abhay Deol’s second movie, which I watched was ‘Ahista Ahista’. Himesh Bhai’s long nasal howl was the only thing that became popular in a movie that had worthier claims. Abhay Deol is a tapori well ensconced in his career as a witness for marriages at the Delhi Registrar’s office. Soha Ali Khan appears there one fine morning and as the day progresses, it is obvious that her lover has abandoned her. Abhay tries to help her. As the days go by, their relationship grows and spurred by her love, Abhay gradually discovers bigger dreams and moves past an economic barrier into the middle class. Soha’s former lover however appears again and she has to choose between the two. The movie was pretty muted and low key throughout, sometimes wandering into boring. The sincerity and freshness of the lead couple however kept up interest levels. The characters were threshed out reasonably well and you could fully understand why the story ended the way it did.

Both movies are definitely not theatre material but worth a watch on a lazy Saturday afternoon on DVD.


Review - The Last King of Scotland

With the Oscar buzz, critics awards et al, the movie and especially the performance by Forest Whittaker as Idi Amin has got very wide press. And deservedly so. Tracking a fictional Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan, the movie portrays the many sides of Idi Amin from the point of his seizing power to the infamous landing of an Air France plane kidnapped by the Palestinians at Uganda.
However, to begin at the beginning. For those of you who have a vague idea of Idi Amin being an African despot who knocked off lots of people during his reign, the idea is right. Idi Amin was the ruler (there is no right moniker since he called himself various things including the fantastic Lord of all beasts of the earth and the fishes of the sea) of Uganda from 1971 when he seized power from the previous president, Mr Obote till 1979 when he was overthrown by the Tanzanian army. During his reign, an estimated 300,000 Ugandans died, many political opponents were brutally killed, the economy plunged into a horrible crisis, Asians were expelled from Uganda and relations with various countries broke down. Among other things, he was suspected of being a cannibal.

Despite the kind of paranoid megalomaniac the man was, the movie does not caricature him as yet another despot who flourished under the aegis of the West while eventually becoming a Frankestein too tough to handle. It gradually builds a personality who some saw as a saviour, who loved his family (provided they toed the line) and who seems like he had the interests of Ugandans at heart. The naïve Nicholas Garrigan takes on the role of a personal physician and sees this aspect of the President. It is only as he graduates to being a close advisor of Idi Amin and becomes more politically aware of the human rights abuse plaguing the country does the crazed face of the President becomes obvious to Nicholas. He attempts to escape from his nightmare and learns firsthand how gruesome the President’s ire can be.

The movie is not a comprehensive portrayal of life and times under Idi Amin and prefers to focus more on the man himself. So don't expect a lesson in history. Infact in the initial scenes you are scarcely aware of how brutal things are going to get towards the end. Thanks to some generous snipping by the censors, Indian viewers have obviously been spared some of the more gut wrenching sights. Nevertheless it is chilling enough to let you break into a cold sweat and thanking yourself you are in a democracy, whatever be the problems.


Ole! telefono

My Spanish is highly limited. After one year of Salsa classes I can mutter words like dos, tres, tarito, una bella etc. But that is akin to little kids mimicking adults while learning to speak. And I don’t even sound that cute. With such a background, I do not know for what worthy reason I have been given an intercom facility that communicates to me purely in Spanish.

When the department secretary came to me with a glint in his eye to tell me I would be getting a new intercom line, I should have been suspicious. He breathed in hushed tones that the machine had a digital line. I must admit I was a bit stumped. Didn’t everybody not have a digital line or for that matter what exactly did a digital line mean? However in an effort to conceal my ignorance, I reacted with all the glee of a person who has been informed she is on top of Santa Claus’s best kids list and is likely to reap the bounty. Our secretary got even more excited by my excitement till we both were practically hysterical at the thought of me being given a digital phone line. What next? A double promotion? A 100% pay hike? The possibilities seemed endless.

I got my new line. The instrument certainly looked highly advanced. The numbers from 0 – 9 which had been the central focus of my earlier phone looked like a mere afterthought. Two major columns of buttons on either side of a flashy digital display said stuff like ‘park, auto dial, ring again’. The most exciting part was this bright red button that stood out in contrast to the other grey and white buttons on the phone. It looked like the kind of button with which you could activate nuclear devices in early James Bond movies. Digital was good.

Then trouble struck. I realized that accidentally hitting any button would give me a range of options in Spanish. For a phone with buttons marked in English, the display coming in Spanish was, as Sherlock Holmes would say, singular. I had no clue how to respond to Option #7 Diagnostico Pantalla or #9 Chasquido de Tecla. Infact the only option I could understand was Adjustar Volumon and frankly nothing I did adjusted the volume at all. I checked with the secretary and he apologetically told me it was a problem. The previous user had solved it by always holding his elbows up in the air lest he hit unintended buttons and entered into some mode he could not exit. I ceased to laugh at this solution after I spent half a day trying to come out of a tricky option (and no, lifting up the receiver and putting it back in the cradle does not solve all problems).

I have since come to accept the fact that my phone is bilingual or perhaps actually schizophrenic. I don’t hold my elbows up to avoid unnecessary contact but have instead placed my intercom at one end of my small workstation and crouch at the other end. I love it despite that or perhaps because of it. Even on a bad day where works seems mundane, I can always challenge myself by fiddling around with my phone. We are good together.


Rattling experiences

Chennai auto-rickshaw fellows have personal driving styles that are different from that of the rest of the civilized world. The only place where the same aggression may have been witnessed would have been in chariot races in ancient Rome as portrayed by Hollywood. They drive through cracks and crannies unmindful of the number of car drivers preparing for knee replacement surgeries in the future by hitting their brakes suddenly and frequently. However, even among this crazed lot, a few stand out as genuinely insane. P and I had the honour to ride the magnificent machine of one of these.

We emerged from Spencer’s Plaza and managed to find an auto to take us to Parry’s Corner. This area has a fairly complicated mechanism for keeping the traffic under check. Suffice to say, we should have headed straight down, done a U-Turn and joined the traffic like other law abiding citizens. But Mr. Genuinely Insane was in no mood for that. He did a 90-degree turn and plunged into the traffic. P looked very flustered but I was reasonably calm. Having been reading Asimov of late, I assumed that a time bubble would open up, we would go through empty ground in a parallel universe and then emerge on the other side of the road into our universe. Sadly, we did not. Neighing like a thoroughbred, the auto caused various buses and lorries to grind to a halt on purely humanitarian grounds of not crushing us. The auto for all its rearing was not something that would win applause in the Chennai Auto Driver’s race (now banned). Like an old and elegant lady, it did not hurry obscenely but slowly strutted the road to the other side. The race between man’s willpower vs. machine’s horsepower was on.

Halfway through the journey, however the auto had warmed up sufficiently and there was no stopping her. Even at signals. Luckily we made it through most but the final one was at a large junction. Our driver, straining at every nerve looked like someone who had suffered from a major attack of constipation and still waiting for the effects of Milk of Magnesia to commence. P and I clutched each other and watched his brow furrow while deciding whether to halt. Then abruptly deciding that such intense decision making better be done after halting, he braked. We hovered uncertainly in the air for about 30 seconds. Then the clouds of doubt cleared. Quickly calculating the mass, velocity and acceleration, the auto guy decided we still had time to plunge through. Even before we landed from the hovering-in-the-air state, we were off.

Do you remember the scene in Spiderman 1 where he has to stop this oncoming train from plunging down a broken bridge? The scene shows the train rushing at Peter Parker. That is how the PTC bus looked rushing at us. At this moment, the auto concluded its own ruminations of mass, velocity and acceleration and stopped. Metal would have contacted metal but for providence. Chennai PTC buses after years of bearing 5 times the passenger capacity they were meant to bear do not accelerate from 0 to 60 kmph in 60 seconds. They grunt and groan and gently turn lest the 40 passengers hanging to the windows and doorways fall off. Our auto driver had just about enough time to reverse back to a safer point.

None of us spoke much after this. P and I were glad when we were back in the cosy confines of our office and Mr. GI was back on the road. But hey, didn’t someone say every day you need to challenge yourself to do better?
p.s. Yet another post on autos. Too bad.


Movie Review - Bicycle thieves/ The bicycle thief *

I picked up the DVD of Ladri di biciclette (‘Bicycle Thieves’) after seeing the movie poster used in my sister’s blog. Her blog entry was a light one on how her bicycle was stolen when she was a student in the U.S. For some strange reason, this association had always made me assume the movie was a light one and I set down prepared to watch a bunch of Italian men playing an ancient version of ‘Gone in 60 seconds’. All I can say is that I could not have been more mistaken.

The movie tells the story of Antonia Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), a poor unemployed worker in post WW2 Rome who manages to land a job. His lower middle class family comprising his wife, son and new born baby, is barely keeping body and soul together and the job promises to better their economic conditions substantially. The job however requires a cycle. His has been pawned long ago for a few meals. Mrs Ricci decides to pawn the good linen from her wedding trousseau to retrieve the cycle. Given the title of the movie, you pretty much know that the cycle will get stolen shortly and you wait with a rapidly beating heart on when and how it will happen. Sure enough, as the hero of the movie is cheerfully whistling and going about his work, a thief scoots with the bicycle. The rest of the movie is about Ricci and his young son Bruno (Enzo Stailo) searching for the bicycle. Initially they take the help of an actor friend who sends his men to the stolen goods market. Not meeting with much success he searches in another market, manages to locate the thief, loses him and finally confronts him. As the day progresses Antonio moves from hope to despair to renewed vigour and finally utter desolation when he loses more than his bicycle.

The storyline is fairly simple. It is set in harsh economic times but focuses largely on every man’s primeval fear – not being able to feed his family. The strength of the movie is the construction of Antonio’s character as your average man. He is not one of the impossible grim Hollywood heroes who goes through great silent strife to feed his smiling and blissfully ignorant picture-perfect family. When he is down and out it is his wife he turns to. When he does not want to scare her and wants some practical advice he takes the help of his friend. His son is automatically roped in for the bicycle search given that someday he will be a man.

The other beautiful part of the movie is the portrayal of the father-son relationship. The duo genuinely enjoys each other’s company. Antonio is by no means harsh on his boy but is often strict and at times angry. Bruno is precocious enough to discern that the loss of the a bicycle is a major blow for the family but is child enough to be delighted at his father’s suggestion of treating themselves to unaffordable pizza.

In the end the movie works mainly because it shows the struggle for dignity with such breathtaking simplicity. Worth a watch.
*The DVD cover said 'The bicycle thief' but Wikipedia tells me the movie's title translates to bicycle thieves. Given the story, I would tend to go with Wiki.


Auto varuma?

One of the things that really puts me off is when people land in Chennai and launch into a litany of the problems they faced at the hands of insensitive, racist rogues who also masquerade as auto drivers. They invariably blame their inability to speak Tamil as the chief reason for being taken for a ride (ha ha. What a pun) and crib endlessly about the non-existence of auto meters in this city. I say ‘Nay, my friend, that is not true’. The reason you assume your linguistic limitation as an excuse is because you are under the merry picture that the minute you start talking in Tamil, auto drivers queue up to take you to your destination at cut throat prices. Not true. There are only two ways in which you can ensure you get a fair price

1. You are already familiar with the acceptable fare from point A to point B
2. You are around 6 ft and 90 kgs and have a steely glint in your eye

Point no. 2 is based on strict empirical evidence. One late night when I was trying to unsuccessfully find an auto using my local language skills, my bulky non-Tamil friend stopped an auto guy, fixed his eye on him and then informed him that he would be taking me to point B at XYZ fare. In less than two seconds I was seated in the auto.

Wow. Does this mean this write up is about how to do one of the two above?, you ask. Fear not. I do not for a moment suggest the futile and mindless method of mastering the knowledge of fares on all possible routes. I also assume that if the good Lord has not endowed you with the appropriate physiology, you do not plan to go for surgery or try the Jessica-Lange-in-Kingkong route of having a giant monkey following you around so that you can use intimidation as a tactic. This piece is to build a deeper understanding of the environment as I see it.

Firstly, appreciate the situation. Everybody raves about the efficient auto system in Mumbai where there is a fixed meter to tell you how much to pay. Grow up people. Chennai auto guys are much more advanced in economics than what you give them credit for. I cannot think of anyone who salutes the spirit of free enterprise more than they do. When you want liberalistion and free markets in the rest of the world, why do you shudder at the thought of your auto guy fixing his fare based on the current demand-supply situation! Mark my words when I say this is an indication of which city is likely to be the next financial capital of India, if not the world (A Big Ha to you Mumbaikars)

Secondly, the fare situation is a fairly simple Game Theory problem. Here are the situations you can possibly be faced with

a. Plenty of autos. You are the only customer around. If all these autos are parked together in a stand, leave. They are obviously a cartel and no one is going to step out of the line. Go to the main road where you can get more autos.
On the other hand, if you are on the main road and there are a lot of empty autos slowly wandering on the road, you start negotiating. Show me an auto guy who is wandering on the road and I will show you a guy who is ready to close a business deal. The first auto guy sidles up to you and quotes a fare enough to buy his vehicle. You ask him 30% of the price. If he rolls his eyes upwards and leaves, you know you quoted too low. If he sidles some more and begins to negotiate, you know you are nearer to the fair price mark. In case he has left, you can face the second auto guy armed with the knowledge of the upper and lower price bands. You will probably be on your way home by the third or fourth auto.
b. Plenty of customers One auto. Face it. The auto guy has choice. Unless he is really naïve or really wants to go to the area you are headed, it is unlikely you can get away without paying a premium

c. Plenty of customers. Plenty of autos. Shop around a bit. You usually can find a guy who is naïve or headed towards where you are going. At any rate, you discover the market price.
d. No customers. No auto. Hey, this one does not need a solution since you are already at your destination

There are of two key factors that make a difference to the situation, namely

a. time of the day – if it is pretty early or pretty late, you both need each other. Peak hours offer more choice to both of you. Anytime in between means you are down and out
b. place – if you are standing in a remote street of Madipakkam, then let us get this clear. It is a miracle there is an auto there and not a cycle rickshaw. Take it or take the bus

All clear with Economics 101? So we move on to behavioural fundas now. Remember that emotional blackmail is a key and a grossly underutilized skill that can tackle any situation. A usual one is where neither you nor your auto driver knows the way. Having fixed the price upfront, he hates having to wander around aimlessly while you get your bearings right. A uniformed customer will of course feel so guilty that by the time the third wrong turn has been taken, he/she is ready to bequeath his/her property to the auto guy as fare. The informed customer will however, at the first sign of the auto guy getting restless, glare at him and point out that being an auto guy it is assumed he will know all routes in Chennai. No auto man can handle this affront. Hell, you are practically declaring him unworthy of his trade. It is like asking your mom if she knows exactly what the word salt means (My mom knows by the way. Hi Mommy). All you need to do is to think how you can move from the defensive to the offensive at any point in time.

So with this we come to the end of fundamental principles driving (ha ha another pun) the auto fare market in Chennai. As you can see, it is economics and not Tamil that is required to take an auto in Chennai. So, next time you crib about taking an auto in Chennai, remember people think you are stupid not unfortunate.


Chennai alumni meets

I love this city. I love the fact that I have found brilliant coffee places offering privacy and good food. I like Salsa club meets on Wednesdays at Havana. I enjoy the hash runs that let me discover more about the local topography. Infact if there one thing that really sucks in this place, it must be the alumni reunions. Before anyone accuses me of disloyalty to the hallowed portals of one of India ’s top B-Schools, let me admit that I have been to alumni meets in Mumbai and it takes all you can do to drag me off the dance floor. The only time I left voluntarily was when two of my friends decided to spin in the middle of the floor holding onto each other. It removed even the really strong and really drunk people from the vicinity.

Chennai’s biggest problem has always been its tendency to display its prudish, conservative and traditional side whenever (a) the gathering comprises about 20 strangers or more and (b) none of these strangers have been told in advance that the plan is to have fun. The average Chennaite has a morbid fear of being found promiscuous and depraved in case anyone caught him partying. This rule applies even to alumni parties where the de rigueur is you re-live your wild days of dancing at Lincoln Square (the traditional hostel dance area).

The first time I attended an alumni party in Chennai was in 1999. I was doing my summers and was fairly sure that alumni parties must be serious affairs targeted at networking your way into a better job. I dressed like a candidate that said ‘looks 21 (which she is) but capable of being a management consultant at Mckinsey’. I reached the venue. The room was full of other people dressed similarly or atleast acting like they worked as a management consultant with Mckinsey. I smiled and bonded. I was slightly confused when a couple of the senior guys became a bit disoriented after one too many drinks but recovered and continued smiling and bonding.

Cut to 2000. It was in hot and happening Mumbai. Pretty much half my batch was there, attending the do. Even before one of my super seniors replaced the live band’s drum player, the action had picked up and did not stop for a longish time. It struck me that this is how alumni parties were meant to be and it was definitely much more fun than the boring affair I had attended the past year. Especially after the E-Blockers began an inspired dance-with-gay-abandon routine. 2001 – repeat, 2002 – repeat, 2003 – repeat.

I came back to Chennai having completely erased my earlier memories of alumni parties here. And, was I disappointed! Things had gone from bad to worse. For one, the only batchmates of mine who were in Chennai were all married and had procreated. Looking at the number of 2 year olds running about the hall you could have easily mistaken the place for a rabbit farm. Kids are cute when seen singly for a span of 1 hour. But have you ever been in a place where kids are running about wildly, kids are throwing up after too much Pepsi and parents of the kids are standing in the mayhem and discussing diapers and baby sitter problems?

For some reason there was also a MC who was organizing games. The poor man had probably been told about the wild crowd he could expect and had organized a beer drinking competition. He announced this game with barely suppressed glee in his voice and shielding himself lest the excited participants swamped him off stage. Five minutes later there were exactly two people standing sheepishly standing under the glare of lights. Both were freshers who had clearly been told by some responsible Alumni secretary to keep up the spirits. The MC then began urging two tipsy looking elderly gentlemen from the 70s batch to join the competition so there would atleast be a quorum. After the men’s round finally got over, he figured out that the women’s round would be a non-starter. Accordingly, passing the parcel or some such harmless thing was organized. The one silver lining was when the kids wanted to dance. I was more than happy to give them company. After fifteen minutes of gently swaying and tapping, I called it a day.

This of course does not mean that I detest my batchmates (not all of them at any rate). I love playing with some of their kids and talking to their spouses. And frankly given that the Chennai parties are stiff and staid to begin with, I must admit that the kids provided the max coolness quotient with some inspired Bollywood steps. But I do protest against Lincoln Square being turned into Shiamak Davar’s summer camp.

So perhaps, this year, I will give probably just curl up with a book. Think I am getting too old to handle the excitement of losing in passing the parcel.


Review - Life in a Metro

I love Bombay in the monsoons. I don’t mean the traditional eating-corn-in-marine-drive aspect of it. Has anyone noticed how the city’s noise and confusion disappear in the thudding of raindrops? Dull trees spring to life. Duller buildings look pleasantly old instead of dilapidated. The story of ‘Life in a Metro’ unfolds on one such rainy morning. Which is perhaps why I gave it my approval even before the cast made its way to the screen. But a good beginning is half the battle won as this movie proves.
Shilpa Shetty, a housewife and mother dodges puddles to go through the set routine of her unexciting life. Her sister, Konkana Sen is checking out yet another matrimonial prospect from Shaadi.com to see if he is loving, caring, likes to travel and loves books. Irffan Khan, meeting her, is everything a financially stable, approaching thirty, urban single woman would despise – slightly lecherous, culture is a far shot in his vocabulary and thinks the irresistible qualification for an eligible groom would be to be a non-drinker and non-smoker. Sharman Joshi, an ambitious BPO employee still grappling with his value system, finds yet another way to grab a two-minute conversation with his unrequited ladylove Kangana Rauat. As the movie progresses their stories unfold. Caught in the bustle of Mumbai’s daily grind, they learn lessons about life and love and eventually make choices about both.

The movie is clearly inspired from myriad sources. However, despite the lack of originality director Anurag Basu needs to be given full credit for tackling two key challenges well. The first one is have woven his web of characters in a wonderful and credible manner. Given the large selection of characters he has picked up – couple with a dissolving marriage, ambitious youngster, looking-for-love single woman, slimy boss, self destructive girl, old people racing against time, failing theatre actor – he could have easily degenerated into portraying caricatures. Fortunately he manages largely not to and gives each character a voice that speaks not so much as the stereotype that they represent but as a living and thinking individual. The second one is to keep your interest going even though you can guess how each story-stream would end. Perhaps the fact that you have already started getting under each character’s skin by the first thirty minutes keeps you hooked.

The music is yet another glorious aspect of the movie. Fitted into the correct sequences, it captures the mood of the moment aptly. The composer trio appearing on screen and actually shown singing was a trifle shocking initially and a trifle annoying later on. Notwithstanding, you were happy to set the story aside for a while, sit and listen at these interludes.

Irffan simply rocks as the frustrated, aging singleton who is desperate to embrace the love and lust he can get in a marriage. Kay Kay Menon turns in a good performance as an insensitive, two-timing husband and manipulative boss. The rest are pretty decent. Give me Shilpa Shetty any day over Ash Rai to be premiering movies in the UK. While having her as India’s cultural ambassador may not be my first choice, it cannot be denied that she can atleast be made to act. Konkana and Kangana are both expectedly accurate in their portrayals.

The one thread that did not make much sense to me was the romance of yester year’s hero, Dharmendra, with Nafisa Ali. The idea of finding love at that age seemed sweet and realistic but do old people really act and talk like that?

The movie is by no means perfect and falters here and there. It will however rank as one of the best efforts at capturing the challenges of urbanites in the current generation.


Chickamagalur - Factsheet

Getting there

1. From Chennai to Bangalore: plenty of trains and flights

2. From Bangalore to Chickamagalur and back:

(a) By train: Option 1 - take a train to Birur/Kadur. 40 Km road journey from there. Roads are average. Option 2 – take a train to Hassan. 65 km road journey from there. Roads are good. Train journey takes 3 – 3.5 hours. Sumos available for hire at both stations. We had pre-booked a Sumo through the resort.

(b) By road: Option 1 – take a KSRTC bus. Can be booked online. Airavath, Meghdoot and Mayura are the a/c options. Choose the route through Hassan not Tumkur. Roads are good. Option 2 – drive down. Road journey takes 6 hours


We stayed at Nature nirvana (www.naturenirvana.com). There are other options if you do a google.

To do

Treks. Popular one is to Mullayanagiri

Visit Mullayanagiri, Bababadungiri, Hebbe falls

Drive to Kemmangundi, a hill station about an hour from Chickamagalur

If you drive down to Chickamagalur you can break the journey at Belur – Halebid. There are also other lesser known Hoysala temples on the way.

Best time to go

Post rains, winter. Summer is too hot to trek. Rains will make the trek difficult

Chickamagalur - Homestay

Chickamagalur is one of those nice, cozy places tucked away in the hills northwest of Bangalore – tough to reach but once you get there, certainly gives you your money’s worth. Its claim to fame is the coffee estates located in the hills surrounding the town. Uma and I were headed for a home stay in one such coffee estate.

The journey did not start on a great note. With multiple changes from Chennai to Bangalore to Bidur, Uma finally threw up on the last legs of the hot and bumpy ride. She brooded the rest of the journey and I wondered if a trip in the summer was such a great idea. All these doubts however disappeared when we reached the estate.

The home stay, aptly titled ‘Nature Nirvana’ was located in the heart of the coffee estate and as such was very far away from city noise and pollution. Magnificent hills with rows upon rows of coffee plants and tall trees met your eyes wherever you looked. The place we were to stay in was an old house. There were five moderately sized rooms. The erstwhile porch was converted into an open-air dining room serving scrumptious meals every day. There was a common room on the first floor with a library, fireplace, stacks of board games and comfortable armchairs. There was also a large cemented ground where you could play outdoor games or just sit and enjoy the barbecue. It definitely looked promising.

Chickamagalur was a dusty little town till the 1600s when a Muslim Saint, Baba Budan planted coffee seeds smuggled from the Middle East and changed the local economy. There is a temple in his honour even today at Baba Budanagiri hills. The temple also has a statue of the Hindu god Dattatreya and is held as an example of communal harmony where both communities go and pray. Except for this remarkable background, the temple per se is nothing but a claustrophobic cave. Chickamagalur’s second shot at fame came in 1978 when Indira Gandhi successfully contested from this Congress stronghold in the elections held following the National Emergency.

I spent sometime recovering from the long ride and then began to explore the estate. The first stop was down a path that said ‘Waterfall’. An endless row of uneven steps cut into the mud track led to a quiet brown pool. There was a small but gushing waterfall nearby. After landing from a concrete jungle, the site of the 2 feet deep muddy water was strangely scary. Eventually it was only when Uma came down with me that we both managed to cross the little segments of water and find comfortable places to dip our feet. Bathing in the waterfall had been advertised as a major highlight of the estate. However given the number of spiders spinning their webs across the waterfall that did not sound like a good idea unless I was serious about an alternative career as Spiderwoman.

The next day we were supposed to go on our big trek, the ostensible reason for the trip. The preferred trek in this area is to Mullayanagiri hills but that is best tackled in cooler months. The estate’s caretaker, Mr Kutty, told us we could do a three-hour trek on a barren hill littered with glowing embers from the previous week’s forest fires. Or we could do a one-hour trek through the cool coffee estate. Mr Kutty’s preference was obvious and we allowed him to go ahead. Enthusiastic, he began to lead us through short cuts. We would plunge into a path among the coffee bushes and after a good ten minutes of non-stop climbing upwards, we would emerge onto the main route. Only to plunge into the next path. I was scrambling up quickly if only in an effort to have more time and leisure to pant. Uma trudged behind with Mr Kutty following up in the rear. The third time, I had gone ahead as usual and after a longish time, the bushes finally parted. The short, balding and bespectaled Mr Kutty was dragging a perspiring and panting Uma uphill. Uma got on to the road and with a quiet finality announced that from now on there would be no short cuts. We would take the road well traveled even if it meant extra time. With the pace set, we all relaxed and slowly made our way uphill. The trees were prettier in close up and we could make out that the place was packed with birds. We got to the ‘sunset point’ on the top and rested.

Mr Kutty turned out to be very talkative and kept up a continuous narrative of his tale of woes. Uma and I tuned out but we both agreed that the place deserved another visit when it would be quieter. We went up again in the evening, examining the traces of iron ore in the soil, keeping an eye out for the gnarled roots exposed on the eroding slopes, photographing the blossoming coffee flowers from various angles and managing to distinguish atleast three bird calls. When we finally reached the top, the clouds were beginning to descend upon the mountains nearby. We lay on the benches there and quietly watched nature at work. After a long time, we walked back down, feeling light hearted.

On the way back we decided to check out the ‘lake’. After a pleasant walk through pretty shrubbery, my heart was thumping with anticipation. I was planning to try out my newly acquired swimming skills, not to mention indulge in my favourite water activity of boating. We finally emerged into a clearing. There was no lake. There was however a pond of water about 5 feet deep, thirty feet wide and half a kilometer long. Clearly great imagination had gone into coining this place a lake and even worse, placing two coracles for boat rides. The only way boat rides were possible was if you decided to do a straight half a km dash across the length of the pond sticking to the middle. Any other variations and the oars would bang into the sides of the ‘lake’. All is not lost; I told myself and began contemplating swimming there when a crab the size of my hand crawled out of the water. Without further ado, Uma and I rushed back and spent the rest of the evening wading through the nearby stream, sitting on various rocks, peering at all the insects building homes in the water and listening to the mesmerizing sound of water on rocks. By the time we got back to our seven p.m. barbecue, both of us were starving and tired and had just enough energy left to fantasize about owning an estate.

Uma slept in the next day and I explored the remaining parts of the estate. There was a signboard saying ‘gorge’ and wondering if this would be another disappointment like the ‘lake’, I went down the path. The route had thicker foliage and was darker. Raindrops from the previous night still occasionally fell when I brushed away the branches. I finally reached the gorge which was a dark and cool place. On one side was a huge flat rock extending till the eye could see. The stream was in the middle, hardly ten feet wide. On the other side was the tiny bank. There were tall trees full of singing birds blocking out most of the sunlight. Gingerly searching for signs of leeches after the rains, I sat on the bank till the dark and chill finally snapped me out of my reverie. Stepping into brighter regions, I walked around the estate for a long time basking in the sun and chasing the sound of an elusive woodpecker till it was time to pack and leave.

Uma managed not to throw up on the journey to the bus stand. Surprisingly she also showed no signs of her usual road sicknesses in the bus journey to Bangalore. The air conditioned Airavath bus began to show a promised Rajkumar movie. I watched fascinated as the heroine’s journey from a village belle to a revolutionary was marked by a costume change from skirt, blouse and saree to trendy leather pants and jacket. Sadly the video player conked off after the promising start and I had to plug into my IPod.

The trip had given me plenty of time to read, breathe in fresh air, walk and introspect. As I looked out onto the approaching bright lights of the city the last cobwebs lifted from my thoughts. Life was clearer and calmer.


Movie review - Flags of our fathers

For those of you who don’t know the details of the historical incident on which this movie is based, here is a bit of history.

During WW2, the Americans attacked an island called Iwo Jima . This island, located about 1000 miles off the coast of Tokyo was of crucial geographical importance. To the Japanese it provided a strategic lookout point on enemy naval movements. To the Americans the capture of the island could mean a base from which to attack the Japanese mainland. The Japanese defense strategy of the island was considered unique then. The Japanese had burrowed the volcanic mountain near the landing shores in the island, creating portholes through which enemies could be shot unseen. They had also created a network of underground tunnels interconnecting such portholes. When the Americans landed, the volcanic ash did not offer them much cover and they were shot at by unseen allies. Ariel attack by the Americans did not cause much damage and most of the fight was carried on by men on the ground throwing grenades into the port holes. The battle lasted about 30 days and the Americans won. On day 5 or 6, the Americans had made some amount of headway and had managed to plant a flat on the highest point there. This flag was ordered to be brought down and a new flag put in its place. When the second flag was put up, a photo was clicked and circulated in the American Press. The photo went on to become one of the most famous of all times, winning a Pulitzer in the year of its publication. The American government cashed in on the publicity surrounding the photo by making the soldiers featuring in the photo, campaign for funding the war effort. The campaign was a brilliant success raising more money than all previous campaigns put together.

The movie centres around these three soldiers who campaigned successfully. Ordinary enlisted men (or rather boys aged 20) like everyone else in the war, they catapult to fame, being caught in the right place at the right time. Three of their buddies who also featured in the photo had been killed during the siege. The trio tries to handle the sudden glory cast upon them by the American government, the media and the public. As they go on their campaign from place to place, the movie shows the realities behind their popularity – how chance places them holding the flag, how the picture was intended to be no better or no worse than other war pictures, how they were not killed on account of nothing more than fate and all the other mundane details of the war. The movie also explores the guilt that the men need to deal with knowing they were no better than the others and were lucky to be alive and campaigning. The movie finally is about heroes being as ordinary as you and me, a bunch of men doing their jobs.

The story is both interesting and touching. A quick Google search will give you an idea of exactly how big the episode was and deconstructing heroism of this sort is no mean feat. The movie tries to walk a fine line making its point while not belittling the efforts of the three soldiers. It is also quite entertaining, without slipping into a documentary mode. Perhaps all these points overpower other issues – the movie is not as taut as you would like to be, it is slightly clichéd and repetitive in a few parts and you never feel involved with any of the characters except possibly for those of Ira Heyes and Rene Gagnon.

The verdict though is still overwhelming positive. It needs to be seen if you do not believe in heroes and more so, if you do.


Movie Review - Bheja Fry

This movie, I understand from India’s custodian of Bollywood a.k.a. Times of India, has become a major hit. It has already raked in 5.5 crores. A tidy profit when you consider it was made for only 60 lakhs. This is not surprising when you look at the story and characters. The actors are not mainstream (Heck, even one of lower level Khans wont come for a paltry 60 lakhs). The story happens largely over the course of an evening. And the director smartly wraps up the movie in a couple of hours instead of stretching the wafer thin storyline to a standard 3 hours. You don’t even notice the lack of songs till you start writing your blog post.

The moot question – was the movie good? The answer would be..hmmm. I did not like the basic premise of rich guy Ranjeet Thadani calling over an imbecile every Friday for him and his friends to poke fun at and laugh. The characters were all not well etched. Milind Soman was positively wooden and Ranvir Shoerey could not pull off the paranoid Tax Inspector act.

The second question – was the movie entertaining? Yes. This was largely due to the presence of Vinay Pathak as your average, middle-class government servant, Bharat Bhushan. The man is so good you cannot believe it at times. He carries off the most inane lines with a blustering sincerity that makes you neither sympathise nor judge. He is just who he is.

So while it is definitely not even in the league of the other small budget movie Khosla ka Ghosla that it is being compared with, it is probably worth a watch if the alternative is a Karan Johar movie.


Swimming with the tide

Now that I have finished tom-toming to everyone I know about having learnt to swim, I have realised that my swimming skills depend on some specifics in the environment

I can only swim in a pool

I can only swim by the walls of the pool

I can only swim from the shallow end to the deep end by the walls and cannot dive directly into the deep end

The only reason I don’t feel like a loser when I read these specs is that I have been absolutely terrified of water all my life. My mom assures me that I used to hate having baths because of all the water the process involved (I did have baths and still do regularly). Which is probably the reason she laughs loud and merrily every time I accuse her of not having enrolled me in swimming classes as a child.

So after ten days of dragging myself out of bed every morning at six and sweating it in the pool, I am reasonably proud. This morning, nearly a week after the classes got over, I went to the pool by myself. Pumped and primed I jumped into the shallow side and started to swim breadth wise. Couple of turns later, I decided to try swimming to the deep end. Within three minutes I was panting and hanging to the wall by the side. That is when I noticed the lifeguard standing there. Clearly my uncoordinated hand and leg movement and impressive lack of breathing technique gave him the idea I was drowning. I grinned apologetically and plunged on with regular breaks by the pool wall till I reached the deep end. I started back again and emerged on cue after three minutes. The lifeguard looked at me disdainfully and suggested I should try using my arms better. Chastened I plunged back and started ploughing the waters. The ripples were alarming other people in the pool. I continued, undaunted and again emerged. Our man was ready with another handy advice. Apparently I did not follow a regular breathing rhythm but kept coming out in staccato patches. I had to count to myself so I emerged at some regular count (eg the 3rd count or the 5th count).

By this time I had been in the pool for forty minutes. My math was getting better with the counting, but little else. Still it is a far sight better than not knowing any swimming at all. Perhaps with practice I will look like Ian Thorpe’s sister in the pool. Or at least will one day manage to swim to the piece of floating wood when my ship wrecks.