Big brother

Live coverage of news is thrilling. However very few of us appreciate the many obstacles in bringing cutting edge journalism straight into your living room. This was especially in evidence when an issue of national importance rocked us about a week ago.
Salman Khan was sentenced to five years of prison imprisonment. The nation was shown 24/7 footage of Salman Khan admirably overcoming the handicap of having to choose from the repertoire of five expressions he has. If the debate on whether Salman is to surrender or be arrested was heated, it was nothing to the high melodrama on Rakshabandan. Salman’s two sisters came to the Jodhpur prison to tie a rakhi. Enthusiastic journalists covered this with blow-by-blow commentary till the sisters disappeared into the prison. At this point the government played spoil sport and would not allow anybody to shoot inside. The nation had to be content with an interview with the Jodhpur police on the merits of leniency on Rakshabandan.

This is the kind of news coverage challenge which separates the creative from the merely competent. Every channel showed the sisters walking to the prison door. Only Headlines Today had the ability to seamlessly switch onto a graphic novel version of the sisters meeting Salman and tying the Rakhi. Cut back to live interview with the police. And then back to the drawings of a penitent looking Salman (Hey, here is your sixth expression) in designer prison wear extending his muscular arm. It was no longer just a news item but a splicing of techniques from the very best of visual art.

This is the kind of report that makes you feel proud about how far Indian TV has moved from the time when we had to meekly listen to Geetanjali Aiyer’s crisp accent on DD reading out insipid political news.


Journey to Yercaud and back

Phase 1

Saturday , Chennai

4.30 a.m.

Mobile alarm rings.

I pick it up and see that I got 5 missed calls when I was sleeping and my phone was on ‘Silent’

I pick up the 6th incoming call.

Strange male voice in exasperated voice: Madam, why are you not picking up the phone?

Me (who is this guy):..er…because I just woke up.

Male voice completely ignoring my explanation: Anyway. I am your call taxi driver. I need directions to your place.

I give him directions, roll out of my bed and go to the bathroom. I have a train to Salem in a couple of hours.

Fifteen minutes later I am out and I check my mobile. Eleven missed calls. The twelfth call is just coming.

Call taxi driver in tortured voice: Madam. Don’t you have any sympathy? I have been calling for so long and you never answered my calls

Me: Don’t you have any brains? When people have a train to catch in the morning they usually need to get ready. They don’t sit by the phone in case you call. Besides won’t people return missed calls?


Call taxi driver in hurt voice: Madam. Now you have flipped the situation around and you are blaming me for your fault. It is Ok Madam. All I can say is that I am merely a taxi driver and you are the customer.

Me: ???!!

Atleast I know for a fact that the entire ride to the train station is going to be a long whine about how I never returned his call. Sure enough, it is.

Phase 2

Saturday, Chennai

6.15 a.m.

The train to Salem is full of people who have decided to sit by their loved ones irrespective of what seat numbers have been allotted to them (Indian travel rule #1). So I find myself with no one to my left in the aisle seat and P to my right by the window. Trying to use up all the free space in the seat next to me (Indian travel rule #2), I stretch myself but finally give up and stick to my seat and fall asleep.

10.15 a.m.

Train has come to a standstill. News is flying thick and fast that on account of a rail roko at Salem, our train has been stopped at previous station, Jolarpettai. I wake up, pull out my book, buy a cup of soup and settle down to read. I am going to enjoy the wait.

Suddenly an old lady has occupied the space by me. In a voice designed to be a foghorn, she begins cursing the family’s spectacular fate for being stuck in a train. Hurriedly, P and I get out of the train under the pretext of finding out what is happening with the train. It is 40 degrees in the shade. My cup of soup begins to feel like holding hot coals. We walk to the engine where a crowd has collected to hear what Bollywood would call ‘true rumours’ from the engine driver. Assurances of the train being late by atleast two hours are given. P and I saunter back and find the old lady still in full form. Our AC compartment is preferable to the heat outside and we resign ourselves to a complete education on the old lady’s miserable luck.

11.30 a.m.

A crowd rushes from the platform into the train. The train starts. P and I are having a slight headache from all the raving and ranting we were subjected to and are slightly restless. But the old lady? Ah. She has gone to sleep like a baby, the miserable old crone.

Phase 3

Saturday, Salem

2.30 p.m.

The bus to Yercaud is already full by the time P, N and I get in. The conductor, honoured by the presence of two city belles, insists that we sit on the big box in the front through which the gear stick is sticking out. N is left to his own devices being a strong Indian male (notwithstanding his lost puppy look). Standing next to us is a man who has been in a drunken orgy for atleast ten days and has not bothered to have a bath. Ten minutes into the journey, P and I realise that we are sitting right over the engine. My rear is beginning to feel warm. I can feel the paint melting off the Adidas logo on my track pants. I can feel my skin begin to peel. Finally, I give up and stand besides the drunken man (who keeps his balance admirably during the hairpin bends). P continues to sit over the engine since she is wearing jeans. Occasionally she does a tiny jig to change the area of her body exposed to the engine, but otherwise manages just fine.

Phase 4

Sunday, Salem

9.46 p.m.

We have finished about six hours of trekking. I am pooped and cannot wait to board the train at ten and let the rosy fingers of slumber carry me into a land where there are no aching limbs.

9.47 p.m.

J has just discovered that our train tickets show ‘Chennai to Salem’ instead of ‘Salem to Chennai’.

9.50 p.m

All of us run like headless chickens to the Railway Information center to be told nothing can be done. The train is running full.

9.55 p.m. onwards

We find out that all buses are running full too. P and I approach the info center to check for other trains. The gentleman at the counter is also in charge of making station announcements. So replies to any queries are given over the mike possibly in an effort to allow everyone to participate in everyone else’s lives. He chuckles over the mike when we tell about our train ticket fiasco. Then he announces to the station that there is a train at 4.45 in the morning to Chennai. We book open tickets on that immediately.

After some research, we find out that the railway station has AC retiring rooms in which we can stay. P, N and I walk up and down and discover the retiring room tucked away in an unobtrusive place, befitting Harry Potter’s platform 9 and ¾.

The lady in charge says there are no rooms, just the dormitory. And with a smug grin adds that women can’t stay in the dorm, unless they pay a hefty bribe. We do and are permitted entry into the dorm with instructions to cover ourselves and not reveal we are women. We quietly troop into the clean ward with individual cubicles. We quietly go about doing our pre-bedtime rituals. Quietly, all of us get into bed and all of us women cover ourselves well. The silence is deafening till P pulls out a phone and calls her mom. So much for camouflage.

Monday, Salem

4.45 a.m.

We get into the train, buy tickets in the AC coach, get our berths, blankets and pillows and fall asleep. Bliss indeed.


King India

The 90s was an exciting time in India. Liberalisation was making the kind of sweeping changes that would enable a whole generation of B-School grads to start off with double-digit salaries. The license Raj was disappearing, sectors were being thrown open and everywhere we were ascending new heights. Except Bollywood. If there is one era that can be pointed out as the worst in Bollywood’s history, it must be the early 90s and Raja Hindustani was perhaps some sort of a flashpoint in this nadir. I watched the promos of this movie as an 18 year old and wisely stayed away from it.

Then again, you grow older, more sentimental and foolish. After all, 90s was my day and frankly no other sane human being would preserve the cultural heritage of this fine generation. It is up to me and my ilk to inch up TV ratings to ensure 90s songs and movies don’t totally disappear from mainstream. So saying, I settled down to watch Raja Hindustani on Sab TV the other day.

What a movie it turned out to be. Reading like a competent doctoral thesis on ‘successful elements in a 90s pot boiler’, the movie has everything – poor hero, rich heroine, scheming step mother, communication gaps, hero defending the heroine’s honour, high society birthday party where everyone stands around and politely nurses a drink while the rich family members sing sad songs.

Arthi Sehgal (Karishma Kapoor) comes to Palanpet (or Palanpur) to celebrate her newly straightened hair and ponder on the exact mathematics involved in getting thin eyebrows. She hires Raja Hindustani’s (Aamir Khan) car and going by the irrefutable Laws of Bollywood ends up falling in love with him. Enter father (Suresh Oberoi) who wants to take Arthi back home. Raja drives them to the nearest airport. On the way, singing the worst superhit song of the 90s Pardesi pardesi jana nahi Raja persuades Arthi to stay back and marry him. The couple marries and proceeds to sing even more horrible songs in the hillside. Step ma-in-law (Archana Puran Singh) enters the fray and separates Arthi and Raja. Raja goes back to Palanpur and sings sad songs during the course of which Arthi has a baby. At this point, the villains wake up and decide to do away with Raja and the baby. Baam Bish Doom. Raja and baby emerge unscathed. Arthi and Raja reunite and sing more songs.

At first glance, you may want to go ‘blech’ and throw up after listening to the story. It takes a talented viewer to notice the subtleties that made this movie a super hit. Here they are

The Kiss: This movie finally solved the mystery of what happened when the hero and the heroine brought their faces together and then the camera swiveled to give a view of the back of the hero’s head and the top half of the heroine’s face. Curious teenagers did not have to wait for Emraan Hashmi to give them lessons in hitting first base.

The Stepmother: The evil stepmother wears vamp-like clothes. But no one immediately equates this sartorial preference with lurking evil. Hindi movies finally moved beyond associating scantily clad women with a lack of moral fibre. Of course, as informed viewer, you have known right from the beginning that ma-in-laws showing some skin must be evil and can barely suppress yourself from saying ‘I told you so’ when events prove you right.

The Surd: One could easily dismiss Johnny Lever as the worst type of Sikh stereotyping. Especially when he walks around squatting and screaming ‘balle balle’ for no good reason. But no. Carefully notice how he does not sport a beard.

The Cross dressers – Early prototypes of Bobby darling, the female does a volte face and marries the surd. In just one quick scene, she sprouts a long pigtail worthy of a good Bharatiya Nari. I am not sure which shocked the audience more – the change in preferences or the quick hair growing lotion.

The movie is actually one of those wonderful bridges between the old and the new – the halfway house before kissing on screen, transvestites, and every song repeated atleast twice in the movie became standard Bollywood practice. And really, the fact that it wants me want to scream even after 11 years is just a testimony to its consistent legacy.


Metroplus Theatre festival - first week

The Hindu Metroplus Theatre festival is on and I am thoroughly enjoying myself. A quick glance at this year’s line up immediately showed great promise and so far I must say I am not mistaken.

Friday went to watch ‘To the death of her own family’, directed by Peter Rafray and enacted by Farah Bala. It is about Nadeema, an Afghan-American woman being asked to prove her citizenship. She has lost her passport and is being asked to prove her American citizenship. Nadeema however has nothing but a bag full of odds and ends that hold a lifetime of memories, which she uses to tell the story of her life. If you ignored the fact that she could have easily given her Social security number and brought the proceedings to a quick albeit uninteresting end, the play was pretty OK. It told about the suffering of Afghanis under repeated hostile regimes and the general suspicion that has plagued U.S. post 9/11. Though a book like ‘Kite Runner’ would probably give you a better appreciation of the historical sequence of events and culture that is uniquely North Western.

Following this play was the irreverent and hilarious ‘Butter and Mashed Bananas’. The three lead actors romped the stage, enjoying themselves immensely and carried the audiences with them. The trio touched upon various issues like ideology, political leanings, censorship, celebritydom in a cheeky manner (no I will not go so far to call it satirical). Using a tub, a small drum, anklets and a dhoti as props, they interspersed the narrative with energetic Bharatnatyam steps, random drunken dancing moves and occasionally stopped to break into a song that memorably rhymed ‘Chuth’ with ‘Truth’.

Sunday, watched three plays by Sinhala troupes. The first one was fine ‘Last Bus’, though a bit Kollywoody. In a singsong Sinhala voice, the sole actor convincingly told the story of a man falling into the depths of despair, as he hates the very system to which he has become addicted. The second play ‘24 hrs’ was told in a format called ‘Verbatim theatre’ which involves reading out factual pieces. This play focused on incidents that happened on August 14th in Sri Lanka. For some strange reason, the troupe decided to infuse life into the proceedings by having actors dance on wooden boxes with broomsticks in the first part. Then they pointlessly moved all the wooden boxes for the next scene, which was no less bizarre than the previous. I realised that they were trying to enact in a dance drama form the newspaper stories being narrated behind them. The final segment was not just bizarre but also macabre. Two actors dressed as kids went about systematically maiming a bunch of dolls. The story accompanying this was about the bombing of a girl’s school, which the Sri Lankan govt claimed, was a Tiger training camp and the LTTE claimed was an orphanage. Still, dramatic is different from macabre and using the dolls left the audience cold instead of sympathetic.

The third play was by far the biggest success of the evening. Forum theatre is an interesting form where the actors enact a story till it reaches a checkpoint. After that audience inputs are taken to see what should be the next step to resolve the crisis. Within the framework of their characters, the actors enact the scene suggested by the audience till the crisis is resolved. The Chennai audience did not mess up things and instead nudged it to a logical end. To add to the extempore feel of things, a member of the audience volunteered to play one of the characters (and going by the way he suddenly came up with unrelated but important points, he was definitely not planted).

So far, so good.