Movie review - Letters from Iwo Jima

Letters from Iwo Jima, the sister film of ‘Flags of our Fathers’ details the story of Japanese men fighting to retain the Iwo Jima Island. Located at a strategic point, Iwo Jima was attacked by the Americans in the WW 2 to enable easy access to the Japanese mainland.

Within the first few scenes of the movie, the stark contrast in the mood between Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima becomes apparent. The American side had sent a huge flotilla into battle, the impressive columns upon columns of ships providing a sense of grandeur in the former movie. The Japanese side, on the other hand, was already losing and starved for weapons and people and would face the advancing American troops with less than fifty tanks and no air or naval support. The American soldiers thought they were going back home at the end of the battle. The Japanese soldiers knew they would have to stay and defend the island till the last one of them died. This is what makes Japanese General Kuribayashi’s (Ken Watanabe) attempts to lead his team among the fear, bravery and confusion so very touching.

Kuribayashi arrives at Iwo Jima to find soldiers digging trenches in the beaches. Having stayed in the U.S. for a few months, he and Lt Col Nishii are among the few who appreciate U.S. technological capability. Realising that the question is not about defeating the American troops, but holding them back for as long as they can, he shuns the traditional war fare technique of fighting the landing American fleets on the beaches. After investigating the island, he forms an unconventional strategy of attacking from hidden spots. He orders his men to dig caves and tunnels from which to shoot without being attacked themselves.

The movie essentially captures two perspectives. General Kuribayashi portraying how lonely it is at the top. He knows more than anybody else that his death is a matter of time. He still resolutely marches on preparing to fight a lost battle using limited resources and demoralized men. Most of his men find his strategy too non traditional and reeking of ‘American sympathies’. They also don’t understand why he insists that they should not honourably commit suicide when their posts are captured. Instead he urges them to join other posts and continue the battle. Dysentery in the island has already brought down the morale of the troop. As the battle progresses, some of the troops take their fates into their own hands, laying to naught any strategy.

The other is of a fictional character, a baker turned soldier Saigo. Brought into a battle he does not understand or want to fight, he blunders on, saving his skin by twists of fate. Saigo is shaken when his friend dies of ‘honourable dysentery’. He suspects a colleague of being an imperial spy to unearth any disloyal thoughts. The traditional Japanese honour is visibly lacking in him as he curses the battle, refuses to commit Hara Kiri and at some point thinks of turning deserter.

The paths of Kuribayashi and Saigo cross several times in the movie. In the end a wounded Kuribayashi dies in front of Saigo after confirming the island is still Japanese. Saigo is captured by the Americans. Desperately but sincerely he tries to fight for the first time to recover Kuribayashi’s gun from American hands.

The story is of underdogs, so tear jerking opportunities are aplenty. There are a few scenes placed for tugging at your heart strings – Japanese soldiers giving scarce morphine to an American PoW and an American soldier killing Japanese deserters, both nationalities acting contrary to reputation. Lt Col Nishii reading a letter written to an American soldier by his mom where you can almost smell the apple pie. Yet the melodrama is reigned in well. Some scenes are touching. Some are not. There are no overt scenes of bravery. The movie is somehow practical in it’s portrayal of how soldiers would behave. The pace is also faster than Flags of our Fathers. The interesting bit is how cultural conditioning can sometimes make it impossible to think out of the box (Strong MBA course material here).

Worth watching if only to get a sense of how a war is fought on the ground by common soldiers. Don’t expect scientific guidance on how to fight a war or any celebration of the fact that 21000 Japanese men kept the 100000 strong U.S. forces at bay for 35 days.


Movie Marathon

Eyes popping

Ears buzzing from wearing headphones

DVD player in a permanent state of mild heat

My marathon movie watching session came to an end yesterday. Or let us say has been put on pause while I go and pick up fresh DVDs from the store.

Friday night kicked off with Friends with Money. A nice chick flick to bring me into the holiday mood, I thought. How wrong I was. Four women. In different states of singledom, marriage, separation. At different levels of poor, middle class and moneyed. If the word ‘bittersweet’ is popping into your head after the above description, desist. It was just plain bitter.

Saturday, I decided to head out for fresh air and watched Om Shanthi Om in the theatres. I thoroughly enjoyed the first half with its ‘homage’ to the 70s Bollywood. The second half with its ‘homage’ to present day Bollywood had its moments. Overall though it would not merit a second watch

Back in front of the TV on Saturday evening. Cheeni Kum after many months of wondering if a love story between a 60 something and 30 something is really meant for me. Surprisingly the Amitabh – Tabu chemistry worked perfectly well. Other angles in the movie did not have the same natural pace and rhythm.

Sunday night, Johnny Gaddar. Which I had missed in the blink-and-you-will-miss-it show at Satyam Theatre. Made at an amazing pace, with twists and turns worthy of a good heist movie. Neil Nitin Mukesh is perfectly cast. Dharmendra speaking English and spouting quotes like ‘It is not age. It is mileage’ is hilarious. The chemistry between all lead actors is pretty good. Overall it makes you think why the Indian audience flops a movie like this while Raja Hindustani ends up as a superhit.

Wrapped up last night with The Good German. George Clooney and Cate Blanchett act in this I-am-trying-really-hard-to-do-an-intense-40s movie. The movie is black and white. There are dramatic bursts of music apropos old movies. Everyone is captured in profile and in light and shade. Pity the story and the script forgot to keep pace with this intensity. George Clooney talking to himself almost felt like Calvin in his detective moods.


Three Year Olds to the rescue

Traditional Colleague had called us for a golu to her house. This is a function during Navaratri/Dushera where people pull out dolls from their showcase, set up a few shelves in the middle of the dining room and with great grandiose put these dolls on display. After that, they call various people home to admire the handiwork and ply them with food and gifts. Sounds like a good deal, ha? Couples of minutes of muttering how wonderful the display is (which I have seen only all the four times I visited your house) and you are set for a yummy snack plus freebie. Unfortunately, there is a catch. Tradition dictates that visiting guests sing for their supper. Literally. Once the two minutes of muttering is done and everyone is settled, the host innocuously brings up the topic ‘so who is going to sing now?’ in a smooth silken voice. The obliging guests promptly break into Carnatic Kirtanas worthy of Thygaraja Bhagavathar and everyone is happy.

I had dropped into Traditional Colleague’s house with a uniquely untalented bunch. All three of us recoiled from the suggestion we sing. Infact, our hostess was also not expecting a stand out December Kutcheri season performance from any of us. The question had been rather half hearted. The ice was broken when my Male Colleague, his wife and their Three Year Old son made their appearance. Kids have a way of making heads turn the minute they appear in a room (drat. I wish I knew how). Two minutes of polite oohs and aahs happened. Then the dreaded question was asked.

When you see frayed and nervous parents of three year olds waiting for the next disaster to happen, you never realise they could also have positive aspects to their life. For instance the non-kid guests refuse to sing and feel guilty about it as they consume the food on offer. The parents of three year olds merely get their child as a stand in. The Three Year Old was coaxed and finally prodded into giving an operatic performance of nursery rhymes. All of us enthusiastically recited the first few lines of ‘Johnny Johnny Yes Papa’ to get him going. Kid smiled shyly and with the wisdom of kids on display, took his time going about the task in a cutesy manner. Eventually after he mumbled a few lines (which his parents obligingly translated for us), he noticed the next visitor to the house and loudly said ‘Hello Mami’

The new visitor was also the Youngest Colleague in the group. She was not particularly thrilled on being called Mami (Aunty) when she realised the rest of us had been called Akka (Sister). One look at her face and you knew she was not going to sing for joy for a while. Traditional Colleague gave up all hopes of further singing and served us cola. Then we all watched Three Year Old bounce up and down the floor for no good reason (I have since seen other kids do this and have realised it is perfectly normal behaviour and not indicative of potential violence). Singing was all but forgotten.

Three Year Old suddenly broke out with a cry ‘Amma. Fan!!!’. He had just noticed the ceiling fan, which had been turned off as the oil lamps in the room were lit. Turned out he was a major fan of fans (notice pun) and could spend endless hours staring at them. Exhaust fans were his specialty. Traditional Colleague promptly swooped him up and took him to the kitchen to show the exhaust fans. The rest of us relaxed a bit and began chatting about this and that. Eventually, when Three Year Old’s interest in the fan waned (or rather his parents decided more than fifteen minutes of fan gazing was probably not healthy for a kid), all of us dispersed with our goodie bags.

Next time I am paying social calls of the traditional kind, I am going to ensure atleast one kid accompanies me.


Festival season as it should be

What a week it has been. Our office has been all agog with the spirit of the festival season and we have been doing major time pass pretty much everyday.

Monday, I rushed back to office from a client meeting to get to the snack stall before the food got over (my office people believe it is necessary to keep consuming whenever there is any food in sight). I was too early for the snack stall. As it turned out, I was quite late for the pot painting cum rangoli cum crafts competition. In the true spirit of gender equality, all the women in office had been nominated as heads of various teams since..you know..the men can’t draw whereas the women are all oh-so-artistic. So there I was, with a team full of men, who looked secretly irritated to see me back in time to put our team back into the race. However, they accepted my orders to tackle the rangoli and craft with good humour. The pot, I kept for myself. In the twenty minutes left, we all worked furiously. K and C had come up with a pretty picture of a lotus and had filled it with splashes of various colours. The mix of colours and the texturing was truly original and put their work miles above the rest. You just had to ignore the giant kidney bean shaped item near the stem (that turned out to be the lotus leaf). Sadly, this inspired effort was shot down in favour of the conventional rangolis. Our team did not win a prize. We however had lots of fun giving bumps to a colleague who insisted on laughing at the work.

The treasure hunt was good fun. I set out the clues and I must say putting up your feet and watching people run hither and thither gives a kind of sadistic pleasure. The last clue was borrowed shamelessly from Asimov or perhaps I should say it was a tribute to the Foundation series. So we had ‘a circle has no end’ to signify that the hunt ended where you began it. The winning team jumped on the cubicle desks, did a little jig and then gave themselves a loud cheer.

Yesterday was traditional day where new recruits had been bullied into shopping for traditional clothes the previous day. Everyone ate lots at the potluck and then looked like they would burst out of their clothes.

Diwali must have dawned bright and cheerful today. I say ‘must’ because I was fast asleep and managed to sleep through ear shattering decibel levels. At 9, I tucked into a good breakfast of idlis, dosas, mutton gravy, vadas, sweet vadas. Two masala magazines, three books, a decent movie on TV and plenty of snacks should see me through the rest of the day.

This is how festivals should be.

p.s. I have eaten too much. I have slept too much. I have watched more TV than the eyes can bear. I have finished 84, Charing Cross Road (Thanks P. It is wonderful as you said). I know that Babita Kapoor thinks Kareena marrying Saif may not be a good idea. I changed the blog format to look cooler than the staid green that was beginning to get on my nerves. I have also seen the sky light up with tons of expensive crackers that looked like a mega comet shower.


As they say, Peaceful Pondicherry

It is a shame when you think about it. I have spent 4.5 years in Chennai. And it was only last weekend that I finally got around to going to Pondicherry. Pondi has always been a bit of a mythical land to me. I knew it existed. Infact I have even been there. My parents took me there when I was quite young. They took me there again on a hot summer day whose only memory I have is of desperately thirsting for water while everybody else seemed to be enjoying the divine aura of the Aurobindo Ashram.

I however had no clue what it was all about.

Saturday morning, P, N and I were all up and bright and well ensconced in the deluxe bus to Pondicherry starting from the Koyambedu bus stand. Please rem that there is a deluxe bus at 8 (which actually leaves at 8.30 after 80% capacity utilization is reached) and plays trampy Tamil movies throughout the journey. The bus’s key selling point is the curtains on the windows. In case you cleverly parked yourself at the window on the east side of the bus, with the idea of gazing soulfully into the sea by the East Coast Road, the curtains come in handy after 9 a.m. By then the sun is out in its full glory. You can barely squint, forget gaze.

We reached Pondi around 11.30 and promptly set off to explore the first restaurant on our list – Café Rendezvous (pronounced Ren-des-woo by the local auto drivers). Rendezvous’s cool thatched hut and welcoming tables immediately swept us off our feet. We sunk into the chairs and began a heated debate on the menu. I never used to be a foodie but somewhere along the way, I learnt to enjoy food. This means, poring over menus take a long time. Choosing a dish involves active consultation with co-diners and sometimes the waiters. Not talking much during the first few bites and then permitting only sentences like ‘oh this is yumm’. I ended up choosing garlic and cream calamari. P informed me that calamari is fish. So I was rather surprised when the dish came as rubbery ringlets. After the first few mouthfuls I promptly went up to the chart hanging over the washbasin, called ‘commercials fishes of India ’ and did not find the calamari there. The waiter was duly summoned and asked to bring a live calamari. It turned out calamari is squid. I sighed and then began to eye P’s cannelloni and we immediately swapped the food. P is the perfect foodie (unlike the baptized me) and can eat practically anything.

Our rooms were not going to be available till 6 p.m. P and I had faithfully read the very helpful Pondicherry tourism website the previous day and had a long list of museums, churches and temples we could see. Not to mention the famous Auroville and Aurobindo Ashram were on our list too. Post lunch though was not conducive to such touristy stuff. We had already eyed a Fab India nearby and several antique shops. So without further ado, P and I dragged a reluctant N on an aimless walk. Fab India outlets are all different based on the city and can be used as a handy social preferences barometer. Chennai’s has conservative, sometimes outright dowdy clothes. Bangalore ’s has skimpier stuff. Cochin stocks fairly stereotyped Indian ethnic. Pondi’s was pretty similar to Cochin ’s. After half an hour of ooh-ing and aah-ing over the furniture, we stepped onto the street and ooh-ed and aah-ed over the houses.

We were in the French quarters, which was certainly definitely the more charming side of Pondi. Thanks to a well-loved French colonial legacy that outlasted even the British rule in India, the town has two quarters, Tamil and French. The Tamil side is considered to be crowded. The French side on the other hand, had cobbled streets and delightfully French names like ‘Rue Suffren’ or ‘Rue Romain Rolland’. There were huge colonial villas on both sides of the streets. High walls, with a hint of a carefully wild flowing garden inside, lots of windows with shutters and nice iron grills. P and I excitedly peered through the gaps in the gates, took photos outside various houses and just soaked in the atmosphere. Eventually, deciding to get some rest, we headed to our hotel.

The hotels that line Pondi’s promenade are terribly expensive. The cheapest of them would charge 2500 rupees a night. The one loophole is the Ashram guesthouses. They are reasonably priced (around 800 a night) but have strict rules (gates close at 10 p.m. and no alcohol allowed) and are difficult to get a place in. We were staying at the Executive Inn, a couple of streets away from the promenade, in presumably the Tamil quarters (I was not sure since the street was called a Tam-French Rue Perumal Koil). It was at walking distance from the promenade and that is what really mattered. During our walk, we had discovered some reasonably priced and colourful guesthouses two streets away from the promenade in the French quarters and stored the references away for future use.

A short nap, one cup of chai and a plate of bajjis later, the three of us were bright eyed and bushy tailed again. This time the plan was to walk the length of the promenade. Pondi blocks traffic on the Goubert Avenue (where the promenade is) on weekends. So you can stroll down the road all la di dah and not secretly worry about being mowed down by an auto. N, P and I stared at the sea for a while, and then began to walk. Our explorer spirit of the afternoon continued, and we dashed in and out of various restaurants trying to find the perfect one for dinner. The Hotel Promenade was kind of classy and pretty pricey. Ajantha had a nice rooftop with reasonably priced food and a great view of the sea. Le Café seemed to be closed for renovations. Eventually we found a place just off the promenade. Le Club was quite cool, not too pretentious, had comfortable music and a good menu. Plus it had the wonderful virtue of being the place where our legs gave up and would walk no further.

J and S were joining us in the night and we promptly called them and asked them to come over directly to Le Club. The food was as expected, divine. The mood was chirpy. Everyone tucked in well. By the time we left it was already 11.30. The bantering continued at our hotel and finally it was around 2 that the last person fell asleep. P and I slept through breakfast the next day. The other three had breakfast and promptly settled for a nap. It was noon before any of us began to show some semblance of being alive. As we got ready, we began to cluster around the TV and watch Dhoom 2. What can I say? The movie is the perfect recipe for a good laugh when you are with friends. Why, Oh why did God make Ash so beautiful, yet such a terrible actress. Watching her try to pull a Yank accent and saying ‘you are like checking me out?’ is enough to make you lose faith in the casting ability of Bollywood.

The final meal was at one of Pondi’s yummiest restaurants, Satsang. My mashed potatoes seemed to be a tribute to Pondi’s gastronomic delights. After another aimless stroll, it was time to head back. We did not manage to catch the luxury bus but were comfortable enough just feeling the cool breeze on our faces and recollecting the previous twenty four hours.

We realised we had not seen a single place in the long list of ‘must see’ places. Instead we had talked, walked, eaten and slept well.
What a fine weekend.

Jab We Met

Ignore the improbably wildly careening storyline. Pretend you do not notice the overdose of balle balles. Instead just focus on the more-often-than-not interesting banter between the lead pair. Tap your foot to some of the hummable songs. Admire some of Kareena’s outfits. Ponder over Shahid Kapoor’s new hunk look. You will be done with 2.5 hours and walk home with a grin, without recollecting a single memorable bit in the movie.

My definition of a good time pass..