Dec 012016
 
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I finally got to see Dear Zindagi.

A story about a young woman – a cinematographer – who has everything going for her. She is confident, talented, good looking – and yet feeling completely out of sorts. Nightmares. Insomnia. A sense of being on the edge with everyone in her life. A sense of not belonging. we have all been there.

But, she does something, most of us don’t do – she visits a counsellor for help to take charge of her life again.

Alia’s character, Kaira, does not have any dark demons. No child abuse. No abusive parents. None of that. And, that is what make’s Gauri Shindes take on mental health so interesting. The fact that seemingly ‘normal’ people can have problems. That you can cope with your everyday activities, have fun, laugh, smile and all of that, while you are crumbling from the inside. Alia’s vulnerability and brittle strength are played well. SRK as the counsellor is outstanding. The sheer empathy, decency, and that his character does not judge situations or issues in the young woman’s life, or her choices, makes him a poster boy for popularising mental well being. I am not sure anyone else could have pulled off the role as well – there was, unlike in most of his films,  no SRK superstar in this film. There was only Jahangir Khan (Jug), and you wish you met someone like that when you were going through your own shit (without outside help). And, it is not because of the way he looks. It is because of the way he is. SRK, is infinitely better when he plays his age (or close to it).

A bit talky, maybe 15 minutes too long . But, beautifully cast. well acted, and a lovely little slice of life. I would definitely recommend it to watch in the theatres – preferably with BFF’s, an extra large box of tissues, and some pop corn.

Nov 052016
 

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Sultan of Delhi by Arnab Ray, Aka the Great Bong, is a racy and gripping read about a boy who starts with nothing, and rises all the way to the top of his game.

The story starts with a today, and keeps going back and forth to multiple yesterdays – and, most of these yesterdays are a part and parcel of the history of the sub continent. And, in charting the story of the main character around the historical moments – Partition, the creation of Bangladesh, Emergency, the story becomes as much a story of the changing face of India post independence, as it is of Arjun Bhatia

The story is that of Arjun Bhatia, one of the millions who came across to Delhi from Western Punjab in 1947 – with nothing but a bit of gold in his pocket and the burning desire never ever to be helpless again. Arjun, in this period has not yet hit his teens, but has to grow up fast to survive. He has to be parent to his father – who is in deep shock after the events of the partition that led to his wife and other sons being killed (Arjun’s mother and brothers). As Arjun tells his father, during a meltdown

 It’s not that I don’t love you, daddy, it’s that I don’t respect you. It’s just that I don’t respect your opinions. Because I don’t respect fools. Fools are the most dangerous people in the world. They get others killed.

As Arjun makes a life in Delhi, the story charts his growth from a mechanic to a gun runner, and a gun runner to a legit businessman, who makes his way in the corridors of power. Arjun is relentless in his rise to the top. His marriage of convenience – to inherit a going concern, that later settles into companionship – is as important to him; as the love of his life Nayantara – the widow of a man he kills. He is meticulous in his plotting his path ascension – a ruthless drive that is reminiscent of Michael Corleone – the two fold desire to protect your family, and be at the top.  It is a dangerous game, and Arjun makes his fair share of enemies. In one of the best face offs in the book (and there are a few), Arjun has a line, that possibly not just defines him and his way of doing business, but also the essential tussle in Delhi – between the English speaking ‘elite’ and the Hindi speaking ‘new elite’.

Yeh madarchod-behenchod ka sheher hai, angrezi gaali se kisko darwayenge?

While it is a story of Arjun and his rise to being the Sultan of Delhi, it is also the story of the way business is conducted in modern India. It is also the story of families and how they define you. The son who judged his father as a fool, is now judging his sons as the same. You can sense his slight impatience at how long it takes for the next generation to get a point, that he has known instinctively.

The book is racy, the characters are real. They speak real. They sound real. You know about people like them. And, yet it is a story that is unique in it’s ambition. As Ray recounts the story of Arjun Bhatia over a 60 year period, the non linear narrative of jumping between time frames – each revealing a little more about Arjun – keeps you hooked.  The flashbacks move the story forward, they aren’t just there for the sake of ideal curiosity. The use of hindi is natural, as is the use of English. And, that is one of the things I really enjoyed about the Sultan of Delhi, is the way it flowed.

I also give full compliments to whoever edited this – because if i had material that spanned 60 years, i would not be able to write such a tight book.

I am hoping there is a sequel. I want to know what happens with the characters, next 🙂

Sep 152016
 

I wrote this for She the People, earlier this week

Many years ago, I read Margaret Atwood’s, dystopian novel, Handmaid’s Tale. Set around a plausible tomorrow, it looks at a world where fertility has plummeted, and there are a special category of women   who are kept especially for reproductive purposes. As I read the “Politics of the Womb” by Pinki Virani a frightening today began to emerge. Where there are women, whose only value to the world seems to be the eggs that she produces, the uterus that she has, and the womb that she rents.

A riot, in very slow motion, is being engineered on the woman inside her body; to take her apart, part by profitable part.

The slow rampage is in the name of God – for hers is the womb and she shall conceive.

In the name of science – for hers is the hostile uterus and medical evaluation must arbitrate. ……The world over, the combined might of religion and science has converged to martial many a uterus with a child. At any cost; to the woman, to her baby.

The opening lines of Pinki Virani’s long hard look at the surrogacy industry, hits you in the gut, and pulls you into a narrative structure that takes you into the universe of uterus pimp; the woman (who is the walking uterus; IVF clinics that charge, and charge, and charge;  the desperate, would be,  parents who want to have a biological child; and the mad rush for designer babies. Politics of the Womb – The Perils of IVF, Surrogacy and Modified Babies is both a behind the scenes look at the new industry that seems to have grown without regulation;  the ethics of such work; and a normative framework for regulation. It is also a manifesto of the rights of the unborn child. Someone has to speak for the child, and Ms Virani makes a very strong case for children born of IVF.

 

The books looks at how expensive  IVF (In Vitro Fertilization) treatment  is being pushed as the first option, on desperate parents, when there are a gamut of other options, that could spare the prospective parents both an expensive bill, as well as physical and mental trauma. There is between 72-80% failure rate per IVF cycle. Less than a third of people who start the IVF treatment, come away with a baby. The costs-  financial, physical and emotional – are seldom publicized or discussed. And, all this in the backdrop of an  industry that sells a myth of fertility, and downplays the medical risks both to the mother and those that may occur to the child. Virani  looks at the data surrounding IVF and birth defects, that leads to children being born autistic, and  with mental retardation. The risk of babies conceived through Ivf or Icsi (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) is 37% higher than babies conceived naturally. “Collateral damage” says a doctor, on the side effects, and birth defects.

Virani’s anger against the commoditization of the uterus, and its commercialization, is palpable. When she quotes doctors, involved in the baby making business,  she lets their callousness and utter disregard for the woman’s body, and the reproductive process , stay there unvarnished. “What is a uterus, it is like a room. Repaint, redecorate any number of times”’, Virani quotes a doctor saying.

Surrogacy is in the news of late, because of the bill being discussed in Parliament, as well as the Government’s banning of commercial surrogacy. In light of the high pitched conversations around this topic, it might be worthwhile to read the “Politics of the Womb” to look at the issue in a holistic manner.

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(Politics of the Womb; The Perils of IVF, Surrogacy & Modified Babies; by Pinki Virani; Viking; Rs 599; Pages 304)

Apr 182016
 

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I can’t remember if I saw, the original Jungle Book on television, or in the cinema hall. But, i remember watching it the first time, with complete delight. I loved the characters – Bagheera, the panther who is Mowgli‘s guardian angel in the jungle, Baloo – the sloth bear who had nary a care in the world; the vultures like the Beatles, and of course, the George Sanders voiced Sher Khan – who was as menacing as a Disney film would let him be. Since the first viewing, i have seen the film many, many times – along with the other Disney favorite, Dumbo – and cried buckets of tears each single time, when Mowgli approaches the prone form of Baloo.

The 2016 adaptation of Jungle Book is not a fun and frolic run through the jungles, like the earlier avtaar. It is a film for a grittier, more violent world – where nothing is what it seems.

The story remains the same. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) , human cub, brought up by a pack of wolves, has to be returned to the ‘man village’ before Sher Khan (the man-eating tiger)  kills him. Bagheera volunteers to do the needful.  Along, the way there are many adventures and old favorites return in a new avtaar.

Scarlet Johansen as the python Kaa is quite fantastic

Christopher Walken plays King Louie, with the kind of manic psychoticness that only he can bring to a role. The sheer insanity of the character reminded me of Marlon Brando’s outing in Apocalypse Now‘my ears have ears’ he tells a stunned Mowgli, as he asks the man cub to share the secret o the red flower (fire) with the monkeys.

But, as with the original film – it is Bagheera (ably voiced by Ben Kingsley), Baloo (Bill Murray, thankfully toned down) as the stern dad and mad uncle figures, who provide the contrasts in ‘good’, the boy’s role models. Hopefully Mowgli will grow up with Bagheera’s moral compass and Baloo’s sense of fun.  The interplay between them, is a flavour carried forward from the older film (and the book)

Sher Khan (Idris Elba, as the menacing predator/stalker), is chillingly focused. His pathological hatred towards humans in general, and Mowgli in particular, have driven him over the edge. It is from this precipice of insanity that you see the character unraveling. In his mind, he is fighting the righteous war. Killing humans before humans kill him (and all of them). And, his rage at being thwarted is chillingly brutal.

Neel Sethi as Mowlgi is entirely believable. There were parts you think – God how did his parents allow him to run around with wild animals, till the rational part of the brain tell you – CGI. Given that a child of his age was in a green screen environment, his performance is quite superlative.

The real star of the show is the breath taking CGI. The jungle looks real. The water buffaloes, the hedgehogs, the python skin, the python, look real. The tiger is all together real. The bit where Kaa is trying to hypnotise Mowgli, and you have a shot from Mowgli’s eye level, the python in full glory – you find yourself retreating into your seat.

As entertaining as it was, it was also educational. I got more on understanding wildlife from this film, than through a series of animal world features.  You appreciate how strong a tiger’s legs are, in the sequence where you see Sher Khan’s legs in fully muscular, sinewy glory,  you understand, how they can kill.   the minute observation about animal movements, have been well researched and recreated by the CGI team. This is possibly as close to a real world experience of a jungle and animal life that most kids are going to get (most adults too).

It is not just that, it is also the simple appreciation of the natural habitat and weather patterns.
There is a scene, almost at the beginning, where they show the impact of lack of rain, on the forest. The simulated ‘time lapse’  CGI in describing this is awe inspiring. I think that any school going child, watching that scene, would have learnt more from the 1 minute or so sequence, on drought and it’s impact on forests, than the way it is taught in schools today. The sequence where the monsoons begin, in full glory, and it’s impact on the forest – it is seeing it in a 30 second scene, that makes the power of nature seem all the more real.  The sequence of the water buffaloes stampeding through the countryside, in their quest for water, while Mowgli makes his escape from Sher khan (possibly the best sequence in the film). It would be so cool to teach kids about migratory patterns of animals looking for water,  through a sequence like this. I seriously think it is a must watch for children, it works on multiple levels.

Is it violent? About, As violent as a discovery channel film on how tigers hunt for prey.

I am going to end this one, with an absolutely fabulous rendition of “Wanna be just like you”, by a rasping Christopher Walken

Mar 272016
 

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All in all, it wasn’t quite as bad as the critics made it out to be. Definitely worth a watch on the big screen.

The film is set some 20 years after Batman first picks up his cape and cowl. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is a darker Batman than the one’s we have seen before. He brands criminals with the bat symbol (that leads to their death in prison); he is coping with the death of a Robin (killed by Joker); and he drinks more than he should. Also, he is sure Superman (Henry Cavil) is upto no good, and has God like plans to dominate the world.

Superman is conflicted – why he is conflicted is never explained in this film (i guess one has to brush up on Man of Steel to figure it out). Maybe he is getting over the killing of Zod or maybe he is figuring his relationship with Lois Lane; but, there is certainly a tortured hero air about him. And, both he and his alter ego Clark Kent have begun taking interest in the work of Batman .

Lex Luthor is the most irritating Bat Villain I have seen in eons. He makes Danny De Vito’s Penguin (who i loathed) seem tolerable. Jesse Eisenberg plays Luthor as a cross between Mark Zukenberg and the Joker. And everytime he was on screen, i had this terrible urge to slap him.  Oh, and Lex Luthor unleashes Doomsday – and all those of you who are comic book fans know what happens next. 

Wonderwoman though she is never introduced as that (rather as Diana Prince, her alter ego) has stunning screen presence. Gal Gadot wears that ridiculous costume with such nonchalance, that you barely notice that she is wearing a single piece swimsuit with lots of metal sticking out.

The film has more dream sequences than a Hindi movie – and most of it is about people getting killed.

My problem with the film, is that you needed to know comic book continuity to get a lot of the stuff going on. Be it the death of Robin (the costume in the bat cave with Joker’s epitaph); or Diana Prince ; or even Lex Luthor’s relationship with Superman (or indeed with Bruce Wayne). Also the allusions to the comic book universe are there – there is a stunning dream sequence, where a rebel Batman is fighting a Superman who has taken over the world (Red Sun), or the interruption of Flash warning Batman (one of the  crisis books, i forget which one). There are heavy costume influences from the Dark Knight Returns (Frank Miller)

Ben Affleck makes for a good older Batman. I can see Christian Bale’s Batman growing up to be this. Henry Cavil is better in this than in his first outing as Superman. Jeremy Irons makes for a rather scruffy Alfred. Amy Adams as Lois Lane – is a plot device, when ever the plot gets stuck, she is rescued by Superman. Holly Hunter is wasted. Jesse Eisenberg was dreadful (and i am being kind).

My other problem with the film is that it takes itself too seriously. Once you set up a hero to be a God or as near a God as possible, it possibly strips the fun part of being human from it. It will help if comic books feel like comic books, and not like a Shakespearean Tragedy. i kept wanting to shout at the screen “lighten up, it is a comic book, superhero team up”. Seriously, directors of Batman movies should take inspiration from Grant Morrison’s style, not Frank Miller. So much angst gets overwhelming.

But, was it a bad film – not by any stretch of imagination. It held together well.  It was enjoyable, and I am looking forward to the Justice League and all the other films that will follow.

Looks like it is Darkseid up next or Brainiac – Lex Luthor’s final promise. And the Justice League. Should be interesting.