Nov 26, 2011


A colleague in Denmark who recently quit the company and relocated to Germany wrote me a mail describing the new workplace, travel involved, search for a house, etc. He mentioned, "I can feel this move will change me in several unknown, unseen ways but I guess it'll all be for the good in the end. I try and remain stoic but the prospect of all those dialysis machines leaves me wondering what good is life about anyway."

Dumb me jumped to conclusions and dashed off a mail immediately remarking that i wasn't aware he was relocating for health purposes and commiserating with his misfortune, et all. PL replied later explaining that the 'dialysis' reference was solely due to the fact that the Communications department of this huge hospital was located on the same floor as the nephrology section and he passed them daily on his way to his office. He thanked me for my 'kind mail' but assured me that he was in perfectly fine health.

If stupidity can kill, i would be playing the harp in heaven now. Aaaaargh! 

Nov 20, 2011

Notes On Rockstar

Some friends call me a movie snob, an assumption I don’t bother to correct. If not liking hits like Hera Pheri, Dabaang and Khatron Ke Khiladi makes me guilty of such transgression, I accept the charge. But frankly, none of these films make me see red – I don’t enjoy them, but I see that they remain true and committed to their vision of ‘masala’ entertainment. There is no clash in values or vision that I perceive in these films. But films like Rockstar, Dil Kya Kare and Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna really upset me because they deal with issues which are compelling and close to my heart, in a frivolous manner; it’s like you pick the best canapés and then shallow fry them and the end result is a half-cooked, soggy mess.

For starters, I have no idea why Imitiaz Ali named his film Rockstar, it might as easily be a film about a genius techie, a maverick investment banker or just some bloke who tries too hard to impress. Early on in the film we are told that JJ (Ranbir Kapoor) dreams of being the next Jim Morrison ( the only rockstar allusion in the film!). He is advised by his college mentor Khattarbhai (Kumud Mishra) that the one thing common to all great artists is their experience of intense pain and the ability to infuse that pain into their art. I don’t know if Ali is going wink-wink here, but I do agree that there’s a problem with the way we Indians define a rockstar. We are still so preoccupied with Mick Jagger and Freddie Mercury that we cannot think of an alternate prototype – one who isn’t necessarily self destructive, one who doesn’t do drugs, one who turns up for his recordings on time, and doesn’t throw tantrums. We can’t acknowledge that artists like Zakir Hussain, A.R. Rehman and Shankar Mahadevan are rockstars too! Thus, I really found JJ’s naïve understanding of who’s a rockstar quite authentic in the context of India. In fact throughout Ali’s film, you’ll come across many such moments of resonance where he seems to be trying to delve into or reflect upon something that is of consequence in our lives. Yet sadly, he doesn’t bother to really stir the broth once the lid has been lifted. He’s simply content to let you catch a whiff of the aroma and then seal the lid back into place.

It takes a certain sensibility and imagination to make great love stories. When you really think about it, all love stories are the same. Boy & girl start from the starting line amidst much sunshine and cheering, later, clouds come in the way, and only one of them makes it to the finishing line. But the love story takes place only after the clouds darken the sky and therein the beauty. Casablanca, Dr Zhivago, QSQT, Walk the Line, Eternal sunshine of the Spotless Mind, & perhaps even Sholay – look at any of them and you’ll see what I’m talking about. That’s why these are the greatest love stories ever filmed. The saddest thing about Rockstar is that it’s neither about an eccentric musical genius nor a great love story. It compromises on both ideals because Indian film makers are wary of showcasing their heroes as absolute assholes. We make excuses for these jerks, we are a nation obsessed with explaining away our negatives. The only exception is probably someone like SRK who dared to make films like Anjaan and Darr.

Anyway, to return to the limpid love story, Ali shows imagination but again doesn’t pursue his vision through till the end. His JJ is more a retard (middle finger to political correctness) than eccentric or endearing. Though Ranbir tries hard to ape his grandfather Raj Kapoor, what he doesn’t quite possess is the innocence, naivete and endearing charm of Kapoor Sr. Frankly, I felt like delivering a tight smack across his face every time he opened his mouth or grinned.

About Nargis Fuckri's Heer, all I can say is that she elevates Katrina Kaif to the levels of Smita Patil in comparison. Every time she came onscreen, the audience broke out in loud guffaws! And I was like - was Ali doped when he signed her? Every time I raged and wanted to walk out, A gripped my hand and told me, “She’s the only Indian actress I’ve seen who has Peneolpe Cruz’s mouth’. As if that alone is enough. Grrr….

Perhaps the greatest disappointment is Rehman’s music. Forget the fact that this film is apparently about an unrefined musical genius, ‘ek bahut bada janwar’, who’s passionate about making music. This film cannot even be about an artist like Himesh Reshammiya! A.R. Rehman has always been God for me, and it breaks my heart to have to admit that his muse has probably deserted him forever. The fire is gone and it is we who are the poorer for it.

Is there anything I liked about the film? Tough one that. As stated earlier, there are 2-3 conceits that Ali employs which are an absolute must in a love story, but they all fall flat. The idea of the body not being able to keep up and breaking down eventually when separated from ones beloved because the heart has broken, and then miraculously reviving again, is something so magical, so fragile, that it cannot & shouldn’t be expressed in terms of increased blood count. No way! There are those who will laugh at this and dismiss it, and others who will nod with unshed tears in their eyes. That’s ok. But it definitely isn’t something you can explain in terms of reports and tests and walking down stairs as Ali does.

Again, the entire camaraderie between the two lovers comes across as completely make-believe. At no point do you sense that Heer feels JJ is an organic extension of her. That’s what the greatest love stories are about – about healing our fractured selves. The scene where they meet in Prague after several years could have been done so poignantly with an actress like Rekha or Kareena but with Nargis F, it is turned into mockery!

I liked Ali’s Ahista Ahista, Jab We Met, and I thought Love Aaj Kal had elements of a great love story. I still believe he’s a sensitive and intelligent director. But he doesn’t possess the soul of a lover – a lover of films. To be so, you have to throw caution to the winds, stop explaining and annotating emotions, stop playing to the gallery, and must learn to walk on coals. He still hasn’t done that. 

Nov 9, 2011

Notes on The Sense of an Ending

I read 2 magnificent novels recently – this year’s Booker winner The Sense of An Ending and Nicole Krauss’ Great House. I’ve never felt more intrigued or taxed as I did while trying to join the dots and weave the threads in these novels and arrive at a satisfactory ending. Even now I’m unsure whether what I understood and interpreted is really what happened. This ambiguity is part of being alive, as also part of the narrative tradition, of hearing and reading about other people’s lives, of history, and of recalling the past.  Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is about these ambiguities - the impossibility of ever arriving at the truth about certain pivotal matters in our life because the truth has long ago been distorted and destroyed.  As one character puts it early on in the novel, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation". That is why this novel possesses that rare punch to change the way one has been interpreting one’s life or going about it. That alone should quieten all those murmurs which ask whether it was a deserving winner or not.

The novel is narrated by Tony Webster, a 60-year-old retiree, who recalls the events of his life, only to discover that what he remembers and what actually happened don’t always concur: “What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”  As Tony works his way towards an epiphany, we realize that, even at the end, one cann whot be sure that what Tony now understands, is the penultimate truth. I think that’s why this is one of the most befitting titles I’ve come across – it hints and mocks and alludes to a veil, to a mirage, that upon closer examination will cease to be and reveal a darker truth. Very few of us have the courage to actually seek an ‘ending’ to our affairs; instead, most of us are satisfied with the ‘sense of an ending’ that matters have been peacefully resolved, mortgage payments met, P/L accounts closed, children settled, and daily vitamins taken.

The narrative is prompted by Tony’s sudden receipt of a lawyer’s letter informing him that the mother of his ex-girlfriend, Veronica, (whom he hasn’t met in more than 40 years) has left him £500 and a diary.  The diary belongs to Adrian Finn, a brooding intellectual schoolmate-cum-hero of Tony’s and his 3 friends who later went to study at Cambridge and shortly afterwards committed suicide at the age of 22. At that time he was married to Veronica who started dating him soon after she split with Tony. She now has the diary and though she meets him after a lot of persuasion, she refuses to give him the diary. As he probes and pushes, what he gradually discovers upsets the cart of his peaceful existence and challenges the substance of his memories.

The first part of this thin novel outlines Tony and his friends’ days at school, the simultaneously repressed and restless energy in a typical 60’s boys school, the advent of Adrian in their midst and his unique and logical way of looking at things, Tony’s brief affair with Veronica and the ill-fated weekend at her place with her family, her mother’s odd gesture under the window and even odder warning to not let Veronica get the better of him, the eventual break-up with Veronica and later knowledge that Adrian was now dating her. As he recounts these sections, he continuously retracts and casts doubt on whether he remembers things correctly and raises doubts in our minds about his reliability as a narrator. For instance, was he really snubbed and looked down upon during that long-ago weekend at Veronica’s house or did he simply project his own feelings of inadequacy onto others? Was Veronica’s mother really kind or could her behavior be ascribed to something darker? Most importantly, what role did Tony play in Adrian’s eventual suicide and the larger tragedy that unfolds in the last pages? As the novel develops, these questions haunt Tony and he seeks Veronica, who now has her husband’s diary, to find some degree of understanding and closure.

Not only this, he is forced to re-examine and reinterpret his vision of Adrian – the school chum whose intellect had always enthralled Tony. He’d earlier romanticized Adrian’s suicide as the truest manner in which one can exercise his choice in life; later, as he uncovers facts, he is forced to consider whether Adrian’s death was nothing more than a cowardly act, an inability to face up to the truth about one’s moral decrepitude.

As we veer towards the end, it does seem that the ‘ending’ is a tad contrived and one can’t be faulted for imagining that Tony’s final reading of his own role in the grand tragedy that has enfolded all their lives, is perhaps a little far-fetched. I know readers will quibble with this. I’d like to imagine that Barnes shapes his ending in this manner precisely because he wants to sow the doubt – does Tony really ‘get’ things in the end? Did things really happen the way he imagines them in the end? There’s no way of knowing and Veronica’s single stubborn accusation throughout the novel - ‘You just don’t get it’ – continues to resonate in our ears.

Perhaps the best thing about reading a writer like Barnes is the complete lack of sentimentality, and his dry and mordant wit that pervades even the most poignant sections. Notice the characteristic brusque way in which he captures the essence of what it meant to be a school boy in the ‘60s, “We were book hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchic.” One can’t help laughing as he describes the dating scene thus, “This is what used to happen: you met a girl, you were attracted to her, you tried to ingratiate yourself, you would invite her to a couple of social events - for instance, the pub - then ask her out on her own, then again, and after a good-night kiss of variable heat, you were somehow officially ‘going out’ with her. Only when you were semi-publicly committed did you discover what her sexual policy might be. And sometimes this meant her body would be as tightly guarded as a fisheries exclusion zone.

But always beneath the wit and even tone of his prose, you come across passages which enthrall as when he writes towards the end, “And no, it wasn’t shame I now felt, or guilt, but something rarer in my life and stronger than both: remorse. A feeling which is more complicated, curdled, and primeval. Whose chief characteristic is that nothing can be done about it: too much time has passed, too much damage has been done, for amends to be made.” To me, this along with another passage is perhaps the key to the novel – the distinction between guilt and remorse and regret. A distinction we forget too easily. 

Tony is a kind of Everyman – just one of us. In the beginning he tells us, “I had not wanted life to bother me too much.” He’s the kind of person who, like you may, claims, “I recycle; I clean and decorate my flat to keep up its value. I’ve made my will; and my dealings with my daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren and ex-wife are, if less than perfect, at least settled.” Sounds familiar?

Yet, it is this very man who says in the end, “You get towards the end of life: the end of any likelihood of change in that life. You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question: what else have i done wrong.” Ever since i read the novel almost 2 months ago, i’ve revisited this passage not less than 17 times and it never fails to bring the tears despite my resolve. There’s such immense empathy for mankind in his assured ‘what else’ and not ‘what have i done wrong’, that it cannot but shake you. The very idea that we are all aware of our mistakes, that we try and make amends, and yet there’s so much that we are blind to, is the keenest reminder of our frailties. This novel serves that reminder.