Monday, 30 November 2009

Ace In The Hole



Uncharacteristically devoid of Wilder's charming wit, at least for the most part (starts out with some smart one-line punches from Kirk Douglas' hardboiled cynic Chuck). Which only makes it difficult to digest - even his 1960 film, The Apartment, is about the corruption of soul; yet the fluid humour keeps it floating smoothly. Probably this explains the film's critical failure at the time.

Ambitious reporter Chuck Tatum is always in a soup. He's worked with some of the biggest houses in journalism, but personal misdemeanours keep coming in the way of his career. So he comes riding with a flat-tyre to small town Albuquerque, looking for the one scoop that'll take him back top. Luck favours him when he runs across an amateur archaeologist, Leo Minosa, stuck in a cave-in. The man can be saved in a day, but seeing that his life is not in imminent danger, Chuck decides to milk this golden opportunity - to sustain "human interest" in the story, he arranges for a lengthy rescue operation. Chuck will be the only one to do an exclusive coverage of the accident and rescue efforts.

Things don't look too bright. And not only because of the journo's exploitation of a man's suffering. Leo's simple-minded father has his faith pinned on Chuck, who is something of a brave hero to him, and Leo's wife can't wait to desert her husband. The local sheriff wants to gain political leverage from the incident, the engineer gives in to corruption because his job is in jeopardy, there's a gathering of hundreds outside who have arrived to "show their sympathy" for the man inside, small businesses bloom all around - the whole picture resembles a giant carnival more than anything. The picture may look exaggerated at first sight, but anyone who has heard the outpours of cliche-ridden sympathy during the Prince incident (pointed out by Jabberwock) or witnessed political reactions following 26/11 should see how acute Wilder's observations were. The Mr. Federber character is not in the least fabricated - people are callous about accidents in exactly the same way, insignificant though it may seem on the surface.

The unexpected revelation of buried guilt and conscience is Tatum changes the blame equation all of a sudden - is he the most guilty man? Isn't his ambition fuelled only by public thirst for yellow journalism? In true noir tradition, Tatum is killed - but what about the faceless revellers outside having the time of their lives? They have paid nothing; except maybe for twenty square meals of tacos, hot dogs and soda-pops. There are more unsettling questions than those answered on screen by the mechanics of Wilder's plot.

My pick for the best scene - a huge circus tent (Chuck himself scorns at the carnival as a "circus") is pulled down after the din has died down. Looks like a mock-flag-lowering ceremony to honour the late Leo Minosa. Of course, nothing of the sort is said. The visual clue is enough. Maybe that is the power of cinema!

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Close-Up



My first Kiarostami film. A treatment of the classic question - how is reality and cinema related? Is cinema a reflection of reality - at once unadorned and inverted - or is it an embellished reenactment of truth? And how far can the convergence of reality and cinema be taken?

Here is a man, Sabzian, who impersonates a famous film-maker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (an Iranian New-Wave contemporary of Kiarostami), and pretends to be interested in a film project involving the members of a family he meets by chance during a bus-ride. He visits the family, gains their confidence (save the father's, who maintains an amicable skepticism), starts rehearsing with the younger son - who has an interest in art and cinema - for a supposed film-role. All this is not staged - the incidents are real, the actors in the film are the characters. When the family begins to suspect Makhmalbaf's authenticity, they call in a journo friend who knows Makhmalbaf. Sabzian is arrested on charges of fraud, and his story is covered by the journo Farazmand. Kiarostami's involvement begins with him reading the article, and seeking consent from all parties involved to shoot the trial.

What is apparent about the film is that it can be clearly divided into two parts - the courtroom sequence, which does not seem re-enacted, and the background story which is quite clearly re-done (considering the point of arrival of Kiarostami). All this however transcends the questions of physical reality as represented on celluloid, even though it is not exactly clear on the point (why for example are some of the principals listed as themselves on the credits, while some of the peripheral roles, like the judge in the court, not done likewise?). The deeper and more engaging matter is Sabzian's assumed idenity of Makhmalbaf - a man whom he admires and aspires to be, whose cinema he identifies with and loves. His impersonation is thereby an extension of, and some would say the very peak of, method acting - "getting into somebody's skin", thinking and feeling like the character one portrays. While the moral gray-area is never beyond question, it is brought into light that the momentary impulse which prompted him to forge a new identity was a harmless one - he wanted a meal for the day with the family, and that was all!

The catharsis at the end is Makhmalbaf's meeting with his impersonator - artist and admirer embracing, kindred souls rejoicing in each other's company. The parting freeze-frame suddenly recalls another iconic freeze-frame from another New-Wave, Antoine Doinel's first view of the sea in 400 Blows. A film common in theme and tone, if not treatment, to Close-Up - both being infused with warmth for man, and tangential irreverence for social norms.

The lighthearted irony is that the 'crime' is what unites Sabzian and Makhmalbaf, and what gives shape to this excellent film!

Friday, 20 November 2009

Some Random Images out of a Weekender’s Workbook

From the 'Dolphin Nose'

Setting the Clock-Tuner

On Tuesday, 22nd September, back at our Talcher quarter in Orissa, a bustle of activities began at about 3:00 AM in the morning. I could barely sleep from the excitement of the trip the previous night – it had been almost four years since our last tour. We took our baths, our morning tea, completed the last minute tid-bits, Baba did the ticket-money-key verification (that’s something Baba does every time we leave our station), put on our sneakers and shoes, locked the doors and the gates, got into the car and lo! The journey began!

It was about 5:00 AM in the morning. The township was still asleep, it was still nightly dark. A sea of kaash phul (pardon me: “kash flowers” simply do not sound that sweet somehow, to the Bengali ear that is!), a light cool breeze, the making of the dawn – the black turning into reddish blue, then red, then reddish yellow and slowly to white,,, marked our long drive from Talcher to Bhubaneshwar. Normally, it takes about three and a half hours to get to the capital city. The road was particularly traffic-free and our driver drove well, so that we got there within 8:00. I bought three books at a station-stall for the kids we were going to meet – Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Unaccustomed Earth’, Paulo Coelho’s ‘Like the Flowing River’ and a ‘Hardy Boys’. Our train, Visakha Express, was on time. We had a bit of a problem about the seats. Almost as soon as we had started pondering ‘bout it, the ticket-collector came and solved it. And, then, with a “cooooo” and a “hoosh”, our train left the station at about 8:30 AM.

How Green Was My valley......

We reached the Vishakhapatnam station at around 4:00 PM. It had just rained. The weather was lovely – cool, breezy and pleasant. Coming out in the open, outside the station, the place seemed to have been scrubbed clean and fresh. The Eastern Ghats, the narrow green strip we are so familiar in our geography maps, was suddenly there- bordering all around the city, seen in the distance, almost like a huge stage prop. It had just rained, and, wherever be it, I always love the colour of the green after the rains. Today, particularly, the greens looked so beckoning. The godly hills stood against the grey sky like an affectionate father. The greys of the clouds clung to the greens, the blues of the hills, lending them a far-off-the-mind misty hue and I was suddenly wondering if I were in a dream!

An ambassador arrived about half-an-hour later and took us to the NTPC project colony at Simhadri. A room had been booked for us at the NTPC field-hostel. Here, I must tell you that the main purpose of our tour was a ‘get-togethering’ of old family friends. Mr. Pinaki Ghosh is currently posted there. He stays with his wife, Mamata Aunty and two sons: Joy and Jitu (whom we lovingly call “Toy”). Joy is my childhood friend. We used to be neighbours in Kahalgaon, Bihar. We have gone to school together from nursery to Class 5 and so, we share quite a lot of sweet and sour memories from the past. Toy was born when we were in UKG, i.e., he is about six years younger than us. They have been staying in Simhadri for the past ten years. Mr. Tarun Mitra is currently posted in NTPC, Farakka. He also stays there with his wife, Rimi Jethima and his son: Ritam. Ritam and Toy are of the same age. They left Kahalgaon around the same time too, about ten years ago. Baba knew Tarun Jethu since he first joined NTPC in Shaktinagar back in 1984. Together they have organised many Bangali cultural programmes. While Baba led the choir, Tarun Jethu directed the plays. Well, they had reached Vizag on 22nd morning and had already checked in another room of the same guest-house by the time we arrived. It was with these people that we were looking forward to be reunited after so many years.

In the evening, we went to Pinaki Kaku’s house, and there was a short adda session. We took our dinner at the guest-house, discussed our plans for the next day, bade each other adieus for the day and went off to bed.

We slept like babies the first night and I still longed for some more when I was asked to wake up at 7:00 AM on 23rd morn. We got down to meet a huge 15-seater car (or more appropriately perhaps ‘a bus’) that Pinaki Kaku had arranged for a tour around the Borra caves and Araku Valley. On the way to Borra caves, we played Antakshari. It was an endless episode; neither of the teams would concede defeat. Baba, of course, was the master player, but even Tarun jethu was quite a sport in the game, and Mamata aunty too. We sang “Pathe ebaar naamo shaathi”, “Chalo na Digha” to “Zindagi ek safar hai suhana” to “Aamra nuton jouboner-i doot”. Finally, Baba, bored of supplying from his mammoth stock, called off the game declaring a “draw”! The circling and bends of the road on our way to the Borra caves gave a good stirring to my intestines, so that when we reached there, I was feeling dizzy. The others insisted that I should rest in the nearby canteen. But the sheer excitement of it saw me making a move towards the caves, sooner.

Into the bowels of the Demon and out of it to tell you all ‘bout it........

The entry to the caves is actually really not broad, but once inside, we let out a gasp for it felt like being gulped down by a huge mouth, that’s the roof of the mouth – we looked up at the ceiling, those are the teeth of the giant – the stones on the sides of the winding staircase, and that’s the big slithering tongue swallowing us down and down– we stared at the stairs leading down until it disappeared round a bend and we couldn’t see anymore! Yes, and then, we couldn’t keep ourselves from not being swooped by the demon, like we so wished; the tongue swiped us in, tossed us high up into the air and down we went. We half-slipped, half-staggered – our motion not anymore in our control – rolled and crawled down through the larynx (thank God, we weren’t chewed up!), through the food pipe to the stomach. We met with deeper cavities on our way, thank God, those didn’t make its food-path; deeper and trickier passages went here and there, perhaps to nowhere, I shuddered. And oh, yuck! What not does the demon live on! We wet ourselves with the calcium carbonate and humic acid – the juices secreted in its stomach. We slithered still down and down to its intestines. Here, we were awed by the gigantic intestinal muscles, rising up from the floor and down from the ceiling, stalagmites and stalactites, our fellow passengers called them,, made out of limestone, they said,,. At one point, they formed a curious formation that looked like a demon inside a demon! A smaller demon inside a bigger one, was that?? Yawning wide, showing off its bare teeth, flashing a venomous red eye at us – even the smaller one wanted to devour us! Gradually, slowly, finally,, we landed in a plane smooth part – the colon. The path was narrow but the roofs and the walls were all even. When we were so much looking forward to the way ahead at this stage of our voyage, the final act of the play – the climax, in fact, and be out in the open again, we hit the wall! The passage to the world outside was blocked! Oh! The monster had the bad bowels problem... We sighed deeply, together all of us. But isn’t excretion as inevitable as ingestion? We couldn’t be there forever! So, just when we had sighed despair and desperation, there was a loud “THUD!”, and a storm blew us upwards, up and up (once again we were unable to control our motion), along the same way that we came down. We met the small demon with the big yawn, the cavities, the tunnels, the secretions and the pipe, bounced upon the tongue, which swayed this way and that, until we were out! Gosh! Even monsters go sick...

Washed in the Greens, blues and other colours....

Well, we celebrated our adventure and release, dining out in the canteen. We left Borra caves at about 2:00 PM. And, next, we started towards Araku Valley. On the way, Tarun Jethu asked me to sing the Antaheen song “Ferrari mon”. I sang and almost lullabied others to a siesta. As our car wound its way through the hills, we saw clouds gathering up in the horizon. But, thankfully, they didn’t look so ominous. We stopped outside a park, much like the Sim’s Park in Ooty, the only difference being the temperature. It was hilly and cold there, while here it was hilly and hot. Inside the park, there were beautiful tree houses built at one end that really tempted us to stay on, but we (we, meaning, of course, the grown-up like grown-ups) decided otherwise. I made ‘kshaniker’ friends with a local woman. She came from Andhra-Orissa border and took care of the cottages. “Baari kounthi?” “Kolkata”, I hummed. She nodded her head and repeated, “Korkatta, Korkatta... Boro sohor ochhi.. Mu januchhi.” Later, I plucked a small white flower, I didn’t bother about its name, shey ek naam na jaana phul,,, and gave it to her. She accepted it and smiled coyly. I was suddenly feeling a bit mad, you know. I took off my sneakers and walked over the grass in bare feet (to the great disapproval of my mother), singing, “..ghaashe ghaashe paa felechhi, boner pathe jete, phuler gondhe chomok lege uthechhe mon mete, chhoriye aachhe aanonder-i daan, bishmoye taai jaage, jaage aamar praan...”

The park had a toy train that ran at a speed of 1 m/min and yes, we rode it! The ride gave us a tour round the park, so that we had a good view of the valley from all directions, without having to put in the effort of walking. It is basically a stretch of plane land girded by hills, very much in accordance with the definition of a ‘valley’. On our way back from Araku, it started raining hard, but by the time we reached the field-hostel, at about 9:00 PM, it had slowed down to a light drizzle. It was once again a long day for us, and we were dead tired. We all slept a hungry sleep that night.

On 24th morning, Mahashashti, I woke up (with a good mind to get back to bed again at the first opportunity) to find Ma-Baba all dressed up for the day, waiting for me. By the time, we left Simhadri, it was well past 9:00 AM. Joy had stayed back at home (and he always stayed back after that, except for the lunch and the dinner). The plans for the day included the first view of the Vizag sea from the hill top to begin with, followed by the local beaches and view-points later in the day.

We passed the city and once again climbed up the hill. But, this time, we were surprised to meet another city there on the hill-top! Okay, may be not a city, a township, to be more accurate: a colony of the naval employees. Beautiful three-storied red-roofed apartments, with luxurious gardens met our sight. Our car stopped in front of the naval base camp. The road sloped down rather steeply along that part of the hill. We jogged down to a spot, next to the steep edge of the hill, where a romantic square, unfinished, roofless, windowless, brick chamber stood, with herbs and creepers and wild clumps growing out from its walls, floor and being. How old it seemed – like a great grandfather affectionately eyeing the new generations... Mamata Aunty stood near it and waved at us. As we came near her, I stopped short and gaped at the scene below: a whole world of ocean was awaiting us down there. I realised I had forgotten the magnificence of the seas all this time...

It was 11:00 AM when we reached the Yarada beach. Watching the waves rush towards us, as if in a worldly embrace, was a great joy. The entrance to the Yarada beach has been made into a lovely park, with a vibrancy of greens and other colours. Children were playing around riding the seesaw. I breathed the ambience and could almost feel the place to be etched in my memory for good…. sounds of the cackle of merry children and the roaring of the waves in the distance melted in a mellifluous symphony. We spent quite some time here. As a rule, it is forbidden to bath in the sea on this beach, as it’s a bit too rocky. The waves hit the rocks with a great splash and each time they did so, they showered a spray of white salty foam all over. The ocean was so much in action here, breathing and heaving with a fury, that suddenly I was left wondering if it is a living body too... The sand, with its bits of shining granules and shells, twinkled and shimmered in the sun. We met quite a few crabs digging holes in the sand, coming out, taking a stroll out in the sun, and then again scampering into their cool, dark homes underneath. Toy and Ritam had their time sitting atop a tricky large rock and romanticising with the beach. Tarun jethu was a bit quiet and lost. He stood on a large flat-surfaced rock, wind-swayed and enjoying the spindrift. With my forefinger, I scribbled a name on the wet sand and quietly saw it being washed away with the flowing currents.. I was humming an old song, “Ei baalukabelay aami likhechhinu ekti shey naam..”...

Paying an Unscheduled Visit to God’s Abode....

After the Yarada beach, Pinaki kaku took us to a view-point called the ‘Dolphin Nose’. It was so named, because just like the steep, sharp nose of a dolphin, the land here sloped down straight and jutted into the sea. We got there at about 12:30 PM. This place has been currently taken over by the Navy and they have fixed the visiting hours from 3 to 5 PM. Fortunately, the gatekeeper was a Bengali and so, with the familiar, “Daaran. Aami dekhchhi ki kora jaay..” he went off to take a special permission. Soon, we had the tickets and were allowed in. We walked through a rather wild zone, covered by trees and creepers, weeds, small plants, and herbs and finally, came to a cement-paved clearing. A two-storied building with a tapering tower faced us. Signs of a recent celebration were still apparent from plastic cups, flowers and bits of papers carelessly strewn around. A big silver cloth was hanging in the front, with “Light House Day, 21st September” emblazoned on it in deep red. For the first time, I gathered, I was standing so close to a light house and what more, I was about to enter it.

Inside, we went up a narrow winding staircase. Even though, the steps were steep and it was quite a long way to the top, to end with a tricky monkey ladder, it seemed I had a sudden merry spring attached to my feet. I was suddenly transformed to a nimble-footed cat! I bend a round, and then another round, then another and on it went, till I stood beneath the monkey ladder, made good use of it, slouched through the small door, almost like the proverbial alley cat and out through it to the balcony in no time! And, then, I drew in a breath – where was I? Was that the paradise? Or the heavens? Was it real at all? Or was I... It seemed a big sink of liquid (not water), very much similar to a magical Pensieve,,, the clouds of thoughts and the past hung low over the sink, as if,,, each mist of thought dissolving into another,, each reality taking the form of a fancy, (or the other way round??),,, spiritual to material and again from the dust to the sky... Everything all at once: living and dead, factual and fiction, past and future, tangible and non-tangible, that which is there and that which is not,,, all dissolved and overlapping, as if in a colloidal solution, to very minute particles, suspended but indistinguishable. You think you can touch them, “There! There! Yes, I got it – ” but it escapes through your fingers! We stood there for a long time and I kept wondering, “If this is not experiencing God, then what else is?”

Caught in the Earthly Aromas,,, a sliver of song, dance, food and frolic... and sadness of a lost sneaker....

We drove back to the city. I was feeling a bit dizzy after the ‘Dolphin Nose’. Pinaki kaku took us to a big bookstore and asked me and Ritam to choose two books of our choice. I wandered about for a long time, unsure which one to ask for. I was still feeling very uncomfortable; my knees were shaking and I could feel a distinct headache. Finally, I decided on Nehru’s ‘Letters from a Father to His Daughter’. We next went to a plush restaurant, and kaku ordered for a hefty meal, but I didn’t have the appetite. I stayed put in the toilet there for a long time, but it still didn’t help. We decided to return to Simhadri in a taxi. Baba requested the others to carry on, but they wouldn’t listen. And, so, we were back at the Field-hostel by 6:00 PM that day.

On 25th, Saptami, we stayed back at the guest house for the first half. Ma-Baba slept the entire day, while I enjoyed myself watching ‘Mamma Mia’ on the TV in the living room. It was a mainstream Hollywood movie, starring Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan, but I loved the songs and the passion of the film altogether. It was raining outside all day long. We had opened the door to the balcony and watched it pouring, and I sang to my parents (when they woke and joined me in the living room), for the umpteenth time, “Chhaya ghonaichhe bone bone...”

At 5:30 PM, we got into two ambassadors that kaku had hired for the day and drove to the Sea Water Pump House of the Simhadri project. It was about 6:00 PM when we got there. The night was falling low and it was getting dark. We climbed up the stairs to the pump-house, lighted by yellow neon bulbs and met the nightly queen. There she was, with all her aura and gravity, rumbling yet composed and cool, sitting by the nightly king. He was there, erect, strong and mighty, touching the sky, guarding his queen. The Yin and the Yang. I stood there, resting on the rails, closing my eyes, taking big gulps of the salty air, paying my respects to them.

From the pump-house, we left for the Puja Mandap of the colony. (It was actually the Indoor stadium of the township where the puja had been organised, but still everyone knowingly referred to it as a ‘mandap’.) We opened our shoes outside, as was the rule, and went inside. We were back to the small damp earth of NTPC. Like the habitants of the earth, the people of NTPC don’t find it necessary to discuss things outside their project world (so that I normally can’t stand the gossips for more than five minutes) and like the earth is always round, we always meet old acquaintances from previous places in an NTPC gathering. The good part was here that we met Dr. Bardhan and his family there, were informed that Rashmi’s father has been transferred to Simhadri and that she is there too, met Mr. Venkateshwaran, the General Manager of the Simhadri project and many others. Meeting with old friends always feels good, but somewhere, it seemed, a big chunk of time from the huge time-cake had been sliced out, and we merrily jumped over this ‘missing link’ to arrive here... All was going well, but the anti-climax was that just as we decided to head back to the field-hostel, and went outside to put on our shoes, I found my sneakers missing. Well, “we always have to lose something to gain something”, I tried to console myself. We later heard that shoe-stealing at the mandaps was a rather common crime in that area. Baba left us there and got to get my pair of slippers. I put them on, tried not to be gloomy over the small loss, succeeded, ate a fine dinner and the day came to a close with an unusually peaceful sleep.

Of Emotions, misty eyed, of the Ethereal and the Mortal...............

On Ashtami morning, we went to the Puja mandap and attended the Pushpaanjali (Bardhan uncle guarded our shoes while we were gone). The priests and the dhakees were from Bankura, so that it was a completely ‘Bangali pujo’. Outside, the weather was pleasant and through the large windows of the stadium, light flooded in. The hills could be seen in the distance. There was a low murmur of talk,, a giggle, a guffaw, a roar of laughter now and then,, a mist of dung-cake and incense vapours and emotions hung heavy in the atmosphere, the idols looked lovely in the light of the day, the illuminations on the stage adding effect to it... As the aarti started, the dhakees hoisted up the dhaaks, and there was the familiar music of “dhing-dhi-da-dhang-dhidang-dhidang” and the “dhaa-kur-kur” along with the bells that rattled for the aarti. The dhakees played it with so much ardour and love, that I was all smiling. I was so much absorbed in the fervour of it all that when Baba patted me on my back and nodded towards Ma, I was surprised to see her all wet with tears. She missed Dida-Dadu (both of whom were alive and well during the last Puja), Baba explained...

We had the best lunch that day, with the khichuri-bhog at the mandap: there was a “khanti Bangali chochchori”, paapad, chatni and paayesh accompanying the kaaju-kishmish smeared khichuri. We got back to the field-hostel, took a short nap, and joined the others in a big Bolero that would take us to the left-over sites of Vishakhapatnam.

Between the sandy Beach, corn candy , and the Vastness of the Skies.....

We reached the Rishikonda beach at about 5:00 PM. It was a busy place, apparently the most famous beach in Vizag. It was nothing short of a mela there, with all kinds of vendors yelling hoarse over the noise of the crowd and the waves. A green giant of a hill on one side, and the beach on the other,, rocks garlanding the golden sands in some places, the scene appeared freshly lifted from a picture postcard I had seen in my old family album. Indeed, the most remarkable feature of Vizag may be here that you get the fun of both the seas and the hills at the same time. There was a part of the golden beach that rested on a higher platform supported by rocks a little distance away. Baba, Ma and I walked towards this part, climbed up the platform and the three of us stayed there for some time. A woman was selling baked corns. Baba bought me one. We sat on the sand, while I gorged on the bhutta. The sandy platform stretched out to the ocean, bending rightwards, thinning away towards the tip, ending up in rocks only and meeting the sea, halfway. We could have sat there for ages, it seemed... But, it obviously couldn’t happen that way: the others were waiting for us. So, we snapped some shots of the sea in the dusk-hours, retained quite a few of those which couldn’t be clicked anyway in our mind map, to be cherished long thereafter , hopped down and joined them to make our way to Kailash-giri.

By the time, we reached there, it was already dark. It was a splendid sight to look at the city below, sprinkled with numerous, big and small, white and yellow stars. The beach road of Vizag seemed to be flooded with lights, the golden sands of the beach reflected the light in turn, stretching in front of which was the nude blackness of the vast sea. The sea from the top suddenly transformed to a nothingness, an emptiness just like the space above. And, I suddenly felt as if, reed-like, I was falling through a sieve – deep, dark, bottomless and hollow...

It was a memorable experience too watching the colossal, life-sized, marble-white sculptures of Shiva and Parvati on the top of the hill. Kailash-giri is actually famous for the rope way and the beautiful little toy-train that gives a tour around the place, so that one gets a vantage view of the twinkling city from the top. But, unfortunately, we didn’t have much time, and all of us badly longed for a cup of coffee. Yes, above everything, I’ll remember the place for the little coffee-party we had in the snacks-canteen there. Of course, wherever we went we made quite a scene. However big or small the restaurant might be, we always requested to put up an arrangement for nine people (ten, if Joy would be there), which mostly involved the dragging of a table with a great deal of commotion, joining it to another table, putting up some extra chairs and requesting a few other customers to “kindly” move to that empty table and help us achieve our adda-cum-culinary mission. Well, after all this, we’d take about 10 minutes deciding the menu and ordering it and then, not putting a wee bit of effort in keeping our voices low while discussing – a discussion that we Bengalis so lovingly call as ‘aadda’ – on all topics under the sun and all this surely in absolute nirbhejal Bangla! Well, so, at the Kailsh-giri food-stop, we debated for a while on whether it would be egg pakodas or chicken pakodas, decided on egg finally; devoured on two plates of egg-pakodas, a plate of onion-pakodas and the special Telugu adrak-tea.

N. Raju, the Gandhi, Motionless beside my Pesky Baba......

The Bolero next drove us to the R K beach, another busy beach of Vizag. We met N. Raju here. He is a boy of about five to six years, who had been painted in bright silver all over when we met him (and we still don’t know how he looks naturally), sporting a round spectacles and a knee-length dhoti, holding a crooked stick in his right hand, posing with his right foot ahead of his left as if his walk had been frozen in a snapshot – being Gandhi. In front of him, a small steel can had been placed in which N. Raju’s admirers dropped a coin or two. We did the same. Baba kept remarking on his astonishing stamina to stand still for so long (Baba is a real pesky kid when he has to stand still for long at a given place. He is happy to sit or sleep on a wide range of comfortable and uncomfortable assortments of furniture, but not stand). We, and our nine long shadows (created by the neon lights of the evening), stood on the beach for just about 10 minutes, watching the queen of the night – a closer view this time. I wanted to stay for some more time, but we had to leave as it was getting late.

It was about 10:00 PM when we reached the field-hostel, to our comfy two-room suite. A long day it was, but a happy one nevertheless. In fact, it was one of my most memorable Ashtamis.

On Navami morning, nothing eventful happened, except that we had to shift to the main guest-house as the rooms were booked for some official guests. In the afternoon, Dr. Bardhan and his family hosted a little party in our honour at the guest-house. Dr. Bardhan is also an old friend from Kahalgaon, though his wife, Rina aunty, is an old friend of Maa’s, connected through an old music teacher of Konnagar. Rina aunty has a brilliant sonorous voice and is a well-known Rabindrasangeet singer in NTPC. I almost grew up admiring her singing. But, sadly, she told us that she is out-of-touch with music for long and howsoever we might request her, she wouldn’t sing. Instead, all of it fired back on poor me and it was I who finally did the singing of the noon. We had a good, Doctor-ish lunch (a real balanced diet) to end with.

The Mythological, logical and not so logical.......

Late in the evening, we went to the project-auditorium to witness a live Odissi performance of Ratikanta Mahapatra’s troop. It was indeed a most prized experience. They had divided their show into four acts: one of Krishna showing his Vishwarupa to Arjun in the Kurukshetra battle-field in Mahabharata, one of Shiva’s parlay-nritya with Parvati by his side, one of Ravana cruelly cutting off a wing of Jatayu (performed by Ratikantkanta Mahapatra himself) from Ramayana, and the final one based on Durga, the Mahishasuramardini. The sways, the tilts, the natural curves, the mudras, the vigour, the expressions,, that the dancers brought out so gracefully, almost as if giving a total outworldly dimension to the art of the feminine body, an adorable yet a proud one, that for once I felt physically superior to the other gender.

It was the beginning of closing the chapter. We bed good-byes to Tarun jethu, Rimi Jethima and Ritam, who had to leave for their train scheduled at 11:35 PM from Vishakhapatnam that night. We missed them at the dinner-table. Joy was more talkative during the last feast. He gave us a CD, with some photos copied down from their digicam of our sojourn together. And, all through the dinner, Toy kept chuckling to himself, remembering Ratikanta emoting Jatayu, with all his funny expressions even as he actually tried to look sad and hurt, creating a more than a serio-comical sight. Baba, in an attempt to correct Toy’s idea, said, “No, Toy. Actually, what he wanted to do wasn’t funny at all, you know, but what he ended up doing might have been funny though..”. At this, Toy started giggling even harder than before!

Well, by the time they left the guest-house, it was 11:30 PM in the night. And, I made a miserable scene getting up at 4:00 AM on the morning of Vijayadashami. On the way to the station, I wanted to have a last glimpse of the ocean. But, either we couldn’t convey ourselves properly or the driver was too much of a Telugu to understand Hindi, so that even though he nodded his head sideways in perfect understanding, he never took us there, and reaching the station, while we were still trying to comprehend his actions, he got our luggage down on the road from the back of the car (very helpfully) without even our asking him to do so.

So long and longing for..........

Somehow, in the end, we were left with a slight incomplete feeling about the whole tour. Of course, the reunion with old friends did score very high, but may be, we couldn’t do full justice to our ‘Vizag-ghora’. Perhaps, we’d have loved to spend some more time with the sea, stay in a sea-facing hotel in the city, perhaps we’d take a trip to the temple at Simachalam that Dida used to remember so fondly, perhaps, for just some more while, sitting idly on the Rishikonda beach or the R K beach, the three of us sharing a thread of thought now and then, connected through the silence of the night and the roar of the sea,,, and when the night would try to envelop the white foams of the rushing waves still prominent in the dark,, perhaps Baba would sing, “Raatri eshe jethay meshe diner paarabaare, tomaay aamay dekha holo shei mohanar dhaare...” Yes, all these are carried over to a probable second visit to Vizag in future. In a future , soon or a far one?? I really don’t know. All I know is this that there is the wish.

Of Nature’s beings – Mishakha ....

But our tour ended on a sweet Mishakha note. On the train, we got a young Kannada couple, travelling with their little daughter Mishakha of two and a half years, as our co-passengers. The child was a real delight. She was all cackles and glee and great wondrous questions about the world. In fact, she was mostly joy for her parents, obedient and matured at her age, instead of being a trouble. Even as her mother taught her the alphabets, spellings and the rhymes, she took it all with an adorable curiosity and enthusiasm. She regarded us with a plain joyous interest and we hardly got a blink of sleep, with her twittering away and putting up a grand show all the time. When I took out the camera to click a photo of hers, she was all ready with a pose and a perfect ‘cheese’ smile, looking straight at the lens.

For most part of the journey back home, I lay on the lower side-berth, and watched the cloud patterns outside,, the cotton-ish mists of clouds lower down blew by fast, while the fluffy milky ones higher above stayed longer.. A new mist kept replacing the old, as I gazed on. The old mists are always left behind, I mused, to be swapped by the new...

....Chilika.......

I was just dozing off when Maa cried, “Look, Mimi!” And, there it was, stretching wide and vast, surrounded by forests and fields, the Chilika lake! Though we have stayed in Orissa for long, we have never made it to the Chilika, but, of course, we’ve heard about it so often. The young couple also saw it eagerly, trying to spot it on the map of Orissa that they had brought along. The kid took some time to track the source of our amusement, peeped out from behind her daddy, herself amused now, she started clapping merrily with her little chubby fists. And, with that, our day was made, and our jaunt too... well almost.

.....and Brisha, the bull.............

And then, from the station as we wearied our way home, lapping up the final phase of our jaunt with all the thoughts, smiles and memories delicately suffused inside, our quiet reverie was snapped sharp by the sudden loud din and bustle and heat and dizzy lights of the Bhubaneswar highways.....As if the entire city was trapped in a mad rush to bedeck itself on the Vijayadashami day,,,, the puja processionists , the revellers, gyrating and drumbeating their way before and after slow moving matadors, the trombones and cymbals played in the background in uneven unison , the buses and autos and free wheelers frenetically honking for a right of way without yielding an inch to others, amidst a sea of humanity, from the curious to the casual, moving in waves, I saw, yes, a forlorn bull stuck in the middle of the road, out of nowhere, bewildered and lost. May be forsaken by the rakhal, it stood there, salivating and mildly shivering, its horns bloodily bruised, looking askance beyond the hype and hoopla, its large watery eyes – a shimmering ocean reflecting the lights, the dazzles and shadows of an ever busy city life....

Monday, 9 November 2009

Divine bookkeeping

I suppose the whole cause-and-effect cycle of karma was devised by the wise sages of ancient times as a rule-of-thumb to guide our actions and inspire us to do good. Sounds fine on paper. But here are some critical points:
  • The devout among those who suffer in their present life accept it as unavoidable chastisement for past actions - which, undoubtedly, must be a good consolation. However, it also does away with the will to protest, and demand change. Quite often poor living and medical conditions are a result of bad laws and bad governance (regulations on free-trade, unfair taxation and monumental wastage of tax-money etc.). These are matters that may be changed slowly with awareness and social/political activism.
  • The lucky ones accept that their fortune is a result of previous good deeds, resulting in a crippling complacency in thought and action. That, according to the karmic theory, they will suffer again in next life gets drowned out in ennui.
  • In my opinion, there is a certain amount of unfairness in this whole matter. Suppose X kills Y. X gets away with it because he has better lawyers than Y's family. Should Y's family console themselves with the fact that X will be punished in some life after? Also, think of this: X is born again and has no recollections of his crime at all. Does he still deserve punishment? Can't he start anew in his next life?
All of this, mind, is argued from the POV of a believer. The final point is, however, this: why can't I live just for the sake of living? Can't I look forward to a pleasant stroll in the hills of Mussoorie without worrying about consequences?

P.S. - In the absence of a karmic code, how do you govern your actions? Simple: the democratic rule ("sway your stick while you walk, if you please, but take care it stops an inch short of my nose") and plain human conscience.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Love?

Two bits of news this week: 1 and 2.

A year back, my reaction would be of mixed surprise and sadness. Now, I am a little amused: to think that I love someone too!

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Free-market for victimless crimes

Amit Varma's India Uncut has been one of my favourite blogs since I started following it some months back. One of the chief reasons for it is his ability to opinionate logically with the strictest economy of words. The second and most significant reason is that he contradicts me on so many points and in so many ways that it is impossible not to be intellectually stimulated.

Take this article as an example. It clashes with some closely-held beliefs that some of us - sane and logical for the most part - hold.
"Take me, for example: I sell my skills as a writer, limited as they are, to write pieces such as this one. You no doubt have a job that involves selling your skills as well. Many people trade not their intellectual skills but physical labour. Most such trades, made to mutual benefit, are considered respectable. But when a prostitute offers her sexual services, that is somehow considered improper and unethical.

What is even odder is that in most countries, if two consenting adults get together and have sex, the state will not interfere – unless money has changed hands. On one hand, we sanctimoniously frown upon sex; on the other, we frown at commerce. The human race would not exist without either of these two."
It is, perhaps, human tendency to judge prostitution through a moral prism. Morality is, strictly speaking, a personal thing - all of us have different standards and parameters of judgement. Our error is in overlapping moral opinion with state-sanctioned law. Yet, straight logical argument lays bare this fallacy in a few words - there is an undeniable (and ironic) truth in what Amit says in the second (quoted) paragraph.

Even his points about drug-usage are valid, I think. Here the objections are perhaps louder - given the possibly fatal consequences of decriminalisatioin and free-market-mechanism working in the case of drugs. Yet, in effect, if addiction is a punishable crime, so is attempting suicide.

Democracy allows everyone the choice to decide for himself/herself, unless the choice jeopardises or infringes the similar rights of another. It may be argued with some truth that the family of a drug-addict is affected, but that is a problem resting within the private domain of the individual - the state should have nothing to do or say about it.

As for Amit's solutions, I agree with him fully. Bringing businesses like prostitution, betting and drug-sale within the ambit of law and opening up the market to free competition will eliminate the functions of the mafia to a good extent, besides extending legal aid to marginalised outcasts like sex-workers and junkies. As has been cited, Netherlands is a good example of how well this system has worked. In a somewhat related note, Japan - the third highest porn-manufacturing country in the world - has some of the lowest rates of sex-related crimes.

"Within Japan itself, the dramatic increase in available pornography and sexually explicit materials is apparent to even a casual observer. This is concomitant with a general liberalization of restrictions on other sexual outlets as well. Also readily apparent from the information presented is that, over this period of change, sex crimes in every category, from rape to public indecency, sexual offenses from both ends of the criminal spectrum, significantly decreased in incidence.

Most significantly, despite the wide increase in availability of pornography to children, not only was there a decrease in sex crimes with juveniles as victims but the number of juvenile offenders also decreased significantly."

 Is this proof enough?
 But, of course, even a vocal proposition like this in touchy India is going to throw up flames.

Friday, 9 October 2009

The Human Detail

The Tsunami of 2004 did not affect me – I was fortunately nowhere near the troubled areas. Read about the incidents in the papers, of course. Neither did those affect me. Was I hardhearted, too self-centred to really care about something that hit the shores in places far from West Bengal? No friend or relative of mine lives in the South or the Andamans – so that may be a possible answer. For a long time, I grappled with the uneasy feeling that somewhere deep down there I was, inspite of my pretensions, a callous fellow who did not give two hoots about matters not touching his immediate circle of existence. The doubts were unquestionably helped by my feeble powers of self-understanding and introspection. The years rolled by, and the doubts were demoted to some of those hazy backbenches of the mind, only surfacing during stray incidents – a death of some casual acquaintance whom I did not really know, for example. That slight guilty feeling crept back for a few hours, asked a few troublesome questions, and then shut up.

The questions were not answered until about a month back. Verve ’09, NITD’s literary and youth fest, had a journalism workshop conducted by Dilip D’Souza. A name I recalled being faintly familiar with – not quite remembering the precise context of reference (and it wasn’t the Swades connect). Of the many important points about responsible journalism he made, there was one that really resonated with my ideas. And shooed away the uneasy feeling. The human detail. Conspicuous, yet elusive. There to be seen, yet woefully ignored. Hence the dryness and wooden quality of journalism in even widely respected publications. While figures, facts and statements can make good reports, they never touch the lay reader who has no stakes in the matter being described – including large-scale tragedies like the Tsunami. If journalism is really meant to stir us into action, and not merely inform, it has to strike where we are most vulnerable: the heart. A death toll of thousands boggles the eye and mind, but to the heart it remains a number.

If I consider the human detail to be the highlight of his discussion, it is because it applies as much to journalism as it does to literature and cinema. The best of both the fields are remembered chiefly for their storehouse of such little details giving deep insight into human nature. The most poignant moment about Indir Thakrun’s death in Ray’s Pather Panchali was such a small nugget: drained of all hope of reconciliation with Sarbajaya, and a contented twilight to her life, Apu and Durga’s pishi takes a last sip of water in her pet brass tumbler before stepping out of the house for the last time. Having quenched her thirst, she performs one of her numerous habits from the old days: watering the plant by her quarters which she had once lovingly sown. Even with death approaching her, the zest for life, the stimulus of organic growth, remained alive in that little-noticed act. And soon after, the inevitable happened. It is the persistence of those lingering strains of hope (speaking for mankind, in general, and Indir Thakrun specifically) in the face of tragedy and death that drives the significance and sadness of the incident home– just about three seconds on celluloid are enough to move the observant viewer. In that, and numerous other observations of the kind throughout, lies the film’s enduring greatness as a human document. So here’s the crucial point – why does this cinematic segment about one person’s death affect us, while a newsreport on the death of thousands not?

Mr. D’Souza, on his part, was a fascinating speaker. He had just the right mix of conviction and humility that gives opinions and arguments weight without overpowering the listener. And he kept his talk punctuated with fitting anecdotes. I’ll recall one or two.

An American reporter (as far as I recall, some lady) assigned the seemingly trivial, but delicate, job of covering a young soldier’s untimely death visited the family on funeral day. She chatted with some of those present and made note. But before leaving, she wrote down one thing to embellish her report. It ended up being the very cornerstone – the boy’s ma had put the lights on in his personal room, now empty. Over the switch there was a strip of duck-tape. The lights would never go out.

Then there was this fellow – whose name has unfortunately slipped my mind – who held a 9-to-5 job in some plush Delhi office. In 1999, he opened the papers one fine day. There was a cyclone in Orissa. In a jiffy, he wrote out a leave application for about a fortnight, headed straight for the station, bought a few essentials on the way, and caught the first train to Orissa. Mr. D’Souza happened to be in the cyclone-hit area during the time too. He met this gentleman from Delhi. The latter had devoted himself to relief-work with an urgency and concern somewhat unusual and unbelievable given his background. On being lightly asked about his inspiration, he simply made a casual reply. “Oh nothing, just wanted to check out how far I can go!” That, in a line, perhaps said something about man’s vulnerability and response to emotional motivation better than anything else.

On second thoughts, I made one slightly erroneous statement at the start. The Tsunami did affect me – the pictures did. Wittingly or unwittingly (depending on the lensman), some of those photos captured little visual details about the victims which connected with me. (Quite instinctively, too.) The words, sadly, did not. In most cases.


P.S.: About the part concerning the death of casual acquaintances: maybe those don’t sadden me much because I seldom identify the human detail underlining the tragedy (what with post-death conversations usually rolling towards the dry details of the last day – “you know, he ate just an hour before he died”). Or maybe, I’m plain hard-hearted after all!

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

A Day in A Life

For most of us, days go by in a steady rhythm, taking pre-planned paths, arriving nowhere, breeding quiet discontent. Often they drag along reluctantly, wishing to be left alone, grappling with themselves in the quagmire of business (much as old Watanabe, from Kurosawa’s Ikiru, did). Some are however redeemed – once in a lucky while - from such doomed ordinariness by imperceptible intrusions of fate. And so it was on a Sunday. Here goes two mails that speak for the occasion.

--


Just to share a few thoughts, LS ! As our car was wending its way back, cruising past Panagarh, I felt a sudden surge to meet Sudipto, who was just 15 kms down the fork: however, as like most of the ideas, popping up and dying away, I kept the idea to myself and promised that, must be, it has to be next time!


Along the Durgapur highway, bathed in the auburn rays of the sun, which isolatedly pierced through the ‘tangled skein’ of the cloud cover, in patches of fluffy white and dusky grey, making frantic efforts to conceal the nude blueness of the sky above, I was caught in a quiet reflective mood! My mind slouched back in a nostalgic reverie, a quaint déjà vu of sorts, as I tried to make merry with these fleeting flakes, coming from no-where, making curious shapes and patterns, in a slow-moving kaleidoscope!


I could figure out the mane of the lion there, slowly giving way to a hare, with its distinct well-protruded longish ears, guising in no time, in a super-slow motion , to the flung tail of a horse, may be, and that too vanishing under the garb of a huge proboscis of the defaced-demon and then, lo and behold! As if, prompted by a rumbling call from an inscrutable corner of a stage set afar, everything suddenly fell into place; the graphical outlines coalesced into a thick, black, swirl of an unmistakable cloud mass, invading the entire turf, with an unfailing vengeance! The various shades of grey, from the innocuous white to the jet black, overlapped seamlessly on the overarching canopy, pencil-marked in reckless doodles, as if nature, after a long wait, has managed to snatch it, from one of its unknown contenders, as its most cherished canvas and was desperate not to part with it!


And then followed the trickling droplets, the steady drips giving way to a gurgle, and soon, with the coyness of the initial overtures effectively mastered, there were the torrents lashing on the windscreen with the fury of a ravaging charioteer! My mind flew on the wings of time to a similar experience I had with my father, more than three decades back, stuck no-where in the midfields! The wipers, on the windscreen and down under, on the mindscreen, were working overtime to keep the vapours in check, knowing fully well that they were already fighting a lost battle! A blinding shroud encapsulated the horizon and the car revved and ranted and settled quietly! The greens, yellows, blues and greys, the nature’s polychromes are now a smudged white, awash in abandon with a child’s free-play brush!


And as if, suddenly realising that they were making just a few cameo appearances at this stage-show and had, somewhat overzealously, strayed beyond their allotted timescales and that they had to honour other pre-fixed assignments elsewhere, the players tried to beat a hasty retreat, leaving the atrium once again for the maverick clouds, the sun, by now getting a shade exhausted and reclining under a purplish haze, setting the stage afire, to complete their finishing chores for the day!


And someone hummed the tunes softly into my ears!

“Megher bag-er bhetor map royechhe kon sudurer pari,

pakdondi poth beye tar bagan ghera bari,

bagan sheshe shodor duwar,

barandate aram chair,

galche pata bichhanate chhotto roder phali,

sethaye eshe megh piyoner somosto bag khali”

--

Dear K-da,

Your LS here also had a little experience of her own while her K-da was musing on the greys, the whites, the blues; making a hearty conversation with the lion, the hare, the horse; tapping his fingers lightly on the steering wheel in rhythm with the pit-patter of the rains. Yes, it could be "haare rere rere aamay chhere dere dere" or "aaji jhoro jhoro mukhoro baadorodine, jaani ne, jaani ne, kichhute keno je mon laage naa" or even the non-borsha "kothao aamar haariye jaaowar nei mana" playing in the background as K-da's Santro (it's a Santro, isn't it?) whooshed past the greens and the laal-maati landscapes of Bolpur...


Well, here, your LS was making her way to her Sunday 11:15 class at Dakshinee along the footpaths of Deshopriyo Park. The bright blue sky, the sunny sun, along with the humidity in the air made it far from anything that you experienced on your way to Shantiniketan on the very same day. On other days, the same footpaths are inhabited by beggars of varied needs, losses, ages and colours. But, on this particular morning, there was only one (not sure, whether there was only one, or if I forgot to notice the others): a small boy of about four to five years old and his baby sister. The boy was sitting on the brick pavement holding a small tin can and the baby slept on a rag on the ground. There was something about them - perhaps the unbearable heat of the day, perhaps the indifference of the other passersby, perhaps the way the baby slept without stirring, as if a dead sleep, perhaps the way the boy looked so helpless - that made me stop and give a lozenge and a rupee to the boy.


I had my class and was heading back to the bus-stop, when I met them again. This time the boy, with the baby girl (now awake) clinging to his waist, was walking around, tugging at the sleeves of the men's shirts and the free ends of the women's sarees, asking for some money/food. When he reached me, he asked for the same. But, perhaps, I'm finally becoming an-adult-like adult, so much so that I said, "Ki re? Toke ektu aagei dilaam na?" ("Didn't I give you a rupee just a while ago?"). He smiled at me and with that, a mischievous look crossed his eyes. I had gone a little way, when I sighed to myself, "Uff, the heat!!". And, then, something happened that made me stop and look back. I turned and went up to the little boy. "Aaye, aamar shonge aaye." ("Come with me.") He once again flashed that mischievous smile and started walking with me. "Khabi kichhu?" ("Want to eat something?") I asked. He nodded his head, still smiling. "Mishti khabi?" ("Sweetmeats?") and again he nodded his head, this time more eagerly. I went up to the sweet shop on the bend of the street where Dakshinee stands and asked for four pieces of a certain kind of rasha-kadam. It cost twelve rupees. But, I had only one ten rupees note that I had saved for the bus-fare back home. So, I gave the vendor a hundred rupees note. But, he said he didn't have a change. I insisted that I wouldn't be able to take the sweets if he didn't have a change. He shrugged and said, "Do as you wish! I can't help, madame." He wouldn't make one sweet less, nor would he give a discount. I turned back and saw the boy waiting for me outside. I frantically rummaged through the pockets of my bag and finally found a five rupees coin and two one rupee coins. I was glad: the bus-fare cost only four rupees. I paid and bought the packet of sweets. I handed it over to the boy and felt a little unsure (quite unnecessarily) if he would be able to feed himself and his sister. "Bon ke khaowate paarbi?" ("Can you feed your sister?") I asked. He nodded and smiled his sweet mischievous smile. He walked a few paces with me and then quietly retreated somewhere I know not, for when I turned back, I couldn't spot him anymore. I lost him in the crowd, in the water-vapours of the day....

Friday, 3 July 2009

Soaked in vinegar

Now that Section 377 has been finally been legally recognised to be trampling upon human dignity (besides violating several of the fundamental rights that the Constitution allows its people), we have gone a step forward toward achieving the true essence of democracy - liberalism. Social inhibitions and taboos are sure to remain for some time, but at least no one now can threaten a person with legal action just because of his/her sexual orientation. The government needs to amend the aforesaid section some time soon. Untouchability was a widespread social practice even some eight decades back and while significant traces of it remain even in today's India, it has become extinct in an overbearing oppressive manner (you jump into the Ganges no more if a sweeper's shadow falls on you!) at least in most parts of the country. Take an opinion poll and at least 80 out 100 persons are likely to dismiss untouchability as a disgusting shame for civil society. I hope that the taboo regarding homosexuality erodes away similarly.

Why is punishing homosexuality objectionable? For the same reason a physically handicapped child should not be held guilty for his condition (though lamentably, he is at times): he/she is born that way! Or has been shaped over the years by countless psychological and emotional undercurrents. Sexual orientation is natural (how really could "carnal intercourse against the laws of nature" be interpreted and turned upon homosexuals?). Moreover, it has no victim - we are talking of consensual intercourse in this matter. What has one got to be offended by? Say, if homosexuality were the "law of nature" and it had a biological result - children - and if it were the norm, would not heterosexuality be a taboo then? And under those circumstances, would it not be wrong to punish anybody for being attracted to the opposite sex?

As for our religious leaders, counter-activists and countless ordinary people worried about the threat posed to our culture and religions, I propose some measures that should work towards that objective in a far more logical and efficient manner:
1.) Stop heckling innocent people about things that are perfectly harmless to others. No burning of V-day cards and embarrassing lovers, no Mangalore-pub routs, no stupid court petitions for scratching off 'Barber' from a film's name either.

2.) Next time you see someone publicly relieving himself/herself, make it a point to politely request him/her to use a toilet. (If the need be, we can have more public toilets constructed and maintained.) On similar lines, no spitting and littering around. Be so kind as to follow these yourself before guiding others.

3.) Preserve heritage sites. If the government is apathetic towards maintenance, go through the bureaucratic and legal grind. If it still fails, go for independently raised public funds. I know it is thankless hard work; but if you are really concerned about culture, that should be the correct course. Many Indian lovers, in the admirable fashion of Shahjahan and Mumtaz, want to engrave their love immortal on stone. They may be politely requested to abstain from such ambitions. I am inclined to believe that a stern but polite request does the trick almost always.

4.) Behave well in public. Few things are as degrading to culture than watch thousands of people arguing openly on the streets about matters trivial and gargantuan. Things can be sorted out in private, preferably in peace. If such an option does not work, bad luck! No amount of shouting in public can solve deadlocks anyway. Also, remember to extend your help to people who need it: old people, children, physically handicapped, clueless foreigners...

5.) Take an active interest in art, read good books, watch good movies and listen to good music; if possible try your hand at writing. (This is subjective but not completely.) Nothing better at reviving culture! No need of banning Karan Johar and his ilk, just stop fattening his wallet by ignoring his latest floss (no need to picket theatres or harass devoted fans, all the same). Go fish out some RV Shantaram or Satyajit Ray. Keep the cultural economy open: allow influx and outflow.

6.) Ban censorship (haha!). One can and must decide what he/she wants to do, read, listen or watch unless it does not cause anyone any harm.

7.) Discourage mob politics. A crowd can get away with what three individuals cannot. It is badly reflective of our culture.

8.) Do away with religious and regional bias. An innocent Muslim should not be clubbed together with the irrational jihadi. Similarly, a Hindu murderer and rapist is as guilty as his Muslim counterpart. Also, Maharashtra is not only for Marathis.

Sounds impossible? Maybe. But criminalizing homosexuals in the name of preserving culture and religion surely is.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Rear Window




Arani da wrote this wonderful review of The Trouble With Harry. I thank him a lot for opening up my eyes to Hitchcock's genius. I had watched his North By Northwest about four or five months back and mumbled to myself "Now, what's really the big deal with Hitchcock, eh?". Must get back to that film one of these days; but since then I have poured over a lot of Hitch... and noticed what I would have missed had it not been for that splendid write-up.

Rear Window is remarkable, first of all, for one simple fact: it is shot exclusively from two camera perspectives; both of a backyard in just about any small-town American neighbourhood. One is the POV of our protagonist, LB Jefferies (James Stewart), the other belongs to the audience. (There is a third, but it is given a screentime of barely ten seconds at the most) Given such a small setting and narrow range of views available, it is a challenging task for the director to construct the story so as to keep the viewer enthralled. So what do we have at hand? A kaleidoscope of contrasting characters. Facing Jeff's rear window, ground-floor left is an old spinster who likes sculpting and giving free advice to others; on the apartment over hers stays "Miss Torso", the ballerina. This pretty young thing is always twiddling around doing her chores, or entertaining affluent gentlemen. As a direct contrast to this, there's "Miss Lonelyhearts" on the righthand ground-floor apartment. She has, from the look of it, just stepped into middle age and every other night after meticulously dressing herself she lays out the best China and pours out the best wine. Then opening the door, she welcomes an unseen lover, invites him into the dining area, coyly accepts a warm kiss before breaking down into sobs. Her unhappy solitude is in direct contrast to Miss Torso's bustling room. Over Miss Lonelyhearts stays the quarrelsome couple - the husband a salesman, the wife a bickering invalid. Just the apartment overhead stays the peaceful man and wife. They possibly have no children and always sleep out in the balcony except when it's raining. In a studio apartment to Jeff's right, the musician practises all day long, his landlady the only encouragement. To Jeff's left, a newlywed couple have moved in. This canvas of different and complementing colours establish the perfect long shot. The need of the close-up is also established when the camera zooms in to any one of these several windows: a minute detail crucial to understanding the concerned person(s) replaces the bewildering melange in the long shot.

Jeff is a cameraman who has a broken leg cocooned in a cast due to a nasty accident on a motor-race track. Since he has little to do other than be cooped up in a wheelchair, he stares out of his window. His casual and nonchalant interest in the proceedings of these various characters parallels the narrow concern of the artist for his model. A painter sketching the imposing facade of some monument may not be quite interested in its history. Yet as he scans the salesman's or Miss Lonelyheart's apartment through his long-focus camera, his interest deepens. Quite imperceptibly, he starts getting involved. He is no more noticing just how they act, also why. The camera is Jeff's conduit to the privacy of his subjects much as it is to Jeff and his rear-window world for the audience. The audience's growing involvement is also mirrored in him. The broken leg does not allow him to get directly entangled even when he wants to, so he has to take the aid of his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), pal Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey) and nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter). This is when he has to overcome the artistic limitations of being neutral witness to events. Ironically, the broken leg is why he gets interested in his neighbours in the first place! Had he been fit to move around freely, he'd already be on assignment in Kashmir!

Hitchcock of course asks the mandatory questions he is wont to. The ethics of voyeurism are challenged: after all, had Jeff not snooped in, would not the salesman walk away with a clean sheet? Something traditionally regarded as unethical - voyeurism - ironically delivers justice to a murder victim! Doyle initially dismisses Jeff's inference about the murder as backward (at the moment, we all agree that his verdict is in the right place given the lack of legal evidence) and lightly ridicules Lisa's feminine intuition, though both the points are ultimately proved correct. His argument is the banality of Jeff's observations and the slim probability of his conclusion being true. The director, through his film, reminds us that slim probabilities can click even in our lives; that things we imagine as commonplace can conceal what exceeds our perception of the normal. Hasn't everyone reassured himself at some point that death and disaster can strike all but him? Something so apparently commonplace as marital friction leads to murder in a neighbourhood that could easily be ours - so really how normal is normal? Intuition, a much misjudged instinct, is also dealt with - Stella's knack of predicting with astonishing precision is verified even in the murder case. Her predictions are derived from what one calls common-sense, which in turn is intuitive in nature. And yet, how many times have we rejected an intuitive thought in favour of "better judgement"?

The reclusive couple who sleep in their balcony own a pup. When it dies mysteriously, the enraged woman laments the lack of any warmth and compassion in her neighbourhood. It's a small town where one would expect old-world wisdom like "love thy neighbour" to be the byword. Ironically the place reeks of the very lack of it. Piqued by the woman's furore, the neighbours peek out of their windows, yet very few are really troubled by the dog's death. It's a dog who's died after all, not a man! Jeff and Lisa are among the very few who are really bothered, and they are voyeurs! Rear window ethics are questioned again.

When Doyle's investigation reveals facts that apparently indicate Mr. Thorwald's (the salesman) innocence, Jeff and Lisa are visibly disappointed. Lisa suddenly notes the irony in their behaviour - after all, that Mrs. Thorwald, the supposed murder victim, is alive should make one happy (again, what really is being normal?). Hitchcock hints how man is instinctively interested in mystery and morbidity (as if the lack of it somehow takes away some colour from life) even though he may seem and proclaim otherwise. Isn't that why thrillers - including the ones Hitchcock made - sell so well? Isn't that why people pay to visit horror-houses? Isn't that also why Jeff gets interested in the oddities at Thorwald's place?

The only other person who appears as a notable counterpoint (working as something more than an element of contrast) to the three main characters - Jeff, Lisa, Stella - is the pianist. The three see and act, he weaves their experience in music. He practises diligently from the start, working his notes well till his magnificent compostion has been polished to perfection. When he is still having trouble with the keys, Jeff and Lisa's relationship is seemingly in rough waters: they are on good talking terms but a little cold. Jeff is apprehensive if she can fit in with his adventurous lifestyle. His worries are taken care of when she daringly sneaks into the Thorwald house without prior warning. The tension regarding her safety does wonders for their bond: gone is the barrier that separated the two. The pianist meanwhile learns to master his songs, and works it out with a full ensemble. The musician represents the film-maker. The director has to create his own vision of a masterpiece all by himself, work little details slowly, smoothe out hurdles and then execute it with his crew. It is with his film's flow that the complications in the protagonist's lives are sorted out. At the end of the movie, the pianist reveals to his landlady - a constant source of enthusiasm - that his album is out after all the effort. As his completed record plays out in the background, we see that Jeff and Lisa are reconciled and living together. The album parallels the completion of the director's movie. Both the artists await the response to their art. (A little snippet that supports this inference: Hitchcock's cameo has him standing by the fireplace in the musician's studio apartment.)