Sunday, June 17, 2012

Thodi Si Toh Lift Karade

What are those ubiquitous symbols of corporate life that, irrespective of where one works, are always  there to remind the person that he or she is in the dreary world of business? Pin striped whites? Noisy coffee machines? The irritating hum of the perpetual air conditioner? Complicated Xerox machines that one can't figure out? Well, there are several more. The one however, which is the quintessential symbol of corporate calisthenics, surely is the lift or like the Americans like to call it, the elevator!

Every day millions, if not billions people, go up and down, in and out of lifts, in search of fulfilling careers and grandiose dreams. No one has the time or the patience to smoothly make this journey though. So what better a place than a 5*6 metal container to see the faces behind those corporate masks?

The Seven Sisters: You walk into Indian jungle the first thing that you notice is the Jungle Babbler. Its a cute little grey bird chirping away with the beautiful morning. The only issue with this picture, is that its accompanied with six others such similar birds. And together the seven sisters, they make such a noisy racket, you wish your ears went deaf. Just like you wish you didn't run into the 'gang' in your office. They are usually from the same team or same floor, come in like a tsunami, flood the lift with high pitched nonsense and laughter and move out before you can recover. Its like you were crossing a road and were hit by a cement truck.

The Blackberry Boys: A dog is a man's best friend, until he enters an elevator! The moment they step into the crowded lift, like a well crafted ballet move, their hands glide into their inaccessible pockets and out comes the trusted buddy a.k.a the mobile. Are they really that hooked to their work, are they social outcasts who can't manage eye contact, do they have moments of Eureka when they handle the phone in a climbing elevator? Well one will never know!

The Spaceship Pilots: How many times have we seen the scenes in movies where an alien spaceship lands on earth to kidnap unassuming earthlings for 'research'. The ship's dashboard obviously, filled with a gazillion buttons and flashing lights is like Dennis The Menace's heaven. A special section of individuals in offices, mistake the elevators for these spaceships, where they feel the insatiable urge to push any and all buttons possible. Push the 'Summon the lift' button even when its been pressed before hand, push the 'Going Down' arrow when really they want to go up, fiddle with the fan switch. The list is endless. Life would be so empty for them when machines will start getting voice activated.

The Alpha Male: Ever been in a lift in a Government office or a very old building in say, South Bombay. Every lift has an operator, like every scent marked territory in a forest, has a dominant male tiger. He owns the lift, every square inch of it. It might be the largest dimension of space he owns in Mumbai anyway. He determines how many can come in, who should stand where, who gets to sit on his stool and most importantly who owns the dashboard. Just try to press one of the buttons yourself and be prepared to face the brutal frontal attack of the alpha male of the territory.

The Sopranos: These guys, I just hate. You can find them everywhere, not just in lifts. The guy standing next to you in the local train, the one waiting behind you to board the flight or sitting in the front of your row in a movie theater. They just think that if they speak loudly enough on their phones, the voice will actually reach the person at the other end of the phone. And when this happens in a claustrophobic small lift, you really feel like pushing them between the doors when they are just about to shut close. Unfortunately, you can't and hence have no option to listen why Bunty had a terrible stomach ache last night, how Luvleen is sensing a growing distance in her relationship and which of Ramesh's team mates is a backstabbing bastard.

The Pawan Putras: You take a walk in a sultry city like Mumbai and the sweat runs down the back of your shirt, clearly detailing the outline of your backs. Then you walk into the elevator and so badly wish for that refreshing draft of air from the fan to blow over your face. But alas! There is an evil cartel which is conspiring against you and your wish for a cool breeze. First the lift manufacturers ensure that they install such an useless piece of junk for a fan, that it only blows air bang in the middle of the lift. And where 'X marks the spot' there is already a large, burly guy squatting like its  his ancestral property. They hog the place right below the fan, to ensure that the frustrated dripping souls around him that they walked from a humid scorching afternoon into an airless 6*6 metal container.

The Sheldon Coopers: Dr.Coopers has an IQ of 187 and truly believes that the only function his body should be subject to are breathing and pumping blood to his brains. Otherwise, it is a cardinal waste for his body to move around putting itself in grave risk of injury or even death. The lesser the physical activity, the better. True believers of his philosophy are found in every organization. Forget going up the building, forget even reaching the lower floors, they need a lift to go down from the 3rd floor to the 2nd! And they have absolutely no expression of guilt what so ever on their face, when they waste everyone's time getting in and out, just to go down a single floor! The amount of time they needed to call for, wait, get in and out of a lift would be enough and more to climb down and up the stairs three times. But hey! an IQ of 187 or -187 is not what everyone can boast about!

The Dhak Dhak Girls: Who doesn't like pretty girls, especially smartly dressed pretty girls with tight shirts and short skirts. When they walk past you in the corridor or the cafeteria, you have ample time and space to take a mandatory quick glance or a scan, if I may say it. But when you have a lift full of men and a hot girl, it almost leads to comedy of epic proportions. Everyone in the lift is stepping on each others toes, elbowing the neighbors, straining their necks and trying to steal a look, but of course in a non obvious manner. The girl knows of course, that she is the cynosure of attention, but prefers to stare at the floor indicator as though her life depends on it. And when she walks out and the doors close behind her, you can almost hear a collective sign from the men within, as though a heroine has walked off the stage and the curtains are drawn after a mind blowing performance. 

The Jacks-in-the-box: When you open the box, out pops Jack. Everyone knows that. But our corporate Jacks are the exact opposite. The pop up, just when the doors are about to close. You don't see them waiting to get into the lift, you don't even see them rushing towards the closing doors, but some how, miraculously, they manage to stop push the button, 1/1000th of a second before the door closes, put on a sheepish grin and get into the over loaded lift. And as they are standing at the mouth of the lift, they need to step in and out at every floor, for people at their respective floors. There is an uncanny resemblance to the idiots who stand at the doors of the Mumbai locals, but hey! who is complaining!

There are lots of more smaller nuances that I can talk about here, but this much is enough for today's crib session. If there are any significant 'personality type' I have missed out, do leave a comment to remind me!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Paath Shaala 2.0

People born at the start and end of the last century were lucky if you ask me. Back then in the 10's and 20's people got to experience the industrial revolution, which brought in brilliant innovations like the airplane, cars, machine guns and the like. The ones born in the 80's (like me) and 90's were also at the right place at the right time. The world which was moving at it own leisurely pace suddenly ODed on revolutions. At least in we have been privy to a lot of transformations. From rickety old Maruti 800s to the BMWs, from DD to HD channels, from waiting years to receive a telephone connection to free SIM cards of today, from post cards to Twitter updates we have seen the world change drastically. There have been no exceptions in any of the sectors: Banking, Travel, Communication, Telecom, Auto, Technology, Retail, Utilities, Entertainment, Sports: you name it, you've got it! How can education be left behind among all these.

Education has become the backbone of the burgeoning Indian middle class. Take my immediate family for example - Out of the eight people ( four from my family and four from my wife's), there are three B.E+M.B.As, one M.A+Ph.D, one C.A+C.F.A, one M.Com+M.B.A, one B.E and hopefully one B.E+M.S. Long gone are the days where an under-grad degree would be the pinnacle of education, guaranteeing a Government job and cozy life. Large Multi-National companies coming to India to recruit, expect students and professionals to be top class with cutting edge skill sets. At the other end of the pyramid, 80% of the Indian schools are run by the Government, where the larger bulk of young Indians are trying to carve their future. Both these sections of society, offer a latent pool of education hungry Indians, ready to gobble up any and all knowledge that comes their way.

Obviously, with this change in the demands of eduction, the tools of imparting the knowledge are also changing. The internet has revolutionized learning and taken it to a whole new level of wow! Wikis have killed Encyclopedias, blogs have overtaken magazines,  the Kindle has revolutionized reading, YouTube and company are making knowledge sharing extremely simple. The magic of internet, has clearly made two significant changes to the way knowledge was being shared before. Firstly, it has taken the world from a strictly hierarchical and all-encompassing teacher-student mold to a more flat setting where learning can be from anyone who is a subject matter expert. A student today, for example, may learn about the nuances of cricket from Harsha Bhogle's tweets, understand how an Internal Combustion Engine works from an animation video on Vimeo, learn how to write a robust Linked List in his program from his junior's blog. What this has ensured is that instead of the the one-size-fits-all approach, the best-of-breed methodology is raising the bar for learning and more importantly anyone can impart or share knowledge. The second change is that knowledge sharing today is no longer elitist. You don't have to go to Harvard to learn the best principle of Management, Kota to have the best IIT preparation or Doon school to get the best primary education. Quality learning is accessible to everyone via the egalitarian internet. It makes way for a level playing field where the best person will win. 

The internet is being embraced by everyone in their own right. Long standing educational institutions are using it to reach out to a wider audience through long distance learning programs. Younger institutes are trying to use the net and social media to build their brand and reach the right people. There are now, several start-ups which are using the web to deliver specific and quality learning for targeted audiences. Some are targeting competitive exam preparations or professional skill development, some building solutions for a more holistic learning, some are using it take education to the bottom of the pyramid, others are taking the age old tuition classes to a new level or bringing in experts to teach specific advanced topics of interest. Many companies are also using the net to build pockets of excellence in their own organizations and encourage peer learning.

I recently met one of my good friends and ex-colleague, after a long time. Over a year ago, Sanjay Bhadra, an IIM-B alumnus, left the comforts of a cushy corporate job to set up an ambitious start-up. His new venture, Spanedea, is an internet marketplace for teacher-led online learning and tutoring. With an impressive list of Indian and foreign teachers, Spanedea is catering to both students and professionals, in varied areas like competitive tests, learning music, specific programming sessions, professional skillsets etc. What this setup offers is the flexibility for learners to opt for end to end courses or just pick specific topics where they would like to delve deeper. It also gives a teacher, a larger platform to reach out to large set of knowledge seekers spread across the world. Spanedea, placed in between the two, is doing a brilliant job to bringing the right people from both sides and setting up a robust, intuitive platform to facilitate learning. Sanjay and his team, have aggressive plans of including wider courses and reaching out to newer target segments. Not long, before we will get to see India's Flipkart in the education space I am sure!

I recall a scene from 'The Matrix' (yes, referring only to the first one, the sequels were trash). Tank plugs in the device straight into Neo's plug at the back of his head and twelve hours later, Neo wakes up and says " I know Kung Fu!". Till the time we get such plugs, I am sure endeavors like Spanedea, will do just good.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Screw the rules, We are Indians!

Case 1: I drive everyday over the Eastern Express Highway in Mumbai. There is a flyover along the route near Sion. The mouth of the flyover is very small, tucked away to the right corner of the large expressway. Anyone wanting to travel towards South Bombay will need to take this. Cars wanting to take the flyover are expected to stay to the right most lane. There are cops stationed at the mouth of the flyover, to ensure that drivers maintain a single file and people don't jump the line or cut it from the left. Now people in the single lane, find it hard to digest the fast that motorists heading below the flyover, are zipping past them on the left side on the wide expressway. Its almost criminal! And thus starts the story of queue cutting, where vehicles move close to the mouth of the flyover, from the left and then butt in, cutting the cars waiting in queue. Now this is manageable if the cop is in place and if he is not, God save Mumbai. The traffic gets totally choked up, all the way back to Suman Nagar junction, close to a kilometer behind. And it doesn't matter which vehicle is breaking the line. From BMWs and Audis to rickety old cabs, every one is a culprit. 

Case 2: The air hostess first announces, then she requests, then she pleads and finally she yells. Only then the people standing in the aisle, get back to their seats. Then she again explains that it not safe to stand in the aisle of a plane taxiing in the runway. Its not safe to open the latch of the luggage compartment. But who cares. The moment the plane lands on the runway, you can simultaneously hear all the seat belts click, like a machine gun gone mad. The air hostess covers her face with her hands in exasperation. 

Case 3: The speaker in the event,before starting off, requests all participants to first put their mobiles on silent mode and then specifically, not to pick calls in the middle of the session. Please give respect to others sitting in the hall, if not me, he graciously point out. Three minutes more are all that are needed. 'Har taraf tera jalwa' starts blurting out from some one's pocket. He doesn't even cut it quickly for courtesy sake. The speaker waits for the idiot to cut the call, while giving him a dirty look. The second time the speaker is not so lucky. The lady who gets the call starts talking loudly about how to reach the venue to one of her colleagues. Sorry! Respecting others time and presence, is not in our ' Bharatiya Sabhyata'.

Case 4: Everyone wants to see the Taj Mahal. Some dream of seeing it all their lives, some see it only in pictures and movies, some are fortunate enough to see it in person. To enter the premise though, one has to stand in a long queue and go through a rigorous security check. Once you buy tickets, a horde of middlemen approach you openly. 'Sir, lamba line mai khada rehna padega. Teen Sau dedo, peeche se entry kara denge.' The fat kid standing next to me with a bag of chips in his hand, yanks his father's hand and says, 'Lelo no Papa. Dhoop mai khada nahi honeka!'. Its the middle of fricking December in Agra and the father relents to his son's 'dhoop' story. Cutting lines is a business in our country. I don't even want to speculate this at the Tirupatis, Shirdis and the Vaishno Devis of the world.

Case 5: My parents went on a long trip to Europe. They were driven though six to seven countries in a luxury bus, which made the journey very easy and comfortable. The memory they carried back though, was not so positive. Everyone was clearly informed at the time of buying the deal and the start of the journey, that tips would have to be pooled and given to the driver, as a rule. That is the culture in that place. There were some families which shopped like crazy at every location for thousands of Euros, but at the end of the day just refused to comply to paying the tip. Reasons included, "We haven't budgeted that into our expenses, No one told us we have to pay the tip and finally we have no more money!". All this, while carrying large shopping bags!!

Case 6: We are nature lovers and have made several trips to National Parks in India. And when I was of slightly lesser volume, in the not so recent past, I used to go on lots of treks. Just get out of the cities and there are umpteen number of places where one can lose himself in the lap of nature. That is only if you don't get irritated by all the debris left behind by insouciant travelers. Mesmerizing horizons, dotted with non degradable plastic covers, is not exactly, what you can call a photographers utopia. On our recent trip to a National Park, we were joined by a large family of holidaying people. Of course, requests to maintain silence so as not to disturb the wild life and by that our chances to spot it, were brushed off with louder peels of laughter. And what better way of telling that world that 'I was here' than dropping large empty packets of bright orange Lays chips over patches of pristine green grass. The rate at which tigers are disappearing in our wild, these might well be the only orange things left in the jungle anyway.

I can go on and on. Every time one such incident occurs, I am forced to ask myself "How! or Why are we so hell bent on not following rules?". Are we such a superior breed of people that we find it insulting to be directed? Are we people with absolutely no pride about our country? Or are we the most lawless country in the world, where no one needs to be afraid of the consequences of one's actions. We keep blowing our own trumpets about the great Indian culture aka 'Sabhyata'! Is this the culture we should be proud of? Are touching the feet of elders and equating teachers and parents to God, candidates enough to brand ourselves holy. If we at our levels of existence, so brazenly break rules and have a 'Don't give a shit' attitude, why do we get livid when politicians play their dirty games on a bigger canvas. Somehow, Suresh Kalmadi is a bigger villain than us for breaking the rules. It is so easy for us to sit on ivory towers, blame it on the corrupt babus and throw garbage into the neighbor's yard.

I try to figure out the reasons (RCA in the corporate parlance) for such audacious behavior. Agreed, that we are in a country of over a billion and half people. Resources are always limited and there is gross mismatch between supply and demand, be it food, water, IIT admissions, movie tickets, place in the Ranji teams etc. We have always been taught that if we don't fight for things and beat your neighbors to it, at what ever the cost, we can't reach Eldorado.  But somewhere the combination of this 'Kuch bhi karke' and 'chalta hai yaar' attitudes has painted us as the worst citizens in the world. We are no longer cocooned in our own little corner. We live in a globally integrated, highly aware and unforgiving world with zetabytes of memory. Ask anyone from outside and you will get a very quick and dirty reaction to the Indian 'Way of Life'. And every time this happens, my pride and respect for this great country, its people and culture, goes down that much more exponentially.

I got a SMS forward the other day. A beggar found a Rs 100 note, picked it up and went to a 5 star hotel. He ate for Rs 5000 worth of food and then declared he didn't have any money. The hotel was livid and sent him to the cops. The beggar bribed the cop Rs 100 and walked home free.

At first I thought it was damn funny, but in hind sight realized that the joke is on us!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Of Forts, Forests and Ferocious Felines: Ranthambhore

Being a faceless part of the concrete jungle called Mumbai, my wife and I yearn to travel out all the time. Over three years now, we have become Big Cat enthusiasts, traveling to different parts of the country in search of the elusive striped cat of India, the tiger!

Ranthambhore: The only place to find tigers lazing on a King's Courtyard

My love for tigers started when I happened to visit the Jim Corbett National Park 5 years ago. Traveling though the dense foliage of Uttrakhand's jungles, I was enchanted by the sights, sounds and stories of India's national animal. I read and re-read the enchanting stories of Jim Corbett in his numerous books and was transported to the lands and times of tiger abundance. Since then, I have been to Jim Corbett park again, Pench National Park, Kanha and now Ranthambhore.

One such recent trip took us to the epicenter of tiger renaissance in India: Ranthambhore. Wedged between the Aravalli hills and the Vindhya range, it is a rare stretch of plenty in the middle of a barren Rajasthan. Vast stretches of scrubby foliage are dotted frequently by beautiful lily filled lakes. Ranthambhore (Sawai Madhopur) used to be the capital city of several Rajput dynasties and the majestic fort in the middle of the national park stands testimony to those romantic periods. Today, nature and history have mingled to result in one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places to spot tigers in the world.

Ranthambhore Fort: Ranked 2nd most difficult fort to capture after Chittor

Ranathambhore comes from the combination of the words, 'Rann' (battlefield), Stambh (pillar) and Bhanwar (gorge). The fort is built on a single piece of a pillar like mountain and is separated from the battle filed by a deep gorge. This princely hunting ground was the first area to have been earmarked as a Tiger reserve by Indira Gandhi at the start of the highly successful Project Tiger in the early 70s. Under the aegis of the supremely capable Fateh Singh Rathore, the then park ranger, Ranthambhore transformed into the poster boy of tiger conservation and renaissance in India. The first thing that Fateh Singh did was to relocate the villages that were in the middle of the park. Sans any human intervention, the tigers of Sawai Madhopur started venturing out more into the open and returning to their natural glory. The reserve is dotted with large lotus filled lakes which add a charm of their own to the dry landscapes around. Tigers hunting prey in water, was filmed for the first time ever, in these lakes of Ranthambhore.

 T16, the female Tigress who owns the lake territory now

Our main quest of going there was to spot Machali. No not the aquatic one, but the most famous tigress of Ranthambhore who had ruled the lake area for over an astonishing 10 years. Fateh Singh gave her the name as the markings on top of her eyes resembles a fish. Tonnes of documentaries have been made by Nat Geo, Animal Planet and Discovery on the grace and power of this acclaimed tigress. Her life and exploits have been followed and well documented by renowned Tiger activist Valmik Thapar. Her fights with the 12 ft crocodiles to protect her cubs have become legendary and the reason she lost 3 out of 4 canines. A ‘lifetime achievement award’ has been bestowed upon her by Travel Operators for Tigers, a UK-based travel industry lobby that estimates that she alone has added $10 million over the past decade to Ranthambore’s local economy because of the popular draw she is. But the course of nature is just and inevitable. The brave tigress who fought larger intruding males and marauding crocs was eventually booted out of her prime lake territory by her own daughter and relegated to a bald patch of land close by. Tigers which usually live for 14 to 15 years, have a miracle in Machli who is still roaming the jungles at 17. It is another thing that forest guards now regularly tie up prey for her to keep her going, but who is complaining.

Machli's famous croc fight

India has the largest population of wild tigers in the world, around 1500. Apart from the Royal Bengal Tiger found in India, the larger Siberian Tigers are found in the colder areas of Russia and the much smaller Sumatran Tigers in Indonesia. Tigers are solitary like most big cats. They stay in dense or semi dense jungle habitats covering large territories. Females usually have smaller territories around water bodies, while a male tiger's territory can span across two to three female territories. The male and female come together only for mating and bringing up the litter is entirely the responsibility of the female. Cubs usually stay with the mothers till they are two years old and then move away to claim their own territories, with females settling close to their mothers and males traveling large distances to find their own place. Ranthambore came in the news again recently for the most unusual story of a male tiger adopting two orphaned cubs, which has been documented for the first time ever in the wild. ( Tigers are one of the big cats which love the water and spend the hotter times of the day in the cool of small lakes and streams. The tiger's favorite prey, the large Sambar deer, loves to feed on the algae and lilies that grow in the lake and often find themselves unsafe even in the middle of the water bodies. They are at the top of the food chain in almost all habitats and prefer hunting Wild boars or any of the deer/antelope families like Spotted deer (chital), Sambar, NeelGai, Barasingha etc. They could only be disturbed by the occasional elephant herds or large wild dog (Dhols) packs. They can get into occasional conflicts with the Indian Sloth bears and one such incident was captured by the famous photographer Aditya 'Dicky' Singh at Ranthamore last year, where a female bear carrying cubs, warded off, not one but two fully grown tigers. (

 Machli fighting a big male to save her kill

My mother, Dr. P.S. Geetha is Professor of Kannada and has several books to her credit. She had the opportunity to work with one India's earlier wildlife photographers, M.Y Ghorpade. Mr. Ghorpade belonged to the royal family of Sandur in Karnataka and was the Finance Minister of Karnataka. My mother, with her friend, translated two of his books on wildlife photography to Kannada, Winged Friends (ರೆಕ್ಕೆಯ ಮಿತ್ರರು) and Sunlight & Shadows ( ನೆರಳು ಬೆಳಕು). It was a great honor when her books were released by award winning wild life documentary makers, Kripakar and Senani, who won critical acclaim for following a pack of wild dogs for 14 years in Bandipur and made a path breaking documentary for Nat Geo. I was not really very keen on observing birds till this trip, but started appreciating them, after my mother started giving more information about them. We had the good fortune of sighting very rare and beautiful birds like the Paradise FlyCatcher and the Red Necked Vulture. Next trip onwards, I will be armed with a good pair of binoculars to ensure I don't miss out on all the flying beauties.

We had the good fortune of spotting tigers twice at Ranthambore, once very well and the other fleetingly. We were lucky. Coming generations might not be. Tigers may end up only in photography books or posters of Goddesses. We all know the heart breaking stories of Panna and Sariska reserves, where the Government refused to believe that no tigers there. They not only rubbished the reports but also went on to make tall claims about flourishing tiger populations based on archaic methods of tiger counting like pug mark tracking. This government apathy combined with the rampant poaching to cater to the massive black market for tiger parts in Chinese medicine, doesn't bode well to the remaining few wild tigers in India. The ever expanding population of the country is always fighting to claim the last stretches of forest cover. Its left to few champions like Valmik Thapar, the media and the concerned citizens of the country to find a middle path between the human tiger conflict. The world successfully managed to save elephants from extinction in the mid 80s, by putting an international ban on ivory trade. Its time to save the tigers this time.Otherwise, it might be just too late!

Before it is too late

P.S: None of the above photos are mine. I wish they were! But not everyone is as fortunate and talented to take such pictures. :) To see what we managed to capture, see my Facebook album!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Review: Kahaani

"The greatest trick that the devil ever played, was to convince the world that he did not exist and then poof! just like that he was gone!" As the stupid cripple, Verbal Kint walked out of the police station, agent Kujan sits on his desk sipping coffee, when suddenly it dawns upon him and the whole charade falls into place. The concocted story, the random subjects and the bloody brilliance of the whole thing. The Usual Suspects, to me, is the pinnacle of thriller stories.

What Sujoy Ghosh's Kahaani is, a remarkable effort of a new age director who doesn't fear making a strong story the hero. Its hard to believe that the director who made the Ritesh Deshmukh starring 'Alladin' could dish out something like this. After Ishqia, Delly Belly, LSD and PST, this is another feather in the cap of a reinvented Bollywood.

Kahaani, begins with a heavily pregnant Vidya Bagchi (Balan), landing in Kolkatta, armed with only a Evian water bottle and steely resolve to find her missing husband, Arnab Bagchi. Arnab, a Firewall expert, like his wife, had landed in National Data Center for a two week assignment and suddenly disappeared without a trace. The strange part is that there is no record of any Arnab arriving, staying or working in Kolkata. Is he for real or just a reality in Mrs.Bagchi's head?

A visit to the Kalighat police station to file a missing person's complaint, introduces us Asst. Sub Inspector Shotyoki Sinha aka Rana (played by a superb Parambrata Chaterjee). From here on he becomes her real shotyoki (Arjun's sarathi), walking side by side, unraveling the twists and turns of the story. Vidya or Bidda, as everyone in Kolkatta calls her, hits a blank at every connection of her husbands'. The seedy hotel where he was staying says he never arrived there, NDC claims there was no such assignment, the school where he studied says no Arnab Bagchi was a student there. The HR manager at NDC Agnes, however feels that her husband's face resembles an ex-employee Milan Damji, who worked there two years ago. This line of investigation sets the cat among the pigeons, with even the Intelligence Bureau (IB) jumping into the fray. A shady LIC agent doubling up as a contact killer, Bob Biswas (Saswata Chaterjee) is assigned to bump off the geriatric Agnes for ruffling leaves. The story moves on at a fast pace and with each new plot unfolding, it becomes clear that Arnab's disappearing act is strongly connected Milan Damji, who is the prime suspect of the Kolkata Metro massacre that killed over hundred civilians, over two years ago. That is the reason, IB agent Khan (Nawabbudin Siddique), hot on the heels of the Damji, is hell bent of keeping Mrs. Bagchi away from the investigation, lest she upset the applecart. But with the help of a mole within the bureau, Damji is always a step ahead of the law. The plot takes us though the backdrop of the attack with the leads trying to piece together the bits of Damji's life in order to reach him and hence Arnab. The climax set during the tumultuous time of Durga Pujo, is the perfect finale to a tightly woven story with an unbelievable ending. (I wont spoil your fun, by elaborating it. Go catch the movie for yourself). 

The first thing that really hits you in the movie is the detail to character. Rarely has Bollywood, shown stories of platonic love: no cheesiness, no melodrama, no lust. For Rana, she is talented, relentless, beautiful and so brave. At times he is in awe of her, at times protective and most times just glad to help her out. Bob Biswas, the unassuming hitman, who greets people before shooting them is creepy and loveable at the sametime. Bishnu aka 'Running Hot Water', the affable helping hand in the hotel, who takes his little transistor everywhere he goes, Chaterjee, the portly inspector who hates the beeping computer, Khan the angry young man from IB,  everyone has space and meaning in the story. But the strongest character is Kolkata itself. It lives, breathes and grows upon you, especially during the Pujo times. The vibrant colors, the suffocating traffic, the endless din, the yellow cabs and the piping chai, the processions all make you love and hate the place at the same time. 

The cinematography is really slick and no praises are enough for  Sethu for having captured the heart of the city and the depth of the characters though the lens. Even sharper is the editing of Namrata Rao, who is raking in medals after movies like LSD, Oye Lucky and BBB. The screenplay and story by Sujoy Ghosh is pacy and almost water tight. Music by Vishal-Shekar is complementary especially the opening number "Ami Shotti Bolchi" by Usha Uttup is well sung, well arranged and superbly shot.  The casting is brilliant and every actor does justice to the well crafted roles. Unheard of till now, Bengali actor Parambrata Chatterjee, as the cop willing to go any distance to help the lady in distress is a revelation. The scenes where his sense of protection overpowers him and he calls her Vidya and not Mrs.Bagchi, his daily calls to his mother while returning home from work are all very endearing. The director also ekes out strong performances from the remaining cast, especially Nawbuddin Siddique as Khan and Saswata Chaterjee as Bob Biswas. But at the end of the day, it is all about Vidya Balan. There are few heroines today who can shoulder a movie on their own and Vidya proves again that why she is setting the pedestal so high. She is alternatively vulnerable and brave, driven only by the dogged determination to find her husband. Her ability to portray the complexities within the character and her metamorphosis from a helpless pregnant woman to Ma Durga is captivating. She is without a doubt, the new Khan of Bollywood.

The movie ultimately, is the director's baby. Never-heard-of-before director, Sujoy Ghosh manages to do what every movie should do well - tell a good story well. The direction is taut and never loses steam. There are several intentional and unintentional references and tributes to other movies and directors. Being a big fan of Satyajit Ray, Ghosh has a lot of scenes which celebrate Ray, like the camera staying within the car, scenes inspired by Aranyer Dinratri, shots of the metropolis similar to Ray's masterpiece 'Mahanagar' or the lonely wife opening the windows to watch the world in Charulatha. The climax also unintentionally pays tribute to other classics like the chaotic Pujo ending, similar to the Ganapati Visarjan in Agneepath and the lal-paad sari clad Balan lost in the crowd, similar to the fantastic Bowler Hat climax in Peirce Brosnan's 'The Thomas Crown Affair'.

Its a brave new breed of Bollywood today, where the trailers live up to the expectations. I'm loving it!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Review: Paan Singh Tomar

It was ironic. Really! I watched Paan Singh Tomar, the day one of India's greatest cricketers announced his retirement. Newspapers, TV Channels, FM radio, Social Networks were all buzzing with glorious tributes to the 'Wall'. The theater, was well, never mind!

Paan Singh Tomar, is a story of  a simpleton who wears multiple hats as a farmer, soldier, sportsman, father and more infamously, as a Baaghi! Hailing from a small village from Morena, MP, Paan Singh (player by Irfan)  joins the Rajputana Rifles because be believes "Is desh mai, Army ke alawa sab chor haigo". His potential to effortlessly run long distances is immediately noted by Major Masand when Paan is asked to run twenty rounds for reporting to duty a day late. The voracious young man soon learns in the army mess, that joining sports in the army gives the license of unlimited food, a luxury not all sepoys can enjoy. As the proof of the pudding, he manages to deliver a bar of ice cream within four minutes to Major Masand's house before it can melt. No sooner, he is drafted into the athletics team.

A reed thin Paan,  shows his class by beating the entire set of trained athletes on the first day. Constrained by nepotism, his coach (played by an endearing Rajendra Singh) convinces Paan that he is better suited for running Steeple Chase than the 5000m. Thus begins the story of  Paan the athlete, who keeps breaking records to win medals at state, national and even International meets. Tomar breaks the national steeplechase record in the 1958 National Games in Cuttack with a timing of nine minutes and 12.4 seconds and his own record in the 1964 Open Meet in Delhi with a timing of nine minutes and four seconds. Running gives him opportunity, friendships, identity, fame and yes, unlimited food. 

Things, however are not so rosy back home.  His idyllic family life is thrown out of gear by a bunch of greedy relatives who are hell bent of snatching his land. A rational and fair armyman, stands no chance against the atrocities of gun totting relatives, who make life a living hell for his family. Paan tries using his army background to reach out to officials and the panchayat for help, but they all lead to dead ends. The last straw comes as his son's brutal assault which leaves the young man half dead. But, half dead is not dead, according to the local police, who insult a enraged Paan Singh when he reach out for help. His trinket collection of photos, trophies and articles mean nothing more than scrap to the insouciant inspector. "Desh ka naam uncha kiya hai maine. Kyon bhaaga main itna?" screams out an angry Paan. "To medal mila na uske liye!".

Paan is now left with no other option to pick up the gun. And once you pull the trigger, there is no stopping is there? His life now turns into a unrelenting series of cat and mouse with dodging bullets, kidnappings and death. His band and fame soon spread across the borders of three states. The dusty ravines of Chambal become home, the gang, family and the rifle, the ticket to lawlessness and power. But every meteoric rise is followed by an inevitable gory end and downfall. Its just that Paan Singh takes it with the utmost dignity and panache.

The movie is the brainchild of director Tigmanshu Dhulia, who heard about PST when he was working in Chambal for Shekar Kapoor's Bandit Queen. He then took it upon himself to gather hard to find information about the national champion turned villain. He ensures that he portrays the times and characters with utmost authenticity, including locations, dialects and events. Kudos to the new wave of Indian directors, who are not afraid to risk telling different stories and making tough movies. The cinematography is beautiful, from capturing the lanky subedar conquering the race track in baggy shorts to reigning over the unforgiving hinterlands of Chambal. The sparse and rugged landscapes evoke strong memories of Bandit Queen and Omkara. Speaking of Omkara, one cannot miss the brilliant dialogues written by Tigmanshu doing full justice to the local dialects.Classics like " Beehad mein ‘Baaghi’ hote hain, ‘Dacait’ milte hain parliament mein!"  and "beta daro mat… ye police ki vardi mein police hi hai!"  will be long remembered in times to come. 

At the end of the day, PST is all about Irrfan Khan. The most underrated actors of our times. He brings in an effortless authenticity and sincerity to one of the most difficult roles to pull off in the recent past. He's lovable as a ravenous athlete, believable as a humble farmer, charming as a playful husband, mature as a father and above all scintillating as runaway outlaw. The supporting cast also doles out strong performances. Mahie Gill as the subedar's wife, Brjendar Kala as the ultna nervous journalist taking interview, Zakir Husaain as Inspector Rathore are all very convincing. 

Bandit movies have always been popular. From the blood thirsty outlaws in Seven Samurai, to the legendary Gabbar Singh, they have captured the imagination of viewers and taken them through wild journeys of terror, bravery and madness. PST although being in the same league, forces us to ask one important question. Do we really as a nation, take sportsmen other than cricketers seriously? The long list of Indian athletes shown at the end of the movie, who died penniless and without basic medical facilities is heart wrenching. Its a shame, that as a country we treat our sporting heroes as unwanted liabilities. Maybe that is why we are not producing great sportsmen anymore, maybe that is why India will never be a force to recon with in a 100m dash. Pity!

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Review: The Dirty Picture

The writer throws his story "Sir, the hero then cracks the ribs of 20 people with a single punch".
The ageing superstar replies "This wont work at all. There is no sword fight scene in the climax"
"But Sir, the hero is a Police Officer. From where will he get a sword?"
"Hmm, you have a point here. Then he can have the sword as some ancestral heirloom"
"But Sir, how can he have a heirloom? Our hero is an orphan."
"Orphaned heroes are so 60s! The public doesn't want this anymore. They want change. Give him a family. Give him a sister. Give her Izzat and then get her raped.Now that is a story!"
"Fantastic Sir, Superhit! This movie will be a guaranteed superhit!"

More than anything else, The Dirty Picture is a tribute to the 80s. Where the heroes were Gods, heroines were plus ones, movies were peppered with garish sets, over the top costumes, cliched story lines, cheesy dialogues, vulgar dances, suggestive songs and testosterone filled unbelievable fight sequences. The absolute pits of Bollywood history. And its a treat to watch Milan Lutharia's Dirty Picture just to recapture these  bizarre times.

A biopic is based loosely on the life of South Indian sex siren 'Silk' Smita. The rags to riches story of a woman ahead of her times and the inevitable downfall is the central plot. A woman who unabashedly used her body and sexuality to titillate and shake the morality of a shallow society. Reshma, played by Vidya Balan, is a small time extra on movie sets whose gyrations and potential are discovered by a keen eyed producer. She is offered an 'item number' with Surayakant (Nasseruddin Shah), an aging leading man, whose growing paunch and greying hair are no deterrent to romance girls half his age. The ambitious and sharp Reshma, who is now rechristened Silk, capitalizes on the window of opportunity using Suryakant as a launchpad to catapult her life into a tailspin of sex, success and stardom.

Abaraham (an uber cool Emraan Haashmi), is an intelligent director who wants to make meaningful and thought provoking movies. The meteoric rise of 'cheap' Silk overlapping his own 'grey cells' driven career is a reason strong enough for him to hate Silk to his last breath. Suryakant continues to use Silk to quench his thirst for sex and desire for success. Suryakant's brother, Ramakant ( Tushaar Kapoor ) is an aspiring script writer, who is madly in love with the voluptuous dancer. These three men form the triangle of love, sex and deceit around Silk.One cannot decide if she is a victim or an opportunist. Its inevitable truth that an inexorable and quick rise is followed by a dark and quicker downward spiral. Silk continues to get dragged into a life of alcohol, lust, exploitation, heart break, failure, bankruptcy, loneliness and eventually death.  

The movie is a brave effort to be different. Is it a classic? No. It has his baggage of lapses. The second half is a drag with several unnecessary scenes like a catfight with another item girl, out of place dance sequence, extended drama-bazi at an awards function. The screenplay is at times tardy and predictable. In terms of performances, Nasseruddin Shah effortlessly carries the role of the age defying hero and Emraan Hashmi always manages to grab and deliver interesting roles. Tushaar Kapoor is easily replaceable and sticks out as a sore thumb amongst a host of capable actors, managing to eke out a role just because of  big sis! The music is catchy and relevant, especially the chartbuster from Bappi Da!

There are two things that stand out in the movie. Firstly, the dialogues by Rajat Arora. They are sharp, heavy, bucolic and in the face:the 80s in a nut shell. From crackerjackers like  "Agar upar wale ne neeche itna kuch diya, to thoda share karne mein kya jata hai" and "Public samaan dekhne ati hai, dukaan nahi", every other dialogue is a riot. The second and the pivotal part of this movie is Vidya Balan. She has managed to define a new range of characters for herself in Bollywood, be it the dogged mother in Pa, the femme fatale in Ishqia, the plain jane sister in NOKJ or the glamorous Silk in The Dirty Picture. She single handedly carries the movie on her heaving cleavage and thrusting pelvis. She lives and breathes fire into Silk with a passion unseen before and sets a new bar amongst today's heroines. The cookie cutter class of Deepikas and Katrinas look so childish and incapable in front of Vidya. She is no doubt going to bull doze all the award ceremonies next year.

Its great to see that over the last few years, Bollywood is not afraid to try new ideas and brave new frontiers. Add this to its list of movies carving a new niche for Hindi films. Go watch the movie, for Vidya and definitely for the Dialogue baazi!