Monday, December 28, 2009

Sale Away

As perhaps Mae West would say - I’ve been thin and I’ve been fat, and believe me, thin is better.

Except, of course, on Boxing Day: the beginning of the Christmas season sales.

Because if you are size small, you share your dimensions with the shopping locusts of London – the slim, small and highly fashion conscious South East Asians. Even before the sun breaks through the inky skies, they have already attacked all the chain stores giving the best bargains and ferreted away all size smalls in all colours, textures, hues and cuts.

And all that is left are the trampled remains of a colourful sale that is not of much use to size Smalls like me anymore.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Google Enterprise: The Final Frontier

Guess what greeted us inside the Highbury & Islington tube stop: a gigantic advertisement of Google’s latest outing – Google Chrome, the company's home-built internet browser.

Oh the irony of it! That Google, who earns nearly 99 per cent of its profits by creating new platforms for people to advertise, is resorting to traditional advertising itself.

To me, the advertisement marked the final chapter in Google’s life as a lean, highly-independent, cutting-edge enterprise still redolent with the memories of two geeky Phd students who created a powerful search engine in their friend’s garage in sunny California just over a decade ago.

Since then, Google would go where no man had gone before – well, most of the time anyway. The Google Search Engine, Google Earth, You Tube, Orkut: they were all first of their kinds in their fields (even where they were not created by Google itself). If it wasn't a pioneering venture, it was not of enough interest to Google. Hence, it never needed to advertise because it would start out as the market leader. Others hoped to capitalise through their association to Google.

But web browsers have been done by others, and done fairly successfully. Google Chrome can, at the best, offer more of the same.

So I am left wondering, is it the beginning of the end?

Check out BBC's tech correspondents report on the best technologies of 2009. Seems like Mark Ward is on my camp, and Rory Cellan Jones on the opposite. (Though where did Jones hear that Google has already unveiled its operating system? It has unveiled its decision to develop one, but hasn't launched the operating system yet. And it is not called Chrome, it is called Google Chrome OS. As as tech correspondent, I would have expected him to not confuse the two.)

Friday, December 25, 2009

Indian Visa strikes back

On Wednesday, the BBC carried a report on how the Indian government has tightened its visa rules for foreigners, causing incredible inconvenience to British and American tourists. The trouble was apparently regarding whether a foreigner who left India while living-out his long term visa could or could not re-enter India within two months.

The British Business Secretary Lord Mandelson was riled enough to state to the Press Trust of India: "I can understand the motive for the new visa arrangements but we have to be careful not to make, create general restrictions."

Mandelson's retort came on the day I got my paltry six-days, single entry Schengen visa.

I had applied for one-year multiple entry visa to continental Europe the week before so that Sid and I could organise our travel plans through the year. However, the visa officer turned around and said that she will only grant me a single entry visa. Why? Because I don’t have job.

Me: My Australian husband has a full-time job?

Visa officer: Yes.

Me: I have residencies to the UK and Australia on the basis of our marriage?

Visa Officer: Yes.

Me: I have had residencies to Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands in the past, and have never flouted visa regulations?

Visa Officer: Yes.

Me: You have all our bank account statements?

Visa Officer: Yes.

Me: So?

Visa Officer: Sorry, you don’t have a job, you are Indian, and we can’t grant you a multiple entry visa.
Does the Austrian embassy actually think that I will risk becoming an illegal alien in a Schengen country when I am a perfectly legal alien in the UK (with the choice of being one in Australia)?

I don’t think so. It is just an occasion of visa arrangements making, creating general restrictions.

I wonder what Mandelson’s views would be on that.

 Incidentally, in August I called up the immigration office in the UK for a clarification regarding my UK residency. The electronic voice informed me that the office was too busy to attend any calls all through August and September, and if I had any doubts about my visa status could I please leave the country. How’s that for general restrictions?

Actors in their new avatar

While watching Avatar, I was time and again reminded of the 1952 musical comedy Singin’ in the Rain starring Gene Kelly. No, no, no. There is absolutely no similarity between the plotlines. But in a way, Kelly’s musical portended what Avatar could mean for actors in the coming decades.

Singin’ in the Rain was a goofy portrayal of how the transition from silent films to talkies befuddled movie actors. Never having been trained in voice-modulation, the shift to talkies required them to adopt a whole new mind-set and attitude towards acting. Some sank, some stayed afloat. And a whole new breed of actors came into being.

What will the success of Avatar -- where most of the action takes place in a bioluminescent coral-reef-like world entirely created out fantastic 3D animation -- mean for actors used to performing their craft in the what-you-see-is-what-you-get world we inhabit?

The New Yorker gave a riveting account of how the actors in the Na'vi world (the alien world in this case) acted out their parts. Talking about Zoe Saldana in particular, the actress who played the Na'vi heroine in the film, it explained that she essentially acted her part in an empty industrial-like space surrounded by other actors wearing black unitards covered with reflective white dots. Their movements were captured by several surveillance cameras on the ceiling which positioned their performance inside the Na'vi world digital set. Saldana wore a head set with a tiny camera floating inches from her face, capturing the minute details of her facial expressions: "the movements of her facial muscles, the contractions of her pupils, the interaction of her teeth, lips, and tongue." The data uploaded by all these cameras were fed into computers which translated the actors movements onto their digital characters, and positioned these images onto the digital set design - and it is this image that Cameron saw on his screen in real time.

So Saldana was not merely providing the voice for her animated character. She acted it out. It was her facial expressions and body movements that we watched, albeit after conversion via digital technology into her animated avatar (excuse the pun). However, her acting skills required her to anticipate not just the non-existent set around her, but also what we would eventually see of her in her 9-ft tall, inky blue, luminescent-dotted alien character. Can all our current actors cope with it?

I should say no. It is obvious from the fact that Sigourney Weaver looked awkward and slightly stupid in her Na’vi character, particularly when compared to her real-life version.

If Avatar changes the audience expectations of films as everyone is predicting, and makes CGI (computer graphic image that is essentially a translation of the actor’s body movements) a norm – we are looking at a major sink-or-swim moment for Hollywood actors.

Incidentally, none of the reviews of the film I came across commented on the acting in Avatar.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Three's a company

I am researching weird statistics for a magazine article. And here is an interesting one I found: "2 out of 3 of us would not give up our spouse for a night even for a million bucks."

Meaning 1 out of 3 would?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

One person's blizzard

One person’s blizzard is another person’s windfall.

Stuck inside cars and buses, most Londoners had every reason to curse yesterday’s unexpected blizzard. But Sid and I, bidding away on furniture at Critereon auction house on Essex Road, could barely contain our glee. Thanks to the blizzard, most dealers couldn’t make it to the auction house and we got all the pieces of furniture we had our eyes on for a reasonable price.

For the last three weekends, we had been religiously attending the auctions – hoping to find some bargains. But thanks to our excellent tastes, whatever we would like would immediately catch the eye of some antique dealer as well. And once they get their beady eyes on something, ordinary wide-eyed couples like us, conscious of the precious pounds jingling in our pockets, stand no chance.

But yesterday, thanks to the blizzard and all the dealers stuck inside their cars, our killing included a pine table with extendable leaves for £5, a wooden rotating bookcase for £20 and beautiful mahogany four-drawer chest of drawer for £50.

May there be many more blizzards in London

PS: The blizzard story missing from the newspapers today is how many ankle injuries were reported last night.

PPS: To try your luck at the auction, next time there is a blizzard - visit

Monday, December 21, 2009

Whore art thou!

Yes, Hoerengracht did capture that curious mixture of seediness and banality of Amsterdam’s sex district, as I had hoped it would.

Look out for the window with the prostitute contentedly lounging about reading a gossip magazine in her lingerie surrounded by ordinary bric-a-brac – a radio, a ring-dial telephone, a vase of wilted flowers, and a poodle snuggled under her feet. Hardly the image of a prostitute vending her goods!

But it was Amsterdam of the 80s. Twenty years don’t seem much on paper. But to understand what they mean in terms of the little details that surround our lives, visit Hoerengracht. It means a total overhaul of all the concept of design surrounding us – the clothes, the wall paper, the radio, tvs, telephones and other household gadgets, even our image of a beautiful body has undergone a complete transformation. Were it not for the semi-naked models confronting us, Kienholz’s sex district would seem like a quaint relic of the past.

Don’t miss the documentary that plays alongside about how Ed and Nancy came about making Hoerengracht and why is it such an important installation of our times. What struck me was the humour and sense of fun with which they worked on it. It is always a joy when you find an artist who can laugh at himself and his work, while discussing it intelligently.

The show is on at the National Gallery till Feb 21, 2010. And Sid and I were pleasantly surprised to find entry free.

Roped in

This weekend, Sid and I went for a rather gripping performance of Peter Hamilton’s 1929 play Rope at Almeida Theatre, Islington. (Yes, it is this play that had inspired Hitchcock’s film Rope twenty years later. So you already know it is about ghoulish murders and the evil that lurks in our midst.) Watching the play reminded me again of all the reasons why I would any day prefer good theatre over cinema.

First, is the immense physicality of theatre – the fact that the actors are physically present in front of you. And when the actors know how to exploit this proximity – fill the space with their bodies and voices until nothing else exists but them and you – it is pure magic. Bertie Carvell and Blake Ritson who play the main protagonists of Rope knew how to exploit this potential to inexhorably draw into their cat-and-mouse game. The performance was visceral in a way that movies simply cannot be, thanks to the ever present camera between you and the actors.

And then there was the set. There was a time when I found the single stage of theatre rather static and bare compared to the technicolour busyness of film sets. And yet, doesn’t the real art lie in the power of suggestion. A good theatre stage gives you just enough clues to the setting of the action but leaves your imagination to fill in the rest. And in the process, you find yourself a willing participant of the action, your mind ticking away adding the details that make the action come alive for you. How boring films seem in comparison where everything is pre decided and your imagination is put to rest.

The play itself, I must admit, was rather predictable. But entranced as we were by the Carvell and Ritson and the moody set – all lights and shadows around a circular stage, a chest filled with a dead body in between, and rumbles of thunder in the background – I don’t think Sid and I really noticed. We came out thrilled and satisfied and ready to tackle Avatar.

The play will be performed everyday at Almeida Theatre, Islington till Feb 6, 2010.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Hoo Dunnit: Mystery of the missing dinner jacket

Sid in his new dinner jacket
Last weekend, Sid’s office invited us to a Christmas party at a country house hotel at the outskirts of London called Luton Hoo.

Luton Hoo, as a bit of research revealed, is a five-star country manor hotel with 1000 acres of estate land around, an 18 hole golf course, a spa and a history that encompasses over 400 years of aristocratic ownership, parties with the King and Queen in attendance, the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, and a resident ghost – the manor’s previous owner, Nicholas Harold Phillips, committed suicide there and is rumoured to haunt the premises. Luton Hoo promised us luxury and adventure wrapped in one.

It turned out to be an adventure alright.

As the main course was being laid out, the waitress stumbled behind Sid as she was serving the guest next to him, coughed an apology and quickly disappeared. In turn, Sid felt a warmth trickle down his back. Our pretty waitress hadn’t just stumbled, she had also managed to pour most of the beef sauce in the plate she held down Sid’s hand-tailored dinner jacket. We had a situation – a 6-ft Californian left with a steak without sauce, a vegetarian Hindu with beef sauce trickling down his dinner jacket and a culprit waitress nowhere to be found.

Sid immediately raised an alarm, and the head waiter – our saviour no 1 called Bobby – took charge. He sent Sid’s jacket to the laundry, got him a replacement for the night and assured us that we would open our eyes the next morning to a freshly laundered, stain-free dinner jacket.

Of course, it wasn’t there the next morning. It was still missing as we were checking out. The night staff at the laundry had left, and the morning staff hadn’t heard of any wayward, beef-stained dinner jackets from the night.

Determined not to lose our cool, we asked them to locate the lost jacket while we took a stroll around the verdant 1000 acres of Luton Hoo’s parkland.

After an hour and half of freezing walk, we got a call from our saviour no 2 called Gareth. The jacket had been located. We rushed back, only to be told that the stain hadn’t come off, the jacket needed to be dry-cleaned, the dry-cleaner would only open on Monday, so could we pretty please leave our address, and they will definitely courier the dry-cleaned jacket by Friday.

In protest, we insisted they dry-clean the pants as well, left our address at the reception, drank the complimentary coffee, and headed back.

It is Friday today, and no courier has come knocking on our doors.

We are now expecting a call from our saviour no 3, who we are sure will be called Nicholas Harold Phillips, Luton Hoo's resident ghost.

PS: Yes, of course, I am married to Sean Connery.

Shake Up Sid!

A misunderstanding arose between Anon and me.

I told Anon that I was going to do a “get coffee for boss” job. She thought I was going to live the Wake Up Sid life of Konkana Sen Gupta. Which means that I would get hit on by the boss (editor of fancy magazine with saxophone on his office wall), get squired around the jazz joints of the city, graduate to a columnist, and get to dump the boss – all in the span of a month. And I’ll get paid to do all this.

Unfortunately, life’s not like that. Internship is only for a couple of weeks, boss is a woman, there are no saxophones on the office walls (I checked), and I won’t be paid.

This is what annoys me about Bollywood. It doesn't makes films about life. It makes three hour long advertisement clips on life. Which means that everything is colourful; everybody is young, hopeful and charming; Mumbai is all sea, rains and chor bazaar; bosses flirt with you; Daddies are rich – and everyone had paid jobs. The dilemmas, frustrations, betrayals, failures and Bombay gutters – all the things that make life real, gritty and so worth fighting for – are airbrushed away. It is a big huge advertisment industry.

Of course, not that anyone minds. My 24-year-old sister called from Bangalore and said, “Wake Up Sid was so real. I totally identified with it.”

Clearly, as a race, we deserve Bollywood and Dharma Productions.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Fall of the Titans

First, Brown and Co announced a super tax on banker bonuses.

Then, Sarkozy gleefully signed a deal with Brown to do the same in France.

Today, Obama called the heads of the top 9 American banks to candidly discuss their obtuseness.

If bankers are in any more doubts about their dizzying unpopularity - here's Guardian reporting on how cleaners are economically worth more to British society than its bankers.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Fantasies no more

Even if Me and Orson Welles hadn’t been so well-acted; even if it hadn’t explored the ambitions, envies, inspirations, insecurities and egos that drive the theatre world with as much insight; even if, Claire Danes hadn’t looked quite so radiant, Zac Efron as charming, and Christain McCay as flamboyant; even if, it wasn’t a well-told tale of the coming of age of a cocky teenager against the backdrop of Orson Welles’ 1937 theatre company in New York – I would have still enjoyed the film.

Because after watching Fantastic Mr Fox, The Imaginarium of Dr Parnasus and 2012 in succession, I couldn’t bear to watch another film where humans, if at all, appeared as props to their more fantastical computer-generated counterparts. I wanted to watch a film where the agonies, joys, treacheries, dilemmas and nuances of the real human-inhabited world around us were the main and only focus brought to life by flesh-and-blood actors.

That Me and Orson Welles did it well was a bonus.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Veggie Delights

The Sustainable Development Commission in the UK has published the first ever official recommendation for a diet that is both healthy and good for the environment.It concludes that British consumers must reduce their consumption of intensively-produced meat and dairy products and processed foods.

What this means is that they should start eating:
a) More free range meats and dairy products;
b) And as these, in any case, cannot be produced in the quantities of current meat intake – move to veggies, preferably seasonal and field grown.

Of course, it helps the environment. But it will also help tackle the “growing crisis” (Guardian’s words not mine) of diet-related diseases spreading through the UK.

So far so good. But here’s why regulation may not be the best first-step strategy.

Having lived in UK, Holland, Denmark and Germany, I can certifiably say that nothing in the North European cuisines dares to be vegetarian and tasty. Either it is meat based and mouth watering, or vegetarian and tasteless. In restaurants and homes, the vegetarian component of a meal is limited to a leafy side dish – lacking nourishment, proteins and most importantly taste.

How do I know? Through Sid – who having come to a conclusion similar to SDC several years ago, courageously converted to vegetarianism. Since then, his meals outside have been largely limited to pasta salads at dinners at friends’, penne arabiata in regular restaurants and over-priced ratatouilles in fancy ones. (Our saving grace is that we are Indian – and can cook the range of tasty Indian vegetarian dishes at home. But if Sid was European, he would be screwed.)

But surely, Gordon Brown can’t expect the whole of Northern Europe to survive on penne arabiata and pasta salad.

So if the government really wants to encourage vegetarianism, here’s where it should begin: Hire Jamie Oliver to transform the English cuisine with vegetables and pulses in mind this time. Everything else can follow.

PS: And stop shaming smelly foods.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Curry Worries

Transport for London takes public service very seriously – especially if it involves pasting preachy messages all over the trains and tube stations. But I am worried that this latest public service message (see picture) may have some cataclysmic effect on the real estate market of London thirty years hence.

Let’s examine this message again from the perspective of an Indian kid on the tube.

Cute, nerdy child = Me.
Frizzy, darkish hair = Me.
Smelly food = oh my god curry, again Me.

Now, Sid grew up as a cute, nerdy boy with frizzy black hair eating curry in Melbourne three decades ago along with a small but select group of equally, nerdy Indian kids with frizzy black hair eating curry. They all loved curry. They were all traumatised by the fear of the smell of Indian spices sticking to them as they stepped out with odourless, colourless skip (read: White Aussie) friends.

And as they grew up to become nerdy engineers, doctors and lawyers, the latest trend in the tightly-knit community is to build two kitchens in their houses. One a barely-used, clinically clean, odourless model kitchen to convince their skip friends that they have never heard of curry before. And then, the real kitchen ferreted in the back redolent with the smells of spices, daals and flavoured meats that they can’t live without.

But Melbourne has a lot of open land to indulge the smelly food paranoia of its rich Indian immigrant kids. Can London afford the same?

For more on curry-infused fears of Indian kids read Anon's review of the book Leaving India.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Intergalactic promises!

Sir Richard Branson has finally unveiled the Virgin Galactic Spaceship that will make space tourism possible – stick that, NASA.

I wonder if he will remember his promise made to my friend Iain Ball to save him a seat on the maiden intergalactic flight.

Funny, how six degrees of separation works in this world. Who would think that Branson would only be one acquaintance removed from little Miss Me? But Branson knows my former employer Smiti Ruia well enough to come visiting the Paprika Media office in Mumbai, shaking hands with each one of us part-star struck, part ironical staff of the Time Out Mumbai magazine. It was then that my friend and colleague Iain had made his jesting request. On his part, the flamboyant Mr Branson had seemed somewhat embarrassed, shy and tongue-tied – and taking Ball’s request seriously had sincerely said “Of course, I’ll keep it in mind.”

I wonder then, if Ball has received his complimentary ticket as yet or not.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Rat pack

And the silliest incident award goes to ITV apologises for killing and eating of a rat.

Out of the Woods in Amsterdam

It is interesting that I read Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam a week after poor Tiger Woods found himself in the eye of a media storm – his personal life, wife, and girl friends on the side embarrassingly laid bare by tabloids thanks to a strange combination of a hedge, a fire hydrant, a tree and an out of control car.

McEwan’s story is a tale of morality following a week in the life of two friends, one of them a newspaper editor called Vernon Halliday. His moral dilemma involved a newspaper with falling readership and some photographs he found his hands on of a right-wing politician – who had previously supported apartheid and currently supported capital punishment – dressed in drag. To print or not to print, was the question. Of course, Halliday chose to print, and we are asked to believe that he is an unprincipled twit for it.

Yet, I found myself wondering if digging into the personal life of a politician is equivalent to digging into the life of a golf pro. Politicians play a critical role in deciding society’s attitude towards morality – that tricky question of what is acceptable and what not in our personal and public lives. Hence, it is important to know that they can themselves live by the principles that they want others to follow. McEwan’s politician, Julian Garmony, knew what it is to be different from the norm, to hide, to feel ashamed, to find yourself different from others in his personal life. Yet, he didn’t use his own life experience to create a world that was more forgiving and sympathetic of people in minority, with an outlook different from others. In public, he presented an unsympathetic, unforgiving pose because that brought him more power. That is hypocrisy, and in this case, a dangerous hypocrisy. And a newspaper was justified in exposing it.

Tiger Wood’s predicament is of another order. His sponsorships, his achievements, his sport – the reasons of his fame have little to do with his affairs and marriage. Nor does he find himself in the position to arbiter society’s tolerance of other adulterors. Yet, we embarrass him out of the pure ghoulish pleasure of seeing the rich and famous humiliated. That is yellow journalism at its purest and most venomous.

McEwan tripped on this one, I am inclined to believe.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Notes from Anti-Universe

The other day Sid and I found ourselves discussing the theory of Universe vs Anti-Universe.

Now, Sid and I live in the Universe and find Sarah Palin too mean-spirited, ignorant, incoherent and irrational to ever be elected the President of the United States of America. The thought itself is illogical, puzzling and not just a little laughable.

But there are people who want just that – very ardently. So they must live in Anti-Universe where an equal and opposite logic must apply. This video gives us a glimpse into the tenets of anti-universe.

Art of Portraiture

One the last things I did in Amsterdam was to visit the World Press Photo exhibition with Sulakshana in June last year. The World Press Photo is a worldwide photojournalism contest that was started by a Dutch group of photographers in 1956, which over the years has rewarded some of the most iconic images of our recent history. Think the baby with glassy eyes that embodies the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984 or the lone man standing in front of tanks at the Tiananmen Square in 1989, they’ve all made it to the top of this contest.

The exhibition that I attended was of winners of 2007. One particular photo – the winner of the portraiture category – had us intrigued. It was a portrait of Vladimir Putin, which at first glance looked no more than his “mug shot” as Sulakshana elegantly put it. It was an intense close-up of Putin’s face against a light blue background that had appeared on the Times magazine cover. Of course, both of Sulakshana and I were photography novices so it was difficult to gauge on what grounds this portrait, and not the thousand others, won.

The reason became clear from the audio commentary by Platon, our alleged mug-shot taker, which accompanied the photograph. Platon first explained that it was probably the only portrait shot of Putin in existence. He is notoriously difficult to gain an interview with, and nobody before him had managed a personal one-on-one photo shoot. The Times magazine had initially been told that they would only be allowed to take Putin’s pictures as he was being interviewed for the article. The magazine’s request for a separate photo shoot had been denied. So essentially, Platon had few minutes after the interview to convince one of the most powerful and intimidating men in the world to sit for a photo shoot that he was reluctant over. And if he managed that – another few minutes to set up his camera, build a rapport with the famously cold president, and get a portrait that would do justice to both Putin’s stature and the Times cover.

And Platon achieved just that, and in style. The candour, ease and intimacy of that portrait is striking simply because the circumstances in which it was taken fought against those exact qualities. In that sense, the portrait deserved to win as much for what it told about Putin, as for what it didn’t tell about the difficult circumstances in which it was taken.

I was reminded of Putin’s portrait today because the latest issue of the New Yorker carries a slide show of portraits of world leaders taken by Platon recently during the UN summit. It is an amazing slice of history, of course. But the engaging audio commentary by Platon that accompanies each portrait also makes us understand and appreciate this difficult art much more.


The archive on the world press photo website is an amazing repository of world through the camera in the last 60 years. A definite must for journalism, photography and history lovers!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Match-made in heaven

The Clintons have announced the engagement of Chelsea Clinton to her long term boyfriend, Marc Mezvinsky.

Mezvinsky is Jewish, works for Goldman Sachs, and his father Ed Mezvinsky served a prison sentence between 2002 and 2008 for bank, wire and mail fraud (much like Madoff but on a cosiderably smaller scale).

Goldman Sachs and financial fraud! Poor Clintons, I can already see Fox News salivating over the news.
According to a report that gives a rather riveting account of Daddy Mezvinsky's misadventures, Ms Clinton's fiance grew up in Pennsylvania in a six bedroom mansion with four step sisters, two adopted sisters, a blood brother, three foster siblings and his parents. On the other hand, Ms Clinton, as we all know, grew up in a 132-rooms-and-35-bathrooms mansion called the White House largely by herself. Opposites attract.