Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Way We Were

I found this piece of hulking machinery - rather endearingly called a paddle tug - at the National Maritime Museum.

I am not exactly sure why I clicked the picture, except that the machine looked so lovely, outdated and redundant.

Will journalists too become a redundant relic in some museum someday?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Fashion, flies and summer skies

This intriguing shop window – notice the huge house flies behind the mannequins – is that of the Zara store opposite the Oxford Circus tube stop.

But the connection between flies & fashion isn’t the only thing that befuddles me about the UK fashion industry. No, that honour must be shared by the absolute disconnect between the weather and the fashion trends.

One February morning this year, I entered the Reiss store on Essex Road in order to escape the drizzle that had just suddenly come down to cherry-top the ice-cold morning. I decided to put the time to good use by looking around for a good cardigan or sweater. Only, when I asked the assistant for a good 100 per cent wool sweater, she looked nonplussed.

 “We have only two of those left,” she explained. “You see, we have moved to our spring collection.” Ironically, as we looked outside in search of spring, we saw snow flakes drift by. To give the shop assistant her due, she had the grace to look sheepish.

And now, the shops say that it is summer and we must buy cut sleeves, tube tops, cotton frocks, summer skirts and sun glasses. Only, there is no sign of the ballyhooed summer or the sun. 

But who will tell that to Vogue!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Don't worry Quinn, it is not a freak show

Can someone sculpt a life-size bronze statue of a woman-with-a-penis fucking a man-with-a-vagina, doggie-style, and then claim that he doesn’t want his exhibition to be viewed as a freak show? Yes he can, if he is  artist Marc Quinn. The claim was made in an interview to The Guardian on May 1, just before his latest show - displaying the said statue - opened at the White Cube gallery.

The statue has been cast from two real-life pornographic actors: Allanah Starr (a man who surgically became a woman but decided to keep his penis) and Buck Angel (a woman who changed into a man but decided to keep her vagina because she didn’t want to lose her orgasms, as she explained to The Guardian).

Other works include a marble statue of Chelsea Charms, a woman with enormous, surgically-enhanced breasts who is an adult “breast entertainer” for the pornographic industry; a towering marble of Thomas Beatie, a pregnant man; two large, pop-ish busts of Michael Jackson playing on the “Black or White” theme; Pamela Anderson sculpted to perfection, in real life and in bronze; and more.

I had only heard of Quinn’s works in passing before – Self, a bust of himself shockingly made using his own frozen blood, and Alison Lapper Pregnant, a naked marble sculpture of a pregnant woman born without hands and feet. I hadn’t seen either, but the first sounded interesting and the second – simply noble. I had to see his works in real, which I finally did this week.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much nobility on display in this show – except, perhaps, in the sculpture of Thomas Beatie, the pregnant man. Beatie’s sculpture stands out because of the astoundingly gentle expression that radiates off his face – as he softly runs his palm over his swollen belly. The expression said more to me about the beauty of mother’s love than the countless medieval Madonnas that I have viewed in museums across Europe. By capturing that expression on Beatie’s incongruously bearded face, he instantly transformed Beatie from a freak into something close to godliness – and to me it was a revelation. 

But I can’t understand how sculptures of Starr fucking Angel or of Chelsea Charms looking up in ecstacy as she strokes her monumental breasts help us understand them and their choices more, let alone identify with them?  If anything, it further alienates them, since they are already pornographic actors and presumably used to putting up such displays for people’s pleasure – often freakish pleasure. It is not particularly courageous of path-breaking to allow themselves to be sculpted so. On Quinn's part, by presenting them in such poses, he has only confirmed the stereotypes of transgenders.  

Were it not for Beatie, I would have found Quinn’s show boring. And since boredom is not a sentiment any good freak show aims for, perhaps, Quinn has achieved what he set out to do.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Charting Chadha

Last Saturday, The Times of India published a profile I wrote of Gurinder Chadha - of Bend It Like Beckham fame - whose latest film is just out. Thanks to the utterly idiotic and complex website of the newspaper, I can't put a direct link to the article. Hence, am reproducing the text of my article here:

Title: Charting Chadha
Intro: Mum’s the word in Gurinder Chadha’s life and Afterlife these days.

At the age of 50, the British Asian filmmaker Gurinder Chadha is a woman focussed on motherhood. It is a warm Saturday morning, and we are sitting in the sunny terrace garden of her posh Primrose Hill house in London. But her mind seems to fixed somewhere between the terrace and the floor below where her tiny three-year-old twins – Ronak and Kumiko – are squealing. “The children aren’t well, and they know I am here,” she explains. “There’ll be like ‘where’s mama..’, then you can experience this motherhood thing when I’ll abandon you half-way through your interview in an abrupt end,” she adds with a raucous laughter.

She doesn’t, naturally. But I hurry with the questions nevertheless.

We are meeting to talk about her latest film, It’s a Wonderful Afterlife, a comedy set in the Indian community of Southall, London, about a serial-killing Punjabi mother (played by Shabana Azmi), whose victims come back to haunt her as ghosts. Again, she blames her unexpected motherhood at the age of 47 for the outrageous premise of the film. “When my children were first born, every time I looked at them, I would think about my own death,” she recalls. “I would just look at these things and go – ‘Oh my God, if I die tomorrow, how will they manage? Oh my God, if I die tomorrow, they will never know me?” Her overblown anxiety got her started on the theme of motherhood, death and reincarnation.  Further, as she explains, “even though Shabana is doing these killings for her daughter, it is really a metaphor for how much a mother will do to see her child happy”.

It’s a Wonderful Afterlife is Chadha’s third full-length feature film since the light-hearted comedy Bend It Like Beckham put her on the international charts eight years ago. Made on a shoe-string budget, it unexpectedly became the highest-grossing British films of that year picking up several international awards along the way. Since then, she has made Bride & Prejudice (2005), a lavish Bollywood-style western musical, and Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging (2008), a small-budget teenage drama set in Eastbourne, England, which was not released in India.  Neither of the films were set in the British Asian community of Britain, which had been the focus of Bend It Like Beckham and most of Chadha’s films before it. Notably, neither achieved the tremendous success of Bend It Like Beckham.

“Whatever I would have done after Beckham would have had a rough ride, I think,” says Chadha, reflecting on the reception of Bride & Prejudice, which ranged from lukewarm to frankly hostile. As she explains, after Bend It Like Beckham, audience world over wanted her to continue regaling them with films about the foibles of the Indian Diaspora in a light, frothy way. “But obviously as a director I can’t keep repeating the same film over and over again,” she explains. Hence, she consciously decided to move away from the world of the British Asian community in her films.

Even with her latest film, Chadha was aware of the looming comparisons with Bend It Like Beckham. In fact, it was particularly likely with It’s a Wonderful Afterlife, set as it is in the streets, shops and gurudwaras of Southall and its loud, lively British-Punjabi community. Thus, though she set her film in Southall, she decided to turn it into a goofy, horror-spoof film in the style of Shaun of the Dead or An American Werewolf in London. “You can’t ever accuse this film of trying to copy Bend It Like Beckham”.

Besides, Chadha mulls, the success of Bend It Like Beckham fulfilled the quest that set her on the path of filmmaking initially. “The reason I went into films was that people like me were very absent from the screen in the UK,” she says.  “Fifteen-twenty years ago, whenever there was an Indian on TV, everyone would go ‘quick, quick.. Mum mum.. there’s an Indian on tv,’” she recalls. Most of her initial films, from her documentaries such as I am British But... (1989) and Acting Our Age (1992) to her features such as Bhaji on the beach (1993) and Bend It Like Beckham, were more about chronicling the Asian lives in Britain than about filmmaking itself. The success of her films went a long way in making Asian faces and stories common on the British television. In fact, on last Christmas Day, the long-running British soap opera EastEnders ran an Asian storyline on its peak viewing time to no raised eyebrows.

 “I feel I have achieved what I set out to do, in terms of making the British Asian family a mainstream of the British culture” she explains. All her work since Bend It Like Beckham has attempted to take her beyond message-centric, community-specific films to more broad-based genres.  

For the British Asian community of Southall, Chadha remains a much-loved progeny. In fact, her films have a corner to themselves in an exhibition called Southall Story, which is currently on at the Southbank Centre in London. It traces the history, culture and life of Southall, one of the most mixed, vibrant immigrant neighbourhoods of London. As Shakila Mann, one of the minds behind the exhibitions and a Southall child herself, explains, Bend It Like Beckham gave the people of Southall a lot of confidence. “Suddenly you were going to see not just a Bollywood movie, but you were going to the multiplex to see Bend It Like Beckham, which was about you.”

It’s a Wonderful Afterlife has opened to mixed reviews in Britain and the US. However, Chadha herself remains remarkably unfazed by the fate of her films. She again credits motherhood to her new-found calmness. “Earlier I’d watch other films coming out or I’d see the award season and think, ‘ahh.. I should make a film like that’,” she admits. “But now I don’t care about anything like that. I just want to make sure that my children have a good lunch, a good dinner, are happy.”


Saturday, May 8, 2010

I want volcanoes

I think I want another volcano to erupt in Iceland.

After all, all along that the supposed volcanic ash was hovering above us, we had the most beautiful blue summer skies and long, warm days. There was barbeque smell in the air, streets had come alive with outdoor cafes, and even the British managed to look happy.

Of course, some people had their travel plans foiled. But as Sid and my passports were toasting in some drawer at Britain's Home Office during that time, we really couldn't have cared less.

And then, the volcano subsided, and we are back in the thick of winter again. Cloudy skies, cloudy faces, and the Home Office has still not relinquished control over our passports.

Give me back my volcano.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

One Lion

Chris Morris couldn’t have asked for a better opening week for his latest film, Four Lions.

Considered so controversial that both BBC and Channel 4 refused to fund it, Four Lion is a dark comedy about four inept, bungling Jihadi terrorists of British-Pakistani origin and their attempts to blow-up London Marathon.

And along comes Faizal Shahzad, the terrorist of American-Pakistani origin, who tried to blow up Times Square last Sunday in an effort that will go down in history as the most incompetent, clumsy terrorist undertaking ever.

Think about it. Shahzad left his car awkwardly parked in the busy Time Square with gunpowder smoke billowing out of it. The car was filled with among other things, two five-gallon gasoline containers, three propane tanks, firecrackers, fertilizer packed in clear plastic bags bearing a store’s logo, a cooking pot, a 78-pound metal gun box, a GC-14P 14-gun steel security cabinet manufactured by Stack-On, two neon-colour alarm clocks and some batteries. And just in case, no one noticed it, he also left the ignition running and the hazard lights on.

Apparently, the bomb he was going for was a Rube Goldberg contraption, or as the bomb expert on the case, James Cavanaugh, explained a “‘swing-the-arm-with-the-shoe-that-hits-the-ball-and-knocks-over-a-stick-that-knocks-something-off-a-shelf” kind of bomb. No wonder, the bloody thing never went off, and left behind a treasure trove of evidence for the investigators. As another officer on the case commented, “This guy left everything here but his wallet.”

If I ever wanted to write a book on how not to conduct a terrorist bombing, this would be my star case study.

Here's my favourite scene from the film on "how to blow up the internet".

Monday, May 3, 2010

View the review

Ever since I stepped out of India, I have been terrified of all that I don’t know. Should I express an opinion on anything – be it film, theatre, music, dance, television or even street culture – when I haven’t had a lifelong engagement with them? On so many occasions, I have abandoned blogs half-way, conscious that I don’t have enough background on the subject.

But now I find that the esteemed London reviewers don’t share the same diffidence when it comes to opining confidently on Indian culture.

Last week, I attended the dance performance by Akram Khan and raved about my experience on this blog. Most London reviewers did the same too, in their respective columns, with one crucial difference: most got the storyline hopelessly and hilariously mixed-up.

As the leaflet given to us during the show made clear, the performance was about the relationship between Gandhari and Duryodhana, the mother-son duo from the Hindu epic Mahabharata. In the third, fourth and fifth act, Akram Khan plays Duryodhana and Yoshie Sunahata, the Japanese dancer/drummer/singer, plays his blindfolded mother Queen Gandhari. The relationship is made still more evident from the fact that at one point, Khan is dancing around Sunahata, who stands at the centre of the stage blindfolded with a stick, with the vocals “Maa Sun (mother listen)” echoing through the hall.

And yet, Times online married the two-off, by claiming that Khan played the king, presumably Dhritrashtra, and Sunahata the Queen. Guardian did the same, making the further claim, that the dance was a “portrait of a marriage”. Telegraph claimed that Khan plays the last surviving Kaurava son Duryodhana, and Sunahata the blind king, thereby doing away with Gandhari in a single swoop. The theatre newspaper Stage was a bit cleverer, and refused to commit itself to who was who in the play, focussing instead on the dance moves.

The confident tone assumed by most reviewers, especially Judith Mackrell of Guardian, had me simultaneously despairing and doubling up with laughter. And what about the dishonesty? After all, if they didn’t get the plot, it says something of the performance as well. If the show couldn’t get through to the reviewers, what are the chances of the rest of the audience following the story?

Only Times Online was honest enough to admit that he found the performance a tad confusing.That would have been enough for me to become a follower of Times Online reviews if I hadn't discovered yesterday, that the website has been claiming all over the internet that the Bollywood movie Teen Patti (or three cards in Hindi) refers to three husbands.