Sunday, September 12, 2010

Commonwealth Games: Or why Madhu Sapre should be the final relay runner of the Queen's Baton

And she learnt never to be honest again!
Sid’s Dad called, and we all started talking about the Commonwealth Games. Specifically about what are we going to do with all the stadiums after the Games are over? After all, it is a well-known fact that Indians don’t do sports; at least not the kind that require any physical exertion – like, horror, horror, running! My bet ison the stadiums turning into venues for those overblown Delhi weddings.

The discussion made me think of the last Indian who showed any passion for athletics and paid a heavy price for it: Madhu Sapre, the first Indian model of any consequence. The year was 1992, the venue was the Ms Universe Contest and Ms Sapre – then a lissome 21-year-old Mumbaikar full of rough edges (complete with a Dadar accent) – was the first Indian contestant to make it to the final round. Unfortunately, she managed to goof it up by actually being honest. When asked what she would change if she was the prime minister of the country for a year, she replied that she would improve the sports facilities available in the country. It was a practical, doable, and an honest opinion coming from her heart – after all, she was the daughter of an athlete and an athlete herself. Unfortunately, as her answer didn’t include any obscure references to world poverty and world peace, she lost.

I think Ms Sapre – who now lives in Italy with her ice-cream making husband – should be given the honour of being the final relay runner with the Queen’s baton. Think about it, she is glamorous, good looking and she once paid a big price for siding herself with the athletes of India. Now that her dream is close to reality, this is the least we could do.

Here’s a grainy video of the final round of that momentous contest with the winsome Ms Sapre so innocently talking about her life and dreams. She actually sounded real and non-plastic. Those were the days.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The rise and rise of Mayank Shekhar: Or has Sarah Palin found her literary match?

Mayank  Shekhar
National Cultural Editor and Chief Film Reviewer
Hindustan Times

Dear Mayank,

In the Wikipedia entry for Peepli Live – one of the most talked of Hindi films of late – I came across an extract from a review of the film by you: “The satire is irresistible; the subtext, compelling. And yet neither shows itself up in any form of self-seriousness. The comic writing is immaculately inspired”.

Mayank spreading knowledge - hopefully not on English
And I found myself wondering, what exactly is “self-serious”?

Perhaps, what you mean is serious.

Only, as I understand a good satire is something superficially funny but with a serious subtext. If it doesn’t have a serious subtext, then it is just a comedy not a satire. So what exactly do you mean when you say that the satire and subtext are both good, but thankfully not serious?

And what exactly is “immaculately inspired”? Now, I’ve heard of immaculate conception, but immaculate inspiration? I am still trying to figure that one out.

Now, I bear you no malice – after all, you are my Facebook friend, a friend of a friend, and best friend of a best friend, and we did have a hazy, boozy conversation at a literature festival in Mumbai several years ago. But this is what I don’t get about your rise and rise: How can you be one of the most popular film reviewers of India, the national cultural editor of one of the country’s largest selling dailies, and a winner of the Ramnath Goenka Award for Excellence in Journalism – when you have no concept of the English language, your primary tool of trade?

For example, here is what I don’t get about your review of another recent film, We Are Family:

The review begins with: “It’s this thing about soppy chick flicks, or afternoon soppy soap operas, if you will. The male character is destined to severe step-mom treatment. If he’s present at all, he usually has no say in his own destiny.” Err.. perhaps what you meant was “severe stepson treatment”. Step moms are usually disturbingly in control of the destinies of others.

The setting is the sanitised First World. Spaghetti's ready for supper. Aesthetics of modern, good housekeeping is established.” What exactly is “spaghetti’s ready for supper” hanging around for unless it is a quote from the film, in which case shouldn’t it be placed within quotes?

It’s just the idea that binds all these together, which is entirely outsourced from the West.” No, no Mayank, what you mean is “entirely borrowed from the West” because you cannot outsource from, you can only outsource to.

A warm, doting single mother, losing before her eyes, her life and her sweet children to fatal cancer, you can tell, is something that’ll weep any woman off her feet.” Only Mayank, in the film the mother is not losing her kids to cancer, the kids are losing their mother to cancer.

And you don’t “weep women off their feet”, you “sweep them off their feet”. Or were you punning? It is so difficult to tell.

“This cultivated suaveness is but suddenly forgone as everybody begins to simultaneously weep from the screen.” 

Now Mayank, I am trying very hard – very hard indeed – to imagine them “weeping from the screen”, but it is very difficult, let me tell you.

And then there are the mysteries of your review of another film Kites:

Your review begins with: “Two people (Hrithik Roshan, Barbara Mori), respectively romance another from the same family (Kangana Ranaut, Nicholas Brown), purely for the love of the money. The girl’s an illegal immigrant into the US from Mexico. The boy is the American half of various green card marriages on sale: “$1,000; honeymoon charges extra.””

Now, I’ll forget the messiness of a phrase like, “American half of various green card marriages on sale”. Let’s start with the basics - which girl and which boy? I mean, is Moli the illegal immigrant or Kangana Ranaut? Is Roshan the one half of the various green card marriages or Brown? I am confused.

The premise from hereon could take the shape of a slight comedy of deceit (Woody Allen’s Matchpoint), or follow an aggressive drama (Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr Ripley).”

A “premise” does not have continuity, Mayank, so it cannot not take shape or follow. I think, the word you were looking for was simply “story” because a story can take shape.

The said Mafiosi home belongs to one, Bob Grover (Kabir Bedi), the “owner of one of the biggest casinos in Vegas,” no less. Senators, governors etc swim under Bob’s pant pockets”.

I won’t quibble over the fact that there should be no comma following “one” because I am too busy trying to imagine people swimming under pockets. Only, I can’t. What do you mean?

No Hindi film actor ever, I suspect, has worked himself up this much to make the super-star grade.” No, no Mayank, what you mean is “worked on himself”. “Worked himself up” means gotten himself excited.

Hrithik remains the perfect foil for an action piece across the barrenness of Nevada.” No, no – “foil” means “to frustrate” or “defeat”. What you want to say is “perfect … “perfect… I don’t know. I don’t know what you want to say.

And Mayank, these are only two reviews. And I have not yet mentioned all your mixed tenses, misplaced commas and crazy syntax. You would be such an inspiration to Sarah Palin.

But come every Friday, I'll carry on with my helpful advice on your language bloopers.

Or else, I will be happy to pass on the numbers of some good English language tutors. After all, you are my Facebook friend, friend of a friend, and a best friend of a best friend. And what else are friends for?

Always ready to help
Chetna Prakash (nee Mahadik)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Snake Stories: Or which airline does the world's most wanted animal smuggler use?

Boa constrictor in news
I came across this news piece today about a man being sentenced in Malaysia for trying to smuggle  95 boa constrictors from the country to Indonesia.

In itself, the news doesn’t surprise me. If there is a market of exotic, endangered animals, unscrupulous groups will come in with a supply. But I always imagined that it would require some ingenious planning to smuggle those animals – I imagined dark, foggy nights, boats on choppy waters, mysterious lights flashing on, off, on, off, followed by perilous journeys through mountains and jungles with the police on their tail.

This man, who apparently is the one of the world’s most wanted animal smugglers, was taking his 95 boa constrictors from Malaysia to Indonesia in a suitcase on an airplane. But that is not the best part. The best part is that the snakes were not found via X-rays or whatever other sophisticated radiology system the airline presumably used. No, the bag – bursting with 95 snakes and some turtles – simply broke open on the conveyor belt, spilling the loot for all to see. I guess, they had no choice but to arrest him.

If the world’s most wanted animal smuggler was exporting animals by checking them into airplanes, then it must be fairly standard practice. I mean he didn’t even worry with a sturdy suitcase – that is how nonchalant he was.

How is it that airports can catch that one shampoo bottle or one nose-hair scissors that you mistakenly left into your hand luggage, or the coins or the underwire in your bra on yourself, but not boa constrictors, turtles and baby tigers? How is it that any petty traffic law you might have broken turns up in your record, when you go about asking for visas, but others travel around the world with boa constrictors in their bags despite being world's most wanted animal smugglers?

I trolled through many, many news reports - from Malaysia Star to AFP, Time and the Sun - but as usual all of them forgot to find out the most useful bits of information for the readers.

a)    With his criminal record, how did the world's most wanted animal smuggler manage his visa and passport situation?
b)    Which airline was he flying that would allow him to check in boa constrictors?
c)    Which suitcase brand was he using?
d)    And finally, if snakes are not allowed in planes, how does Dick Cheney travel?

Did you hear about the other Thai lady who tried to take a baby tiger in her land luggage? At least she had the decency to hide the drugged baby tiger among other stuffed toys.

Did you know there was a music video about snakes in a plane? The things you tube teaches me every day.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The girl with the dragon tattoo: genius or a cartoon?

Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – who in case you were wondering, is the girl with the dragon tattoo – was described in the book blurb behind as “a genius computer hacker”. Which to me meant that she was in grave danger of being a cartoon. Naturally, I had to read to find out.

You see, the thing is there is a thin line separating geniuses with cartoons in popular culture. After all, do we ever question the "what, why or how" of Tom and Jerry’s antics? No we don’t, because they are cartoons. They are not encumbered by any physical limitations the way we humans are. So often becomes true of geniuses in popular fiction. Once you have set your character up as a genius – established that his brain functions differently than us lesser mortals – you are released of any need to limit his actions and abilities by any normal human standards. They are like superheroes.   

A genius computer hacker is the worst of the lot. He or she is the scientific equivalent of Harry Potter with his invisible cloak. They can simply enter anyone’s server, network, email accounts, phone lines and happily gather all the incriminating information required – and all in the time that would take you to fill in your username and password. And they don’t have to explain anything. Since their brain functions differently, they just know how to break codes and encryptions in a way that they themselves can’t explain – so who are you to ask.

Further, their status as a genius will demand that they have extreme and inexplicable personality quirks, further taking them closer to their animation-counterparts.

So does Stieg Larrson's Lisbeth Salander fulfill her cartoon potential? Spoiler alert: Yes, she does. But the novel is a page-turner anyway. 

I mean she is as much of a cartoon as can get. She can not only hack through any computer system, she also has a photographic memory, can master complex financial money movements in a jiffy, is good with weapons, knows all about international travel on false passports, is fabulous with disguises, and is asocial, moody and emotionally stunted. In short, she is James Bond on steroids.

But on one point, Salander is truly original and not a cartoon at all. She extracts revenge in the most unforgiving way. In fact, one of the most staggering moments for me in the novel was when she takes revenge on her newly appointed legal guardian. I didn’t see it coming.

Funnily enough, Larrson’s novel only in part requires Salander’s genius abilities. Most of the plot is a rather more staid mystery of a missing child which is solved using standard sleuthing techniques: going though old, old newspapers and photographs, questioning people, piecing together the scene of crime, and lots and lots of plain old thinking and connecting the dots, which is done without any computer hacking required. The end is somewhat grisly, let me warn you.

Besides, Larrson plays off Salander against her mature and serious-to-the-extreme sleuthing partner Mikhael Blomkvist, which takes the edge of her extremities.

Most of the computer hacking is limited to a sub-plot within the plot – a sort of mystery that depends on solving the main mystery. Which means that – whether you enjoy old style whodunits or new-agey digital thrillers – the novel has something to offer.

However, one thing glaringly missing from the novel is sparkling humour. In fact, Larrson’s sense of humour is strictly juvenile. Here are some gems:

“For a moment he stared at Blomkvist with an expression that was presumably meant to instil respect, but which made him look like an inflated moose” (pg 312).

Inflated Moose – doesn’t that have a secondary school corridor ring to it? In fact, I think even secondary school boys might have moved on.

“He, on the other hand, told a funny story about how Nilsson had come home one night to discover the village idiot from across the bridge trying to break a window at the guest house. Nilsson went over to ask the half-witted delinquent why he didn’t go in through unlocked front door”. (pg 127)

Was there ever a more boring rendition of a funny story?

Other than that, the only points of humour are Ms Salander’s T-shirts which declare stuff like “Armageddon was yesterday. Today we have a real problem”.

T-shirt humour? As I said, juvenile.

So would I read the other two Salander novels to complete Larsson’s trilogy?

Yes, what to do? I love Tom & Jerry.

Here's the trailer of the Swedish film by the same name:

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Freida Pinto on T-Mag: Or luck from one brown woman to another

Not much surprises me about India or Indians. But the enduring popularity of Freida Pinto has definitely surprised me.

This fall, she made it to the cover of the T Magazine - The New York Times Style Magazine that comes out every quarter, and the video above of her interview is available on the magazine website. It is no mean feat considering that she has only appeared in one bonafide film Slumdog Millionaire - an Oscar winner, sure, but still just one film. And even there, her total screen time didn't exceed more than 20 minutes, the Jai Ho song at the end included.

Sure enough, I liked her in the film two years ago. She was cute, small and most importantly really, really brown. Not tanned, not bronze, but brown. And being a brown person from a fairness-obsessed India, I was thrilled.

But there were reasons for me to believe that the fame was shortlived.

a) She didn't have Bollywood star looks. She is indeed too brown. So that career was not happening.
b) Slumdog Millionaire hardly tested her acting chops. She was mostly expected to look either sullen or terrified. So there was no reason for me believe that roles would drop into her lap. 
c) There are only so many Asian roles going in Hollywood, anyway.

The fact that she was immediately offered a James Bond film seemed to further my belief that her career was short-lived. Because, honestly, how many Bond girls can we think of who went to have serious long-lived careers as actresses?

But Ms Pinto has shown a remarkable ability to remain in news - and mostly for the right reasons. She has even wormed her way into the ensemble cast of the soon-to-be released Woody Allen film - You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. (Wouldn't it be thrilling if the title refers to Ms Pinto?).

Perhaps, the answer to her popularity lies in her charm. As her interview video evidences, she is talkative, intelligent, good humoured and doesn't seem to take herself too seriously. Fresh, fresh is the word that popped in my mind when I saw her interview.

I still don't believe that her career will be long-lived. Simply because we cannot ignore the fact that she is brown and very South Asian looking. To seem believable, she will have to embody characters that are South Asian. And for South Asian characters to emerge, we will need more South Asian writers in Hollywood. And as we all know, Indians don't write for a living, they become doctors and engineers.

Still, as one really, really brown person to another, I wish her all the luck. She has defied me once, I hope she defies me again.

The official trailor of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger: