Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Snowfall & Disney promises

It is not quite December and it is snowing outside.

I grew up with wistful visions of lovely snowfalls. Very few parts of India see snow. And since my economical parents wanted to save money on woollies, they made sure we never visited them in winter. But snowfalls still sneaked into our lives, thanks to Hollywood and all the Christmas releases. No wonder I thought that snowfalls always come packaged with romance, comedy and Christmas lights.

All that changed circa, February 2008, Amsterdam. And I learnt the hard lesson that snowfalls usually come with slush, annoyance, traffic jams, misery and, if you are really unlucky – a broken hipbone. In England, it usually comes with broken public transport as well, just to add to the fun. Needless to say, I am cured me of snowfall sickness forever.

England, for some odd reason, seems to be in denial about its proximity to the North Pole. In other Northern European countries that I lived in, people seemed more at peace with their winters. All houses compulsorily came with double-glazed windows, and as soon as the trees would start shedding their leaves, people would start bulking-up. Fashion was given a short shrift as they all bundled-up in their excellent, expensive winter coats, gloves, thermals and hats. By the time, the snow arrived – nobody even noticed it.

London’s Picadilly Circus knows only one season: that which requires girls in mini-skirts and sheer tights. Winter coats are designed more for fashion than for heavy snowfalls, and places like M&S don’t even stock real woollen cardigans. What you find are sweater lookalikes made out of synthetic mixes. Everything is cheap and most of it is useless. And all the three houses we have lived-in in London have had no double glazing. Public transport breaks down every winter and gas prices soar. And the worst part is: everyone appears shocked by the cold – every year!

But I have made my peace with winter. So if you see a tent waddling its way around London, do stop to say hi!

PS: My favourite winter memory relates to the song Hey There Delilah. Mostly because the Turkish-German cafe in Hamburg that I spent most of my 2008 winter in was always playing this song. So I always somehow associate winter with Hamburg, descending darkness outside, a cappucino cup warming my fingers and Hey There Delilah playing in the background. Here's to winters and Hey There Delihah.

Stopping by the hood on a snowy evening on PhotoPeach

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Evening Standard vs Talulah Riley: Who's playing whom?

Talulah Riley on the Evening Standard magazine cover
I am not a fan of celebrity magazines. I have nothing against them, only I find my own thoughts and ideas more interesting than anything that celebrities offer, so don’t see the point of reading them. But the one magazine that I can’t quite resist week-on-week is the Evening Standard magazine.

Mostly, I am intrigued by its peculiar criterion for selecting its cover celebrity – she has to be the wife or at least the ex-wife of someone fabulously wealthy and famous. Seldom are these women personalities in their own right. They usually land up saying lots of faintly ridiculous things with a straight face, which is faithfully presented with such extreme seriousness that it makes me suspect mockery. And yet, I can never be sure – which is what keeps me intrigued.

This Friday, it was the turn of 25-year-old Talulah Riley. As an “also appeared” in the films Pride & Prejudice and St Trinian’s, she was on her way to become a footnote to starlet history. Luckily, she caught the fancy of billionaire Elon Musk – the founder of PayPal and now space entrepreneur – who wooed her for a whole of 12 days until she agreed to become his second wife. His billions came with 5 boys [in a set of twins and triplets] from his previous marriage.

I felt quite sure that the journalist, Ms Hermoine Eyre, was mocking her, when she quoted Ms Riley saying:

On her husband’s space exploration projects --“I’d love to get involved with designing habitat systems on Mars – like housekeeping on a grand scale.”

On Musk and his five boys – “When I was little girl I told everyone I would marry a very clever scientist and have ten children. I would always draw the children and they included twin boys whom I named Theodore and Fredrick, Teddy and Freddy for short. It became a family joke, but.. Griffin and Xavier are those blonde-haired twins.”

On meeting Musk for the first time – “There he was, smiling this very big smile and talking about colonising Mars. I was already interested in that kind of thing – the Goldilocks zone of habitable planets and so forth.”

On how she told her father about Mr Musk – “Daddy, I’ve met the most amazing man who makes rockets.”

On her virginity until she met Musk – “I’ve never slept with anyone apart from Elon, which is nice. I mean, which is great.”

About herself – “I am very shy. I don’t drink. I had a gulp of alcohol once and it was disgusting – so bitter. I don’t drink tea or coffee. I’m like a child, I like fruit juices and sodas and creamy hot chocolate.”

Of Elon’s buddies, Facebook creator Zuckerberg and Google creators Larry Page and Sergey Brin.– They are “good people, doing good things... which is comforting, seeing as they could create an artificial intelligence to destroy us all.”

Why would Ms Eyre pick these exact quotes except to present Ms Riley in her full, glorious dumbness?

But then I start suspecting that she is actually buying into Ms Riley’s ridiculous Princess Di-meets-Marie Curie self-image, when she writes:

‘She [Ms Riley] rarely had boyfriends and was more interested in quantum mechanics. So in order to get a grounding in Newtonian physics, she was studying in her spare time at the Open University.’ [err… quantum mechanics is what people do their Phd in and Newtonian physics is what we study in eight grade in high school. Doesn’t Ms Eyre recognise the difference?].


I remember meeting her on the red carpet a few times at this point in her life [her pre-Mrs Talulah Musk days], and she always came across as withdrawn, but poised and perceptive.’

‘Throughout our interview, Talulah exudes calm happiness, not showing-off so much as simply pointing out her spouse’s qualities.’

‘Talulah, I am sure, holds her own [before Musk]. Last Christmas, just to tease him, she filled his stocking with coal.’

Who is playing whom? Is it that Talulah Riley recognises Ms Eyre for an idiot and is feeding her with all kinds of rubbish? Or does Mr Eyre recognise Ms Riley for a dumb blonde and is playing her along? Or is it that they are both idiots taking each other on face value?

Such a Freudian intrigue – how can I resist it?

Friday, November 26, 2010

No, I still think Louis Vuitton is pulling a fast one on us

Louis Vuitton in Paris
 It seemed like a good idea to view the exhibition on Louis Vuitton’s history at MuseĆ© Carnavalet in Paris. Andrew had recommended it. Besides, given my previously-expressed cynicism about the brand, I felt I owed it one chance to try and understand the secret of its unceasing popularity. Then again, we were in Marais, one of the most fashionable neighbourhoods I’ve ever visited, and it seemed somehow appropriate.

The exhibition traced the luggage-maker’s history since 1835 when 14-year-old Louis Vuitton undertook a two-year trek from his hometown Jura to Paris to become an apprentice for a luggage store on 4 rue des Capucine. It took him only another 18 years to set up his own eponymous store in the capital. But interestingly – and here’s where my respect for the company grew – the first 100 years of the luggage company were as much based on innovation as branding exercises.

Think about it: 1850s to 1950s is when the means, modes and quality of travel changed dramatically. From horse-drawn carts we sswiftly moved to ocean liners, trains, automobiles and airplanes. Naturally, a change in transport necessitated a change in our luggage designs – and Louis Vuitton constantly innovated to keep up with modern lifestyles.

Luggage and writing desk rolled into one
It started with changing the shape of our trunks from domed-tops to flat tops, which could be easily stacked on top of each other. Then they changed the material used for trunks from leather to coated canvas – less prestigious but sturdier. The House also started cleverly compartmentalising spaces inside to optimise usage. They created slim cabin trunks that could be slipped under the bunks of ocean liners and trains. They created drop leaf cases (where the front end would also drop along with the top) for picnic cases, once automobiles became fashionable. These picnic cases came complete with set-to-size cutlery inside. Among their more outlandishly innovative designs were suitcases with pop-up beds and built-in writing desks for longer exploratory journeys.

The designs were exciting because functionality and not just aesthetics lay at the heart of their creation.Interestingly, after the 1950s, such functionality-based innovation petered out and aesthetics, branding and marketing exercises took over. (It is also the time when the company moves out of family control after three generations of Louis Vuittons at the helm.) It is telling that barely two percent of the exhibits included designs made between the 1950s and now. These exhibits include the luggage custom-made for Damien Hirst, Karl Lagerfeld, Zaha Hadid and film maker Wes Andersen for his film, The Darjeeling Ltd. So their wow-factor had more to do with brand association than with design innovation.

My problem with Louis Vuitton is that even when it comes to aesthetics, the brand is stuck to one look, coming up with gazillion permutations and combinations within that narrow framework. It was Gaston Louis Vuitton – second in the chain – who came up with the brand’s distinctive lazenge motif in 1888, inspired by Japanese design which was all the rage in Paris at that time. But today, the distinctiveness and prominence of the motif has made the brand an extremely easy prey to forgers – for we live in a world of easy duplication. And yet, LVMH Group seems loathe to innovate their design which is a cash cow for them. It is a far call from the days when Louis Vuitton decided to replace leather on his truck cover with coated canvas – a decidedly less prestigious but lighter and sturdier material. He took a call based on functionality, and the canvas in elegant grey went on to become the company's signature design.

Sid says, travel hasn’t changed much since the 1950s. It is still aeroplanes that we travel in so what could they possibly innovate over? Well, the speed, frequency and quality of our travel has changed dramatically. We travel more, for shorter distances and with far lesser luggage. Surely, that requires a new attitude towards luggage making. For example, if Louis Vuitton once came up with a case with an in-built writing desk, then why not one with an in-built laptop board, a device that has attached itself to our beings?

It is because the brand is no longer about innovation in luggage making. It is just another corporation looking for the easiest and safest way to cash-in on the hard-earned reputation of its founding fathers.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

FT, Martin Parr and whether ex-Mumbaikars suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome

I finally got around to reading the FT Weekend Magazine on my way back from Paris.

The tantalising cover and the bold “Seven Days in South Asia” had me most excited. I mean, how often do you see a North Indian woman in a violent pink sari and comic sunglasses on the cover of FT?

Unfortunately, the story was a let-down. It was written in the style of a diary of the FT editor Lionel Barber about his weeklong trip to India and Pakistan. During the eight days – yes, it was eight days but I guess, “Seven days in South Asia” just sounds better – he essentially hobnobbed with the rich and the powerful of the two countries starting with the governor of West Bengal, followed by Mamata Bannerjee, Mukesh Amabani, Anil Ambani, Anil Agarwal of Vedanta Group, Ananda Mahindra, Ratan Tata, PRS Oberoi of Oberoi Hotel, the Ruias, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Manmohan Singh, the governor of Punjab Salman Taseer, and finally Asif Ali Zardari. As all these interviews had to be reduced to a four page story, what we get is mostly his impressions and a few quotes to support those impressions. All that is fine by me. But why the comic, cheeky cover image which suggested insights into the self-perceptions of ordinary Indians? To me, the cover seemed disingenuous and misleading.

The image was shot by Martin Parr. Chirodeep, a photojournalist friend of mine, had first told me about him. Then in a space of a week, I found myself gazing at this works twice. First on the FT cover, and then again at an exhibition at Maison EuropĆ©enne de la Photographie, which was a part of a month-long photography festival in Paris. Parr’s photographs at the exhibition were from one of his early acclaimed series published in 1986 about British tourists holidaying at Brighton.

The exhibition was about extreme photography: or images that pushed either the photographer or the audience to the extremes of their physical, social, imaginative and/or emotional abilities, and how just by doing so, made the experience a little bit mundane.

Which is why this image by Gabriele Basilico stayed with me for long after I had left the exhibition. It caught my eye the moment I entered the room, mostly because from a distance it looked like Mumbai to me. A densely packed neighbourhood with mid-rise buildings in a semi-ruinous state, where else could it be? It turned out to be shots of bombed-out Beirut from 1991. But honestly, even at a closer look, it kind of looked like Mumbai on an ordinary day to me. It was appalling to think that we Mumbaikars live in what most people would consider “extreme conditions” on an everyday basis.

But don’t extreme conditions come with some form of associated trauma? Which makes me wonder whether I am suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, now that I am not living in Mumbai anymore?

What would its symptoms be? If I had to guess, they would be:
A)    A rush of joy at the sound of traffic noise
B)    Tap water-related paranoia
C)    Morbid fear of silence
D)    And a constant bursting into happy tears at the sight of crowds

If you have any other suggestions, feel free to leave to use the comment space.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A discourse on prejudice: Or why I love coming to Paris.

What I love most about being in Paris is that I can’t understand a word of what anyone is saying. So everyone sounds intelligent and educated to me. Besides, how stupid can they be – they SPEAK French!

In England, I can eavesdrop and am constantly reminded of the general pettiness of human race. Because really, all that people ever do is complain and bitch. Like the two ladies who sat next to Sid & I in the Eurostar to Paris. Three hours! For three hours, all they did was bitch about people, including ironically the girl for whose hen’s party they were visiting Paris.

Worse, in England I can detect accents. And it gives me a sense of people’s background and education – if not of their intelligence. I try, I really try not to judge them on the basis of it. But despite my best efforts, if someone sounds like Katie Price aka Jordan, it is likely to be a short acquaintance. Because I have only limited social time and I would rather spend it with people with whom my wavelengths have at least half-a-chance to match.

In India, the instant judgements go much further because I know the society so much better. Accents aren’t the only giveaway to people’s histories there. In India, I can guess a person’s caste, community and culture by his or her very name. Add an address and occupation to that, and a person’s whole life is reasonably mapped out before me without any effort on my part.

Of course, every now and then I am proved wrong. But it is not pleasing to start an acquaintance under the burden of prejudice.

As a student of media, I know that stereotyping people is wrong. We should not slot people on the basis of their colour, ethnicity, culture, community, caste, accent or education. Because over and above all they are individuals, and their shared cultural experiences will always be modified by their own unique personalities. But how do I train my brain to filter out people’s colour, names, accents and addresses and begin every acquaintance with a clean slate. It just refuses to listen to me.

So instead, I live with guilt: the guilt of a good, Labour-supporting liberal.

And occasionally, I escape to Paris where I can always assume the best of everyone.

The Scottish comedia Danny Bhoy on French accents

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

London's Most Expensive: Or why I love and hate online journalism

What I love and hate about the internet and online journalism is the power it places in the hands of the readers.

I love it because sometimes the commentary by readers opens your eyes to the most curious ideas – ideas that that would have never occured to you. For example, when I wrote a blog about how Frieda Pinto is a fairly average-looking girl in India, I practically got assaulted by an American fan of hers in the commentary section. Her argument was that Pinto wasn’t Indian at all, but Latina, and that Indians in general were ugly and racist and hated Pinto.

Ok, so her language offensive. But I had never thought of Pinto as Latina-looking. But damn it, she is. I can see her playing Latina roles – if her acting chops are up to it – and make a successful Hollywood career out of it. But for the trenchant reader, I would have never thought of it.

But I hate it when readers point out factual errors in your story. For example, I recently wrote an article for the website Londonist on some of London’s most expensive experiences. One of them was London’s most expensive whiskey, and my research led me to a £740 double measure of whiskey at Albannach Bar at Trafalgar Square. My conclusion was based on other media reports, personal memory and internet research. And I thought how could one possibly trump £740 for a shot of whiskey?

Only, as one reader pointed out, Dorchester can. It offers a “Macallan 57 years in Lalique Crystal” for £870.

Thankfully, we were clever enough to put a rider at the end of the story asking readers to trump our finds. So we had already put the humble idea out there that our finds may not be the full and final truth.

Still, I hate being trumped. But as most literature on the future of journalism suggests, I should just get used to it.

Here's a little clip from Drop the Dead Donkey - a satirical series on journalism from its good ol' days in the '80s. Can you imagine any journalist getting away with it today!