Monday, December 14, 2009

Paleri Manikyam: Oru Pathira Kolapathakathinte Katha

It is 1957 – the year the World’s first democratically elected Communist government, under the leadership of EMS Namboodiripad, is about to take over the governmental reins from the Congress. It is also the year when the first rape case is registered in Kerala – Manikyam, a poor low caste girl, is brutally raped and murdered in a small village called Paleri in North Kerala. The investigation into this crime, 52 years later, forms the crux of this intricately executed movie, directed by Renjith, based on T P Rajeevan’s novel of the same name. This is Renjith’s most ambitious and mature work so far and is undoubtedly among the best movies of the year.

Manikyam (Mythili) was the bride of the village idiot Pokkan, the son of one of Paleri’s once-most desired women, Cheeru (Shwetha Menon). The morning after the whole village leaves to see a new drama in the town and Pokkan leaves along with a magician to perform some rituals, Manikyam is found dead in Cheeru’s house.

There is a police investigation but the accused are let off scot-free by a local court, even though the public by and large thinks that the rich landlord Murikkumkunnath Ahmed Haji (Mammootty again) is behind the murder. A private detective Haridas (Mammooty), accompanied by a crime analyst Sarayu (Gowri Munjal), land in Paleri after 52 years to investigate this case but the intent of the team to get involved with this case after so many years is indeed puzzling till we reach mid-stream, when the story introduces a personal angle (a deviation from the novel).

But Paleri Manikyam is not an investigative thriller in the true sense and if you are expecting a CBI Dairy story or even something like Pavithran’s Utharam, you would be grossly mistaken. There is a scene in the movie when a veteran Communist worker asks Haridas the relevance of such an investigation after 50 long years when none of the main players of the drama are alive and Haridas says that this could be an investigation either out of curiosity or possibly a look at the conditions of the period in Malabar when such a story happened and learning from it. (In an interesting conversation when his companion Sarayu says that this is somebody’s life and not a story, Hari replies that after death, everyone’s life is just a story – so relevant to our times). The intent is clearly not a who-dun-it mystery but a slow and steady permeation into the event and it definitely satisfies the viewer who is willing to wait and watch as the story unravels.

The movie follows a complex narrative where the story moves back and forth through the eyes of its various characters. Haridas narrates most of the events and moves along with the various characters in the movie which gives it a quasi-documentary feel at times. A scene which truly conveys the beauty of the narrative is when on one side of the frame we see Manikyam along with her husband coming to the village on a boat after her marriage, on the other side we see her corpse being taken away in a boat, with the narrator standing on the shore in the middle, and making a comment! There is an almost Rashomon like effect we witness as each character presents his own version of the story and we are left wondering where the truth lies. Such narration techniques have not been attempted in mainstream Malayalam cinema and Renjith pulls it off with aplomb.

Paleri Manikyam is set in rural North Kerala in the late 1950s and Renjith, along with Manoj Pillai (the cinematographer), takes us into this world and it is a fascinating effort. Capturing Kerala on canvas is a cake walk for any cinematographer but Renjith uses the backdrop itself acts as a character in the plot, with a mixture of colours which add to the intrigue surrounding the town. The music by Sarath and Bijbal also does not vie too much attention and percolates the background surely but certainly.

The political upheavals of the period also necessitate the role of petty politics in the drama. Barber Keshavan (Srinivasan) is a grassroots communist worker (the conscience of the village as Haridas refers to him) who believes in class struggle and refuses to work on the day EMS is sworn in but he is eventually dismayed to see the party succumbing to the elite, against whom they had battled. In his own words, he is neither a believer nor a communist – just a mere hairdresser. It is his disillusionment with the Party which leads him to provide the valuable inputs that help in piecing together the story.

K P Hamsa (veteran screenwriter T Damodaran), on the other hand, is a pragmatic Communist leader who realizes that the movement needs the support of the rich and is willing to compromise a few things for what he believes is the greater good. While the movie points a finger at the party for its rule in the cover up, you also realize that there was no personal benefit that was intended and was purely for the growth of the party (a rarity by today’s standards). He knows that a classless society is utopia and that the oppressed needs the oppressor to sustain the movement, so the marriage between the bourgeoisie and the Party to suppress the death of a poor girl, who nobody cares for her.

The police investigation in the late 50s was clearly more primitive when compared to today, which meant that the importance of circumstantial evidence and testimony was much higher, in the absence of technological support. Manikyam’s body is carried in jute mats across the river by boat on an overnight journey to Vadakara for post-mortem which exposed the body to further deterioration and could possibly endanger the evidence. The judiciary had to also contend with the fact that this was the first such case before them but we do not know whether the complexity of a rape case was understood at that time.

One weak link in the story is the relevance of the sub-plot involving Haridas and his girlfriend. Sarayu has a broken relationship with her husband, while Haridas has a faithful unsuspecting wife and a pleasant family life, but still he desires his colleague (he interestingly draws a parallel with Ahmed Haji for a similar failing) but this thread is not developed enough for us to draw any form of parallel with the main track.

Maybe if the film moved along interspersed with a few subtle hints regarding their relationship or his family troubles, it could have had a greater impact; otherwise, Haridas simply doing the investigation himself would also have sufficed, unless the lady character added something extra in the plot. Of course, the fact that the actress playing Sarayu also seemed a bit lost at times does not help the cause.

The other area which could possibly have a greater flourish would be the climax - it could have been more underplayed possibly or maybe even skipped because it did seem a tad artificial (especially by the movie's standards). The novel merely mentions Ahmed Haji’s son but the film goes further and builds a climax on the basis of this man, who makes a late entry. I do not want to add any spoilers here but it would be sufficient to say that even without this contrivance, the movie would have worked.

The movie boasts of an interesting cast – a lot of non-professionals were selected by Renjith to play various important roles in the movie after conducting an extensive workshop. This actually helps in giving it a more authentic feel and ensuring that we are not swayed by their usual appearances. The S K Pallipuram character who is the architect of the drama on the night of the rape is a small but interesting character; he also provides Haridas with a missing official report which helps in linking a few vital cogs. He represents the liberal who lies in his drunken arrogant stupor, who wields a great deal of influence by virtue of the might of his words but is too lost in his own world, under the influence of alcohol, to make a difference to the society – eventually becoming a mere pawn in the hands of the powerful.

While most of the actors are adequate (except Gowri Munjal), the pick of the cast are Mammooty and Shwetha Menon. Shwetha is at ease while exuding oomph as well as pathos as the older forsaken mistress of the Haji and is slowly emerging as an actress to watch for in the Kerala film horizon. Mammooty’s performance as Ahmed Haji is stellar and though the character is one-dimensional, it is played to perfection and is definitely a memorable performance (Kamal’s take on this role would be another caricature with more emphasis on the physical self).

My last four movies have been Bhramaram, Kerala Cafe, Loud Speaker and now Paleri Manikyam and if this is any evidence of Malayalam cinema slowly emerging out of its worst phase, then we are definitely in for exciting times. Renjith has once again shown (after Thirakatha and Kaiyoppu) that he is an exciting talent and the new generation (with the likes of Lal Jose, Renjith Shankar and others) is ready to revive the lost art called Malayalam cinema.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

A Journey to the Dhauladhars

One of the more immediate challenges after marriage is to organize the honeymoon. The pressures are high – it’s the first time you are organizing something and wifey is looking to you to pull it off without any hiccups. After a lot of creative inputs from anyone and everyone who’s trying to help, we decide to go on a trip to Himachal Pradesh. There are 2 couples – me and Sangeetha and Anil and Divya and we agree on an approximate budget of about 30-35 K for the entire trip.

The whole of Himachal has been divided by HPTDC in four circuits: Tribal, which mainly includes the Lahaul Spiti region, Sutlej, which is the region around Simla, Naldhera, Kufri, Beas, which is the Kullu Manali and surrounding region, and the Dhauladhar circuit, which covers Dalhousie, Chamba valley, Dharamsala, etc. HP, for all practical purposes, generally refers to Shimla, Kullu and Manali. Based on friendly advice, we decide to go for the seemingly less untrodden (by HP standards) Dhauladhar circuit. So the final plan is put on paper – 2 nights in Palampur, a night in McLeodganj and the last 2 nights in Dalhousie.

The journey begins on Nov 22nd when we board an Air India flight from Mumbai to New Delhi. Sangeetha and I do not get adjacent seats and so I request the gentlemen around me if they could adjust but sadly, none of them is willing to compromise. It is her maiden flight trip and I am slightly apprehensive of sitting apart but we manage, despite the rather inhospitable behaviour of the grumpy folk who sit around us in the plane.

Anil and wife join us (from Jamnagar) at the Old Delhi Railway Station (DLI in IRCTC) as we catch the Jammu Mail on a 10 hour journey to go to Pathankot, the nearest station to reach Palampur. We make the mistake of booking a second class ticket and the conditions are pretty cold; wiser counsel would suggest travelling by AC where the temperature is controlled and blankets are available. Thankfully, we are well-equipped to meet the cold and bring in a pair of sweaters, thermal wear, woollen gloves and socks and monkey caps to protect the ears but the cold is biting and we need to protect ourselves well enough.

Day-1 brings us to Pathankot, an hour and half behind schedule at about 8.30 in the morning. If you reach early, you could use the Kangra Valley train to go to Palampur (these trains have to be booked on arrival and are not available in IRCTC); this is called a Toy Train and is a major attraction for tourists as they travel across the beautiful valleys at such heights. Our stay is planned at Country Cottage, a family-run home stay type setup run by the Sarins. A pre-arranged cab picks us up from Pathankot Station and we travel for over 3 hours before we reach Palampur, a small town better known for its tea estates and the charm is the quiet British type plantations.

The Sarins had bought the place from the British about a century back and have been running their cottage for the past 20+ odd years. The place has 5 cottages and can house only as many families at any point of time. The hospitality is excellent (a tad pretentious possibly at times) and a special mention needs to be given for the food, though it is quite expensive. The cook serves you food hot and ensures that the eating experience there is truly a memorable one. The Country Cottage Stay is a leisure stay and not a typical tourist one – you can spend time primarily taking a walk across to the river, trekking along the hills and enjoying the solitude. The cottages are quite comfortable, but the heating facilities – water and room- were not upto the mark but I assume that this is to be only a temporary issue. There is an Adivasi temple about 4 km from the cottage, which is a nice and wonderful 3 hour trek – the temple has nothing to recommend but the walk is worth it.

On Day-2, we do the trek to the temple in the morning and return to visit 2 tourist spots suggested to us in the afternoon– the Baijnath temple and the Sherbaling Monastery. The Baijnath Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and was built in the 13th Century. But it’s kind of disappointing because to a Keralite, the temple would appear a rather small one, shorn of much tradition or culture. You can visit but we don’t recommend this; it is a small temple and has nothing much to offer.

Sherbaling Monastery is situated much higher and can be a more interesting place but without any form of guidance, it wouldn’t mean much. Our driver drops us in front of the Monastery and we are not sure how to proceed inside. There is a mediation class going on when we reach the place and the hall is out of bounds for us. The reverberations of the chanting reach us which has an impact but otherwise as tourists, we are lost inside, especially with no one to guide (but as Anil suggested maybe, they do not intend to treat it as a tourist place and do not refuse us only out of a sense of gratitude). Also, we do not intend to rake up an issue by straying into an unknown place and touching something which could be sensitive.

On Day-3 morning, we check out of the Country Cottage and head towards McLeodganj (Upper Dharamshala), located about 2000m above sea level. The drive from Palampur to McLeodganj is relatively short and takes about 1.5-2 hours (time taken is primarily due to the height that we travel here). We are put up at 8 Auspicious Him View Hotel, a small unpretentious 8 room hotel located at walking distance from the main temple. Each of the 8 rooms is decorated according to one of the 8 auspicious symbols of Buddhism; the hotel is comfortable, cheap and well-located. Special mention needs to be given to Mr Tsering Dorjee, who manages the hotel – a pleasant young man, who is very helpful and well-mannered. Mr Dorjee provides us a map of the place and explains to us the main places to visit and volunteers to help us show around the place, if required.

Armed with a map in hand, we trace our steps to the main temple where His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama is addressing a group of Russians; unfortunately, the police do not allow us in and ask us to return after 4 pm to see the place. Since we have just a night to stay, we decide to leave the Main Temple and visit the Bhagsu Nag temple and Waterfalls, about 2 km from our hotel. The temple and waterfalls are also no great shakes (though the waterfall could be a delight when in good flow) but are ok if you are looking for a walk up the hills. Mr Dorjee also recommends the Naddi Village and the Norbulingka (a Tibetan Institute started by the Tibetans to ensure that traditional Tibetan art and culture would not die down) but one night would be enough to cover all these places. Nevertheless, for such a trip, we don’t fancy travelling more in McLeodganj.

Our Hotel serves only Tibetan food and so we settle down for some vegetarian momos (a form of Tibetan dumpling),Thukpa soup (a Tibetan noodle soup) and herbal tea. Can’t say we enjoyed it much but then doesn’t being a tourist require one to even try out the local cuisine. McLeodganj is famous for the Dalai Lama and I guess that’s the only thing I can think of – the entire place is littered with Tibetan markets and restaurants and inundated with foreigners, pouring in from all corners. If you are looking for a quiet place, McLeodganj is definitely not where you should be headed – looks more like a place where Tibetans run small markets and white men come in large numbers, in searching of mystic solutions to life.

Day-4 does not start exactly on a great note as there is a power cut in most of McLeodganj, meaning no hot water to bathe, except whatever is stored in the geyser!!! We manage to wash our way through and proceed towards our last halt – Dalhousie. Built around five hills, Dalhousie is located on the western edge of the Dhauladhar mountain range, at a height of about 2200 m above sea level and named after Lord Dalhousie who was the British viceroy in India at that time.

A 150 km long cab travel takes us to Hotel Grand View, an old British style hotel establishes in 1895. Grand View, true to its name, opens to a breath taking view of snow capped mountains and provides a wonderful and most comfortable stay. It has a rather spacious dining room with an attached imperial looking bar (called Viceroy Lounge Bar!!!), big rooms and very helpful staff, which make the stay a real delight. We retire to the night’s chillness after a brief walk, cut short by the constant and scary movement of vehicles at dizzy heights.

For Day-5, we decide to explore around Dalhousie and book a cab to visit Khajiar and Chamba town. The travel to Khajiar (24 km from Dalhousie) is beautiful with its pine and deodar trees and flakes of snow (from a snowfall of an earlier week). Khajjiar known as “Mini Switzerland” was officially baptized by the Swiss Ambassador on July 7, 1992 and as per records, a stone was taken here and forms part of the stone sculpture erected in Berne, capital of Switzerland. It is no longer as peaceful and serene as it used to be and we have vendors constantly rushing around to take your photos, give you a horse ride etc. but it still remains a beautiful patch of landscape in the entire area.

After a couple or more hours in Khajjiar, we proceed to Chamba town, where our driver first takes us to Bhuri Singh Museum (strictly for followers of history) and the Laxmi Narayan Temple. This temple houses 7 main temples dedicated to Shiva and Krishna and a few other smaller temples around it (do we have an English equivalent word for Upa devata???) and is atleast worth a visit after the 2-3 not so inspiring temples that we came across in the visit. On our way back, our driver halts at a couple of vantage points for us – one on the banks of River Ravi where the river bed was dry and we can see the magnificent flow of the river and secondly, at a point where we can see the Dam being constructed across this river (this is now being harnessed for hydro-electric power).

After all this travel, on Day-6, we hire a cab to go to Pathankot railway station. All Pathankot trains to Delhi are in the noon or night, so you’d have to plan accordingly on how to plan this day. Since most hotels have a check out time of 12 Noon, the evening 4.30 Muri Express is a comfortable one to catch. We had planned to have our lunch at the station but funnily, the only food available at the station is the quintessential burger at the IRCTC food stall – burgers in Pathankot!!! We get into the train only to realize that the seat numbering in the train is all goofed up, primarily because Laloo’s brainwave of 4 seats in the main berths and 3 in the side berth had been implemented and then revoked but the numbering had not changed. So, you had a situation of multiple seat numbers at the same seat and massive confusion everywhere. Anyway, with all this conundrum (including being woken up at 1 AM by a passenger claiming that I was sleeping in his berth), we manage to reach Old Delhi by 5 AM.

At the entrance of the Old Delhi Railway Station (next to the car park on the west exit), you can find a 24-hr Food Joint called ComeSum, from where we buy our breakfast before we catch our respective flights. Pre-paid cabs are not available at the station (the cops at the pre-paid counter ask us to talk to the taxi driver directly) and so we settle down for an auto to the Airport. The early morning ride in November in the auto is chilling but free of traffic and we reach the place in about half an hour before we catch a 10 AM flight to return to Mumbai and close our journey while Anil and Divya catch a 12 Noon flight to Ernakulam.

The trip was a memorable one and there were a few things that we learnt. Going alone is not necessarily the best idea; travelling with a friends’ group (especially couples) is a rewarding experience. The place gets pretty dark by 5.30 in the evening in winter and it’s a great idea to sit around a fire place and spend time together as a group. Off season travel helps in a great deal of cost-cutting and ensures that you face lesser crowds. Most hotels arrange cab pickups as and when you require so you do not have to worry about the travel at all. Travelling in winter (kind of autumn in our case) means that you need to be well-prepared in terms of clothing. When you travel by train to cold places in winter, book seats in AC and not in 2nd Class – this ensures a much higher degree of comfort.

Every journey has its high and low points - as long as the high outscore the low ones, you have done a good job. Be open-minded and nice to people and travelling becomes an experience that you can cherish for a long time...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Nostalgia Beckons: Part 1

Nostalgia is an integral part of our culture in Kerala, which passes on from generation to generation and becomes a major cause of pain as well as joy in our lives. A few days back, Sanju and I saw Jayaraj’s Loudspeaker where Sashi Kumar and Mammooty go to Sashi Kumar’s tharavadu and visit his past – a life he had run away from to a distant place, away from the memories of the location. Just like him, don’t we have our own memories that we want to get back to?

Para is a small village in Palakkad, a name that has been derived from the Malayalam word ‘para’ which means rock. It is a small, laidback place with greater proximity to Pollachi and parts of Tamil Nadu than Kerala – which gave it a part Tam-part Mal feeling. To reach our house from the main road, we had to do a small 5-10 minutes ‘para’ trek and there majestically stood our house Krishna Vihar.

It seems we were once upon a time the landlords of the area and there was very little else there, which did not belong to us. And then, the familiar story of the EMS-initiated communist land reforms robbed us of most of the property till we had a very truncated area of our own. Truncated still meant more than 10 acres of forest land, agricultural land, a pond (kolam) and cattle and so much more which was sold off at regular intervals till finally, the entire place-lock, stock and barrel was sold off a year back (more about that in another post).

Like many well-educated Malayalees, my parents found their calling outside Kerala – in Hyderabad and for the past 35 years that has been our home but the heart still remains somewhere in God's Own Country . Every year, during the summer vacation months of April and May, we (parents and brother) found ourselves trooping all the way to Palakkad, in a long 30+ hour long journey. Now, thanks to the Sabari Express, you have a direct train connecting Hyderabad and Palakkad but then during these days, we had to take a train to Chennai and after a few hours, there would be a connecting train (I remember travelling by the West Coast Express distinctly).

After me and brother joined college, I don’t think that we ever travelled together – the memories of travelling together as a family and spending 24-30 hours together in the confines of a compartment with the rest of the Mallu diaspora (even if this is within India) was something to cherish. And for those who remember those were the days before IRCTC came into existence and railway ticket booking had to be done only at the counters. So, 90 days before, Achchan and I would stand in front of the Secunderabad booking office gate at about 6.30-7 AM, waiting for the gates to open and the moment it did, we would all rush in to grab the nearest booking counter (with so many Mallus outside Kerala, it is still a struggle to get tickets if not 90 days in advance, especially in summer).

The trip to Kerala meant lots of planning for all of us. Achchan would buy us a book each to read during our train journey and that would be usually books like The Hardy Boys or The Three Investigators (Nancy Drew always seemed so girlish!!!) and by the time we were in Palakkad, both of us would have completed one book each. The other main investment involved buying a game that all of us could play during the vacations – so you had board games like Ludo, Trade (a domestic version of Monopoly), Indoor Cricket (we played a cricket World Cup with each of us representing a couple of teams) and Scotland Yard (a fancy detective game whose ads we had seen in TV, don’t know if kids nowadays still play this).

There would be one major suitcase and many other small bags to be carried and also a food basket (we used to call it food kotta – a queer old red bag in which the food was kept that we used to carry in every visit). Amma would cook idli, lemon rice or chapatti and even carry curd and pack it for the travel and the only thing we bough outside would be sambharam or tea (It’s been a long time since I ever had home food in trains). The return journey was obviously melancholic and we always had additional luggage, including one sack full of coconuts and chips of all types.

After about 20 hours of travel, Kerala arrives in the form of greenery - so much in contrast to the rest of the journey. But I still remember, that the first scenes that I notice generally once the train enters Walayar are 2 notice boards - Welcome to Kerala and Toddy Bar. It did surprise me then but now, I have reconciled to the fact that alcohol is thicker than blood in Kerala and drinking and reminiscing is an integral part of our culture.

The Para house was meant to be a congregation of all cousins in summer and so there were about 4-5 of us staying for the entire period, with regular visitors through the period. Going to Malayalam movies meant usually the entire family watching a new Malayalam release, preferably a Mohan Lal one (in those days, when he still remained one of us, the middle class hero) in the town – usually Priya or Priyadarshini theatre. These theatres still remain and the highest ticket rate is 40 Rs, which makes it a visual fiscal delight, untouched by the speed of Internet booking and Credit Card terminals.

Mind you, I am still talking about the best theatre in Palakkad – our regular theatre visits were to the theatres near our house, Thara and Jagadambika (ticket prices ranging from 10-20 Rs with wooden chairs and thatched roofs). Curiously, Thara theatre screened mostly Tamil movies, with a sprinkling of Malayalam movies – only Mallu super hit movies could displace the Tamil influence there and we had no Raj Thackerays agitating against the cultural invasion of the Pandis (But then Palakkad has this anomaly – Malayalam movies do only half as successful as Tamil ones).

Being a Kerala expatriate had its advantages – people there back in the village looked at us in a certain awe (or maybe I felt it that way) and we were the foreigners who descended on the place once a year, speaking Malayalam in an unknown accent and masquerading as sons of the soil. But then every family had some body or the other in Gulf, so we were the wannabes, the local foreigners – the guys who fled the shores of Kerala but still lived in India.

I did have my own share of a cultural identity crisis – felt like a Mallu when in Hyderabad and when in Palakkad, I was a Keralite but what was I; someone who used to speak Malayalam with a flawed accent, used to think and speak in English but was more at ease watching Hindi films and listening to Hindi music (especially, the Rafi and Kishore types). This identity confusion has been there for a long time and though I am a member of every group, I am still an outsider in every group………..

Image: Courtesy -

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Kerala Cafe - A Review

In the midst of these struggling times of Malayalam cinema, auteur Ranjith and friends, inspired by the French movie Paris Je t'aime, go bold and attempt to experiment with their craft by weaving 10 tales into a single film. On the common theme of journeys, each filmmaker presents his cinematic impression of contemporary times in Kerala, which integrates at Kerala Cafe – a railway cafetaria.

Cafe brings 10 new generation directors together as they combine to form these plots, which culminate in the Cafe. Malayalam cinema has seen multiple directors acting together for a single movie like in the climax of Manichitrathazhu and multiple stories in one movie like in Adoor’s movies like Naalu Pennangal and Oru Pennum Randaanum but this is a new idea. Interestingly, Ranjith opted out of directing any story in it as he felt that being a director of any one story would reduce his involvement with the entire concept.

The first story is Nostalgia, a 10 minute film, based on R. Venugopal's poem Naatuvazhikal. It is about an NRI who is nostalgic about his native land and his childhood, but once back home finds it difficult to cope with the situations. When abroad, he waxes eloquently about Dasettan, the lakes, ponds, fishes and all but when on vacation to India, he rants against the government, the potholes on the road, the bureaucracy and the people. He eventually signs a deal to sell off his ancestral mansion and flies back to Dubai, to commence his nostalgic laments all over again. He is a money minded person who uses nostalgia merely as a ruse.

Shankar Ramakrishnan's The Island Express commences with Prithiviraj talking about his 3 idols in life - Jesus, Frankenstein and Mangalassery Neelakantan. He speeds off to Kerala with his girl friend to show her something. There are other characters like an old woman (Sukumari) an army officer (Jayasurya), a depressed school teacher (Maniyanpillai Raju) and an ex-Ranji cricketer (Rahman) all of who, along with Prithviraj, converge at a single point – the site of a train accident, to which they are all connected (based on the Perumon train tragedy in 1988). The narrative is kind of confounding and the tragedy did not quite get to me. It seemed there were too many fleeting characters who are connected by the tragedy but the technique seems to mar the feel.

Shaji Kailas decides to do away with his penchant for guns and approaches marital infidelity in his story LalithamHiranmayam. Ramesh (Suresh Gopi) is caught between his wife Lalitha (Jyothirmayi) and mistress Mayi (Dhanya) and is unable to proceed. He goes through this turmoil which culminates in an accident and then death, leaving his wife and kid and pregnant mistress. The 2 women eventually find company in each other helping them to sustain their lives. The story is simple but over indulgent in style (the constant rain and close ups and all that), which kind of undermines the emotional undertones of the story but nevertheless, it showcases a different Shaji Kalias.

Uday Ananthan's Mrityunjayam is a horror flick which is as puzzling to the moviegoers as it is to the spook investigators in the film. The plot has an inquisitive journalist (Fahd Fazil – Fazil’s son is still there somewhere folks!!!) who goes to Ottapalam to cover a story on olden day rituals, beliefs and some facts behind a haunted house which is owned by a great scholar played by Thilakan. There is also a spooky girl (Rima Kallingal) who adds a mysterious seductive touch to the proceedings – adding to the horror cliche. We are not quite sure what happens except that the journalist perishes and the entire thing goes outside our realm of understanding.

Anjali Menon’s Happy Journey is a hilarious script which deals with the interaction between a flirtatious insurance surveyor (Jagathy) and a pretty girl (Nithya Menon) who is the subject of his advances in a bus, as they journey from Kochi to Kozhikode. The story is an interesting psychological combat between the 2 protagonists and by the time the journey ends, the power equations turn an entire 180 degree. Happy Journey observes very closely what makes the male and female psyche and also skillfully weaves in the theme of terrorism into this 14 minute tale.

B.Unnikrishnan’s Aviramam addresses itself to the contemporary social milieu and deals with the life of a couple who struggles to go on as recession takes a toll on their lives. Ravi’s (Siddique) business is sinking and he is reeling under a set of debts and the recession has cut off most of his avenues. He, however, pretends that things are improving and tries to shield his family from the news of his actual state of affairs. He sends his family on a short vacation of three days and heads back home to give it all up. Aviramam has a simple, honest structure and is easiest to relate to and ends with a sense of hope; it works primarily due to the warmth of the characters but per se does not offer anything new.

Surprisingly, the only so-called comedy film comes from Shyamaprasad in Off Season. It deals with Kunjappai (Suraj Venjarammoodu) who pulls out all stops to attract a Portuguese couple on an off season in Kovalam. His hopes of earning some quick money are however dashed when he learns that they are totally broke and have come all the way from Lisbon looking for work. There is not much of a story here to mention and comes off as a funny ad film with a few quirky dialogues here and there. I do not have an issue with the idea but with Shyamaprasad at the helm, you would be looking for something more concrete. It looks like one of biggies of Kerala parallel cinema is overshadowed by the Young Turks.

My favourite story in this collection is Bridge by Anwar Rasheed and is probably the crowd favourite too, going by the applause that it received in the theatre when the story came to an end. There are 2 parallel tracks here- one dealing with the mother-son relationship between Salim Kumar and Santhadevi and the other between a young boy separated from his kitten – and the tracks intersect at the end and in the process creating an unforgettable drama with pathos. The sense of loss and isolation is conveyed so vividly in such a short span of time, making it an unforgettable piece of cinema.

Makal by Revathy is a straight-forward narrative dealing with the issue of child trafficking. Sona Nair and Sreenath play a couple who adopt a girl child from a remote village only to sell her off. The pay-off happens in the Cafe and makes it the only story which uses the Kerala Cafe as more than an intersection point of the stories. The story is realistic and touches on the danger of unregulated adoption among the poor. Initially, I though the story dealt with adoption or young maid harassment but the sudden twist at the end was indeed shocking. At the end, when Sona Nair touches upon her lip stick, you realize where this is headed but couldn’t Revathy have avoided this clichéd shot? Makal is a bit melodramatic but is still a pertinent and shocking tale.

The film signs off with Lal Jose’s Puram Kazhchakal based on a short story by C V Sreeraman. The movie begins with Sreenivasan making a trip recollecting his own memories of a doomed love affair and intermittently peeps into the ongoings in the bus. Time is of least relevance to the passengers (a group even takes a minute off from the bus to capture the waterfalls) except to a nameless character (Mammooty) who is angry and impatient at its speed and quarrels with everyone. His character is a sense of ridicule and irritation to everyone till the sudden twist in the tale; this last scene has an almost O Henry touch in its tragic twist and leaves us thinking on how we judge people.

Kerala Cafe is definitely an experiment worth the effort of all the directors who have came together to create this concept. Though the movie theme is Yatra, the journey is only incidental in many of the stories and each of them is unrelated to the other. Ranjith has succeeded in bringing an interesting blend of young directors, with a mix of commercial and parallel cinema and presenting a concept which is new and will hopefully inspire more such attempts. Each story is different and clearly will not be liked by everyone but it is heartening to see an attempt to break free from conventional methods and create a grammar, well within the boundaries of commercial cinema. Such an effort requires all our support.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Stepping into Wedlock

Dear Folks, It’s finally marriage time!!! Sangeetha & I invite you to share our joy as we solemnize our marriage on 23rd Oct 2009 (Friday) in Palakkad, Kerala.

In lieu of the fact that this is expected to be our one and only marriage, we have put in some effort in the invitation to draw your attention to this event. We secretly hope that you’d be impressed by our wed(b)site and decide to make it for the marriage:)

Actually there are a few more reasons:

1. The marriage is in KERALA…Do you need a bigger incentive?????

2. It is scheduled for the weekend, bordering Diwali…2 days to relax outside your workplace; isn’t that a relief? You owe it to your family, don’t you?

3. Didn’t someone say that getting a couple married is a very noble thing?? There are more reasons, but I’m sure you are the best judges…


Oct 23rd, 2009 – a bright Friday (hopefully, the rains would take a detour from the incessant pouring) will be a momentous day in our lives – Sangeetha and I would enter into wedlock, after 9 long months of family arranged courtship. Obviously, this is a joyful occasion and we are looking forward to it but there is a also a small sense of apprehension fuelled down by cynics, who seem to enjoy the idea of running down the idea of a marriage.

Every second person I meet smiles at me with that wry smile telling me that these are my last days of freedom and so I need to enjoy as much as I can. If you hate parties and don’t get drunk or smoke, then maybe the conventional ideas of fun don't work; being a Mallu vegetarian teetotaler is a kind of an oxymoron, actually.

But why does everyone have to relate marriage to loss of freedom – this must seem to be the mother of all cliches that I have heard. It is possibly the easiest thing to do- absolve oneself of one's responsibilities by blaming the pillars, architecture, construction and everything else. But I guess it's more to do with our general attitude in life. Everyone says the same thing and if you differ, you stand out which can be tricky and so you go along with what the majority says.

Anyway, we started our Journey in January – 6th Jan to be precise (people tell me that remembering this date will be help me score a brownie point in my marriage later) when we met in Palakkad in Sangeetha’s house. Nothing great about the meeting – it was a standard South Indian boy-meets-girl meeting arranged by the respective parents, under their careful eyes. It is not so filmy but being the city lad entering a small town, you are probably given more respect. Also there are suspicious eyes peering at you, from different vantage points in the house - all spies out to report to the mistress about the alien who has just landed.

Confession – the first thing that bowled us all over was the place, in the middle of the town, there was this nalakettu tharavad (ancestral home) with a temple and pond and a quiet serenity about it. Most of us would agree that seeing such a place is nothing unusual in Kerala but all this in the centre of the town was a real turn on and indeed surprising.

The Boy-Girl meeting is a kind of an anti-climax, I guess. You want to ask so many things but out there in the room with only a pair of eyes watching you, you suddenly run out of ideas. The questions come to an end quickly enough and you are wondering what more to ask. Let’s be honest about this –there is nothing that you can actually infer from this 20-30 minute ritual but folks, that’s all that we have before making the most important decision in our lives.

Parents seriously believe that they have given enough time for us to decide; their standard line is time is never enough when it comes to taking such decisions, so how does it matter??? When asked what kind of girl you want, I had no answer and most people do not have a clear idea about what they want, so an arranged marriage helps.

An arranged marriage brings two strangers under a roof and then they spend the rest of their lives to build a home. It can be scary because you know it is a gamble; you don't know your future spouse at all till you spend time with him/her but so many of us go with the flow. I guess its a pretty practical approach - your family has done some R&D about the girl's family (not the girl, mind you!!!) and you have a buzzer round like situation where you have to say Yes or No; man, that's a perfect Catch-22 situation. There are no violins playing in the background, no bulbs glowing in unison and no flowers bloomin out of season but a decision still needs to be taken....

Distant courtships require ample mobile usage and Thank God, that the mobile is every where now; really wonder how the previous generation survived long distance relationships with only the humble letter. And when the company foots your mobile bill, you cannot ask for more - every call given by the girl can then be treated as a missed call and you can score well on that aspect.

We all agree that these months are the romantic ones when every mistake appears innocent and every good act gets magnified as an act of love. The long wait has a seasonal flavour to it and carries a tinge of longing, punctuated by raging hormones of course. After all, in most parts of India, marriage is the only institution which helps in bringing some form of gender intimacy. And it's funny to see relatives gushing about how lucky our parents are that both of us (brother and me) opted for arranged marriage - making a real virtue out of a necessity!!!

Eventually, once the curtain is drawn, we need to understand that it is time to be more realistic and take important choices. Will we, as a couple, learn it the hard way or learn from everyone around us?? No answers now - time will tell whether this cherished feelings continue once the dust settles down but till then the love euphoria goes on.

I have no way of knowing whether I am marrying the wrong person, but I do know that many people have a lot of wrong ideas about marriage and what it takes to make that marriage happy and successful. Marrying the right person is such a mirage - is there such a thing as a right person?

In this brilliant conversation with Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams remarks- "Will, she's been dead two years and that's the shit I remember. Wonderful stuff, you know, little things like that. Ah, but, those are the things I miss the most. The little idiosyncrasies that only I knew about. That's what made her my wife. Oh and she had the goods on me, too, she knew all my little peccadillos. People call these things imperfections, but they're not, aw that's the good stuff. And then we get to choose who we let into our weird little worlds. You're not perfect, sport. And let me save you the suspense. This girl you met, she isn't perfect either. But the question is: whether or not you're perfect for each other. That's the whole deal. That's what intimacy is all about".

A final word on this cynicism about marriage - it may be a difficult experience but it can be a rewarding and learning too (atleast I hope so). Living alone and loving oneself is easy (that's what we have been doing all these years) but sharing the feeling of love with a third person is important and tricky.

It is easy to run down this institution but this has survived centuries and is still going strong. The society needs it and we give ourselves a chance to share this love, after all, it is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love. We all want that fairy tale ending which says "And they lived happily ever after" but that means bloody hard work and getting married is just the first step in that direction.

********Geet and Deep refers to us only, lack of space; so typical in Mumbai:)…

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Are we not Individuals?

Remember the final of the 1st World T-20 championship in 2007– a match that would I have remembered for Misbah Ul Haq’s brilliant performance but remember it sadly for the stupid comments by Shoaib Malik during the closing ceremony - I want to thank everyone back home in Pakistan and Muslims all over the world. Thank you very much and I’m sorry that we didn’t win, but we did give our 100 per cent. To this day, I find it difficult to believe that Shoaib actually believed that his victory would bring joy to Muslims across – an assumption that brands individuals merely as clusters of people who think alike, purely based on their religion.

Sub-consciously, in lot of our thoughts, we identify people not just as individuals with their own ideologies and thoughts but as groups who work collectively and are driven by certain sets of beliefs – religion possibly being the most important one. We indulge in major stereotyping about each other – in every Hindu-Muslim discussion, it comes down to Muslims are fundamentalists, they cheer for Pakistan at cricket matches, they marry four wives, they do not go in for family planning and will soon overwhelm Hindus in India. It is debatable how much of this can stand scrutiny, in fact; the TOI carried an article recently of how polygamy is more rampant in Hindus than in Muslims.

Hindus believe that because of the wide splinter groups in terms of castes and communities, they are divided while Muslims are united and so they thrive. Ask the Muslim and he thinks that it is a free fall with Shias Vs Sunnis Vs Ahmediyas, Arabs Vs Africans Vs Asians and he looks at Hindus as one block. Hindus believe that minorities have been pandered to in this country and they are doled out favours by everyone – however, look at the statistics and see how under represented the Muslim community is in the judicial, civil and public service in the country.

Stereotyping is not a brush that only Hindus use to paint others with; Muslims equally believe that Hindus are the dominant community out to wipe out the minority community – their reference points being Mumbai, Gujarat, Delhi etc. But both communities need to understand each other and not get absorbed by these kinds of limiting beliefs. When the Government pandered to the minorities by sucking upto the likes of Syed Shahabuddin and Imam Bukhari, they created a fear mindset in the minds of the Hindus, who start believing that that no one cares for them because they are not united as Hindus and so they need to group themselves.

In 1986, when Supreme Court ruled that Shah Bano, an old Muslim woman, was entitled to alimony after talaq by her husband, the Rajiv Government with a brutal majority, fearing the Muslim reaction, passed an act, which in effect nullified the Supreme Court's judgment and upheld the Muslim Personal Law, thus denying even utterly destitute Muslim divorcees the right to alimony from their former husbands.

In 1988, the Indian government banned all imports of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses under the Customs Act, after two MPs went to Rajiv Gandhi and said that the ‘Verses’ would create a law-and-order situation (the book is still banned in India). Banning the book has set a precedent which cannot be revoked – so MF Hussain is booted out of India, Anand Patwardhan’s movies cannot be released and every artist has to think twice to ensure that their works do not hurt the sentiments of people, who seem to be waiting in queue to be offended.

Bending State Laws on a mere alimony case, banning a book, providing financial assistance to minority institutions are mere examples of the Government’s high handedness which have made Hindus apprehensive. Muslim leaders claimed victory for these actions by the Government but at what price? They isolated the majority community who begun to believe that all the Government cares for is the minority sentiment. And who benefits from such clumsy actions?

A few Muslim leaders who claim that they represent the community but the average Muslim has no stake in this and he remains a pawn who is used by the Government and their so-called leaders for vote bank politics. But when he sees that the Government only listens to the Shahi Imam and his ilk, he thinks that the only way to assert his rights is to side with them. So, Shah Bano and Salman Rushdie become symbols of this assertion; India’s relationship with Israel becomes an anti-Muslim conspiracy, any talk of a Uniform Civil Code becomes an assault on his religious beliefs.

Now, it is easy for the Muslim community to blame the majority for their lack of progress and so demand reservations in various spheres of life. But Muslim intellectuals need to ask themselves as to what is the cause of their ghettoisation and poor social and economic situation – discrimination or lack of education? Reservation benefits only the creamy layer and merely drives the wedge between majority and minority communities more. It breeds mistrust and actually inculcates a higher degree of groupism, rather than undermining it – inner reform is more important.

In debates, the situation in Kashmir and North East are bandied about to illustrate the way the Government treats the minorities. But look deeper, the issue is not of discrimination – the issue of non-performance and repeated governmental failures. The way innocents are treated by policemen in Kerala are just as callous as in Kashmir but when we look at the event through religious eyes, it appears a case of Muslim harassment.

Yes, there are instances of discrimination – if Gujarat happened, there were riots in many other places in India too where the majority community suffered. Statistically, one cannot compare deaths and look at how one pogrom is bigger than the other – the administration is just as blind in its compensation, the useless Government officer does not care if it is a Muslim or a Hindu, until his palms are greased.

Governments run away from taking tough decisions and wait for the situation to boil over but still remain passive – Indira Gandhi created a Bhindranwale to get Sikh votes, isolated Assam by turning a blind eye to infiltration and finally fell a victim to her own machinations. Rajiv Gandhi played the Shah Bano card and V P Singh countered with the Mandal and BJP used the Kamandal with the Ram Mandir issue – all various political tricks which have brought us to where we are now. The Uniform Civil Code is an important piece of legislation because it strives to bring all communities under one tree – how can a so-called secular nation have different Personal Laws, when it I supposed to treat all religions alike? Can a certain religious text, which supposedly, has a divine sanction, be more important than the law of the land?

It is important that communities sit together and understand each other, doing away with all kind of middlemen who are only out there to exploit issues. The State, the middlemen like the priest and religious institutions like the Church and the All India Muslim Personal Board have absolutely no locus standi in our day to day lives and are in no way representatives of our communities.

We are individuals, human beings who need to be treated just as that – not vote banks that are herded across by social and political groups that claim to represent us. Secularism has lost its way in the country and become a mere eyewash – as a philosophy, it is important but the direction that it has taken, has ensured that is just another –ism to divide people.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Bhramaram - A Review

Finally, Blessy’s Bhramaram hit the shores of Mumbai on Friday and many Malayalees (Lalettan fans and otherwise) thronged to watch the movie, hoping to watch Lal recreate his magic of yesteryears. Lal shines but Blessy stumbles as the movie which could have been a classic remains a film, brilliant in parts but lost in many others. Is the legacy of Padmarajan and Bharathan making it difficult for Blessy to progress beyond his debut?

Bhramaram tells the story of a stranger who makes a sudden appearance in Unni’s house, amidst the Coimbatore blasts, claiming to be a long lost classmate. Unni, a successful stockbroker, is unable to remember Jose (as the stranger calls himself) but since Jose knows many of the events of the past, he trusts him.

The purpose of Jose's visit (who is later revealed to be Sivankutty, his old classmate wrongly implicated in a murder by Unni and his friend, in their teens) is shrouded in mystery. He refuses any kind of help and only wishes to talk about something important in isolation. Jose's eerie behavior disturbs the composure of Unni's wife and disturbs his professional life. And, the revelation of Jose's real identity and purpose of his sudden appearance creates further tremors.

The movie starts on a slow note and brings along a small ensemble of characters who do not add any value to the plot. The loud and garishness of Unni’s caricatured neighbour and his family have a jarring and irritating feel in the movie. Every once a while, the movie catches steam, it fires, only to halt again and go again in this haphazard journey till it reaches the climax which, despite Lal’s efforts, just does not register.

Lal’s story as it spirals to an uneven climax is on the face and carries too much melodrama; the tragedy which is communicated brilliantly through Lal is lost in the writing. It needed to be less verbose and more compact but settles down for an unevenness which does not suit the genre that it tries to find itself in. Technically, also other than the camerawork, it remains amateurish – witness the very obvious special effects on display when the glass breaks during the hilly rides and the sight of the hills from far below.

The movie could possibly do with a good half an hour of editing. I’d suggest hive off Unni’s neighbours, the stunt scene, trim down the flashback and dwell more on the trio and work at the fear element. With an excellent background in Munnar and its nearby areas, I’d like to believe that the fear factor could have been easy to be drawn into.

The biggest drawback is probably the script, whose credit goes to Blessy himself. It moves just as uncertainly as their travel in the high ranges and Lal’s finicky behaviour. The flashback story is fairly weak - especially, the reaction of his daughter (an irritating kid by cinema standards, I must say), whose only role seemed to be to squeeze tears from the audience.

When directors try to spoon feed the audience or try to use fairly obvious symbols, the attempts fall flat. Witness the first scene which shows Lal searching for Unni as he moves around in an auto and the next scene shows the blasts with a news reader announcing that they were triggered by an unclaimed bag in an auto and sounding a caution to be careful of strangers -too much of an obvious inference. The zooming in of the kitchen knives when he opens the cupboard and the pressure cooker noise are clichéd devices and one wonders at the naivety of the script in creating such scenes.

Lal is, fortunately, in his zone here and brings to life a character with an almost split personality like behaviour. His disorderly whimsical behaviour is disturbing and creates a sense of uneasiness. He carries an almost psychotic like tendency - the character is raw and brusque in one moment and almost childlike in another - which makes it difficult for us to judge his character. He clearly is the movie’s biggest strength and ensures that he rises above the pitfalls in the script.

Malayalam cinema has good bench strength when it comes to supporting characters and has often provided memorable cameos by the supporting cast; but, Blessy fails to create any such character. While Suresh Menon is adequate, Muralikrishnan (Bharat Gopi’s son) is underutilized (his character needed more meat). You leave the theatre and the rest of the cast remains in oblivion, without any impact.

This movie could very easily have originated in the director’s mind, after seeing Bharathan-MTs classic Thazhvaram (undoubtedly, among the best of Malayalam cinema in its genre and an ode to Western Classics) but the inspiration seems to have been lost somewhere, in the midst of all the rumbling and mumbling of the travel that the characters undertake through the hills. While Thazhvaram was taut, tense and thrilling, Bhramaram is loose, jerky and bumbling in its implementation. For a so-called Road Thriller, I ask where is the uneasiness and tension here?

The songs are good and hummable and while they do not have any impact, they do not disturb the flow. Watching Bhramaram and Calcutta News has acted as a reality check – Blessy may be inspired by Padmarajan and Bharathan but there’s a clearly a long way to go. The Masters are way ahead and the disciple is clearly in wilderness, trying to find his way but unsure of the path to be taken. Mind you, the movie by itself is definitely worth watching but with Blessy at the helm, the expectations are definitely much higher and that is what lets it down the most.

The film stays in our mind and provides a great relief after seeing Lal doing stupid films like SAJ and many others that have forced many of his fans to abandon him. However, if you want to watch a thriller this year, I’d still suggest trying Ranjith Shankar’s Passenger, which makes a quiet impact, without any superstar fireworks.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Invisible Worker

I was born in a sleepy little village called Elapully in Palakkad and for the first 2.5 years of my life, lived a rustic unfettered existence in the care of my grandparents, looked after by a motley group of characters you’d find present in any Sathyan Anthikad drama. This group included maids and servants who had served our family for generations, shepherds, small time workers and so many others who brought joy to my first couple of years on earth.

After moving to Hyderabad later on, I became an annual visitor, spending all my summer vacations there and over a period of time, all these people were alienated from my sense of existence. They remained merely caricatures in my memory as people who had served our family for years. I had matured – my education had created insurmountable barriers between myself and these people. The class barrier suddenly became so obvious – the people who were playmates and companions in my early childhood had now become mere plebeians in my eyes.

Modern education and the economic changes in India since the 90s have broken many of the differences that arise due to vast differences in the working class. Caste is almost of no relevance in the modern age, except possibly when it comes to marriage. Religion is, of course, a much bigger thorn but as we work in a 24x7 environment, these barriers have broken and to quite an extent, office life (at least in the private sector) is bereft of too many caste and religious issues. It has created a class of people who can make money and learn to discriminate economically – the class rules roost here.

We all have maids or other servants (for want of a better word) who work 7 days a week in our houses. They do not have any PF/Gratuity and are not normally entitled to any official leaves. We do not care for them but the day they are absent, mind you, all hell breaks loose. Would you be surprised how many people do not even know the name of the people working in their houses or have any idea about their families? Now in a normal corporate scenario, that would not be a very endearing HR thought, right?

According to a study, "Invisible Servitude: An in-depth study of domestic workers in the world", by an organisation called Social Alert, there are an estimated 20 million women, children and men in domestic work in India. Of these, 92 per cent are women, girls and children, 20 per cent are under 14 years of age and 25 per cent are between the ages of 15 to 20. In Mumbai alone, this study (released in March 2000) estimated that there were six lakh domestic workers of whom 80,000 are full-time (

Is the servant culture something which is against the spirit of humanity and equality? There are thousands of Indian homes where such a "servant culture" prevails – the kids grow up never picking up their clothes, never washing their clothes, never doing any work except eating, perhaps reading and definitely watching television. Aren’t we breeding a secondary class of citizens at our homes by allowing such a culture in our homes?

I think it was an article by Kalpana Sharma which made me realise that I did not know the name of my maid. I found it out but I still could not bring myself to ask her that – wouldn’t be an admission of my lack of concern for her? I know it is shameful but sometimes, we just do not realise the importance of these people who toil for us every day with no great incentive in life. After all, being employed as a menial worker or maid is not anyone’s idea of working oneself up the hierarchy.

A culture of servitude is being fostered upon each generation and it is important that parents realise that it is this upbringing that creates future class related schisms in our lives. We see a lot of youngsters working in Mumbai and elsewhere who bring home grown servants to work at their place. These are generational servants who have for years led lives where the only karma they have is working for their masters.

Servants have an invisible presence in our lives - a presence we have all learnt to take for granted. Everybody always complains about how lazy or unreliable their servants are and are very careless in passng judgements about them. In most Indian homes, servants may not eat the same food as their employers; forget the idea of even sitting together on the sofa or table. They do extensive labour and are routinely made to do extra chores for no extra pay.

Maids are excluded from labour laws – it is the informal sector and does not come under any legal scanner. The result of this exclusion is for everyone to see - long hours, bad pay, inhuman treatment, physical and sexual harassment. Since they are not even recognized as workers, there is no legal protection for them under Indian labour laws; they can only go to a criminal court.

Most of us, knowingly or inadvertently, tend to treat domestic workers as inferior beings. Many of us educated liberals have questioned this attitude in ourselves and attempted to be more democratic, but class notions are too deeply rooted in our culture to ward them off so easily. So, while we feel pained at the capitalistic society that cares two hoots for menial and blue collared workers, we remain totally oblivious to the people who work at our own place.

Unfortunately, the issue is not such a simple one – it is a fact that the haves will run the world and the have nots will have to submit to them. When the labour is in surplus and employment is limited, this remains an unrecognized industry that sustains and feeds a large number of people. But it is imperative that we also recognize the value of human life here - every human being deserves respect and it is upto us to ensure that we practice it and inculcate it in our children.

The laws alone cannot deal with this problem - constitution can only set laws but attitudes cannot be legislated. They say a society is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable. And I dare so, we are not earning any laurels on this front!!!

Sunday, August 02, 2009


The poster of Frost/Nixon had adorned the walls of PVR Goreagaon under the section “Next Change” for close to six months till it was finally removed. I had waited in vain to see this Academy Award nominated movie but could not and so finally, I downloaded the movie last week and I am glad that I actually did that – it made my day.

Frost/Nixon is a movie based on a play by the same name written by Peter Morgan which chronicles the series of televised Frost/Nixon 1977 Interviews that former US President Richard Nixon granted David Frost and that ended with a tacit admission of guilt regarding his role in the Watergate scandal.

The movie begins with Richard Nixon stepping down after the infamous Watergate scandal and David Frost (more known in India as the presenter of The Guinness Book of World Records) wrapping up an episode of his talk show and watching on television, the resignation of the President. Frost calls up the Nixon team and discusses the possibility of extracting a detailed interview with the President.

The power of the visual medium can never be downplayed and both the players knew it just too well. Nixon owed his Presidential loss to Kennedy primarily to the first general election presidential debate conducted on television - though he scored in the debate on radio, he appeared haggard and sick in front of a young and charismatic JFK on TV and this made all the difference in the close race. Frost enjoyed these situations and truly understood Television and the power of TRPs. He realized that getting the ex-President to confess on TV was an eye ball popping spectacle and the Americans wanted to see that, especially after Nixon escaped through an unconditional pardon by his successor, Gerald Ford.

Nixon’s camp deftly brokers a deal for the interviews for a record prize of $600,000, partly so that he can redeem his reputation by presenting his side to the public and also partly because they reckon that Frost is a lightweight celebrity interviewer and intellectually too inferior to dictate terms. Frost tries to get in networks to finance his deal but he does not make a breakthrough;he, however, decides to go ahead with the deal by putting in a third of the money from his own pockets.

The Interviews are scheduled to be conducted in the form of four 90 minute shows, spread over a period of a few days and covering the following topics –Domestic Affairs, Foreign Policy, Watergate and Nixon the man. Frost hires two investigators, Bob Zelnick and James Reston Jr. to dig for information along with his producer-friend Birt, mainly on the Watergate scandal.

For the Frost camp, it is an uphill task right from when it starts. He is overconfident, greatly under prepared and is more at home being a benign talk show host, interviewing celebrities rather than grilling politicians. He also spends a great deal of time trying to raise funds for the show and focuses less on the research required for the part. Frost’s team grows desperate as Nixon sidetracks Frost, embarks on endless digressions, evades points and falls back on windy anecdotes, almost ridiculing Frost’s assumptions that he would be able to trap the President. He plays mind games with Frost - wondering about the expenses involved in the production, if his shoes aren't effeminate, whether he did any fornication and more such talk.

In the words of a Nixon aide, “Well, in boxing, you know that there’s always that first moment and you see it in the challenger. It’s that moment that he feels the impact from the champ; it’s a kind of a sickening moment when he realizes that all those months of pep talks and the hype and the psyching yourself up had been delusional all along. You could see it in Frost’s face. If he didn’t know the caliber of the man he was up against before the interview started, he certainly knew it halfway through the president’s first answer.”

This goes on for almost eleven sessions, till the story sets into motion through a drunken phone call from Nixon to Frost where he tells him that they both know the final interview will make or break their careers. If Frost fails to implicate Nixon definitively in the Watergate scandal, then Frost will have allowed Nixon to revive his political career at Frost's own expense, who will have an unsellable series of interviews and be bankrupt.

This spurs Frost to ensure that the final interview – the Watergate section – is successful. He and Reston do their homework well and the final interview turns out be an almost emotional thriller where Frost pins him down and extracts an admission of guilt, cover up and acting illegally from the President. It is almost extraordinary to hear such comments:

Frost: Are you really saying that whether in certain situations, the President can decide whether it is in the best interests of the nation and then do something illegal?
Nixon: I'm saying that when the President does it,that means its not illegal. That's what I beIieve but I reaIize no one eIse shares that view.

The phone call acts as a turning point in the movie but this is supposedly only a directorial flourish and not an actual event. But to the viewers, it probably presents a concrete reason why these two individuals have gambled their reputations to come together. Nixon is a lonely, embittered man who has been abandoned by the American public and wants reestablish his reputation and exert some control over his tarnished legacy; Frost is a little wannabe playboy type journo who wants to get into the Big League and make a name for himself.

The film does not demonize Nixon; instead it paints him as a man who’s made a historic blunder and knows that he has to live with it for the rest of his life. His redemption, is therefore, only superficial – the millions may look at him in a different light if the interviews are actually successful but the truth is something that is deep inside him. It is quite possible that one of the reasons for him agreeing for the interview is to actually admit his culpability in the crime. Frank Langella is brilliant as a brooding Nixon, who knows that he was once upon the time, the most powerful man in the world, but who is now reduced to an ignominious figure licking his wounds.

In comparison, Frost comes across as a showy but meek journalist who is more of a performer rather than an investigator. He is driven by the idea of creating headlines and is lost in the complex world of political intrigue. He receives a royal hammering for most of the part till he delivers a final knock-out blow in the last recording. Michael Sheen has a flashy presence and is eminently likable but clearly he is No.2 in this rather “unequal contest”.

After having seen Milk and Frost/Nixon, I am puzzled by what the Oscars and the rest of the West saw in awarding Slumdog Millionaire? What should have been a straight one-to-one duel between these 2 movies for the top honours was reduced to cakewalk in favour of Slumdog. It’s a pity because most of India has probably not seen these 2 movies, overshadowed by the hype of the Slumdog.

Just a wild thought - how about an an Indian version on this– maybe a Thapar/Modi? Fascinating, eh??

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Revisiting a Classic: Thoovanathumbikal

There are certain movies which you like when you watch them for the first time, certain movies which grow on you every time you watch them and certain others which always intrigue you and every viewing of the movie only adds to the aura surrounding the movie. Padmarajan’s classic Thoovanathumbikal (1987 – Dragonflies in the Spraying Rain), based on his novel Udakappola, belongs to that rare category of cinema which is immensely intriguing and grows on you each time you watch it – there are probably so many interpretations and explanations to this story and every time you watch it, you discover a new angle to it.

When I first watched Thoovanathumbikal in the mid-90s, it did not make much sense to me and the only thing fascinating to me was Sumalatha and the music of the movie. (My lack of knowledge of Malaylam was also a hindrance, of course). After a few half baked attempts at watching the movie , I finally downloaded and watched it in entirety recently and I must confess, it swept me away. The romance, the complexity of the characters, the aura in Padmarajan’s script and the fabulous music kept me glued to the movie for a long time even after the movie had ended.

Thoovanathumbikal is a complex movie juxtaposing the characters of three strong willed protagonists – Jayakrishnan (Mohan Lal), Clara (Sumalatha) and Radha (Parvathy) – into the background of a small town in Thrissur. It explores the complex web of love, sex and jealousy that binds these three characters, as their lives clash. Jayakrishnan is a young man who lives a double life – one as a big farmer in his village and the other as a quasi-hero in the town, where he has innumerable friends. He falls in love with Radha, only to be chided by her, assuming that he is just another flirt.

Later, through a friend (a character who technically qualifies to be a pimp but manages to evolve into a much more respectable soul in Padmarajan's hands), he meets Clara, a woman who wants to escape from the drudgery of poverty by turning into prostitution. After being spurned by Radha, he finds solace in Clara’s arms and that develops into a fascinating relationship – a relationship which I must confess that has never been fully clear to me. Admired by his sincerity to love (Oru penkuttiyudeyum nashathinte thudakam ennuludi aavarthene enikkoru prarthana undaayirinnu, oru penkuttiydeyum virginity njan kaarnam illathavarthune enikku nirbandham aayirunnu, angane sambhavichal aa penkuuti aavum pinne angootu anthyam vere ente oppom undav njan oru shapatham aduthudayirunnu), she finds it difficult to reject his marriage proposal and so Clara just disappears from his life because, she does not want to spoil his life by becoming his wife as she has already become a sex-worker.

In the meanwhile, Radha learns more about Jayakrishnan and falls in love with him – his small town heroics and dual life serving as a strong attraction. Clara, however, continues to torment his thoughts and he is not able to commit fully to Radha when she decides to reciprocate his love. Eventually, Clara realizes that if their relationship is not terminated, it would destroy all their lives and so she gets married and bids a final adieu to Jayakrishnan’s and Radha’s life.

Jayakrishnan and Clara are unforgettably romantic and have a relationship which is hard to explain and understand. It is a relationship – unethical, unwelcomed by any society and unbelievable to a common audience - which any film maker will think twice before filming. Padmarajan gives it very strong romantic overtones, especially when compared to the other relationship with Radha. The use of rain as a metaphor (explicitly mentioned and felt by the protagonist) creates a natural aura about their relationship and it acts invisibly in the background, driving their relationship. At every important point when they communicate or meet, it rains which slowly dries up as they move away. You know that their relationship carries clouds of uncertainty but it makes you ask for more.

Clara is undoubtedly one of the most interesting characters that I have seen in all these years of cinema. She is strong willed, free spirited and has no qualms in treading the path that she believes is the best one for her. She escapes from the crutches of a useless parental relationship by getting into prostitution and later on gets married to a widower, only to help Jayakrishnan. Now, such a character could typically be a sob story woman, with a strong element of pathos and sympathy underlying her character. However, Padmarajan creates a Clara with whom you develop a sense of bonding, someone without stereotypical negative or depressive shades.

The fact that she’s actually a prostitute is not very explicitly portrayed and for the viewer, she remains a mystery woman. She remains independent till the end, capable of taking decisions fearlessly, without any sense of guilt - Enthayallum nashikkum, enna pinne anthasayittu nashichudde, aasha thirthu nashichudde. I wonder if men like this character because she represents a woman, who does not seek a commitment but is available at all times (ideal situation!!!).

Jayakrishnan and Radha have a Hide-and-Seek relationship which evolves as the film proceeds. She has strong faith in him and is willing to accept the nature of his relationship with Clara, as long as it remains in the past. But the ever lurking presence of Clara creates an element of doubt in their relationship and it requires Clara’s initiative to put that to rest. The film is pretty bold, without drawing any moral judgments on any of the characters and startles us with the independent ideas expressed. It is ironic that a movie 22 years back is so much more progressive than the current stuff being churned out.

While Padmarajan’s script is brilliant and the cast puts in a stellar performance, a special mention must also be given to the excellent music (songs as well as background music). The music has a character of its own and it creates a tension that is present throughout the movie. The performances are truly top-notch; Lal is absolutely brilliant as a confused young man, torn between his love for Clara and Radha while Sumalatha immortalizes the character of Clara. All these attributes come together to make Thoovanathumbikal a movie par excellence, which has withstood the passage of time and still weaves a magic among the viewers of Malayalam cinema.

Malayalam cinema is at cross roads now as it struggles to attract audience to theatres. The brilliance and intellect of the 70s and 80s and early 90s has been substituted by mindless mimicking of Tamil and Hindi cinema. We have never more acutely felt the loss of stalwarts like Padmarajan, Bharathan and Lohithadas than now and as I watch Thoovanathumbikal, the pain is so much more evident.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Minimum City

(Courtesy - Mario Miranda)
I keep telling myself that I will not rail against the city that has accompanied me for a greater part of my career but don’t blame me if I need to react after dear Devika goes on and on boisterously about Chicago. C’mon, isn’t it embarrassing that despite tall claims of being one among the fast growing economies in the world, we can’t even provide a decent infrastructure to the people who struggle to make it happen?

One of the first places that I saw when I landed in Mumbai (in 2004) was the Borivilli Railway Station. Now, feeling like a stranger in a new city can be expected but this was like the height of everything that I had seen in my life till that time-an avalanche of human flesh leeching the platform and storming every train that came by till I realized that if I had to reach office every day, I’d have to accept that if you were to live in Mumbai, you had to live this way.

Struggle is a way of life in these trains and I became a victim of self-pity for those 2 years when I used the Central Railway, in my daily sojourns from Powai to Lower Parel. My knees bore a major brunt of the stress that was imposed by scores of plebeians, who seemed to find some sadistic pleasure in venting their pressure on this hapless passenger, while the rest of the body went through such myriad convolutions that it substituted my need for exercise everyday (Of course, PP and I called the experience equivalent to jackivekkan every day in the train).

My next peak of pleasure was experiencing the turbulence of that wonderful station-Kurla –the Central-Harbour meeting point. God knows, how I have felt so small by this creation of HIS – a place so spectacularly unkempt and dirty that all my benchmarks of cleanliness were swept singularly off my table.

One day, when I was trying to get off the train while returning from Nerul, I could not do so and lo behold, some kind Samaritan decided to help me in no uncertain terms by giving me a nice little kick and I found myself lying flat on my stomach, parallel to the platform face and observing it at a very close range. But the humble man in me thanked HIM that no one had actually trampled me in this ocean of humanity – a Mumbai learning, be grateful and find happiness from such simple pleasures in life.

Till I witnessed this city at the age of 23, I was in awe about Mumbai. Danny Boyle had not made an entrance till then and the Internet revolution was slowly making its presence felt and I remained a youngster as exposed to the cleanliness of Mumbai as Indian batsmen to the swinging ball overseas.

Having come from a small and non-descript village in Kerala, where real estate prices are just as steep as the rising ball in Indian pitches and lived in a big Central Government accommodation all my life, I was suddenly thrown into the big, bad world of Mumbai’s housing scene. So, you had flats with sizes less than the size of the drawing room of my house but twice the rental – Christ, can there be a greater puncturing of one’s ego than living in such a place. But then, you take heart from the fact that you are the not the only one – just so many d***heads living together and sharing accommodation in each square tract of land.

So, with a decent regular bank account and savings, I struggle to find myself a good housing in Mumbai, while my family and peers in the rest of the World live dreams bigger than my flat. DJ arrives from Pondicherry and his first comment when he enters the flat is – Entha de, veedu thodangiya munpe thanne kazhinno?? (The house is finished before it even started). I feel small that I live in such a cramped place but at a healthy rent of 11,000, all I can manage is a 400 sq feet house (or it lesser?).

My brother in Bangalore pays a lesser rent and lives in a flat 3 times larger than this humble abode but when I cry hoarse lamenting for a 2 BHK or more space, fellow Mumbaikars wonder what’s wrong with me. They take a stroll into the house and congratulate for me for managing to get such a house (furnished accommodation) at such a price, in the heart of the city.

They just can’t figure what I would do with so much extra space – they’d rather believe that anything more than this can be made into another room. I have calculated that I am paying about Rs 27 per square feet here while bro pays about Rs 8.50 – wipes out all the differential income that my MBA is supposed to generate for me. But can’t blame them; Space is such a premium object here that if you find a house, especially, close to the office, then you are in the so-called lucky group – the group whose traveling time is less than an hour.

But what about my fundamental Right to Breathe? Colleagues have a smirk on their face when I talk about luxuries in life like Oxygen; probably, why actually businesses like Oxygen bars actually flourish. I am kind of scared at how the world actually would be for the Next Generation – breathing derivatives, maybe!!!

I remember Vir Sanghvi, in an article in the SUNDAY, saying how having lived in Mumbai and Kolkatta, he missed the happening feeling and crowds of Mumbai. Sorry, mate, I am not able to relate to this sense of nostalgia, where I am inundated by teaming millions from all places and if I dare to complain, my boss (I assume he is joking) remarks that half the credit for this population explosion is due to Non-Marathis like me who have taken away the opportunities of the poor Marathis..Tch..Tch…

Angst and gratitude lessons from Mumbai to be continued in future posts….

Monday, July 13, 2009

Passenger - A Review

After about 75 days of its release, Ranjith Shankar’s taut thriller Passenger finally made its away to the shores of Mumbai, as it thirsts for the song of monsoon. My friend wanted to go for Shortkut but I convinced him to watch Passenger and in hindsight, he agrees that it is a wise decision.

Ranjith Shankar, an IT professional, finally does justice to a genre hitherto untouched by Malayalam cinema for reasons beyond my comprehension – the thriller genre. This is a slick socio-political thriller, without the silly trappings of either the Amal Neerad School of Technology or the Shaji Kailash School of Dramatics. It is a simple, well-told thriller that brings a set of performers on the platform of the Southern Railways and skillfully weaves a plot, without a second of unnecessary drama.

The film begins on a slow note and runs parallel on 2 tracks – one chronicling Satyanathan’s (Sreenivasan) life as he goes through his daily journey from Nellayi to Ernakulam and back, with his friends while the other takes a peep into the lives of a socially sensitive lawyer-journalist couple as they take on the might of the Home Minister. But this slow note helps in building the momentum as it sets into motion rhythmically the characters of the various individuals in the film – the protagonists as well as the others like Satya’s friends and family.

One eventful day, destiny suddenly conspires to throw the three central characters together and their lives suddenly change. Sathyanathan is a daily train commuter, who having fallen asleep one late night misses his home town station. Waking up, he meets Advocate Nandan Menon (Dileep), who is heading to a hotel room where he would be alone for the night, since his wife Anuradha (Mamta Mohandas) is away on an assignment, covering a news story. This forms the turning point for the story as it suddenly throttles forward, altering forever the path of their lives.

Story wise, what is told is nothing new – corruption in the higher echelons and the hero exposing this malaise has been beaten to pulp by the likes of Ranjith, Shaji Kailash, Madhu and the rest of their ilk. But what differentiates Passenger is the script which sticks to the plot faithfully linearly, hinting at issues like corruption, terrorism and harassment of women . There are no songs and the mandatory sidekicks are thankfully absent, but the movie manages to keep you riveted to the screen and interest never lags. Even the ending is minus any usual pyrotechnics and the ordinary man returns to where it all began - his train journey.

Sreenivasan and Dilip play their characters with restraint, giving them a quite sense of dignity. The Common Man (portrayed in a totally different but equally effective role by Naseruddin Shah in “A Wednesday”) has his moments and it is these moments which carry the movie. Mamta Mohandas is gladly underplayed and she works her way well in the movie. Nedumudi Venu is sufficient as the taxi driver while Satyanathan’s friends do not have much to do but help in propelling the story with their lively banter. The train itself plays an important character in the movie - Bollywood films have paid homage to the local train as the lifeline of the city, but it hasn’t happened in Malayalam.

But my vote for the best performance in the movie is Jagathy, who plays the scheming Thomas Chacko, the corrupt Home Minister. We all know that Jagathy is a brilliant actor but haven’t we lost count of the number of times he has played silly sidekicks in movies and done roles that are best consigned to the dustbin? Here, he emerges tall as a corrupt Minister who talks smoothly – there is a calmness in the way he talks which adds an extra dimension to the role of the villain who has been played to death by Janardhanan, Siddique (with his innumerable make ups), Narendra Prasad etc.

There are many moments in the film which capture the mood of the State and gives that feeling of déjà vu – Sathyanathan’s mother interrupts his daily TV watching in time to watch ‘Devi Mahathmyam’, she keeps sending SMSs to the Idea Star Singer. At regular intervals, his wife reminds to buy a packet of tea and berates him on his inability to go beyond the rigmarole of his normal routine; while he enjoys the quite life around temple festivals and Ulsavams.

While the movie talks to the Common Man, it also rightfully raises questions on the role of the media in the affairs of the State. As Thankamma Rajan points out in the movie, for years there have been agitations against the quarrying and sand mining but the media never bothered but the moment there is a sexual harassment allegation, the story became hot news – so much for the bravery of the New Age Media. Indeed, it reflects poorly on a State where the biggest news stories have been sex scandals like the Suryanelli case, Vithura case and the Kozhikode “ice-cream parlour case”.

There are certain loose ends in the movie but trust me; you’d like to forget them because the movie brings in a whiff of fresh air in an ailing Malayalam film industry that is going through its worst periods of identity crisis. Passenger shows a way out of this rut – bring in a fresh script, inject in credible characters and lo behold, you have a recipe to bring back the bored audience back to the theatres.

I just hope that Ranjith Shankar does not go the K Madhu way (after a CBI Diarykurippu and a Jagratha, he lost his way and become a clone of Shaji and Ranjith) or even the Amal Neerad way if SAJ is any indicator – let us keep our fingers crossed and hope that he continues on this path.