Wednesday, April 13, 2011


History says that Vasco Da Gama contracted malaria soon after arriving in Goa on his third voyage to India and died in the city of Cochin on Christmas Eve in 1524. But in Santosh Sivan's Urumi, Gama is a blood hounding invader (contrary to his normal perception by non-Keralites as merely a sailor) killed by a young man seeking revenge for his father's death. When Prithviraj was asked about toying with history in the movie, he quipped – There is speculation about how Vasco died. The most commonly accepted theory is that he was killed by malaria. But if Quentin Tarantino can have Hitler killed in a theatre, this is our take on how Vasco died.

The film starts in the present day with two vagabonds Krishna Das (Prithviraj) and his friend (Prabhu Deva) being offered a huge price for Krishna Das’ ancestral property in Kerala. On his arrival in Kerala to sign the papers, he learns the truth about his land and ancestors, which is told in a flashback. Sivan tries to create a moral fable here comparing the two eras but I don't think that the movie needed this ethical posturing.

Chirakkal Kothuwal (Arya), a warrior and commander of the Arakkal kingdom, is killed by the tyrannical Vasco da Gama, the Viceroy of Portuguese Empire in India. His son Chirakkal Kelu Nayanar (Prithviraj) swears revenge and is supported by his childhood Muslim buddy Vavvali (Prabhu Deva) as they set out on their mission. Kelu and Vavvali join the service of Chirakkal Thampuran (probably a Naduvazhi and not a king) and along with the fearless Arakkal Ayesha (Genelia D'Souza), they attempt to create a force to attack the Portuguese.

The action in the palace of Chirakkal Thampuran provides a slice of the politics of the period; the Thampuran does not want to remain subservient to the foreigners but he has to contend with the likes of the ambitious Chirakkal Prince and his scheming adviser Chenichery Kurup who have different agendas. Jagathy as Chenichery Kurup offers a lesson in understatement but over achievement as a conniving effeminate Brihannala-character who is clearly smarter than the king but is forced to play out his ambitions through the meek Prince. Amol Gupte as Chirakkal Thampuran enjoys the regal powers and believes that he has a mind of his own but when the true realization dawns, it is too late. It would have been tempting for both these characters to go overboard but they tread carefully with marvellous restraint.

The promos of Urumi suggest a theme of vendetta – The boy who wanted to kill Vasco Da Gama. Revenge is a dish best served cold and so Kelu waits for 22 long years for Vasco to return to Kerala so that he could avenge his father's murder. His Urumi is made from the ornaments of dead women and children who were burnt alive in a ship that was going to Mecca, under Gamma’s orders (a nod to Shakuni’s dice in Mahabharata!).

However, the movie slowly carves out a nationalistic path for itself involving multiple characters to give it a pan-Kerala theme and a secular appeal by showing inter-religious love. In Sivan’s words – History is written by the victors, the powerful who won. So was Da Gama a brave explorer or a invader after gold? The film is about a failed rebellion against the Portuguese that happened in the 15th century. So, an assassination plot by a young boy is eventually re-invented as a patriotic theme where Muslims, Christians and Hindus all combine to attempt to overthrow the Portuguese yoke. But at the end of it all, we do not know what happens in the battle, except ofcourse that Kelu achieves his goal. 

Sivan wants to make a Pazhassi Raja out of Kelu but despite its dramatic tone and fantastic concept, the movie is quite self-conscious and not very engaging. The presence of the hunk Kelu is almost distracting; he is not much of a leader and is more at ease exhibiting his fighting prowess and draws more attention to himself than he would ideally want to. The action scenes are primarily choreographed in slow motion which unfortunately does not create the tempo that they deserve. They look like post cards with bright photos than battle-scarred scenes that they could have been. The songs stick out like sore thumbs and the movie needed crisp editing to reduce its rather long duration of three hours.

Prabhu Deva serves as an earthy, pragmatic and smart character and the writer gives him the best lines but the script does not demand much from the female characters. Ayesha of Arakkal is a warrior princess and  Genelia puts in effort to shed her sweet image and attempt daredevil stunts, playing a mercenary. Gladly the director does not attempt to define her marital status wrt Kelu even though the relationship is clear; this is partly aided by the fact that marriage as an institution was not so sanctimonious those days in Kerala.

Nithya Menon's role is only to partner Prabhu Deva; she is well-endowed, entertains and has her moments but has nothing else to do. Vidya Balan is supposed to be a Bhagavati in the temple who guides the hero but a song and dance which attempts titillation is the best that she is offered. It does not help that the Malayalam dubbing for the characters is out of sync, making us cringe at the paucity of Malayalam speaking actresses.

For a movie that looks at exploring the lives of the people of a definite era, Urumi does not dwell much into the social, economic and religious life of the age – these could help in understanding the nature of the struggle better. Considering the fact that the concept of a nation was not very clearly ingrained then, it is not entirely clear on what drew the poor into the struggle. I assume that both the Naduvazhis and the Portuguese suppressed them and so the nationalist feelings would be difficult to comprehend. Religious conflicts were probably not so acute but the presence of Muslims (Arakkal) and Christians (Local Syrian Christians vs Portuguese Roman Catholics) suggest that the lines were being drawn for larger conflicts.

Urumi is an attempt at historical fiction; so the writer moves out of the confines of historical accuracy and stretches his imagination to soar along with Sivan’s camera. It allows him to develop Gamma's son's character, play around with the role of native chieftains in the struggle and even make a one-man fictional odyssey into a mini-war of Independence. It has limitless possibilities of re-interpretation of facts but he isn't interested in history and is happier to let Kelu guide the story rather than be a part of a larger chain of events (of course, it is the director's prerogative to show us what he wants to tell but I'd love to see more on the trade conflicts and political rivalry on the ground).

While the visuals work overtime to take you to 15th century Kerala, the plot does not get you a feel of the palace intrigues of a bygone era. There is treachery and intrigue but they lurk at the background and every time you expect the script to kick off, it moves languorously focusing on Kelu and Vavaali’s antics. There are times when you are compelled to be tuned into the intrigue behind this fascinating premise called Urumi (it remains a premise) but when the camera lingers along for a longer time and asks you to keep staring at the visuals, you know where Sivan’s loyalties lie.

I guess that when you go to a Santosh Sivan movie, you know that the optics takes over everything else; in that sense, he is influenced by Mani Ratnam's last few movies. The fact that the concept of a historical germinated during the making of Raavanan adds to that style. So you have great locations, authentic costumes (though I am not sure of the genuine nature of the sub-cast), sweeping visuals which demand attention and awe, magnificent sound recording, apt songs which unfortunately only ebb the flow of the movie and a hype which brings in expectations that are never fully met.

Urumi is commendable considering the complexity and ambitious scale involved in marrying history and fiction but I fancy Sivan will be more at home weaving fantasies than probing history...

***Portuguese officers speaking in their language gave it an authentic ring but why were the sub-titles in English only? Hope the print had both English and Malayalam sub-titles when it was released in Kerala.

Monday, April 04, 2011

In Pursuit of Poonam Pandey

Is she a model? A super woman? India’s National Asset? Gary Kirsten’s secret weapon? Friends, please put your hands together (clap, you idiot) and welcome the most popular Pandey in India today – who’s more popular than the likes of Mangal Pandey, Chunkey Pandey and Chulbul Pandey put together.

The moment Dhoni slammed a six to clinch the trophy, frantic efforts have been made to trace India’s secret damsel weapon who won the team the Cup for them. All news channels have sent out teams to hunt for Ms Poonam Pandey who has enthralled the patriotic Indian public by claiming to go Full Monty on winning the trophy.

We decided to do our own investigation and snoop around for the various people involved in the manhunt. When BCCI was contacted regarding Poonam’s intent to go nude if permitted, Vice-President K Srinivasan refused to comment citing personal conflict of interest but agreed that Lalit Modi was to blame for this mess. Meanwhile, erstwhile IPL Chairman Lalit Modi tweeted that a he had signed a contract with Set Max giving the channel full rights to broadcast the Poonam night. However, the ICC president cum Agriculture Minister cum sugar baron cum real estate baron Sharad Pawar said that equal opportunity sealed tenders would be called to stage the Poonam night and the highest bidder would be given the rights in case India Cements opts out of the race.

The IB has indicated that Interpol has been alerted to locate Poonam; the bright sleuths have confirmed that they have intensified their search on Facebook, Twitter, Google and intelligence partner Wikipedia to locate her. There was a suspicion that the Pakistanis had kidnapped her as an exchange offer for Kashmir but since the source of this news was Times Now, this angle was dropped. The Home Minister has opined that she may have been kidnapped by Maoists and said that since this is a matter regarding internal security, the army would start a search operation in this regard; typically the Defence Minister A K Antony’s opinion was not sought.

The Finance Minister opined that the Poonam night was a taxable event and 35% fun tax should be paid to the tax exchequer, once she is found. Immediately, BJP’s Chief Sting Officer Arun Jaitley questioned the Government’s intentions  to impose this fun tax in these inflationary times; he said that the law was not very clear on the actual definition of fun and that as and when there is a quorum in the House, this point should be discussed. The PM refused to be drawn into this discussion and said that keeping in light the CVC controversy, until all the facts are presented to him, he will not venture any opinion – this surprised bloggers who were ready to swear by the PMs lack of opinion on every issue.

Most Congressmen were unable to take any decision and looked to 10 Janpath to decide on the party strategy but Sonia Madam was too busy celebrating the Indian Victory to respond. The Frog, sorry, Crown Prince Rahul Gandhi was seen checking the Tata Yellow Pages for her address to spend a night with her and understand the problems of the youth better. Congress spokesman Manish Tewari immediately released a statement saying that the Government should consider declaring Poonam’s assets as national monuments to protect them from the likes of communal forces like Narendra Modi. This spurred the BJP to launch a Poonam Yathra to counter the Govt propaganda but this was cancelled at the last minute stating traffic constraints in Mumbai (insiders claim that this was abandoned due to differences in opinion between Perpetual PM In Waiting Advani and the RSS but this info could not be verified). 

All main Indian channels carried exclusive stories of a Wikileak emanating from Wikipedia which said that Poonam was photographed bathing in a canal in Venice, raising speculation of an Italian hand to this entire conspiracy. The BJP immediately demanded Sonia Gandhi’s resignation saying that Poonam was part of the Bofors kickback offered through Quattrocchi. However, reading the fine print of Wikipedia suggested that Poonam may have been part of the entourage of models who had entertained Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi, thus explaining the Italian sojourn. This led to the BJP immediately retracting from their official media recorded statement claiming that they were misquoted by the press. Silvio laughed off the accusation that he was too old to be involved in such amorous escapades but the ever forgiving Italian public was nevertheless impressed by his latest strategic foreign policy thrust.

Times Now claimed to have found a copy of the World Cup Winning Dossier created by honorary Indian citizen, Gary Kirsten with the help of unemployed IIM grads, lying in its Mumbai office. The document typed in Comic Sans Font size 12 is named as Operation Poonam Reloaded and provided incriminating evidence of the underhand (leg) means used by the team to reclaim the Cup which traditionally belonged to the Indian team but had been lent to the Aussie team on a long term lease. While the details of the report were never published, sources close to Arnab Goswami claim that it contained the minutes of the meetings of the Indian Think Tank listing the various positions that Poonam was identified to play to ensure that we won the Cup.

NDTV also indicated that they had carried out a sting on the Tatas which indicated that Ratan Tata, in cahoots with Niira Radia, may have used Poonam as bait to bring about changes in the 4G policy and buy spectrum. While no one has any idea what 4G stands for, it was universally agreed that Poonam is definitely more valuable than spectrum and the phone scripts must be exposed. While this was being debated, CNN-IBN published a photo of Barkha Dutt sharing a drink with somebody who mysteriously looked like Poonam; this was vehemently denied but the spectrum story died a sudden death immediately after this expose.

Leading feminists in India led by animal lover Celina Jaitley held a candle light demonstration in broad daylight asking to bring Poonam back home since she represented the true Indian woman, who was willing to sacrifice everything for the love of her country. However, peace loving groups like Ram Sena and Shiv Sena have demanded that Poonam be banned from entering the country since she was an insult to Indian women. The progressive MNS party however took a step further and mentioned that as a Bihari, she should also no longer be allowed to step into their sacred Maratha land.

India’s Human Rights Activists led by the redoubtable Arundhati Roy demanded that Poonam must be given full protection and the Right to Strip be made a fundamental right since there was the truest form of self-expression. Since there was a long list of groups in queue whose sentiments had been hurt by Poonam’s actions, the Government constituted a panel of self-proclaimed intellectuals which included among those Aamir Khan, Chetan Bhagat and Subramanian Swamy, to understand the true impact of this loss of sentiments.

India’s Flying Sikh the full-nonsense Sardar Navjot Singh Sidhu responded crisply on TV saying in no uncertain terms - My dear friend, adversity is the true test of one’s character. The camaraderie and bonhomie unleashed by this damsel in distress would go a long way in revitalizing, soothing and elevating the battered spirit of the poor Indian common man, who has long found himself traumatized by the multiplier effect of the hyper galloping inflation, coupled with the double whammy created by the myriad scandals of the populist Indian polity. This was reported the next day exclusively as a major headline by the Times of India followed by a detailed 24 hr panel discussion chaired on Times Now by Arnab Goswami to understand what the Sardar said.

Madhur Bhandarkar has said that he plans to direct a movie called CRICKET-The expose which would expose the soft,dark underbelly of the dealings between cricketers, models and bookies and everyone else watching the movie. There would be an item number Poonam Ki Jawani with guest appearance by the subject herself; this story has miffed Katrina Kaif who plans to sue Bhandarkar for violating her copyright on jawani. Reports say that Mallika Sherawat has been approached to play the leading character; rumours abound that she may turn down the role because she is busy laying good word for her Oscar winning performance in the movie HISS. Large hearted Pakistani cricketers were also roped in to give the movie a realistic feel but everyday infighting among the players has delayed the shooting schedule.

Not to be left out, renowned Malayalam filmmaker Paambu Vasu who has directed avante garde classics like Yavanam Oru ShaapamAvalude Thazhvarathinte Thanalil and Nabhikalkkappuram  announced that his new movie Pournami Raathrikal will be loosely based on Poonam's struggles in life. However, the movie has run into repeated hartals across the state for unknown reasons; senior hartal analyst Fijin Baby, writing in the national daily Manjadi, believes that the protests may have been triggered by Shakeela Chechi's fans upset at director Priyadarshan's reported attempt to remake her mega hit movie Kinnara Thumbikal with Akshay Kumar in double role to fill screen space.

Latest update – India’s Opposition has dismissed the existence of Poonam Pandey dubbing the entire plan as Poonamgate and has claimed that no such woman exists and this was a strategy by the Congress to deflect attention from the various scams plaguing the government. Pranab Mukherjee has said that that a PAC would look into this while the Opposition has demanded a JPC investigation but eventually all main parties walked out of the House.  In the midst of this entire conundrum, the Common Male waits with bated breath and a clenched fist...

In an unrelated story, the Malayalam newspaper Matrubhumi Malayala Manorama ran a front page cover story suggesting that the fact that there was a place called Dhoni in Palakkad indicated that Dhoni had his roots in Kerala; the report by local correspondent Minnal Babu proudly claimed to have identified the hotel where Dhoni’s parents had spent time during their honeymoon, thus firmly establishing his Kerala connection and giving the State something to cheer about in the midst of the election season and Sreesanth's sparkling bowling display in the World Cup. This story also sparked off huge celebrations leading to the Kerala State Beverage Corporation meeting its annual sales target within 2 days..

Sunday, April 03, 2011

The World Cup Returns Home

April 2nd 2011, Mumbai – a piece of Indian cricketing history that will be cherished for years to come. Many of us have heard our parents talk about the 1983 World Cup triumph where Kapil Dev’s Dare Devils emerged from nowhere to stake their claims to be World Champions. It is a moment that has been talked about on every occasion and many of us wondered whether we can witness such a moment again. Now, finally, my generation has a World Cup memory of our own to boot about and the Men in Blue pulled off a fantastic victory in Mumbai to etch their names permanently in history.

India started off as the pre-tournament favourites but their reputation often preceded them wherever they went. We knew that we were among the top-3 in the tournament but winning was a different ball game – it was a habit that we had not yet acquired. Under Ganguly and now Dhoni, the Men in Blue were emerging out of their shadows but a World Cup victory – surely, you must be joking, we can’t do that but then sometimes, just sometimes dreams also find their way upto God’s conspiratorial schemes.

The Indian batting was the strongest of the lot but we also added the rider ‘on paper’ in hushed terms just as investment products carried a warning at the bottom of the document. In the group stages, we had beaten the minnows handsomely but struggled against England and South Africa. The England match got the fans and experts livid at our thread bare bowling resources – Zaheer was mean and lean but the remaining forty overs were almost like prayers to the Lord to rescue us. HE heard us and we just about survived a Strauss onslaught and came out battered but still undefeated but the South Africa match was a harsh reminder of what was in store for us.

The match against the Proteas was billed as the competition between the best batting and bowling teams in the tournament. Viru, Gambhir and Sachin battered the South African bowling attack and a 350 was in sight until the batsmen committed hara-kiri at the altar of the latest cricketing strategy calling ‘batting powerplay’ (batting powerplays seemed to be more like millstones around the neck of batting captains). The batsmen stumbled but bowlers and fielders dished out strong performance till the ultimate over from Nehra where 13 runs were conceded with ease. The shoulders drooped again, the critics drew their daggers out, the experts smirked at our capabilities while the whimsical Indian cricket fan started writing elegies and expecting the worst. The team then beat the ragtag Windies team which seemed just a shade better than the minnows but still a victory was still a victory.

The Quarter finals finally arrived after weeks of surprisingly robust 50 over games which drew crowds in decent numbers. For the first time in more than two decades, India was tipped to be the favourites to beat the Aussies. The Aussies looked like aging patriarchs playing from memory; with no McGrath, Warne, Hayden or Gilchrist, the team was at cross roads, almost akin to their predecessors in the early 80s. The experts said that this was the best time to beat them, they had no great match practice and looked jaded against the Pakis.

At Ahmedabad, there was drama of course when the great man Ponting worked his way to a fantastic century finally getting out to a reverse sweep (a shot which nobody had probably ever seen Ponting play); the champ was down but not yet out and he had preserved his fighting spirit for the tough games. The Indian batsmen started well, wobbled a bit, almost made heavy weather of the chase but thanks to Yuvaraj and Raina, they pulled off a tense but convincing victory. The cricketing Gods had finally said good bye to the once most powerful cricketing team on the planet and the World Cup awaited a new prince to be crowned.

The semi-final against Pakistan was arguably the most hyped spectacle in recent media history and office goers were glad to give their regular jobs a miss to be a part of history (?). It wasn’t a great cricketing match by any standards but if the team needed to play the toughest, most stressful match before the finals, this was it. Dhoni surprised everyone by replacing Ashwin with Nehra on a pitch that did not do much for seamers but Nehra pulled off a fantastic performance. Sachin played a rather forgettable blemished innings but still took home the Man of the Match. The batting almost collapsed till Raina played another small cameo to give the team a fighting total. The Pak team started well but they played into the pressure and were outclassed; the golden oldies Misbah and Younis strangely seemed to be playing in a game which had no bearing with the current one. Despite the odd flourish here and there, it was a comfortable win and India’s WC record of no losses against Pak remained intact.

The final opponents were the wonderful Sri Lankans led by the aristocratic, Oscar Wilde quoting captain, Kumar Sangakkara. The team had an excellent opening pair, an untested middle order and had the 3 feared Ms in their bowling lineup – Malinga, Murali and Mendis. Strangely, Mendis was rested for the finals and there were 3-4 new blokes all thrust into the finals of the World Cup. They were expected to play South Africa for a slot in the final but thanks to the Protean tendency for suicide, they had an easier outing into the final. It was an all Asian final and touted to be the closing finale for two legends of the game to bow out in glory.

The Men in Blue were striking all the right notes – the bowling was peaking when it mattered and the batsmen were doing well, though not necessarily doing full justice to their reputation. Yuvaraj’s excellent overall performance had strengthened the team immensely; Sachin was among the leading run getters of the WC and Zaheer Khan led the bowling figures. The fielding was a class apart from its normal abysmal standards and the presence of Kohli, Raina and Yuvaraj were saving close to 20 runs in every game.

The finals took off on a cautionary note with a dream first spell by Zak and a decent enough one by Sreesanth (another gambit by Dhoni). The Indian bowlers played all the right notes and a total within 250 seemed in sight until some swashbuckling hitting in the end overs of Zak took SL to an imposing total of 274 – a total never before chased in a World Cup final. Mahela Jayawardene played a silken, cultured, crafty knock full of touches and nudges, with no hint of any form of violence against the leather – it was a knock that was possibly destined to take the Lankans to the trophy except ofcourse it turned out to be unfortunately a piece of cricketing trivia as the only team to have lost despite scoring a century in the WC finals.

When Malinga polished the two stalwart Indian openers, the nation let out a collective gasp; had the Men in Blue flattered to deceive again? But two young men decided to attempt to change the script – young Gambhir and Kohli (he was born in the post-83 era) stuck to the crease, played with a cause and took the attack to the opposition but with no attempts at flamboyance. The fairy tale ended when Dilshan pulled off an excellent catch to dismiss Kohli and in walked the captain Dhoni (to everyone’s surprise). The captain was in no great form but he wanted to make a point to both himself and the world and he decided to take the attack to the opposition – a bold move which eventually won him laurels and us the game. They played Murali and Malinga with due respect, went after the others and the ploy worked – eventually, when Gambhir got out for a fighting 97, we were standing at the threshold of a famous victory. The batting powerplays and Malinga came to play but today they were ordained to win and they cruised at the end with Dhoni finishing off the match with a memorable six over long off.  

28 years is a long wait and the triumph is sweet and almost surreal. Ganguly had initiated the transformation but could not take it through to the final stage; Dhoni was the man destined to do the honours. He took risks, stuck to his instincts against all conventional logic and when the big moment arrived, he took the battle to the opposition. Even when the battle was won, he almost looked confused, unsure how to react and remained at the background in a rather understated way but few would doubt that he is the best ever Indian captain (a job arguably more demanding than the one Manmohan Singh has). My memories of Gary Kirsten at the crease were of a boring, unattractive work machine but the soft, unassuming coach returns to his family definitely a contented and a much admired man in India.  

The Men in Blue played for the nation and the Little Master – the man whom my generation has been privileged to watch right from his teens to where he is now. Virat Kohli expressed this sentiment beautifully when he said – Sachin has carried the burden of the nation for 21 years. It's time we carried him on our shoulders.

Thank you Sachin, Dhoni, Gary and the Men in Blue – the images well remain etched in our memories for a really long, long time. On a more sober note, two weeks back , Dhoni's boys were pilloried for being chokers and now they are National heroes. Such is life and its glorious uncertainties - when the going in on your side, the nation is rooting for you but when you are down in the dumps, they want to smell your blood. I'm sure Dhoni understands this feeling just too well...