Saturday, November 16, 2013


This article is about a personal anecdote which, vaguely, serves to also dissect Sachin Tendulkar's post-match speech at the Wankhede Stadium on November 16, 2013. DNA has published the full text, but I recommend you watch the video. For people who do not have access to television like myself, it made for a hearty 20-minute watch - one that perhaps was as delightful as Mr Tendulkar's desert storm innings in Sharjah in 1998.

In all my sporting experience, I have but one anecdote that has stuck. If it has, it has stuck for a reason. And even though it has been ten years and I was merely a child of eleven when it happened, it played a significant part in the development my rationale, if not turning out to be the driving force behind my every deed.

I do not remember the exact occasion, so pardon me for leaving out minor details. It was mid-season and Ashok sir (our coach) had us ‘state ranking’ folk gathered around him. I was eleven, and I played Table Tennis in the cadet category (under-12) then. I was ranked seven in a system where you’re not worth much unless you’re ranked within the top four, but I can tell you I was not bad. I did get the occasional clip on the ear for losing my nerve in matches because I was told I was talented but I didn’t have the temperament. I also lacked discipline. I could be meticulous, hard-working and persistent to the point of being nervous with all my efforts, but discipline was essentially all these things in a magic proportion which I never quite discovered. There was this other guy, though, who had it working like none of us could even dream of – boys, girls, seniors, juniors alike. And this discussion, as was the case with anything Ashok sir told us back then because he was quite taken by this guy, eventually became all about him. 

The discussion was about goals and what each one of us aspired to do, in and out of the sport. The list rolled out. Some said they wanted to play in the Olympics. Some said they wanted to win the National Championships. Lesser mortals like us said we wanted to play in the state team. I remember saying that, at least. Incidentally, I never got around to do that. It has been fourteen years since I started playing Table Tennis, it has been nearly five since I stopped playing it competitively. I have never played for the state. Coming to think about it, with that having not happened and me never getting to ever be a Scientist, I think I’ve kissed all my childhood dreams goodbye. There still is the amorphous, fanciful notion of getting to be famous. I think I’d write that off as a delusion when I have lived to be forty and have repeatedly let ‘career’ get in the way of my fancies. 

Anyway, it was Raja’s (the other guy I was talking about) turn to share his goals with us. Raja is this thin, wiry, bespectacled kid of thirteen who was the spearhead of the boys’ contingent. Our Academy is well-known for all the fantastic women players it has produced, and Raja was like a first-generation city dweller. The rest of us who were at least a couple of years younger went on to be the next. Sadly, none of us from either of these generations play the sport the way we thought we’d be playing it, right now. We are all, instead, engineering graduates, management graduates, employees in everyday jobs. I did my four years, a year of liberal arts after and, now, work, looking forward to a place where music, writing, films, love and happiness can go together. This ambition is uncharacteristic of a sportsman: a far cry from the dialectic of victory and defeat, where ‘acceptance’ is the golden mean. It, needless to say, is also uncharacteristic of a child. It hurts to think I might have gone and outgrown both phases. 

Ashok sir asks Raja, so Raja, what do you want to do? There is no tension building – Raja has been ‘Captain Cool’ before the world knew MS Dhoni. He says, and quite determinedly, that he wants to win the next match. He does not say he wants to win the Nationals. He does not even say he wants to make the state team. He says he wants to win the next match. Now, anyone who has heard anything about NLP would know what this means, in terms of short-term and long-term goals. Short-term goals define your immediate actions. Long-term goals, like wanting to play in the Olympics, hosting the Oscars and the whole nine yards, put some romance in something that’s otherwise just a list of tasks. 

We never got to know what Raja’s romantic vision for his own life was. In all likelihood, he didn’t have one. I never did. To us, it was about getting that stroke right, contacting the ball at the right point for best effect, keeping our head clear to be able to adopt the best strategy to take that point in that pressure-situation. Success, for all practical purposes, rested upon our ability to not let pressure get in the way of our development as smart, effective, clear-headed sportsmen. Raja was clear about that. Ashok sir was mighty impressed to see a pubescent kid get this aspect of sporting life right. 

If there is one detail I saw being relived in Sachin Tendulkar’s farewell speech, it is this. Peel off the layers of ‘legend’, ‘icon’ and ‘superstar’ and you will find a simple guy who played the game the way it ought to be played. He never lost touch with that thirteen-year old sporting nerd inside him whose only ambition in life was to make sure he doesn’t lose his wicket like that last time. He might not have fully corrected that bat-pad gap, he never worked on that bottom-handed grip. But he got better, and that’s all that matters. The most satisfying experience for any performer, be it an artist or a sportsperson, is to cast aside the irrelevant detail that you are in the spotlight and to be able to single-mindedly pursue two things. One, the expectations you have for yourself. Two, the aspirations you have with respect to the game and the way you ought to play it. And it is for having successfully managed that in the limited span of their respective careers, and for setting the precedent that both Sachin Tendulkar and R.S. Raja deserve a mention, my words, your time.

Sunday, October 13, 2013




There is so much about Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Gravity’ that has previously been filmed, written, talked or even sung about that its single defining feature is the treatment. For starters, it might seem like an obvious thing to say: ‘Solaris’ has been made twice over in the last three decades with George Clooney in one of them, coincidentally. Of course, we live in an age of recycled plots thinly veiled by layers of CGI, digital surround sound, 3D, IMAX and other effects. In a paradigm of purpose, some of these films don’t deserve to be made if not for the excuse of high-end technology. The ‘Transformers’ franchise stands as a clear example. ‘Gravity’ falls in that line, where while its filmmaking is exquisite, even breathtaking at moments (the spacemen frequently stop to point out how ‘beautiful’ it is, up there), it offers nothing exceptional otherwise.

Having made that preposterous statement only makes me more obligated to rationalize it. So I shall. ‘Gravity’ is in the league of films that best exemplify the technological advancements in the realm of cinema, but which also lack the intellectual sophistication it has failed to achieve as time progressed. It is not the first in that category. ‘Avatar’, for one, is. ‘Life of Pi’ was soon to follow in its footsteps. These are films that definitely talked about things worth discussing, but all three of them (I hate to include ‘Gravity’ in that list) fail to pack a punch with that statement. Amidst the spectacle and all the furor about it, these films succumbed to an oversimplification that is a bane not of the medium, but of the trade. After all, these are Hollywood studio pictures made by clever people with a big budget riding on them.

However, ‘Gravity’ transgresses most boundaries that such films set for themselves. First of all, it is incredibly short, crisp and neatly narrated. The fact that it does not discuss anything remarkable does not mean it rambles. Secondly, even though the casting of familiar, maybe too familiar, faces like George Clooney or Sandra Bullock makes it inevitable for the producers, director and the writers to play to their respective stereotypes, ‘Gravity’ does not fall too deep into the chasms of gimmickry. Both Clooney and Bullock are cleverly written into the script. Especially Bullock, who plays a space captain with a guy’s name and a loss that has benumbed her. Cuaron thus relieves her of an acting load, making the process easier and more methodical; as simple as following instructions from NASA headquarters.

Captain Ryan Stone (Bullock) and Captain Matt Kowalsky (Clooney) are part of a team of astronauts that has been sent to fix a NASA space station. The ordeal seems to be taking them longer than expected and proves to be futile too; time that Matt spends space-walking listening to good ol’ country like the Texan he is, as he jokes about beating Anatoly Solovyev's space-walking record. Their schedule, unfortunately, will not permit him to. The situation seems under control in an introductory sequence of epic proportions, which will join the likes of timeless classics like ‘Star Wars’. It is almost like a factory scene, with workers tightening bolts, undoing catches, repairing circuits – except they’re doing it all in zero gravity.

Houston on the radio then declares an emergency situation. At first it seems avoidable. The Russians have shot their own satellite with a missile, and its debris is traveling faster than a bullet in an orbit different from theirs. However the orbits soon overlap and the space station is hit. Matt and Ryan are sole survivors amongst a list of deceased including an Indian from Harvard. Ryan then complains of low O2 levels in her tank, which becomes the second crisis for the two of them to overcome. Also, all satellites are down resulting in a communication blackout. Matt and Ryan can communicate with each other, but neither of them can touch base. The protocol then becomes borderline spiritual; delightfully absurd. Keep talking. Someone might actually save your life. With that as their first leap of faith, Matt and Ryan take a second one as they try to reach the International Space Station before the satellite debris comes back again. They have 90 minutes. Ryan has less than 10 percent oxygen in her tank. And Matt, like Han Solo, has spunk characteristic of a true American space maverick.You know he’ll save the day, at any cost.

Not only is he the heartland hero, he is also quite the fabulist. In sync with his happy-go-lucky personality, Matt often recounts encounters from his past, all of which are humorous spins on episodes of dejection. He is the endearing optimist whose purpose in life arises from the fact that everything is bound to fail. Ryan, on the other hand, has lost all reason to live when her four-year old died in a ‘silly’ accident. She was driving when she got the call informing her of her daughter’s death. The wheels never stopped ever since. Nor does she drive anymore. She goes where the wheels take her, even if it’s in outer space. Matt is the right person to bring her back to life at this point, for he exemplifies ‘living deliberately’, as Thoreau put it. He even resonates with Camus’ dissertation on the Myth of Sisyphus in his climactic monologue, when he says it is oh-so-easy to stay in ether and ‘go to sleep’ undisturbed. But in the very ease of that task, you find your calling that makes you “put your foot down” quite literally and go on living. The struggle is not to deny that life is an accident but to embrace it and define one’s purpose thereon.

It is here that Cuaron saves the worst for the best, reducing the defining scene of the film to a tacky sophomoric stunt. The whole weight of ‘Gravity’ then rang as hollow as ‘The Devil’s Advocate’ afterwards. It is almost like Jonas Cuaron (Cuaron’s son, a thirteen-year old who has been given co-writing credits) said, “Papa, Matt’s ghost visits Ryan and tells her how she can operate the Soyuz and save herself. And then she wakes up, and he’s gone. Surprise!” Cuaron on his part sees the merit in that sequence. It is the only scene where Clooney takes his helmet off and shows his crew-cut, clean shaven, handsome face to the world. Surely you cannot cast George Clooney in a role and have him hidden in a suit of armour! Where’s the fun if Ryan had heard instructions from Matt on the voice-transmitter when he was nowhere to be seen, only for him to die on her again, leaving her in eternal doubt on whether she actually heard him? Wouldn’t that have reduced the fabulous fare that ‘Gravity’ is, to an absurdist no-go like ‘The Dumb Waiter’? Here we are painfully reminded that Hollywood is still stuck in the paradigm of the ‘Contact’s and the ‘Cast Away’s, trading on gimmicks.

One thing commendable about ‘Gravity’ is that it looks comparatively less deliberate with its multi-culturist efforts, for a Hollywood studio movie. Ryan jumps from the International Space Station on to a Russian escape-pod, and from there to a Chinese one. If you follow closely, you will even see she wears a Russian space-suit in the second half of the film. Matt remarks about the beauty of the Ganges, there is an image of Christ in one spaceship and a Zen idol in another. It is almost like multi-culturism is an alternative for product-placement, and Cuaron has played it well writing it into fundamental plot details that make logical sense.

So ‘Gravity’ restates the existentialist argument on the purpose of life. Even Matt when he asks poor Ryan to “learn to let go” and sets himself adrift in space, doesn’t really choose to end his life. His choice is to continue living so he can set the new space-walking record. At that moment, he chooses to define his purpose of existence in wanting to achieve that feat, which is what he sets out to do. Ryan then follows “Obi Wan” Matt’s path of finding excitement in the unexciting prospect of living. Both Clooney and Bullock are earnest with their acting efforts, even though I felt Bullock put a little too much Bullock in Ryan, in a more Jodie Foster role. And Cuaron is incredibly precise as a director, piecing together some inventive visuals, with a fantastic editing crew and an absolutely stunning music score. His emphasis on technical solidity to execute a simple, tight narrative shows the mark of a true Hollywood genius. However, if you are looking for the man who made ‘Y Tu Mama Tambien’ about a decade ago, you will not find him.

Still ‘Gravity’ is a stellar film, no doubt. But it has its pull reduced by half, all because of counteracting forces of Hollywood gimmickry. And, needless to say, the misplaced idiosyncrasies of Sandra Bullock, who makes it look like a ‘Speed’ sequel, shot in outer space.

Thursday, September 26, 2013


People once wrote things in brackets to de-emphasize certain text (only for it to draw more attention to itself). The same is happening to the #hashtag. 

Consider the following paragraph: 
A man with a tuft of grey hair is the only one in a cinema hall. He is sitting in the second row on a seat right next to the stairs. He has just landed after an event of great personal significance. But then any intense emotion can only survive until airport security gets its hands on you. And so he sits, barely aware of what he is feeling, in his personal theater, waiting to watch a film reel he had just given the operator asking him to roll when ready. The lights dim. Music is queued. It is a violin leading into a somber sort of symphony, which is perhaps a reflection of his own state of mind. On the screen are visuals of people kissing, in black and white. They appear to be from old movies, presumably from the man’s childhood. He watches them with great amazement, as though it was the first time he is seeing them. For some reason (and he had a shrewd idea why), the visuals were affecting him. Deeply. Very, very deeply. 
I have just attempted to narrate to you the first two seconds of the famous kissing montage from Tornatore’s ‘Cinema Paradiso’ (1989). My writing potential can certainly be brought to question where the poignancy of the description is concerned. Nonetheless, there is no denying that the beauty of watching Salvatore (Toto) break down rests completely on the fact that it was shot on camera as Ennio Morricone tapped his wand on it. By writing it in a paragraph, I only communicated the futility of the exercise: of trying to express in words the beauty of images. You can watch the sequence here.

I write this in reaction to the Fallon-Timberlake parody of the #hashtag, which is currently trending on social media thanks to the many #hashtags taking it forward. It is a tidy video. One can see that their comic timing is impeccable and, as partners, they complement each other. The idea is simple. They simulate an internet conversation offline, physically representing the devices that are, more or less, sacrosanct to the internet as the medium of expression. It is no different than talking about the parentheses, or the now-popular “quote-unquote” which has been co-opted and has almost become exclusive to the spoken word. I am sure there are sketches online that parody the “quote-unquote” as well. I am sure they have done their rounds on the internet, trending thanks to people “self-referencing.” 

As an empathizer of the #hashtag phenomenon, I must say that I was quite amused by what Fallon and Timberlake did. If I am disappointed, it is not with them. If you watch closely, it is not just the video that is trending on the internet, but also a secondary source (Gizmodo) that has published the video in an article titled “Justin Timberlake shows us how dumb we sound when we use hashtags.” It is not even the judgment call that I am disappointed with – for the author says (and I quote) 
That pound sign—which was probably once the least pressed button on a phone's dial pad—has now infiltrated every single social network, every form of text communication and will eventually, override the spoken English language. 
What I am disappointed with is popular misconception. I am also disappointed at the fact that the parody could unanimously be construed as criticism. If either Fallon or Timberlake had wanted to ‘criticize’ the #hashtag phenomenon, they would have had the sense to do it via text. The moment they chose to film a video on it, they had instantly steered clear of anything but oblique impact at best, for it is not the #hashtag phenomenon they were discussing anymore, but the absurdity in the act of co-opting it in the spoken word. In other words, they are forecasting a time when the #hashtag will creep into our speech much like the parentheses and the “quote-unquote,” legitimized by Presidents and Prime Ministers and motivational speakers alike. 

I once fought someone to the hilt (trust me, I did) on his dismissal of the #hashtag. I must admit that my standing up for the #hashtag was in part standing up for myself, much like how his argument rang hollow with scathing personal intolerance, which he was not mindful of. I find myself in those waters where internet memes are concerned. I am saddened by the fact that creativity on the internet has become a random assortment of references. Nothing seems to excite us as much as references do, be it historic, cultural or political, where the subtler and more obscure the reference, the cleverer it is considered to be. 

But then I also know I have to make my peace with it. It is not up to me to define how the human race communicates. Once upon a time they wrote patterns on a wall. Now we are using #hashtags. I do believe, however, that creative expression can only be as robust as the medium. We are simultaneously constrained and nourished by the medium we choose to express in. For instance, this software which tries to imitate the style of Jackson Pollock is only drawing attention to how absurd it is to try re-creating his work in the paradigm of virtual graphic design. Likewise, making a video on #spokenhashtag, first and foremost, draws attention to the act itself, much before offering a comment on the #hashtag phenomenon (which it offers very slightly, in the kind of things Fallon puts in a #hashtag, as compared to the act of putting things in #hashtags itself). Also, this leads me to conclude that it would have been much clearer and a lot more reassuring had the Gizmodo author titled his post "Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake show us how stupid it would sound if we were to use Hashtags in our speech."

But I am sure Fallon and Timberlake, and the author on Gizmodo already knew this. For they are wise men.

Monday, September 23, 2013



“Making 8 references to other movies is not writing a review,” a text message said, almost 24 hours after I had published my first ‘review’ of Ritesh Batra’s ‘The Lunchbox.’ You can read that ‘review’ here. Or you can scroll down a little and that will be the first thing you see after this attempted, almost independent take on ‘The Lunchbox’ where I shall pretend that it is the only film made on the planet, and that the joy of having watched ‘The Lunchbox’ had little to do with the fact that it reminded me of so many films and concepts I respected, if not completely liked. Additionally, I also believe that my obsession with the film’s themes of loneliness had rendered me aloof as well where I appear to have failed to grasp the bigger picture. With this second review of mine, I hope to fill all those gaps. 

Let me start with this one bone I didn’t pick to completion in my last review: its title. ‘The Lunchbox’ is an anglicized title for a film that manages to capture a little bit of rustic reality, even though it is mostly in the paradigm of borderline gimmickry. This does not render it insincere. The film exaggerates to make a point, but each exaggeration shows visibly the efforts of someone trying to sober it down. Then why ‘The Lunchbox’? Is this some ‘Ship of Theseus’ stunt of arming the movie with an over-simplified title that allows for a moral as well as socioeconomic high ground where one sits with a clipboard and makes observations? If there is a reason why I felt a little dissatisfied with the title, it is because I felt it could have incorporated some of the magic the film brims with. 

But then this is not to say ‘The Lunchbox’ is not a magical title. You see its relevance in the opening sequence. You see it every moment from then on. The opening sequence shows the Dabbawallahs of Mumbai engaged in the tedious task of transporting a gazillion lunchboxes to offices across the city. They pedal their respective cycles on a dotted line they have drawn for themselves inside their head. They pass their time singing the same song. In fact, the same camera angle is used to show this one particular Dabbawallah parking his bicycle below Ila’s apartment, following which there is a shot of a lunchbox kept at her doorstep – almost on the same place on the doormat, as though there is an X that marks the spot. In course of their unremarkable routine, they are magicians unaware of the weight of the material they carry to and carry back from the claims department in the insurance firm where a certain Saajan Fernandez (Irrfan Khan) works. 

‘The Lunchbox’ is thus both banality and an unconscious, gradual drift towards the remarkable, which also gets encapsulated in routine. To the Dabbawallah, the lives of Ila (Nimrat Kaur) and Saajan are no different from the lunchboxes he delivers every day. Even for Saajan and Ila, the transition from nonchalant widower or mind-numb housewife to “lover in despair” is almost unnoticeable. In making this shift, there is not a moment that they stray from the dull and dreary world of calculators, office files, kitchen sink, brinjals or the mid-day meal service, even. Confined to the same machine that seems to offer no respite, they find their ‘out’. Their lives then move slowly into a domain of magical reality, where – on the face of it – a lunchbox seems to have a conversation with them, trading witticisms in toneless narratives that offer a sort of Brechtian window into emotion. To add to that is Ila’s conversation with this unseen woman from upstairs. These are instances of ‘magic’ in the very reality that threatens to make prisoners of them; maybe even does. 

In all his attempts to communicate with this unknown letter-writer woman who is so disenchanted with her life that she can’t even bring herself to grieve for it, Saajan completely ignores and rejects the advances of this genuine and downright forthright individual by the name of Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, absolutely delightful). Middle-aged government officials are so trapped in their own heads they need a letter in a lunchbox to open themselves to meaningful companionship right in front of them. There is an absolutely stunning sequence in the middle of the film when Saajan, from being the man who literally ran away from this pest of an individual, backs him to the brink when he owns up for a mistake he had committed. What follows is a conversation between benefactor and beneficiary, perhaps the first time they ‘speak’ to each other. Shaikh, the man with his life ahead of him, speaks with such conviction that he is unapologetic even with his apologies, staring right into the eyes of a man who simply can’t stare back. Saajan has his fair share of things to say, some even in anger that he rediscovers when exasperation seems to not suffice anymore. But never does he look into Shaikh’s eyes. Him, Shaikh, the filmmaker and the viewer all know that his reading glasses are not the excuse. How has it happened that one gets so trapped within oneself that one cannot even look straight when talking to someone? This is blindfolds we’re talking about – not even blinkers. 

By distinguishing between Saajan and Shaikh, we are not distinguishing between people but draw attention to the time that has passed between them. For all we know, Shaikh could exactly be what Saajan would have been twenty years before. His marriage photograph will have been no different, save for the ceremony. The film actually goes a step ahead from this deduction and tries to tell us their lives are not so very different right now, let alone twenty years earlier. Shaikh is about to be married. Saajan fancies himself to have a ‘girlfriend’. This is not to say that he feels youthful. Quite the opposite, as illustrated in a lot of scenes. This is to say, however, that he is but in a loop that he has gotten accustomed to that ‘growing old’ hasn’t really struck and never will strike him. It will be but a moment when he stands in his bathroom smelling an old man in the shower that he will have to tell himself he is, after all, a man on the verge of retirement. 

‘The Lunchbox’ is a magic portal which enables the two deep sleepers in Saajan and Ila to wake up from their slumber and cope with a reality that seems to have redefined itself for them. Ila then hastens to go ahead and make sense of this amorphous relationship she shares with this letter-writer, even as she complains to him that her husband has an affair. Saajan shakes off his dead wife to give life a shot. These people unknowingly escape the realms of the sacrosanct as ‘morality’ takes a step back to guide them through this newly-erected structure, quite like the autorickshaw that takes Saajan through the city he barely knows anymore. Again, this is not to say that they have escaped the paradigm of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. This is to say they suddenly discover themselves in the middle of this newfound routine, where it is usual for them to pine for each other. This is not trivialization. This is reinforcement of the overarching metaphor of the lunchbox, where the very idea of ‘respite’ is yet another clueless confinement. 

You can visibly see the fight to keep away from abstraction, staying faithful to ground reality even as ‘The Lunchbox’ is extensively a film about concepts and, in a way, abstraction. The film employs both the easiest and the hardest devices to attempt the same. The easiest is the treatment – long shots, shaky camera, close-ups, shots that outlast their lifetimes in a desperate attempt to speak to the viewer. Yet it does not try to be picturesque. It does not pack the wonderment and marvel of an outsider in picturing various locales. What is attempted instead is the dryness and banality in an everyday observer’s tiresome commute, entertained by nothing but the coincidences of life like when the children who beg for alms on the train sing a song you had listened to on the radio the night before – a song from a film that has the same title as your name. To the viewer, it is a gimmick. But then it is an attempt on the writer’s part to offer the character what the film both gifts and denies him equally: respite. 

The hardest device is the acting. You can choose to brand a film with your pet concept, shoot postcards and ride on so-called intellectual merit. Or you can find the right people who would flesh your characters out enough at least so they don’t look like props. ‘The Lunchbox’ burdens its actors with the responsibility of having to keep their awkwardness, their confused state of suffering and the little moments when they break from these traps, both when they are by themselves, as well as in their interactions. It is hard to say which is more demanding. Nimrat Kaur is beautiful as the bewildered Ila who has to look like she has been taught how to feel but never could quite bring herself to. Irrfan Khan has not quite shed his swagger, and is almost typecast in a character who takes a higher ground throughout the film, even in self-deprecation. There are scenes where the star in him threatens to outshine the warm glow of the actor, but in all, Khan’s performance is pleasant rather than problematic. And Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the man who has played as many different roles as the films he has acted in, gives us yet another. 

‘The Lunchbox’ is a film that is sincere in its efforts to do justice to its own concepts as well as the socioeconomic realities it sets itself up in. It is an affecting film that gives the viewer a sense of validation for his/her own wait for life to happen; for magic that will occur to you. Even and especially at its quietest, most awkward moments, it speaks for you, your numbness, your predicament. It is not meant to be intellectualized, for it does not have the hand of a gourmet chef who wants a five-star rating on his recipe. It bears instead the care of a housewife who only cares for acknowledgement, whose face can both light up and fall at the sight of an empty lunchbox. Needless to say, she earns yours.

Sunday, September 22, 2013



The Lunchbox’ was the second of my ‘coming to terms with things’ trilogy for today. The first one was the Josh Radnor film ‘Liberal Arts’ which I watched for the second time. And I made my way back from the cinema hall thinking I might have to revisit Fatih Akin’s ‘The Edge of Heaven’ later which would be the third film in that sequence. I might go ahead and watch it. I might not. I thought I’d write what I thought about ‘The Lunchbox’ down first. You can read what I thought about ‘Liberal Arts’ here, as written the first time I watched it. Not much has changed of what I felt about it. A little more clarity, a little more fondness. The academic observations have remained more or less the same. 

Surprisingly, the film I was most reminded of when I watched ‘The Lunchbox’ is neither of the films I have mentioned above. Nor was it ‘Manhattan’, Woody Allen’s biggest shot at optimism if he ever showed a little bit. The film I was most reminded of was this Marathi film called ‘Masala’ which was my ‘pick of the festival’ at OSIAN last year. ‘Masala’ captured a suburban couple’s pursuit of ‘the better life’, with a defining climactic moment where both of them separately find contentment in the realization that they have all they can ask for: each other. ‘The Lunchbox’ ends in mutual hopefulness (or a lack thereof) in the fact that the one they are looking for is looking for them as well. They might or might not find each other. Yet they find contentment in the fact that the wheels are in motion. 

But were the wheels ever idle? In answering this question, we find ourselves having to play by the presuppositions that either/all of these films bring to the table. Or rather, the overarching presupposition that the only thing palatable about life is flux. Not motion, but flux. This is best exemplified in Prof. Hoberg’s (Richard Jenkins) comment in ‘Liberal Arts’ when he says “Any place you don’t leave is a prison.” We are having to accord ourselves to this one presupposition that to be stuck in the same routine all these characters find themselves in is the same as being ‘trapped’. It is not hard to align oneself with that notion. On the one hand, it is pretty characteristic of my scheme of things, where I stand in life and my approach to life and living in general. On the other hand, there is also the “dirty little secret” (again, in Prof. Hoberg’s words) that no one in the world actually feels like an adult. You either come to terms with the fact that your life is and will continue to be unremarkable, or you refuse to do so. 

There is nothing wrong with Saajan Fernandez’ (Irrfan Khan, with less of his swagger) life. He is a widower claiming early retirement from his position as a clerk in the claims department of an insurance firm. He has no one for company. Does that make him lonely? I don’t think so. If anything, Saajan has reconciled with the fact that life can get no better. He is like Bruce Wayne in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, having reached a point where life can be no different. He has reached his cruise altitude. All that is left is to go full-on autopilot: which is precisely what he does. 

This is one step beyond loneliness. To be lonely is to grieve that one isn’t getting one’s due in all of life’s joys and riches. Saajan has reconciled with the fact that life can be nothing but lonely. If loneliness is a limbo, his state of mind is one where he has pulled the plug already. His shrugging off of the pest in Shaikh (Nawazzudin Siddiqui, delightful) is not the reaction of the irritable working husband having to deal with stress, anxiety, school admissions, constipation and what not. He is more like Ebenezer Scrooge who’d say no to Christmas because it doesn’t let the dead decompose. 

One day, Saajan receives a lunchbox door-delivered by the famed dabbahwalahs of Mumbai. The box looks no different from the one he receives every day. But the food is not the same. It is not the aloo-gobi that so disgusts him. It is nothing remarkable either. The one distinguishing detail about this food is that it shows care – care that a loving wife shows her husband, which he now has intercepted. Care that wants nothing but acknowledgement for it to soldier on; for her to soldier on. Her name is Ila. He comes to know of it through a note she slips into the folds of a chapatti as she lets him know that the food she cooks for her husband is getting delivered to him by mistake. Saajan writes back. The conversation begins.
Ila (Nimrat Kaur, absolutely beautiful) has reconciled to a lifeless marriage. Remember the “old lady” Celine talks about in ‘Before Sunrise’ and how their lives are but her dream with a theme of regret? Well, Ila gets to speak to that old lady, actually. She calls her “Aunty,” a voice from above which, from giving cooking suggestions to life lessons, pretty much takes her through her whole interaction with Saajan. She even functions as a jukebox when she plays ‘Mera Dil Bhi Kitna Pagal Hai’ from the film ‘Saajan’ at request. She prods Ila to take the adventure as it beckons. Ila takes it up. This choice of hers is in sync with something Saajan says in the course of their correspondence. To paraphrase, he says one’s actions are rendered meaningless in the absence of someone to share it with. This is a revelation. In the life of someone who is only perhaps a little more affable than Gru in ‘Despicable Me’, this is a twist in the tale. 

It is in the intense feeling of loneliness that both these people begin their search for joy. Let me take another ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ example to clarify. A fellow prisoner in the cave tells Bruce Wayne that it is in acknowledgement of the fear of death that one finds purpose in living. Likewise, it is by acknowledging their loneliness that Saajan and Ila seek their mutual company. Life blossoms. Saajan looks “10 years younger” as Shaikh puts it. Even Shaikh, annoying as he is with his advances, seems lovable. Saajan and Ila wake up from their coma to see that things have changed. And they scramble and scrounge to fix it, finding contentment in their efforts; in the fact that they are, for once, “trying.” 

Life becomes precious with the knowledge that one can lose it. All distinctions between “want” and “need” are made at the onset of loss. Saajan is set to retire. Ila looks to move to Bhutan. Between them, they have a month. They could miss each other. They could meet. In the course of a month, they become important enough to each other that they would try, perhaps for as long as they live – much like how the night in ‘Before Sunrise’ was adequate for Jesse and Celine to want to meet again. ‘The Lunchbox’ thus resolves into Ila necessitating Saajan and vice-versa, despite constraints. Above the impossibility of it, there is also a very petty, subjective and yet crucial barrier. Saajan might not care for the fact that Ila is married, but is perturbed by the fact that he is much older than her. He sees in her a burning flame while he fancies himself to be a burnout, only to prove himself wrong as he shrugs it off and makes a sprint for it in the style of Woody Allen in ‘Manhattan’ as opposed to going the Josh Radnor way. 

The only problem I had with ‘The Lunchbox’ was the title. I’d have liked something on the lines of ‘The Edge of Heaven.’ The Guy de Maupassant sort of banal title, I felt, took away from the poetry. There were also a couple of instances when I felt ‘The Lunchbox’ took the ‘Ship of Theseus’ route of over-explaining. Thankfully, they were very few. For the most part, ‘The Lunchbox’ is subtle filmmaking, with incredibly human performances spearheaded by the stunning Nimrat Kaur. Amidst films that manipulate people’s vulnerability, ‘The Lunchbox’ is a gift. It is not a one-time feast that satiates the voracious film-viewer who thirsts to consume. It is magic in an everyday event. In Glen Hansard’s words, it is a gift that “falls right in your hands.” Extra delightful, when you least expect it.

Thursday, August 15, 2013



NOTE: The album releases on the 20th of August, 2013. Click here to listen to a free iTunes stream, which is where I caught the whole album as well - thrice. 

In a realm far, far away, I had once argued for artistic merit against personal significance. The case in point was a Lars Von Trier film called ‘Melancholia’. Now, there is no question that ‘Melancholia’ has as much artistic merit as any other Lars Von Trier film might have had. It was pitch-perfect in what it promised to be. It was insufferable in the fact that it was a boring, depressing experience in the name of artistry. But then ‘Melancholia’ must have been incredibly significant to its cast and crew. Kirsten Dunst, its lead, and Von Trier had both gotten out of chronic depression at the onset of the film. While in its making and reception both of them would have found redemption, one cannot say the same of the viewer who finds no part to play in the creative process. 

Likewise, it is becoming an increasingly strange experience to listen to a John Mayer record. In all his experiments with sounds and techniques, the autobiographical tone still remains. And we watch as it becomes more pronounced with each new record. But if there is one thing that could be said about John it is that he has always managed to strike a balance between the man he is and the music he makes. With ‘Paradise Valley’, however, I see the man outdo his music, which says a lot about the direction in which he is headed; where his music is personal and asks for some affiliation in the listener for it to be palatable. 

Why I say this is also driven by a need to establish that I come from that kind of affiliation where John Mayer is concerned. It is a territory where all criticism becomes problematic. It is a problem of proximity, of familiarity, of being able to second-guess what could have gone behind having written that song or that line in that song that might sound out of place, but you have a vague idea on why it might have been put there. Much of John Mayer’s music seems to develop from such privileged information that almost seems to ask the listener to be informed of his social and personal life. 

To elucidate a little, John Mayer is a singer-songwriter who has had his evolutionary phases in musicianship. There was the boy with the guitar who made the household album ‘Room for Squares’. There was the thirsting young man who talked ‘Heavier Things’ soon after. He then ‘Try!’ed his hand at the blues, peaking with ‘Continuum’ where he seemed to hit the sweet spot no matter what he played. It would not be an overstatement to say that he had the same kind of luck with women outside of his music. Fame brought some notoriety along with it. Between petty controversies he had pretty much brewed for himself, John released the underwhelming ‘Battle Studies’. 

It is important to note that while he does ‘spread it thin’ once in a while where his public image is concerned, there has been no compromise on his music. If it was fascination that took him to the blues in the first place, an ailing heart had him find it again as he strung together what one could call his most important album, three years after the ‘Battle Studies’ debacle (which still went platinum). ‘Born and Raised’, released in 2012, had a changed man. The outspoken troublemaker had been silenced, both figuratively and literally, with only his music to speak with. To add to a bad name earned was a recurring throat condition that would ensure he would stay out of action for two whole years. 

‘Born and Raised’ was no ‘Continuum’, but it is perhaps that very detail that is comforting. The John of now, thirty five years and a few screw-ups past, is a much more nuanced performer than the John of then, a twenty nine year old guitar sensation. In solitude, he discovered simplicity. He took his music, stripped it bare; he focused on the basics. Say what you need to say. Say nothing more. Say nothing less. 

‘Paradise Valley’ comes a year after ‘Born and Raised’ and is as close to it, musically. No two John Mayer records have resembled each other as much ‘Paradise Valley’ and ‘Born and Raised’ seem to. Does this signify a saturation on his evolutionary chart? It is safe to say one cannot tell, for we are in the business of making observations; not making claims. A more important question would be to ask what this means to the average listener: when a musician realizes he’s got no point to prove and turns the amp down a notch. Compositions have become simpler, yet more nuanced. His words aren’t too hard to fathom. The boy once spoke in code now has the straightest things to say. What other paradigm can a line like “you love who you love, who you love” come from? The duet with Katy Perry serves to speak for both parties on the sensationalized relationship the two of them share. She was the woman “he didn’t see coming.” He’s the ‘boy’ with “a heart that’s hard to hold.” 

On the one hand, this makes for sweet confession. ‘Who you love’, in fact, closes with Katy Perry ad-libbing “oh, you’re the one I love”, after which she bursts into a giggle, which, interestingly, has been retained on the record. On the other hand, for John Mayer the semi-pop musician, this means a larger audience. It’s like you could almost hear him say “if you thought ‘Half of my Heart was a stretch, wait till you get a load of this!” Thus, we find ourselves in the strange territory between the man and his music. 

There are many such songs in ‘Paradise Valley’ which appear to be of great personal significance, but have little to differentiate, say, from an existing song of his own, let alone contribute to musical innovation. John Mayer seems to have left it to the Frank Oceans of the world to mess around. He, on his part, has carved a niche for himself and is quite comfortable there. Music is no more a statement but a way of being, where the world, he finds, is a safe place to be. There is hope. He has found it. There is no reason to feel insecure. 

‘Paradise Valley’ is the plot summary of a wanderer having found his way back home. If ‘Born and Raised’ began his journey of self-discovery, ‘Paradise Valley’ closes it. It is, however, an open-ended sort of closure that it achieves, which we have reason to believe is very much the intention. Even at his vengeful best, the most John Mayer can do is sound sorry. His ‘Paper Doll’ addresses someone who is “like twenty two girls in one,” none of whom knows what she’s running from, even as he writes for himself “Sometimes I don’t know which way to go/And I’ve tried to run before, but I’m not running anymore.” What he detests is a part of himself that he claims he’s made his peace with. And that is as much as he wishes for the listener as well; as much as he wishes for this elusive ‘Paper Doll’ of his. 

Three songs compete for my pick of the album on an album where all songs seem to have found their rightful place. ‘Wildfire’ is most exciting of them all, probably the first time since ‘No Such Thing’ that John has gone for a clap-your-hands sort of anthem. Except he isn’t calling high-school students to mutiny, but for his woman to come shake a leg; a fair bait to offer yours. We then have his cover of the J.J. Cale song ‘Call me the Breeze’ – of which he manages as tight a cover as ‘Crossroads’ on ‘Battle Studies’. The third song is the prophetic ‘You’re No one till Someone lets you down’, a song that is ‘absolutely beautiful’ – a term David Gray used to describe ‘To Ramona’; a fitting term in this context as well, what with the kind of counsel John has to offer. 

There is a line in ‘I Will be Found (Lost at Sea)’ where John compares himself to a ‘feather in a hurricane’. I was instantly reminded of Jack Dawson in ‘Titanic’ as he 'predicts' Dylan when he says “I’m just a tumbleweed, blowin’ in the wind.” The differences are clear. The winds are supposedly harder, the feather – lighter. But there is no denying that they are saying the same thing: like there is no denying that ‘Paradise Valley’ is an epitome of the ease with which John Mayer expresses himself – musically, lyrically; vocally.

Sunday, August 4, 2013




I do not know what Anand Gandhi won many a heart with. But I can tell you about what captured mine in his ‘Ship of Theseus’, a two and a half hour thesis that has a last act that, in my opinion, wins it for the writer-director. For this, I will have to write in detail about what the last act had to offer, or, for that matter, the entire film perhaps, which means you will have to excuse me for revealing more than I ought to. But then I have a shrewd idea that you might have watched the film already and, for that reason, it might be safe after all for me to ‘spoil’ it for you. 

Navin (Sohum Shah) watches the stock-market when he is not watching over his grandmother. The story begins with him pondering over stocks with a surgical mask on his face and a needle at the back of his hand as his doctor tells him his cretanin levels are back to normal. He has just had his kidney replaced. Navin speaks everyman Hindi, has a goofball friend and a grandmother who believes that we exist to do some good to society. Struck by all the activism that seems to be happening around him – which has been there in his lineage – Navin neither knows how to digest it all, nor how he could add to the legacy. 

With Navin, we are introduced to a cultural, as well as a moral dilemma. There is a conversation that he has with his grandmother on the language he speaks and the music he listens to/appreciates before she fractures her leg. There is the other fiercer one he has as she is bed-ridden, where he tries to defend his need to be compassionate. While he defines his compassion in a detail as small as his inclination to take care of her, his grandmother goes as far as to ask him what he has sought to give back to society. To her, his – or anyone’s – existence is defined by how much he makes himself valuable to society. This commitment looks beyond the paradigm of right and wrong, she says. 

This is where the beauty in the very definition of Navin comes in. In the scene where he is introduced, he changes from an overall into a light pink shirt with a vest under it, takes off his surgical mask to show some neatly-trimmed facial hair, a pair of very subtle and formal-looking glasses whose case he carries around in his shirt pocket. Without doubt, you notice that it is bifocals that he wears – which, for those who have seen their dads age in front of them, is household stuff. So is the spectacle case. It is a light shade of gold, perhaps with a hint of brown in it, with a clip to hold it to a shirt pocket. Ahead of the Bajaj Chetak or the Hyundai Santro later on, it is best representative of the aging Indian middle-class. 

What he is also accused of is the apathy that is characteristic of the same. Navin is not the man on the wrong side of the struggle. He is the one who wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place. His struggle even with himself has the awkwardness of a person who, to put it simply, wishes he wasn’t there having to handle it. His walk is mechanical, his shoulders droop. Even if not emphasized, one could be sure he drags his feet. Had Matthew Broderick played his role, he would have had midlife crisis written all over his face, but Anand Gandhi does well in not insinuating it as much. Navin wakes up in the middle of the night at the hospital to the wails of a woman. Her husband, a construction worker by the name of Shankar (Yashwant Wasnik), has had his appendicitis operation done by a quack, who had also taken a kidney alongside the rudimentary organ. If a man can live without his appendix, he could do so without a kidney as well, right? Navin sends his friend to find out a little more. Several flights of stairs later, he returns with details on Shankar’s blood group and the fact that he has had his kidney removed on the 16th of that month. Navin had had his transplant done on the 17th. 

There begins the quest for redemption. Navin is the kind of guy who would not want to find himself in the wrong. He fears the kidney he had received might be the one that was stolen from Shankar. His investigation takes him to as far as Stockholm after he realizes, beyond reasonable doubt, that he hasn’t been an unconscious part of the profiteering business. He seeks to track dear Shankar’s kidney, which takes him to the doorstep of a Swedish man in Stockholm, who admits to having not known well enough the sources of the kidney he had received, in what is perceivably the funniest sequence I’ve seen in any recent Indian film. It also increased the faith I had in Mr. Gandhi’s abilities as a writer-director, whom I had accused for two-thirds of the film as someone who takes himself a little too seriously. 

I shall not tell you what happens of Navin’s efforts to reclaim poor Shankar’s kidney. If he could fly all the way to Stockholm to see what he could do about it, I’m sure you could make it to a movie theatre to find out what happened to his quest, and yes, it does seem like I’m indirectly recommending you to watch the film, only adding to the overwhelming amount of PR mileage it already has. Let me tell you that it is not entirely untrue either. The segment featuring Navin and his little hitchhike across the globe is the best thing about the film that, at one point, accuses itself (and the respectable Maitreya) of intellectual masturbation. While the other two masts of this ‘Ship of Theseus’ have their sails flying a tad too high, that of Navin is the right height to gather good wind. Navin could be your brother, Navin could be your Father; he could even be you. He is the man who knows his predicament but isn’t equipped enough to handle it. And therein lies a further predicament – one that shall never be overcome. 

Past the kidney racket, Navin makes his way to a screening of a few videos of his donor whom, he learns, was a cave-explorer who had met with an untimely death. His case is so exceptional that not only had he donated eight different organs to eight different people (because seven, I suspect, is a number that has already been taken by the Will Smith movie), he had also ensured three of them would have remarkable enough stories that could set sail on the ‘Ship of Theseus’. There is Aliya (Aida Elkashef), the blind photographer who, literally, ‘plays by the ear’ having lost her sight to a cornea infection. There is the Gandhian resurrect in Maitreya (Neeraj Kabi) who, unlike his obvious inspiration, gives up on his ideals. He is an atheist monk who believes in causality and the existence of the soul. A firm anti-animal-testing stance leaves him without options to medicate himself against his liver cirrhosis. The doctor says he needs a transplant. He chooses to let death happen instead. In all his emphasis on preserving the ‘self’ in much the same way that Gandhi had refused allopathic cure, Maitreya incites the argumentative Charvaka (Vinay Shukla) who, out of sheer love for the Guru and an interest to prolong his life, describes to him the meaninglessness of one’s ‘identity’ in the first place. There are more bacteria in the body than there are human cells. Who knows where the body ends and the environment begins? 

By not talking too much about the first two segments, I am not putting them down. I am merely choosing to not explain even further a couple of segments that have already been over-explained with too much dialogue that is written out like cues to an interview. In its defence, ‘Ship of Theseus’ is self-professed dualist. It is only reasonable to have its lines play out in a dialectic. But that does not excuse the fact that ‘Ship of Theseus’ tries to tell its whole life story, plank by plank, each question leading to the next, with a collection of postcards that desperately needed displaying; or so the editor seems to have felt. Mr. Gandhi writes his signature on these shots that do as much as popcorn does to your movie experience, but I think it takes a few minutes into the third segment for one to realize his ability to provide depth, detail and earnestness to an average human being in an average surrounding as he attempts the remarkable. In depicting his futile exercise, and in the big existential joke he could make out of it, Mr. Gandhi redeems himself, at least in my mind’s eye. 

The ending of ‘Ship of Theseus’ warrants a discussion in itself. I have given it away in an earlier part of my review. Let me give you a little more. The eight recipients watch a video of their donor exploring a cave. There is no voiceover, there is minimal sound. To us in the audience, it shows nothing of significance. But we see these people moved to tears; every single one of them – even Navin, our very own Captain Awkward. At that, I found myself transported to a very similar sequence in a film that I need not even name. Toto watches the film-reel in his private theatre at the end of ‘Cinema Paradiso’. By itself, it is a collection of kissing scenes that have been edited out from some films; perhaps about as meaningless as the cave video. To him, however, it is magic. 

‘Ship of Theseus’ does not recreate that magic. And that does not mean it is not a meritorious film. It is perhaps the first time that India has gotten to see a film give this much of an emphasis to shot taking and film production. It also serves to revolutionize film distribution in India - a business model many would be likely to follow. These are merits that deserve mention. What Anand Gandhi, however, doesn’t or perhaps couldn’t do is keep the high-headedness out of a film that could have been much more effective had he not tried so hard. I’m reminded of a Jack Kerouac quote a friend once shared. “One day, I will find the right words. And they will be simple.” Soham Shah will smile in agreement. The rest is what the young Charvaka accused Maitreya of doing – it is intellectual masturbation, and is doomed to be so.