Thursday, September 26, 2013

Back with a Bang

Jim Parsons won the Emmy for lead actor in a comedy series The Big Bang Theory (BBT) for the third time in a row. For someone who is an ardent follower of the series and has watched each episode multiple times, this is a long overdue tribute to a show, which is probably the one thing that has managed to consistently make me laugh over the last three years.

Through my days in B school and Company D, Friends was one series which was my constant companion, every time I felt low, every time I felt happy, every time I was bored or every time I needed some company. I remember having weekend pizza parties at home, and as we put on weight over pizzas, pastas, garlic bread and cheese dip and coke, we barely noticed it as we grinned at Chandler’s jokes or empathized with Ross’ seemingly doomed romance.

So when the ten long seasons finally ran its course, I was depressed like never before. It was as heartbreaking as letting go of a long-term partner, it was unimaginable to imagine a life without Friends, it was almost as if life itself would come to a stand-still. And like any grieving devastated soul, I also had my share of flings: with alcohol, with Sex and the City, even with How I Met Your Mother! But as all empty experiences go, these too were short-lived and meaningless.

Until I watched the first episode of BBT. And I knew I was hooked for life. It was love at first sight. Soon I was part of the world of the five nerds and dumb (but street smart) blonde who turned my life upside down. So here is what appeals to me about each character:

Sheldon: I have never known such a person in real life, and I doubt I ever will. But as a kid I did come across the nerds-in-the-making: bespectacled front benchers, toppers, teacher’s pets, but helplessly uncouth when it came to social interactions. While we all looked up to them in primary school, by the time we moved into our teens, the same kids became the easy targets for making fun. Now that I look back, I would have probably been more kind to them if only I knew their inner struggles.

Howard: The Jewish funnyman who uses humour as a defence mechanism is a bit of a cliché, but his empty bravado, loud taste in clothes and the underlying vulnerability make him an easily identifiable character, if not the most liked.

Raj: As the Indian guy in the lot, he is like the typical Indian expat in the U.S., struggling to come to terms with the cultural differences, be it about his difficulty in finding a woman, the food he eats or the idiosyncrasies of the country which still fascinates him. Brought up in a conservative Indian household, educated in the best institutes with very few women and then moved to the U.S., i.e. practically going through life without any idea about how to interact with the opposite sex, and thus ending up tongue-tied when faced with a girl, it’s the story of an average Indian boy in the U.S. with an above-average career graph.

Leonard: My favourite character in the show, I completely identify with his slightly diffident nature, brought upon by an overachieving family and a lack of physical stature. Smart, sensitive and funny, he still manages to perpetually strike out with the women he cares the most about and his on-again-off-again romance with Penny is a testimony to the quintessential battle between the head and the heart, where his head tells him to move on, but his heart refuses to do so.

Penny: Finally the spunky and hot girl-next-door is a complete departure from the nerds: a struggling actress who makes a living by waiting tables, becomes the unlikely breath of fresh air badly needed in the estrogen-starved lives of these guys. Conventionally dumb, she is street smart and makes her way through the tough demands of the city life using her charm and a generous dose of sarcasm.

The supporting cast of Bernadette as Howard’s wife and Amy as Sheldon’s girlfriend as well as the tertiary characters like Stuart, Howard’s mother, Will Wheaton or Kripky add to the entertainment.

I have been watching comedy sitcoms for over a decade now, but BBT would definitely go up there as my favourite show of all times, ahead of Two and a Half Men, Full House, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Modern Family, Seinfeld, Frasier or even The Simpsons.

At the end of the day, it’s not so much about math, science and history, but more about friends

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Satiating Dabba

If I thought that Bombay Talkies was a sure sign of a maturing Bollywood, I had thought too soon, because I had no clue what a mouth-watering treat The Lunchbox was going to serve up. The movie had already been places (literally), before it hit the screens here: the world at large had gulped it up hungrily, and the wait was finally over for an increasingly evolving Indian audience: an audience which laps up the sheer nonsense of a Chennai Express or a Grand Masti, but is also greedy for GOOD cinema which doesn’t necessarily classify itself as arty or commercial. GOOD cinema simply focuses on telling a story and telling it well, and this is where The Lunchbox, with all its simplicity strikes a chord with viewers: you could be a critic, you could be an intellectual, you could be an ordinary middle class man in the Churchgate-Virar local, but irrespective of who you are, you would find a reason to smile, a reason to hope, a reason to empathize with each of the characters.

For a debutant director, Ritesh Batra is refreshing in his story-telling, well backed up by the crisp writing, the accurate research and of course, the impeccable acting. For long, Bollywood was tarnished with the image that it had only stars, but not REAL actors. But the late advent of Irrfan and Nawazuddin has paved the way for aspiring talent, whose strength lies in acting and not looking good/dancing/being a star kid. Then there is Nimrat Kaur, who holds her own, despite having to share the space with two men who have rewritten Bollywood rules. But the unlikely faceless hero is the "Aunty" upstairs with her magnificent voiceover: a far cry from the usual Bollywood cliches of nosy neighbours. As reflected in both Bombay Talkies and The Lunchbox, A-list producers, who thus far preferred splurging on mindless potboilers are now throwing in the towel for unconventional movies which are not only creatively satisfying but also finds an appreciative box-office response.

The Lunchbox may have lost out to The Good Road in its race for being India’s entry for the Oscars, but that doesn’t take away the fact that it is probably one of the best Bollywood movies you would have ever seen. The open-ended climax (or the lack of it) only emphasizes the respect it has for the audience: an intelligent audience who doesn’t need to be spoon-fed, an imaginative audience who can think beyond the scenes and an open-minded audience who can entertain different points of view without agreeing with all.

If you were the chef, you would be proud to offer The Lunchbox to a starved audience, desperately trying to find something palatable in an age of fancy cuisines which fall short of satiating the appetite

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Krakow Chronicles

We are on our annual road trip in Europe, this time we drive down from Prague (Czech Republic) to Krakow (Poland). It’s almost June, but it’s unusually cold and rainy and it takes us more than five hours to reach the city. In our three days in the city, we meet three very different kinds of people, each with their own story, each of which is fascinating in its own right.

We shack up with an Indian family who has been living in Poland for the last ten years. Mr. Chatterjee is a marketing manager with a prominent manufacturing company while his wife, an ex-IT professional, is a housewife. We ask her impressions about the country which has now been her home for almost a decade. Her daughter, Tanya, is in UK doing her bachelors in Economics, while her son, Rohan, goes to school in Krakow itself. She seems quite happy with her life in the cozy, sprawling bungalow, as she indulges her passion for gardening and painting, though she does admit that it gets quite lonely at times, especially since her husband travels often on work and her daughter has moved out of home. While her son is quite comfortable with the local children and has imbibed the local tastes (like the love of tennis and skiing, as opposed to cricket), she still finds her solace in rented old Bollywood movies or new Bengali music (‘Bangla Adhunik Gaan’) which she picks up on her annual visits to India.

Every winter finds her dressed in layers of warm clothing, taking her dog, Kosturi (she couldn’t resist the temptation of naming her after a popular Bengali household name, something her kids resisted) even at sub-10 degrees temperature while every summer, she goes on trips across Europe either on her own or with her friends/family members visiting from India. “I have traveled to Austria, Germany, UK, France, Spain, but Prague is definitely my favourite, followed by Budapest”, she quips, as she points to the souvenir of the Astronomical Clock in Prague or the night shot of the Danube river in Budapest. But life, for her, is a waiting game: waiting for the day when she would finally go back to Kolkata, even though her husband nurses ambitions of leading the entire Eastern European operations for his company in the near future (a rare achievement for an Indian) and her children cannot dream of a life outside the comfortable familiarity of Europe.

The next day, as we go around Krakow through the busy streets of the old Jewish town, Kazimierz, soak in the magnificent view of the Vistula river from the Wawel Castle, try the local cuisine (including the popular Żurek soup) in the Old Town and pick up knick knacks at Sukiennice (Cloth Hall), arguably the world’s oldest shopping mall, we get to know Slawomir, a middle aged man, born and brought up in the city. He enthusiastically chatters away about how the economy has flourished with a lot of multi-nationals setting up their offshoring desks in cities like Krakow and Wroclaw (not unlike Indian cities like Mumbai, Bangalore or Gurgaon), the pride the people take in Pope John Paul II, the first Polish Pope and the many beautiful castles and salt mines in and around Krakow. But as we get a little high on the local drink, Śliwowica, his cheerful mask slips off for a moment as he talks about his well-educated wife who lost her job as an economist and his 23-year old daughter who works extra shifts in KFC to make it through college. Himself a cab driver, he is completely old school, as he expresses his disapproval about “the young people these days.” He shakes his head as he confides in us, “I fell in love with my wife as a teenager and we have been married for 27 years. But look at my daughter, she has a boyfriend she lives with, but they don’t want to get married. What can you do as a parent, but no, I don’t like it”…

On the final day, we take a bus to Auschwitz, about 60 km from Krakow, infamous for housing one of most elaborate Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. For almost four hours we relive the horror stories that so many Jews went through, we see glaring reminders of inhuman atrocities and we cringe at the thought of the monstrosity that went on for over five years: all of it narrated by the Polish guide, whose voice pierced through the gloomy silence on a gloomy day, whose words cut through the gory remnants of the camp and whose emotions dripped with frightening familiarity to the events. Finally, when the tour came to an end, we got talking to him, and he left us even more shocked as he signed off, “People wonder how I do this job every day, how I go through the experience again and again, but let me assure you that if you were a Jew who had lost a family member in this carnage, you would also feel the same personal trauma that I do, each day, every day”.

And there it was, our journey through Krakow, which ended up as more than just another tourist destination. It was also a journey into the minds of the people who, despite the vast differences, were essentially the same, with stories which resonated with each of us: of longing, of pride, of the cultural tug of war, of resentment, of memories, of being human.

First published on Newsyaps

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Through the Looking Glass

If you ever had the chance to stare through the looking glass, you may notice those fine lines creeping in, those dark circles and the frown that became a little more deeply entrenched: over the years while you barely had a chance of so much as stealing a glance, a chance to reflect or a chance to objectively look deep within yourself, life has passed you by, while you were busy nursing your own random dream- a dream that would just remain that, a dream that was doomed to die a natural death, a dream that never really ended on a happy note. Yet, you continued to sleep, too afraid to wake up lest you are forced to come to terms with reality which stared hard at your face, but you chose to look away.

Then, suddenly, out of the blue, you are jolted out of your slumber. You want to scream, but there is a knot in your throat; you want to flap your arms and legs like a mad man, but there is an invisible rope tying you down; you want to throw up, but your stomach feels empty, like the rest of you.

Finally, you get up, steady yourself as you seek support in something not strong enough to carry the burden of your crumbling dreams and as you expected, the support itself crumbles down, dragging you down with itself, till you are on your knees, your naked emotions in public display and your shattered hopes lying in a million pieces all around you.

And somehow you manage to crawl your way towards the mirror and muster the courage to look straight into it.

The face that stares back at you is a different face: not so young, not so innocent, not so vivacious...

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Desi Way

Say yes if you dislike weddings as much as I do…
Say yes, if you despise the Indian obsession with settling down…
Say yes, if you like to live life on your own terms at your own time and at your own pace…

Say yes, if you identified with the movie Shuddh Desi Romance (SDR)…

Here was a movie with which I could thoroughly relate to, four years after I was blown away by Wake Up Sid. Parineeti Chopra brilliantly portrays a role similar to what Konkona Sen Sharma did in Wake Up Sid, a role which many of us play in our real lives: a girl in her twenties, working, independent, away from home, in a new city, finding her way through life and love, faltering on her way, but recovering on her own as well. She is smart, she is beautiful yet she has been burnt far too often; she is matured, strong and pragmatic yet she is vulnerable too; she doesn’t care for societal acceptance or conventional wisdom yet she guards herself in a miasma of smoke around her (cigarette smoke in this case). She is the 21st century new age heroine, a refreshing change from the crying, nagging damsels in distress who ruled the Bollywood roost thus far. Then there is Vani Kapoor, who is no Sushil Bharatiya Naari (SBN) either: she may have jumped on to the wedding bandwagon too soon, but when confronted with the runaway husband, she holds her own with dignity and pride. Finally there is Raghuram, the ultimate loser who we all love to hate, but end up falling in love with, every time.

Does this movie glorify live-in relationships?
Does it validate pre-marital sex? (a Bollywood movie with 27 kisses gets past the Censor Boards with a U/A certificate is a sure sign that times are changing)
Does it endorse commitment phobia?

In my opinion, it does none of this. It’s just an entertaining movie about how life unfolds for young people today at the backdrop a beautifully portrayed Tier II city.

It just reinforces our right to live life the way we want to without moral policing, without giving in to hypocrisy and without the obligation to win our neighbour’s approval

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Good Cop Bad Cop

It being a long weekend due to Ganesh Chaturthi, when the rest of the Mumbai people were either traveling out of the city or celebrating the festival, I was spending long hours languishing at the Powai Police station or making small talk with the policemen. Yes, I have their landline AND mobile numbers (plural); yes, they dropped in at my place for a casual chit-chat and yes, now I have new powerful friends.

It’s not like I have committed any serious crime (ok, I may have, but I am definitely not talking about it on my blog) and the entire exercise was part of the police verification process for the renewal of my passport, the first part of which can be read here. Now, it’s like I am new to the Mumbai Police and I have already visited the police station a few times, and the experience had been quite harrowing to say the least (like here). So I was dreading the ordeal all over again, as I waited with bated breath for the random check at my house.

But after two weeks when there was still no sign of them, I decided it was time to take things on my own hands and I visited the police station along with my 6”2, 90 Kg relative, whose mere presence ensured that the policemen at least heard me out, instead of just dismissing me. On my part, I was my politest and patient best, using phrases like “commander” and “sir” at a drop of a hat, instead of trying logical and moral arguments which had clearly worked against me in the past.

As expected there was the initial resistance when they made us wait for over an hour, pretended to have lost my papers and sent us shuttling from one policeman to another, but in the end we persisted and the damned paper was finally located. The guy promised to finally come home for the verification, but I was not satisfied with his verbal assertion and insisted on having his mobile number (a personal low considering that I have never needed to work so hard to get a guy’s number). I waited for a day and still there was no sign of him, so I started calling him like an obsessed girlfriend/wife, till he finally relented just to get me off his back.

On Friday evening, he came home while I was still at work and I missed his four calls. Eventually, he was nice enough to come again later in the evening and there he was comfortably sitting at my place, chit chatting, as he filled out the form. In his plain clothes and outside the dreary and intimidating police station, he could well have been just another friend, and I stopped short of offering him a drink (he guzzled the Fanta I did offer). He promised to process it immediately, well ahead of the four-day official deadline and told me to call him if I faced any problems when I visit the police station for the verification of my papers. I was touched by his kind offer since it was beyond his area of responsibility, especially since he took so much trouble to visit my place twice, that too on a weekend, well after his work hours. So I offered him some money more as a token of my gratitude and definitely not as bribe which he refused steadfastly, saying he was only doing his job. I was pleasantly surprised and quite embarrassed.

The next day, he called me up, informing me that he has processed my application and I could drop in at the station with the papers. This time I was confident enough to go on my own and it was evident that the kind policeman had told his colleagues about me. The guys in charge of verifying the papers were extremely co-operative and even though I did not have some of the papers, they gave me easy alternatives and after my third visit, I was laughing and joking with them like I belonged there. On a Sunday evening, when the rest of Mumbai was spending time with their families, they were still hard at work, pushing files, signing papers and listening to hapless citizens. I was waiting my turn, observing the people: the elderly Muslim lady whose house was taken over or the woman who was beaten by her husband or the young girl whose husband had suddenly gone missing- stories of everyday life which plagued the policeman irrespective of a weekend, a festival or a holiday.

Finally it was done and done without any bribes/influence and before the four-day deadline, but my biggest takeaway was my new-found respect for the police. All my life I had avoided the bureaucracy and the police like a contagious disease and this entire passport renewal saga brought the two forces together, but my experience belittled my preconceived notions.

Not that I would be any less critical about the bureaucratic red-tapism that plagues our country, but at least I would be more careful about the blanket generalization that goes with it…

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

(Un)Real Mad(rid)

Over the weekend while I was busy cheering for Liverpool and Arsenal in their respective matches against Manchester United and Tottenham, history was being created around Tottenham forward, Gareth Bale.

So, Real Madrid shelled out an obscene 100 million euros (how many zeroes again?) for a six-year deal, surpassing the 94 million they paid Manchester United for Cristiano Ronaldo. The deal also makes FCB’s 57 million for Neymar a couple of months back look like Justin Bieber.

That’s all about the numbers. Over the last couple of days, I came across articles, a lot of which criticized Real Madrid for splurging on a player, “who was not worth so much”. Yes, he is good; yes, he is young, but he is nowhere close to Messi or even his RM colleague, Ronaldo. It is more of a case of extravagance of club President Florentino Perez and one-upmanship by RM over FCB (ahh, the hidden Delhiite in all of us, with RM still sulking over losing out Neymar to FCB. Some articles even went to the extent of portraying it as a callous waste of money at a time when the Spanish economy is in doldrums.

But you have got to give it to RM for investing in young talent and grooming them; you have got to give it to them for having a long-term horizon (in the six years that Bale would be with the club, he would reach his peak form even before he hits 30) rather than obsessing about immediate ‘value’; you have got to give it to them for their flamboyance, both on and off the field. It’s more to do with their inherent culture and way of life rather than this particular case of a transfer. It IS the Spanish way!

As for the argument about the bad economy, that just doesn’t hold its ground at all. It’s not government or tax-payers money at stake. The clubs are privately funded and it’s a simple business deal for them. If they have got the money, they have all the right to put it where they want to. No economics professor can make them feel guilty about it. Look at India for example. Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, the BCCI is the richest cricket board in the world, and you don’t have the nation up in arms against it! Sports, at the end of the day, is big business.

If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well, even if at times it may seem Real(ly) Mad(rid)…