Monday, March 31, 2014

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

For most of you in your twenties, living away from family and working in a big city, you would identify to some extent to the popular sitcoms you binged on through school, college and work: Friends, How I Met Your Mother or The Big Bang Theory. The common thread which runs across all the shows binds you in some ways as well: friends, financial woes, professional disillusionment or relationship issues. But there is one other theme which is prominent across them AND all of us would instantly recognize its significance: A FAVOURITE CAFÉ/BAR TO HANG OUT AT!

So while Sheldon and gang couldn’t get enough of The Cheesecake Factory, the Friends swore by Central Park and Barney and his team drank their way to misery and happiness in the McLarens Pub, in real life, most of us would have SOME place, usually close to home/work which we frequent more than any other. As our life turns upside down, this place stands for some semblance of stability, familiarity and permanence.

Take my case for example. I have been living in Powai for almost five years now. I have changed five houses and two jobs, made new friends and lost a few good ones; I have seen new places come up in the neighbourhood while some others have shut down and I have lived through a fair amount of change over time. But what has not changed is my favourite café/bar: Jugheads. Overlooking the Powai Lake, it’s a fairly shady place, but never empty. This is one place and one relationship which has stood the test of time. Back in 2009, when I had just started working and when I spent most of my salary on rent, Jugheads was one bar which accepted me with open arms and generous Happy Hours. We celebrated most of our successes there: clearing exams, getting married or growing up. We also mourned our sorrows there: breaking up, quitting jobs or leaving the city. Not to mention all the matches we watched or all the fish fingers/cheese chilly toasts/chilly chicken we had. Five years later, I was still there, getting drunk on Happy Hours and polishing off the fish fingers while watching India cream Bangladesh and Australia in one-sided T20 matches. Could I afford to go to a better place: Probably. Did I want to: Probably not.

As things promise to change over the next few months, as close friends move on and as life looks to turn over a new leaf, I get a little scared. But then I look across to the comforting and colourful Jugheads board and I tell myself that it’s going to be ok. The music will remain the same, the cheap alcohol will still be there and the fish fingers will taste as yummy as ever.

And the place where everybody knows your name is still there...

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Dancing Queen

I have never been a fan of Kangana Ranaut: be it her movies or her portrayal of deranged characters, her accent, her interviews or the publicity surrounding her personal life. And then I watched Queen. I have been a bit skeptical of all the women-centric movies releasing on the occasion of Women’s Day, and while Gulab Gang was a big disappointment, I didn’t exactly have high hopes from Queen either. But I was pleasantly surprised: surprised by the script, surprised by the very non-Bollywood climax and most of all, surprised by Kangana Ranaut!

The last few years have been refreshing for Bollywood which saw quite a few mainstream films which were completely dominated by the female lead: No One Killed Jessica, The Dirty Picture, Kahaani, English Vinglish, to name a few. While Vidya Balan has been the poster girl for the new-age, unconventional heroine, it’s good to see that even younger actresses who were so far restricted to playing arm candy to forty-plus actors are now stepping up to the challenge of carrying the entire movie on their petite shoulders.
Having said that, Queen is NOT about the smart, sassy, confident and independent urban Indian woman, but very much about the conventional, conservative and small-town Indian girl most of us can identify with. There is a Rani in each of us: scared, diffident, over-protected and sheltered through most of our lives. We have all been brought up on the strong middle class values of honesty, sincerity, and respect for elders, along with a generous dose of bad humour in the form of Santa-Banta jokes. And we have all been conditioned to a particular social structure in which we live with our loving family, complete our education and then move on to the domestic bliss of marriage, husband and babies. We don’t question it and some of us even like it.

Now before the feminists gag me and flog me to death, let me hasten to add that many of us choose to compete in the labour market, many of us hold on to our jobs and many of us derive as much satisfaction from our careers as we do from our personal lives. But Queen is not about them.

It’s more about girls like me: girls who are defined by their relationships, their families and the people around them. It’s about women who plan their lives around the people they love, without caring too much about their own, women who would do everything to make their relationships work and women who put their husbands/boyfriends ahead of themselves, their careers or their own lives.

But then things don’t work out, hearts are broken and circumstances force them to take control of their own lives, be a little more selfish and live for themselves. Freedom is thrust upon them, even if they are not actively seeking it and the world automatically opens up to them, even if they are really looking for closure.

And surprisingly, they end up making a success of it: personally, professionally and socially.

And then they have enough courtesy to take a quick trip to the past, thank the person who really did them a huge favour by breaking their heart and embark upon a new journey.

A new journey, where she is the Dancing Queen and where she doesn’t need a Prince Charming to lead…

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Colour of Freedom

It’s been over five years since I last celebrated Holi the way it is supposed to be celebrated: I don’t mean the sophisticated socialite celebration splashed across Bombay Times (yes, I still read Bombay Times; judge me), but the raw, uncouth and extreme form of festivity, complete with the most hideously obstinate colours, balloons and mud. You heard me right. MUD.

As a kid, Holi was always one festival which gave me the license to go totally berserk: from being a closet painter who sometimes experimented with colours on a piece of paper, I would assume my most notoriously uncivilized and crude avatar during Dolutsav (as we call Holi in Bengali). For two days I would refuse to lay a finger on my books (and Holi usually fell in the middle of annual exams) and I would devote myself religiously to preparing for the grand festival: pestering my mom to buy me the most obnoxious colours, then pestering (emotionally blackmailing) my dad to buy me the most obnoxious colours when my mom refused to do so and pestering our maid to help me with the balloons, “pestering” being the key word. On the day itself, I would wake up all excited, put on my most tattered outfit and swathe myself with a generous dose of olive oil, ready to conquer the field “where there was no mercy”. Usually, a gentle and soft spoken child, I could be very aggressive during Holi, but my friends were no better. No matter how crude I was, they would somehow manage to be cruder. Long story short, by the end of the day, we were all ready to participate in a game of “Who is the Mamata Banerjee of them all?”

Then came college: my first experience away from home, in a new city and in a hostel full of airheaded giggly teenaged girls, most of them as stupid as I was. As hard as it is to believe, my species is abundant in nature, especially in South Bombay. And somehow the lack of parental supervision made us even more airheaded, even more giggly and even more stupid. This was also the phase when we were running high on hormones and Bollywood. Each of us secretly dreamed of being Rekha serenaded by Amitabh Bachchan in the song Rang Barse from the movie Silsila. So what was limited to close friends within the boundaries of the garden now became a no-holds-barred display of hooliganism on Marine Drive with people I barely knew. But somehow, it was a little more fun, a little more liberating and a little more refreshing.

Next was B school: a time when I believed that I had my feet firmly grounded, I knew exactly what I wanted from life (i.e. a career in Consulting/Investment Banking, like most MBAs) and I was completely focused on the “important” things namely placements, CGPA and backstabbing fellow students, or as many would call it, “getting ready for corporate world”. I also had this misplaced air of superior intellectualism, a trait that runs in most Bengalis in close company with people from other states (like the North). For us, “North” is a state, much like the south of Maharashtra is “Madras” to most people from the “North”. It was with this air that I grandly refused to celebrate Holi, preferring to “read Karl Marx” in my room. Looking back, I realize that was probably the biggest mistake of my life. Ever. As soon as word spread, my room was attacked by an avalanche of people who couldn’t be distinguished from one another, as they simply picked me up, carried me downstairs, rolled me in mud till I had dirt in my eyes and then threw me into a tub of coloured water of the worst variety. Suddenly all the horror stories I had heard about Holi seemed to pale in the light of my experience and it took me a couple of days to recover from the shock or recognize myself in the mirror. But of course, if there was ever a Holi celebration worth remembering, this had to be it.

Over the last five years, the festivities have become considerably toned down and I no longer play with wet colours or balloons, but when I look back, I am overcome with a feeling of completeness as I tell myself, “If there is ONE thing that I have gone the whole hog for, Holi would be it.”

Mundane reality may be considerably more colourful than fiction, but once in a while, you are tempted to give yourself a little more latitude and pretend that artificial colours would make you a slightly more colourful personality, a la, Deepika Padukone, who miraculously turned into a swan from an ugly duckling in the song Balam Pichkari in Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani.

Just once in a while, you want to let go of your inhibitions and play Holi the way it is supposed to be played: dirty, disgusting and downright obnoxious…

Saturday, March 8, 2014

From Philadelphia to Dallas

For someone who is a hardcore movie buff, the Oscars is akin to the IPL for a cricket fan: no matter how predictable, no matter how diluted and no matter how ridiculous it is, I WILL wake up at an ungodly hour, I WILL labour through the antiques of an old lady trying too hard (Ellen DeGeneres was the host of this year’s Academy Awards) and I WILL root for Leonardo DiCaprio, as I have done for all his five nominations!

This year I had closely followed the event, watched most of the nominated movies in advance and had my list ready even before the ludicrous selfie of the host along with the stars brought down Twitter. When you had movies like Dallas Buyers Club, August: Osage County, 12 Years a Slave, Her, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street being pitted against each other, you rightly expect a delectable contest, more delicious than an India-Pakistan face-off on a Sunday evening.

The winners were on expected lines, with Gravity sweeping the most number of awards in the technical categories, while 12 Years a Slave continued the legacy of dark historical movies making a mark in the Oscars and Dallas Buyers Club taking home the coveted awards for Best Actor (Matthew McConaughey) and Best Supporting Actor (Jared Leto), which also meant that DiCaprio missed out yet again. Ever since the schoolgirl in me fell in love with Leonardo, the chocolate boy, in the movie Titanic, I have evolved to falling in love with Leonardo, the actor, through movies like The Aviator, Catch Me if You Can, Gangs of New York, Shutter Island and Blood Diamond and each time he missed out on an Oscar, I told myself, “Never mind, his time would come.” So this year, when I watched The Wolf of Wall Street almost as soon as it released, I was convinced that he would finally make the cut for his portrayal of Jordan Belfort. Until, I saw Dallas Buyers Club and was overcome by a sinking feeling that may be the wait was still not over. The stubborn five-year-old in me wanted him to win, no matter what, while the unbiased movie aficionado knew that McConaughey deserved it for what was possibly his best performance ever.

In a way, Dallas Buyers Club is a tribute to its predecessor Philadelphia, in which Tom Hanks won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role as Andrew Beckett, a homosexual AIDS patient who suffers discrimination at his workplace at a large corporate law firm. While Philadelphia has remained my favourite movie till date and the original soundtrack, “Streets of Philadelphia” by Bruce Springsteen my favourite song, McConaughey’s character, Ron Woodroof was a real-life AIDS patient who battled for seven years to distribute unsubscribed drugs to fellow sufferers while overcoming his prejudice against gay, lesbian, and transgender members. Jared Leto’s role as Rayon, a drug addict, and HIV-positive trans woman, earned him a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, making the movie the first film since Mystic River to win both awards.

It’s no secret that the Academy is a big sucker for biopics (Lincoln, Ali, The Iron Lady, Erin Brockovich, The King’s Speech to name a few), but this one is more than that: it’s a journey of a man given 30 days to live and how he prolongs it over the years, it’s about his transformation from a crass, homophobic rodeo cowboy to a sensitive crusader for a marginalized section of society and most of all, it’s about the spirit of a brave person willing to go the whole hog for a cause he is passionate about.

Even a die-hard DiCaprio fan like me will concede that while Jordan Belfort shocked the audience with his depraved acts of debauchery and profligacy, Ron Woodroof managed to stir even the most impassive of spectators, and therein lies the mastery of McConaughey, who was dismissed as a chick-flick romantic hero for a better part of his career.

If Philadelphia left a legacy to the world of cinema, Dallas Buyers Club only multiplied it several times over…

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Prague: A Bohemian Rhapsody

Now that Imtiaz Ali’s latest movie Highway has hit the high road at the box office, it’s time to go back a couple of years and ponder about his previous movie, Rockstar. If you didn’t watch it, consider yourself luckier than Mahendra Singh Dhoni. If you did, my sympathies are with you. It was one of those rare movies which could scar you for life. And I work in an Investment Bank, but those three hours were more damaging for my psyche than five years of volatile corporate life! This, despite Ranbir Kapoor in one of his best roles and some really awesome music by A.R. Rahman.

But one thing that the movie did do was reinforce my desire to visit Prague, one of the oldest cities in the world, basking in the glory of heritage and history. And finally, not so long back, when I visited the place, I was completely captivated by its old world charm: the city which presents a picture perfect montage of cobbled lanes, walled courtyards, cathedrals and countless church spires all in the silhouette of her imposing 9th century castle, overlooking the pristine Vltava River. Locally known as Praha, the capital city of Czech Republic offers a pot pourri of modern culture, fine dining, music, nightlife along with the legacy of Bohemian architecture. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the city has witnessed several historical events across the century which marked the reigns of the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg Monarchy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Protestant Reformation and both the World Wars, even though it managed to remain untouched by the ravages of WWII.

As we drove from Vienna to Prague through the southeastern highway (D1), which is the Czech Republic's oldest and most used highway, we could see the landscape undergo a sea change right in front of our eyes, with the typical European tapestry giving way to slightly mystical elements of a medieval town of the east. As we made our way through the city centre, a part of me was gripped by a strong feeling of déjà vu, when I suddenly remembered my childhood days at my grandparent’s house in College Street in North Calcutta! The chaos, the criss-crossing tram lines and the colourful people formed a vivacious blend of the east and the west.

The next few days were a blur as we tried to imbibe as much as we could of a city which features in every traveler’s bucket list. Walking up and down the Charles Bridge, we could only stop so many times to soak in the panoramic view over the Vltava River, not to mention the regal Prague Castle which brought to life all the medieval war history that I had read in school. While the St. Vitus Cathedral with its lookout tower made me feel like Rapunzel in a fairy tale, the Astronomical Clock only dwarfed me in stature (as if the gigantic Czech men towering over me weren’t enough). As we loitered languidly in the Old Town, admiring the many architectural wonders (the pure Gothic Týn Church, the mural-covered Storch building, and the Jan Hus monument), the New Town was bustling with romantic restaurants, dazzling stalls and vibrant shops. The historic Jewish ghetto of Josefov gave us the flavour of Europe's oldest active synagogue and we traveled across the Vltava River to the Lesser Town which houses Holy Infant of Prague, the famous statue of Christ. The drive down to the Vyšehrad Castle as well as the slightly creepy but nevertheless striking Bone Church in the UNESCO heritage site of Kutna Hora, only added to the quixotic versatility that Prague offers.

If I was fascinated by Franz Kafka as a kid laboring through The Trial, it further deepened my fascination, as I stood in front his birthplace, staring vacuously, still coming to grips with the genius of one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. But while talking to some of the local people, I realized that while Kafka was a pride, the influence of the tennis player Ivan Lendl was as pervasive in a country obsessed with football and beer. Not surprisingly, Czech Republic ranks No.1 in per capita beer consumption, which was pretty evident as we explored a variety of places overflowing with international brands like Pilsner Urquell and Budweiser Budvar or the local flavour Staropramen. While I tasted one of the best pork ribs of my life, Czech style hotdogs were also refreshingly different from the usual messy and greasy variety I am used to, but the fruit dumpling (ovocné knedlíky) dessert definitely takes the cake!

My few days in Prague may have been too little to really soak up the magical mysticism of the city, but at least it provided me a tiny glimpse into the world which had forever fascinated me.

It was my Bohemian Rhapsody, may be a tad jarring, but musical all the same…