Auroville Marathon

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This was the 7th year of the Auroville Marathon but it was my first. No, I didn’t run – I was a time-keeper. But I enjoyed every minute of it.
I was up at 4.30 in the morning because I had to be there at 6 at the latest. I was out by 5.30, all wrapped up in a shawl and the half hour ride on my scooter didn’t seem so long as the road was filled with cars and motor-cycles, all the way from the East Coast road. The air was chilly and it was still very dark.
Once there, I was really surprised to see the huge crowd of people, all getting ready for the race. The parking at the Visitors’ Centre was packed with cars – most of them were from Bangalore and Chennai. Soon I found my friends who were all getting ready for the complicated job of noting down the timings of the runners. Until 7.00 am there was such a thick mist that we could barely see beyond 10 metres.
In actual fact, there were three separate races – the full marathon of 42 kms, the half marathon of 21 kms and the 10 kms run. There were more than two thousand people doing the half marathon while about 500 were doing the 10 kms. Only 200 were doing the full marathon. The runners started in small batches with a gap of 15 minutes each so that there would be no crowding on the narrow paths.
The air was charged with such an enthusiasm that it was difficult not be carried away by it. Men and women, old and young, fat and slim, the urban types with the villagers, all were full of an extraordinary energy. I was moved to see all these people, 3000 of them, who had taken the pains to be there, to participate in an event which was being held for the pure joy of running. Even though there were so many people everything went off smoothly and in peace and harmony.
By the time people finished running breakfast was being served. Hot pongal rice with sambar and vadai. And tea with cardamom. It was such a pleasure to eat sitting next to total strangers who were all beaming with satisfaction at having achieved something that morning.
This is the new India, a country of young people, ready to do something for the joy of it. It all seemed so appropriate that it should have taken place at the place on Earth which is trying to embody human unity.

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Paradise Lost: Disappearing Pavements

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Those who have grown up in Pondicherry will remember how it used to be synonymous with tranquility. Between noon and four o’clock the streets were deserted. On all the streets to the west of the canal there used to be such enormous kolams that one had to find exactly the centre of the road to walk on so as not to spoil them.

All that is gone today. True, most people have a better standard of life and many things have become easier. But the quality of life which we all enjoyed and for which people came here has deteriorated badly.

Prosperity has brought its own problems. Today our roads are choked with cars, the noise of speeding auto-rickshaws fills the air and scooters going at high speed make it impossible for people to cross the street. The saddest part of all is that people have stopped walking on the streets. In every civilised country there is a place for pedestrians to walk on but in Pondicherry the pavements which were meant for them have disappeared. Walking is a fundamental activity but in Pondicherry it has become almost impossible.

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Pondicherry was built on a grid pattern designed by the Dutch and eventually constructed by the French. They had ensured that there was enough space for the pedestrians to walk in peace but today the pavements have been colonised by hawkers and shops which use them as extensions of their premises. In the commercial areas there are regular shops constructed on the pavements and people buying things from them create a small crowd on the street.

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Many house-owners use the pavements for parking and many have put plants and barriers to stop people from using them. In all the streets west of the canal there are houses which have steps from the road up to the entrance, creating a hindrance to anyone who wants to walk. At many places people have built sheds to protect their vehicles from sun and rain. Where there is a little free space often there is a tree and the shaded area has been taken away by someone wanting to sell something.

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While Europeans have started thinking of going back to cycling every Indian now dreams of owning the latest luxury car. Even middle class families now own cars but most don’t have a garage. Cars are parked on both sides of the road. This leaves a gap of about 4 feet for the traffic to move on. How can two vehicles going in opposite directions navigate in that little space? Where does that leave the pedestrian? In fact, there is not one street in that area where you can actually walk on a pavement.
In a town like Pondicherry which is built on a grid pattern there are crossroads after every 100 metres. Have you seen anybody slow down at crossroads? Most pedestrians injured on the roads are hit by a vehicle at a crossroad. No one can walk on these streets anymore because stepping out on an errand on foot is equivalent to going to war. You don’t know if you will come back in one piece.
This has led to people being totally unfit and especially the elderly are housebound. More and more people feel compelled to buy two-wheelers because they feel they will not be able to go anywhere without one. This contributes to the general level of pollution. Since there is no public transport like in the West the common man cannot go anywhere without spending a fortune demanded by auto rickshaw drivers.
Going out in the evening is a stressful experience. Not only is everyone going at full speed, be it motorcycle or car, but also the streets are badly lit. For an entire year most of the roads of the White Town, including the area north of the Raj Bhavan, were entirely dug up. People fell into the holes during the rains when one could not see what was under the water. This can only happen when there is no respect for fellow citizens.
The day we develop a civic sense that day perhaps the pavements will come back and the citizens will be able to walk in peace.

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Trip to Canterbury

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For years I had been talking about Canterbury to my students and telling them what an important role this cathedral had played in the history of English literature. So it was inevitable that one day or the other I would make that journey which countless pilgrims used to undertake in the Middle Ages. No, I did not walk nor sit in a horse-carriage. I caught the train and got there in an hour and a half.

As the train sped past industrial areas and small towns I wondered what would Chaucer have thought of all this if he could have seen it. We walked from the station to the cobbled road which led to the cathedral. Strangely enough there are so many shops that one cannot see this ancient structure from a distance. The entrance to that courtyard which leads to the ticket counter is sandwiched between two cafes, and one is almost surprised by the way it springs up suddenly in front of your eyes.

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Standing in the yard before the gates of this ancient structure one can only feel humbled. This place of worship has been standing here from the time Christianity came to England. It was enlarged and modified several times and it is still being restored and adapted. We first took a round and went to the cloisters which are at the back of the general entrance. I was fascinated by the statues which adorn the walls because I could see the English monarchs. There were statues of kings and queens in a sequence starting from William the Conqueror and some of those who ruled even before.

The quietness of those cloisters has the silence of centuries. This is where the monks must have walked. This is where they must have meditated. After sitting there for a while we went into the cathedral. By an extraordinary coincidence the Archbishop was there. We walked up to the altar because I wanted to see the place where Thomas Becket had been killed by the Knights. In the book from which I used to teach there was an illustration of Saint Thomas lying dead on the steps leading to the altar while the three Knights stood around him. So I was a bit surprised when I saw that in fact that spot was next to one of the small chapels near the altar. There is even a very modern looking sculpture to mark the place where Thomas had been martyred.

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It was this event in 1170 that turned Canterbury into a place of pilgrimage and people came from all over Europe. Even today, as we were walking around, I could see tourists from various parts of Europe but also Asians. I was not aware how important this place was to practicing Christians. To me the connection was through Chaucer’s poetry.

After taking a round of the spaces behind the altar we had a look at the tapestries which adorn the walls to the left of the main space of worship. There we found an exquisite piece showing a scene from the life of Saint Eustace.

We came back after lunch and as the train pulled out of the station we imagined the pilgrims walking along these same fields and drinking from the streams that we could see out of the window.

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Mudra Motifs

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The Auroville Film Festival has just ended and a new interest has been created for documentary films. I was invited by Arnab B.Chowdhury to watch some of the films. He has taken the first steps into film-making, taking with him his experience in the world of music. His sense of rhythm is a part of the audio-visual experience.

His entry for this festival was called “Mudra Motifs”. It is a short film showing how gestures are used in worship. He has captured the hand gestures which have a significance not only in worship but also in daily life, not only the gestures of the ones who worship but also the gestures of the idols, the icons which are venerated. The point to note is that this film is entirely made with still pictures. The colours are vivid and show India in its traditional beauty. It could have been more effective if he had also added a few hand gestures from dance.

Arnab states that his inspiration in the field of film-making has been William Greaves, the black American filmmaker, who had visited Pondicherry when Arnab was still a student. It was he who had said that one can make a documentary entirely with still pictures. Greaves has himself made a couple of documentaries very effectively using only still pictures. Having heard Greaves speak when he addressed a group of students Arnab felt that the audiovisual medium could be his path of self-expression .

I would have imagined that his best entry would have been his film “My forest has a face”. I wonder why he didn’t propose this to the festival organizers. It must be because there were so many films which were going to show the natural beauty of Auroville and this would have been one more. For me this is Arnab’s most poetic creation. He has captured the many moods of the forest and the wooded areas in Auroville. There are details that the common man’s eye would not catch in a forest considering that most people live in cities or in large towns where nature is so sadly absent. This film takes the viewer back to the environment in which our ancestors lived and which has become so unknown to us now.

Arnab is not only aiming at creating beauty he also wants to instruct and educate his viewers. He has put his heart into the trilogy on oral care, showcasing the work of the Auroville dentist, Dr Jacques Verré. These three short films have already been appreciated by specialists in the field of health care. The path breaking work of Jacques and his team is now available to people all around the world. They can now introduce his methods into their practice and in this way benefit a large number of people.

Arnab’s contribution in the sound department of the film “The Secret Knowledge” made by Manoj Pavitran, another short film screened at the Auroville Film Festival, is also significant. Having been brought up in a family of musicians tracing roots to Baba Allaudin Khan’s Senia Maihar Gharana, Arnab knows the technicalities of the audio aspect. He has very effectively used his late father’s singing voice (Arun Bishnu Chowdhury, a classical vocalist) to add an abstract but harmonious background to the images which are so packed with meaning. The entire film lasting 10 minutes is made with graphic images exploring the significance of Sri Aurobindo’s symbol. At no point does the sound overtake the image, or draw more attention to itself than it should.

I hope Arnab continues to discover and create. I look forward to seeing how this versatile artist develops in his journey in the new medium that he has taken up.

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Richard Burton

The coincidence is amazing. Just after I had watched the BBC film on Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s relationship while they were acting in Noel Coward’s ‘Private Lives’, I found the newly published book ‘The Richard Burton Diaries’.

For all these years I had thought that Richard Burton was not that wonderful as a man. I was told by a friend who is a British actor, and who knew him, that he was always drunk before he got on to the stage. Also, somehow in my mind I always thought that being married to Elizabeth Taylor was a stroke of luck and that he must have chased her for her looks. As I read page after page of these diaries all my preconceived notions came down in one go.

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In this book the Richard Burton who became visible to me was a lover, the kind one doesn’t see in real life any more. This was Marc Anthony in flesh and blood. How deeply he loved Elizabeth can be seen in the way he always talks of her as “my Elizabeth” and in the way he worries about her. He cannot bear to see her suffer and he cannot bear the thought of losing her. His little remarks of how beautiful she was and how she was admired by everyone shows how proud he was of her. And he himself admits that he was faithful to her for the twelve years that their relationship lasted. And I believe him.

How could so deep a love have ended? How could they have parted? What tore them apart? The fact that they married again shows that something within them had never died. The fact that she wanted him to come back to her and the way she persuaded him to act in ‘Private Lives’ is proof enough that the embers had been smouldering somewhere. The answer to my question is there sure enough. The death of Ivor, his elder brother to whom he was deeply attached, came as a terrible shock and he could not stop drinking. That really drove Elizabeth far from him. He went into a depression and it was hard for her to pull him out of it. The second time when they separated it was again because of the difficulties that arose from substance abuse by both of them.

I read the six hundred pages in two nights. I have never enjoyed two nights of jetlagged sleeplessness so much. I have never enjoyed completely changing my views of a person so much. To my surprise there is hardly anything about the films in which he was acting at the time or hardly any entry where he describes his craft as an actor. One barely catches sight of the other stars around them. On the other hand, it is as if we had been offered front row seats to watch Burton the husband, the father, the brother and the caring head of the family of children who were mostly Elizabeth’s. We read about what they had for lunch and dinner. We come to know a great deal about where they travelled and how they went there. They drove, took the train, sailed and flew and all these details make us understand the constant whirlwind of movement in which they lived.

For those who are far from the reality of filmmaking it is a revelation to see how even great stars live the same sorrows and joys we ordinary people go through. Being stars doesn’t spare them the suffering at a hospital or the pain of losing loved ones. Even an actress of Elizabeth’s stature had to go through the problems that come with bringing up children and their changing natures as they turned teenagers. Even a Richard Burton had to worry about how to get over his addiction.

The interesting bits are the parts where Burton writes about what he has read and that is very revealing. He always had something to read and spent a lot of time finding bookshops and buying books. I have grown up watching Indian film stars who were barely literate and those who were educated didn’t seem to be the reading types. The Indian actors seem such a mindless lot that I am fascinated by this actor who read so much and had an opinion on what he read.

Unfortunately the book has very few photos. But in a way it is good because one remains focussed on the text. The front cover is not very attractive but the back cover is very well done. There are some pictures of him as a very young man and there one sees his good looks when they were still unspoilt by alcohol.

There are many surprises in this book but two points really stand out. Firstly, one discovers that he was not born a Burton. And secondly, he didn’t enjoy acting. He was born Richard Jenkin but as he was very close to his mentor Philip Burton he took his surname. It was Philip Burton who introduced him to the stage. He started his journey to fame and fortune from the stage. But time and again Richard says that he didn’t think much of acting. His real dream was to be a writer and an academic. “Anybody can act,” he says.

After reading this book I feel like listening to his recitations of poems again. When I first found that CD with his deep and enchanting voice reciting some of the finest poems in English I had discovered the beauty of his voice. Now I have discovered the beauty of his heart and have understood something of his mind.

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Private Lives by Noel Coward

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This is a play I had wanted to see for a long time so I grabbed the opportunity as soon as I saw the posters. We went to watch this play when the preview shows were being held, a week before the actual opening.

One would imagine that Noel Coward would be outdated by now. Strangely, his play is enjoyable today as when it was written. The wit is just as sharp and characters seem to live in one’s mind as real people. Perhaps it is because this kind of relationships are universal and are part of real life.

The story is about a divorced couple who find themselves in adjacent rooms in a hotel on their honeymoon with their respective new spouses. It doesn’t take them long to discover that they still love each other and decide to run off together to Paris. They are soon followed there by their new spouses. In the meantime the two main characters find that they can neither live with nor without each other. Their passion is as violent in joy as in disagreement. The play ends as they quietly leave while the two other characters, their own new spouses, quarrel in the apartment.

Anna Chancellor, who was in Four Weddings and a Funeral, is brilliant in the main feminine role of Amanda. It feels almost as if the role was written for her. She has said in an interview that she heard a lot of music of the period to get into the spirit of the 1920s in which it was written. But I am sure she would have been just as good even without it because the chemistry between her and Toby Stephens is so alive. Anna has that animal sensuality so important for this role but also the right energy level for the aggressive Amanda. Toby, as I discovered, is the son of Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens, and with his good looks is totally convincing as the man whom Amanda cannot let go of.

The dialogues crackle with an energy that almost lights up the magnificent decor. Not for a moment is one left to wonder what will happen next. Before you have finished laughing at one hilarious repartee the other one is already there. Apparently, Noel Coward was the highest paid writer of his times and that this play was the one which earned him a fortune. When the curtain comes down one can understand why. There is a craft that comes from having been a keen observer of the world.

This is the kind of life that Elizabeth Taylor must have lived. In fact, I kept thinking of Liz and Richard during the interval only to find out a few days later that indeed Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton acted in this play. It appears that it was Liz who actually convinced Richard Burton to enact on stage a situation so similar to their own lives.

A play not to be missed, specially for those who don’t know that true love comes in all sorts of packs. “True-but-only-for-a-while” and “Forever-but-not-deep” or “can’t-stay-together-but-can’t-let-go-either” and many such forms make up our world.

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Rest in Peace Ritu-da

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Like everyone else I was very surprised to see the news of Rituparno Ghosh’s death on TV. The same footage and stills went on and on for hours, making it more irritating than informative.
I immediately got a copy of “Shob Charitro Kalponik”to show to my mother who all the while had been thinking that an actress called Rituparnaa had died. I showed her that dvd without being too sure whether she would like it or not. As I watched the first half hour with her I remembered at once that Rituparno had started his career in advertisement. The whole film was one long ad film, I felt. The colour combinations (beige, red, black) and the compositions had all been a bit too carefully planned. But the thought content was refreshingly new.
The story is about a couple who are not in a harmonious relationship. The woman is upset by the man’s irrational behavior. His impractical action pushes her to take on all the responsibilities of running the household. The man dies suddenly and going over her memories the woman begins to understand him better.
The style of filming may have been too close to the idealized world of advertisement but the content indeed was very close to the grey reality in which we all live. No relationship can ever be perfect. Human beings are imperfect so they cannot love perfectly. In India where marriages are fixed by others, as this marriage was, couples have to just accept that they may not be perfectly in tune with each other. The question is “How does one build a harmonious relationship with someone who is not on the same wavelength?”
Rituparno picked up a valid point to reflect about. Can one ever fully know another? He reminds us of the bitter truth that we understand the value of a person only when we have lost him forever. Can the woman leave the man when she knows that he is too weak to stand up on his own or bear the hardships of loneliness? At that age, in spite of his literary success, will he find another woman to look after him? She can continue to live with him out of kindness but kindness is not love.
The answers Rituparno offers are quite startling. The fact of sharing a living space creates so many layers in a relationship. The wife realizes when the husband is gone that she had indeed loved him in her own way, that she will miss him. She begins to understand his poetry. The most important revelation of the film is that even hatred and anger bind a person to another.
However unconventional Rituparno may have been in his personal life, making most people uncomfortable about it, at least he will always be remembered for having pulled Bengali cinema out of the pit into which it had fallen. He had the courage to make films that focused on real-life situations. His stories made people sit up and think.
My favourite Rituparno film will always be “Noukadubi”. I thought he caught very cleverly the essence of the story, the essence of Tagore and the essence of Bengali sensibility. “Chokher Bali” is a close second. More than Aishwarya I was caught by Raima who is entirely a Rituparno creation. I loved the way he recreated the epoch in which the story is set.
Even before he turned 50 he made 19 films which is really creditable. He lived a life dedicated to his artistic creation. That dedication is an example he has left behind for others to see.

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Alexandra David-Neel

This is a film which has been sold to television channels in most Buddhist countries, but it is of interest even to non-Buddhist countries. Here we see the deep interest that the Europeans, particularly the French had in Buddhism at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The script is based on the letters written by Alexandra to her husband. This means that it is as close to reality as possible. Even the dialogues that she utters are sentences from her own letters. She maintained a very regular correspondence with her husband with whom she actually never lived.

Even in 2013 Indian women are afraid to travel alone and here we have the story of a French woman who undertook a journey which took her half way across the world in an age when travel and communication were so difficult. What must it have been for her to discover a country which was in every way so alien to her?

In fact, this idea of making a film on the life of Alexandra David-Neel was there in the mind of Joel Farges as far back as 1988. At that time Glenda Jackson was chosen to be Alexandra. It is true that Glenda is a great actress but when you watch this film you can see that Dominique Blanc has done full justice to this very difficult role. It is important to note that Alexandra was a beautiful woman in her youth and the actress chosen for this role would have to have those looks at the beginning of the film.

I am deeply touched by all the appreciation I have received for my role. But playing Ouma was really a privilege because it allowed me to watch from very close quarters how Dominique prepared herself for every scene. The one capacity an actor must have is the power of concentration without which one cannot do a single thing. And Dominique has a very focused mind. She had learnt her dialogue even before she came to India for the shoot. She told me that she went through her dialogues very carefully because she would have absolutely no time once she was in India for the shoot. The only thing she was apprehensive about was the fact that she had many scenes where she had to act with non-professionals.

This film, I hope, will lead people to read about Buddhism. And that perhaps will bring people to understand the value of compassion.

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Something more on English Vinglish

As a director, Gauri Shinde is head and shoulders above the better ones in India. Her script is tight and also comprehensive. It doesn’t miss out any important observation. There are moments in the film where you entirely believe that Sridevi, playing Shashi, is really a simple housewife. In a clever move Gauri shows right at the beginning that Shashi is ridiculed even by her children. This sets up the stage for the rest of the story.

Gauri again takes a very bold decision to have dialogues where Shashi speaks in Hindi while Laurent, the Frenchman, speaks in French. The audience understands that they don’t even understand a word of each other’s language. In fact, even the audience doesn’t understand what Laurent is saying. This situation and the way the man and the woman succeed in understanding each other underline the fact that in order to understand a person’s feelings we do not need language. It makes it all the more poignant that her husband who understands every word that Shashi speaks cannot understand what goes on in her mind.

The casting is masterful. Adil Hussain is just the right man for the role of the husband. His looks are not his strong point and the home he offers his wife is not particularly extraordinary. The viewer, at some point or the other, surely thinks “What is this unknown man doing next to the great Sridevi?” That is the whole point. Most men don’t deserve the women they have. And that is what makes this whole story so touching.

Gauri has taken another bold step in showing the teenage daughter as she really is. No number of candyfloss Bollywood films can convince us that children are always sweet and kind to their parents, particularly to their mothers. This is Indian urban teenage life. A lesser director would have not gone that far and shown how the daughter thoughtlessly reminds her mother that she can’t read English. But it is because she has gone to that extreme that the end is all the more successful when the daughter hangs her head in shame.

In my eyes this point is really the one that matters. Everyone knows about insensitive males, but no one talks about insensitive children. That is what must hurt Shashi even more.

Gauri is herself a woman so she has taken another bold step which would have been seen in a different way had it been done by a man. I am speaking of the scene on the terrace of the building where Laurent takes Shashi to show her the view. Finally he gets a chance to show his affection for her. Many women viewers felt that this scene was cut short too soon. They felt it could have been given a couple of minutes more. I heard someone on TV say, “Shashi could have been a little more kind to him.” Sridevi looked all startled and said that she personally thought it would have been morally wrong. But Gauri laughed. We understand she thought otherwise. After all, we all need someone who appreciates us.

It is interesting to note that Sridevi the actress thought that if Shashi had shown a little affection to Laurent then it would have been morally wrong for a married woman to behave like that. One doesn’t know how to take this because after all Sridevi did marry a married man in real life. So, is infidelity pardonable when it is committed by a man? Is infidelity unacceptable only when it happens in the life of a married woman?

This film is not to be missed. There are quite a few layers to this story. And even if one watches it a couple of times it can still show a few layers one had missed earlier.

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Review – English Vinglish

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I am a bit disappointed that, at all the glittering award ceremonies that took place recently, English Vinglish did not receive more awards. In my eyes this was by far the best film that was produced from the Mumbai film industry. The story must not have seemed anything much on paper, but every Indian woman who has seen it knows that this is a story that takes place in millions of homes across the country. In fact Gauri Shinde said on receiving an award, that indeed, her own mother did not speak English, and that is what must have triggered off the story in her head. The plot can be summed up in a few words. A young middle class housewife, who cannot speak English, is looked down upon by her husband and children. By her own efforts, she joins a Spoken English class, and goes beyond her limitations and proves to her family members that she too is worthy of respect. Most people do not understand how a film can be totally different when it is written and directed by a woman. Gauri can see the details that would be outside a man’s scope. She is actually telling the story from the inside.

It goes without saying that the actors, all of them, have made the film so convincing. With another set of actors it may have been something else. Even the small roles were done so perfectly. Sridevi is a seasoned actress, so getting her to perform could not have been that difficult. Or so we think. But imagine, how hard it must be for an actress of her stature who is chased by the paparazzi, and whose smallest life event is reported in every film magazine, to behave as the woman who is not given any importance even by her own husband. Therefore let us not take for granted her efforts in this film. Adil Hussain, who plays her husband, does a marvellous job of acting the role of the average insensitive Indian male. But the real cherry on the cake of this film is the French actor, Mehdi Nebbou, who plays the role of Laurent.

He brings an element of freshness that uplifts the film. He is the character who gives to the whole story that twist which makes it an international film. Not because he is a non-Indian actor, but because he portrays so naturally the European male’s behaviour in relation to a woman. He respects the heroine, all the while showing her that he has a certain affection for her. There is a purity in his eyes that would have been difficult to get in an Indian actor.

Much of the story takes place in the USA and that is the moment when the heroine finds herself alone, on her own, and discovers her true strength. By placing the story in the USA, Gauri gets the opportunity to take the heroine out of her usual humdrum life. Also, there arises a tremendous need for her to learn English. And this is what propels the heroine to take that step in her life which she would normally never have taken.

Most Indian husbands are not even aware of the way they destroy a woman’s self-esteem and yet they are totally dependent on her for their day-to-day life. One hopes that this film brings home this point to all Indians. When children grow up respecting everyone, when men understand that they need the women around them, then we will have an equal society. Everyone in this world has a skill that no one else has got. And every skill, whether it is cooking or organising a home, is worth everyone’s respect.

The film awards came at a time when the country was burning with the anger of people against the Delhi rape case. What better answer to that could we have given than upholding such a strongly feminist film as the best contribution of the film industry?

I feel that the critics who sit there deciding the awards should all take a course in acting. Because this film looked effortless, everyone thought there was no effort in it. Just because somebody was not shouting out the message to them it completely went over their heads.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and I feel it was because I could understand the French dialogue. I wonder how much of that the Indian audience caught from the intonations and the facial expressions.

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Indianostrum Theatre Group

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At last we have the best of French culture right here in Pondicherry. One can now go and watch a play and follow it up with a dinner out. What used to be “Salle Jeanne d’Arc” is now called the Indianostrum Theatre and just next to it is the “Café des Amis”. The experience of a perfect evening out is now within our reach. Let us first talk about the theatre because it is an important new element added to the cultural scene of Pondicherry. The group Indianostrum is headed by Koumaran Valavane whose dedication to theatre is really out of the ordinary.

I went to watch their production “Kunti and Karna” which was quite unusual and very impressive. The text of the play was made up of lines taken from Tagore’s work on the same theme and added to it are lines taken from Jean Claude Carrière. We also hear shlokas from the Bhagavad Gita.

The production is a very physical one. Karna expresses his inner angst through movements which are either in the Kalari style or in the Silambam, which is inter-cut into his very intense dialogues. There are only two actors. Karna is played by Vasanth Selvam and the other actor, Cordis Paldano, does all the other roles such as Kunti, Arjuna, Parashuram, Krishna etc. The entire production is very bare – there is practically nothing on the stage. There is also no music and very little light.

“I wanted to go into Karna’s inner darkness,” says Koumaran. He believes that theatre should be disconnected from music as he thinks that with music it is easy to manipulate the emotions of the audience. The viewer must find the real emotions by himself, in his own heart.

I was a bit surprised to find that there were two tanks of water at the front part of the stage. There are scenes where Karna is inside that water. “I absolutely wanted to have water in the scenes because water plays a very important role in Karna’s life. He was abandoned on a river and picked up by his foster-mother from that river. In his inner longing for his mother Karna goes back to the time when he was within her, floating in the fluid of her womb.”

What the theatre lacks in terms of comfort it amply makes up in the content of the productions. This play will be performed several times again and those who haven’t seen it should put it into their diaries right away. Even if the style of this performance is not what one is looking for, there is an atmosphere of sincerity and intensity that is unique and hard to find in Pondicherry. The evening I saw it there were only six people in the hall and yet, the actors were giving their most heartfelt performance as if it was for a crowd of several hundreds. That I have not seen anywhere else.

kunti-b

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Satyajit Ray’s ‘Abhijan’

I have just watched Satyajit Ray’s early film Abhijan and am still under the spell of the Master.

The story is about a taxi driver who is of rajput origins and who now lives in poverty. He owns an old Chrysler and is very proud of it. His full name is Narsingh but he is called ‘Singh-ji” by everyone. The story begins when he meets a shady character who promises to make him rich by starting a transport business with him and making him a partner in it. Narsingh is deeply attracted to this plan, as he says there is more respect in that than in being a taxi driver. This slowly leads him down a slippery path where he has to get into illegal activities in return for being given this business opportunity. In the end he is brought back to his senses by a friend.

The point Satyajit Ray makes is about caste. The friend who saves him from going astray is a Christian whose family was originally from a low caste before being converted. Singh admires his sister partly because she is educated and knows English. Ironically, the character in the story who is from the highest caste, Mr.Mukherjee, the advocate, is the most dishonest while Joseph the low caste Christian is the most upright and courageous. Singh is of a warrior caste but he too decides to sacrifice his honour in order to go get rich quickly. It is this contradiction in our society and human nature that forms the structure of this fine film.

Soumitra Chatterjee is unrecognisable in the role of the taxi driver. Gone are his delicate features and sensitive eyes. He is totally transformed into the muscular and macho driver. He even speaks in Bengali mixed with Hindi and brings out the right outline of the character. It is entirely to the credit of Satyajit Ray that he could totally transform an actor to this degree. A surprise for all film lovers is the casting of Waheeda Rehman as the young girl who is brought by the businessman and who falls in love with the taxi driver. This must be one of Waheeda’s very early films when she was still not the star she later became. It’s a role she has played with success but it is known only to the film buffs.

This DVD may not be so easily available but one can keep one’s eyes open for it because it’s a real treat.

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Pondicherry Lit Fest

When they announced that there was going to be a Lit Fest in Pondicherry it was met with some scepticism. A friend of mine told me that the person who was behind this project had never done anything like this before so she could not see the practical side of things. This is why I wasn’t in the least surprised when the event was moved from July to December.

A week ago, I was given a printout of the schedule of this festival at the Alliance Francaise. The man who handed it to me said, “This is not the final programme. Things are changing every minute. So please check the website before the Fest begins.” But what caught my attention was that there was to be a press conference at the beginning of the Lit Fest which was shown as an event open to all. There were celebrities like Ségolène Royal and Shashi Tharoor who were supposed to speak.

This was too good a thing to miss so I noted it down in my diary. Absolutely by chance I was invited to a party on 30th November where Fariba Hachtroudi (the organiser of the Fest) was also present. I went up to her and asked if indeed the schedule for the week had been finalised. Very confidently she told me that the event was starting off on Saturday 1st December with the famous much-advertised press conference. I was really surprised when she told me that it was going to be held at the French Consulate.

I know the French Consulate well so I also knew that an event held there is never open to all.

“Wasn’t it supposed to take place on Sunday?” That is what it said on my printout.

“No, no,” she answered with an air of confidence. “It’s on Saturday at the French Consulate.”

“Is it really open to all?” I asked her to be absolutely sure.

“Yes,” she answered. “It’s open to all.”

“Are you sure?” I asked again.

“I am telling you that it is,” she said and walked away a bit irritated.

I reached the Consulate at 2 pm sharp on Saturday. The security guard asked me if I was on their list of invitees. I told him that I was told that this was open to all.

“Do you work for any newspapers?” he asked me.

“No, I don’t.” I said.

“Then you can’t go in,” was his answer. “This conference is only for invitees and the press. These are my instructions.”

As I took my scooter and got back home I understood that my friend who had told me how disorganised the whole affair was knew the inside story. The various people involved in the organisation haven’t spoken to each other and crosschecked anything.

If you look at the details of the schedule you realise this is a Lit Fest only in name. In actual fact this is being done so that some brands of wine can be promoted, some hotels can be advertised, some celebrities can have lunch with some other celebrities, some dancers who perform at any big event can get a chance to dance and some people who don’t have much else to do can all gather and have a jolly good time. And all this will be written about and it will fill up the pages of the magazine section of some newspapers.

And some people can become famous for being famous.

Literature, what’s that? And haven’t you heard that books are going to be obsolete in a couple of years?

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Bhooter Bhabishyat

Bengali is a language which lends itself so well to humour that it is a pity there aren’t more comedies made by the Bengali film industry.

Bhooter Bhabishyat, the title, is itself a pun. The word bhoot means ‘ghost’ but it also means ‘the past’. So the title can either be understood as ‘the future of the past’ but it can also be ‘the future of the ghosts’.

The story is about the old heritage buildings of Calcutta being in danger of being pulled down. An ad film maker goes to a very old house to see how he can use it for his next ad shoot. There he has to spend a long time waiting for his cameraman. During that time he falls asleep and probably goes into a dream. During this, an unknown man comes to him and tells him the story of this old mansion and how it has become the home of a large number of ghosts who have nowhere else to go. In the end the man also tells him how certain developers were planning to buy this house to demolish it and make a shopping mall and how they managed to rescue it. Before going away he asks him to make a film on this story. The film ends with the ad film maker actually making the film made on that story.

The film focuses on the real issue of Calcutta’s heritage slowly disappearing. It also shows how Calcutta has been inhabited by different kinds of people starting from the Government Officers of the Britishh Raj to the Marwaris and the Bihari rickshaw-puller. The whole history of Calcutta is summed up through these characters who play the ghosts.

My favourite character in this film is the actress Kadalibala. She has really brought out the quintessential Bengali woman of the 1940s. Not far behind her is the Marwari property developer. The actor who plays this has a great comic timing. All the actors have been well chosen.

The element of humour has many shades but the most charming is the use of rhyming couplets. This could be an allusion to Sukumar Ray, the father of Satyajit Ray, whose book Aabol Tabol is such a gem. In fact, this film is full of allusions to Satyajit Ray because the film itself is a homage to the legendary film maker. There is even a scene where the ad man’s mobile phone rings and we at once recognise the ring tone which is the song from Gupi Gayin Bagha Bayin – “bhooter raja dilo bor”.

I would heartily recommend this film to everyone as it is really something off the beaten track. One has had an overdose of films made on relationships, so, seeing something on the city of Calcutta and its multicultural past and present is totally refreshing. The message behind the film is something we rarely hear in the media. It is a well-known fact that Indians don’t have any sense of history but now the situation is really serious with every businessman wanting to build a shopping mall. The beauty of Calcutta lies in her heritage buildings, which, once gone, can never be recreated again. In fact, this is true for all the metros. The unspeakable ugliness of Indian cities only reflects the ignorance of the Indians as a whole about the importance of beauty in our collective life.

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The Olympic Games

The Thirtieth Olympiad is going to be a memorable one. To start with the Opening Ceremony was fantastic. Britain could not have outdone the Chinese in scale and grandeur so they did the next best thing – remind everyone of their USP in the world. Great Britain has taken the lead in change and growth in so many fields of human development and this was a moment to point that out to everyone.

I loved the way the Queen participated in the show and the way everything moved at a speed, as if to point out the rapid pace of change in the world. There were, of course, things that only an educated person would have understood. The history of Britain might have escaped the understanding of many people around the world but the energy and the fun was understood by everyone.

The Games themselves were spectacular. I watched most of the artistic gymnastics and diving. I could only watch some of the rhythmic gymnastics competitions. But, of course, the track events stole the show. The London Olympics will remain Usain Bolt’s. He was the one who attracted all eyes. One million people applied online for the tickets on the day of the 200m race. That alone should show his popularity.

The iconic moment of this Olympiad will surely be the medal ceremony where all three medals went to the runners of Jamaica. The stadium was filled with 80.000 spectators who were cheering the three runners who were descendants of slaves who had been transported to the Caribbean island. This is what the games have proved. We are all one. We belong to the human race and we are all progressing together towards making the human race stronger and more agile, capable of going higher and faster than we can now.

I was happy for team GB and glad that they could win so many medals. My special favourites were Tom Daley and Jessica Ennis. I loved watching the gymnasts too, both men and women.

It was a wonderful celebration of the human spirit, of our common aspiration to go beyond our own limitations.

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The King is dead, long live the King

Rajesh Khanna is no more. The outpouring of emotions, as the news of his death was announced on television channels, was a proof of how he had always been present in the memory of people. It was not only in India but across the continents, wherever the Indian diaspora was present, this event was felt as a personal loss by thousands.

Rajesh Khanna had been living in Mumbai for decades, in quiet isolation. Why didn’t people tell him then how much they loved him? It would have made him happy. These emotions, I feel, are really not so much for the man Rajesh Khanna but for what he represented in the psyche of his fans. He was the embodiment of romance, of that joy that comes from giving oneself to someone.

He was a good actor and that is why what he stood for went so deeply into the minds and hearts of the viewers. He was not the copy of someone else. While Dev Anand styled himself after Gregory Peck, Raj Kapoor tried hard to be another Charlie Chaplin and Shammi Kapoor reminded everyone of Elvis Presley, Rajesh Khanna was unique. He was not tall nor did he have a well-built body. He was neither a good dancer nor a fighter. But there was something in his voice and eyes that made his words go straight to his female fans’ hearts.

Much of that persona was created by his directors like Shakti Samanta and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Rajesh Khanna was to a large extent a product of the Bengalis present in Bollywood at that time. Apart from the Bengali producers and directors there were people like Kishore Kumar, R.D. Burman, S.D. Burman and even Sharmila Tagore and Rakhee. Amar Prem, Bawarchi and Anand were stories written by Bengalis.In fact, Bawarchi was a remake of a Bengali film in which Robi Ghosh had played the main role. It was their sentiments and thoughts that went on to make Rajesh Khanna what he was. Neither in Bawarchi nor in Anand was Rajesh Khanna playing a man in love. In these two films he was playing characters who were positive and creating happiness around them.

On every television channel the interviewees were being asked what made Rajesh Khanna so popular with women. The answer is very simple. The roles he played were always of men who were deeply romantic. In his films he put his lady love much above himself and was ready to do anything for her. He held her in such high esteem that every woman who watched him felt loved and respected. That is what is missing today from the screens. Women themselves want to be seen as seductive and are totally focused on their physical appearance because that must attract attention. In Rajesh Khanna’s films women were objects of adoration. India may have become wealthier than before but crimes against women are in the headlines every other day.

Aradhana and Amar Prem were out and out Sharmila Tagore’s films. And yet Rajesh is the one who shone so brilliantly because he was so worthy of the woman’s love.We are crying for the death of romance. Every woman in India wants her man to say that he can’t bear to see her tears. That is why the words “Pushpa, I hate tears.” have become almost an anthem.

Please, can we have a little less violence and foul language and a little more affection and sweetness on the screens.

Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan

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Noukadubi (Bengali film) – a review

I must thank the friends who have encouraged me to write about films and particularly Bengali films because thanks to them I have seen the works of many directors I had not seen earlier. I didn’t watch Bengali films for several years and so now when I watch one I enjoy it doubly, because I notice the technical progress as well as the acceptance of subjects that one did not get to see on screen earlier.

Noukadubi was released in 2011 and was brought out in Hindi as well under the title “Kashmakash”. It was a homage to Rabindranath Tagore who wrote this story and whose 150th anniversary was being celebrated all over the world. But as I have not read the original novel I can’t say how faithfully the director Rituparno Ghosh has followed the story. He has very cleverly, however, skipped the real accident of the boatwreck and concentrated on the relationships.

This film is a feast for the eyes as the period of the 1920s has been very carefully recreated. But the feast doesn’t end with the sets – the true delight are the two Sen sisters. Granddaughters of the legendary Suchitra Sen, they seem to have finally found their rightful place at the top ranks of Bengali cinema. They have now acquired something of their grandmother’s physical beauty as well as her poise.

The casting of Riya and Raima Sen is very clever because although they are sisters in real life in the film they are not and play quite contrasting characters. Fortunately for Riya someone else has dubbed her dialogues and that has enhanced the performance considerably.

One might imagine that the story would be too outdated to catch the interest of young people today. Actually, much of it remains relevant as such relationships can exist even today between men and women. Yes, the practice of marrying someone without seeing his or her face may seem hard to believe for many today but the joys and difficulties of getting to know a new partner remains a common experience.

The story is a complex one. The hero is in a very difficult situation as he is in love with a woman who is his equal intellectually but she is wealthy and he isn’t. Unexpectedly he is married off to someone he hasn’t even seen. Even during the wedding he doesn’t see her. While returning, there is a storm and his boat capsizes. When he wakes up he finds himself on a bank and sees a woman by his side. He imagines that she is his wife and makes his way home with her. It takes him a while to find out that this is not the woman he had been married to. Then he feels uncomfortable to be with the wife of another man. In a strange twist of fate the real husband of this woman comes into contact with the woman the hero was in love with. They almost get married but finally break the relationship. In the end the two women are united with their right partners.

One can say that the story is too far-fetched. But I have seen situations in life which are so unbelievable that I don’t say any more, “This can never happen.” Absolutely anything can happen in this world. The story of the heroine, Hem-nalini, must happen all the time. The man she loves is taken away from her by the force of circumstances. And now she must start a new life. She has to pick up the broken pieces and go on, perhaps with a man who will not fit into the hole left by the man from whom she has been separated. The hero, Suresh, on the other hand, is unable to start an intimate relationship with the new woman in his life because emotionally he is still deeply attached to someone else. We see the scriptwriter’s skill as Kamala’s simple devotion for him brings Suresh willy nilly closer to her.

In this complex tale is the simple uncomplicated love of the father for his daughter. This role is played admirably by Dhritiman Chatterjee. He is an accomplished actor who had the opportunity to work with Satyajit Ray in his youth. The way he brings out all the tenderness of his heart for his daughter is really very touching. Since the girl has lost her mother, the father is also a mother to her and Dhritiman has that added something in his voice that makes this clear to us.

The two actors, Jishu Sengupta and Prosenjit, have both touched something true in portraying the sensitive characters they play. The director Rituparno Ghosh must be given his due credit for being able to visualise the whole story and getting the right balance in the performances of his actors. And one more thing – he has really given a great deal of important to voices, their timbre, volume, modulation and pace. This variety in the audio part of the experience is so rich – and this includes the music – that it more than makes up for the lack of action in the story.

Yes, in his refinement and elegance of expression Tagore is still relevant today. While Bollywood moves from crude to cruder Bengali cinema has found many shades of subtlety.

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My New Book

Sri Aurobindo and The Cripps Proposal

My new book “Sri Aurobindo and the Cripps Mission” is finally out. This is a collection of essays and documents which show the various sides of the story of how Sir Stafford Cripps brought a proposal to India from the British Government led by Churchill. I have focussed on Sri Aurobindo’s message to Sir Stafford and his effort to advise the Indian leaders of the time to accept this offer. However, it was rejected.

The book is divided into four parts: an introduction, the point of view of the Ashram, the point of view of the Indian leaders and the point of view of the British. It gives the bigger picture of the story. While putting this book together I kept in mind the common man and the average reader. This is not a scholarly work. It is just a way to familiarise those who know Sri Aurobindo with this episode and to make everyone aware about how much he was concerned about the country even when apparently he was outwardly totally cut off from the world.

This book is available from amazon.co.uk if you are outside India. You can also order it from the website of WHSmith in the UK as well as the website of Waterstones. You can buy it from SABDA if you are in India or order it online from their website.

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Film review: The Japanese Wife

The first thing that I would like to say is that this is not a funny film. There is nothing funny about a man and a woman who can not see the one they love. It is unbearably sad. Only those who have lived lives of contentment and peace can watch this film and enjoy themselves. For all the others, for all those who have ever known the great anguish and suffering that love can bring, and there must be many in this category, this film is just a grim reminder of that.

But this is not all there is to say. The acting and the direction are of a very high order. Rahul Bose surpasses himself in this film. The way he gets into the skin of the character is worth watching. Moushumi Chatterji is a revelation. Is this the actress that we saw in innumerable Bollywood movies who was rarely ever more than a pretty face? Well, in this film she is superb. So much so that it took me a while to recognise her. Raima Sen is lovely and in her understated way so touching. The Japanese actress brings out the gentleness that I associate with Japanese culture.

The script has been written based on a short story. Generally the script-writer has the difficulty of compressing a long story to fit the time-frame of a feature film. But here the interesting thing is that a short story has been stretched out and new elements have been added to make the story for the film.

A mention has to be made of the wonderful camera work. The shots of the landscape and the cloud-laden skies are so evocative, so exactly reflect the inner state. Even in the parts filmed in Bengal one finds the same simple beauty that is there in the parts filmed in Japan. The whole film has that Japanese touch and in this way the viewer goes through the same feelings as the hero: the wife ‘s presence is constantly there, in an intangible way.

The beauty and the emotions are subtle. But it is this subtlety that is so penetrating. The thinner the edge of the knife the deeper it cuts.

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A Meeting With Javed Akhtar

In 1987 I visited Bombay (yes, it was still called that). I was newly married and took that trip as a sort of honeymoon because we had come via Goa from Pondicherry by road. Our hosts were very generous and I enjoyed myself a lot. Towards the end of my stay the sister of our hostess, who was a young girl then, asked me if I wanted to visit anything in particular because she was taking me out that day.

“I have a dream of meeting Shabana Azmi,” I told her, being a big fan of the actress. This young woman immediately told her driver to take us to Shabana’s house. I was a bit surprised that she did not hesitate even for a minute. I imagined that she knew the actress. When we got down in front of the house she told me that she didn’t know her at all.

“What are we going to do? How can we go in?” I asked, totally surprised.

“We can try,” was her answer.

So we opened the gate and walked in. There was a gardener who was watering the plants. On seeing us he asked us who we wanted to meet. With an air of supreme confidence my friend said that we had come to meet Shabana. So he let us in.

I can still remember that scene. There was a verandah and Shabana was sitting there with her mother and Javed Akhtar. I even remember that she was wearing a yellow sari.

Shabana’s mother looked at me and asked. “What do you want?”

I just looked at her and after a long silence, said, “Nothing”.

“Nothing!” she exclaimed. “If you want nothing then why are you here? Please go out.” Her voice was rather harsh, and she being a stage actress, quite loud.

We turned around and walked back. When we were near the gate my friend asked, “Why did you say ‘nothing’? We were standing there, so you could have said something and gone and met her.”

“I just didn’t have the guts,” I answered. She was astonished that she had taken me up to the house and I couldn’t go and speak to Shabana.

Many, many years passed, 25 years actually. I was in London and as I was casually looking at the website of the Nehru Centre I found an announcement saying that there was a book release the next evening. Shabana Azmi was going to present her mother’s book on her father. Even though there was a very good film on that evening, I decided to skip that screening and go for Shabana’s book launch.

I was there before anyone else. As I got into the auditorium I saw Shabana standing near the podium and making cards with names to reserve seats. I went up to her and asked her if I could ask her a few questions after the show because I wanted to write about her mother’s book in the journal which I write for. She did not even look at me and replied, “I’ll try.” In a tone that made it sound more like “Don’t bother me.” She evidently didn’t believe that I was really going to write since I wasn’t aggressive like professional journalists.

The programme started. She read out passages from Shaukat Azmi’s book, about her parents and about their life. Then Javed Akhtar got up and spoke about Kaifi Azmi, Shabana’s father and his father-in-law. In his wonderful voice he read out a poem on Kaifi Azmi. That is when I could not hold back my tears because every word he used to describe Shabana’s father was a word that perfectly described my own father. Having lost him a few years ago I was still heartbroken. As I wiped my tears I could see that Javed Akhtar could see me. I am sure he must have been quite surprised since he could see that I wasn’t anyone known to the dead poet.

He continued to speak and to recite and I was charmed by his words because they were really heartfelt. He seemed to be deeply connected to real life, unlike most celebrities. His poems, which are the lyrics of film songs, have always amazed me by their insight and truth. What a joy it was to see him in person and to hear him recite his poems.

In a short while the show was over and we all went down. I waited for the crowd to thin a bit. Shabana was surrounded by her admirers and many wanted to be photographed with her. A group of young men and women were walking around with copies of the book and were trying to sell them among the invitees. Shabana was keeping an eye on them.

I went up to Javed Akhtar and told him that I was a big fan of his work. He asked me my name and what I did in London. To a poet my name must sound very interesting. After answering his questions I told him that if he was wondering why I was crying it was because I had lost my father recently and all my memories of him came crowding back as he spoke about what an unusual man Kaifi Azmi was.

As I spoke to him, once again tears came to my eyes. Javed Akhtar immediately took both my hands and pressed them in a gesture of sympathy. I was truly moved that he had so much compassion for an unknown woman who was evidently so deeply unhappy at that moment. That was another confirmation that he was a true poet, whose heart was so open and sensitive. I had only one wish in my heart and that was to go back home.

As I went to get my coat I saw Shabana Azmi coming towards me. But really I had no wish to speak to her, so much I felt chocked by my tears. As I walked away, making my way to the door, I remembered that summer day in Bombay when I had felt that I had missed such an opportunity. Here she was coming to me and all I wanted to do was to go away.

I had gone to see Shabana but in fact I met Javed Akhtar. The next day I felt that that evening at the Nehru Centre wasn’t as unfruitful as I had thought it to be at first. How many people can say that they have touched the hands of a poet they admire and received his sympathy?

Later my journalist friend Amit Roy said that if I had won as many awards as Shabana Azmi had done maybe I too would have been as aloof as she was. Absolutely right, Amit.

My favourite lines from Javed saab are the ones from the film “Refugee”:

“Birds, rivers and gusts of wind can all go across the borders (from one country to another)… what did we gain by becoming human beings?”

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