Stonehenge

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It looks like Obama and I have something in common. We had both put down Stonehenge on our bucket list. And we went there within the same week too!

It was a dream come true and an old dream at that. Even though I had seen so many photos of Stonehenge it was quite another thing to actually stand before those mysterious rocks.

We took a bus from London and were there in 2 hours. But I had never imagined that it would be so windy and cold on the last day of August. But strangely, feeling cold as I was, it made me think of those primitive people who actually built this structure and their labour in those windswept plains. How exposed they were to the weather and the sky!

No one will ever know what Stonehenge really was. But the fact remains that those humans who lived in this part of Britain 4500 years ago or more worked together and built something on a massive scale. It could have been a temple or a place to bury the important people of the region. It could have been an observatory. Or all three and more. Their sense of wonderment at the world must have been so deep.

It was the childhood of mankind. I don’t look upon it as a British historic site. I look at it as a site of historical importance concerning mankind as a whole. We human beings were there, trying to understand what the world and human life is all about. We were in the infancy of our mental development and were trying to understand what Life and Death, Time and Space and God were all about. These stones are a testimony to that struggle of the human race to come to grips with the laws of Nature and our efforts to come out of ignorance into Light.

If you visit it don’t forget to go into the museum to have a look at the fantastic projection they have installed. There is a round room where the visitor has the imptression of standing in the centre of the stone circles. On the walls on both sides there is a projection where one can see the enormous stones columns as they were 4500 years ago and in the 3-minute video which runs in a loop one can see the seasons pass as well as the sun rising and setting. Of particular beaty is the moment when the stones are covered in snow. In the distance one can see the prehistoric men and women walking in small groups. Whoever made this video is an artist and his work is a joy to watch.

The newly built Visitor Center is another sucessful creation. Constructed at a distance so as not to spoil the landscape the structure is designed in such a way that it harmoniously blends with the surrounding landscape. It has all the services that are needed. There are toilets and a cafe as well as a souvenir shop. An electric vehicle takes you to the stones at frequent intervals. Visors are not allowed to go into the stone circles. The path that goes around the circles is very close at one point but mostly it is a good ten to twenty feet away. One can walk all around it and get a view from varying distance. This is wonderful because one can get different perspectives.

As we sipped our hot coffee at the cafeteria we wondered what the Stonehenge man would have thought of it if his spirit re-appeared and he could see the Chinese girl in front of us swiping websites and pictures on her smart phone sending photos of herself, standing in front of the stones, to her friends in China!

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Commonwealth Games

Since the Olympic Games happened only 2 years ago in London the Commonwealth Games which took place in Glasgow, again in the UK, looked like a miniature version of it. The hero of the Olympiad, Usain Bolt, was there once again as were the British gymnasts and divers.

The opening ceremony, as expected had a lot of Scottish pride and tartans. But once the games began it was a flow of many colours and skills. I watched the gymnastics and diving events and was most moved to see Indians participating in these. Many other countries such as Malaysia, Canada and South Africa were present in these games, who had not been so visible in the Olympics. It took me a while getting used to seeing Scotland and Wales were competing as independent groups.

My focus was on gymnastics and diving and I watched much of it on the BBC website live. I was absolutely spell-bound by the performances in men’s events. It is really amazing how far the human body can go in its efforts to cross the boundaries of capacities. In control, balance and suppleness we have truly progressed. I say “we” because the whole human race is represented by these sportmen and women.

In women’s gynmastics I was delighted to see a young Indian woman win a medal in vault. This was a historic moment in Indian Sports. I have myself been a keen gymnast so this was a moment to cherish. Dipa Karmakar’s smile will remain in my memory for a long time. The other girls were impressive, specially the three English girls who won gold, silver and bronze. But “impressive” is the only word that comes to mind because the grace that epitomised gymnastics is gone. The joy of watching the women gymnasts embody beauty and grace was something that nothing can replace.

That grace I now find more in diving than in gymnastics. Synchronised diving has the precision and beauty that is something superhuman, something that makes one believe that we can go beyond ourselves. It took my breath away to see Tom Daley perform his 10 metres platform dives. Diving is a fantastic combination of courage and beauty. How lucky are today’s children that they can watch all this so easily and be inspired. This is possibly the greatest benefit that the Games bring: so many young people turn to sports, channelising their energies in a constructive direction.

The closing ceremony was well designed and enjoyable. The Australians with their special energy presented their country and the next venue for the Commonwealth Games in a brilliant manner. There was such a sense of togetherness and friendship that when they began playing Auld Lang Syne on the bagpipes it felt as if it had come to an end much too soon.

To sports lovers all over the world the countdown has already begun for the next Olympic Games which are only two years away.

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The importance of seat belts

Days after the new Prime Minister and his ministers had been sworn in, India was shocked to read about the tragic road accident in which Gopinath Munde was killed. On 3rd June 2014 as he was going to catch a flight to Mumbai his car was hit by another car which was coming at a high speed.

The news was reported on every TV channel and newspaper so the whole country knows about this sad incident. The point to note is that the doctors who spoke to the news channels confirmed that if he had taken the trouble to fasten his seat-belt he would have been alive today. This important information reached all those who were watching the news and all those who read the newspapers. But when I was in Delhi only a week later I saw that very few people sitting in the back seat bothered with this simple rule.

Two weeks back I had a tooth extracted. It was an unscheduled appointment and the dentist who happened to be at the dental clinic at that hour was a young dental surgeon from Chennai. As we waited for his instruments to be sterilised he told me how 80 per cent of his patients were victims of road accidents. “Only five or six years ago the people who were brought to me at the emergency unit with a broken jaw were mainly victims of physical violence but now they are mostly victims of road accidents,” he said.

People have the money to buy expensive cars now in India but no one has the practical sense to tie the seat belt. The one in the driver’s seat is the most at risk as there is the steering wheel in front of him the impact of which can be fatal.

Please make sure that those who are under your care get into the discipline of fastening the seat belt even if they are sitting in the rear seat.

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Film review – Queen

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Vikas Bahl’s recent release Queen is in a class of its own. It has broken the old stereotypes and tells a story in a refreshingly different way. This is the first film in a long while which I feel like watching once again.

First of all, hats off to Kangana Ranaut. She has done something that no other Bollywood actress could have had the guts or the talent to do. For someone who was the embodiment of glamour in “Fashion” it must have taken a lot out of her to act the part of this unglamorous and unsophisticated woman who is the main protagonist of the film, Rani, the woman whose fiancé ditches her at the last minute and tells her that he can’t marry her. The reason he gives is that as he has spent some months in London he thinks she is not good enough to be his wife.

After being told this Rani takes a short time to get out of the psychological pit into which she has been pushed. She decides to go to Paris alone, with the ticket that had been booked for her honeymoon. From then on she rises, a step at a time. She manages to communicate even though she doesn’t know French. She manages to make friends with people and realizes that there is a world where morality has no meaning. Survival is the name of the game. One by one all her ideas about life are turned upside down and she appreciates people for who they are. And she is appreciated for who she is.

The best thing about this film is the way the story is told. Even after Rani starts her road to self-discovery she continues to speak like a middle class Delhi girl. She doesn’t suddenly become a smart, worldly wise woman. I loved the way she tells her Santa Banta joke. The situations in which she often finds herself are true to life, although in the scenes with the Italian restaurateur there is something that doesn’t quite gel. It could have been given a little more time and attention

The team which made this film – Vikas Behl, Anurag Kashyap and others – have all travelled to Europe and been through the experience of being in an alien culture where they have found themselves quite lost. Whether it is food or language or climate or having someone to talk to, this feeling of being a fish out of water is something many Indians have experienced, men as well as women. The UK is a different place. At least in London one can never be too far from an Indian or Indian culture. But Europe is another planet. The scenes have been created from real life experience and that is why they ring so true.

The point of the story, as in English Vinglish, is how a woman discovers her own strength, and understands that she is capable of much more, when she is outside her own culture. It is only when one is outside the world where one has been brought up, and where people have put you in a box with a label, that you can see who you really are. As long as a woman is in the little community of friends and relatives she plays the role she has been asked to play. But once she is outside that circle of preconceived ideas she is free to experiment and think for herself.

I watched the second half of the film with my mouth open. My jaw just fell – I was in a state of total disbelief. How could anyone have told my story to the whole world? So much of this film, in spirit, was what I had myself lived in Paris. I could identify myself with Rani so easily. The only difference was that I had been to Paris alone in an age when there were no mobile phones or the internet. The only way to communicate was by landline phones and I often called home from pay phones in the streets. So I was totally cut off from India.

I can still remember the stress of crossing the streets alone. I used to do exactly what Rani did, stand behind someone else. I remember being totally taken aback when anyone paid me a compliment because in India I had never heard that kind of appreciation. In Paris I learnt to take quick decisions, to make friends on my own, to find my way, to even dream and to think with my own head. And I came back a completely different person.

I remember that when I boarded the plane to return to India that sentence from My Fair Lady kept ringing in my head, “A girl becomes a princess when others treat her like one and not when she learns to behave like one.” And this is indeed what happens to Rani. She becomes a queen when people treat her like one.

I feel that the film should have had a punch at the end. There should have been a scene showing how Rani goes on to do something unusual, like open her own restaurant or enroll for business studies. Also, there should have been an additional scene showing that Rani’s parents somehow relied on the aunt in Paris to look after her otherwise it is surprising that they actually did allow Rani to go to Paris absolutely alone.

I cannot end this review without saying how wonderful Rajkumar Rao was in his role of the East Delhi man who thinks his woman should behave in a certain way. He really lived his character. He represented so well that class and that mentality. His body language is just right as is his air of superiority.

Films like Lunchbox and Queen have finally brought Indian cinema closer to the European sensibility and it will now be appreciated by a larger non-Indian audience. However, the humour of Queen can only be fully enjoyed by Indians who understand the subtext. Vikas Bahl, I look forward to seeing your next film.

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My new publication

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After long months of preparations – sitting at the press overseeing the typesetting, correcting proofs and planning the cover – my new publication is out. This book is a totally new experience for me as this time I am not the author but the translator of my publication. Translation is a difficult work but it’s also very thrilling. It has the same thrill as when one solves a crossword puzzle.
The book is the memoirs of a lady who lived in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram for more than fifty years. The title The Luminous Past refers to that beautiful past during which she saw the Mother regularly. She was so accessible and everything revolved around her.
Through these pages we see the history of the community of seekers as well as of the town itself. Different people have been struck by different details of this story. But everyone has been touched by Pramila-di’s loving reverence for the people she knew and for the sweetness that holds all her stories together.
I have added an additional chapter to introduce the personalities that the author refers to in her book. Without that information it would be difficult for anyone who was not present in Pondicherry during those years to understand fully the meaning of the stories that are presented here.
I do hope that the book reaches the right readers.

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Flowers

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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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My Forest has a Face

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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.

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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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