Jaatishwar (Bengali film) – a dvd review

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The film I am going to write about was on the list of available Indian regional films on the flight from London Heathrow to Dubai. The special point about watching a film on a flight is that you are a captive audience. Quite literally. Because you can’t go anywhere and there is nothing else you can do, so you are totally absorbed.

The film, Jaatishwar, is surely director Srijit Mukherjee’s best film so far. And I doubt he can actually produce anything that will surpass this film in story and content. At last, Bengal has woken up. And at last there are some producers ready to put their money into these projects.

This film has two tracks and the two tracks meet at the end. The first story is that of a young Gujarati boy (played by Jisshu Sengupata) who is in love with the beautiful Mahamaya. The role of the heroine is played by Swastika whom I last saw in “Bhooter Bhibishyat”. Rohit, the Gujarati boy, follows Mahamaya and wants absolutely to win her over. She finally asks him to write and sing a song in correct Bengali and sing it without a mispronunciation.

Rohit then goes off to continue his studies. His interest is in Music and Portugal. His third interest is in learning Bengali. So the only point where Bengal, music and Portugal meet is in the story of Anthony Firingi. Those who are old enough will remember the 1967 Uttam Kumar film with the soul-stirring songs of Manna Dey. And it may bring back some vague memories about who he was.

The second story begins when Rohit chooses the subject of his dissertation and goes to Chandannagar (also known as Chandernagore). He is in search of the details of the life of Anthony Firingi, the poet and singer of Portuguese origin. At the local library he meets Kushal, an assistant. The meeting between these two men becomes the starting point from which the story of Anthony Firingi grips us. Kushal reveals to Rohit that he was himself Anthony Firingi in his past life and that he has vivid memories which keep coming back to him.

As he recounts his memories of his past life we see Anthony Firingi come alive before us. We see how Anthony was part of the European community living in that area. He was gradually attracted to the Bengali folk culture and ultimately to the musical duel style of “Kobigaan”. Anthony rescues a widow from being burnt on her husband’s funeral pyre and marries her. One year he decides to hold the Durga Puja in his own house but the villagers are totally against this. During the Puja festival he goes out to sing in a Kobigaan organised by the local Raja. When he returns he sees that the villagers have burnt down his house and that his wife has died.

Rohit takes Kushal to a psychiatrist and realises that there is an urgency in getting his story out of him. One sees Kushal suffer this intrusion on his mind from these memories of a past life. Rohit continues to record all that Kushal reveals to him as part of his dissertation for his University. This work also helps him to learn Bengali.

The three men – Rohit, Kushal and Anthony – have different lives but there are many threads that bind them and many similarities. In the meantime, Mahamaya is busy organising a musical event, a rock band competition, on behalf of the radio station for which she works. Rohit finds out about this competition and decides to participate. In the meantime, Mahamaya and Rohit reconnect on Facebook. On the night of the competition Rohit finally sings the song that he has written for Mahamaya, the challenge that she had thrown at him. She is impressed and accepts him.

The end has a twist that I wouldn’t want to disclose because I want the reader to see the film.

The beauty of the film lies in the way the various strands of the story are intercut. Although it sounds like a complicated story the actual cinematic narration is very smooth. The scenes where we see Anthony Firingi are shot with a warm glow and luminosity. That is why they stand out as different. The scenes where we see Kushal are sombre and the background of an utter ordinariness. The stark contrast makes it visually totally different from the scenes which take place in the past life. The two separate time periods are kept well apart. The scenes where we see the life of Rohit are placed in our modern times and in many ways the cinematic language is different. This intermingling of different historical periods and personalities is what makes this film worth watching.

But that is not all. Prosenjit as Anthony Firingi and Kushal is brilliant. He is definitely one of India’s finest actors. It is really fortunate that when this new phase in Indian cinema has dawned we have such terrific actors who are available to the directors. You have the impression that the two roles have been played by two completely different actors. The genius of Prosenjit lies as much in the quasi-mystic aura that he gives to Anthony as much as the totally ordinary man he becomes as Kushal. No make-up, no wigs, no other help from anything, stooped, unsure of himself, he becomes the anonymous library assistant. Prosenjit manages to switch off his charisma and become a nobody. And yet when he is Anthony you cannot take your eyes off him. This is the mark of a great actor.

Flaws there are and mostly in the way poor Rohit’s role has been written. Although he is supposed to be a Gujarati boy he doesn’t manage the Gujarati accent at all. He speaks in a Marwari accent and that too not very successfully. His early dialogues are not written convincingly enough. The whole part where Mahamaya’s friends re-unite with her does not give us the impression that she is the only one who is still single and could be feeling the need for a companion. Her loneliness is felt when she is with her mother.

The strong points of the film are many. Casting is one of them. The actors playing minor roles are well-chosen and leave a mark. Mamata Shankar, who plays the mother, is brief but memorable. The whole film rests on the pillars of music, both folk and modern. The scenes showing the musical debates are very well done. The moments where Anthony listens to Lalan Fakir’s song is also very evocative. It must have been weird for Prosenjit to do that scene because in another film he has himself played Lalan Fakir. Another sense of revisiting a past life, he must have thought. Screenplay, editing, cinematography, dialogues are all quite impressive.

Trivia – the director himself plays the role of Mahamaya’s boss in the film.

Revelation – I didn’t know that the Portuguese had lived in Chandernagore, neither the fact that it was called Farashdanga earlier (‘Farashi’ being the Bengali word for ‘French’). I associated the town only with the French and had always believed that Anthony Firingi was a Frenchman.

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Hay Fever – A Noel Coward play

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When I arrived at the Duke of York Theatre yesterday I was in for a surprise. I was told by the young man at the gate that they were upgrading some of the ticket holders and I was among them. This is how I managed to get a seat in the 3rd row from the stage.

After seeing Noel Coward’s Private Lives I was looking forward to an opportunity to see his other plays. Hay Fever doesn’t disappoint. Although it was written almost ninety years ago the dialogue sounds still as hilarious as it was when it was written for an audience in 1926. Human nature continues to be the same even though we now live in a world totally transformed by technology.

The play is about the Bliss family (Was the name deliberately chosen to point out their ignorance of human behaviour?) which consists of Mr. Bliss, a novelist and Mrs. Bliss, a retired stage actress and their two adult children. Unknown to the others each one has invited a guest with the hope of spending a few romantic days with them. As the guests arrive one by one we see how they are all totally ill-matched with the one who has invited them. By the end of the second act they have each found a different partner and by the third act the guests realise that the Bliss family is too loony for them and they decide to quietly leave, but not before they have paired off among themselves. The family is too busy with their own conversation to even notice that their guests have left. Not only that but they have totally forgotten all the events of the previous day!

I particularly enjoyed Felicity Kendal’s fantastic stage presence and her very convincing performance. The character she plays, Judith Bliss, has a constant need for drama in her life, never losing an opportunity to be the centre of attention. One can feel Felicity enjoying every moment of this role. To single out Felicity would be unfair to other actors who were all wonderful in their roles. I must add that I was particularly impressed by Alice Orr-Ewing who plays the role of Sorel, the daughter.

The stage set was very beautiful. I loved the way one could see the countryside through the glass windows at the back of the stage. The use of lights to show rain and clouds through the windows was very effective. The women’s costumes were lovely. How I wish women could once again be seen in beautiful dresses like those, instead of the androgynous costumes in neutral colours which are so common now.

I had the wonderful company of a drama student from the university of Cork, who was sitting next to me. I don’t even know her name but we enjoyed trying to guess the end as we waited for the curtain to rise before the play as well as during the interval.

The play ends on 1st August. If you are in London, go catch it before it’s gone. I know that if this play was brought to India it would be a success.

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Little Miss Sunshine – a dvd review

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This is one othe funniest movies I have seen in a long time. It was made in 2006 and was nominated in four categories for the Oscars in 2007, including Best Picture. The film won the best original screenplay and best supporting actor awards that year.

The story is about a totally dysfunctional family in which the only sane people are the wife and the daughter. The wife’s father has come to live with them after being thrown out of a care home for taking heroin and her brother has just been brought back from the hospital after a failed suicide attempt. The husband is a life coach and is not doing well. Also with them is the teenage son of the wife from a previous marriage.

The little girl, who is called Olive, has just received a phone call informing her that she has qualified for the “Little Miss Sunshine” contest. But it looks as if getting there is going to be impossible. The only way they can go is by taking everyone along. So that is the final decision and they start off on a mad journey. Anything that could go wrong does go wrong. And more.

Finally, they make it to the contest.

Alan Arkin, who plays the grandfather of Olive, won the award for the best supporting actor. But the one who had me absolutely rolling with laughter by his acting was Paul Dano who plays Olive’s half brother. The screenplay comes from the pen (more likely a laptop) of a first-time writer and the direction is handled by a husband and wife team. It is their skill that brings out the individual characters and each one’s idiosyncrasy. This tragi-comedy picks up such a pace that when it ends you realise that you have lost track of time.

The role of Olive is played by Abigail Breslin and she has a natural look of innocence. It is so touching that you get pulled into the story out of sympathy for her. She really carries the whole film and is truly the ray of sunshine in this story.

If you need cheering up go get the DVD of this movie and watch it.

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Book Review: Manik and I – My life with Satyajit Ray by Bijoya Ray

We must all collectively thank Bijoya Ray for putting into words her priceless memories. Every Ray fan wants to know what he was like as a man. There is nothing so fascinating as the little details of his outward life and his likes and dislikes. Bijoya gives us a view of Satyajit the man whom we have always known as Satyajit Ray the genius. The title “Manik and I” is fully justified. ‘Manik’ was Satyajit Ray’s nickname and in this book we see indeed Manik, Bijoya’s husband, and not the public personality that we can find in other publications.

In fact Bijoya wrote her memoirs in Bangla, in a series of chapters which were serialized in the Bangla magazine Desh which were later published in a book form. After the publication of the Bangla volume the book was translated into English by Indrani Majumdar.

This book is as much about Satyajit Ray as it is about Bijoya herself. Their marriage almost didn’t happen because they were first cousins who had a common grandfather but not the same grandmother. Bijoya Ray’s paternal grandfather had married a second time after the death of his first wife. While
Satyajit Ray’s mother was the daughter of his second wife, Bijoya’s father was the son of the first. In other words, Bijoya’s father was the half-bother of Satyajit’s mother.

Clearly Bijoya was the intellectual companion that he needed, one who shared his love for Western classical music and Hollywood films. Once he started making films she joined him and helped with all the little details which needed a woman’s attention. She not only ran his home but was also the first to read many of his scripts and to give him a feedback. She went with him to shop for costumes and accessories. She was a colleague who was always in the background.

Through Bijoya’s eyes we see Satyajit starting out on this long journey which eventually made him a legendary director, recognized the world over. We see their struggle to get the right financiers and actors, to balance their family life with his all-engrossing work. She also gives us a detailed account

One discovers in this book the large network of friends and relatives who surrounded the couple. In fact, they belonged to an illustrious family of Bengal. Satyajit was the son of Sukumar Ray, writer and artist, who is a household name in Bengal. The great Chittaranjan Das was Bijoya’s uncle – he was married to her maternal aunt. Both Bijoya and Satyajit were related by blood to many talented and artistic people. Through his work they came in contact with many others who remained loyal to them through thick and thin.

Written in a language which is close to spoken everyday Bengali and translated into an equally simple language in English, the book is an easy read. One has the impression that one is listening to Bijoya narrating her story. The Bangla version even has English words which people normally use while speaking language but they are written in the Bangla script. Words such as “highbrow” and “interesting” come up in a very natural manner as they would when people speak in daily conversation.

The good thing is that the book can be read in bits and pieces, by choosing the chapters that one is more interested in. For example, the book abounds in episodes concerning Bijoya’s life with her son. One can easily skip these if one is more interested in the stories about how certain films were made. As Bijoya married late and had only one child he became the centre of her world and it is only natural that her book has entire chapters on the details of his childhood years.

Satyajit didn’t have any of the household worries on his mind as Bijoya took care of all that, leaving him free to do his work. In fact, Satyajit remained untouched by all financial matters. Bijoya also looked after both his mother and her mother. Not only that but she also entertained all the guests who dropped in at their home. Fortunately there was always somebody around to help her out of difficult situations. As we read this we become aware that we rarely take into account the work done by a woman and her contribution to the excellence achieved by her husband.

As one finishes the last pages one understands how a couple can be so immersed in their own affection for each other that material wealth becomes only a detail. The Rays never owned a house. But Bijoya endlessly thanks God for all the joys that were given to her in her happy home, her husband’s achievements, her pride in her son, and her admiration for her daughter-in-law.

I was very surprised to find that Bijoya had the courage to speak of Satyajit Ray’s one passionate relationship outside his marriage. Although she doesn’t mention the woman by name, we all know that it was Madhabi Mukherjee. Bijoya only mentions that she was so heart-broken that she fell ill and adds, “My husband was not a saint”. But we can see how she does not let out any of this when she speaks of Madhabi the actress in such high terms. She even tells us how she helped Madhabi to dress up for her role in Charulata. In fact Madhabi wore Bijoya’s saris in that film.

Of course, this relationship with Madhabi did not last very long and all was forgiven and their happy life continued. One can understand Bijoya’s distress because not only was she five years older than Satyajit but also she did not have the looks of an actress. She was her husband’s intellectual companion. The physical beauty of Madhabi proved to be too strong an attraction for Satyajit to resist as well as her youthful charm.

The book is full of factual information which is what makes this book interesting even for those who may not be keen to know the details of Ray’s family life. Many pages are devoted to the journeys they undertook together or when he went alone to the various film festivals where either Ray’s films were being screened or where he received awards. The most interesting parts of course are the small details of how in the early years they managed to circumvent the problems of finances and technical unavailability of materials. For example we come to know that Bijoya gave her own saris and jewels for the shooting of certain scenes or how Satyajit himself did much of the peripheral work before the shooting started.

A point to note is that Ray himself designed the costumes and the décor as well as composed the music for certain films. Bijoya asks him why he only took the director’s fee when he actually did so much more. Satyajit answers that he did not want the producer to lose his money. He was keenly aware that someone had invested his hard earned money and was giving him the opportunity to create his work of art.

Satyajit Ray’s work is so rich in psychological nuances that his admirers will never miss a chance to know more about his own life. There will always be a curiosity to know more about him. And Manik and I can to some extent quench that thirst. The large number of photographs which are there in every chapter in the body of the page make the stories come alive.

Manik and I – My life with Satyajit Ray by Bijoya Ray Published by Penguin Books India – 2012, 600 pages.

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Paromitar ek Din – a review

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The purpose of writing these reviews is to give to the prospective viewer the opportunity to know what the film is like. Now that movie viewing is not as it used to be and we end up seeing dvds rather than going to a cinema hall, we often need some indication as to what we can expect from a film. I want to be careful not to give away the endings which are often a surprise.

This is by far Aparna Sen’s best film. She is the scriptwriter, the director and has played the role of one of the main characters of the film. Her creative intelligence is present in many aspects of this very interesting cinematic creation.

This story hits the nail on the head and speaks about that uncomfortable truth about Indian life. Far too many intelligent, creative, sensitive women are married to prosaic, unintelligent men. Salman Rushdie himself had said that Indian women were far more interesting than the men. This film only confirms this. This situation is created by our institution of arranged marriages which continues to be practised in our modern world. This arrangement does not take into account the fact that two adults who have developed their individual personalities cannot live their entire lives together if they have not found any common points of interest.

The story begins with the death of Sanaka. Paromita is invited to the funeral rites observed on the 12th day after her passing. As she waits for the rites to be over she remembers the days she had spent in this family home with Sanaka, who was then her mother-in-law. Although the relationship of mother-in-law and daughter-in-law is the most difficult of human relationships, this story shows us two women who live it quite differently. They develop a friendship because they share a common sorrow – the burden of bringing up abnormal children. The older woman has a daughter who is schizophrenic while the younger woman has a spastic son. The fact that they both have children with abnormalities points to the fact that this streak must have come from the men they have married. While Sanaka, the older woman, remains stuck in this unhappy situation, Paromita decides to change her life.

In this film Aparna plays a role which is totally different from her usual types. Here she is not the urban, sophisticated, free-bird. She is quite “basic” as we say these days, meaning “not very educated, not very refined”. Here she has almost an aggressive side to herself. When she speaks we often have to strain to understand as she speaks with her mouth full of the paan she is chewing. In short, Aparna is not playing herself.

Rituparna Sengupta has entered into the skin of her character. She embodies very successfully the new middle-class Indian woman who will not take her fate lying down and who has decided that she will take that difficult step of breaking away from a meaningless life. Even if the new man in her life is not Mr. Perfect at least he is better than what she has. This step is heart-wrenching as she knows that her mother-in-law has no one beside her and it spells doom for her. It is not an easy choice. Her evolution from the housewife to the working woman takes place in a very matter-of -fact way. There is nothing dramatic abut it.

The very last scene very cleverly ties up the film where death and birth are fused into one. In fact, the film is a study in contrasts, the contrast between men and women, between the old society and the new that is emerging, between the normal and the not-so-normal, between birth and death. While the film speaks of tragedies it also weaves in a tale of hope and strength.

I cannot end this piece without saying a few words about Sohini Sengupta, who plays the role of the schizophrenic daughter. She received the national award for the best supporting actress for this film. And she richly deserved it. I was wondering what her background was when I discovered that she is the daughter of Swatilekha and Rudraprakash Sengupta. Indeed, she is the daughter of the actress who played the heroine in Satyajit Ray’s “Ghare Baire” (Home and the World). Her parents being giants in the world of theatre she understands a role from the inside.

The other superb performance is that of Soumitra Chatterjee. He plays a quiet man who does not have the strength that is usually expected of a man. Poetic, silently observing people, he gives depth to this story.

You should watch this film not only for the excellent individual performances but also for the cohesive and unusual story it tells. Hats off to the multifaceted talented woman director, Aparna Sen.

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Review of Aparna Sen’s film ‘Iti Mrinalini’

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For those who are fans of Aparna Sen this film which was released in 2011 is a must-see. Her sensibility is present in many aspects of this work. Unlike her other films this story unfolds over a longer spanof time and has a greater complexity. The uniqueness of Aparna’s work is that it gives us a woman’s point of view of a series of events. And when an actress becomes a director she can bring to the finished product a degree of perfection and an insight that is not found in the works of others.

The story is about an actress past her prime who decides to take her won life after being disappointed yet another time in love. She spends the whole night remembering past events of her life and as the first light of the morning appears she decides that suicide is not an answer. But don’t think that this an autobiography of the Actress-Director Aparna Sen herself. The script is co-written with Ranjan Roy who wrote it as part of his project as a student in a movie school. Aprana then developed it and found it so interesting that she decided to get the film made and direct it herself. Of course, she has taken the role of the older version of the heroine.

In a series of flashbacks Mrinalini’s life is reaveled to the viewer and we see her evolution from a simple middleclass college girl to a mature and sophisticated woman. While we have her own story in the foreground we have the history of the city as well as of Bengali cinema in the background. One can see some parallels with Shyam Benegal’s film “Bhumika”, an actress who goes through a series of relationships, most of which are unsatisfying, but all through these experiences the woman grows as an individual.

The role of the actress in her youth is played by Konkona Sen Sharma, Aparna’s real life daughter. Even though they don’t physically resemble each other very much there is an effort to bring out the psychological resemblance and we end up believing that it is the same person. Konkona is a good actress and this role is one of her best. In fact, the casting in this film is one of its strong points. Rajat Kapoor does such a good job of the film director who can’t bring himslef to divorce his wife to marry Mrinalini. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s good looks convince you that Mrinalini’s falling in love was inevitable. Kaushik Sen plays Chintan Nair, her friend-philosopher-guide who is also perhaps in love with her. He manages the right accent of Bengali spoken by a South Indian and has the right amount of detachment from Mrinalini.

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The story is set in the world of cinema but the film is not so much about her life as an actress as about her relationships. This milieu gives her the opportunity to meet and bond with unusual people. On the one hand Mrinalini has money and fame, on the other she has neither family nor a steady loving presence in her life. But we admire her for being an individual and making her own choices. Although she passes through a series of difficulties the ray of hope in the story comes from Chintan Nair who tells her that there are different kinds of love and she should not expect that she will be loved the way she wants to be loved.

Care has been taken to recreate the past through the right kind of costume, decor and vocabulary. The images are rich and varied. The music is a treat.

I was very amused that in the story Chintan Nair lives in Auroville. I don’t know how well Aparna knows Auroville but at least she has identified that it is a place where people follow an unconventional way of thinking. It is this element of quest for something beyond the mundane that redeems the film.

If one wants to start nitpicking then there is no end to finding faults but when one knows how much hard work and how many different skills are required to make a movie one can only be grateful that someone put their money into a project like this. After all, you don’t get to see a poetic film like this everyday.

The film tells you that beyond a certain point you can’t plan your life. Life takes its own course.Take what it has to offer.

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Shubho Muharat

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When I bought the dvd of Shubho Mahurat on College Street in Calcutta I realised that it was thanks to so many changes in technology and marketing in the world of Indian cinema that I could watch a film which was released 12 years ago. True, I watched it on the small screen of my laptop but that is better than not seeing it at all. What is that proverb in Bengali? Better to have a one-eyed uncle than no uncle at all.

This film brings together three fine actresses and a very talented director: Sharmila Tagore, Rakhee, Nandita Das and Rituparna Ghosh. Right at the outset let me inform the reader that this film is a Bengali adaptation of an Agatha Christie story which was also made into an English film. The story is called “The Mirror Cracked from Side to Side” and the title of the film is shortened to “The Mirror Cracked”. It may be that Agatha Christie was herself inspired by a true story which happened in an English village. The role played by Rakhee is actually a Bengali version of Miss Marple! But how wonderfully Rituparna (whom I will henceforth call Ritu-da) has created this character who is totally original and totally Indian.

The story is a murder mystery so I won’t write the plot which I usually do. All I can say is that it is a typical crime thriller written by Christie, which goes through various twists and turns. The film begins with the first day of shooting of a new film being produced by a retired actress. A journalist comes to cover this event. Soon after the shot is over the main actress dies in her flat. So the search for the killer begins.

There are three love stories which run parallel through the film. The first is between an ageing actress and her producer husband, the second is between a young woman journalist and two men who are in love with her and the third is a bond between the camera-man of the new film being made and the make-up woman. Each of the love stories is set in a different context. The three women come from a different class and a different age-group. But it is interesting how they are interconnected.

This film was made by Ritu-da just before he made “Chokher Bali”, his magnum opus. In “Shubho Mahurat” he was working with actresses who were stars in Bollywood but he was going to present them before Bengali viewers for whom that would be a novelty. It was with this film that he was going to start his long association with Bollywood stars, casting them in his films because that was the only way he could get a very large audience. He was surely one of the best directors and screenwriters we have had but he never lost sight of the box-office.

All three main actresses – Sharmila, Rakhee and Nandita – give to the film a touch of their very realistic style of acting and keep the viewer’s attention fixed to the narration. How harmoniously Nandita’s youth contrasts with Rakhee’s maturity! How beautifully Sharmila’s sophistication contrasts with Rakhee’s simplicity! How seamlessly Nandita’s carefree attitude contrasts with Sharmila’s calculated moves! All three complement each other. Perhaps this is Rakhee’s last film role and she has put her heart into it. She truly becomes Ranga Pishi.

The secondary roles have been played with great success too. The dialogues are very interesting and keep the pace of the story at a steady rhythm. This film can stand as an example of good screenplay writing in Indian cinema. Even though the basic story is taken from elsewhere the script in my eyes is an original one. As Vishal Bhardwaj once said, “The plot belonged to Shakespeare but I built my house on it.” (I have added this to my collection of puns, as you can imagine.) Ritu-da has done exactly the same kind of work that Vishal does when he adapts Shakesperean plays to the Indian context.

Rituparna Ghosh was someone who understood the mind of a woman. In fact, he was so much in the world of women that he actually wanted to become one himself. This deep fascination for women gave him an insight into the feminine nature. This is why the three women are so real in all their details. This may even be the reason why he chose this story because it gave him the opportunity to explore the feminine psyche.

Whatever may have been the reason for which he chose this story the end result is that the public has an opportunity to watch such an interesting film and we have to thank Ritu-da for pulling Bengali cinema out of the pit into which it had fallen. Rakhee received the 2003 National Award for the best supporting actress for this film. This film also received the National Award for Best Bengali Film of 2003.

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Malala Yousafzai

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I love true stories. No fiction writer can invent anything half as interesting as true stories. But the book I have just finished reading is by far the most fascinating one I have read in the last ten years. I picked up “I am Malala” to read on a journey but I have re-read it a second time after I reached home.

The extraordinary courage of Malala is something we Indian women could learn from. We all know that she is an exceptional girl but from this book you come to know just how extraordinary she is. Malala is not from a city like Islamabad. She grew up as a poor girl in a remote place like the Taliban infested Swat valley in Pakistan. It is a place where people still live with the mindset of the tribal life of a thousand years ago.

Reading this book is getting to know the other side of all the news items we have read in papers or watched on TV. It is a revelation to know how the same stories were perceived by those who actually lived the trauma of these violent events in their own country. For example the way Benazir Bhutto was killed was a shock to all of us but how much more shattering it was to young girls growing up holding her up as a role model before them as hoping that she would become their President. Important events like the death of Osama Bin Laden or the 9/11 attacks are all told from the point of view of a child growing up in a Muslim country.

The book has been written with the help of an experienced journalist Christina Lamb and so there is a flow in the language. Fortunately, the tone and vocabulary of the teenager is kept intact. One does get the feel of listening to a young girl telling her story. The little details of her life as a girl make this book so unique because we see not only that this activist has barely come out of her childhood but also what kind of childhood exists in the small towns taken over by the Taliban.

There are many facts that I did not know and these bits of information give a clearer picture of Malala’s life and achievement. The background information such as the fact that her father had a chain of schools is an important one also the fact that she had already started speaking publicly about the importance of education in Pakistan. I did not know that Malala had already met many dignitaries because of her activism for education and had been interviewed on radio and television. Now I understand why she was so specifically targeted.

When I had first read that Malala had been shot in the head I could not figure out how she had survived. The book gives a detailed account of how the doctors worked and saved her life. It is an eye-opener about how developed medical science is in the UK but at the same time you cannot miss the clear message that there is something called Divine Grace. You cannot deny that God’s protecting hand was there over Malala’s head. Malala feels that she was saved so that she could do her work and help humanity. There is no doubt about that.

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I must have read the last two chapters at least three times to fully understand what the doctors did to make Malala come back to normal life. The entire process was so complicated and poor Malala had to undergo such suffering that one can only look up at the doctors as well as at Malala with heart-felt admiration.

Malala was a beautiful girl with a perfectly symmetrical face before she was shot in the head. What she has suffered would have made any other girl never come out again. But here she is out there doing what she was doing with a greater energy than ever before. She deserves every bit of the Nobel Prize that she has received. She has kept her own suffering out of the picture but any fool can deduct what she must have gone through. I have seen Malala being interviewed on TV and one can see that she has the wisdom that comes from having seen a great deal of suffering from an early age.

I was very touched by the part where Malala describes how she received a present from Benazir Bhuttos’s children after she had recovered from her operations in Birmingham. They gave her two shawls which had belonged to their mother. Full of emotion Malala buried her face in them and later she found a long black hair on one of them.

Now when I see her smiling face in a picture I know the value of that smile. You can only know how she got back her smile when you have read the book!

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Aamir Khan

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I became a fan of Aamir Khan after seeing Mangal Pandey. I had no doubt that he was a good actor but after watching Satyameva Jayate I now also have a great deal of respect for him. He has taken up so many issues and discussed them in such a clear and comprehensive manner that one cannot remain unmoved.

All his episodes are interesting but the one dealing with road accidents was the one that has remained in my mind in all its details. He took the trouble of calling every category of people involved in this subject. From families who had lost members in road accidents to truck drivers who carry overloaded vehicles to policemen, they were all there.

The country has no idea about the scale of destruction that road accidents bring on. People say, “It was destined and we have to accept that death.” Aamir Khan brought it to the attention of the nation that these are entirely avoidable disasters. At the end of the show when he asked the people in the audience to raise their hands if they had paid to get a driving license, all except two lifted their hands! If no one actually passes a test to be able to drive then how can we expect to have safe roads?

The construction industry is responsible for the overloading of trucks carrying steel rods. Not only do trucks take double the permissible quantity but they also take rods which hang out of the rear of the trucks by several metres. Sometimes all there is is a small piece of red cloth tied to the end of the protruding rods to indicate that they end there. But how can a driver coming behind the truck at a speed judge the distance if at all he can see that cloth. Can a driver not understand that steel rods jutting out of the back is dangerous to those who are behind? The drivers of these trucks claim that they cannot say anything as they are asked to take that load by the constructor who has bought those steel rods.

I was very touched to see Aamir ask his audience, “How can one live in a flat knowing that people have died in road accidents while steel rods for the construction were being transported?” The police are very much aware of this problem but do nothing about it.

Another horrifying truth that came out in that episode was the fact that long distance drivers often take drugs to stay awake in order to drive all night. The highways are full of drivers who are actually under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The drivers admitted that often they sleep with their eyes open while they are driving on the highways.

If all film stars use their fame to do something for the country then we would be living in a better world. There is a social responsibility that goes with the love that people give an actor. Creating social awareness by actors and actresses has been going on for a long time in Hollywood and Europe but we are seeing it for the first time in India on this scale.

As I end this post I must mention how much I enjoyed watching Aamir’s film “PK”. I don’t know of any other actor who would have the guts to take up such a role and point out the ignorance in which we live, turning our heads towards the past instead of looking at the powerful future that is standing in front of us.

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Poroma by Aparna Sen, a review

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I had seen this film a good 20 years ago but I found the dvd at a friend’s house and thought of watching it once again. Films, like books, should be revisited once every 10 years. What has escaped your understanding will become clearly visible after you have crossed certain landmarks of life. And so it was with this film. There were points that I had completely overlooked which cried out to be seen this time round.

The first thing to say about this film is that it has a good, tight script. Sadly, even after looking on the internet for the script-writer’s name I have not been able to find it. Aparna Sen may have written it herself or must have worked closely with the person who wrote it.

The story revolves around a married woman who meets a young photographer who is totally charmed by her. They fall in love and spend a lot of time together. Poroma, the woman in question is not only married but also has three children of whom one is a teenage girl. The man with whom she is in love, and who is younger than her, is an Indian who is settled in the USA and is in Calcutta only on a brief visit.

He brings to her life the appreciation that she has never received from her husband. She has always been fulfilling her duties as wife, mother, daughter-in-law and has never been considered a person in her own right. Here is a man who not only tells her that she is beautiful but wants to know her mind and her heart. The film explores the attraction that grows between them, but firstly it explores the mind of an Indian woman who so willingly switches off her own dreams and desires once she is married.

One day, inevitably, the husband comes to know of this relationship and all hell breaks loose. At this point in the story we hear echoes of Ibsen’s “Doll’s House”. The husband suddenly feels that Poroma is not fit to bring up his children. All at once even the children are not hers. Her mother-in-law falls ill as she is totally shocked and Poroma becomes the evil woman in everyone’s eyes.

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All this ultimately leads to Poroma’s nervous breakdown and she attempts to take her own life. When she is recovering her family comes to see her at the hospital but she realises that she can no longer go back to her old life because she has been somehow re-born. Now she decides that she wants to lead a new life. She is completely transformed. She tells her family that she is now thinking of working and earning a living.

Although this film was made in the early 1980s it has a perfectly contemporary feel. True, the clothes and hairstyles have changed but the mentality remains the same in our country. There are still so few women who can live a love story. Love and marriage are two different things and not everybody has the good fortune to live that wonderful experience of being totally in love.

The film’s strong points are the visuals and the narration. It has many subtle ways of conveying the closeness of the couple and has many beautiful touches. For all this the credit must go to Aparna, the director. But the one thing for which a film buff should see this film is surely Rakhee’s acting. Bollywood had made us believe that she was a dumb beauty but Bengali cinema has been able to bring out the sensitive actress and the great performer that she is. There is something about her voice that compels you to listen to her. The intensity that comes through her eyes is rare in Indian actresses. She was a star and it was something she had earned rightfully, through hard work. But here we see the fine actress who was always there within that star.

The interesting point about this film is that the role of the young lover is played by Aparna Sen’s own then husband, Mukul Sharma. He is an academic so I really found his acting very good because when this is not your profession it can be hard to play such a role. How difficult it must be to look seductive and roll around in a bed with a beautiful actress when your own wife is standing behind the camera and scrutinising your every expression? For years I have read his column “Mindsport” in the Indian Express and am his fan. So I was thrilled to see him on screen.

Thirty years have passed since this film was made but it continues to be as fresh in its essence. It is true that women have made great strides in every field in India but the man-woman relationship continues to be disbalanced. The words “wife” and “love” still don’t go together. The pace of change however is picking up. Sooner or later people are going to understand that marriage is an institution that has had its day. The day women achieve financial independence we will have relationships of equality and maybe….even love.

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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.

Mudra Motifs

My Forest has a Face

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