Satyajit Ray’s ‘Abhijan’

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

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

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

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

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

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Pondicherry Lit Fest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?” I asked again.

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

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

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

“No, I don’t.” I said.

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

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

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

And some people can become famous for being famous.

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

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Bhooter Bhabishyat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Olympic Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The King is dead, long live the King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan

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Noukadubi (Bengali film) – a review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My New Book

Sri Aurobindo and The Cripps Proposal

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

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

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

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Film review: The Japanese Wife

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

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

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

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

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

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A Meeting With Javed Akhtar

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

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

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

“We can try,” was her answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review of “Autograph” (Bengali film)

This film was presented at the London Indian Film festival last year but I didn’t see it then because I was busy with an exhibition. When the DVD came to my hands I was eager to see what made the organisers select this among so many other films for the festival.

The script is a homage to Uttam Kumar and Satyajit Ray because it is about a film-maker who wants to re-make Ray’s “Nayak”. I saw Ray’s black and white film quite recently so I could catch the references to that film. The main roles are enacted by Prasenjit, Nandana Deb Sen and Indraneil Sengupt. In keeping with the changing times the journey is not by train but in an aircraft.

It is a film within a film and the plot includes the secondary thread of the actors falling in love as they shoot for the movie they are making. Nothing unusual about that except that the heroine is the girl-friend of the director. The tussle between the two men comes to a head when the director leaks to the media a private moment of the hero which has been accidentally taped. The woman leaves her boy-friend with whom she has a relationship of friend-lover and who has betrayed her. The film ends with producer, who is also the star of the film that is being made, deciding to scrap the film altogether.

The film is as much about the profession of actors as about relationships between men and women. It makes us reflect on what happens when people are ready to sacrifice their love on the altar of success. The young director is too eager to make a name for himself and start a career in the world of cinema. When the temptation comes up before him he can not resist taking that step where he puts the woman who loves him in a very difficult position but which he thinks would generate a lot of publicity for his film. In the end he loses everything – the woman as well as the film.

Nandana Deb Sen, the daughter of Amartya Sen, has handled this role, which demanded a very modern outlook, rather well. The urban woman who has a live-in relationship has a crush on the hero with whom she is acting. Nandana has the right sophistication and has kept the performance on a dignified note while giving to her character the cheerfulness that makes her so endearing.

Prasenjit is a seasoned actor and his acting has the nuanced expression that an artistic film like this could bring out. Indraneil, on the other hand, has a role which the script-writer could not quite polish. The character has too many inconsistencies. He is supposed to be a new director and yet he is harsh and rough with his actors. He talks with such over-confidence, towards the end of the film, with Prasenjit that one starts wondering if a person in his place would behave like that. He never seems to have doubts about his own capacity to direct a film. A person who has only directed a documentary would face some difficulties in directing a feature film. This difficulty is never shown in the film.

Ray’s film “Nayak” dealt with the insecurity of the actor. In this film too we see the human side of larger than life icons who become like demi-gods to the common man. The young spectator may even want to see Ray’s film to find what it was that was at the source of the making of this film.

The music of this film is modern and interesting and blends harmoniously with the theme.

Bengali cinema has indeed got back to the thinking viewer.

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Film Review – Antaheen (Bengali)

Once while zapping through the channels late at night I had chanced on this very unusual film. When I started watching it nearly half of it was over, so I was curious to know how the story starts. When I got the DVD I could barely wait to start watching it.

The film is about relationships, about the nature of love and about how we express our feelings. But, of course it is an urban story. There are several couples and each couple lives its relationship in a different way. The older couple lives apart but is very much connected. The young couple is connected through e-mails with but does not even know who the other person is. Then there is the elderly aunt, played very successfully by Sharmila Tagore, who also has never seen the man she had a relationship with. Most intriguing, like an abstract painting, is the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Mehra, who are together but unhappily together.

Relationships in our modern world are not the same as they were a couple of decades earlier. Relationships are based on communications and in an age when the world has undergone a revolution in communications relationships are sure to follow. Naturally, mobile phones and e-mails play an important part in the story. These modern means of communications have made it possible to live with someone only in spirit. The whole meaning of companionship takes on a different colour. The film is a comment on the love that does not need physical proximity, or the love that exists beyond physical proximity.

In this story people are defined by their work. But interestingly the women are shown more at work while the men are shown in their moments when they are not working. It is this situation of work and life that criss-cross which makes the story interesting.

Rahul Bose is an extraordinary actor and this film has made good use of his talents. It is a delight to watch Aparna Sen. In fact, the casting is perfect. The script is tight and crisp, with many interesting observations by the various characters. The storyline, of course, has similarities with the Tom Hanks starrer “You’ve Got Mail”.

Although the story has a tragic end it does bring home the point of ephemeral nature of all human relationships. Live your love to the fullest because you never know when it will go away.

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Spring in London

Regent's Park, London

Magnolia flowers, London

Tulips, London

Cherry blossom, London

Cherry blossom, London

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Easter

The cyclone which hit Pondy on 29th December last year brought so many trees down. One of them was the beautiful frangipani tree which used to be in Nanteuil, just next to the glass doors of our old Golden Chain Office. I used to love picking those flowers and looking at their lovely forms against the blue sky when they were clustered in bunches on the branches.

Naturally, I was very sad to see the broken tree. Soon the entire tree was cut down and the branches were piled up to be taken away. I picked up a few of those branches and took them home and re-planted them. Some in pots and some on the ground. To my utter surprise, two weeks ago, I saw buds on two of those plants and soon after the beautiful flowers appeared on those tiny branches. Strangely, the flowers were really small, almost miniature ones.

I am absolutely in awe before this phenomenon in nature. After that terrible onslaught of fury and devastation everything is regenerated, as if with a redoubled energy. That old tree had been a friend, had watched me as I typed away late into the evening, or just come in and go out from the back of the office to save time. And one day it was struck down and died and was even chopped up into little pieces. And today it lives again, stretching out to me its bunch of flowers, in my own balcony.

As I write this I realise that it is Easter Sunday! The very day to celebrate this phenomenon of regeneration, the Spring Equinox, even before Christianity was born.

May we learn something from this. The Divine is sending us messages that we can pick up if we keep our eyes and ears open.

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Alexandra David-Neel: the film

At last, we had the much-awaited screening of the film on Alexandra David-Neel’s journey to Lhasa. Although it was held very quietly this was actually the very first screening anywhere in the world.

For a long time we had thought that the lead actress Dominique Blanc was going to be present at the premiere but in the end she could not make it. Fortunately the director Joel Farges was there to present his film and speak about his experience of making it.

In spite of all the difficulties faced during the shooting it has turned out to be a beautiful piece of work. Dominique Blanc, with her years of experience and her natural grace, carries this film on her shoulders. It is a pleasure to watch her, to see her face shining with an inner strength. Particularly well-done is the scene where she meets Sri Aurobindo. The cinematographer has really put in a lot of thought into the images of this sequence.

All the scenes shot in the Himalayas are of an extraordinary beauty and Alexandra’s quest is shown a very moving way. The little Tibetan boy who played Yongden as a little boy has done a good job and the relationship between him and Alexandra is brought out with little touches of humour.

I can not look at the film dispassionately because I have seen the filming and especially the scenes where I am myself there I keep thinking of how we shot them when I watch them on the screen. My character, Uma, is an invented one. Even though the story of Alexandra spending a month in a private house in Kolkata is true, we don’t know who the hosts really were. All I can say is that this character brings out Alexandra’s thoughts on marriage and relationships in general. What Alexandra says to Uma gives us a view into Alexandra’s mind and her feminist views.

Surprisingly, in an age when travel has become so easy and is considered a pleasure, there are so many people who look up to Alexandra David-Neel as an icon and a heroine.
Behind her difficult journey lies her spiritual quest, her desire to know the invisible occult world and her great respect for Buddism.

This film will be officially released in France at the end of March 2012 and will be telecast on ARTE channel on 1st June. These dates should be put down on every cinema lover’s diary. Although it was initially made for television this film should be ideally seen in the big screen to get the full enjoyment of the beauty of the panoramic views shot in Sikkim and Ladakh.

Dominique Blanc as Alexandra David-Neel

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Oscar Night

I woke up a bit late on 27th and found that I had missed the first one hour of the Oscar ceremony but once I found the channel which was telecasting it live I could not leave my seat. It was really well presented by Billy Crystal and the awards were mostly what had already been predicted by many.

My favourite moment was when Meryl Streep got her award. She has been my favourite actress ever since I first saw her in Out of Africa. She has such a presence that she draws everyone’s attention just by being there. The most difficult thing for an actor is to portray a real person on screen, especially if that person is well-known and is still alive.

I was very happy for the awards that went to The Artist. The French have a passion in everything they do that makes them such good film makers. Actually, the Lumiere brothers invented cinema, so the French have a claim to the top slot in the world of moving pictures that no one can take away.

I am a faithful fan of Brad Pitt and was a bit disappointed that he didn’t pick up any of the statuettes. I read that he and Anjelina Jolie had been at the venue since the early hours of the morning, so it must have been a bit sad for Brad not to have received any awards. I watched Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and even though I liked it I knew it would not get any votes as far as Oscars were concerned. The film was so unusual and so philosophical that it may not be everybody’s cup of tea.

One of the journalists on BBC said that she found the reactions of some of the winners of the awards a bit too much, “over the top” as she said. But really can one ever understand what happens to the person who is given so big an award? I think the reactions of actors can only be dramatic because, after all, they live in their emotions. When so many cameras are relaying that moment to countries across the globe, when one is handed the award that every single person who is in any way connected to the world of cinema dreams of receiving, can one remain unmoved?

I would go so far as to say that I found Cristopher Plummer extraordinarily composed when his name was announced for the award for the best supporting actor. For those who may not know, he is the actor who played the father to those naughty children in The Sound of Music. Imagine being such a popular actor for so many years and receiving an award only this year. As he very wittily said, “Where have you been all these years?” looking at the trophy.

I am sure I will find the first part of the ceremony, which I missed, on some channel or the other and catch up with all those funny things that Billy Crystal said and which I have only read in the papers. Only a very good actor can maintain a poker face after having cracked a really good joke. Billy Crystal said that Meryl Streep deserves an Oscar for looking as if she was really happy that someone else won an Oscar every time she was nominated and didn’t win. But he himself deserves an Oscar for not laughing at his own jokes.

The Artist film

Meryl Streep

The Oscars 2012

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The traffic in Pondicherry

Last night we went for dinner to a new restaurant in the far end of Mission street, where it touches Bussy Street. It served supposesdly Italian cuisine but actually it is adapted to Indian tastes – much like Indian Chinese cuisine. We came out and before going home wanted to try out the chocolate shop across the street, owned by one of my former students Srinath.

Sadly, it took us almost five minutes to cross this narrow strip of road. It used to be a place some years ago where there was not a soul and one used to feel a bit scared even to walk alone in that area. But last night we felt we were risking our lives to take those ten steps to cross to the other side of the road. There were so many motorcycles that zipped past us, in that badly-lit road, that we had to stop in the middle and wait. The speed at which they were coming at us was frightening. No one wanted to slow down and let the two pedestrians pass.

Thousands of illiterate and semi-educated young men in Pondicherry now own big powerful motorcycles. But no one knows the first thing about how to use the roads. Just having money isn’t going to solve anything. As I said, ignorance is a form of poverty.

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Why India will never be a superpower

While everyone is thinking that India is surging ahead and will soon be a country of great economic prosperity the view from my window tells me that it will never be that.

Days after the cyclone that hit Pondicherry there was a huge pile of garbage that collected in front of my house and no one came to remove it. Days went by and it just got bigger. I ran from person to person asking them to do something. I was very intrigued to see that municipal workers were actually coming but the pile got bigger until I realised that they were bringing garbage from elsewhere and dumping them on the pavement opposite my house. There are no front doors on that pavement and my neighbours feel they can throw their garbage in front of someone’s backdoor and along that entire pavement.

Finally, a call to the municipal contractor who is in charge of our area brought a small group of women in their uniforms who picked up only a small part of the huge pile and left.

The next day a tractor came and instead of picking up the garbage the two men who had come switched on their FM radio and listened to Bollywood songs in full blast and rested in the shade. When they left they picked up a very small part of the rotting pile. Women from my neighborhood, in their shining saris and heavy gold necklaces, came one after the other to throw their vegetable peels and the empty cartons of cereals on the hill of garbage that had started stinking. They gave me a blank look when I told them that they should throw their garbage in the bin provided further up the road.

A friend gave me the phone number of the municipal commissioner and when I called him he asked me to give a complaint in writing. He must have called up the concerned contractor and pulled him up because within a couple of hours the entire pavement was cleaned. There wasn’t even a piece of paper there. For three weeks I couldn’t open my front door because of the stench from the piling up garbage right in front and it was only after complaining to the highest officer that I managed to get that cleared.

There is enough money for garbage collectors to listen to FM radio and housewives to wear gold necklaces that weigh half a kilo but there is no awareness that garbage cannot be thrown on pavements which are supposed to be for people to walk on. Most of all there is no courtesy towards a neighbour.

Just having money doesn’t change anything. Ignorance is the greatest poverty.

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Watching the curious case of Benjamin Button, I can’t help exclaiming to myself “What a fantastic actor Brad Pitt is.” Some months back, while flicking through the channels on television, I chanced on this film. When I started watching it was already somewhere in the middle. Even though I watched only the second half I found it really interesting. Now I am watching it from the beginning. So it feels as if I am watching the film backwards. It’s a curious case of watching The Curious Case backwards.

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A New Year begins

What a way to start the New Near! The cyclone that raged through the night of the 30th kept us awake much of that night. It was much more terrifying than the one we had experienced in November 2000. In the clear light of the morning we saw the destruction. In the boulevard area, specially in the old French town, the main damage was caused by fallen trees. The sight of old massive trees fallen across the roads was akin to watching a battlefield where old warriors had died after fighting valiantly. Perhaps it is a lesson that it is not a good idea to plant trees on pavements in a town which wasn’t designed for it.

The feeling in many hearts is that it is a warning sign. To others it is the Divine telling us in a symbolic way that there is always destruction before a new creation. Something in us must make a new beginning.

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Review of ‘Mausam’

There was not much choice at the DVD shop when I went there last week, so I got a DVD of Mausam. The irritating thing is that there is a very good film by that same name which was made ages ago and one can’t help remembering it the moment one pronounces the name. It brings back flashes of scenes with Sharmila Tagore and Sanjeev Kumar.

This new film will not be remembered like the old one is for many reasons. It tries too hard to be a fantastic love story. That kind of story-telling is gone and the young viewers can’t relate to those emotions any more. The story is fine. Many critics have said that the story is hard to believe because in this day and age you can’t lose track of someone. Actually you can. And this story is set in the 1990s when instant connect didn’t exist. What doesn’t quite come off is the chemistry between the characters.

The one thing that really makes me laugh outright is the way Sonam Kapoor goes to Scotland and becomes a ballet dancer. I wish I could go to Pankaj Kapoor and tell him classical ballet isn’t Odissi. You can’t just go from rural Punjab at the age of twenty and become a ballet dancer in a dance academy in Edinburgh. Ballet requires years of training from childhood. A dancer’s body is formed by years of exercises and practice. There are movements you just can’t do if you haven’t done it from age 7 or 8. A young woman of twenty or more who has never done any physical activities will never ever be able to do a single sequence of the barre exercises. A woman who was all wrapped up in sawar-kameez and dupatta till early adulthood can not suddenly get into tights and tutus.

And the scenes of ballroom dancing! I couldn’t take that either. I have seen young Indian women who have grown up in Britain and who still look at ballroom dancing as something obscene. A muslim family in this film goes totally western within a couple of years of coming to Scotland looks too far-fetched when they haven’t been through a western education.

Why do directors go into territories that are totally alien to them? Why don’t they do a bit of research at the script level?

I know that the name “Mausam” will only evoke the old film in my mind. This film will always bring back to my mind the hilarious scenes of Sonam Kapoor trying to do ballet!

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