Monday, February 02, 2015

Beyond the crowds

"This thing is a Wembley concert now, but this place can only accommodate a warehouse gig crowd," said a Nigerian writer, who is now a London transplant. The "thing" he was referring to was the just-concluded ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival and the "place" is the venue, Diggi Palace. His appraisal wasn't far off the mark considering this year the festival had a record number of visitors: 245,000. Here's some heartburn for doomsayers of the printed word: the festival has seen a doubling of international visitors from 50 countries, and a 40 per cent increase in students attending it.

As much as the numbers were comforting, the venue, which has been inextricably linked with the event for eight years, was groaning under the weight of that many visitors. That said, the festival was a smorgasbord of marvellousness for whoever braved the teeming swarms of humanity. My personal highlight has been the one where Paul Theroux, Hanif Kureishi and Amit Chaudhuri spoke to Farrukh Dhondy on the cultural importance of V S Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas. The writers were waxing eloquent about the sprawling novel set in Port of Spain with the Nobel laureate himself among the audience. Mr Kureishi said that this was the novel that broke the stigma against what used to be pejoratively termed as "Commonwealth writing" in the 1960s; Mr Theroux went a step further: "What I was reading was a book which described an entire world. A family on an island where nothing was left out, every cultural artefact, the food, the way of speaking, the weather and houses, everything was there. It was the most complete novel I had read since, I suppose, Dickens." That statement moved Mr Naipaul to tears and the hatchet between the two was resoundingly buried on stage.

Another incredible session had Eimear McBride and Eleanor Catton in conversation with Razia Iqbal. The Irish writer, who wrote the throat-clenchingly haunting novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, said that she had to wait for a harrowing nine years to get her debut novel published. Its inventive staccato prose, stream of consciousness narrative and genuinely shocking plot apparently was rejected by three publishers because they didn't know how to "market" it. Booker winner Ms Catton, on the other hand, who tasted success at 28 for her second novel The Luminaries, said that she liked to essentially think of herself as a mystery novelist and that a cellphone is the worst thing that could have happened to that kind of a writer. "The essence of a mystery novel is that people go in the wrong directions and a cellphone is sort of killing that," she said.

On Day Two, as rain lashed the Pink City, American-Indian poet Vijay Seshadri's soul-edifying session titled "A Passage to America" with Sadaf Saaz Siddiqi provided the much-needed warmth. Mr Seshadri spoke about growing up in the 1960s and his whole immigrant experience. He said that "the sixties were America's most energetic decade since Civil War". He was feisty, funny, meditative during the 40 minutes that he held court at the venue. Speaking about the Pulitzer honour he said, "It's a nice award. I recommend it to everyone."

Optimism over an Indo-Pak truce was all-pervasive at a talk on Pakistan that involved Ahmed Rashid, Anatol Lieven, G Parthasarathy and the country's former foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri. "If Vladimir Putin can talk to Obama, why not India and Pakistan," Mr Rashid asked. All the speakers said that with a new government in place in Kabul, the leaders should tackle the Taliban menace together and not depend on the United States too much.

The purpose of literature was best described by Will Self, British letters' enfant terrible with an old quote: as something that "afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted". He was a massive hit with the audience. Be it his dismissal of the British establishment, his maverick antics onstage or hilariously controversial statements, he was the talk of the event. Another writer to whom the crowd took an instant liking was the Chinese-American writer Anchee Min. Once a Red Guard in Mao's army, she permitted the audience a glimpse into the unremitting bleakness of the early years of her life - leavened with an impromptu performance of a Chinese opera song.

And these are the kind of reasons that even those issuing a drone of contempt at the massive crowds will be returning next year. Did I tell you that next year Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro will be speaking?

The A-Z of Jaipur Literature Festival 2015

A for Anchee Min: The Chinese American author left the audience in turns haunted and entertained by recalling her days of working for Mao in the Red Guards. When she broke out in a Chinese opera song, it turned out to be the talk of the festival.

B for Baithak: My favourite part of the venue this year was located in a safe corner. Some of the most intimate conversations happened here and they involved Vijay Seshadri, Will Self, Hisham Matar among others.

C for CIA: One of the most stimulating conversations was on the intelligence gathering organisation of the United States. Kai Bird, Scott Anderson, Charles Glass spoke to Guardian’s Long Reads’ editor Jonathan Shainin about the pitfalls of CIA and the kind of wreckage it can cause on the fabric of any nation.

D for Devdutt Pattanaik: Right from talking about Indian mythology to homosexuality in India, the master spinner of beautiful tales held fort at every session he was at.

E for Eleanor Catton: The Booker winner of 2013 was a textbook example of how a young author should deal with success. Here is someone who won the Booker at 28 and yet she said that “War and Peace can be written only after one turns 40”. She was a major draw at the event and for all the right reasons.

F for Farrukh Dhondy: He had the biggest task at hand: steer a conversation on VS Naipaul when the writer was in the audience; and in another session, he was talking to the writer himself. Must say, he handled both the sessions really well and managed to give a slice of the great writer to the audience that thronged to see him.

G for Girish Karnad: The playwright and actor was an absolute delight both when talking to Naseeruddin Shah about their early days of acting and then in another session making a compelling case as to why a Library of Classic Indian literature is of immediate necessity.

H for Hisham Matar: The Libyan-American writer spoke about exile, post-Gaddafi Libya, his love for Proust , the anguish of his father in the most stirring manner possible.

I for In Exile: A lovely array of writers discussed about what it is to write about a country they will never be able to visit again or will be severely restricted within it. Chinese writer Ma Jian said that language (in his case Mandarin) keeps him alive in London but that someday he hopes to return to China. Hisham Matar spoke about how he had to flee Libya as a kid because his father was standing up to the Gaddafi regime.

J for Joanna Rakoff: The winsome writer of a memoir on handling JD Salinger’s fan mail was wonderful at all the sessions she attended. She spoke at length about what it was like to be a literary agency in 90s’ New York before the e-mail and endemic computerisation had hit the industry.

 K for Kalam: The former President of India, a darling from schoolchildren, got a rockstar welcome at Diggi Palace. Every syllable he uttered was hung on to by his young fans. Both his talks, where he delved into his ‘Vision 2020’, were the most-attended ones probably in the history of the festival.

L for Llewlyn Morgan: The classicist at Oxford University was a treasure trove of illuminating information on Buddhist artworks at Bamiyan in Central Afghanistan. His book on the same subject is a rare hybrid of Buddhism and architecture.

M for Mihir Sharma: Business Standard’s Opinion editor was arguably at two of the biggest talks: one involved Shashi Tharoor and the other with Rajdeep Sardesai. He spoke with great erudition on what ails the Indian economy (subject matter of his just-released book, Restart) and what Modi government should get right about its politics.

N for Naipaul: The octogenarian wordsmith spoke at what might just be his last public talk. Despite his physical discomfort and slight inability to recall the right words during the interview, the audience listened to him in rapt attention. He spoke about his early days of writing, India and Africa. His wife Nadira said that after his book, India: Land of Darkness, was released, his mother told him, “Beta, leave India to the Indians.”

 O for Overcrowded: Every year, there’s a drone of contempt among the regulars that the venue should be changed and that Diggi is bursting at seams but this year that drone became really audible. As much as the event takes pride in being free for all, the maddening crowds that descended to witness Kalam and Sonam Kapoor might just make the organisers think again.

P for Paris Attacks: With the barbaric act on Charlie Hebdo still fresh in the minds, JLF was a perfect place for writers to denounce the attack. Almost everyone, with a sole exception of Will Self, uttered “Je Suis Charlie”.

Q for Queer: A fascinating talk at JLF centred around homosexual literature. Sarah Water, Christos Tsiolkas, Mark Gevisser, Sandip Roy spoke about what it was to be a homosexual before it was the new normal like today. Another thing that struck the foreign visitors is that Indian visa application has Other in the ‘sex’ option, something they found quite progressive.

R for Ram Jethmalani: The eminent lawyer, who is 92-year-old, gave the packed audience a peek into his life right from Emergency to Indira Gandhi to the controversial cases that he handles. He said that even today 90% of the cases that he takes up are all pro bono. His feisty talk was a reminder that age is just a number.

S for Shashi Tharoor: The Congress MP finally did show up after intense speculations if he will be able to make it after latest revelations on his wife’s death. He didn’t mince words about the Modi government, was skeptical about Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, and was scathing about ghar waapsi.

T for Theroux: The acclaimed travel writer spoke about his craft at the event but the thing that he will be remembered for is his patch up with friend-turned-foe VS Naipaul. Paul Theroux said that A House for Mr Biswas is the most complete novel he read after Dickens, which moved the Nobel laureate to tears.

U for Ummeed: The Hindi word for hope was the reigning sentiment among those speaking about India. Everyone thought, even the hawks, that India has a decent chance at making it big on the world stage with a new government at the helm of affairs.

V for Vijay Seshadri: The American-Indian poet, who won a Pulitzer, was absolutely brilliant in his meditative, cerebral sessions. He was articulate about every subject he was asked about: his life as a kid in America, his growing up years, why he decided to work for five years in commercial fishing industry, the seventies of America, his favourite poets.

W for Will Self: The British letters’ enfant terrible was the toast of JLF 2015. All his sessions were sidesplittingly funny and the reading that he did from his Booker-nominated Umbrella in a gorgeously animated tone was the best I ever saw in the five years that I have been to the fest.

 X for Xanadu: The title of the debut book of the fest director William Dalrymple needs to be evoked because JLF is nothing less than a parallel universe’s idea of heaven. The 2016 line-up has Noam Chomsky, Patti Smith, Margaret Atwood, Thomas Piketty among the big names slated to speak. How does this man do that?

Y for Young Readers: In Dalrymple’s words, “The average age of a literary festival in England, like Cheltenham is 70, while in JLF it’s 21.” That says it all that the fest has cracked the demographic code. Despite the crowding problems, it was a nice sight to see young readers jostling for space to see writers they have either read or intend to.

Z for Zia Haider Rehman: This British novelist of Bangladeshi origin who, quite possibly, wrote the best South Asian novel of the last 10 years was beyond amazing at JLF. He spoke passionately about his early days in UK, how his teachers refused to believe that his English can be so good, how we was bullied at school for showing a drive towards gaining knowledge. If there’s one novel that you should read from 2014, it’s In The Light of What We Know. Prepare to be floored by its vertigo-inducing magnificence.

Poetry and truth at the Mumbai Film Festival

Any piece of art should aim to live up to the two ideals that German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe preferred: Dichtung und Wahrheit (poetry and truth). At the just-concluded Mumbai Film Festival there were quite a few movies that showed these traits in spades.

The gold standard was set by Chaitanya Tamhane's Marathi movie Court, which won two prizes at the Venice Film Festival. Court is a critique of India's arcane laws that continue to be "relevant" much to the dismay of the affected parties. It tells the story of a reactionary Mumbai folk singer being brought to his knees in a court of law - because, allegedly, the words that he used were taken to heart by a sewage cleaner who ended up killing himself. The singer is pushed further and further down the abyss that is the Indian judicial system. Mr Tamhane's biggest triumph is that the laugh-out-loud moments - for example, a scene where the judge refuses to hear a case because the defendant is wearing a sleeveless dress - are both side-splittingly funny, and created with an intimate knowledge of how ordinary people think. The pitch-perfect casting, the lingering close-ups and the seamless narrative make Court one of the best movies of 2014. This movie ought to be a constant reminder to our new prime minister who has promised to cut the flab out of Indian laws.

Another potent amalgam of poetry and truth was the Malayalam movie Perariyathavar (Names Unknown). Directed by Bijukumar Damodaran (commonly called "Dr Biju"), it is a deeply affecting story about a road sweeper who is a mute spectator to how modern-day Kerala is battling the twin forces of capitalism and communism. The lead actor, Suraj Venjaramoodu, won the National Award for Best Actor this year for his outing in a deglamourised role that's a radical departure from what is usually his bread and butter: comic roles where pratfalls are written with him in mind.

Another movie that I loved is Benjamín Naishtat's Argentinean film History of Fear, a take on constant gentrification, and how it could lead only to more paranoia. Set in a near-future Buenos Aires, this stripped-down dystopian drama is about a bunch of vaguely interconnected characters who keep coming across their fears in the unlikeliest of situations. Some of the film's images are quite hallucinogenic; they continue to be embedded in my brain. The best part about History of Fear is that it's not a childish rant against the bourgeoisie - it actually delves deeper, in an effort to make sense of society's demands for increased surveillance and security.

One of my most satisfying movie-watching experiences also turned out to be a disappointment turnout wise. Only nine people landed up for the French movie Girlhood, directed by Celine Sciamma. It's about a group of four inseparable black girls in a banlieue in Paris who come to terms with the harsh realities of life and dead-end prospects that it has to offer. Most of the story revolves around Marieme (played by a magnetic Karidja Toure) who is the most distraught of the lot, as she fears settling down, getting married and managing kids for the rest of her life. The earlier parts of the movie move along in an admirably frenetic manner - especially one sequence, where the girls dance to Rihanna's Diamonds in a neon-lit room.

By the near end of the festival I was in a bind: whether to watch the Brad Pitt-starrer Fury or '71, a British historical action movie set in Northern Ireland. I chose the latter and it turned out to be a wonderful gamble. This 90-minute nail-biting thriller about a missing British soldier amid "The Troubles", as Northern Ireland prefers to refer to its bloody past, left me hooked. Director Yann Demange walked the tightrope really well and never passed judgement; instead, he concentrated on delivering the maximum chills when least expected. The background score deserves special mention.

The only thing that left a bad taste in my mouth during an otherwise insuperably satisfying festival was when Bollywood actor Imran Khan was booed off stage by an audience who thought he was taking too much time to introduce Two Days, One Night. In the heat of the moment people forgot that Bollywood had an active role in funding the festival, which was in doldrums after its main sponsor pulled out. In Toronto, a movie festival pass costs around Rs 20,000; here it was Rs 1,500. The least people could have done was listen to whatever he had to say, interesting or boring notwithstanding. But then, unlike art, life rarely pays much heed to either poetry or truth.

Great MFF Expectations

Here's a pitch for a short film: A multi-billion dollar conglomerate pulls out of a film festival, leaves it almost asphyxiated for the sake of Rs 5 crore in a land where every second week one movie earns Rs 100 crore, before crowdfunding revives it. We are talking about the 16th edition of Mumbai Film Festival (MFF), which had to endure an almost cinematic roller-coaster ride. This is supposed to be a preview article, but considering its recent past just go watch anything to support this wonderful event. Thanks to the kind hearts who donated generously, the line-up is anything but watered down. Here are a few films that are absolutely not to be missed. They have been divided into two categories inspired by Donald Rumsfeld-speak.

The known knowns

These are movies that have been acclaimed across the festival circuit. Topping this list is Richard Linklater's Boyhood, a cinematic bildungsroman that painstakingly chronicles the life of a five-year-old boy until he turned 18. As unremarkable as it might sound, here's the kicker: Mr Linklater shot the whole movie intermittently over 11 years (yes, during the boy's lifetime); and from whatever little I could glean from online clips and reviews, not a single shot of this 165-minute long movie is wasted. Next up is the Belgian drama Two Days, One Night by the Dardenne Brothers, the Coen Brothers of European cinema. A simple drama about a to-be sacked worker (Marion Cotillard) trying to win over her colleagues over the weekend to avoid the inevitable is already being hailed as one of the best movies of 2014.

Also getting top billing is Pride, the real-life story of a group of homosexuals in London in 1984 trying to support the miners of a tiny Welsh village who are ravaged by Maggie Thatcher's crackdown on the National Union of Mineworkers. This riotously funny movie about how the mining elders get over their homophobia and look at the Londoners' good intentions has been garnering rave reviews across the globe. And those of us who are willing to watch Jean-Luc Godard film every page of a dictionary will also have to make time for the Frenchman's latest feature, Goodbye to Language (3D).

Among documentaries, the prima donna is Martin Scorsese's The 50 Year Argument, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of what was for the longest time the enfant terrible of American letters, The New York Review of Books. With extensive quotes from its founder Robert Silvers and other talking heads, including Colm Tóibín and Michael Chabon, Mr Scorsese ensures this documentary is a must-watch for everyone who wants to try and recapture the seductive power of the printed word in this age of BuzzFeed.

The unknown unknowns

This category is for movies that are little known as yet but might just make a splash. This year's Mumbai Film Festival is celebrating French cinema in a big way - and what will bolster this effort will be the presence of Catherine Deneuve, who will be given a lifetime achievement award. Her latest film, In the Courtyard, an indie feature about a depressed rock-star-turned-janitor developing romantic feelings for a female retiree, looks eminently watchable. By the way, the Deneuve retrospective at the Mumbai Film Festival is incontestably awesome as well. Another French film that ought to give everyone chills is Mathieu Amalric's (the snarling anti-hero of Casino Royale) The Blue Room. A lushly romantic film, inspired by a Georges Simenon book, it promises to further embellish Mr Amalric's already diverse oeuvre.

Last month when the baby-faced Chaitanya Tamhane won two awards at the Venice Film Festival for his movie Court, a trenchant analysis of Indian judiciary, people back home noticed. Without even a YouTube clip doing rounds on the internet and with an India release months away, the Mumbai Film Festival auditoriums will be filled to the brim with people who at least want to see what the fuss is all about. Court is competing in the "International Competition" section along with other 2014 movie festival stalwarts, such as History of Fear and Macondo.

If you are the kind who swears by Russian literature, the Mumbai Film Festival is catering to you as well, showcasing the best of Russian cinema, including Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev and Sergei Bondarchuk's War and Peace.

Last but not the least, the opening and closing movies are both from Hollywood. The former being the period romance flick Serena (Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper) and the latter being the Brad Pitt-starrer Fury, the story of a tank crew in World War II that promises to reinvent the war movie.

See you on the flip side.

In pursuit of unhappiness

Within a span of three years (2009-11), Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote a 3,600-page, six-volume series of books that catapulted him into literary immortality at the age of 43. These books chronicle his life right from his childhood to adulthood, all the while retaining the names of everyone involved in it. If the subject matter of the books wasn't sensitive enough, he named them, collectively, Min Kamp (My Struggle), a Hitleresque reference that only Mr Knausgaard deserved to evoke. The first three instalments have been translated - quite ably so - into English by Don Bartlett. The latest, the third in the series, titled Boyhood Island, was released in English this summer.

As someone who has read all the three books that have been translated into English, I would implore everyone to read this brilliant writer. The first in the series, A Death in the Family, is a heart-rending account of how Mr Knausgaard dealt with his father's death. Of particular note is his unflinchingly honest description of the filth that pervades the house where his father died: "When the last item of clothing had been carried out, I sprinkled the Klorin over the floor, using half of the bottle, and then I scrubbed it with the broom before hosing it all down the drain. Then I emptied the rest of the green soap all over it, and scrubbed it again, this time with a cloth."

In the second book, A Man in Love, Mr Knausgaard is strikingly unsparing in his gripe about his second wife and the three children that she bore him. For example, read this: "When I look at a beautiful painting I have tears in my eyes, but not when I look at my children. That does not mean I do not love them, because I do, with all my heart, it simply means that the meaning they produce is not sufficient to fulfil a whole life. Not mine, at any rate." The fourth child, born after the book was published, escaped his father's vexation.

The third book, Boyhood Island, describes his stifling childhood, spent under the grim shadow of his father, a martinet in every sense of the word.

Writing a series of books out of one's own largely unremarkable life is no mean feat; the Western media has rightly dubbed Mr Knausgaard the "Norwegian Proust". There are, for example, minutely detailed descriptions of adolescent life (as many as 60 pages on Mr Knausgaard, as a teenager, procuring beer for a New Year's party), heavy dependence on memory (Book Three has the writer recollecting all the bands his elder brother ever introduced him to), and philosophising about morbid tasks (buying a coffin, Mr Knausgaard writes, is "a bit like buying wine in a restaurant. If you're not a connoisseur, I mean. If you've got a lot of money you take the second-most-expensive. If you haven't, you take the second-cheapest. Never the most expensive, nor the cheapest").

Having said that, Mr Knausgaard lacks the emotional and intellectual depth of Marcel Proust's magnum opus, Remembrance of Things Past. Nevertheless, as James Wood wrote in The New Yorker, "There is something ceaselessly compelling about Knausgaard's book [A Death in the Family]: even when I was bored, I was interested." It's not for nothing, after all, that a quarter of Norway's population has read his books; what's more, some firms are reported to observe "Knausgaard-free" days, when talking about him is off-limits. It's not surprising, then, that the redoubtable Zadie Smith had this to say on Twitter about A Death in the Family: "It's unbelievable. I just read 200 pages of it and I need the next volume like crack. It's completely blown my mind." Novelist Katie Kimamura told The New York Times that “every time we have a small family drama, we’re like, ‘Karl Ove would get 200 pages out of this.’”

It's not hard to see why these writers are fawning over the Norwegian literary sensation. It is a widely held belief that writers thrive on unhappiness; Mr Knausgaard takes this writerly quirk to another level. Nothing seems to make him happy. The magnetic presence of kids, a mostly understanding wife, a unanimously praised work, an enviably close-knit bunch of friends - a simpler person couldn't imagine life beyond this. Not Mr Knausgaard, who is in constant, desperate search for an escape, where he doesn't have to attend to kids, take them to school, feed them, pacify them in the middle of the night, or even go picnicking.

To his credit, Mr Knausgaard internalised every event of his life and has spewed it out in an unadorned fashion. Even as he divulges family secrets and reveals the most intimate details about those close to him, the unobtrusive manner in which Mr Knausgaard himself sneaks in and out of the narrative makes him the poster child of a genre that he very well may have spawned - which is sure to make every reader champion the writer's cause for this year's Nobel prize in literature.

For the uninitiated, then, I have three words about Karl Ove Knausgaard: believe the hype.

MTV goes back

 At the cavernous venue of the launch party of Pepsi MTV Indies, a 24-hour Indian independent music channel, the air was palpably different from what you'd expect. No power suits, no wine sipping, no paparazzi - as is the norm at such launches. The warehouse-style party at Mehboob Studio, located in Bandra, the upscale suburb of Mumbai, featured instead an imperiously built stage with six different boxes - three mounted on three - which sent out a message: the Indian indie scene need not be "boxed" into one genre.

With many in the 18-35 age group increasingly listening to markedly different music instead of the usual Bollywood mishmash, a separate channel was always on the anvil - but no one knew when. Until Ankur Tewari, the lead singer of the consistently sparkling Ankur & The Ghalat Family, took on the mantle of programming and content of this sister channel of MTV India. For MTV India, this is something like coming full circle. Ask urban Indians in their late 20s or early 30s about their growing-up years and many would get wistful about MTV Asia, which burst onto the Indian cable TV screens in the 1990s. But, eventually, it was replaced with MTV India - which soon began to play the same old Bollywood music, and finally endless reality shows and contests.

And that evening at Mehboob Studio, the fabulous party was sending out a loud stereophonic sound: this channel is here to stay. It's intriguing that a profit-centric multinational like Pepsi feels it's in its interest to pour anywhere between Rs 40 crore and Rs 50 crore into a channel whose format is indie in every sense of the word. Here are a few salient points:

* It isn't just about independent music with lyrics in English. There will be music from all over the country, in Hindi, Bangla, Oriya, Malayalam.
* Unlike other music channels, there will be no video jockeys hosting shows.
* The channel will play songs, not bunched up together from a single genre, but according to moods.

When I read the release, I wondered how hard it must have been to get such a "radical" manifesto past studio heads who traditionally don't show an excess of interest in out-of-the-box ideas. The resounding success of Coke Studio India might have been one reason, and the packed gigs of indie bands at every watering hole in every metro city must have been another. The NH7 Weekender music festival, the garden-variety electronic dance music concerts that are happening throughout the year, must have contributed to the executives' confidence.

That launch night, bands jammed together without a trace of ego. Karsh Kale happily played drums for Raghu Dixit's band. Vishal Dadlani joined Raghu Dixit and took the band's catchiest tune, Ambar Se, to another level. Ankur & The Ghalat Family's hilarious lyrics sounded great when delivered by Sidd Coutto. The companionship among the musicians that night was hinting that they were really happy for the larger good of the indie scene. Spacious Mehboob Studio, which keeps hosting Live from the Console, Mahindra Blues Festival and once even had an Anish Kapoor show, was packed to the brim.

According to Raghu Dixit, this channel is a great chance for those "who missed out on the train and for those who want to board it now". What will keep the music channel chugging along initially are the 500 music videos that are in its library currently.

Obviously, those 500 videos wouldn't be enough, but it's a good enough start. And with everyone from Dualist Inquiry to Shaa'ir + Func and Swarathma to Sky Rabbit belting out propulsive music (the channel's theme video is a case in point), the channel should grow in days to come. The content will include more than music - it is expected that there will be segments on indie films and the visual arts, as well as on the creation of videos and album art. For starters, there's Open Files on album artwork and design and Indiepedia, a 101 course on popular indie terms. The icing on the cake is Busking, which will place artists on the streets to play five songs; a few of these artists include Raghu Dixit, Indus Creed, Shaa'ir and Func.

And the content will be monetised, too. There will be a Pepsi MTV Indies stage at music festivals and a smartphone app on the lines of Shazam for indie music discovery. The initial agreement on the Pepsi and MTV partnership on this channel is for three years; given the resurgent demand for indie music, this channel, hopefully, won't fade away in a hurry - as MTV Asia did.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Lovable fuck-up of a man

In the seventies the American fiction’s landscape was dotted with male characters that were predominantly machoistic. Famous writers like Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Saul Bellow turned up men who were nothing if not macho.

These men wouldn’t know what unrequited love means. They were constitutionally incapable of taking any form of rejection and would eventually find their way, especially with women. “All I had to do was go down into the subway. It was like fishing down there. Go down into the subway and come up with a girl,” says a Roth character in Human Stain. In Richard Price’s Ladies’ Man where the protagonist finds out that his girlfriend is ‘cheating’ on him with a sex toy, he goes on a self eulogy, “Every woman I was ever with told me I was the best. I knew how to move, how to groove and I was a handsome bastard too. I had a nice frame, about six feet even. Hundred and sixty-five. Straight hair, dark skin, dark eyes, sensuous mouth, so I heard.” At the slightest provocation here’s a man going on about himself and his virility.

These overtly macho men are not to be seen around anymore in modern American fiction. They have been replaced by the lovable fuck-up of a man whom women don’t usually mind and some considerate ones would even try to ‘redeem’ him. The best lovable fuck-up I came across this year was in Adelle Waldman’s maddeningly alluring debut novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. This 240-page novel about the eponymous self-absorbed writer living in Brooklyn is hootingly funny, extremely well-written and bracingly vivid. What particularly struck me is the way Waldman captured the essence of aesthete culture of modern-day Brooklyn through her lead character, who is in turns repulsive and charming. If there’s one novel in 2013 that I would unreservedly recommend to everyone, it’s this consistently sparkling one.

The novel opens at a subway station where Nathaniel bumps into the girl whom he impregnated during a brief affair (and later accompanied her for abortion). His evasive disposition towards her sets the tone for rest of this gorgeous novel. Waldman, a print journalist, quite possibly etched out the quintessential lovable fuck-up of a man of our times. Sample this: “When he was younger, he had imagined that as he grew up, he would become progressively less shallow and women’s looks wouldn’t matter much. Now that he was, more or less, grown up, he realised it wasn’t going to happen.” This matter-of-fact voice of her character is what makes Waldman a writer to look forward to.

It’s not a coincidence that Waldman’s favourite writer is Jonathan Franzen, whose novel The Corrections is nothing if not a minor ode to the subject under review. Chip Lambert’s frightful insouciance towards women, life in general is emblazoned on the cortex of every reader. Praising Waldman for creating such a believable male protagonist will invariably smack of sexism but I’m taking my chances because she genuinely deserves kudos. In fact, in an interview she expressed her admiration for Franzen for creating absolutely authentic female characters.

This year I also finally got around to reading Ben Lerner’s debut novel (published 2011) Leaving the Atocha Station. Lerner, a poet, tried his hand at fiction for the first time and came up with the character Adam Gordon, who is participating in a prestigious Spanish scholarship in Madrid circa 2004. Reading both these books simultaneously I couldn’t help but think of the bromance that would have bloomed between Adam and Nathaniel. While Nathaniel would judge his girlfriend for not taking care of her body, which is getting a bit bloated, Adam would lie to a random girl at a party that his mother died, just for her fleeting affection.

Both the men behave like drama queens (entertaining ones at that) at the slightest whiff of rejection from the opposite sex. These men are markedly different from their predecessors of seventies. They are sensitive, worldly, culturally evolved. There’s a beautiful passage in Leaving the Atocha Station where Adam wants to bid farewell to his sort-of-girlfriend. He maxes out his father’s credit card to take her out to the best restaurant in Madrid and later to a five-star hotel to spend one last night together. At the end of the chapter Adam says that ‘‘I thought of the artist for a while’. The heartbreaking brilliance of this particular scene is an absolute must-read.

"Here's the most average thing in the world: the guy who is all interested in a woman until the very moment when it dawns on him that he has her. Wanting only what he can't have. The affliction of shallow morons everywhere,” says Hannah to Nathaniel. Despite this outburst, Nathaniel leaves her and gravitates towards someone else.

You might ask what’s the charm in knowing about such men. It’s another facet of human race that needs to be amply chronicled. If Nathaniel needs his friend Jason’s approval of his girlfriend in terms of looks, I would like to know all about it. If in a fit of rage and utter dejection, Adam gives away the ring he bought for a girl he loves to a random person at a museum, I would love to know more than just the token dismissive phrase reserved for such occasions: “they are boys wrapped in a man’s body”.

With women no longer dependent on men and gender dynamics changing so rapidly, the lovable fuck-up of a man is here to stay much to everyone’s delight.

The A-Z of Jaipur Lit Fest 2014

 After five days of passive and active interaction with some of the finest creative minds of the world, it’s only appropriate I don’t act favourites and just tell everything in alphabetical order of my amazing experience.

A for Amartya Sen: His frail physical disposition belied his powerful opening speech that was equal parts riveting and controversial (“I yearn for a strong and flourishing right wing party that is secular, not communal”).

B for Barnett Rubin:
This Afghanistan expert left everyone spellbound with his original take on the current ground situation and, what more, he even rapped a seven-minute song about his stint at the US State Department.

C for Cheryl Strayed:
This disgustingly talented writer was an instant favourite with everyone who cared to know about her life-affirming story of trekking really long distance in the backdrop of personal catastrophes (later written as ‘Wild’) .

D for DSC Prize: The annual DSC Prize this year went to Cyrus Mistry for his heartbreakingly brilliant novel Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer. Everyone thought no one deserved the $50,000 prize more than him.

:E for Ekta Kapoor: Just when it looked that this year’s JLF is controversy-free, on Day 4 Ekta Kapoor’s session attracted  some serious bile from people who protested the historical inconsistencies in her serial Jodhaa Akbar.

F for Fashion: Chunky knit belted over maxi dress. Silver hand harness with woollen kurta. Leather trench and booties. You name the hottest fad in world fashion and JLF’s audience has it in spades.

G for Gatsby: Two sessions revolved around the heady days of the 1920s and the best chronicle of them, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The most vocal of the speakers was Sarah Churchwell, who wrote a book titled Careless People on the same topic. She was pure joy for the way she recreated the hedonism of the halcyon past that was more or less very Gatsby-esque.

H for Homi Bhabha: The director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University was instrumental in making the most unyieldy topics sheer fun for those present. He slalomed from Crime and Punishment to ‘The Contemporary Indian Art Revolution’.

I for Irrfan Khan: JLF 2014 has been low on Bollywood glitter unlike the other editions but Irrfan Khan made up for most of the missing glamour with his unassumingly intelligent take on everything that comes in between Aam Aadmi Party and Rs 100-crore cinema

J for Jonathan Franzen:
The organisers had to lure this arguably greatest living novelist from Manhattan to Diggi Palace (the JLF venue) with the promise of a birding expedition in Himalayas at their expense but it looked worth the effort considering how people couldn’t get enough of his hilarious constitution.

K for Kulhar: It was bone-rattlingly cold in Jaipur this time and the tea that was being served in the mud cups was as much in demand as much as high brow literary discussions.

L for Litcrit: As someone who loves to read book reviews, the Litcrit session on what writers think about critics was deeply illuminating to me. The way Homi Bhabha and Philip Hensher went ka-pow each other over James Wood was a great sight.

M for Maaza Mengiste:
With Taiye Selasi not present at the festival, the onus of representing African literature fell mostly on the able shoulders of the Ethiopian writer who held her fort in various sessions with a compassion that was infectious.

N for Nicholas Shakespeare:
The most infectious session at this five-day jamboree was on Monday, “Bright Young Things of the Jazz Age”. While Churchwell was talking about America in the 20s, Nicholas Shakespeare gave a fascinating peek into what it was like in England at the same time. Through the vantage point of Evelyn Waugh’s career arc, Shakespeare painted a wonderful picture of the swinging twenties.

O for Otto De Kat: The Dutch writer and publisher was a hit with the audience for his wry sense of humour that pervaded every session he was in, be it on historical novel or literature of war and revolution (Anne Frank is his literary hero).

P for Philip Hensher:
He was a delight throughout, be it while picking up minor fights over James Wood’s idea of a good book or getting into the intricacies of how exactly historical fiction should look and sound like.

Q for Queues:
This is the year JLF clocked the maximum number of visitors (220,000 to be precise) and it clearly showed how every session was filled to the brim. Right from tea counters to book signings to standing all the way through hour-long sessions, the queues were ubiquitous.

R for Reza Aslan:
If anyone stole thunder from Franzen and Jhumpa Lahiri this year, it has to be Reza Aslan. People thronged to see him in person just for his sheer magnetism and delicious self-deprecation. The way he fought it out with A N Wilson over Jesus’ antecedents was emblazoned in the cortex of everyone who was present.

S for Shashi Tharoor:
If anyone was conspicuous by his absence, it has to be the Minister of State who was supposed to talk at quite a few sessions but his wife’s suicide torpedoed not only his JLF presence but also took some shine off the event itself.

T for Tinariwen:
This desert guitar band from Mali (a Grammy winner too) was the headlining act of the festival and they  lived up to their top billing. Their 45-minute sonorous gig kept everyone on their toes.

U for Understanding India: This is probably the year when most foreign speakers made it a point to include India in their tangential point of view. Every topic was seen through the prism of India even if it’s only for a moment.

V for Ved Mehta: This writer of many-an-exquisite books who also happens to be blind left everyone dumbstruck with his pitch-perfect take on the world. Here’s what he said about India, “It is a functioning anarchy. Now, anarchy is fine as long as you can see.”

W for William Dalrymple: Someone please give this man a medal for making JLF a global fixture and managing to bring a fantastic line up of writers every year. Who’s up for 2015? Well, V S Naipaul and Patti Smith, for starters.

X for Xiaolu Guo: She left everyone gobsmacked with her charged-up attack on Anglo-Saxon literature by terming it, rightfully so, as 'over-rated'. "Nowadays all this narrative [literature is] very similar, it's so realism, so story-telling driven … so all the poetry, all the alternative things, have been pushed away by mainstream society," she lamented.

Y for YOLO:
I met so many people during the course of the fest who came from as far as Pretoria and Miami to listen to the writers. English teachers, PhD students, aspiring writers, everyone came down from foreign lands because they felt that the scene at JLF is far more vibrant than in their home land.

Z for Zzz: Let’s face it, no one can take seven hours of literature for five days straight and this was made apparent when the in-house cameras gave some comic relief by revealing people who either found their smartphones far more interesting than the talks or who were just caught napping.

Friday, January 24, 2014

JLF's unmissables

I feel I'm at the front row of a U2 concert," quipped a friend who was with me at the jam-packed Jonathan Franzen talk at the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival, or JLF. Mr Franzen is arguably the greatest living novelist in English and might have the best vocabulary in the Western Hemisphere, but his talk was hardly illuminating. Maybe that's because I had already read his ridiculously brilliant Paris Review interview. So I adopted a different tack. I went to see mostly the writers I hardly knew anything about but who looked incredibly fascinating on paper.

First on this list was a talk titled "Two Typewriters". (All JLF sessions are available to watch online.) The writer-couple John Ralston Saul and Adrienne Clarkson gave an absolutely terrific talk while in conversation with Jonathan Shainin, news editor at The New Yorker's website. Right from talking about their early days in Paris to how they inspire each other to pitching Canada (rightfully so) as an immigrant paradise, this talk was solid gold. "Every year, 250,000 immigrants come to Canada and become citizens of the country while those who go to the US end up as resident aliens," said Ms Clarkson, formerly the governor general of Canada.

On the other end of the same spectrum was a session called "Litcrit", which provided a bit of useful insight into how writers perceived book reviewers. Rana Dasgupta said that he didn't give much weight to the critics in the United States and the United Kingdom, but that in Germany and Australia the reviewing scene was amazing. Danish author Carsten Jensen said book reviewers were usually people in academia who had no connection with the real world and that they wrote only for peer approval. British novelist Philip Hensher said he disliked super-critic James Wood's tendency to find a religious arc in every novel - which Homi Bhabha, the latter's colleague at Harvard and the moderator of the session, thought was a wrong reason to pour scorn at Mr Wood. In short, this Real Madrid team sort of a panel kept everyone hooked.

Among the infectious sessions, the one that took the cake was the collective swooning called "Bright Young Things of the Jazz Age". Both sides of the Atlantic were represented by the best people possible: Sarah Churchwell, a Fitzgerald scholar-squirrel, represented the US and Lara Feigel and Nicholas Shakespeare the UK. They drew wonderful parallels to the Jazz Age and the economic meltdown of 2008. Odd facts tumbled out. For example, Evelyn Waugh was jealous of his elder brother's looks and literary talent till he managed to supersede him with his work on the swinging twenties. The Jazz Age was a derivative of the Prohibition Era. When her daughter was born, Zelda Fitzgerald wanted her to grow up to be a "beautiful little fool", a line her husband used in The Great Gatsby. For more on this, read Ms Churchwell's majestic book Careless People.

Another gem was "Leaving Iran", where Fariba Hachtroudi and Reza Aslan walked down memory lane as they talked about their motherland. Mr Aslan was especially amusing: "During the Iran hostage crisis, Americans hated Iranians and for the longest time I pretended to be Mexican," he said in a dry tone that was at once funny and scary. Joseph O'Neill's chat with Samanth Subramanian on his usage of cricket in his novel Netherland was stimulating, too. This post-9/11 novel that earned Mr O'Neill wide acclaim, thanks to its sparkling prose and despairing imagery of a lonely man's existence in an increasingly alien city, featured a cricket club in New York. Mr O'Neill spoke in a tone suffused with wry humour about how he came to include the game in the novel and his own association with the game.

There were a couple of talks, though, that lived up to their top billing. Not surprisingly, one involved Mr Aslan. His new book, Zealot - which places Jesus of Nazareth at the top of a long list of nationalist messianic Jewish zealots - is topping the bestseller charts, and was discussed at "Jesus the Man, Jesus the Politician". Mr Aslan was at the peak of his crowd-pleasing form, bracingly funny, not least when throwing barbs at Dan Brown. He suggested three easy steps to making the gospels appeal to non-Jews: "You have to make Jesus a little less Jewish; then a little less radical; and remove all blame from Rome for the death of Jesus." What's more, he even had free advice for aspiring writers, "I always tell my MFA students [he teaches at the University of California, Riverside] that if they want to make it big as a novelist, they must somehow include two themes in their novels: vampires and love."

However, my personal favourite was Rana Dasgupta's conversation with William Dalrymple on his new book, Capital, a sort of biography of Delhi of the 21st century. The session attracted massive crowds - and no one left midway (a norm at most talks). From whatever he read, his marvellous hold on English language really came through.

It remains to be seen how Mr Dalrymple and his associates manage to top this next year. By the way, this fest, which clings to its democratic credentials by holding all the sessions free, is scheduled for January 21-25 next year. Mark your diaries.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Top ten films of 2013

This year has been a great one for cinema, what with a nuanced movie on homosexuality winning the top prize at Cannes (Blue is the Warmest Colour) and a spectacular feast for the eyes set in space (Gravity) touted to sweep the Oscars next year. Under these testing conditions, here are 10 movies, in no particular order, that impressed me.

Only God Forgives: After Drive, one wouldn't have expected Nicolas Winding Refn to get back with Ryan Gosling to make a hyper-violent, vastly fragmented movie with Hamlet overtones set in Thailand. But, truth be told, the images I witnessed at the Mumbai Film Festival are burnt into my brain. Love it or militantly hate it, this is a movie that will get under your skin and stay there for a long time.

The Strange Little Cat
: The find of the Mumbai Film Festival was this 72-minute-long German film, which looked like a love child of a long-forgotten Kafka story and an early French new wave movie. The director, Ramon Zürcher, skilfully uses space in a tiny apartment for the movie - particularly the kitchen - as its inhabitants busy themselves preparing for a dinner.

Spring Breakers: Harmony Korine's latest feature is his most accessible one. Four party-crazy teenagers visit Florida during their spring break and witness various forms of debauchery; the story is told with splashy, hallucinogenic imagery. If you have anyone in the West willing to send you a gift, make sure you ask for this DVD, like I did.

The Place Beyond the Pines: Whoever said a movie cannot unfold like a novel needs to watch this movie about pain, betrayal and the exorcism of past demons. I can forgive Bradley Cooper for a hundred Hangovers after he played such a second fiddle. The lead, Ryan Gosling, puts in a performance that is through-the-roof brilliant. The shooting style, the televisual look, the punishingly bleak mise en scene - everything is more European movie than something from a major Hollywood studio. Director Derek Cianfrance should take a bow for topping his Blue Valentine.

Stray Dogs: Taiwanese film maker Tsai Ming-liang's moving elegiac tale of those living in the fringes of Taipei is transfixing. The climactic 11-minute-long scene in which a couple keeps looking at massive graffiti is more than memorable. It's one of those moments that can be watched again and again.

Rush: Ron Howard's cinematic take on a sporting feud between two Formula One drivers is an out-and-out entertainer. Right from the chiaroscuro cinematography to zingy one-liners to standout performances by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl, Ron Howard got everything together to craft a minor work of genius.

Stranger by the Lake: When this whodunnit about a murder among gay men who frequently sunbathe at a lake somewhere in France's boondocks was shown at the Goa Film Festival, it got a rousing reception. The sex scenes are no-holds-barred, and Alain Guiraudie's adroit use of natural light makes it the most fiercely original film of the year. It's weirdly funny that movies like this and Blue is the Warmest Colour are being shown across the country at various film festivals with no protests from religious groups, but Section 377 continues to be part of our law.

Heli: This year, I best understood the power of cinema when the audience heaved a collective gasp at the Mumbai Film Festival as a man's genitalia were doused in lighter fluid (as punishment) and then set on fire in this slow-burning (no pun intended) Mexican revenge drama. Amat Escalante's pitch-perfect take on Mexican drug cartels kept me nailed to my seat.

Museum Hours: When was the last time you watched a movie that triangulated art criticism, gorgeous visuals and excellent conversation? Jem Cohen's film, a superb drama set in and around the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, is exactly that rare film. Shot in a documentary style, this intimate tale of an elderly museum guard and a shabby-genteel woman is at once moving and thrilling. The movie's best scene is nearly 10 minutes long: an art professor tries to explain Bruegel's paintings to a bunch of tourists, most of whom come across as philistines. Watch out for the moment when Cohen's camera gives a gentle rap across the knuckles of people who pull out their cameras while witnessing art.

Annayum Rasoolum:
Here's one more example of why more South Indian cinema needs to be released with English subtitles across the country. This simple-but-effective love story between a lower middle class Muslim boy and a Christian girl deserves to be seen for director Rajeev Ravi's depiction of virgin parts of Kochi with a camera that is manoeuvred around like a fly on the wall.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Good grief

Speaking on the sidelines of the 15th Mumbai International Film Festival, the French filmmaker Leos Carax said that every generation had a responsibility to reinvent cinema. And he didn't mean the adoption of newfangled technology such as 3-D. He meant something more lofty, although he didn't seem sure exactly what it was.

At least the documentaries that were screened would definitely make it to the brave cinematic new world that Carax envisions. Take, for example, The Act of Killing, a genre-busting documentary about the perpetrators of anti-communist killings in the 1960s in Indonesia. Its major strength is that, years after the brutal act, the frail killers unflinchingly proclaim their past "achievements" in front of Joshua Oppenheimer's unassuming camera. One of them even ties a steel wire around his neck and stops short of strangling himself, just to give Oppenheimer a taste of gory verisimilitude.

At the other end of the spectrum is Rithy Panh's alternately deadpan and emotional portrayal of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime. With the help of handmade clay dolls and voice-over narration, Panh conveys the brutality of Pol Pot and his cohorts.

Foremost among the feature films that might tickle Carax's fancy is the Cannes Palme d'Or winner Blue is the Warmest Colour. Adapted from a graphic novel, this French drama about a same-sex relationship between a high-school student and a budding painter kept me pinned to my seat for 180 minutes. Director Abdellatif Kechiche certainly allows his own male fantasies free rein at points, but the rest of the movie is frightfully captivating. The movie gains even more significance because France legalised same-sex marriage this year.

If Cannes is about premieres of big-ticket releases, Berlin is about getting au fait with underground cinema, and Sundance is about showcasing American independent cinema, the Mumbai Film Festival is about something more primal: watching an awful lot of devastatingly beautiful movies. Two hundred movies and documentaries were curated this year. If one theme had to be conjured up to connect most of them, it would be the extent of human endurance. As it is, this year Hollywood has had Sandra Bullock in Gravity and Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips already vying for Oscar success, thanks to their mind-bending performances. At the festival, another Hollywood legend, Robert Redford, 77 years young, showed his awesome sole survivor acting chops in J C Chandor's sophomore feature All is Lost. As a ship captain in Indian Ocean, and without saying more than 300 words throughout the movie, Redford made Robinson Crusoe's travails look like a walk in the park.

Strangely similar is Locke, a Steven Knight film that unfolds over one night in a car that a construction manager, Tom Hardy, is driving, even as he deals with a veritable avalanche of problems while navigating motorways on the outskirts of London. Who could have thought that an SUV could be a resilient weather system for emotions: betrayal, love, comeuppance, dark humour, exorcism of past ghosts, and so on. A comparatively low-key, but equally transfixing, film is Paul Wright's For Those in Peril. An 18-year-old is the sole survivor of a mysterious fishing boat disaster, which pushes him into the realms of deep self-introspection.

However, the standout feature of the festival - and something that seems to fit Carax's idea of "new cinema" - was Tsai Ming-Liang's Stray Dogs. This is a gut-wrenching drama about a man who works as a human billboard for real estate companies in Taipei, and about his two kids. It's so miserable that Victor Hugo might have thought he was overdoing it. It's utterly captivating and disturbing at once; I couldn't help but feel as though I was the movie-viewer analogue of Schrodinger's cat, both looking at the screen and looking away.

Among the disappointments is Jia Zhangke's much-hyped A Touch of Sin. This movie, a story about four rural Chinese characters told in four separate sections, was supposed to be a scathing commentary on today's China. From Bo Xilai to Foxconn to the one-child policy, Jia has tried to put every burning issue into the blender. Sadly, the result is an inedible concoction. Another major disappointment was the universally hailed American indie feature Short Term 12. This mawkish drama about a bunch of depressed adolescents recuperating in a foster care facility left me stone cold. My objection wasn't that the problems of these young adults, including of their guardian, were cliched; it was that they were depicted in a monotonously dolorous manner.

Finally, the biggest shout-out is reserved for the team of the Mumbai Association of Moving Images (MAMI), the organiser of the festival. For all its organisational glitches, cancelled screenings, showocasing foreign cinema without subtitles, chaotic queue management, the MAMI team still deserves a medal. Why? Here's what an IT engineer at the festival told me, "This fest is so good that I'll have withdrawal symptoms at least for a week. It opened a whole new world for me."

Friday, August 02, 2013

The Tyranny of Now

In a recent interview with LA Review of Books the novelist Martin Amis said that more than fiction he is more concerned about the imminent demise of poetry. “It’s very clear that what a poem does is stop the clock: we’re going to examine this moment; enter this epiphany and enjoy it with me. People say, ‘No, I haven’t got time,’” lamented the British man of letters.

If you’re the kind who swears by social media, you’ll probably wake and the first thing you do is retweet couple of intellectuals’ take on the morning’s news, share another couple of memes on Facebook, tweet your take on the news that is unfolding over the day and post links to two disparate news stories of the day. That definitely sounds a bit presumptuous but the point I’m trying to make is that the life of the mind is no longer dwelling at least a little in the past.

Just like the Twitter top trends are dictating what’s going on the newspaper’s page one the next day, slightly unbeknownst to us they’re also dictating our cultural consumption habits. If everyone on Twitter is tweeting about how good, bad, sublime or horrendous Man of Steel is, you wouldn’t want to be stuck in a Twitter echo chamber talking (nee tweeting) about Spring Breakers (by the way, it’s absolutely unmissable). Earlier this week my Twitter timeline had a sustained moment of internal combustion over the second season of Newsroom. Despite my pathological hatred for Aaron Sorkin (if most normal people talk like his characters I’m a retard’s retard) I was in half a mood to watch all of it just so that I can enjoy the tweets of critics and journalists I admire. Spoiler alert: people are hating it militantly. Twitter timeline is increasingly becoming the new watercooler talk and we might as well make peace with it. But we are better off without too much of it.

Jean Paul-Sartre, a philosopher, once said that ‘we are condemned to be free’. When a crime novel with a rigorously mundane title of Cuckoo’s Calling by someone by the name Robert Galbraith hit the book stores no one lost sleep. But when it was revealed that J K Rowling wrote the book under a pseudonym its sales rose a gobsmacking 150,000%. Everyone wanted a slice of the pie called ‘latest Rowling’. With a surfeit of old and not-so-old material available we still keep jonesing hard for the latest ones. We need to be told that it’s okay to listen to a meditative Tom Waits album even though the same amount of time can be allocated to the nouveau EDM scene.

This is why the Amis quote is an instructive sign on where the world is moving towards. A poem is supposed to make our worldview different at least for a fleeting while, even the pronouns and prepositions that we utter under the influence of reading a good poem gain a life of their own, it soothes our  frenetic nerves, it might not tell us that the Royal Baby’s name is George Alexander Louis but it will make us realise that a human mind is supposed to rise above this useless trivia. Why watch new-age cinema when you are yet to see a D W Griffith or Ernst Lubitsch?

Studies say that an average person in 21st century knows at least ten times more than what an average person did in the 20th century. However, whatever really important had been discovered in the 20th century. Thanks to web our brain is crammed with information that is a colossal slab and we are too busy to chisel at it to separate the wheat from the chaff.

This fad to be up to date with everything ridiculously new is spilling onto our social life too. It’s de facto human these days to be genuinely surprised that you didn’t know your school friend, who is on your Facebook list, bought a swanky apartment. The next moment of solitude will be expended to check out this apartment. That conversation ice-breaker between friends separated by distance or proximity ‘what’s up’ is now an open sore and almost rhetorical. Facebook tells you what exactly has been up with this person. I don’t mean that people should stay away from Facebook (you’ll find better luck asking for their right hand) but some sort of restraint is needed. How about treating yourself to binge Facebooking after bingereading Infinite Jest?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Starry-eyed cinema

I don’t exactly know when, but it looks pretty possible that this malignant trend emerged in the mid-eighties. It was Disney-ABC’s At The Movies programme where Gene Siskel and the recently deceased Roger Ebert used to wax and whine eloquently against newly released movies. This being television, they had to encapsulate the movie for which they devised a format that would later destroy the world of movie criticism forever: giving thumbs up, which spawned the Frankenstein’s monster called star ratings.

Rating any form of art on the count of one to five is lazy journalism. Even those who resisted this fell prey to it and that’s why almost every publication in the world has more stars on its pages than the entire solar system together. Barring New Yorker, NYT and a few other publications, all of Western journalism is busy lifting its two thumbs and, if it could, the toes also. In India, only Mint doesn’t do that and neither does this newspaper, which publishes movie reviews intermittently.

My primary grouse with this star rating system is that it kills any scope for a public discourse. These days I meet friends and ask them how that particular movie is and most of them would be like “I would give it three out of five stars”. I don’t blame them if they are reducing cinema to an Ursa Minor because that’s how this beast called movie reviewing seems to function.

That’s why I didn’t join the online mourning of Ebert because unbeknownst to him he killed the art of movie criticism. His predecessors like Pauline Kael, Manny Farber, Andrew Sarris, the Cahiers du Cinema magazine et al championed good, bad and trashy cinema equally by making cogent arguments for and against them. Ebert distilled all of that into a hitchhiking sign language. In every sense of the word, do people even ‘read’ the reviews anymore? Every time I pick up an Anthony Lane review I automatically grow two horns at the end of the piece. His self-effacing, handsome, insightful prose is not to be missed for the garbage called Rotten Tomatoes or an IMDB Rating.

Hindu’s Bhardwaj Rangan ploughs a lonely furrow in India where he tries to make movie criticism as vital as national politics (which in a thinking world it should be) but I wonder if one swallow can make a summer.

When the erstwhile NY Press movie reviewer Armond White railed (for very very good reasons) against most of the popular and money making movies, which would alter their 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes he was yanked from the site. And this man was the New York Film Critics Circle President. This kind of obsession for pip-squeak clean consensus is not good for cinema. If the all-encompassing Internet behaves like a deranged dictator where a voice of dissent could condemn it to a gulag, probably the star-rating needs a relook.