Sunday, March 15, 2009

Purpose of solitude

This interview has been published in the New Indian Express

"One-and-half teaspoons of sugar please,” said Siddharth Dhan­vant Shanghvi for the tea that was served. This was a surprise considering that anyone who read his latest book The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay would say he never resorts to half measures. After all, the book pans the page 3 crowd, politicians who subvert the judiciary with impunity, Bollywood culture, and the Shiv Sena. One interesting anomaly is that you will find Mumbai being spelt as Bombay throughout since Shanghvi says: “Bombay, not Mumbai, is at the heart of my book.” Excerpts from the interview.

Samar, the immensely gifted pianist in the book, reaches dizzying heights at a very young age and then stops pursuing his passion. Something similar happens with Rhea too who doesn’t find the urge to continue with pottery. Now you said that Flamingoes is your last book. Should one draw parallel between these fictio­nal lives and yours?

You cannot actually draw a parallel. There was always this conflict between the dicho­tomy of purpose and meaning in my life. All my life I have been confined to solitude, which is non-negotiable, to write books. This was the purpose. However, now I am yearning for a meaning. I find meaning in a walk on Juhu beach, listening to a piece of music, conversations with friends. I want to be true to those things rather than to the public symbols of success. Maybe I will watch the green mould on the wall or make jam at home. That sounds far more cheerful than writing a book for over six years (Flamingoes was started in late 2002 and was completed in late last year).

What do you intend to do now?

I don’t know (laughs). A very close friend of mine who has written screenplays for some really successful films has asked me to help her out. That is one option I am mulling over. As of now, there are many noises in my mind, which I want to get mellowed until I get to hear my own voice.

A politician in the book says that Zaira got killed since she was wearing a backless gown. One sees the Mangalore attacks and can’t help but say that maybe the politician is indeed echoing sentiments of a large populace.

Absolutely. What happened in Mangalore is not anti-women, it is anti-human. You are not only insulting women, you are insulting men also. Such moral regression is unforgivable. During the recent Valentine’s Day, a man got married to a donkey, in Ranchi. His crime: he was seen with a woman. That was absolutely ridiculous.

Karan, the protagonist of the book, leaves Bombay in a fit of revulsion after looking at an impotent judiciary and a burnt Iqbal. Did you feel the same away about Bombay, which formed backdrop for both your books?

I have a love-hate relationship with Bombay. Bombay is all about Bollywood ecology- neon lights and superstar images. However, nowhere else will you find such unexpected kindness from people. During the 2005 floods, people helped each other caring least about identities. It’s completely ironic and absolutely sentimental, and this gives Bombay the edge of jazz when it was still all about the blues. Bombay tells you that humanity might be flawed but resplendent. That’s the reason why I mentioned it as Bombay in the title. You cannot take away what is rightfully mine. As an artist I am claiming ownership on Bombay.

‘A lushly, wildly, imaginative fairy tale.’ This was how LSD (Last Song of Dusk) was described. Flamingoes is anything but that. There are obvious references to Shiv Sena, Jessica Lal, Salman Khan, Fire, the beau monde, M F Hussain and even Lalu Prasad Yadav. Was Flamingoes a conscious departure from LSD?

It’s rather an unconscious departure. Flamingoes is a stronger book compared to LSD. The book is a witness to the times we are living in.

But wasn’t the obvious reference to Jessica Lal and devoting an entire part of the book to the trial a bit of an overdrive?

It might seem like overdrive for you since you are an Indian. However, my friends in other countries who have read the book found the tale very gritty and real.

You have been very actively involved with AIDS. You have written extensively on it for The Chronicle and recently one story, ‘Hello Darling’, was published in AIDS Sutra. How has been your experience?

I am glad you have read Hello Darling. It is more important to me than the two books. I am involved with an international foundation, which has to remain nameless, and I am involved with children with pediatric AIDS. I do creative brainstorming and have recen­tly done an ad campaign that will get broadcast nationally and internationally.

Don’t you think that the page-3 crowd was shown in bad light?

Well, if they think that I have caricatured them then they are flattering themselves. They are exactly the way I have written. The woman who shows the left cheek of the butt is a friend of mine and she also said, “I’ll show it (the reference in the book) to my mom”.

In the book, why are all the characters apart from Adi so pessimistic?

I find optimism very boring. I think bad luck is much more reliable than good luck.

A recommendation:

Fucking Amal: It comes down to individuals if Swedish director Lukas Moodysson is perceived as the most important or notorious director among his peers. Lilya4ever and Together might qualify as his more important movies and F**king Amal is unlike any other Moodysson flick- meditative, something which Wong Kar Wai would have smacked his lips at. Young Elin is the coquettish girl of her school who is secretly admired by Agnes who does not have any friends as such in the quiet town of Amal. Things go on the upswing when Elin chooses to attend to Agnes' birthday party and then Elin asks almost rhetorically 'What is your worst nightmare'? Elin replies herself 'Of spending my entire life here'. That sets the platform for this teenage lesbian drama where, thankfully, for once, sex is not emphasised upon at all. Every scene makes sense in this uplifting story of two girls who do not want to have blinkers on. This is one of those rare teen films which you can watch for the second time.

Mirrors of memories in Chor Bazaar

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi is obsessed with Michael Ondaatje. So much so that he told this reviewer that he read The English Patient 42 times and has pasted a quote of his in the room that might have inspired his

sophomore work The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay — “A novel is a mirror walking down the road”. The novel is witness to the times we are living in, what with the obvious references to the Jessica Lall case, the Page-3 crowd, Shiv Sena, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Salman Khan, depraved politicians and their debauched lives, the 1992 Bombay riots and even the 2005 floods. Sadly, Shanghvi’s work does not have the quality of his earlier The Last Song of Dusk. On the brighter side, it still manages to bear witness to truth.

Karan Seth is a cub photographer for India Chronicle and as part of an assignment he gets to take pictures of Samar, a genius piano pla­yer who stopped playing for reasons best known to himself. The pictures compel Samar to meet Karan. The pianist’s close friend Zaira, a Bollywood actress who is “single-handedly responsible for raising India’s National Mastur­bation Index”, comes in contact with the photographer with whom she instantly clicks (the pun is inadvertent but hard to erase). Karan, however, is ambivalent towards Leo, Samar’s boyfriend, an American writer who is ‘exploring’ India.

In his search for Bombay Fornicator (no, it’s not what you are thinking), Karan lands up in Chor Bazaar and bumps into Rhea, a middle-aged woman who can be anyone’s trophy wife. In this case, of Adi a hedge-fund manager who shuttles between Singapore and Bombay. Karan’s achingly beautiful work brings them together, considering Rhea herself was a precocious talent in pottery who left it voluntarily, and finds traces of herself in Karan. She becomes his eye to explore Bombay and those are the best moments of the book. This episode bears uncanny resemblance to Mohsin Hamid’s sublime Moth Smoke.

Meanwhile, as retribution for spurning the advances of Malik Prasad, son of Chander Prasad, “a top-ticket politician with the Hindu People’s Party”, Zaira (read Jessica Lall) gets shot. What follows is total arm-twisting of the law, thanks to Chander Prasad’s clout, while Samar and Karan continue to fight despite all the witnesses chickening out. How all these lives take irrevocable turns after the incident forms the emotional crux of the book.

Shanghvi is a master storyteller, and that’s evident through the empty spaces left when the characters have nothing to say and the way he modulates the sex part of the book. Where it was organic in Shanghvi’s debut novel, here Rhea wants to be “torn apart”. The way Karan justifies Bombay as his work place and how Karan-Samar’s relationship blooms post Zaira’s death are just a few shining testimonies for Shanghvi’s way with words.

However, there are a few stultifying passages too. “Karan stood with his mouth open wide enough to trap a few flies”. Yeah, right. Thankfully, such pedestrian writing is hardly witnessed. The cynicism that pervades the book reminded this reviewer what Shanghvi told him — “Optimism is boring”. It certainly should be considering this book is so unputdowanable.

A recommendation:
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: Compared to 'All About my Mother' or 'Volver' this 1988-release does not embellish Pedro Almodovar's resume in any which way. However, this is the kind of comedy which was rarely seen in Almodovar's later films. Pepa, a dubbing artiste, is yet to come to grips as to why her lover, also a dubbing artiste, left her. Her lover's wife and son (Antonio Banderas in his early days) are also clueless about his whereabouts. Meanwhile, Pepa's girlfriend is palpitating if she would be implicated in a terror-attack case. Courtesy, her one-night stand with the terrorist whose love-making continues to give her 'goose-pimples'. As the prospective buyer of Pepa's penthouse Banderas and his wife land up. Chaos reigns all over the film and the discerning audience would be treated to loads of chuckles despite it not being suffused with madcap gags.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

World is going to the (slum)dogs

Apart from the four movies that Slumdog Millionaire was able to pip for the ‘Best Picture’ award at the Oscars, a few other films also bit dust owing to this Danny Boyle-directed film for another award that this writer wishes was instituted. The award is worst book-to-film adapation award for the year 2008. The other contenders would have been ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, ‘Blindness’.

Slumdog is as different from its source material, Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup’s ‘Q&A’, as the difference between listening to a song and hearing to it live. While the book is logic-defying it never demands your brain to be placed in pause mode and Slumdog, on the other hand, to quote Salman Rushdie, “piles impossibility upon impossibility”.

The movie kicks off with a boy trying to catch a cricket ball and an aeroplane that whizzes past distracts him. This is a trope that is visible throughout the film that those in slums cannot reach dizzying heights and are condemned to fall. To explode this myth, whenever Danny Boyle’s fascination with absurd wide angles and wipes allows, the protagonist Jamal Malik, a slum-dweller, enters a game show that is a variant of ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’ and thanks to his sheer dumb luck, Jamal ends up pocketing the prize amount.

How the questions are inextricably linked, somehow, to his pulp fiction kind of a life forms the crux of the film. As quiz master Anil Kapoor is menacing and lights up the proceedings in what, otherwise, is a stodgy fare. Some scenes of the movie are repulsive unlike Danny’s sublime ‘Trainspotting’ where Ewan Mc Gregor had to dip himself in the commode. Slumdog is a film made by a foreigner on India for foreigners. Case in point is a young Jamal falling into loads of feces to get Amitabh Bachchan’s autograph. This is supposed to be a shining testimony for the Indians’ deference towards their matinee idols. Danny does pander to some other firangi notions about India too like Taj Mahal, children begging on roads, nubiles turning into nautch girls, third degree police torture and, of course, the song-and-dance routine.

As a matter of fact, the movie does give some amazing chills too. That scene where a young Jamal escapes before his eyes are gouged in order to make him fit for a begging job is something that only Danny could have pulled off. Performances wise Dev Patel is unconvincing as Jamal Malik and is far cry from Swarup’s Ram Mohammad Thomas. He sleepwalks through his role. Freida Pinto as Latika, the childhood sweetheart of Jamal, is definitely over-rated. Her chemistry with Dev Patel is such that heating up a cup of coffee will be a huge task.

The moment you come out of the theatre a couple of Rahman’s numbers (‘Ringa, Ringa’ and ‘Jai Ho’) will stay with you and that’s it. The much-talked-about musical at the end is something Ram Gopal Varma pulled off in Rangeela in similar settings. That was 12 years ago.

If you are really game for some gut-wrenching drama about kids in slums, watch a Romanian film called ‘Underground Children’. Slumdog is a picnic if these two movies are to be compared.

Some recommendations:

Into the Wild: Whoever has heard the original soundtrack prior to watching this Sean Penn-directed movie will know that Eddie Vedder is almost giving a nutshell plot of what to expect while watching the film.
"Society you are a crazy breed; hope you are not lonely without me"
After passing out from college Chris McCandless (a fabulous Emile Hirsch) realises that job is a "20th century invention" and starts craving for "absolute freedom" which he will find when he goes, yes, "into the wild". The poster shows Emile sitting on top of a bus christened as "magic box".
Adapted from Jon Krakauer's book of the same name this is a real-life story. Sean Penn manages to be faithful to the book and, consequently, the viewer is privy to Emile's sojourn to Alaska. His brief encounters with a hippie couple, 16-year-old singer, a farmer and a geriatric who wants to adapt him suffuse the narrative with poignant moments. Some scenes are, however, in critic parlance, a strain on credulity. However, the denouement is sure to leave a giant-size lump in every viewer's mouth.