the circle game

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I stumbled upon Joni Mitchell’s music while trawling through playlists on 8tracks, sometime in the second year of college. Listening to ‘A Case of You’ on quiet nights in my room, hushed all restlessness and enveloped the atmosphere in tranquillity. She wrote these simple, melodious songs, and true to her iconic legacy, they still rang true, decades later in the heart of the Facebook generation. Music is the closest thing we have to a time machine; put on a song and you’re instantly transported to a feeling, an identity, a physical place even, years ago, that we thought we had said goodbye to.

Back to college after a hectic winter break, in the last few months of college, my peers and friends are trying to make peace with the vagaries of the last five years and preparing themselves for adulthood. Some are quite sure that these were the best years of their lives; some feel that they’ll probably never recover from the trauma of law school in a dry state. Others are trying to figure out exactly where they stand. As soon-to-be adults and future ex-students, we are trying to understand and begin adulthood by avoiding others’ mistakes. Each of us has consciously begun this process – getting fit, racking up brag-worthy accolades, making that buddy trip to Goa, mending and/or burning bridges. (Or it’s just the third week of the new year and folks are doing a really good job of holding on to their resolutions? Let’s see.)

Everyone is also trying to collect all the good, bad and ugly lessons that half-a-decade stuck in this near-apocalyptic wasteland (which is surely a twisted human experiment in a parallel universe) has taught them. They hope to remember these lessons and apply them with the maturity becoming of a responsible 23 year-old member of the working classes. Also, in their own way, some people are waiting for a catharsis, an epiphany, or just some divine revelation that will make sense of their own personal version of the existential crisis, suffering through which seems to be a rite of passage in college. Unless they have sensibly chosen chasing tail instead of chasing tails. (I am allowed one instance of obscure innuendo per blogpost.)

Meanwhile, i was surprised at how the farewell-goggles hadn’t taken hold of me yet. Probably because i feel about as euphoric as a jailbird nearing the end of her sentence. What the last five years have been to me shall remain described in great detail in my private book of grudges. For now, i think that no matter what my unresolved issues with my college experience may be, as time passes, the regrets will efface, and i will come to remember this place with some warmth, fondness and gratitude. The resentment and bitterness will fade away, and only the recollections of hours spent in solitude or raucous 90s tapori music will remain. Memory is a fascinating, fickle thing, and subsequent events can greatly change our perception of the past.

I think that with time, you just learn to forget the bad parts. Maybe that is what they mean by ‘time heals all wounds’?

not a bibliophile. deal with it.

Reeling from the aftermath of an unsurprisingly terrifying fourth year in law school, i turned to books in the summer vacation of 2015. Reading books, whether they were comforting romances or non-fiction that i plodded through in hopes of “improving my mind”, was a pleasure i had mostly forgotten, since hours of mindlessly watching TV shows and movies on end had reduced my attention span to levels that a two-month old baby could easily exceed. The fact that my house was brimming with relatives and my little cousins used to happily sit on my lap and fart, meant that i was desperate for a distraction.

The books i read in between June and September are not impressive in quality or quantity. This is not a post to show off how well-read I am. I read a lot of crap. I hate people who presume they’re superior or smart because they read a book and won’t shut up about it. I hate the word ‘bibliophile’ (or any word that ends with -phile). That word has been used so much, it has lost its meaning. I’m just glad i read, and i’m simply trying to articulate my experiences. I haven’t written in a long time either. So far, the last year of law school hasn’t been all that different from the last four. While my batchmates’ idea of YOLO is making spontaneous trips, mine is buying nachos, drinking Tang and watching 30 Rock for the fifth time. Crazy, huh? I am bored, and everyone must know that i am bored. So feel free to close this tab and catch up with The Walking Dead or whatever.

Off to an ambitious start, i began with the classic ‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding. While i liked the premise of the book, somehow i lost interest very soon. (Was it the other bright, shiny, colourful apps on the iPad? Was it the fact that i was home for the holidays and stuffing my face with home-made pizza? Guess we’ll never know.) The next was then-bestseller ‘The Girl on the Train’ by Paula Hawkins. Hot on the trail of flawed female protagonists à la Amy Dunne from Gillian Flynn’s ‘Gone Girl’ (plug: see my previous post on the book and the movie), this thriller was lauded for its pace and depiction of the jilted, alcoholic ex-wife who pries too much. I am clearly in the minority here, because i found the book extremely slow for a thriller, since the protagonist spends much of her time simply conjecturing what might have happened, while the plot doesn’t really move forward. I lost my patience with the book soon, and gave up midway.

Now it must be known that ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was the first real novel i ever read, and that has pretty much defined what i now read or watch. So to fill this void of a satisfying romantic comedy, i next decided to read ‘The Zoya Factor’ by Anuja Chauhan, the ad-woman behind the Pepsi, Lays and Kurkure ads that everyone remembers. I had wanted to read this book for ages, and boy, was i entertained! Once i came back to college, i read ‘Those Pricey Thakur Girls’ and ‘The House That BJ Built’ too, lapping them all up in the space of a few hours. I read greedily, following the romantic misadventures of the clueless heroines of these novels, as they sparred with their drool-worthy heroes. What i love about Anuja Chauhan is her grip on North India’s language (see ‘incomepoop’) and customs, her knee-weakening descriptions of the fairytale heroes, and just how nice everyone is. Once in a while, it’s very comforting to read an unpretentious romance which makes you giggle like a twelve year-old girl. There is a very typical, north Indian twang to the English she writes in. Little things struck a chord with me, like the family gathered together to watch award shows on TV with home-made aloo tikki burgers and cold-coffee, the taste of mangoes when cut with an onion-knife, masala Maggi for Sunday breakfast with lots of peas (crying while typing this today), the night-markets in our towns, neighbours who came over for endless cups of tea, marie biscuits and gossip, sitting on the verandah in the winter sun. (Did you notice all my memories are food-related? Yeah.) My favourite was ‘Those Pricey Thakur Girls’, not least because of the swoon-worthy Dylan Singh Shekhawat. Half of my excitement for the Jaipur Literature Fest 2016 is for Stephen Fry, and the other half is for Anuja Chauhan. Can’t wait!

Continuing this streak, David Nicholls’ ‘One Day’ was similarly consumed within three days. Think of this book as a When Harry Met Sally… set in 90s Britain, with excursions to Greece and Paris. The book is funny and endearing, and the dialogue is sparkly and witty. Looking forward to reading ‘Us’ by the same author, which i hear is even better. I didn’t know that Nicholls is also the author of ‘Starter for Ten’, whose film adaptation i quite like. As for ‘One Day’s film adaptation, the same can be safely skipped. Though very pretty-looking, the film lacks the spark and charm of the source novel.

I found myself in Bombay in July, and realised that i really, truly hate the city. I choose Delhi. Yes, you need to get home by 8 PM, but i like open spaces, real north Indian food, the momos and egg-rolls and aloo-tikkis, the greenery, shopping and haggling at Sarojini Nagar, proper winters, the beauty that is the Delhi Metro, and getting my money’s worth. No offence to Bombay-ites, of course. Anyhow, i bought second-hand books at the Flora Fountain market on my last day in Bombay, then shot off to Theobroma’s for cheesecake, and walked to this tiny place called Alps for a beer. (I’m sorry i’m describing food again. I’m very hungry right now.) That day was nice and quiet and one of the best i had in the city.

From the purchases at Flora Fountain, i read Upamanyu Chatterjee’s ‘English, August’ first. The tale of an urban young IAS recruit banished to the small, fictional town of Madna, the only parts of the book that resonated with me were the protagonist’s frustration, disillusionment, displacement and his sole desire to remain indolent. When i read a novel, i like reading about characters i can admire. Sadly, that didn’t happen. Next was Pankaj Mishra’s ‘The Romantics’. Another tale of a young man wishing to find himself on the ghats of Banaras while in the middle of an infatuation with a French woman and student politics, this book seemed to be written solely for foreigners who wanted to read about other foreigners in India. I agree that he writes very well, especially when he describes the scenes and sounds of the holy city, but i didn’t feel invested in whether or not the protagonist really found his true purpose. This book was also dropped halfway through.

Slightly unhappy with these two books, i returned to old comforts; comedian Tina Fey’s hilarious memoir ‘Bossypants’, and the classic ‘Gone With The Wind’. ‘Bossypants’ is too funny to put down for a second, and makes for great re-reads. I love 30 Rock and Liz Lemon, and true to form, Tina Fey is on fire in every line of the book, dispensing advice on how to handle growing up, beauty, family, work and success with a sense of humour and a pinch of salt. Sample this – “Some people say, “Never let them see you cry.” I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.”

I revisited Margaret Mitchell’s gold standard of romances ‘Gone With The Wind’ too. How rich and satisfying is this book? I remember reading this tome and Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’ back-to-back over the course of one set of pre-board exams in class XII, and did not regret scoring miserably in those exams for one second. This magnum opus traces Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler’s story across the American Civil War, and delves deep into the other characters’ lives as well, fleshing them out with rich detail. Scarlett is not a likable character, but she is an admirable one. Rhett Butler is the original man, and men like him are not made anymore. The book has one of the best endings i have read, and you know that it is the right one. It’s just perfect, and everytime i re-read it, i discover a new depth to the characters that i hadn’t noticed before. Hey, there’s a reason this book is a classic, and why its appeal continues over generations.

From my early introduction to O. Henry, Guy de Maupassant, Saki and most notably, Roald Dahl’s short stories, i have admired writers for spinning a memorable tale over just a few pages. So i quite enjoyed Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘Interpreter of Maladies’, a collection of stories about Bengalis living and adapting abroad. I read her other collection of short stories ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ such a long time ago, that i can’t remember it well enough to compare the two. I read ‘The Namesake’ while still in school, so i couldn’t appreciate her writing as much back then. The film based on the novel is poignant and beautiful. There is a serenity to Lahiri’s writing in ‘Interpreter of Maladies’, which belies the emotional turbulence her characters are going through. These stories of struggling to adapt in alien lands while pining for home, are universal, because themes of nostalgia, survival and forging your identity are common to us all.

I haven’t taken to modern authors that well. I guess it’s because i started reading with the classics, and i like novels with well-plotted stories and rich characters. I enjoy good dialogue and sharp writing. Stories where i can relate to a character’s struggle when faced with a dilemma, stay with me long after the book has ended. Understanding how characters think and what drives their actions and reactions to certain events in the story is why i continue reading a story. I want to read about characters i can admire (if not emulate). I want a story that i can carry with me, and revisit that place and time when i read the story first, again and again. This quote by Alan Bennett sums up the pleasures of the written word best:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

… which reinforces my suspicion that literally everything that we do is to find a reflection of ourselves in someone else.

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This is not a date movie.

Gillian Flynn’s bestselling page-turner Gone Girl, adapted by Flynn herself and directed by auteur David Fincher, is sensational, thought-provoking, and above all a damn good thriller. It is to the film’s credit that the 150 minutes-long running time flies by, as you slowly grow more and more convinced never to get married ever.

Rosamund Pike, in a star-making turn features as the eponymous Mrs Amy Elliott Dunne, wife to once-handsome-still-slimy Ben Affleck as Mr Nick Dunne. Despite her British parentage, Pike fits snugly as the NYC born-and-bred, scarily intelligent, beautiful woman who will be her husband’s reckoning. She is at once Hitchcock’s icy blonde who you know is bad news for every man who meets her, and an Agatha Christie-like villain in her precise premeditation. In a phenomenal performance, she goes from sugar-kissed charming heroine to a killer Tarantino would be proud of, what with all that blood spillage. (Whoopsie.) Ben Affleck despite being really good (his snarky smile comes of really good use here) is overshadowed by Pike, as is Neil Patrick Harris. (My favourite moment with Pike and Affleck was when Amy asks Nick to kiss her in front of the cameras, and he knowingly smiles, leans in, and puckers to the air.) And i do hope i see more of Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens who are the other strong female characters populating Nick Dunne’s life.

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Starting out as a tale of a suburban conjugal paradise lost, Mr and Mrs Dunne’s story spirals into a web of mutual lies, deceit and mistrust. Nick and Amy Dunne as a married couple have come to know each other well, too well, and so they play egotistical mind-games to prove their superiority. Barring Amy Dunne’s scheming, murderous, psychopathic inclinations, the film and the book are laden with generous doses of chilling commentary on feminism, courtship and relationships in this decade. Flynn makes brutally honest observations on how men and women approach dating and relationships – in the book’s aftermath, the discussed-to-death phenomenon of Cool Girl. Flynn makes this point, and i agree with her; in the race to be unique, different and individualistic, we’re becoming more generic, more indistinguishable from the next person. “Be who you want to be” they say, but all they mean is “Go become another man’s soulmate.” The Ideal Woman therefore, is beautiful, successful, witty and modern while also a dutiful homemaker and nurturing mother. Does this mean that women’s gender roles have not changed at all? No matter how successful they may be at the workplace, is their ultimate destiny to remain the model housewife Good Housekeeping intended? And all this for an unappreciative husband and the screwed-up institution that is marriage; a scheme that is destined to fail.

Despite these musings, i urge that Amy Dunne is not a heroine. She is not the suffering woman’s saviour. Her vendetta is driven not by a desire to avenge women in general; she is a psychopath, with a history of causing real hurt and damage. The entirety of Gone Girl in no case should be seen as a true portrayal of marriage; i daresay not all marriages end in a faked pregnancy and a murder. Obviously, wronged women cannot fix society with murderous vengeance. That is not justice. That is not feminism, as some readers of the book may come to believe. I agree that the book tends to take a more-than-spiteful and cynical look at how men take their wives for granted, and stereotypes them as constantly on the lookout for their next big f***. But Flynn deserves due credit for sparking debate on the twisted gender roles through the suburban purgatory that Amy creates for her cheating husband. In my humble, uninformed and inconsequential opinion, the fault here, lies with both men and women, for their unrealistic projections of love and marriage. We must live and expect of others as real people, not pop-culture’s ugly mannequins.

P.S. The title of the post is a reference to drama pop queen Taylor Swift’s chart-topping song, which i think is secretly Amy Dunne’s anthem. Every damn lyric fits.

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What is a trip to Bombay without a surreal moviegoing experience?


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Ever since i heard about Deepak Talkies in Bombay, a colonial-era theatre renovated by Matterden Center for Films and Creation and bringing back the charm of black-and-white cinema to present-day audiences, i was quite set on catching a movie there. The dream actually, was to watch Casablanca or Roman Holiday. Nevertheless, when the opportunity to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Best Picture Oscar-nominated Foreign Correspondent (1940) presented itself, i decided to seize it (despite waking up from my customary Saturday sleep-in barely an hour before the show was due to start.) Although i was fifteen minutes late for the movie, the whole experience of watching an ‘old movie’ was worth it.

Foreign Correspondent, one of the first two films the inimitable Master of Suspense made after crossing the pond, was one of his two films to be nominated in the same year for an Academy Award in the Best Picture category, the other being the classic Rebecca. As one of Hitchcock’s first films, his predominant theme (and fear) of a man being accused of a crime he didn’t commit, certain scenes which would inspire Vertigo‘s climactic scenes, and the sexual innuendo in every dialogue exchanged between the romantic leads, all find their origins in this film. Notably, his trademark personal appearance in the film is missing here. While i didn’t find the film too satisfying plot-wise, Hitchcock’s dry yet delicious sense of humour keeps your attention riveted. George Sanders, whose face i remembered from All About Eve, surpasses all his colleagues in his turn as Scott ffolliott (i have not misspelled the name). As you watch Joel McCrea in the lead as a rookie journalist caught in an international conspiracy, you can’t help but wonder the kind of horsepower Humphrey Bogart would’ve brought to the role. The film is littered with the auteur’s typical visual touches, and is interesting if one wishes to trace and identify Hitchcock’s influences.

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What completely mesmerised me, was watching a matinée show, sitting farthest from the screen, feet propped up on the seat in front, right under the projector’s beam, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. For ceremony’s sake, i even put my hand in the projector’s beam, to see its shadow on the screen. My shadow on the big screen! In that sea of humanity, to find an island of peace, to forget your pressing troubles if only for two hours, to feel one with ‘all those wonderful people out there in the dark’, maybe even with those people who must have watched films like this decades ago, is quite something. That is the magic and the charm of a black-and-white film. While watching a film, the entire audience unites in one emotion, together. If that is not a connection, what is?

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Blame this on my tendency to attach overarching, transcendental meaning to superfluous, inconsequential instances, but for some reason, i felt that i could connect this with my overall impression of Bombay. Due to its roots as a major port, the capital of trade, a hub of power, and its colonial roots as a Presidency town, the city is dotted with regal-looking British architecture. With exposed brick, antique balcony grilles and peeling paint, these quaint buildings lend a vintage feel to the city. (Despite our hatred of the Britishers, i think that we Indians really do admire and emulate our pukka sahib rulers, even today.) ‘Retro-hip’ is probably one way i could try to describe the general vibe of the city.

As someone from a small town, in the four short weeks that i spent here, Bombay has been a roller-coaster ride. This is a city that swallows you up ruthlessly, takes you in, and leaves you to figure it out and fend for yourself. Bombay is heady, potent, strange, bewildering, untameable, unyielding and, at least for me, one like none another. Here, extremes coexist, the richest and the poorest man walk together, the old melds seamlessly with the new. An air of desperation, of things moving fast, oh-so-fast, is omnipresent. Big cities have a way of making you feel so grown-up one moment, and so small, so lost in the crowd the next. You are all alone, yet you don’t escape the specie for a single moment.

For me, Bombay is a trippy blur of speeding cars, the tranquil waves of the Arabian Sea flanking a sleepless city, the distinct spit-stained, rusted old metal of the local trains, the skin-permeating stink of fish, the constant honking of vehicles, people jogging with their dogs along Marine Drive on Sunday evenings, the sweet smell of alcohol and tobacco wafting out from one of the many establishments, hawkers selling and yelling their wares, the glitter of trinkets along Colaba Causeway, crowds constantly rushing somewhere, the solo strolls along the cobbled streets of Fort; all seen through black-tinted Lennon glasses.

Just like in a movie theatre, Bombay lets you find yourself in the anonymity of a crowd.

no heaven on earth

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The third and final instalment in Vishal Bharadwaj’s Shakespearean trilogy (after Maqbool, 2004, and Omkara, 2006) is finally here after a long wait and a brilliant trailer, and is the real bang-bang you should be watching this long weekend. (See what i did there?)

Haider, 2014, starring always-dependable character actors Tabu, Kay Kay Menon, Irrfan Khan, and Bharadwaj’s new favourite, Shahid Kapoor, devolves into a spiral of madness, possible incest, gunshots and bloodbath, over two hours. Adapting the Bard’s works into a watchable two-hour motion picture is no easy task, but Bharadwaj does a decent job of it once more, this time with help from the Kashmiri journalist Basharat Peer on his first film project. Aided by his stellar cast, Bharadwaj once again proves why he is one of the most sought-after directors in India.

Far from Denmark, Haider is set instead in 1995 Kashmir, torn apart by civil war, crackdowns in the wee twilight hours, the air rent with gunshots, people living in constant terror. This Kashmir is nothing like the one on your travel and lifestyle channels and magazines. Instead, this is seedy, shady, scary, and far from pristine. The towering snow-capped mountains remain in the background; at the forefront is blood, betrayal, and a pervading sense of unrest and unease. Much is made of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the flagrant human rights violations in Kashmir, and the film does seem to be a mouthpiece for the cause sometimes.This bleak mood serves the film’s purposes very well.

Shahid Kapoor is inspired here, as he transforms from a love-sick, innocent poet to a deranged near-militant, blinded by hatred and his vow to avenge his father’s death. Observe the glint in his eyes, him trying to restrain his madness and get a grip on the situation, as he is rendered helpless in his quest for justice. Bharadwaj extracts a terrific performance from him. With barely any make-up on, Tabu has commanding screen presence. Torn between love and power, her real motivations remain unknown and her intentions misunderstood. Her scenes with Shahid Kapoor explore the play’s Oedipal complex, which is somewhat bold for conservative mass Indian audiences. Kay Kay Menon remains the power-hungry, despicable uncle and homewrecker. Irrfan Khan, doing classic Irrfan Khan, is given quite an entry. Shraddha Kapoor is just about adequate as Haider’s lover Ophelia, but really needs to work on her dialogue delivery. Two actors, subbing for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as Salman and Salman (the Salman Khan fandom really is omnipresent), provide some comic relief in this otherwise moody, bleak movie.

While the first half is devoted to the civil unrest in Kashmir, the second half stays fairly close to the source play. Basharat Peer’s single biggest achievement is weaving the Kashmir conflict with the family tragedy of Hamlet. The first half is thus a searing view of the violence in the Valley, spattered with the blood of the innocent, and the second half is where the film really comes into its own. The trio of Kapoor, Tabu and Menon, give it their all, as the film reaches its explosive climax. Stray observation: in the beginning of the film, Tabu’s character speaking to her schoolchildren about what makes a home, referring subtly to the film’s theme of broken homes. But for all its merits, Haider falters with its meandering pace, the distinct restlessness felt by viewers (in a way, the film takes an hour to reach the first scene of the play), the disjointed screenplay, and the obligatory love-song right when things are about to get interesting. Vishal Dadlani’s brilliant version of ‘Aao Na’ is also unfortunately featured only in the trailer, not the film.

But these are minor complaints, when you’re witnessing a master like Bharadwaj in action. So if you want to be rewarded with a fine moviegoing experience, Haider is a compelling watch that must not be missed!

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