Sunday, 27 April 2008

Hollywood Magic

Unbeknownst to the wife, I have loved several women, the tragedy of course being the love was unbeknownst not only to the wife but also to the women concerned.

Rene Russo is one of them. Uma Thurman is another.

If you were to sit up and ask, “Rene who?” no, I will not be offended or surprised, for you are only proving the point I am about to make. This beautiful and talented lady is one of the most underrated and underutilised actresses in Hollywood today. One of the reasons could be that after being a top model for a number of years, she came into films when she was past 35. The other reason could be that she is married to the same man for the past 16 years and may not have given much grist to the gossip mill unlike so many other leading ladies of her time.

To the uninitiated, some necessary filmography: Lethal Weapon 3, Lethal Weapon 4, Outbreak and Ransom, opposite Mel Gibson.

I may have not perhaps mentioned in these posts, but I am a huge fan of Clint Eastwood, right from his “A Fistful of Dollars” days. In my pantheon of Hollywood Greats, old Mr. Squinty is right up there, somewhere close to the very top. And there is one movie where Rene Russo and Clint Eastwood come together and this is the movie I want you to see. It’s called “In the Line of Fire” (ITLOF).

ITLOF is a predictable but well-made thriller where Eastwood plays a veteran Secret Service agent. Russo is his FBI associate and the duo race against time to foil an assassination attempt on the US President. Predictable stuff indeed, but Russo imbues what could have been a typical Eastwood-sidekick-and-love-interest role with a certain luminous charm and gives the character a solid veneer of professionalism and reliability.

What really works for me in ITLOF is the on-screen chemistry between Russo and Eastwood which doesn’t exactly boil over but sizzles quietly in the background. My favourite scene is the one where the duo is having ice cream with the sun setting over the Washington monument. Eastwood says something particularly annoying and misogynistic and Russo asks him ever so sweetly: “Do you really have to try to be obnoxious or is it a gift?”

“It’s a gift,” says Eastwood, a smile crinkling the corners of his eyes.

Photo Courtesy: Chuang’s Public Gallery, Picasa Web Albums

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

The Mumbai Local

Travelling in overcrowded suburban trains of Bombay forces you to learn many skills. Reading a broadsheet newspaper such as The Times of India holding onto an overhead strap with one hand in a swaying train compartment where people are packed in like sardines, is one of them.

There is a certain time-tested method of doing this and like all skills, can be elevated to the realm of fine art with constant practice.

The trick is to go against the natural cross fold of the newspaper and fold it vertically in the middle. Run your thumbs pressed together along the vertical fold and make a knife-edge crease. Read the front page one half at a time. Now, fold the right half of the front-page backwards so that the left side of Page 2 and the right side of Page 3 are exposed. Read them. Now fold the entire paper inside out, so that...

I know I am losing you, but you get the drift. When you consider that you have to undertake these dextrous moves making sure you don’t elbow the guy on your right in the ribs and at the same time stay balanced so that you don’t sway into the guy on your left, you will have a general idea about the complexity involved.

Doing the crossword doubles the complexity because you have a new factor here which is the pen. Your left hand is holding onto the overhead strap and your right hand is holding both the newspaper and the pen and to fill in 8 Across or 17 Down you have to momentarily let go of the overhead strap and this is a moment fraught with more tension than the climax of a Hitchcock movie.

Once you have mastered the broadsheet and the crossword, reading the tabloid on the return journey home, is far less complex. Same way, once the tabloid has been conquered, reading a magazine or a paperback in such crowded spaces becomes a piece of cake. I remember reading the four books that constitute the famed Alexandria Quartet of Lawrence Durrell, in conditions of aforementioned intimacy.

These days I have far more time than I ever had had in Bombay and I hardly read anything.

There is a lesson in it somewhere waiting to be learned.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

A trip to London

With much prodding and pushing from Herman and Bernadette, I go on a weekend trip to London. The tourist coach is full of foreign college students studying in Paris. They are extremely friendly, but there is a problem: They cannot speak English and I cannot speak French. We manage to communicate though, using a combination of nods, hand signs, head shakes, and smiles.

We get to Calais and take a ferry. As you approach the coast of England, you can see the awesome white cliffs of Dover. Suddenly, I remember Mathew Arnold and his poem “Dover Beach” and think fondly of my father, the English professor, who had never been to the land of his favourite poets and dramatists.

We are staying in a hotel near Gloucester Road and I find myself sharing a very large room with two Algerian girls and a Mexican boy called Filiberto. We quickly become friends and over a cup of coffee, they anoint me as the de facto leader of the small group, the overriding qualification for the post being of course, a working knowledge of English.

So we do the London tour bit: Hopping on and off open top buses, we feed the pigeons at the Trafalgar Square, gape at the graceful contours of St. Paul's Cathedral, admire the Big Ben and complain bitterly about the exorbitant entrance fees at Madame Tussauds. By evening, we are thoroughly exhausted and decide on an early dinner. Rather selfishly, I suggest Indian and, to my surprise, everyone agrees.

It is my first Indian meal after three weeks and I have tears in my eyes at the end of the feast.

The meal revives our spirits and the girls suggest we go to a night club. Both Filiberto and I are a bit apprehensive but the girls are full of enthusiasm and drag us along. It turns out to be a frenetic but a thoroughly enjoyable experience, even though we run out of money after three rounds of drinks. A bunch of giggling English girls who have smuggled in gin cocktails in quarter bottles share their booty with us and a good time is had by all.

The next day we visit Windsor Castle. I do not remember much of that visit; I am sure, neither do my three friends of the previous night.

We were quietly nursing our king-size hangovers.
Photo Courtesy:

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Paris Diary: 3

There is much about that spring in Paris that I have forgotten, but a few memories remain.

I am sitting in a sidewalk cafe, at peace with myself, watching the world go by. Across the river, I can see the graceful Notre-Dame cathedral, silhouetted against the evening light.

After coming to Paris, I have fallen in love with the wayside café which for the French is not just a place to eat, but also a centre for socialising, relaxation and even rumination. If people-watching is your hobby, hours can be spent just watching various parallel universes revealing themselves all around your table: men in business attire unwinding with a glass of wine before going home; young couples kissing or holding hands oblivious to the world around them; matrons with dogs in tow; old men in chequered caps reading the newspaper or staring emptily into space. For a gifted writer, I think to myself, every table can be the beginning of a story.

On my way back to the hotel, at a newsagents’, I see a stark black and white billboard with three words: Sartre est mort. Sartre is dead. With a mild sense of déjà-vu, I recall reading how the French intellectuals of the post-war era, Jean-Paul Sartre included, were hosted and celebrated by the well-known cafés of Paris of that time, some of which exist even today.

A few days later, Sartre’s funeral is attended by over 20,000 mourners.

I do not go, not knowing where exactly the funeral was taking place. I feel inhibited going alone.

I wish I had gone.

Photo Courtesy: Emilia. Paris. Picasa Web Albums

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Paris Diary: 2

One week into my stay in Paris, I meet up with a group of Indian students. Most of them are pursuing post-graduation in Cité Universitaire. They are a helpful lot and especially one of them, Shaji, takes me under his wing. Both of us have studied more or less at the same time in Trivandrum, though we never knew each other then.

Shaji works the night shift in a hotel near La Madeleine. It is a small hotel, Shaji warns me, but, breakfast included, costs only FF 84 per night, whereas I am paying almost three times that in my present hotel. Shaji urges me to shift and I readily agree, the attraction being of course that I will have company in the evening.

What Shaji conveniently forgets to mention is that the hotel is used by streetwalkers to turn short-time tricks and also by amorous couples for illicit liaisons, not that I would have changed my mind even if he had warned me earlier.

So I shift hotels the second week. It is good fun because by the time I come back from work, Shaji will be behind the reception counter. He would have brought with him a small plastic bag which contained stuff for our dinner, mostly the long loaves of the French baguette, sausages and a few cans of beer. There was a pantry behind the reception and we would reminisce about Trivandrum and cook dinner and talk well past midnight, when I will reluctantly, turn myself in for the night. Shaji will try to catch some sleep in a small room adjacent the pantry and would be off to his hostel by 6 am.

Normally the action started after 9 pm. The “working girls” were easy to spot with their heavy make-up and high boots. While the customer pretended to look elsewhere, the girl walked up to the reception and chatted with Shaji. Money will change hands and Shaji will push the key across. Half an hour later, the couple came down the lift and the girl will hand over the keys, again making friendly small talk. It was all very civilised and done with a lot of, what the French call, savoir-faire.

Shaji had an understanding with the owner of the hotel: He could rent out a room two or three times a night and the Patron did not mind, as long as he got one night’s rent.

This was the Patron’s way of letting a struggling Indian student make some extra money.
Photo Courtesy: Emilia. Paris. Picasa Web Albums

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Paris Diary: 1

My idea of exploring a city is to throw the guide book away and wander aimlessly. While this method can have disastrous consequences when exploring an Indian city, it works for me every time I am in Europe. In the case of Paris, wandering aimlessly can yield surprisingly delightful results, as every unplanned detour or every unexpected turn of the street has literally the ability to stop you dead in your tracks, such being the aesthetic riches the city has to offer.

Such serendipity brings me one late evening to the Place Vendôme, after all the shops are shut and the beautiful square is lit only by the streetlights. I remember standing there for a very long time, completely overwhelmed by the architectural grandeur on display and the serenity that seem to prevail all around.

To start from the beginning...

I land in Paris on a bright spring afternoon. It is a Sunday and the taxi takes me through deserted streets to my hotel, near the Latin Quarter.

A letter awaits me at the hotel. It is from Herman, the person who will be my trainer for the next four weeks. Herman, writing in an elaborate cursive, welcomes me to Paris; gives clear, precise directions how to reach La Défense, the major business district of Paris where our office is located; apologises for the sorry state of the Metro. Apparently, the sanitation workers of the Metro are on strike and it is in bit of a mess.

Used as I am to the suburban stations and trains of Bombay, I can hardly find anything seriously wrong with the famed underground rail system of Paris. True, the trash cans are overflowing and there are scraps of garbage here and there, but I travel in air-conditioned comfort and the morning rush hour hardly holds any terrors for a battle-scarred commuting veteran from Bombay.

Herman is a tall, jovial man in his fifties. Bernadette, his assistant, is younger, but equally friendly. The couple go out of the way to make me feel at home that first day, showing me how to operate the coffee maker, where to find the cafeteria, and how to work the buffet during lunch time. As the days go by, they become really close and start advising me how to see little bits of Paris every day and what to do (or, not to do, according to Bernadette, clucking like a mother hen) during the weekends.

Thus begins my obsession with a city which I keep revisiting in my imagination even today.
Photo Courtesy: Neil - Vacances d’automne. Picasa Web Albums

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Listeners' Choice

Vividh Bharati, the commercial service of All India Radio, turned fifty this year.

As part of their Golden Jubilee celebrations, Vividh Bharati is now airing a very interesting programme where listeners write in, describing how a certain Hindi film song which they heard on radio at a certain critical moment in their lives, had a deep and lasting impact on them. Most are simple but poignant tales where a song reminds someone of an old friend, a parent, or spouse who is no more. For others, they bring back the carefree days of campus life. Some talk about how a particular song rescued them from the depths of depression or even, suicide. For some, a song provided the inspiration for a new beginning or a new outlook on life.

This may all sound a bit trite and self-serving to you if you have not heard this programme. Interspersed as it is with songs requested for by the listeners, the whole show is hosted by a man/woman team, who read aloud the letters with no small amount of empathy, adding their own comments or observations at the end. What amazes me is that these letters are not just from the Hindi heartland as you would normally expect, but from all over India, from places as far apart as Ambala, Guwahati and Vijayawada.

I listen to the programme whenever I can for two reasons: one, they mostly play melodious songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s which I love; two, some of these songs which I have been listening to since childhood, unleash in me by virtue of their association, a strong sense of nostalgia.

Recently, they played the Mukesh song “O mehbooba, O mehbooba” from the movie Sangam. Suddenly, a mental search engine starts working overtime and within a few seconds throws up myriad ‘pages’: Raj Kapoor movie; 1964 release; music by Shankar Jaikishan; you saw this movie for the first time in Alankar Cinema in Bangalore; you sang this song in a music competition in Class 5 with such disastrous results that you never dared to sing in public again...

I think you should tune in. Who knows, you may catch them reading my letter one of these days.
And that should definitely change your life forever! :-)

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

The Dance of Shiva

With his piercing eyes and restless pacing, Digamber reminds you of a tiger on the prowl. We are at his apartment in Andheri. Digamber is smoking a joint and the room is hazy with smoke. The sickly sweet aroma of marijuana is all pervading. An expensive Nikon camera body and couple of telephoto lenses are on a sofa.

In between puffs, Digamber sips from a bottle of cough syrup. He is really high now and starts talking incessantly. It is often a monologue about spirituality, philosophy, music, cinema, books and anything else that comes to his mind. Not everyone listens. Ram fiddles with the camera and lenses. Bisque is listening to some music in his Walkman, his eyes closed. Bhoj wanders into the kitchen and after a few minutes, the aroma of freshly-made South Indian coffee wafts across the room.

Today I am Digamber’s only listener.

Digamber narrates to me a scene from a screenplay he has been writing for the past year or so. It is a funny scene where a policeman comes out of a village toddy shop in Kerala and with casual cruelty, kicks a stray dog sleeping peacefully outside.

Digamber flies for Air India. He has long ago got tired of his job and these days, often reports sick. He is an MA in Philosophy and after passing out of college, sat for the entrance examinations of all the premier management schools in India with absolutely no intention of joining in case he was selected. He got selected by all and he rejected them with utter glee. It was an ego thing, he says.

Digamber can talk well and has the ability to transfix you with his erudition and intensity. He is also a bit naive and child-like in so many ways and we are all rather protective of him.

One day, Digamber disappears and we have no news of him for several days. Finally through the Police, we trace him to a hospital far away. Apparently, in a kind of drug-induced delirium, he imagined himself as Shiva doing the thandav and started directing traffic near the Holy Cross Church, when the police had found him and sent him to the hospital.

We get him discharged from the hospital. Bhoj and his brother stay with him and nurse him back to health.
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Stepping Sideways... by K. Radhakrishnan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.