Saturday, 29 March 2008

The Sunday Movie

KK was the one who took me around the narrow alleys near VT Station and the busy side-streets that branch off from Phiroze Shah Mehta Road, pointing out all the good eating joints in the area. KK is no more now, but I can still see him, puffing and panting from the exertion, hauling his overweight form with its prominent pot-belly, negotiating the narrow and crowded streets with youthful aplomb. Thus I came to know that Modern Lunch Home in Gunbow Street served a mouth-watering Chicken Curry and Mocambo was the place to go for Fish Pulav. For Sookha Mutton, it was Bharat and for authentic Karela-Pyaaj, the Sher-e-Punjab. It was important education and invaluable during the fifteen years I spent in Bombay.

KK was my uncle and lived with his family in Chembur. At that time he was a journalist with The Times of India and worked out of the imposing Times building opposite VT station. It was no wonder that KK knew the area like the back of his hand.

At least couple of Sundays in a month, I will unfailingly take a bus from Vile Parle to Chembur in time to be in KK’s flat by 5.30 pm. The attraction was the Sunday movie. KK owned a black and white EC TV which found pride of place in his living room. The whole family were ardent TV viewers, and during week days watched everything from Krishi Darshan at 5.30 pm when transmission started, the Marathi News at 7.30 pm, the English News at 9 pm and all the programmes in between. Those early days of television seem so innocent and wondrous to me now. Only the major metro-s had television of course, so for a country bumpkin like me, coming as I did from faraway Kerala, the television was an object of intense fascination.

The Sunday movie was a serious affair. My aunt would have finished most of the cooking before the start of the movie, save minor chores like garnishing the main dish or making a salad which she would quickly complete during the 20 minutes break for the Marathi News. The entire living room will be made viewer-friendly, with fluffed up pillows on the sofas, comfortable dhurries on the floor, lights dimmed and windows shut to cut out external noise. A few invited neighbours troop in along with their children. The kamwali and her daughter have also stayed back for the special occasion. There is friendly banter all round.

The movie begins. One need not be worried about an unexpected visitor dropping by and spoiling the festivities.

Entire Bombay is watching the Sunday movie.

Photo Courtesy: Novella’s Public Gallery, Picasa Web Albums.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Unsaintly Thoughts

A letter has come from the Rajneesh Ashram, enquiring about a product that the company markets. I am asked to go and make a sales presentation.

I am both thrilled and nervous. The controversial teacher has been making headlines in the Indian newspapers and magazines of late, with his advocacy of sex as a means to spiritual enlightenment. There are reports about the hedonistic lifestyle adopted by his followers and unconfirmed rumours of wild orgies within the confines of the ashram. Bollywood has already made an eager beeline to the doors of the ashram, with celebrities like Vijay Anand and Vinod Khanna sporting the rudraksh and donning the saffron kurta, both considered to be trademarks of a true Rajneesh follower.

The letter is signed by a Ma Yoga P____. In my mind, I imagine an old lady with steel-grey hair tied into a severe bun at the back, peering at me through steel-rimmed spectacles and speaking sternly in a dry, gravelly voice.

Two days later I realise the ethereal creature languidly reclining in the sofa in front of me is far removed from the original mental picture I had of her. This tall, shapely, golden-haired, blue-eyed beauty is a Scandinavian goddess. She welcomes me in a voice of honey-dipped huskiness, offers me an orange drink and flashes a brilliant smile, encouraging me to start my presentation.

I have difficulty breathing.

Half way through the presentation, I am distracted by the thought perhaps she is not wearing any garment of a restraining nature underneath her ochre robe. When she leans forward to look at the samples or reaches out to pick up the brochure, I have glimpses of, what at least in my fevered imagination seems to be, an alluring and endless cleavage.

I continue with my presentation.

Ma Yoga P___ has a sort of guileless self-confidence that comes so naturally to most good-looking people, so when she crosses and uncrosses her long legs that makes her robe ride up her calf, it is with no deliberate intent to tease or to provoke. She is just being herself. She seems to be a genuinely nice person and I warm up to her.

To my surprise, after the official discussion, I find myself discussing Philosophy with her. We talk about J. Krishnamurthy and Acharya Rajneesh and the difference in their respective approaches to the same spiritual issues. She takes me to a huge, impressive library lined with books from wall to wall and asks me to choose a book. I pick up Rajneesh’s treatise on Tao.

On my way back, I dwell on the extreme dualities that can co-exist in the human mind. Sex and Spirituality, for instance.

I am smiling.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

John Walker and the Amber restaurant

John Walker eats the Indian way, breaking a piece of tandoori roti with both hands, dipping it into the Chicken tikka masala and popping it into his mouth with obvious relish.

We are at the famous Amber restaurant off Chowringhee in Calcutta, enjoying a late afternoon lunch. The table is laden with food: apart from the ubiquitous Chicken tikka masala, we have ordered a number of other Amber specialties as well – Fish tikka, Vegetable kadai, Mutton pulav, all to be washed down with some chilled Kingfisher beer.

John is a big eater. Like most Englishmen, he is also very fond of his “curry,” the spicier the better.

John and I are celebrating a big order, won after two days of tough and gruelling negotiations. It is a relaxed, elaborate meal that takes almost two and a half hours. We can afford to dawdle as there are no more appointments for the day. All we have to do is hop into the car and drive to the airport to take a late evening flight to Mumbai.

But while we have been digging into our gargantuan meal, unknown to us, it has been raining heavily and the street outside the restaurant is completely flooded. Perched precariously atop a parked scooter half-submerged in water, our driver shouts at us to take off our shoes and socks and follow him.

Bare-footed, John and I wade into the dirty, knee-deep waters of Waterloo Street and, with our shoes and socks held high above our heads, follow the driver to another, less-flooded side street and clamber into the car.

The road to the airport is one endless traffic jam. The rain has stopped but it has become unbearably humid. We sit in our car, breathing in the diesel fumes spewed out by the Ambassador taxis, trying hard to make ourselves heard amidst the rising cacophony of senseless honking.

We inch forward. John’s lower limbs which had come into contact with the dirty water have started to itch and the skin has become red and blotchy. He is suffering.

Finally, we make it to the airport barely twenty minutes before the scheduled departure of our flight. John rushes to the toilet to scrub down the encrusted dirt and muck from his legs and feet. We run to the check-in desk with our suitcases in tow, panting with the effort.

We need not have bothered. Predictably enough, the Indian Airlines flight is delayed and “is now expected to take off around 11 pm tonight”.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

The Maiden Flight

The company is very strict about travel rules. Juniors are not entitled for air travel, and are allowed to travel only by train. So, from Mumbai (then Bombay), I take the Madras Mail, which takes two full days and a night to reach its destination.

I am supposed to be in Madras (it had not yet been renamed Chennai) for three days. But on the second day, I get an SOS from Bombay asking me to return immediately, by air! Something urgent has come up.

My knees turn to water.

This was the time when Indian Airlines flights used to crash with alarming regularity. In fact, the 1970s had been a decade of horror for the carrier with fatal crashes reported in 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1976 and 1979. A whole generation had grown up seeing pictures of burnt fuselages and charred bodies displayed prominently in the morning newspapers and become passionate converts to the viewpoint that air travel was strictly for those who had a taste for reckless adventure.

I go through check-in and security like a convict approaching the gallows. I am allotted a seat at the very back, close to the toilets and the pantry. With an impending sense of doom, I fasten my seatbelt and try to control my rising panic.

The flight takes off and hardly ten minutes later, we are facing heavy turbulence. The aircraft shudders and seems to plunge down; I am a quaking jelly, looking wildly at all the other passengers who seem to be pretty casual about the terrible fate I am sure is going to befall all of us.

The moment passes, but I refuse to relax and am keenly monitoring the engine sound for any abnormalities that will signal another crisis. Dinner is served, but I can hardly eat anything.

Suddenly from the back, there is a shrill, high-pitched hiss! For the umpteenth time that evening, I jump out of my skin, convinced another great calamity has befallen us, only to find that the noise is caused by hot water being drawn from a faucet by the air-hostess to make coffee!

After what seems like an eternity, the plane lands in Mumbai and I totter out, mentally and physically drained.

It takes me weeks to get over the trauma! :-)

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

The Beatles Fan Club

Every week-end, The Beatles Fan Club meets in our little flat in Vile Parle.

Suresh Baliga is the lead singer and Ram, the lead, or rather the only, guitarist. The rest of the band is a motley crew consisting of Bisque, Moni, Bhoj and a few others including myself.

“In Penny Lane there’s a barber showing photographs...” starts Baliga.

The rest of us cannot sing to save our lives, but what we lack in musical talent we try to make up with some earnest, full-throated singing that gains approving nods from our lead singer, which in turn, urge us on to explore hitherto unconquered peaks of discordance.

Baliga is a short, stocky guy with a thick moustache that lends his face a certain severity. But once you start him on the topic of music, he is a person transformed and a broad smile lights up his countenance.

Baliga is what you might call, a Born Again Beatles fan. Of course he knows all the songs and the lyrics by heart. But he is also an expert in Beatles trivia and have answers to questions like “Which of The Beatles got married first?” or “Which of The Beatles were left-handed?” Baliga knows all the birthdays, the recording dates, the wives, the girlfriends, the inside jokes and more importantly, can translate Liverpudlian slang into common English speech.

We are in awe of him.

In “Penny Lane”, one of the most enchanting of all Beatles’ songs, there is a reference to “a four of fish and finger pies”. With much relish, with miming actions that leave little to the imagination, Baliga holds us in thrall, explaining the sexual allusion behind that particular line.

No. This being a family blog, I shall not be annotating that line for you. You can look it up, if you want, on the Internet.

Meanwhile, Baliga is starting up another song.

It is one of my favorites. It is “Hey Jude”

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Bisque the Collector

Bisque has been a collector all his life.

In college, Bisque for no apparent reason, decided to collect newspapers from various countries. He wrote to all the foreign embassies in New Delhi beseeching them to send him old newspapers in their local language. I guess the housekeeping sections of the various embassies were only too happy to get rid of the junk. Very soon, the packets started arriving: Newspapers in different languages, sizes and shapes filled up his room, which started resembling a ruddiwala’s shop.

Soon, his normally stoic mother became totally fed up with her son’s crazy behavior and when Bisque was out with his friends, sold off the entire sorry lot of old newspapers to a hawker for 46 rupees and that was the end of that story.

But nothing can deter Bisque. He continues to collect with a vengeance. Only the object of his collection changes from time to time. Once it was old Hindi film songs. Then it became old Tamil film songs of the 1940s. Last time I went to his house, there were twenty videotapes of song sequences from Hindi movies of the 1960s acquiring dust and cobwebs, never mind the video recorder conked off three years ago.

But guess what Bisque is collecting these days?

World Cinema.

He started with Hollywood few years ago, with the Clint Eastwood collection, the Paul Newman collection, the Julia Roberts collection and so on. Very soon, he started cross-referencing and started collecting genre-wise: Romance, Action, Thriller, Horror, Comedy etc. Now the crazy coot has awesome looking ring binders with partitions for individual movies where he carefully records details of the main cast and crew, plot summaries downloaded from the net and a unique numbering system that helps him track the movie from the shelves.

Now Bisque is on a spree collecting film classics from all over the world, including Korean, Japanese and Chinese movies. When I last talked to him, including Hollywood movies, he had a collection of over 600 movies!

Bisque is a generous soul. Being a close friend, he allows me to borrow a few movies whenever I visit him. He will carefully note the names of the borrowed titles in his little black book, promptly crossing them off when I return them. Any undue delay in returning the movies and Bisque will start calling and dropping not-so-subtle hints, till you get the message.

I am not complaining.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Cinema: 2

To get back to the “Ingmar Bergman” retrospective.

On three consecutive days, I watch “The Seventh Seal”, “The Silence” and “The Virgin Spring” and feel as if I have been punched in the stomach. I had not seen anything remotely resembling these movies before!

Looking back, what were the factors that created such a deep impression on me? There was, of course, the magical use of light by the two cinematographers: Gunnar Fischer and Sven Nyquist. There was the barely concealed sexual imagery that in a way highlighted the pain and torment the characters were going through. But above all, it was the sheer scope and breadth of the themes that took my breath away, I guess. Themes such as Love, Desire, Religion, Loneliness, and Death.

Another great master the film clubs introduced me to, was Satyajit Ray. But here, being an Indian, it was much easier for me to get into his idiom and look inside the minds of his characters. What fascinated me about Ray’s work was the subtext, this subliminal element that was being played out in the background, when the main action was unfolding in the foreground. This subtext, which could be small, insignificant actions or gestures by the characters themselves, cleverly mixed external sound cues, or even subtle adjustments with the background score, lend the final movie greater depth and visual appeal.

Once I left the cosy, domestic environment of Trivandrum and moved to Bombay, movie-watching had to, necessarily take a back seat. Of course, one still managed to catch the odd screening at NCPA or Nehru Centre, but they were still few and far between.

With the advent of the VCR, one could have the convenience of watching a movie from the comfort of one’s home. But the movies which were available on rent were often the more popular ones, often pirated and need one say, often of very bad quality!

But for a true movie buff, the humble DVD has been a godsend. The visual quality is fantastic and the choice available is mind-boggling. I can walk into my DVD lending library in Chennai and browse the “International” shelves and decide whether to take home a Fellini, Kurosawa, Kieslowski or Almodovar for the week-end.

It is a great feeling.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Cinema: 1

I wanted to become a “great” film director and make classics that endured the test of time. I ended up doing Engineering.

Back in 1970s in Trivandrum, where I grew up as a teenager, they had a very active film club movement going. For a nominal fee, you could get an annual membership and could be assured of at least three to four screenings every month. These film societies vied with each other to bring you, not only the great classics, but contemporary world cinema as well. Periodically, there were theme-based film festivals which were either country-specific or director-specific. So, one month it could be “Indian Panorama,” followed by a “Bergman Retrospective,” couple of months later.

You have to see this movement in the context of the college campus scene those days. Campuses in Kerala were throbbing with raw energy and were hotbeds for creativity and political activism. We spent less time worrying about our examinations and grades (terms like TOEFL and GRE being totally unknown those days) and were more concerned about a war being waged in far away Vietnam. We had little time for our textbooks, but were enchanted by the existentialist dilemmas put forth by writers like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.

It was but natural that the young people of my age whole-heartedly embraced the new cinema movement. I guess it spoke to the rebel in them.

It is in this context I suddenly remember a brilliant movie called “27 Down”. Released in 1974, the movie won critical acclaim as well as reasonable success at the box office. With Rakhee and M.K. Raina essaying lead roles, the movie told the story of a young couple in Bombay trying hard to maintain a relationship, with the city and its inhabitants constantly intruding into their time, privacy and consciousness. 27 Down was shot in black and white and had a lot of street scenes including a few at the VT station during peak hour.

The movie marked the debut of a talented Kashmiri director, called Awtar Krishna Kaul. Sadly enough, it was to remain his last film as well. A few months after the release of the movie, Kaul died in a “drowning accident” off Juhu beach, in Bombay.

As for my romance with the movies, it continues to this day.
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Stepping Sideways... by K. Radhakrishnan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.