Monthly Archives: May 2010

Movie Recs: Angadi Theru

This is not a movie for the fainthearted. Angadi Theru is disturbing in parts, heartbreaking in others and  often deeply depressing. But it’s also genuinely funny, unexpectedly touching, and in the end, an ode to the resilience of human beings. That makes this more than just another despondent tough-luck movie, or another preachy testament to how crappy the world can be to the impoverished. That makes this an incredibly realistic, hard-hitting and ultimately, very powerful movie. As someone who has frequently thrown up her hands in despair over the current state of Tamil cinema, I have to applaud director Vasantha Balan for this effort.

Angadi Theru essentially tells the story of Jothilingam (new comer Mahesh… not bad, but not spectacular either), a young man who comes from a village in the Thirunelveli District. He’s come first in his school in 12th standard — he’s a bright boy and his father has big dreams of his son going to college and escaping the sort of life of drudgery he’s lead himself. But when the father dies in an awful road accident (one of the many times this movie will make the more sensitive in the audience flinch and want to cover their eyes), the young man has to give up plans of college and provide for his two young sisters and his mother instead. Enter the guys from Senthil Murugan Stores, who’re hiring young men and women to work for them in Chennai, and our hero and his tubby, goofy friend (who serves to provide wonderful — and much needed — comic relief) find themselves transported from their idyllic village to the chaotic mass of humanity that is Ranganathan Street, T.Nagar.

Now Senthil Murugan stores is quite obviously a thinly-veiled reference to Saravana Stores (right down to its ads featuring actress Sneha and its owner being mired in court cases and such). And what makes the following chunk of the film fascinating is that it gives you a behind-the-scenes look at the way such stores treat their employees. In a chilling scene, we’re shown how these men and women are chosen carefully based on how hard up they are for cash and how dependent their family is on them for income, and then we see through Jothilingam’s eyes the almost dehumanising conditions in which they have to live and eat in, and the sort of taskmasters they have to deal with on the shop floor.

At this stage, you’re totally prepared for the movie to become a horrific tale of cruelty and suffering, with some preaching thrown in about big, bad, mean businessmen and all of that. But Angadi… surprises you by introducing relationships and friendships and laughter instead, showing indirectly how Jothilingam and his friend learn to adjust, to settle into even so oppressive a life in the way only, perhaps, the young  can. Yes, there is the love angle (yeah, I rolled my eyes too) as our hero falls in love in Kani (played with pleasing simplicity by Anjali), a spirited young sales girl on the third floor (the much-coveted a/c floor). There’s the usual hate-at-first-sight turning to love theme, but the movie does a good job of crafting a convincing relationship thereafter. It begins as plain infatuation, but becomes something much deeper; there are no empty declarations or artificially constructed misunderstandings, just a genuine growth in regard and dependence on one another in a difficult and uncertain world.

The other thing this movie gets wonderfully right is capturing both the atmosphere and the spirit of Ranganathan Street, from its mega stores down to the guy who sells underwear on the sidewalk, and everything in between. This is done using sweeping shots of the sort of suffocating, wall-to-wall crowds one sees there and more importantly, through funny or touching little vignettes of the people eking out a living on the street day-in and day-out (like the guy who becomes downright wealthy by keeping a roadside toilet there clean!). We get to know the hawkers and beggars and streetwalkers who are an often invisible part of Ranganathan street’s bustling ecosystem, their everyday triumphs and tribulations, and glimpses of their back stories. And more than anything, is shows how their lives are often just a hairsbreadth away from tragedy, how when you live on the streets, you have virtually no buffer against disaster. No insurance, no safety nets.

What the movie gets wrong, perhaps, is its length — it tends to sag a bit towards the middle, and could have been tightened by reducing some of the time spent on side romances of Jothilingam and Kani’s coworkers and such. And there are times when it all gets almost too depressing. But just when you think the movie is going to crash land into a morass of melancholy and melodrama, it surprises you yet again by being amazingly real and showing remarkable spirit. That in the end, makes the ride down Angadi Theru seem worth every minute.

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Book launch: Capt. Gopinath’s ‘Simply Fly: A Deccan Odyssey’

It was part rousing motivational speech, part long-winded discourse on the Indian aviation scene, part anecdotes of soul-baring honesty, and part exhaustive dissections of Air Deccan’s past and Deccan 360’s future.

The launch of Captain Gopinath’s heartfelt autobiography, Simply Fly: A Deccan Odyssey, at Landmark recently had its share of ups and downs — much like the author’s own chequered career — but it did serve to underline the amazing connect Gopinath and his story of entrepreneurial glory has with the public at large. Absolutely packed with a cross-section of people, from young students and budding entrepreneurs to old-timers from the aviation industry and the book launch regulars, the launch went on for well over an hour, with the questions coming in an endless stream and a large section staying behind for autographs after.

Gopinath, dressed casually in jeans and a shirt, engaged the audience right from the start, ditching the stodgy desk set up for him to come as far forward as he could (his feet were half off the stage) and talk directly to them. No reading from the book for this maverick.

“I have deliberately written this book as a story — my story and the story of Air Deccan, but also the story of New India, of the India of possibilities,” he said. “This is not a how-to book or a book on Indian aviation — it’s about following you dreams, having a zest for life, about not giving up in the face of overwhelming odds.”

A straightforwardly written, engaging read, the book chronicles Gopinath’s childhood in the little village of Gorur, his experiences as an officer in the Indian army, his days of dabbling in farming, and, of course, his launch of India’s first low-cost airline, Air Deccan.

“Whenever I went to give talks at schools and colleges, people always wanted to know — how did you build an airline after leaving the army with just Rs. 6,500?” he said during a chat afterward. “So, I decided to tell my story. I especially wanted to reach young people who can get disillusioned easily in today’s world.”

That was a recurring theme during the talk — having ‘inextinguishable optimism’ about our country, and ‘perennial enthusiasm’ for trying to make a difference. “We’re all concerned about the state of affairs in this country today, but we need to stay engaged. Cynicism is suicide,” he said earnestly. “My naïve optimism sometimes got me into trouble, but it also got me out of it.”

He may have been given to platitudes (“never give up”, “find happiness in the small things”) and the overuse of inspirational quotes (Gandhi, Napoleon, Einstein…), but it all still carried conviction because of his very enthusiasm, and his anecdotes — how, for instance, he refused to pay bribes for his licenses to start Deccan, but still got them through dogged determination. Or, how he stood for the Lok Sabha elections as an independent in 2009 because of the corruption in our existing political parties.

Things, however, got a little hairy during the long Q and A session that followed, as audience members tended towards long, rambling anecdotes of their own experiences with aviation (“Is there a question?” Gopinath had to ask a couple of times) or highly specific questions on his new undertaking, Deccan 360, or on issues in aviation including, at one point, fuel tax (“Maybe we should get back to the book,” he said, a shade desperately.)

Inspiring moments did come as youngsters asked about taking the entrepreneurial leap, or being afraid of making mistakes (“only when you make mistakes do you create something — wanting to be perfect is a disease”). The detailed dissection of Gopinath’s decision to sell Air Deccan to Vijay Mallya had its moments too, as his honest, tinged-with-regret appraisal gave the audience insight into the high-stakes world of decision-making.

In spite of its duller moments, the launch was, like the book itself, a touchingly idealistic call to action. As Gopinath put it: “An indifferent citizen is worse than the most corrupt politician.”

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Interview with… Ramesh Krishnan

Pic: R. Raghu

Ramesh Krishnan doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t play tennis. Literally.

“I’ve been around tennis courts with a racquet in hand for as long as I can remember,” he laughs. “There was a clay court in our garden, where my father learnt to play, and I’m sure I came out there as a toddler and hit some balls!”

It came from being part of a large tennis-loving family, he says, where there was almost always a tennis game on, and never a dearth of players.

“My grandfather T.K. Ramanathan was very keen on tennis and he made sure we all played,” Ramesh recalls. “Even back in the Sixties, the ladies in our family — my aunt and my mother — used to play, and there was always someone to play with. Our whole lives revolved around a tennis court.”

Of course, it went without saying that the toddler who played in the backyard would eventually follow in the footsteps of his father, tennis legend Ramanathan Krishnan.

“It was my grandfather’s dream, and I never really gave any other career a thought,” he says simply. “By the time I was in high school, I was representing India in the Davis Cup, so my education was geared towards that. I don’t know what I would have ventured into if not tennis!”

And follow he did, chalking up a stellar career in juniors just like his father — he was ranked No. 1 in the world and won both the junior Wimbledon and French Open titles — and then building a solid career on the main tour (he was ranked as high as No. 23 in the world), featuring in some memorable matches at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and, of course, in the Davis Cup.

“The Davis Cup matches always stand out — we reached the final in 1987 and the semi-final in 1993. And, reaching the quarter-finals at the U.S. Open [1981 and 1987] and Wimbledon [1986] is something I look back fondly on,” he says. “Both the Davis Cup and Wimbledon always meant a little extra to me.”

In a career spanning three decades (1977 to 1993), he won a reputation not only for having a beautiful game, all amazing angles and volleys, but also for being a gentleman on and off the court.

“The bulk of players from India were well behaved — I think our society demands that,” he says, deflecting the compliment in his unassuming way. “You were expected to carry yourself a certain way in public.”

When it came time to retire in 1993, Ramesh was quite content to hang up his racquet , professionally speaking. It gave him more time to focus on that other core passion of his life — family.

“My children had started school and they couldn’t travel with me as much,” he says. “Suddenly I wasn’t that excited anymore about boarding a plane and travelling leaving my family behind.”

Fittingly, his family remains tennis-crazy, with both his daughters, Gayatri and Nandita, playing tennis, first in juniors’ tournaments, and now for their respective universities in the U.S.

Travelling with his daughters to juniors’ tournaments as his parents did with him decades ago, Ramesh had come full circle — and discovered it wasn’t easy. “There were times when Gayatri was playing and I knew her opponent was not being fair to her, but I had to detach myself — it’s a whole new experience as a parent,” he says ruefully. “It’s like being on the rollercoaster all over again… but, this time, I had no control over what was happening!”

Today, sitting in the garden that once housed the clay court he played on, Ramesh exudes calm contentment. His days are spent caring for the Krishnan Tennis Centre (“a place to come play tennis and get some exercise”), the Indane Gas supply service his father started in 1963 (“he played in the amateur era and needed a livelihood”) and his daughters (“helping them achieve what they want to.”)

He still plays tennis socially almost every day of the week, but says his role in the future of Indian tennis is just that of ‘cheerleader’ — “I’m happy to root for people who’re doing well,” he smiles.

Tennis has been his life and his education, and that, for Ramesh, is enough: “It gave me a chance to grow as a person. I’ve had all these amazing experiences, and I have tennis to thank for it,” he says.

Box:

Pitted against the best: I consider Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras the most outstanding players I ever faced – Borg in the early part of my career in the 70s, and Sampras towards the end of my career in the 90s, just as he was starting out.

Toughest opponent: I always found Ivan Lendl very tough to play. His style of play just didn’t suit me – I couldn’t serve big enough to unsettle him and he was a bit too overpowering. He was a nightmare for many players to face, and I was one of them!

On gentlemanly conduct: I think it depends on your upbringing. John McEnroe was from New York and he had a little bit of New York in him. I think we in India certainly wouldn’t have looked kindly upon that kind of behaviour!

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Kadais (Part II): Thalapakattu Biriyani and Men’s Beauty Parlours

See, I’d planned to do a second piece on theyil kadais in the city (a sorta sequel to this one) but then I came across some irresistible signboards on a couple of other kadais meanwhile, and the series took a bit of a detour. Here goes 🙂

‘Executive Package’. Written in neat white font on a dark blue signboard put up high on a drab, office-type building in Adyar (I don’t what it is about Adyar and awesome signage… first the iconic ‘Hotel Runs’, apparently now an unofficial tourist destination, the safari kadai and now this), the sign reeks of officialdom. Taking in the name and the style of presentation, one immediately assumes, naturally, that this is a corporate courier company of some sort. Like, you know, ‘we deliver your top secretest documents anywhere anytime’ and all that. But one would be dead wrong. Because right below, in the same super serious and businesslike font, are the words ‘Exclusive Men’s Beauty Parlour’.

The ingenuity is remarkable. Think about it. This humble sign is attempting to do the impossible — appeal to both your average stick-in-the-mud executive and your with-it metrosexual at the same time. The businesslike title and signage should reassure the middle-aged executive who wouldn’t, for instance, be caught dead going into one of those super stylish, house-music-pumping, unisex salons frequented by ‘The Youth’ (with the images of scarily hip-looking men and women with spiky purple hair out front). At the same time, the discrete ‘Men’s Beauty Parlour’ at the bottom should effectively draw in the blossoming middle-class metrosexual who believes unabashedly in the notion of male beauty and therefore in visiting its Mecca, the male beauty parlour, facials, foot scrubs and all.

This is a place, one feels, where sufficiently serious-minded young men in neat tailored trousers and full-sleeved white shirts (with starched collars, of course) will give you fabulous manicures with business-like efficiency, where a tea boy will serve you hot tea/kaapi with Marie biscuits as you wait and you have plenty of peons to sweep up or wash your hair rapidly before styling. It’s truly a breakthrough in marketing the concept of the ‘male beauty parlour’ to the fuddy-duddy crowd.

Ingenious kadai no. 2 is a biriyani place I passed by on ECR the other day. At first glance, its sign looked much the same as that of any other Thalapakattu Biriyani joint in the city, except that it seemed a little more crowded (hardly enough space for the customary headgear (thalapakattu) drawing). That’s when I realised this is a two-for-one sign, with the bottom half — in bold orange– proclaiming proudly that this is also ‘Gayathri Travels’.

Of course, I immediately began to imagine a neatly dressed travel agent in glasses sitting behind a computer, politely making bookings for a three-day package to Singapore (“There is one beginning on June 16… shall I pencil you in? I can get you an excellent deal”), flanked on either side by huge, steaming biryani pots being stirred by big, sweaty men in lungis and baniyans (handle bar mustaches are optional). This is one travel agent’s office where delays are no issue; you can just shovel in freshly made biriyani as you wait.

This delicious picture was mildly ruined by my husband informing me that this isn’t that sort of travels place, but merely a sort of glorified bus depot with benefits. As in, you can purchase tickets for various tour bus companies here, and their buses stop here, so you can hop on. Apparently, it’s pretty common too.

But I’m struck, once again, by the terrific multi-tasking abilities of our kutti roadside kadais. Hungry travellers hopping off after a tiring ride can tuck into the hot-n-spicy confections and families with a 13-hour ride ahead can pack some up for the road. And of course, the biriyani will keep you going during the inevitable delays…

I mean, does any tour bus stop in London or New York provide you that sort of service? No, you have to trudge to the nearest Starbucks and get fleeced for a cup of coffee and a sandwich.  Just like no Parisian beautician ever thought of ‘Executive Package’ to draw in their shyer male clientèle.

Viva la Chennai, I say!

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How to… be a chocoholic

1. Some people think chocoholism is about an ongoing love affair with the Lindts or Godivas of the choco universe. Well, there is that. But there’s also no elitism in true chocoholism. In other words, you take chocolate in any form, anytime. Even if it’s that squished, mostly-melted last piece of choco toffee you discovered at the bottom of your handbag.

2. For the hardcore chocoholic, there is no such thing as too much chocolate or a choco overdose. So, if you’re at a restaurant and the waiter explains that ‘Chocolate Explosion’ on the dessert menu is a chocolate cake with chocolate icing, with chocolate sauce on top and chocolate ice-cream on the side, your only reaction should be, ‘Mmmm. Chocolate’.

3. By the same measure, there’s no such thing as too little chocolate for you to care about. Meaning, at the end of any choco binge, every last bit of chocolate must be scraped/licked off the wrapping/cup/packaging, dignity be damned.

4. The worth of a proposed holiday plan must be measured by the likelihood of passing through well-stocked duty free shops (say Dubai, Singapore et al), where the complete galaxy of chocolates from Ferrero Rocher to Mars, Lindt to Hersheys and Toblerone to After Eights resides. The only thing closer to chocoholic nirvana is one of those chocolate cafes with everything chocolate (they exist, they really do).

5. Finally, a true chocoholic has a tried-and-tested way of coping with the onset of choco-withdrawal. It might be gazing upon pretty pictures on Lindt’s Facebook page (you’re listed as a fan, naturally). Or, maybe popping in your worn DVD of “Chocolat” and watching it for the 502nd time when you feel the low coming on. Or, maybe just keeping a jar of Nutella stashed away at home/work in case of acute emergencies.

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Article: All Afloat

Everything floats effortlessly on the Dead Sea, they say. And so, as we make our way from Amman in Jordan to the banks of this unique water body — the lowest point on the Earth’s surface — I have these wonderful visions of bobbing about casually in the Sea like a cork.

Our first image of the Sea does nothing to dispel these illusions. Under a dull dust haze, it’s a vast expanse of absolute pale-blue calm. It isn’t hard to imagine being buoyed by this smooth surface like a rubber duck in a bathtub. Especially once we spy some swimmers floating about on their backs or in a semi-upright position (as if they were sitting on an invisible chair of salt).

But it isn’t as easy as it looks, as we discover about 15 minutes later when we wade in wearing our swimwear. The unbelievably salty water (so salty, indeed, that no life can survive in this sea) has a viscous, oddly oily feel to it, and we find out very quickly that getting it in your eye hurts like crazy (not to mention it can do some serious damage). You don’t want to be getting all that salt in your hair either — which is why the more experienced swimmers get in with swim caps and goggles.

We also discover that the amazingly buoyant nature of the water (a result of its super-high density for the physics geeks reading) means that while the floating is easy — the water virtually pushes your limbs up — getting back to standing position is a toughie. By this point, one member of our group has absolutely red eyes, and it takes the combined efforts of the rest to get another back on his feet, so we’re all treading carefully. (I cravenly opt to lean on a rock and surrender only my legs to the water, so I can clamber back — albeit ungracefully — to my feet myself, and — yes, like the girl I am — keep my hair safe).

Our grand plans of bobbing about in the water have turned into a bit of a damp squib. But then, we discover The Mud. Black and slimy, it doesn’t look like much, but we’re told that this gunk from the bottom of the Dead Sea is amazingly rich in minerals, and does wonders for the skin. All around us, intrepid tourists are smearing the stuff all over themselves, and wandering about waiting for it to dry (we get a bit of a shock the first time we see them).

No woman can resist natural (and free!) skin treatment, so, of course, we head straight to the troughs, regularly filled with mud from the sea bed, and cover ourselves in an all-body mud pack.  To all you sceptics out there rolling your eyes in disbelief — the stuff really works. Getting it off is a bit of a chore — you have to hose yourself down with freezing cold water at the water’s edge, and however thorough you are, the black stuff stubbornly sticks on various hard-to-reach spots. But, boy, is it worth it!

So we may not have floated with much success. But we have thoroughly experienced one of the world’s natural wonders. And, our skin is positively glowing to boot. What more could a girl ask for?

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Book Recs: Andre Agassi’s ‘Open’

This one was on my reading list for a long, long time. Not only am I a huge tennis nut in general, but I was also a huge Agassi fan back in the day. You know, when he had the long flowing locks and such. Had the poster on the wall, the works. I even stopped watching tennis for a bit in the 90s because I couldn’t take the simian Sampras’ dominance over him and the tour. It’s really quite ironical that what brought me back to tennis was the even more dominant Roger Federer… but that’s a whole other story.

Of course, there was the entire controversy and subsequent publicity over his revelation that he took crystal meth and lied to the ATP to cover it up yada yada yada. But, as a close friend and fellow tennis nut put it, when you read the book, that fact doesn’t actually cause much of an impact. It’s a minor bump in the road, at a very low point in his career, at a time when he was barely winning anything (so any argument that a lack of ban somehow took away opportunities from other non-drug-taking players is moot). What really does stick out is the raw emotionality of the book from the get go. Whether it’s about his abusive father, or about his amazingly supportive trainer Gil, the emotions are right there (and Agassi’s a very emotional guy who claims to have an incredible memory for detail) — in your face, no-holds-barred and very, very honest. That makes ‘Open’ compulsively readable — I for one read non-stop for about a day and a half, late into the night and again first thing in the morning before I finished it.

A word here about Pulitzer-winning writer J.R. Moehringer who helped him put the book together (though he declined a mention on the cover ). It is obvious, especially to a journalist who has on several occasions been called to do ‘as told to’ interviews (where the final article in meant to be entirely in the voice of the interviewee), that he has done an outstanding job.  The voice here is clearly Agassi’s — indeed the flow is so wonderful that you feel like he were talking directly to you. But it has been pieced together so very well that there is not a single dull moment or a hitch or even a shade of clumsiness in the structuring of the story.

The very openness and the way Agassi has chosen (one might almost say dared) to bare his emotions can also make it all feel a little uncomfortable at times. His resentment of Sampras is so very obvious… any compliment, if it is that, is backhanded (he envies his ‘robotic’ consistency, which doesn’t require any inspiration, for example). Unlike almost every other person mentioned in the book, there is almost nothing positive said about Sampras, a great champion, who for all intents seems like a pretty decent guy (for all that I wasn’t a fan of his). And that leaves a bit of a sour taste. Similarly, his portrayal of Brooke Shields towards the end of their marriage is coloured by disenchantment and negativity, and again, you feel like she deserved better. And the potshots he takes throughout at poor little Chang… Still, it all comes, as Agassi has said in an interview, from ‘writing in the moment’, as in, recreating his feelings at particular times in his life. Taken in that sense, it is very, very effective. The only case where Agassi has been obviously careful, where you feel more has been left out than he lets on is his relationship with Stephanie Graf (as he refers to her). The warmth, the deep regard, the affection is all there… there are just fewer details, which makes sense as she is a deeply private person.

Above everything else though — even the deep insights it gives into the ‘whirlwind’ that is the tennis tour and how exhausting it can be, the behind the scenes glimpses into locker rooms such as the incredibly sweet bonding moment between him and Marcos Baghdatis after their outstanding match at his last US Open — ‘Open’ is that rare thing; a truly inspiring book. This is a powerful read for anyone who has ever struggled with finding inspiration, anyone who has ever beaten themselves up for not being perfect. It’s all described beautifully — how Agassi internalises his father’s constant quest for tennis perfection even as it makes him hate the game, how he berates himself and can sometimes not function at all when he falls short by even by tiny amounts, and how he slowly learns to just play and ‘win ugly’ if need be, in the words of Brad Gilbert (you will like Gilbert a whole lot more after reading this book). It’s also about finding yourself, cliched as it sounds, and will resonate with anyone who has ever struggled to understand who they are.

There are few books that succeed on so many levels — as a life story and a career chart, a study of individual character and of various relationships, as emotional catharsis for the writer and inspiration for its readers. This is a book that will naturally appeal to tennis nuts like me, but also to anyone given to introspection about life, relationships and themselves.

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