Category Archives: Madras

All about the city formerly known as Madras

Book launch: Penguin Classics Library

Photo: R. Ragu

Kamal Hassan doesn’t often do book events, but this was a rather special occasion. It was the inauguration of the Penguin Classic Library in Chennai and one classic in particular – ‘Stars from Another Sky’ by the legendary Urdu short story writer Saadat Hasan Manto – was being showcased for discussion.

“I’m here quite simply because I’m Manto’s fan,” said the actor and filmmaker to the packed audience at Landmark. “I came to know of him only later in life, but it was a very important find for me – I found myself in finding him.”

In conversation with National Award-winning film critic Baradwaj Rangan, Kamal revealed how he was strongly influenced by Manto’s powerful collection of stories on the partition, ‘Mottled Dawn’, while making ‘Hey Ram’. “That’s when I became his blood brother – or ink brother, perhaps,” he said. “I believe that if I’d been there, I’d have been just as troubled by it all.”

Indeed, the actor said that he would have chosen that book to showcase Manto’s writing rather than ‘Stars’, a collection of bluntly honest, irreverent essays on Bollywood stars of the 1940s such as Ashok Kumar, Nargis, etc., which he felt showed the “lower side” of the writer.

But even if one considered these essays ‘yellow journalism’, they were probably the most stylish example of it ever seen, said Rangan: “Although this is a salaciously written book, he’s still very much the writer… we should all aspire to such yellow journalism!”

So continued the lively discussion between the two fans of Manto, including brief readings from the book (that drew gasps and laughter from the audience), a beautiful Tamil translation of one of his Urdu poems read by Kamal in his inimitable style, and discussions on everything from censorship and film criticism to translation from regional tongues and politics in Tamil cinema.

One might argue that the point of the event – the inauguration of the Penguin Classics range of books, consisting of 1,200 titles ranging from Homer’s Odyssey to the works of R.K. Narayanan – was somewhat lost in the midst of all this.

But the standing-room only crowd didn’t seem to mind, hanging on Kamal’s every word, clapping vigorously at his every witticism, and eventually surging out behind him as he left, hoping for a quick handshake or picture.

And it would be safe to say that at least a few of those film buffs will return to read the works of this great Urdu writer, and quite a few others will be drawn back to see just what other hidden gems the Penguin Classics shelves – soon to be up at Landmark – hold in store for them.

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Interview with… Roberto Calasso

A book on Indian mythology, written in Italian in the 1990s by a leading scholar and publisher from Florence, translated to great acclaim into English, then into Hindi, Malayalam and now Tamil.

That’s Ka for you, a remarkable work of scholarship on the stories of the Vedas and the Puranas that’s been on quite a remarkable journey. Naturally, its author Roberto Calasso, who was in Chennai recently for the launch of the Tamil translation of Ka, turns out to be a pretty remarkable man himself.

“It started very early, really,” he says, referring to his love of Indian mythology, adding casually, “Just like one gets interested in Russian literature as an adolescent, I started reading these texts, and it went on from there.”

‘These texts’ include everything from the Rig Veda (“the most difficult and mysterious by far,” he says) to the Brahmanas, which are the focus of his latest book, L’ardore (which refers to the act of tapasya). He began by reading translations but has since learnt Sanskrit, just like he studied ancient Greek in order to be able to read those great old mythologies (The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, one of his earliest and most well-known works, is a retelling of Greek mythology).

“Myths are the original form of storytelling and a way of knowledge – certain things you can get only through stories,” he says, his passion evident. “A mythology is like a large tree of stories and it’s essential to get inside its branches. It’s can be very illuminating, a way of giving account of the vast net of elements that make up the world.”

Not surprisingly, he draws parallels between the two mythologies with ease (between the stories of Helen of Troy and of Saranyu, for instance, or Shiva and Dionysus), but cautions against making direct connections. “These stories have specific elements in common, and one can understand one mythology better through another (myth can be a lingua franca), but it’s not helpful or even possible to talk about direct influences,” says the author who is also heads Adelphi, the literary publishing house in Italy.

What is of concern to him is that these great storehouses of cultural knowledge not be lost. “It’s really quite depressing to see how little people take advantage of what is available to them, both here and in Europe,” he says. “It’s not just about knowing something of the past; these are things that can be used even today.”

Which is why the current spate of translations of Ka in India is heartening to him – first by Raj Kamal Prakashan in Hindi in 2005, then in Malayalam by DC Books, and now by Kalachuvadu in Tamil. “I’m particularly happy it’s in India, the most important place for this book to be read,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in Tamil culture – about which too little is known, even in India – so being published in this language is significant to me.”

For Anandh K., who did the translation to Tamil (from Tim Parks excellent English translation), it’s been a challenging yet fascinating journey. “It took me nearly seven years – as long as it took him to write the original!” he laughs. “Many of these stories are familiar to us from our childhood, but revisiting them through the eyes of another, who was looking in from the outside… it was a journey into the realm of my own subjectivity. He’s brought to them a whole new perception.”

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Year of the Ear Muff

PhotoL K. Ananthan

If there’s been a style statement this winter in Chennai, it’s been the ubiquitous ear muff. You’ve probably seen it perched snugly over the ears of men and women, senior citizens and toddlers alike as they wait for buses, whizz by on bikes or make their way on our streets. It doesn’t matter what they’re wearing – veshti or sari, jeans and jacket or school uniform and Keds. The ear muff, it seems, is the perfect accessory.

“I sell about 10 or 15 a day, for Rs. 10 a piece,” says Hassan Mohamed, who stocks ear muffs at his little roadside stall in Tiruvallikeni (they lie nestled amidst those other staples of Chennai winter attire – the monkey cap and that wonderful invention, the cap-and-muffler-in-one – and, a little disconcertingly, underwear).

An elderly gentleman shopping nearby adds disapprovingly, “Some stalls sell it even for Rs. 15.” But, he assures me, you can get it for much cheaper in Parry’s Corner. Hassan nods sadly, “Yes, they sell many more there.”

He’s one of five others who sell ear muffs on that single stretch of road, and you’ll find sellers just like him everywhere from Mylapore market to Pondy Bazaar. Sometimes you’ll find the muffs hanging on the hawker’s arms as he sells them at street corners and at other times dangling jauntily off conveniently placed lampposts or poles.

“They’ve been very popular because there’s been so much pani (mist) this winter,” says Venkatachalam, whose muff-ware is lodged on one such lamppost.

Like most of the muffs in vogue this year, his too are all in camouflage patterns (to survive the urban jungle, perhaps?) and in highly unlikely colours at that (what exactly does bubblegum pink-and-white camouflage protect you against anyway?). But it’s been brisk business, and you can feel Venkatachalam’s pain as he adds wistfully, “We’re reaching the end of the season now; we’ll hardly sell any from now on.”

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To all the Divya K(umar)s out there (Part III): The Downfall

Well, it was bound to happen eventually. It was, as I said on my Facebook wall — rather theatrically, I admit, but dammit, I’m allowed! — only a matter of time. Yes, gentle readers of my blog, the sheer infuriating common-ness of my name has finally collided with my career. No, it isn’t another reporter at the MetroPlus or the Hindu writing with the same byline — that would be bad enough. No, there’s now a young lady who’s joined NDTV-Hindu, the new Chennai TV channel (a joint venture between the Hindu and NDTV), and her name is — naturally — Divya Kumar. Why is this such a big deal, you might be asking yourself. There are many people out there with the same name, working in the same field. What’s all the drama about?

Well, it’s like this. See, this young lady (a perfectly nice and harmless person, I’m sure) does interviews with Chennai-based artistes on this channel. With musicians, etc. The sort of thing I might do myself. In fact, given the nature of the relationship between our paper and the channel, I’ve actually done an interview on NDTV Hindu once myself. A lot of my stories are featured as part of the MetroPlus Show that plays on Saturdays. So you couldn’t really blame anyone who doesn’t know what I look like and has only ever seen my byline for MISTAKING HER FOR ME.

After years and years of the nuisance of getting the wrong emails, those meant for all those thousands of other Divya Kumars or Divya Ks — their bank statements, avowals of love from their significant others, etc. — I will now have people putting the wrong face to my name. And the wrong voice. And the wrong body… you get the drift. I feel like I’m in some bizarre remake of The Body Snatchers.

Now those of you who’ve read my earlier pieces on the subject know the commonness of my name has long been a sore spot for me. So naturally I ranted and raved to my family and friends (the poor sods) when I first came across this young lady’s interview. But I told myself to put it in perspective. Be rational, I said. It’s not such a big deal. I was finally reaching the point when I could giggle about it (and I only flinched slightly when a colleague pointed out that it could be worse — the Divya Kumar on TV could have been a guy). Then it happened. I got an email from a well-intentioned professional contact saying she’d seen ‘my interview’ with a prominent music personality on the channel and liked it. And all that was left to say was –aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrgggghhh!

Because it finally hit me. I knew why this was happening. And it was all the worse because I’d brought it upon myself. It was all that gloating I did after I created this blog earlier this year. I thought I’d won, you see, because I got the domain name, divyakumar.com, snatched from the grasp of all those other Divya Kumars, and suddenly all those searches for the wrong ‘Divya Kumars’ and “Divya Ks’ were landing up on my blog! I thought I’d thumbed my nose at the universe when finally, after years of hanging around at the bottom of the search results list on my name (yes, yes, it’s pathetic, but you do it too) I was suddenly on the first page with my blog. I believe my precise words were ‘Bwahahaha’.

Well, Universe, you win. You get the last laugh. I eat humble pie. Now, just below my blog’s link at the top of the search results for “Divya Kumar” on Google, we have the link to the TV channel’s interview. And that ain’t my face you see. So yes, I give up. I realise now that I can’t fight it. I will always be one of many. But at least my blog still comes first on the results page. I am resigned. To all the Divya Kumars out there — learn from my mistakes. From now on, we follow the path of Zen.

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Book launch: The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Music of India

This Marghazi season, the Oxford University Press has something special to offer connoisseurs of music in the city – a massive three-volume encyclopaedia on 2000 years of music in the Indian sub-continent.

The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Music of India, a remarkably comprehensive work covering classical, folk, film and other forms and genres of music from across India and its neighbouring countries, was launched in the city recently by renowned Carnatic exponent M. Balamuralikrishna and noted playwright and actor Girish Karnad.

“This is a wonderful work – there are books on certain Indian musical traditions, but nothing like this has been done before,” said Balamuralikrishna, speaking at the launch event at ‘Town Hall’ in The Residency Towers. “It’s very important for present and future generations, and to artistes such as myself who will live on forever thanks to books like this.”

Manzar Khan, managing director of Oxford University Press noted that this project, with its 5000 entries and 200 rare photographs, had been in the works for over a decade. “This is the result of a successful collaboration between Sangit Mahabharati, Mumbai, and us over a period of 12 years,” he said. “It’s one of the biggest projects the Oxford University Press has ever published.”

The putting together of this book showed just how much the Indian branch of the Press had grown in the last few decades, said Karnad, who worked for OUP (right here in Chennai, as a matter of fact) back in the 1960s. “When I was there, we produced books such as ‘Treasure Island Simplified’ and ‘Robinson Crusoe Abridged’,” he joked. “I’m struck dumb by the sheer size of this work – not just physically, but by the remarkable range of its entries.”

In a lively speech, he discussed just how integral music was to the Indian way of life, and how it remained a living force in spite of its ancient roots. “The ability of Indian music to imbibe different influences and continue to grow and flourish is its strength and glory,” he said. “Today, Indian music is, I believe, better than ever, with barriers of caste, religion, and patronage collapsing. It’s great to be here to celebrate that moment.”

The encyclopaedia is now available in major bookstores and is priced at Rs. 10,000 /-. It will also soon be available to users across the world online through Oxford University Press, U.S.A.

“We’ve already signed an agreement with them,” said Khan. “India is a growing economic power and there’s an increased interest in its art and culture worldwide today. This work has come at the right time.”

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Book launch: Red – Full Blooded Romances

Are you in the mood for romance? Some lusty, red-blooded desi romance? Then Chennai-based Pageturn Publishers have just the thing for you. Two things, actually — the first two titles of their Indian romance imprint “Red — Full Blooded Romance”.

The two books “Dewdrops at Dawn” (by Sahana Sankaran) and “Together 24 X 7” (by Sunita Suresh) were launched at Full Circle bookstore at Chamiers recently, with heart-shaped brownies and chocolates and a panel discussion on romance and relationships that featured actor Abbas and his designer wife Erum Ali, VJ Paloma Rao, and designer husband-wife duo Vivek Karunakaran and Shreya Kamalia.

The panel discussion tended to veer off course a little, dealing not so much with heady romance and passion as with the trials and tribulations of marriage and relationships in the urban Indian milieu. But the books, luckily, stay right on course, reproducing those escapist romantic formulas so familiar to Indian readers raised on a steady diet of Mills & Boons and Harlequin Romances. Only, these fantasies have a decidedly desi twist.

“Sunita (Suresh) and I both love reading romances, and a couple of years ago, we met over coffee at Sangeetha and got talking about how there were no romances for Indians, and how we were always reading romances set in another ethos,” said Sandhya Sridhar, who started Pageturn along with Sunita and R. Venkatesan last year. “So we started thinking, why not do it ourselves? And, idea took root.”

The first two titles — slim pastel-coloured volumes priced at Rs. 89 — hit the shelves in mid-November, with two more to come this month and every month after that. “We’ve received e-mails from people asking about where the books are available and such, but overwhelmingly, the query has been — ‘Can I write for you?’ ” said Sandhya with a smile. “And, not just from women either; we’ve had quite a few men asking!”

Over the next couple of years, Pageturn hopes to branch into different genres of romantic fiction, such as teen romances (“we already have a couple of teen writers working on books”), historical romances (“we’re always reading Victorian romances — think about how much potential there is with our history!”) and graphic romance novels. Later, the plan is to diversify into graphic novels in general and mass-market travelogues.

For now, though, the focus is finding quality writers for their desi romance imprint. “Our aim to get as many new writers as possible on board from across India, so our books are reflective of our country today,” she said. “We want our readers to be able to identify with these stories, and feel like, ‘Hey, this could happen to me!’. That’s what romance fiction is all about — pure escapist fantasy.”

 

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Men & Cars: The Beemer Safari

Disclaimer: Writing up this blog post was delayed by the fact that Google informed me that BMW enthusiasts frown upon BMW cars being called Beemers. Apparently only BMW bikes can be called that. The cars, I discovered, are called Bimmers (hee hee. Sorry. But doesn’t BIM-mers have a slightly funny sound to it? No? Just me? Right. Moving along then.) Now, being the good little get-the-facts-right journalist that I am, I promptly changed my title to ‘The Bimmer Safari’, but it just didn’t feel right. So I sat and pondered, browsed Google for more gyan and consulted UrbanDictionary for a bit (now you see why I so rarely get any  writing except for the submit-or-else-your-head-will-roll type done) and came to the conclusion that using ‘Bimmer’ here didn’t make sense. No one I know, and certainly none of the people in the little story chronicled below calls it that. They all call it a Beemer (with a nicely satisfying, long eeee sound), just like most other Indians I know. So ‘Beemer safari’ it became again. But to all BMW enthusiasts who read this blog entry (and I’m certain there’ll be legions of you), let it be duly noted that the mis-naming is deliberate and not just a result of general cluelessness (which you’ll probably find plenty of other evidence of below anyway).

It was a beautiful day for a roadtrip. Or even a mini-roadtrip. Oh alright, it was more like just a nice, long drive. Whatever it was, we had the perfect weather for it, cool and windy, with plump white clouds shrouding the Chennai winter sun just enough for it to be pleasant rather than dismal or gloomy.  It was the sort of weather that made you feel like a heroine in a Yash Chopra movie, what with the soft-focus lighting and the gentle wind teasing your hair and making your dupatta stream behind you just so (later there was rain, but not to worry, dear readers, there were no sultry dances in see-through saris. We stayed indoors and ate hot kebabs and drank hot coffee. So much more comfortable, don’t you think?).

The final destination of the trip doesn’t matter for the purposes of this story (if you’re dying of curiosity, I’ll just have to feed you the clichéd ol’ it’s not the destination but the journey that counts blah blah quote). What is of significance is the fact that we — two yuppie couples — found ourselves at the massive Mahindra World City development at Chengalpet in the suburbs of Chennai on this gorgeous morning. And there, in the middle of that quiet 1550 acre property with large corporate and residential buildings laid out across wide-open grassy spaces, the two men in the car had something close to a religious experience.

Now, I’m not generally one for gender stereotyping. God knows I’m not your typical girly-girl (I own precisely four pairs of shoes and hate shopping. Yes, really), and I know enough people of both sexes who defy gender norms not to put much store in it at all. However, even I had to admit that our reactions to what happened next on that particular day were quite ridiculously stereotypical. A crappy TV show like According to Jim couldn’t have done it better.

Girl 1 (Me): [Typically clueless] “Why are we stopping here?”

Girl 2 : [Exaggerated eye roll] “Oh god.”

Guy 1 (the husband, henceforth known as TH) and Guy 2 (the other husband, henceforth known as TOH): [In a state of breathless excitement] “Oh. My. God.”

Me : “What??”

Girl 2: [Sighs] “It’s the BMW office. We’re going to be here a while.”

Me: [Still confused] “But there’s nothing there. No showroom or anything.”

A gasp from the front seat. “It’s only the mothership,” said TH in a pained, trying-to-be-patient voice.

“But…” I started.

And then it happened. TOH, who’d been inching the car forward till its little grey nose was virtually touching the wire-mesh fence surrounding the office (sorry, Mothership) building and its grassy grounds, gasped again. “Look!

“Oh man, a car!”

“A test drive car!”

“They must be doing a test drive!”

“With that car!”

“Oh man!”

I turned to the only other person in the car who had not apparently lost their mind and said, tentatively, “Do you see anything? I don’t see anything. What’re they talking about?”

She sighed again with the been-there done-that air of one who’s been married a lot longer than I, and pointed.  And then I saw. Sort of. In the distance, past the mesh-wire fence, mostly hidden by long, uncut grasses, I got a glimpse of pale-grey metal glinting in the sunlight. I squinted and I could just about make the shape of a car sitting there, apparently sunning itself.

“But it’s not moving,” I said, starting to sound a bit plaintive by now.

“Shhhhh,” TH said, apparently afraid I’d spook the Beemer. “What series is it, can you tell?” (Obviously he’s not talking to me, but I ventured “250?” which earned me a dirty look).

“It doesn’t even have the BMW logo in front,” pointed out Girl 2.

“It doesn’t need to,” said TOH in his pained, trying-to-be-patient voice. “You can tell from the front grill.”

For a few seconds after that, all that could be heard is the odd gusty sigh, as they peered reverently into the distance, not moving or speaking, drinking in the sight of the car sitting still amidst the waving grasses.

“Oh for god’s sake,” snapped Girl 2 suddenly, breaking the silence and making them jump. “It’s like you’re on a bloody Beemer safari.”

The sarcasm, inspired though it was, unfortunately missed its mark completely.

Wide grins spread across the guys’ faces as they turned to each other. “Yeaaaah,” said one. “We’re seeing it in its natural habitat.”

“Yeaaaah,” said the other, grin getting even goofier. “A Beemer in the wild!”

By this point, I was pretty much useless since I was busy fighting off a giggle fit brought on by mental images of the two guys in full safari gear ala Shikari Shambu, training their binoculars intently on the wild Beemer.

But the G2 hadn’t given up. “It’s all dented and stuff. It’s not even new,” said that lone she-ranger of sanity, persevering, trying something, anything that’d get the show back on the road . “Can’t we go now?”

“Oh man. It’s like… like a tiger wounded in battle,” said Shikari Shambu 1, eyes shining. “Yeaaaah, that only makes it even better,” said Shikari Shambu 2.

“Oh, I give up,” huffed G2.

We finally got on with the trip,  but only having promised our intrepid explorers of the wild that they could stop by again on the way back. And then we drove on for… well, about 200 metres. Because we simply had to stop at the the pastry shop G2 and I spotted down the road, its sinful confections beckoning seductively  (we may or may not have turned to each other and squealed “Cake!” as we passed it).

Sitting at the shop and having a moment with my rich chocolate truffle cake (with a blueberry muffin packed to go), I realised something. It was a bit of a Eureka moment, so bear with me with I lay it out to you. You see, what had happened was that the guys had just indulged an urban, automobile version of The Hunt (I suppose the ancient equivalent would have been cavemen scoping out the biggest, furriest woolly mammoth around — they were never actually gonna kill the thing and bring it home for supper now, were they?), and we were just indulging in the modern woman’s version of ‘gathering’ (is it any surprise the two of us were the ones that noticed the cake shop? I mean, if we’d lived a couple of thousand years ago, we’d have found all the berry-bearing bushes like that). All four of us were, I realised, just following our anthropological imperatives, giving into to hunter-gatherer urges programmed into our genes by our cave-dwellin’ ancestors thousands of years ago (yes, that’s right — my genes make me go in search of cake). This wasn’t stereotypical behaviour. This was science, see?

No?

Oh well.  That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.

Here’s to plenty more hunting and gathering, I say!

Note: A big thank you to Preeti Seshadri (Girl 2) for the awesome ‘Beemer Safari’ idea and to both her and Anant Sood (TOH) for a wonderful day out 🙂

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Book launch: Ramachandra Guha’s ‘Makers of Modern India’

 

Photo: R. Ravindran

 

The launch of historian and columnist Ramachandra Guha’s latest anthology, Makers of Modern India in the city was as much about what he’d included in the book as what he’d left out.

Makers of Modern India, edited and introduced by Guha, features fascinating excerpts of the writings of 19 influential Indian political thinker-activists whom he has chosen not just for how they shaped the formation of our republic, but also for how original their ideas were, and how accessible and relevant their words remain to this day.

“This is one of Penguin India’s most important non-fiction books of the year, and it comes, fittingly, at the end of a year of celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Indian Republic,” said Kamini Mahadevan of Penguin India, introducing the book to the packed audience at the Ballroom at Vivanta by Taj, Connemara.

The book begins with the writings of Raja Rammohan Roy, whom Guha calls ‘The First Liberal’, and then proceeds chronologically to cover the works of great thinkers up into the 1960s, some well-known, such as Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore and Ambedkar, some almost forgotten, such as Kalmadevi Chattopadhyay, Tarabai Shinde and Jotirao Phule, and some rather controversial, such as Jinnah and M.S. Golwalkar.

At various points during his lively, nearly hour-long speech, Guha defended and explained his choices, whether it was the controversial inclusions: “These men shaped India; for good or bad, you have to decide. I have to keep my ideological biases apart, that’s my job as a scholar”, or apparently glaring exclusions: “I left out people such as Subhas Chandra Bose, Vallabhbhai Patel or even Indira Gandhi because they haven’t left behind a legacy of original written work. They were actors, not thinkers.”

In response to other omissions brought up by the crowd, such as those of Kamaraj or Annadurai, he welcomed other scholars to do follow up volumes to this 500-odd page work. “I hope to spark many more volumes on other thinkers – the history of ideas has been very neglected by Indian historians,” he said. “I’ve given a mere glimpse, and it’s a fat book already! This is an attempt to start a debate, not close it.”

The other running theme of the evening was encapsulated in a witty yet poignant and at times downright poetic speech by former West Bengal governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who launched the book. “The book betokens a very real sense of loss… we had him and him and her too – where are they now?” he said. “How truly they cautioned us, admonished us and put steel into our spines. Whither have they gone?”

Guha addressed this loss in his own direct, energetic and no-nonsense style (which he, in a characteristic cricket metaphor likened to the ‘orthodoxy of Gambhir’ after the ‘sparkle of Sehwag’ in Gandhi’s speech). “Yes, no politician or social reformer writes or thinks like this anymore, but we have this remarkable resource available to us, in the form of their writings,” he said. “What we should worry about is that so many of us are ignorant of this legacy.”

These works, he pointed out, were not just of archival interest but just as relevant today. This hit home powerfully in the few passages he read out – a chillingly prophetic essay by the relatively obscure Marathi scholar Hamid Dalwai, in which he foreshadows the Ayodhya and Babri Masjid issue, to a pithy piece by E. V. Ramaswami about religious gurus in the 1920s that could have been written today.

The question and answer session that followed was typically Guha – covering a number of subjects, from NCERT’s new history text books to L.K. Advani’s rath yatra, and at all times spirited, well-informed and highly opinionated. And, judging by the strongly-worded suggestions from members of the audience, it may spawn a sequel or two to Makers of Modern India.

 

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Interview with… Ashok Amritraj

Photo: R. Ragu

Ashok Amritraj has had a rather good year. His productions in 2010 have met with critical and commercial success. He’s all set for his first 3D movie. And Variety hosted a swanky do at the Cannes Film Festival this year to celebrate his achievement of 100 films completed in Hollywood.

“They did a huge star-studded party for me on the beach at Cannes, and everybody from Jean Claude Van Damme, who did my first big film, to Eva Longoria and Bruce Willis was there,” he said, looking relaxed and, as always, debonair, as he lounged in his Chennai home. “It was very special.”

He was in the city for his customary year-end trip, before heading to Romania and Turkey to the sets of Ghost Rider 2, the sequel to the 2007 superhero flick starring Nicolas Cage as the motorcycle-riding, skull-flaming titular character.

“It’s very much the same Marvel Comics character, with the bike on fire, the skull on fire and so on, but in 3D,” said Amritraj with a laugh. “So the fire’s really going to come at you. It’s very fun.”

It will also be Hyde Park Entertainment’s (Amritraj’s company) first foray into 3D films, which he believes are here to stay. “The technology has given our industry quite a boost because of the ticket prices, to be honest,” he said candidly. “The price of tickets for 3D movies is 40 per cent higher in the U.S. and the U.K.”

The big tipping point, he said, is when the technology makes it into the average family’s home. “My kids already have 3D glasses to watch movies at home. I think there will soon come a time when we won’t need glasses at all, and then the technology will really take off.”

In the meantime, though, Hyde Park Entertainment is doing pretty well. Its September 2010 release, the hyper-violent, tongue-in-cheek, exploitation-style flick Machete by Robert Rodriguez (starring Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba and “Steven Segal resurrected from the dead”), received largely positive reviews and was a surprise summer hit. And the upcoming December release Blue Valentine (Amritraj has partnered with Harvey Weinstein for its distribution) is already receiving Oscar buzz for performances by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams.

Which brings us to that inevitable question — any plans of an Indian production next? “I’ve had meetings with a couple of writers and directors to see if there’s any potential — it’s something I’d like to do since I haven’t done one since Jeans,” he said. “Whether it’ll be a fully Indian production or Indo-U.S. or Indo-Chinese, I don’t know.”

What he’d also like to see, though, is more Indians coming to Hollywood. “The second generation Indian-American kids are doing quite well, but I’m surprised that more people from India haven’t given it a shot,” he said. “I suppose if you have success here, you don’t want to go knocking on doors in Hollywood. But I hope to see a few new players soon; it just takes commitment, because finally, the colour of our skin doesn’t stand in the way of being a Hollywood movie star.”

He remembers when his friend Sidney Poitier led the African-American revolution in Hollywood, and again when another good friend, Antonio Banderas did the same for Latinos. “The Chinese have done a decent job as well, with people such as Jet Li, Jackie Chan and John Woo making a mark,” he said. “I think it’s India’s turn; we certainly have enough talent!”

If anyone knows about making it in Hollywood, of course, it’s this Amritraj brother, who is surprised at his own longevity in the industry. “There are maybe just four others in all of Hollywood history who’ve done 100 films. And my movies have altogether grossed $1.5 billion,” he said with a smile. “So I really am quite proud.”

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Book launch: “Another Chance” and “Urban Shots”

Chennai’s book lovers got a neat little two-for-the-price-of-one deal at a recent book launch at Landmark. You could even call it a three-for-the-price-of-one deal.

Two books – a romance novel and a collection of short stories were launched — and three authors were on hand to discuss the books with the audience that valiantly filled the seats in spite of the rain.

The books in question were ‘Another Chance’, Ahmed Faiyaz’s take on the rather complicated love lives of urban, upwardly-mobile yuppies in India, and ‘Urban Shots’, an engaging collection of 29 short stories by 13 Indian writers on life in our metros.

Both had Faiyaz in common – he’s contributed to three short stories in ‘Urban Shots’, and is the founding member of Grey Oak Publishers, which brought out both books. Their themes are similar too, with a focus on the urban experience in India.

“’Another Chance’ is reflective of our generation, where people are in a relationship but external and internal factors cause friction between them,” said Faiyaz, in conversation with Chennai-based writer Vibha Bhatra. “Careers make them move from city to city, they choose to go back to those they were in relationships with before, and so on.”

The story, then, sets up a love triangle (or should it be quadrangle?) between four beautiful, globe-trotting desi urbanites who’re trying to figure out what they’re looking for in life and love. “My greatest challenge was writing from a woman’s perspective this time, to bring out her point-of-view,” said Faiyaz, whose first novel, ‘Life, Love and All that Jazz…’ came out earlier this year.

‘Urban Shots’ (edited by Paritosh Uttam) touches upon relationships as well, dealing with themes of romance and infidelity. But it also takes on a whole lot else, from the loss of the child to domestic abuse, often with a great deal of sensitivity. Two of the contributors to the collection, Chennai-based freelance writer Malathi Jaikumar and journalist and author of travelogue ‘Chai, Chai’, Bishwanath Ghosh, were present at the launch and discussed why it was an important book.

“It’s very relevant as more and more people move to urban areas today,” said Jaikumar. “There are a lot of conveniences and chances for success, but also a lot of loneliness and depression. Anyone who reads these stories can identify with these situations, and feel like they’re not alone.”

Ghosh described the writers of ‘Urban Shots’ as spanning generations and providing different perspectives. “The youngest writer is 20 and the emotions one undergoes at 20, 25, 35 or 45 are different,” he said. “’Urban Shots’ is really many books in one book.”

This was a coming-out party of sorts for Grey Oak, set up earlier this year. These are its first two books and Faiyaz called ‘Urban Shots’ its “first big step.” “We thought why not make a statement by bringing young writes and noted writers together for a collection, and show our support for Indian writing,” he said.

The question and answer session that followed was a tad lackadaisical, punctuated by a series of mini blackouts. Still, there was time for a fairly in-depth discussion on short story writing and its evolution, and even a profound exchange on Somerset Maugham’s final book. Not a bad deal for the audience, overall.

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