Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sweet Impulse

Picking your way through the traffic-ridden streets of Bandra around 7 pm on a weekday evening is an exercise in attempted suicide. So when you have traversed a particularly crowded bit of pavement, logic dictates that you carry on.

But, sometimes, when the feet have moved on, the nostrils stay behind, drawing the body back, telling the mind in a hot, sweet, sticky whisper....'jalebis'.

You peer at the kadhai where he's frying them - the oil so hot it ripples like water, and golden circles form like magic as he spins, rotates and dances his hand high above. All is lost. Especially self-control.

And, armed with a packet that has the sweetness oozing out of every pore, clutched on with slightly sticky make your way home and blog about it.

But of course, you eat the entire packet first.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Shortcut Surprise

I was headed home, cutting through a lane off Linking Road after buying a gift for some friends. And I stumbled across a book sale. I have written about me and book fairs before, but it was a pleasurable enough surprise to warrant a blog post.

The books (many of them second-hand) were arranged on long tables, and these occupied a long driveway of some sort of a school building. As I browsed through the rows of books, the school bell tolled the end of the day, and an army of extremely noisy, hyperactive children came rushing past, playing catch in the aisles and switching rows by ducking under the rickety tables. One minute a mischievous face peeped past a dusty stack of Archie comics, the other minute it was popping up near Deepak Chopra's tomes of self-knowledge. A terror of a man hollered at them till they all cleared out and I was left to look around in peace.

While I love books, I usually prefer to buy books I have already read that I love and want to own. I don't often buy books on the chance that I'll like them. (A recent exception - and a gamble that paid off - was Aseem Kaul's Etudes.)

Searching through books on sale is always such a thrill. They're not really arranged according to a system or a logic. If you're lucky you'll find all books by one author in one place. The excitement lies in running your eyes randomly over piles and thinking - the next book I spot will be something I've been looking for in a long time - and when it is, well, I wouldn't exchange that feeling for much! It's like striking gold!

Since I didn't have too much cash (they don't accept cards), I narrowed my "chosen" pile down to a copy of The Kite Runner (the pirated version was for 195 and the genuine one for 200! - I checked carefully and then bought the original) and, a childhood favorite - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - the version with the crazy illustrations by Quentin Blake (who's done all of Roald Dahl's books). Yay. I walked away with the two books clutched in my hand, my fingertips a bit grimy after picking up and putting down so many old books, and the bargain-seeker in me very satisfied.

For those of you in Bandra, drop in at the sale. It's on till mid-March, and the hall is in the lane that connects Linking Road and Waterfield Road, opposite Amarsons.

Who Decides What's Right?

Published on Sunday, 14 February 2010 in the newspaper Business Standard.

Born as a rebellion against indirect censorship of documentary cinema, today Vikalp is a platform for free speech and creative expression

“Censorship is neither possible nor desirable,” asserts Dr Jayasankar, Professor, Centre for Media and Cultural Studies at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences and a founder-member of Vikalp. He cites the famous example of the blank editorial in the Indian Express during the Emergency as the perfect act of silent defiance. “Who decides what’s right? It’s the idea of a less powerful ‘other’, one that cannot handle the truth, that is problematic,” he explains.

It was precisely to give this “less powerful ‘other’” the freedom to choose what it watched, that Vikalp was born. The Campaign Against Censorship – a group of Indian film-makers committed to freedom of expression, reacted strongly when the Censor Board inserted a certification clause just for Indian entries in 2004’s Mumbai International Film Festival. Angry protests forced the authorities to withdraw the clause, but the censorship remained – film-makers soon realized that the selection committee rejected the politically sensitive, controversial films anyway, despite the fact that many of these had travelled to foreign festivals and won awards and appreciation. Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution (dealing with Gujarat’s communal massacres after Godhra in 2002), Sanjay Kak’s Words on Water (which explores the struggle over the Narmada dam), and Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar’s Naata (about two men working for conflict resolution in Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum) were among the rejected films.

A constructive protest

Vikalp: Films for Freedom, began as a six-day festival that screened the rejected films and some more, as film-makers withdrew even their selected entries from MIFF, preferring to screen them at Vikalp instead. “We received a lot of threats to stop us from screening the films,” recalls Dr Anjali Monteiro, another founder-member. She continues, “What was interesting was that even some of the MIFF jury members came to watch the movies we were screening!”

“Vikalp means ‘an alternative’,” says Anand Patwardhan, renowned documentary film-maker (Bombay our City, Father, Son and Holy War, Prisoners of Conscience, Ram ke Naam) who suggested the name. Screening all the rejected films just across the road from MIFF, Vikalp truly became an alternative space for those six days. Today, six years later, what is the organization doing?

“It is not an organization; it is a movement,” clarifies Patwardhan. This loose-knit collective, functioning over e-mails and Yahoogroups has given audiences access to documentary films in India. The movies screened may or may not be controversial. The last year saw screenings of, among others, Lightning Testimonies, Amar Kanwar’s film capturing women’s narratives of sexual violence; The Other Song, Saba Dewan’s exploration of the world of the tawaif; Kora Rajee directed by Biju Toppo of Jharkhand looked at issues of adivasi labourers and displacement; Kurush Canteenwalla’s Goa Goa Gone portrays the impact of mining – Goa’s second-largest industry – on the lives of people. Suma Josson touches on the issue of farmer suicides in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region in I Want My Father Back. Vikalp has also brought to the screen foreign documentary films, such as Iranian film-maker Nahid Sarvestani’s The Queen and I, an autobiographical account of Nahid’s interactions with the wife of the Shah of Iran.

Encouraging debate

Today one can easily disseminate films over the web – so is Vikalp’s role really crucial anymore? Attend a screening and you would know it is. Vikalp’s USP lies in the opportunity and space it creates for discussion. The film-maker is almost always present, encouraging and answering questions after the screening. The latest session (in January) screened Anand Patwardhan’s Prisoners of Conscience, in which political prisoners of the Emergency narrate their experiences. “Unfortunately, these things still happen,” says the film-maker, which means that an entirely new generation could relate to a film made over three decades ago, resulting in a heated post-screening discussion.

Victoire Guena, Cultural Coordinator at Alliance Francaise, Mumbai, where most screenings take place, says that the 72-seater hall is usually packed for Vikalp screenings, with people spilling over on to the carpets as well. “We welcome people to Alliance to view these movies and are happy to provide a space for this freedom of expression,” says Guena. What does this mean? That there are more people walking the streets of India whose minds have been opened to things they may not have seen and views they may not have heard.

Jayasankar puts it succinctly: “We are all taught to read and write. But we need to be taught to read images.” How true. As we interrogate, as we learn to apply ourselves and infer truths from the images we see on the screen, we are the more powerful “others”, not the “volatile” communities reacting to speeches and books and films on their face value, but digging deeper and making informed decisions. That is the only way to take a stand. After all, that’s how it all began.

Vikalp organises screenings of documentary films across Mumbai. Entry is always free. The next screenings are:

To know more about Vikalp, join the Facebook group Vikalp@Prithvi, or follow the local newspaper and Time Out magazine.

Monday, February 15, 2010

New look

Makeovers don't come easy to me. My friends have been trying to convince me to get a certain haircut since 1996. It took me three years to muster up the courage to get my second ear-piercing done.

No wonder then, that this blog with the banner (see below) had looked the same for over 2 years now.

But when you've just shifted countries and set up home all over again, it hits you that change can be good too. And that things can always look better. So here's my new virtual home - how do you like it?

And below is my new home - (and my mother) - caught in a lamp-lit moment.

So now you know what it looks like where I home and in cyberspace. Should I get the haircut too?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Real Life

A peaceful day. Tranquil, easygoing, slow, relaxed. Beautiful weather. Seaside at sunset. Brisk walking. Bumping into friends. Strolling home. Music of choice. A bright kitchen. A successful attempt at a made-up recipe. A good dinner.

And then to switch on the TV and hear about Pune. This is our life. Reminds me of the soap bubbles children were blowing by the sea this evening.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

In Her Own Image

A good friend helped with some valuable contacts, and I got a chance to interview Shabana Azmi after watching her perform her latest play, Broken Images. Business Standard published it last Sunday. I'm pasting the piece here as well. But first, some things I wanted to say but didn't add to what I submitted for publication.

First things first, I should never have tried to interview her immediately after the performance. Reasons:
  • She was swamped by well-wishers right after. I flattened myself against a pillar as Dia Mirza, Mandira Bedi, Prem Chopra, Divya Dutta and other familiar faces rushed to congratulate her.
  • Watching her enact her role to near perfection was intimidating, and I felt that all my questions (if I remembered them) would sound silly and completely not worth her time.
  • My mind wandered during the play because I kept thinking I'd forget my questions.
  • She eventually said she didn't have time for the interview. Would I mail her the questions instead?
So I did, and in my naivete I actually took down her email address and asked, "You will reply, won't you?" Maybe that's what did it. Because between 10.30 pm when I mailed her my questions, and 8 am the next day, she'd sent in her answers, typing on her Blackberry. Read on below to know how I put them all together.

An actor of her caliber can’t be confined to one role. And Broken Images doesn’t try. In less than an hour of stage time, Shabana Azmi bewilders and stuns with many shades to her stage persona: good, bad, shrewd, cunning, lying, vulnerable, pitiable, helpless and neglected. It’s only a human urge, when watching a story unfold, to find one person on whom to pin our sympathies. While I’m still trying to decide who I should feel for in this play, Shabana says, “The best feedback I got for this role was that the audience can’t make up their minds who the victim is and who the victimizer. I am pleased with that because Girish (Karnad) has built in enough ambiguity to make it a shifting equation.” Ah. So we are not meant to decide. I may as well just go with the flow as I watch acting so spontaneous it seems effortless and natural.

But this spontaneity didn’t come easy. Shabana, who has also acted in international productions at London’s National Theatre and the Singapore Repertory Theatre, observes, “The rehearsal period abroad is from 9 am to 5pm daily. So you get a lot of time to explore, to add and to reject. Here, we rehearsed off and on for about three months, just about two hours in the evenings because we are involved in professions other than theatre. It’s a huge pity that you cannot make a living from theatre in India.”

Arundhati Nag, Padma Shri recipient for 2010, played the protagonist in the Kannada and Hindi versions of the play. Shabana admits that watching her made it easier to play the Image in one single take. The unusual thing in the execution of Broken Images is the presence of the “Image”, a recorded version of herself seen on a large TV screen on stage, opposite which Shabana acts. Usually actors watch their recorded performances to rate their performances by their own, exacting standards. So was it not hard, not to mention distracting, to act with and react to herself? Here, she acknowledges that her sister-in-law, Tanvi Azmi was invaluable. “A very fine actor, Tanvi played both parts during my rehearsals, so that when I actually had to act ‘opposite’ myself, I knew what to expect. And frankly, I find the Image completely different from anything I have done so far, so she surprised even me!” All that preparation paid off, and the shoot, for which they had budgeted two days, was done in a single take of 44 minutes! “Had I gone wrong in the 43rd minute, we’d have had to do the whole take again,” Shabana points out. Not the sort of tension many would handle with such √©lan.

But then, Azmi thrives on this very tension. Theatre is about being ready for the unexpected as there isn’t the luxury of a retake, “so the odds against you are higher,” she says simply. “But once you are out there, it is direct contact between you and the audience; you need to strike a very fine balance so you can play with the audience without playing to the gallery.” Of course, being in front of a camera is no easier, she observes, “where the close-up shot can betray fake emotion to even the least discerning viewer. So I think for an actor it’s enriching to work in both mediums.”

Since she has mentioned these mediums, I draw Shabana away from the play in question, asking about cinema and theatre in the larger context. The Padma Shri awards have just been announced; there are 20 awardees in the Arts category for 2010 while just 10 years back there were only seven awardees. Does this indicate a growing recognition of the arts’ contribution towards change in society? Shabana agrees, “About time, don’t you think? All art has the possibility of creating a climate of sensitivity in which it is possible for change to occur.”

If art can do all this, I am further tempted to ask my next question: there has been a burst of interest in Islam in the last decade and everyone wants to understand and depict their perception of Islam – its followers, its philosophy and its misuse by extremists. Can Indian film and theatre really contribute towards this understanding? “There have been attempts by film, though theatre, I am not so sure,” she muses. “To handle a subject as complex as this you need an in-depth understanding of the issue. It works in Khuda Kay Liye, which was technically weak but well written. Firaaq was a sensitive film that managed to stir you without manipulating you. But if the film just uses the issue as a peg on which to hang a routine story, it ends up doing more damage than good.”

Given that Shabana is one of those who firmly believe in doing good, she has worked to help slum dwellers over the last 25 years. As leader of the Nivara Hakk movement, Shabana ensured that 12,000 homes were built, free of cost for slum-dwellers evicted from Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park. This, the single-largest rehabilitation project in Asia, is a matter of pride for Shabana. “But it is not even a drop in the ocean in the larger scheme of things,” she confesses, realist to the core. It helped to be an MP in the Rajya Sabha (1993–2007), so that she could influence policy for the powerless, but she continues her work even now. “My father said to me, ‘When you are working for change you should build into that expectation that it may not occur within your lifetime. But if you carry on regardless, one day the change will come.’ And that is my mantra for life.”



Written by Girish Karnad

Directed by Alyque Padamsee

Produced by Raell Padamsee

Cast: Shabana Azmi

Running time approximately 55 minutes

The play opens with Manjula Sharma, a college teacher and extraordinarily successful first-time English novelist, seated in a television studio and telling us about the storm her success has generated. Coolly, she refutes allegations of being a money-grabbing, opportunistic writer who betrayed her first language, Hindi, to write in English. The tension between the glamour of English literature and the step-sisterly treatment of Hindi language novelists is finely nuanced and brought forth by a now defensive, now offensive Manjula, as she flaunts the huge publishing advance and the unexpected fame she has received. Inordinately pleased for having smoothly hit out at her critics on television, Manjula prepares to leave the studio. That is when the live TV screen flickers to life again, an Image of Manjula staring out from it as it engages the author in conversation. Thus begins a riveting dialogue, eliciting truths as it goes along, that eventually strips Manjula down to a reality she has always known and denied.

The confessions the Image extracts from Manjula through simple but incisive questions reveal much about the complexities of human relationships, the love-hate bond between siblings, the significance of intellectual companionship in a marriage, and the irreversible consequences of a lie told so often, it becomes the truth, even to the one who utters it. When we create an Image of ourselves for the outside world, we run the risk of the Image dominating over our sense of self, and that is what Broken Images brings out – not in a soft and subtle way but with the brutality of a reflection that tells the truth and will not be silenced.

Along on stage throughout, Shabana Azmi is not so much an actor as she is Manjula herself: Torn, self-interrogating, and devastated as she gives voice to the truth she has subconsciously been aware of all along. More than watching a performance the audience witnesses the many protective layers around a celebrity peel away till she stands exposed, for our pity and our judgment.

The TV screen on stage has its own significance. To quote Girish Karnad, the playwright, “New technologies whisper to us in shimmering figures, seduce us with moving lines, colors and luminosities. Softwares speaking through microprocessors mould our tastes, question our judgments, persuade us to take their messages as our own, so that simulation furnishes us with copies more real than normal reality.” And so this play turns reality on its head, blurring the line between good and bad, selfish and selfless, lies and truth, and the self and the other, making it all seem one. The play is, in director Alyque Padamsee’s words, “A masterpiece about self-delusion and phantom images.”

For fans of Shabana Azmi the stage actor, don’t watch this play expecting anything like Tumhari Amrita or Kaifi aur Main. But do watch it if you want to witness an engrossing performance about the darkness within us all as the dark of the theatre surrounds you.

Upcoming shows of Broken Images:


  • Sunday, 7 February, Sophia Bhabha Auditorium, Mumbai
  • Saturday , 20 February, Sophia Bhabha Auditorium, Mumbai
  • Sunday, 28 February, Sophia Bhabha Auditorium, Mumbai


  • Thursday, 11 February, Hyderabad International Convention Centre