Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A Holiday Tradition

I grew up in a house-hold where all festivals were celebrated with great enthusiasm regardless of their religious implication. During Kali Puja, Diwali, Bhai Phonta our house would be filled with aunts and uncles and cousins for days. Every morning Daddy would go to the bazaar and come back with bags laden with vegetables, fish and meat which would then be lovingly prepared by mom and my aunts. The men would sit on the dining table and the children on the ground and have our lunches and dinners amidst laughter and chatter and great bonhomie in general! In the evening we’d burst crackers and even after three days of non-stop bursting, there’d still be crackers left over for next year!

During Eid, Daddy’s friend Atiq Mian would send home giant vessels of Biryani and mutton curry along with trays of dry fruits and sweets…the smell of that Biryani would linger in the house weeks after that! Holi meant helping ourselves to packets of aabir of every possible color and filling balloons and pichkari from buckets my brother prepared to attack unsuspecting passer-by! For Lakshmi Puja, Didi and I would painstakingly adorn the house with alpana while mom fasted and prepared the bhog and in the evening we would all sit by the alter with folded hands watching mom in her red-bordered garad saree, face radiant in the lamp-light, read aloud from the panchali, asking goddess Lakshmi to keep her home filled with good fortune and happiness forever! Then there was Bijoya Dashami when the house would be filled with people and mom would serve never ending plates of home-made nimki and narkel’er naroo to every one who walked in and Poush Sankranti when the entire paara could smell the delicious puli-pithey and the patishapta being made in our kitchen!

But my favorite holiday of all was Christmas. That particular time of the year signified a lot of things; exams were over, good or bad – the results were out, which meant we could play all day long without a care in the world! Christmas meant hanging our school stockings from the bed-post before going to sleep, which would miraculously get filled with candies in the morning! It also meant enjoying once in a year treats – a fruit cake from Nahoum’s, a trip to the zoo or the Victoria Memorial! One year Daddy took me to New Market before Christmas - I don’t recall how old I was or if I had ever been to New Market before that! But I remember this – it was filled with Christmas trees, shiny ornaments, paper streamers, garlands, colorful hats of all shapes, piñatas and star lanterns – an enchanted bazaar straight out of a little girl’s fantasy! Daddy bought me a Christmas tree that day. It was a tiny thing, the kind that one puts on their desks. I decorated it with tinsel garlands and little shiny balls of different colors! That tree was my pride and joy – none of my friends had it and I would show-off my little Christmas tree to anyone who came by!

A few years later Daddy passed away and all celebrations stopped in our house! Holi became colorless, Diwali light-less. Uncles and aunts and cousins started congregating in someone else’s house. Dada would wake up very early in the morning on Rakhi and Bhai Phonta and disappear for the rest of the day! Eid came and went but the aromatic Biryani from Atiq Mian’s house never came! Very few people came to wish us during Bijoya Dashami and who ever came would be served store-bought mishti and shingara instead of my mom’s home-made delicacies! Like every year Didi and I would adorn our house with alpana, but mom would never make bhog again. Neither would she sit by the lamplight and read aloud from panchali. She would offer cut fruits and sweets to Lakshmi and sit in front of the alter in mute silence as if she was having a silent dialogue with the goddess who let her down!

But I held on to my Christmas tradition; every year I would unpack my little Christmas tree and decorate it with great enthusiasm. The twinkling lights and shiny ornaments brought a strange sense of peace in my heart! But nothing lasts forever, and one day my tree fell apart – the wooden base was eaten hollow by wood-worms and the paper needles of the pine disintegrated! I threw the tree in the garbage and never looked back. So along with other festivals even Christmas was buried under the collective grief in our house-hold! Yet every year I would be drawn to Park Street on Christmas; I would treat myself to a piece of fruit-cake at Flury’s while looking at the magical lights adorning the street outside!

Many years later in Bangalore, on Christmas day I found myself alone at home with my Anglo-Indian landlady. I was new in town and had nowhere to go, and she was almost 70, a spinster and nearly crippled with arthritis! Together we sat in her bed-room watching TV and drinking home-made wine while she told me how she was betrayed by her Sikh paramour, a doctor in the army where she was a nurse during the WWII. Her hatred for the man who broke her naïve heart fifty years back was quite intense!
“Men”, she said taking a sip of the too-sweet wine “are all bastards! You smile at them and they’ll want to get into your knickers!” The wine, in spite of its rather overwhelming sweetness, was quite potent!
“You’re right, Aunty!” I said.
“Take it from me girl - don’t let any man take off your knickers unless he gives you a wedding ring first!” A wonderful pearl of wisdom from a senile (and drunk) old lady on Christmas night that I’ll never forget in my life.

Little more than a year later I was married, moved to Seattle, bought a house and trying to settle into the suburban American life. That year I learnt that one can celebrate festivals with people other than family. I attended the Bengali community Durga Pujo, followed by Bijoya Dashami and Sindoor Khela party at some one’s place. There was more than one Diwali party to go to, where we didn’t burst fire-crackers, but generally partied till wee hours of the morning! Along with these I also adopted the American traditions of barbeque on 4th of July, putting pumpkins outside your doorway and dress-up silly on Halloween and eat-till-you-throw-up on Thanksgiving! Sometime after Halloween I noticed a giant Christmas tree in a mall…I was child all over again…I rushed to the tree and stared at it in amazement! Never before I had I seen a tree that big or ornaments that beautiful! I stared at the tree for a very long time admiring its beauty.

The day after Thanksgiving, spouse pulled out a battered old card-board box with a picture of Douglas fir on it from the store room and that day we started our very own tradition of putting up the Christmas tree. In the initial years the tree wasn’t much to write home about…but with each passing year we added more ornaments to our collection and decorated the same tree with great enthusiasm. After we had sonny boy, he too joined the family tradition with equal gusto – he would putter around us, handing us ornaments and squealing with delight when we turned the lights on!

The two winters that we spent in Hyderabad were rather interesting. The first Christmas, we were in Bangkok partying like it was the night before apocalypse! Little did we know that the very next morning hundreds of thousands would be killed as giant waves would hit the coasts of Indonesia, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka! We were incommunicado with family back in India who just knew we were in Thailand and Phuket was one of destinations – till we were able to get past the tremendous communication jam and get in touch with them! It was a time of stress, anxiety and immense sadness!

The next year we decided to celebrate Christmas in a much sober manner and planned to throw a party for sonny boy and his little friends! It was fun organizing such an event…it took me all over Hyderabad in search of Christmas paraphernalia, including a Santa Claus – yes, a rotund jolly-faced Santa Claus, who would walk in with his customary “Ho Ho Ho” and distribute gifts to kids from his giant sack! But alas, there was no Santa to be found, specially the jolly-faced kind! Every one offered me a Santa suit and asked me to find someone who’ll wear it! Honestly, I couldn’t ask any of my friends to actually wear that ill-fitting, not to mention smelly red suit! At the last store, I begged and pleaded with the owner. “Please, please, please find me a Santa! The children are expecting him – it was written on the invite that Santa will be there!”
“Sorry madam! This is a very busy time for Santa – they are all booked by star hotels months before Christmas!” the store owner said.
“What will happen to my party?” I wailed.
He took pity on me and had a quick discussion with his partner in swift Telegu which I failed to catch. Then he turned towards me and said “I think madam you are in luck…we can give you a guy!”
“Really? Wow! Where is he?”
He called out to someone “Ask Chhotu to come here for a minute”
A minute later Chhotu appears from somewhere in the back of store.
“Madam, this is your Santa Claus! Kya re Chhotu, do ghante ke liye Santa banega kya? Sirf yeh laal rang ka suit pahenna hai aur bachcho ko present dena hai…kar sakega?”
Chhotu dutifully nods his head as I stare at him. Where is my rotund, jolly-faced Santa? This guy is tall as a lamp-post, skinny like a match-stick, black as ebony and as if that wasn’t bad enough, he was completely cross-eyed! I wanted to cry. I wanted to go back to Seattle, to a mall, where Santa sits on an ornate chair, in his make-shift North Pole village smiling indulgently at whiny, snotty children who stand in line for hours in their stiff new clothes to get his or her picture taken with Him. I shook my head violently and left the store. Later in the party spouse and I cranked up the air-conditioners and wore Elf hats and spread Christmas cheer to a bunch of four year olds who kept asking when Santa will show up with the presents!

Christmas is still my most favorite time of the year – the beautifully decorated Christmas trees all over the city, the twinkling lights adorning the leafless trees on the curb, the gingerbread latte the Starbucks would serve during the season, the ancient creaking carousel in downtown, the fruit-cake baking in my kitchen, the holiday parties, the gifts under the tree – yes, I love every last commercial aspect of Christmas! And why not, it reminds everyone to be happy and kind, the idea of giving and sharing with everyone! Of course I’ve run into monsters out to do Christmas shopping, in the mall parking lot jostling for a spot, ready to run-over anyone under their expensive SUV’s; I’ve heard people complaining because of the conflux of family under one roof ; people getting stressed out over gift-giving; and people getting depressed because they have no one to share Christmas with!

This year, the day after Thanksgiving we took out our Christmas from its card-board box – its falling apart in every possible way. Spouse suggested we get a new tree. But I told him that I had promised our tree that it will be with us this year when we packed it last year. I have to keep my promise, so we lovingly put it up and decorated it with yards and yards of twinkling lights, red and gold ornaments, ribbons, garlands and beaded sprays – in my eyes it’s the most beautiful tree I’ve seen this season!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Dhoom 2 : A Roller-coaster Ride

Last night I had yet another one of those disgruntled moments, which soon turned into the biggest embarrassment of recent times. We went to watch Dhoom2 after a wonderful meal at the neighborhood Italian diner. Happy with the food and even happier with the delectable Pinot Noir that accompanied the meal, I rush into the theater hoping to capture some nice seats leaving spouse to park the car. Looked like it was a house-full show…lots of people inside the theater, but I was lucky enough to find some really nice seats…center row, towards the back, just where I like to sit! I immediately called spouse to let him know about the sudden windfall. Couple of minutes later spouse calls me back…he’s unable to locate me in the theater and asks me to wave my arm in the air- which I do- yet he cannot locate me! Turns out that we were in two different screens! He trudges over to join me. In the meantime, a man carrying a precarious tower of samosas and coffee comes over and scowls at me. The conversation that follows goes somewhat like this:
Man: Excuse me! You’re sitting on our seat!
Me: No!
Man: YES! That’s my daughter’s jacket over there!
Me: OK! But nothing was on these three seats, so I’m going to sit here!
Man: Come on! Don’t be so rude!
Me: (getting a little annoyed with the exchange) I’m not being rude! You should have put something on the seats to secure them. These seats were empty, so I took them. YOU are being unreasonable!
Spouse shows up by my side.
Spouse: What’s the problem?
Me: Nothing that I can’t handle!
Man: (He’s really upset now) This is ridiculous! Why don’t you go back to the seat where you were before the interval!
Wordlessly I got up from the prized seats and beat a rather hasty retreat, my ears burning in embarrassment, dragging a bewildered spouse and sonny boy behind me!

It took a second bottle of Pinot Noir smuggled into the theater in coffee cup to wash away the sense of mortification! But then Hrithik Roshan did a spectacular sky-diving stunt and landed on a moving train somewhere in the Namibian desert and robbed some royal old dame off her jewel-encrusted crown! And I stopped fretting about the stupid fracas that took place moments ago.

Dhoom2 is all about Hrithik Roshan, in fact its an ode to the handsome actor’s multi-faceted talent, so much so that you’d think Papa Roshan is at the helm of the movie rather than Aditya Chopra and Sanjay Gadhvi! Hrithik over-shadows every other actor in the movie in every department! Whether its his Greek God like statuesque physique, or his ability to dance like he has no bones in his body, or the death-defying stunts that he insists on doing himself, Hrithik is a cut above the rest of his contemporaries!

There’s not much to the story-line of Dhoom2. Aryan (Hrithik Roshan) is a suave, high-tech master thief who is giving Mumbai Police department sleepless nights with his daring robberies! He’s a master of disguise who revels in whisking away the coveted object from under the cops’ nose! On his trail are Jai Dixit (Abhishek Bachchan) and Ali (Uday Chopra) who has joined the police force now. They are joined by ACP Shonali Bose (Bipasha Basu in uncomfortably tight clothes) a ball-busting non-nonsense super cop! Shonali also happens to be Jai classmate from college and they share a wonderful camaraderie much to the chagrin of Sweetie (Rimi Sen) Jai’s pregnant wife.

Aryan carries out another audacious robbery in Mumbai and dares the cops to catch him at his next mission in Junagadh. In Junagadh, while trying to steal a six hundred year old royal sword, Aryan finally meets his match – Sunheri (Aishwarya Rai) a street-smart petty thief with an attitude. After much humming and hawing the two form a partnership and head to Rio for yet another heist with Jai and Ali at their heels. In Rio the cops are greeted by Shonali Bose’s beach-bumming sun-worshipping twin Monali. Thus begins the game of cops and robbers, of intrigue, of betrayal and of passion!

There isn’t really much to complain about Dhoom2. Yet, if I nit-pick, I would say that the initial track of domestic discord with a hint of adultery in Jai Dixit’s life could have been explored a little more by cutting off a song or two which kept popping up at most inopportune moments! And why did Shonali Bose’s tough-cop character just disappear only to be replaced with the ditzy twin Monali? It didn’t make any sense whatsoever! And why didn’t we see any Brazilian cop during the Rio heist sequence?

The other problem with Dhoom2 is its music. Pritam had a tough act to follow…and he couldn’t live up to the hype at all! Dhoom2’s music is at best mediocre. The saving grace is the trendy choreography and stylized picturisation, which makes the songs visually stunning!

Watching Abhishek Bachchan in Dhoom2 I was reminded of Shashi Kapoor in numerous Amitabh Bachchan blockbusters. He is very important to the movie; nonetheless Jai Dixit’s character has been relegated to the backseat. Bachchan Jr does a fine job as usual with his “oh-I’m-so-cool” body-language! Yet every time he was pitted against Hrithik Roshan, you couldn’t help but notice how much Abhishek needs to spruce up his appearance, his posture, his physique and his wardrobe!

Ash's Sunheri is all glamour and absolutely no substance. The anxiety or strain that you expect from her as she follows the master thief on potentially dangerous missions is never felt. Sunehri enters the scene silently; almost an hour into the film in a cat-woman like body-suit hugging her newly toned contours sensually, completed with a mask that highlights her gorgeous eyes. In a matter of minutes she spoils it all – as she strips out of her cat-suit she opens her mouth…what a let down!! No more sensuality, just plain annoying! I for one couldn’t see why Aryan would take her as a partner let alone fall for her!! Sunheri and Aryan's union was meant to be a sizzling, electrifying moment but yet again Aishwarya Rai's lack of chemistry with her co-star made even the most well-written scene fall flat! And no, she didn’t wear a bikini in the movie, in case you were wondering!

It was Bipasha Basu who appeared in a teensy-weensy bikini and looked really good in it! At least as a cop she had somewhat of a job but as the scatterbrained Monali she pretty much had nothing to do except run on the beach wearing a Baywatch inspired red swim-suit in Uday Chopra’s dream!

Uday Chopra is the comic relief and his exchanges with Abhishek are quite funny at times. Most people find him irritating, but I think he was quite endearing! If there’s one person who’s super-irritating, that’d be Rimi Sen! Not only her dialogue delivery is awful, her penchant for breaking into Bengali every now and then (this time around she was craving for Machh Bhaja) can get really exasperating…in fact so annoying that in the five minutes that she was on the screen I wished Jai would dump her (pregnant or not) and shack up with Shonali!

Mounted on a rather extravagant scale, Dhoom2 is definitely a visual delight. It’s a hi-octane action/thriller and the thrills, stunts, pace and the breathtaking visuals are dazzling enough to keep the audience riveted from the beginning to the end! Dhoom 2 isn’t a good movie, but it’s not a bad movie either. Its clearly a Hrithik Roshan show – throw in some stunning action sequences, fabulous bikes, chuckle-inducing comic sequences, scantily clad women and you get a sure-shot crowd pleaser! Go watch it, but leave your brains back at home!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Casino Royale

When Pierce Brosnan was unceremoniously fired form the James Bond franchise I was heart-broken, and I guess I wasn’t the only one who felt that no one else could do justice to the flamboyant agent 007 on the silver screen. And then, precisely thirteen months back the name of the new Bond was announced. He is now played by Daniel Craig, as the world knows, and although I loved him in Layer Cake, like everyone else, I too waited with bated breath to see the result! And what a result that is!! Along with his bullet-shaped frame, jug-ears and unlikely azure eyes, Daniel Craig brings an emotional unpredictability to the role that is both clearly human and just plain more interesting than his recent predecessors. Notwithstanding my personal obsession with Mr Brosnan, I have to admit that Craig's easily the best Bond since Sean Connery.

In Casino Royale James Bond is back to his roots as Ian Fleming's driven, bare-knuckled, rough-around-the-edges sociopath killer in Her Majesty's Secret Service who’s only just graduated to coveted 00 status. He doesn’t know much about the difference between a shaken and stirred martini let alone care, and who doesn’t get behind the wheel of an Aston Martin until a third of the way through the picture. Until then, it’s (gasp) a Ford rental car for him!! This is meant to be a less elegant, more rough-and-tumble Bond than we’re accustomed to — Bond before he becomes “Bond, James Bond.”

It doesn't even feel like a Bond film as we have come to expect them, in their mind-numbing, increasingly gadget-dependent gigantism. There is no mastermind hell-bent on world domination, no invisible car, no laser guns and hundreds of extras don’t get mowed down in every other scene. It begins with a black-and-white sequence in which Bond brutally earn his 00 status with two textbook-perfect killings, followed by an exhilarating foot chase, as Bond pursues a terror suspect (French “free running” champion Sébastien Foucan) through a Madagascar construction site… that’s a ballet of gravity-defying acrobatics!.

Under the watchful eye of M (a wonderfully animated Judi Dench) and aided by a fellow operative Mathis (Italian actor Giancarlo Giannini last seen in Hannibal where gets his entrails eaten by Anthony Hopkins), Bond arrives in Montenegro with British Treasury functionary Vesper Lynd (French actress Eva Green) by his side. There, in the swank hotel and gaming establishment of the title, he squares off against Le Chiffre in a multimillion-dollar poker game. Instead of a megalomaniac out to rule the world, Le Chiffre (Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen), "the Cipher," is a banker to international terrorists who is only in the game for the money. His quirks are a tear duct that drips blood and the need for an inhaler. He gives off a genuine creepy vibe, especially when he tortures Bond with a rather painful testicle squeeze and pauses to leer at his naked body. The marathon casino sequence is the front and center of the movie, although attempted assassinations and a poisoning make it a poker game with a difference. Also if my math is correct, Bond goes through three freshly ironed dress shirts in a single night, which suggests that he has off-loaded Q in favor of a silent Jeeves! I guess, he has to look good for Vesper Lynd.

The advance publicity for James Bond movies usually features an interview with an actress who insists that she's not playing the typical Bond girl. Yet invariably the movie comes out, there's some serious actress suddenly acting like an idiot. The pattern is finally broken with Eva Green. Vesper Lynd is probably the most complex creation in the “Bond girl” catalog — neither the submissive flirt or ball-busting vixen of older Bond adventures nor the extreme sportswoman (Michelle Yeoh, Halle Berry) of more recent past, but rather a smart, sexy, independent-minded femme (with smoky eyes, blood red lips and paper white skin) whose relationship with Bond is based on something deeper than the exchange of mutually seductive charms. Meeting on a train, they exchange some fabulously punchy dialogue that’s like the smart, double-entendre-laden lingo prospective lovers use in literate Hollywood romantic comedies. And when he comforts her in the shower following a frightening shootout in a hotel stairwell, it’s tender and touching in a way we don’t expect from a James Bond movie.

Having said that, I should also mention everything one expects from a James Bond film is here, but better and more human. Bond gets off wisecracks at the expense of his adversaries, but this time it’s almost apologetic. This Bond isn't invincible; he’s forever getting nicked and bruised and he half expects that next time his number will come up.

Craig reinvigorates a fagged-out franchise that's been relying on preposterous stunts and sillier gadgets to disguise the fact that it's run out of ideas. And he does it with an actor's skill, an athlete's grace and a dangerous glint that puts you on notice that Bond, James Bond, is back in business. This you do not want to miss.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Sister of my soul - Part I

This is a story from the not so faded pages of my memory…about a friend I loved…and lost! I forget when I became friends with her or how. In a school reputed for teaching the maximum number of students in the whole world, unfortunately there were very few I could relate to. But she found me in the sea of faces and singled me out for her affection, loyalty and devotion and I returned her gesture with equal fervor! We were thick as thieves, always sitting together, always talking, whispering, laughing, and sharing everything from homework to lip balms to pangs of puberty to immature crush on some senior boy! And we shared a passion for Beatles, ABBA and Simon & Garfunkel…even the teachers knew about that! Every now and then we’d be pulled up to give impromptu performances in front of the whole class! In a class full of budding Rabindrasangeet and Hindustani classical singers, we were the odd ones out, but we loved every moment of our little gigs and the applaud that followed!

When we reached class IX, we had to separate! She and I chose different additional subjects because of which we were put in different sections. I missed her terribly and waited for the lunch-break and the minutes between classes when we could catch up by the drinking-water taps! That year her cousin, who was in the morning section all these years, joined us. I didn’t like this girl from day one…she was the proverbial kebab mein haddi…apart from the fact that she had absolutely nothing in common with us, she was also very needy, very insecure and very nosy! Yet my friend had to keep her close, because she was family…and if we didn’t give her enough attention, this girl would go home and cry after which her mom would call up my friend’s mom and complain how badly she’s treating her own first cousin! Pretty soon the situation became unbearable…my friend and I couldn’t talk at all…anything we said or discussed would eventually reach my friend’s family distorted like Chinese whisper and the poor girl would be reprimanded for ignoring her cousin over the company of someone with dubious morality! We mutually decided to give the cousin some space between us so that she stops making life so miserable for my friend and that seemed to work for a while! As much as I disliked her, I decided to be nice to her for the sake of my friend!

One day something unexpected happened. I had a severe stomach pain while in school, and had to be rushed to hospital for emergency appendectomy. For the next two weeks I was in the hospital and then at home recuperating! My classmates came to visit; those who couldn’t, sent get-well cards or called home to inquire. Only the person I missed most didn’t visit or call! There was complete silence from my friend. It broke my heart…I oscillated between making preposterous excuses for her, getting really angry and feeling abandoned! After almost three weeks when I went back to school, I took special care to avoid my friend; I rarely left the classroom, ate lunch at my seat, took the lift instead of the stairs and every day I waited her to come looking for me! But she didn’t!

A few weeks later, one day I bumped into my friend at the girls’ toilet. We exchanged forced pleasantries, she enquired about my health, I said I was doing fine…after that I had nothing to say to her and she seemed uncomfortable too! We bade each other good-bye and went back to our classes! That was probably the last time we spoke. Every now and then I’d see her at the playground during lunch-break standing arm in arm with her cousin at the corner which used to be ours for so many years! Sometimes we exchanged weak smiles…her cousin would always make it a point to turn her back towards me! After a point I stopped looking at her, moved on with my life…in a school of 14,000 students it wasn’t too hard to find new friends!

Soon it was time for the Board exams, the long break after that and then the results! I did pretty well…good enough to be among the hallowed circle of handful of students who get accepted in the last two years of school. My friend didn’t make it…she went to another school; so did her cousin and I never saw them after that!

A couple of days back I received a mail from the cousin…she found me on Orkut and wanted to get back in touch. I read and re-read her three line mail over and over again. In a flash I was 15 again; all the sadness, the anger and the heartache came rushing back like water from a broken dam! I realized that I was holding my breath, so I forced myself to take a deep breath and calm down…that chapter of my life ended so long ago; so much water has flown under the bridge since then! We are grown ups now and as the rational adult that I claim to be, I shouldn’t hold the cousin responsible for the demise of my friendship! In retrospect, I could have done things differently; I could have told my friend how much I missed her or given her a chance to explain…but I didn’t; I was busy playing the victim and wallowing in self-pity!

The petulant 15 year old me and the middle-aged current me fought for a long time and finally I decided to reply to her mail…no angry, sarcastic diatribe against her for the follies of the past; neither a mushy, sentimental reminiscence of the good old days…just a cut and dried account of the present! So now we are officially in touch…yet I don’t see the point of all this! Why play this charade when I have neither forgotten what she did nor forgiven her for it?!

Does time heal all wounds? Does growing older really make you wiser? I think not. There are some incidents in life that you never get over; you just learn to live with it!