Thursday, December 24, 2015

Bajirao Mastani

Movie Review : Bajirao Mastani
Language : Hindi
Director : Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Genre : Historical Drama
Starring : Priyanka Chopra, Ranveer Singh, Deepika Padukone
Released : December 2015
My Rating : 6 out of 10

I have watched only two or three movies directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. I was extremely impressed with “Black”, while I simply couldn’t stand “Devdas”. When I heard his other movies also valued “style over substance”, I didn’t bother to watch any more. In spite of fearing the same for this movie, I still wanted to watch it.

This is a story that I am very familiar with. The history of Maratha Empire is something I have studied in detail in school. Since I have always been interested in History, I have also read many semi-fiction, semi-history Marathi novels that have been written for this period. This period is part and parcel of Marathi culture and Marathi pride. References to Peshwai are common in Marathi speech. In short, this topic is very close to heart, and at the risk of sounding narrow-minded I will say, this is a history of my people.

With that background, I can provide my understanding of “Raa’u”, the book written by Naa. Sa. Inamdar, and on which this movie is based. Bajirao-Mastani, is not, very emphatically, not a Marathi version of Romeo-Juliet. Bajirao, a Brahmin by birth, was an undefeated leader, known for his legendary skills of maneuvering cavalry. They say, he lived his life on a horse. After his marriage with Mastani, a Muslim woman, he tried very hard, but did not succeed, to give legitimacy to their relationship. His disregard for social norms was scandalous in the ultra-religious, ritualistic society of that time. This strained his relationship with his own family, especially his brother who was loyal to him like Lakshman was to Raam. This combination of rebellious love of a Hindu Brahmin leader with a Muslim woman, family drama, military triumphs and the political conspiracies that were all too common in those times, makes it a very complex and potent story. It should naturally lead into making a great movie.

Unfortunately, Bhansali’s adaptation turns out to be a movie with a split-personality. He has succeeded in bringing our attention to many aspects of the story, especially Bajirao’s naive struggle to get the society to accept his marriage to Mastani. But then he chose to make it a Romeo-Juliet in the end. His casting of secondary characters is perfect in case of Milind Soman (as Ambaji Panth) and Vaibhav Tatwawadi (as Chimaji Appa), but is laughable in case of Ayush Tandon (as the eldest son of Bajirao). The settings are very realistic in some cases (especially the inside of Shaniwar Wada) and totally fake in many. Please try to not look at the background sky. Especially the moon looks straight out of 70s movies. The dialogues are occasionally memorable, but often times feel like forced marriage of words (“dhalta sooraj, khilta chaand” etc), and sometimes just idiotic (Bajirao's repeated line of “Cheeteh ki chaal …”). This overall, cannot be termed as competent direction.

I am told that Bhansali’s movies are to be watched for the lead actors frolicking in the opulence of costumes and sets. Well, some of the sets are indeed impressive, with nods to Mughal-e-Azam (courtesan dancing in a room full of mirrors), a set out of Paakeezaa which interestingly is used to picturize a holi song without any real holi, go figure. 

Coming to lead actors. Both the ladies manage to show different shades of emotions. These are complex roles, especially Kashibai (Priyanka Chopra) who justifiably feels wronged by her husband. Deepika Padukone is perhaps the best choice today to play the role of Mastani. I was neither particularly impressed by the acting of both, nor do I have anything to complain about.

The main problem is Ranveer Singh. This is the first time I have watched him, and I don’t think he is a good actor to begin with. On top, he and Bhansali have chosen to portray Bajirao as an unpolished crude, almost a brute, as opposed to a civilized, inspiring leader. Maybe they had an “angry young man” in mind, but this interpretation comes across more as a goon than a king. His body language is awkward and sometimes comical. His dialogue delivery has no gravitas. This is my main objection to the movie. I am OK with all the artistic liberties even though I cringed watching the Peshwas dance. I really don’t understand that decision. Was it necessary to have Bajirao and Kashibai dance? I am not offended, but I don’t see the point.

On the positive side, I am happy someone brought this great story to wider audience. I hope it brings more awareness to Bajirao’s positive impact on India. It was his farsightedness that established at least three major confederacies (Baroda, Gwalior, and Indore) outside Maharashtra, which ensured the continuation of Hindu rule.

This movie has more depth and substance than “Devdas”, but still falls short of being a good movie. In case you want to watch it, I recommend watching it on a big screen to enjoy some eye candy it presents.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

True Detective

Review : True Detective (Season 1)
Aired on : HBO (2014)
My rating : 8 out of 10

For over a decade now, Cable (AMC, HBO, Showtime etc) is where good serials have been happening.  I haven’t watched the second season yet, but the first season of  “True Detective” is another feather in HBO’s cap. I say that, in spite of this series not tackling any new subject.

The Movie and TV industry has had a long and strong fixation with serial killers. Way too many movies, and TV serial episodes have been produced about them. It’s not easy for a yet-another-serial-killer story to differentiate itself. We have been shocked in so many different ways that it’s getting more and more difficult to produce such stories that command investment of our time. The unbelievably over the top “Dexter” was one approach to be different. For me, it was too gory to watch, and I gave up after the first season. Thankfully, “True Detective : Season 1” has taken a very different, and much classier approach.

It succeeds in deserving our time, by not overemphasizing the thriller dimension, and getting the two lead characters in much sharper focus. The nice thing is, it excels in both the aspects.

The story is told to us via flashbacks, which come during the interviews of three people - two ex-cops, Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Marty’s ex-wife. Rust and Marty were partners once. Many years ago, they solved the mystery of a series of murders committed as part of some devil worshiping rituals. It was a significant achievement, but their partnership had broke after that. Soon afterwards, Marty separated from his wife. Then Rust left the force, and so did Marty after some time. Now the police want to talk to all of them, to get help on a similar case. But they don’t seem very friendly, and are cross checking stories told by each.

This sets up multiple suspenses. How was the mystery solved? Who was the culprit referred as the “Yellow King”? Was it really solved? What really happened during the investigation? Why did all the relationships broke? Why did they leave the force after such a great success? And so on.

As the episodes progress, you will realize that this is not just another murder mystery, but it’s also a buddy story. Now it’s very common for the buddy stories to feature diagonally opposite personalities, and it’s true to some extent here as well. Marty is religious, while Rust has a very cold logical way of looking at things. But the commonality between them is the drive for justice. That drive binds them together, and makes them overcome the differences. That drive also helps them partially redeem themselves, because both of them are flawed individuals.

This intermingling of personal drama with a very serious crime mystery is done masterfully. Nothing is trivialized, and there are no guilty pleasures here. It’s serious, disturbing and still makes us root for the flawed characters.

As you can expect from this synopsis, the two lead characters together get almost all the screen time. Such an arrangement wouldn’t be successful without exceptional performances by the two actors. Matthew McConaughey has a perhaps the more memorable part as the comparatively flamboyant role of Rust. I was also very impressed by Woody Harrelson, playing a more complex role of a cheating husband who also deeply loves his family.

The characters and the drama is a huge plus. The mystery aspect, is almost as good. Almost. I thought it ended a bit hurriedly. The series is not short, but the way the mystery gets resolved was too quick.

I very highly recommend this season. Every episode wants to make you watch more, so many might find themselves, binge watching this one. According to the format, every season will have a different story, and different characters. So I presume, seasons can be watched in any order. This is correctly rated TV-MA and is not for kids.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Brilliant Blunders

Book Review : Brilliant Blunders
Author : Mario Livio
My Rating : 3 out of 5

The complete title of the book is “Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe”.

Yes, that’s a mouthful, and sadly, not accurate.

When I started reading this book, I got the impression that the blunders as committed by these great scientists somehow helped us understand the truth eventually. After reading the book, I am sure my impression was wrong, but I don’t even agree that these were some colossal blunders.

Author Mario Livio presents five case studies of great scientists and their revolutionary contribution to science. He also wants to show what blunders they made. There is a lot to disagree here. First, it’s beyond argument, that Darwin and Einstein, both have changed our thinking profoundly. The same cannot be that easily argued about Lord Kelvin. Not that Kelvin was not a great scientist, he indeed was. But I don’t think his contribution can be kept on the same pedestal as Darwin and Einstein.

Secondly, I completely failed to see the so called blunder in most cases. Let’s talk about the chapters on Darwin as an example. The theory of evolution needs a compelling theory of inheritance. At that time, no such theory was known. Darwin was aware of the gap, and tried coming up with his own theory of inheritance. It was flawed and he himself wasn’t very convinced. By stroke of pure bad luck, he missed out on paying attention to what Mendel was documenting. The author has done some original historical research to support what he is saying, and I believe what he has written. But where is the blunder? Darwin tried filling the gap, but couldn’t. That’s no blunder. 

The course of scientific discovery has never been a straight line, or a simple act of building knowledge upon knowledge. There have been enormous number of dead ends, discredited theories, stubbornly wrong scientists etc. We all know that. Yes, even great minds sometimes cannot solve all the pieces of the puzzle. I cannot call it a blunder.

To be fair, the author is not trying to ridicule anyone. He is clearly trying to explain why it happened. What was the mental block, where did the intuition failed and so on. That’s not what the title, or the introduction conveys correctly. The title definitely does bad service to the book’s impact. While the author may have succeeded in explaining some cases, he simply has not, in others.

That criticism apart, I have to give credit where it’s due. The author has written wonderfully about Fred Hoyle, one of the best known cases of a scientist sticking to a discredited theory. His great mind made huge contributions to cosmology, including the “Steady State Theory”. That theory was eventually won over by the “Big Bang Theory”, whose name was ironically coined by Hoyle himself. But Hoyle could not let go of his own theory. Mario Livio does a good job of explaining why it might have been so.

I think the best historical research done by the author comes at the end. Many popular science books tell us that Einstein called his introduction of the cosmological constant as hist worst blunder. You will find here a very conclusive case, that Einstein never said so, and the origin of this myth is perhaps a prank by Gamow. This is some nice contribution to the history of Science.

Overall it’s an easy book to read, and in spite of my criticisms, I can recommend it. I must mention that it’s more about the history than the science. So if you are looking for understanding the theories themselves, you will have to look elsewhere.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Now You See Me

Movie Review : Now You See Me
Director :  Louis Leterrier
Genre : Thriller
Starring : Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Mark Ruffalo, Melanie Laurent, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine
Released : May 2013
My Rating : 7 out of 10

I was in India when the movie “Dhoom 3” came out with a huge hype. I was very disappointed by the movie. I thought it was an inept imitation of the one of the main premise of “Prestige”,  a movie I had liked. Then I heard that it was more inspired by “Now You See Me”, so I made a mental note of not watching it. But a lazy weekend made me needy enough to watch an entertaining movie. I put it on, and I must say that it was a fun ride.

As the movie starts, we are introduced to the four main characters in an impressively efficient way. Daniel Atals (Jesse Eisenberg) is a street magician, Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) is a mentalist, Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) was once an assistant to Atlas and Jack Wilder (James Franco) is a con artist. These first few minutes set the tone for the entire movie. It’s clear from these opening scenes that we shouldn't be expecting much character development, the dialogues are going to be one liners and it’s going to be a fast paced movie that will try to dazzle us. Some viewers, may be reminded of “Ocean's 11”.

The movie happens in three acts. The first act involves the four protagonists stealing a French bank as part of a live magic show in front of a stunned crowd. The end result is no illusion, and FBI gets involved.

Detective Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) gets this case, and is extremely unhappy about the assignment. He doesn’t want to believe in the capabilities of these magicians, but gets outsmarted at every turn, and then is forced to work with a French female agent from Interpol. It soon becomes a personal battle for him to expose the gang. Helping him with cryptic hints, is an ex-magician Bradley (Morgan Freeman). Of course, there has to be an all knowing wise old man in such stories.

The second act is an equally impressive (and equally improbable) magic trick. Uptil this point, the high energy, witty dialogues, fast paced music and the ideas of the tricks keep everything very interesting. We learn more, and the real mystery starts slowly revealing itself.

Then, sadly, the third act starts. From this point, the plot relies on very convenient and unbelievable twists. The final magic trick is even more unreal. Well, all the magician movies that I have enjoyed, require the viewer to not question everything that is shown on the screen. “Prestige” was superb, and had that requirement. So did Edward Norton’s excellent movie “The Illusionist”. So I am OK with so called “suspension of disbelief”. What fails “Now you see me” is that the final trick is kind of boring, a bit predictable and too contrived, all at the same time. So the final payoff is a flat out disappointment.

In spite of that, overall, it’s packed with entertainment, and it will put a smile on your face, at least till the third act. The cast is A-list. It’s a big list, and hence everyone gets a small ration of screen time. But there is enough individual talent to shine through, and they will make you remember every character.

Director Louis Leterrier doesn’t rely on CGI here as much as did in his other movies (The Incredible Hulk, or Clash Of The Titans). There is also much less action compared to those movies. Still, this feels like a higher octane movie than those, and I think the director deserves credit for it.

A sequel is planned. I think I will watch that one too. I recommend the movie, but be aware that there are plot holes, and this movie is not to be taken too seriously. It should be fine for older teenagers.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Sixth Extinction

Book Review : The Sixth Extinction
Author : Elizabeth Kolbert
My Rating : 5 out 5 stars

The complete title of the book is "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History".

Environmental issues have been on our social psyche for many decades now. From global warming to deforestation, we associate the cause of all that to our modern lifestyle, which includes burning fossil fuels and the seemingly uncontrolled growth of population. That’s true, no doubt, but from the viewpoint of anthropology, the story is much deeper than that, as documented by this Pulitzer Prize winning book of 2015.

The reason for the incalculable change we have caused to Earth’s ecosystem, is just us. We being the weedy species that we have evolved to be. Period. Author Elizabeth Kolbert argues convincingly that modernity has only accelerated the impact. Even before the advent of modern lifestyle, we made irrevocable changes to this planet, and some would argue, damage is a more appropriate word than change.

Most of us know about the shrinking habitats for many species, and how the wildlife numbers are dwindling down. What is perhaps unlikely to be wide knowledge is, even the number of species is rapidly going down. Yes, species, entire species, are going extinct at an alarming rate. This rapid extinction began when humans started spreading out of Africa.

Species going extinct is part and parcel of the evolutionary process. When the reasons are not evolutionary, but an ecological disruption, mass extinctions can occur. Scientists estimate that there have been many such mass extinctions throughout the history of our planet. Out of those, five were truly horrific, and wiped out almost all species, save a few. The most well known of these is the asteroid impact that eliminated dinosaurs. What’s going on since last 200,000 years or so, is the sixth extinction, caused by us.

This is at once a morbid and sobering topic. If it wasn’t for the skillful writing by Elizabeth Kolbert, it would be just a boring accumulation of facts and stats. She has made a story out of this which keeps the reader completely engaged, and informed at the same time. She gives a nice primer on the history of theories as we go along. I was unaware how long it took us to even understand that mass extinctions have occurred, let alone figure out the reasons for it. The asteroid impact theory is only 3 decades old!

Another reason why it has become such an easy to read book is, she tries very hard not to be an alarmist, but remain completely factful. It’s a tragic story, some chapters like the demise of the Great Auk hit you very hard. At one point, their numbers were in millions, but it took us less than three centuries to hunt them to extinction. Many such flightless birds perished quickly on encountering humans. We eliminated many mammals, like Mastodons in North America, and perhaps the entire megafauna of Australia. The theory of the extinction of hominids like Neanderthals is depressing, as well as disturbing. On top of this, what we don’t kill via hunting, we kill by introducing viruses and predators against which the native species haven’t had a chance to evolve survival techniques. Make no mistake, this is not a happy book, but being a journalist, the author is adept at presenting in a way that will keep you turning pages.

Somewhere in the middle of the book is one of the most poignant observation I have read in a long time. She notes that for all the talk of our ancestors living in harmony with nature, the truth is, humans never ever lived that way. It may anger people who are proud of their heritage, but I think it’s true. Very true.

She also points out that, in spite of all that, we also show very altruistic behavior, and on an individual level, go to great lengths to lessen the speed of extinction. We have just barely started realizing the magnitude of our impact to this planet. So there is a long way to go, but there is a glimmer of hope.

It’s a superb book. I am giving it five stars but I was a tad surprised at the Pulitzer Prize. Of course, I haven’t read other books that were nominated, but at the end this book did feel a bit hurried. I would have also preferred some explanation of the scientific terms at the very beginning, and even more pictures. Those are minor quibbles. This book must be on your reading list.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Better Call Saul

Review : Better Call Saul
Aired on : AMC (2015 - )
My Rating : 9 out of 10

I may be the only person who hasn’t watched “Breaking Bad” yet. Yes, it’s in my to-do list. No, it’s not due any desire to be different than the population. It just hasn’t happened yet. In fact, after watching the first season of “Better Call Saul”, I eagerly rented and finished the first season of “Breaking Bad”.

The reason for mentioning this upfront is, to let you know that, this review is written by someone who had no idea of who Saul is or was. I had no expectations, nor could I connect any event with anything that happens in “Breaking Bad”. I watched and enjoyed “Better Call Saul” on it’s own. I only learned later that it was a spinoff from “Breaking Bad” to give the backstory of a character.

This story is told as a flashback. Currently Saul (Bob Odenkirk) is working in a donut shop, and is miserable. The flashback picks up the story years prior to current events, when Saul was a small time struggling lawyer Jimmy McGill, real name of Saul. He has a fake office hidden at the back corner of a nail salon. He is struggling to get a client, and the world treats him like a loser. He takes care of his brother, Charles (Chuck) McGill (Michael McKean), who once was a very reputable lawyer. Chuck is suffering from a psychological disorder that makes him think he is allergic to all forms of electromagnetic radiation. So Chuck lives in a house without electricity, doesn’t go out in sunlight, and needs Jimmy for bringing him food, newspaper and everything.

In his never-ending efforts to overcome his depressing situation, Jimmy works as a public defender. There he constantly gets into minor confrontations with the parking attendant Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks). When Mike’s tragic past catches up with him, he takes help from Jimmy, and they form a kind of working partnership. There is also Kim (Rhea Seehorn), who works in Chuck’s previous firm and is a true friend of Jimmy.

These main characters, and a host of others, provide a strong foundation to build a story that’s primarily focused on character development. Like any good story, there are other elements - suspense, surprises, emotional drama, a bit of violence etc. But what you are most likely to remember is the characters. Not just the main characters, but I am sure, many other characters would leave an impression on you. There are some strong normal characters, some quirky, some weird, some tough, some dumb. There is every shade available. It’s also a perfect teamwork by the writers and actors. This series is unusually strong in the acting department. I cannot point out one subpar performance. I guess some credit should also go to the casting manager.

Actually, the series excels in every department, and not just acting. The writers have done a great job of partitioning the story into ten individual episodes. The cinematography is superb. Whether it’s a desert scene, or a dark scene outside the office where Jimmy and Kim meet for chit chat, it’s always done well. The music lends great support. The dialogues are realistic and never oversmart.

I cannot say enough good things about Bob Odenkirk’s performance as the lead character. It’s one of the best I have ever seen, and I will be shocked if he doesn’t win the Emmy. His portrayal of a gifted talker and natural con artist, who is struggling to do the right thing by fighting temptations, is perfect, just perfect. Nothing is easy for Jimmy. Every time he sees a light at the end of the tunnel, something else happens. But he still tries to stay positive. This fight against a constant stream of depressing situations is perhaps the best part of Bob Odenkirk’s performance. It’s not cheesy, it’s not manipulative, it’s honest and classy.

I absolutely recommend this leisurely paced and fabulous drama. It’s shows like this, that have made me spend more time watching a series than movies. There is a lot to this story than what I have provided as a synopsis. I purposefully avoid mentioning any kind of spoiler, not just the ending spoilers, but even the episode spoilers. But trust me, this is a very satisfying series. Near perfect. It’s not at all for kids, but should be fine for older teenagers.

UPDATE : Please click here for the review for Season 2 and 3.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Big Ratchet

Book Review : The Big Ratchet
Author : Ruth DeFries
My Rating : 4 out of 5 stars

The complete title of the book is "The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis : A biography of an ingenious species".

It's often said that the kids born in this age would take a lot of technology for granted, unable to imagine life without touch screens. Although I agree with it, I think it's not only this generation, rather every generation takes some things for granted. In my view, it’s definitely true in every society that has seen the benefits of what the author calls as "The Big Ratchet".

For example, we do marvel at the wonders of technology, but how many of us who live in a developed country, especially US, marvel at the amount and variety of the food available at the local grocery stores, and how affordable it is? Intellectual progress rarely happens on empty stomach, so this availability and affordability of food has contributed a lot to our success in every other endeavor.

How did that happen? Producing food was not easy, even after humans transitioned from foraging to agriculture. Unpredictable yields, amount of physical labor, heavy dependence on weather, diminishing fertility of soil, plant diseases, pests who attack stored food are just few of the problems that we had to solve to get to this point. All this and more, is discussed at length in this superb book by Ruth DeFries, a professor at Columbia University.

She explains that this progress came with humanity going from one level of success to another, like a ratchet wheel, only to be followed by the problems associated with that success. Then another brilliant idea is needed to solve that, which acts as a pivot to move our species to the next ratchet, and then it’s again followed by a hatchet associated with the new solution. The cycle has been going on forever since we started agriculture.

It’s more common to hear extreme viewpoints which say the planet is doomed due to our over-indulgence, or the unapologetic optimism that proclaims our ingenuity will continue to solve future problems. This book, right at the beginning, announces that a more nuanced approach is needed that looks at a much broader history of the species. And the author delivers in spades. I will highlight a couple of examples.

About 50 years ago, India had a huge problem of generating food. Dire warnings of mass starvation were common. But no such thing happened. In fact, what happened was the “Green Revolution”. I vividly remember my father explaining to me how it happened - the building of dams, the modernization of agriculture (especially in the state of Punjab). What I didn’t know (or remember) was how the hybrid wheat played a major role in improving yields. Thanks to this book, now I know about Norman Borlaug who was crucial in this agricultural revolution, and not only in India, but worldwide. He was awarded Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honor, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize. No one is claiming, India doesn’t have people who go hungry to bed, but the impact of Green Revolution is as clear as daylight.

No such success comes without it’s problems. There is no better example of the hatchet-following-ratchet than the now infamous pesticide DDT. Paul Hermann Muller was awarded a Nobel Prize for his discovery of the properties of DDT. It eliminated many deadly diseases in 40s and 50s, and saved countless lives. But its use in agriculture ensured that the toxins went up the food chain, and caused myriad problems for all species, including humans. The battle against DDT was started by one lady, Rachel Carson, with the publication of the milestone book, “Silent Spring”. As a result, once heralded as miraculous, this chemical is now widely banned.

The study of this endless cycle of ratchets and hatchets is fascinating. There is so much more in this book. I vaguely remember studying the Nitrogen cycle in school, but I had forgotten all about the Phosphorous cycle. The kind of solutions that have been tried in history are simply astonishing. I am pretty sure most readers haven’t heard about bird poop being mined and hauled from Chile to Europe! 

If you are looking for vindication of your pessimistic or optimistic stand about what the future holds for us based on how we are treating our planet, then this is not a book for you. If you want to understand the history of how it all came to be, then this is a fabulous place to start. There are no predictions here. But the tone is generally optimistic, without belittling any challenges that face us.

I very highly recommend this book. I hesitated in giving five stars, because I found it a bit repetitive, and thought that it’s a bit dry than it should be. Of course it’s a scientific account, but in recent times, books like Omnivore’s Dilemma, have figured out a much smoother engaging style. It’s a minor quibble. Read this book.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Jurassic World

Movie Review : Jurassic World
Director: Colin Trevorrow 
Genre: Science Fiction/Adventure 
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Irrfan Khan
Released: June 2015
My rating: 7 out of 10

As I write this review, two weeks after the release of “Jurassic World”, it is already a very successful summer movie. It certainly seems like the newbie director Colin Trevorrow found a way to breathe life back into a franchise that twenty years ago suffered the same fate as most franchises with incompetent sequels do. Especially for movies that rely on a single main big idea, like the first Jurassic Park. With every sequel the novelty wears off and with it dies the repeat business.

The 2nd and 3rd installment of Jurassic Park tried bigger and badder dinosaurs, brought them to mainland, showed them as intelligent creatures in order to remain cool. They failed miserably. Now, Jurassic World takes an opposite and much smarter approach by presenting us a world, where there is already a fatigue about dinosaurs, just like for real world viewers. In this world, the owners of the Jurassic World have lost the advantage of surprise and awe. They have to make the dinosaurs do tricks, offer a petting zoo and innovate with genetically engineered hybrid dinosaurs. Even that does not seem to be enough, as the park is losing money. This attitude succeeds, as it helps the movie never take itself too seriously while keep poking fun at the lost appeal of an old idea.

I am not going to bother giving any synopsis. Rest assured that the movie has all the elements Hollywood deems necessary. Is the hero a handsome cool dude whose heart is filled with empathy for these creatures? Yes, check that. Is the lead female character trying to be a stiff businesswoman who has a hidden attraction to this cool dude? Yes, check that. Will he help her discover that these are animals and not business assets? Oh, yes, check that. Will the kids in the movie put their lives in danger? Absolutely. Is there a rich eccentric businessma? Yes, there is. Is there an obnoxious person who at the end will get eaten by the dinosaurs? Check that as well. Is there a “villain” dinosaur and a surprise hero? Of course. The movie is shameless in following the formula. Even the casting is formulaic. Don't expect any chemistry between the characters. Teenage girls will love their Chris Pratt, but the rest of the cast is forgettable enough for such forgettable characters.

All sequels invite comparison with the original. Jurassic World goes a step further, and insists that we must do it, by providing numerous references to the original. Most of the time these are witty, but not always. The kids very quickly manage to restart a car from the original movie which was supposedly not operational for twenty years. There are many such big obvious bloopers in this movie, while in the original they were nearly absent. No, I have not and will not forget the unforgivable - “It’s unix system. I know this”. As I said, nearly absent. No one would have argued that the original Jurassic Park was strong on character development. But after seeing Jurassic World, some (like me) would argue that it was as much a successful drama as it was an action flick. Even the cheesy scene at the end of the original movie with kids falling asleep in Dr. Grant’s lap seems like a classic now. As a lifelong fan of the incomparable John Williams, the music of of the first movie is etched in my memory.  Here, yes there is homage to it, but the magic is missing.

But twenty two years (fourteen since the forgotten 3rd installment) is a lot of time. There is a generation that hasn’t watched any of the three movies, and it’s a big enough market segment for Hollywood to try their luck again.

I loved the original movie. Watched it numerous times. Watched it in Hindi as well. When it the studio re-released it in 3D, I did my duty to watch it and give Steven Spielberg even more of my money. I watched the sequels when they came out, even though I had a feeling that I am not going to like them. I hated them. I have read the book, and liked it. With those disclaimers out of the way, I can say this now. Jurassic World is quite good. It’s nowhere near the phenomena of the first movie. But it’s way way better than the sequels, and on its own, it’s a perfectly enjoyable big budget monster movie. The special effects don’t even feel like special effects. It moves fast. Never threatens to be intellectual. Shows a lot of respect to the original movie. And finishes in time.

I have no idea why the Jurassic Park movies are thought of as made for kids. A lot of people die in a horrific way. No dinosaur is cute. But people still take their kids to watch this movie. I was one of these people, and my kids loved this movie, and I am sure most kids would love it too.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Elizabeth Ekadashi

Movie Review : Elizabeth Ekadashi
Language : Marathi
Director : Paresh Mokashi
Genre : Drama, Family
Starring : Shrirang Mahajan, Sayali Bandakavathekar, Nandita Dhuri
Released : November 2014
My Rating : 7 out of 10

Just a few days ago when I wrote the review of “Coffee ani barach kahi”, I mentioned that I started watching Marathi movies again only recently. One of the reasons, perhaps the main reason, was Paresh Mokashi’s first movie “Harishchandrachi Factory”. I had heard a lot about it, and it was every bit worth the hype. I absolutely loved that movie. So my expectations were quite high for this movie. They were almost met.

In the holy town of Pandharpur, two young siblings, Dnyanesh (Shrirang Mahajan) and Mukta (Sayali Bandakavathekar) live with their widowed mother (Nadita Dhuri). Their family is going through severe financial troubles. Their only remaining worthwhile possession is a cycle made by their late father. This cycle is lovingly named “Elizabeth”. When the situation becomes dire enough, where even the cycle might get sold, the kids decide to help out on their own. As per a suggestion by their friend, they start a small shop to sell bangles to the pilgrims who visit Pandharpur on the auspicious day of “Ekadashi”. (Hence the name of the movie.) The whole operation is kept secret from the mother, who wants them to focus on studies. Of course, things don’t go as smoothly as the kids had planned. Situation gets worse, before everything gets resolved for better in the end.

That last sentence wasn’t a spoiler. This is not a tear jerker tragedy. It’s a heartwarming, feel good movie. In such movies, predictability is an asset, when managed well.

The story is loosely based on childhood experiences of the script writer Madhugandha Kulkarni, who is the wife of the director Paresh Mokashi. It’s a short story, and doesn’t provide a lot of material for the director to work with. So he has to rely on other technical aspects to make it a meaningful movie. One aspect is authenticity. People behave in the movie as people behave in real life. It feels like you are watching real life events. The movie is shot on actual locations in Pandharpur. I was impressed by the functional and efficient camera work.

Mokashi has managed to extract exemplary support from the child actors. They impart more authenticity than any other aspect of the movie. Unlike the often seen irritating kids of movies/serials, the kids here are adorable and most importantly absolutely believable. They may not have been given the most challenging scenes to act in, but I could relate to them. I loved the character of Dnyanesh,  a respectful, well-intentioned kid and how Srirang Mahajan has acted. Other actors have done superb job as well. Nadita Dhuri as the mother was as natural as the kids.

In spite of this praise that I am offering, I cannot give the movie a higher rating. It’s a very small, simple story. It will touch your heart, but won’t awe you. My recommendation is mainly based on it being a very enjoyable movie that’s great for the whole family. My kids liked it, and I think so will most kids.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Coffee Ani Barach Kahi

Movie Review : Coffee Ani Barach Kahi
Language : Marathi
Director : Prakash Kunte
Genre : Romantic Comedy
Starring : Prarthana Behere, Vaibhav Tatwawadi, Neha Mahajan, 
Released April 2015
My Rating : 6 out of 10

Just a few years ago, I realized to my absolute delight that, Marathi movies are once again watchable. Now it’s also possible to experience some of the Marathi movies in a theater in Bay Area, thanks to efforts of groups like Maharashtra Mandal, Swar Sudha, and Marathi Cinema Bay Area who organized screening of this movie as perhaps their first effort.

There is no such thing as a plot in this movie. Jaai (Prarthana Behere) is a software engineer, from an upper class family, in Pune. Nishad (Vaibhav Tatwawadi) is also a software engineer, and also from an upper class family, in Pune. They also work in the same office in Pune, and are also mutually attracted to each other, but haven’t been able to express it to each other. As the movie opens, we know that Nishad has invited Jaai for coffee and is going to propose to her. Coincidentally, Jaai’s parents arrange for her to meet a prospective groom on the same day, putting Nishad’s plan in jeopardy. Rest of the movie slowly makes a very uneventful progress towards the predictable conclusion via various flashbacks.

If that sounds like a very plain movie, then because it is a plain movie. Not much happens in the movie as it does a whole lot of talking going exactly nowhere.

In spite of this glaring flaw, it still manages to entertain us because of strengths in many other departments. The acting is on the spot, by everyone involved. Prarthana Behere has the main role and makes the most impression. The atmosphere is clean and fresh with posh surroundings, progressive parents, likeable characters and a complete lack of worldly problems. Editing is smooth and the movie in general is strong on production qualities. The main strength, in my opinion, is the dialogues, which I presume to be written by Aditi Moghe, who is mentioned as the writer. They are smart, funny and thankfully not too cheesy.

The song “tu asatis tar”, is nice on the ears, sung by Sanjeev Abhyankar, and has beautiful poetry penned by none other than Mangesh Padgaonkar. At the same time, I also have to point out that the Urdu couplets used in the movie had many mistakes. It’s good that someone in the team likes Urdu poetry enough to use it, but these mistakes ruin the usage. I am not claiming my reviews are widely read, but just in case, I want to offer my consulting services absolutely free of charge to anyone who wants to use Urdu poetry in their work to ensure correct words, appropriate context, proper pronunciation and anything related. I mean it. 

Coming back to the review. All these niceties prevent the movie from boring us. It remains fun. But in the end, these wrappings are unable to hide the truth that the candy is bland. There is not even a modicum of tension or conflict. The problem faced by the characters is simply superfluous. Everyone is just too nice. I suspect the filmmakers wanted to keep things realistic. I know, we don’t need to see another Amrish Puri not letting go of Kajol’s hand till Shahrukh’s train reaches a certain precise speed etc etc. I get that. But this story is too much of a straight line.

Generally the genre “Romantic Comedy” suffers in the comedy department, and offers cliches in the romance part trying to somehow make it work. Here, the comedy part works really well, and the romance part falls flat on its face. If that’s OK with you, absolutely watch the movie for a light hearted fun of around one and half hours. It’s perfectly OK for kids. The young generation might even enjoy the movie more.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Ghalib, Iqbal and Faraz :-(

On social media (Facebook, What’sApp groups etc) I am seeing this mentioned again and again. Some ash’aar (couplets) are presented, claiming them to be written by none other than Ghalib, Iqbal and Faraz. A typical post will mention something like following. There will also be claims such as how these poets have expressed this across 3 centuries, and how interesting it is to see them offer different viewpoints on the same subject. Some posts also offer translations.
Ghalib Vs Iqbal Vs Faraz

Ghalib Sharab Peene De Masjid Mein Beth Ker,
Ya Wo Jagah Bata Jahan Khuda Nahi.

Masjid Khuda Ka Ghar Hai Peene Ki Jagah Nahi,
Kafir K Dil Mein Ja Wahan Khuda Nahi.

Kafir K Dil Se Ayah On Ye Dekh Ker Faraz,
Khuda Mojood Hai Wahan Per Usay Pata Nahi

This is misinformation at it’s finest. There is so much wrong here, that I do not even know where to begin. Maybe I can start by saying, everything, EVERYTHING is wrong. 

The first sher is well known. Except that the first word is “zaahid”, meaning a religious person. The order of words is wrong, and last word “nahi” is actually “na ho”. That’s not the real problem though. Replacing the first word with “Ghalib” does not make it a sher by Ghalib. Sometimes it’s hard to ascertain the originator of a very old sher. In this case, I am absolutely certain. This sher is not present in Deewaan-e-Ghalib. It’s easy to check. Accuracy of Ghalib’s deewaan is also not a suspect, because Ghalib himself published it. There is no argument here. To some it may be a good sher to recite at party over some wine, but please do not associate this sher with Ghalib.

Second sher is even more of a travesty. First of all it’s not a very good sher to begin with, and it’s definitely not by the great Iqbal. Now I do not have complete works of Iqbal, like I have for Ghalib and Faraz. But I do not need that in order to bet my money that this sher is not written by Alama Iqbal whose poetic prowess was boundless. When it comes to decide who is the best Urdu poet of all, his name features at the top of list, along with Meer and Ghalib. 

It’s not just the question of quality. Let’s get this straight. Iqbal was a devout Muslim. He would have never said that God does not exist in any place. Period. Secondly, he was religious, but not narrow minded. As a man of very high intellect, as a philosopher, he would never disrespect any other religion. Associating that sher with Iqbal is same as insulting him. Let’s not do that mistake. 

Now about the last sher. Faraz in my opinion, is the best Urdu poet of our times. He was primarily a poet of love and emotions. He hardly ever wrote about religion. The last sher is not his style either. More importantly, I have his works, I have checked, and I can tell you, the sher is not in any of his collections. 

All these couplets are not that good, but it’s my subjective opinion. The fact is, there is no deep message here. It’s fluff. And none of the great poets ever wrote those substandard couplets.

When I derive pleasure from the works someone, an artist, a singer, a poet - I feel gratitude. I feel I owe them something back. This is my attempt to do the right thing by bringing more awareness. I urge you to do the same thing. Please spread the word. You can link to this post, or just respond on social media pointing out that the attribution is wrong.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Mother Nature Is Trying To KILL You

Book Review : Mother Nature Is Trying To KILL You
Author : Dan Riskin
My Rating : 5 out of 5

The complete title of the book is “Mother Nature Is Trying To KILL You : A Lively Tour Through the Dark Side of the Natural World”.

In my frank opinion, there is a huge mis-understanding about what Nature is. Maybe it makes us uncomfortable that our modern lifestyle has taken us quite far from raw nature. We want to “live naturally”, “eat naturally”. We want to go out and  “enjoy nature”. We want to “appreciate the beauty in nature” and “thank mother nature for the bounty” when we fill our shopping cart with organic produce. Now there is nothing wrong in being thankful for the food that we obtain from nature, but let’s not forget the fact. Nature did not produce any of this for our enjoyment. We took it, because if we don’t eat, we will die. But Nature is no benign power that looks after our interests, and provides for us.

Dan Riskin has tackled all such myths in this smart and witty book. It’s a mix of two styles. There is quite a bit of personal storytelling from a father’s viewpoint. But mainly it’s an excellent documentation of disturbing behaviour found in all parts of natural world, from a very scientific viewpoint. Interestingly, the mileposts he uses as guide, are religious in nature, namely The Seven Deadly Sins.

For example, in the chapter on Greed, he gives examples of animals who eat their own kind, in order to increase their own chances of survival, and specifically to increase the chances of their DNA’s survival. Lions kill babies of other lions, and even zebras kill off springs of other zebras. For a bear cub in Alaska, an adult male bear is where the real danger is. For some species, it begins in the womb. A baby sand tiger shark eats the other siblings’ eggs right in the uterus.

The not-so-good side of Nature is not an anomaly. Instead it’s everywhere. In the chapter on Lust, he gives example of how complex (and often times dark), reproduction is in many species. All the other sins are abundant too. There is stealing, there is gluttony, there is sloth and so on.

What’s the point of all this? To paint Nature as some kind of evil? Of course not. Nature is not evil. Nature is what it is. The point here is to understand and accept Nature for its totality. Certain things in Nature appeal to us, certain things disgusts us. What we have to realize is that “the natural way”, or “how nature does it”, is not a very good template to model our behavior on. The author has done an excellent job in introducing us to all faces of Nature. He doesn’t just give facts after facts, he weaves a story. It’s engaging, and very very easy to read through.

I have to add a disclaimer if it’s not already obvious. I had already formed similar opinions myself even before reading this book. I have watched countless Nature shows, done some eco-tourism, read other books on similar ideas. I am a “Nature lover”, but not just for taking photographs of flowers, although I love doing that. I am amazed by the complexities of life in nature, and astonished at what tactics evolution has produced into even the simplest of creatures. I have used similar arguments to point out to vegetarians that the almond seed (mistakenly labeled as “nut”) they enjoy is not much different than the egg they think is wrong to eat. Neither was produced for your consumption. Both are “future babies”, and their only purpose is to increase the population of their respective species, not ours. Anyway, that’s a separate and long debate.

I highly recommend this book. Note that this is a scientific tour. Not philosophical. Reading this may make you wonder, why a benevolent God has produced such vicious, and cruel Natural World. Those questions do not belong here. That’s what Spirituality and Religion is for. This book is a fantastic way to educate yourself about the reality of the world we are a small part of. To open your eyes to the true Nature. Read it.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Django Unchained

Movie Review : Django Unchained
Director : Quentin Tarantino
Genre : Action/Western
Starring : Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson
Released : December 2012
My Rating : 7 out of 10

Before watching a Quentin Tarantino movie, I guess you should ask yourself if you are a fan or not. Liking ‘Pulp Fiction’ is not enough. I liked it, but I am no fan of him. Maybe “Kill Bill” is a right example. Did you like it? I didn’t like it at all, but if you liked it, then there is a good chance that you might like this movie.

The movie begins in 1858, just a few years before the Civil War. Dr. King Schultz (Christoff Waltz), a dentist turned bounty hunter, forcibly takes a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx) from his recent owners. Dr. Schultz is not interested in keeping Django as a slave, but rather wants Django’s help in identifying other criminals. So he offers Django freedom, and makes him a business partner. Their “business” does quite well, and after accumulating enough money they start their quest to locate and free Django’s wife.

They learn that Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) is now on a plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). This man is as deplorable as they come, so Schultz and Django invent an elaborate pretext to be invited there. Not everything can go as planned, and Candie’s sycophant slave Stephen (Samuel Jackson, under a heavy makeup) sees right through them.

Just like his previous endeavour (The Inglourious Basterds) Tarantino has chosen another sensitive subject to impose his style on, and he easily succeeds. There is a lot of vintage Tarantino in the movie, especially in the scenes focused on Christoff Waltz who gives a comparable performance to his famous role in The Inglourious Basterds. These scenes, as we have come to expect now, are full of smart, witty dialogues that build up the tension required for the eventual violent follow-up. Also, we are constantly guessing as to which direction the scenes will move towards. That’s the good part.

What I specifically didn’t like was the mix up of these high quality scenes with deliberately impossible action, in the later part of the movie. Sometimes our two lead protagonists are ordinary human beings, who have to worry about things going wrong. Sometimes they can wipe out an army with a revolver that never runs out of bullets. Either one on it’s own is acceptable, but the combination did not work for me. In fact, in the end, it ruined my experience, and for a long movie like this, it’s a serious shortcoming.

The acting is generally good. Jamie Foxx has done a reasonable job, and Samuel Jackson rarely fails to deliver. Christoff Waltz, as I mentioned, is perfect. The one who impressed me most was Lionardo Do Caprio. His star image, doesn’t bring an evil Southern slave owner to mind, but he has done a wonderful wonderful job. His progression since the romantic hero of Titanic has been a joy over the years.

I repeat. If you have like his previous movies, then there is a good chance that you will like this one, else, not so much. This is correctly rated R, and has copious amounts of violence.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Kasparov On Kasparov - Part 3

Book Review : Gary Kasparov on Gary Kasparov Part 3 1993 - 2004
Author : Gary Kasparov
My Rating : 5 out of 5 stars

This is the third and last installment of Kasparov’s autobiographical look at his own games.

I have reviewed his previous books, Part 1 and Part 2. Part 3 covers his life and games from his championship match with Nigel Short, upto his last game at Linares. The format is similar to not just the previous two installments, but all the other books in his mammoth series that began with “Great Predecessors”.

Although this covers the last part of Kasparov’s chess career, it’s not the period of deteriorating results. Kasparov was the highest rated player all the way till he retired - only recently Magnus Carslen surpassed that rating. He was unquestionably the best player till his last official game, towering above his contemporaries, winning one tournament after another. A true legend, and in my view the best player ever.

Since he retired at his peak, the quality of the games in this book is astonishingly high. In fact, for a lowly amateur like me, most of the games are just too deep. There are many helpful explanations, ton of annotations, and ample diagrams. Just like his other books. They help, but this is also the period when chess went through a big transformation. Research and preparation were always part of life for a serious chess player. But the advent of affordable computing power, and increasingly smarter software assisted players in finding moves that may seem alien to humans. It led to positions where general principles were often eschewed in favor of complex calculations. Chess became more and more concrete. Kasparov masterfully adapted to this new world. No, he mastered it. Complications were always his territory, and the opening research made him even more invincible.

If computers had an impact on making games more difficult for average players like me, at the same time they also helped us enjoy the game like never before. Chess found a perfect medium - Internet -  to broadcast games to the entire world, at a very low cost. The amount of data that needs to be transferred for indicating a move, is just two coordinates, practically nothing. Because of this, many tournaments were broadcasted live. I have watched many of the games in this book live, and I remember some of them vividly. I remember my own surprise when Kasparov unleashed the Sicilian Dragon on Anand during their match. I remember how Kramnik’s Berlin Wall effectively neutralized Kasparov’s play with white pieces in their match. I even remember Kramnik’s Rb1 against Kasparov’s favorite Gruenfeld. And so on. I was lucky to witness so many great moments, and now, I get to read exactly what Kasparov was thinking and planning during these, in his own words. How he planned his strategy against specific opponents, and how it worked, is a fascinating read.

This commentary, and Kasparov’s deeply personal thoughts, make this book very very interesting, and definitely the spiciest book in his entire series. The reason is, this was also a turbulent period for Chess, especially for the title of World Champion, and Kasparov was at the absolute center of this. This book begins with his first match after he broke away from FIDE, and ends with his retirement due to the hopelessness of reunification. The feud between him and FIDE costed a great deal to the entire chess world. This is a hugely controversial issue. I remember the zealous passionate debates and extreme opinions that were expressed online and in print media. In this book you get to hear Kasparov’s side. He does accept moral responsibility, but also does not mince words when he criticizes the other side - which mostly is the FIDE, and also Kramnik who avoided playing an automatic rematch. It’s all very candid, and mostly honest, keeping in mind that this is his defense. I don’t think he is being completely truthful though. For example, he expresses regret that the reunification was not properly supported by all the grandmasters, in spite of he himself agreeing that it was not a perfect plan. That particular Prague agreement, completely left Anand stranded without a fair chance. It was so distressful to Anand that he lost almost all his games in the Dortmund tournament that he played after the announcement. So Kasparov’s complaint about not getting to play a reunification match based on such an agreement, doesn’t touch my heart considering that it was he who broke away from FIDE. There are more such instances, if you remember the not-so-distant past.

In addition to playing at the highest level to constantly prove that he was the real true chess king, Kasparov was also active in many other endeavours. He started an online chess site, tried very hard to attract corporate sponsorship for chess and became an active politician in Russia. It boggles my mind how someone can do all this, and still win consistently against the top competition. He recounts what else was going on, including his divorces, and how it all affected his play.

I highly recommend this chess treasure. The depth of the games, and the commentary that is bound to touch you emotionally, one way or another, makes it perhaps the most interesting books of the series.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Maraasim by Ahmed Faraaz

Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it happens with others too. In my mind, some words are inseparably associated with a sher. Probably because it was that sher that introduced to me the specific word.

One such word is ‘मरासिम [maraasim]’. It means ‘having cordial relations’ (or ‘मेल जोल [meljol]’ in Hindi).

I am sure the sher that comes to anyone’s mind when hearing this word is the following.

Note : I am giving translations to convey my interpretations, not trying to write equivalent English poetry.
पहले से मरासिम ना सही, फिर भी कभी तो
रस्म-ओ-रह-ए-दुनिया ही निभाने के लिए आ

रस्म-ओ-रह [rasm-o-rah] == custom, tradition
रस्म-ओ-रह-ए-दुनिया [rasm-o-rah-e-duniyaa] == worldly traditions

pehle se maraasim na sahi, phir bhi kabhi to
rasm-o-rah-e-duniyaa hi nibhaane ke liye aa

[We may no longer have a relationship, but once in a while
Come and meet with me, just for keeping social customs]
This is of course from from one of the most famous GHazals of all time, ‘ranjish hi sahi’. It’s written by one of my favorite poets Ahmed Faraaz, whom I consider to be the best Urdu poet of our times. The entire GHazal is full of innovative ways of pleading with his beloved to return back to him. It’s hard to pick a favourite sher in that GHazal. I love all of them, including the above.

I associate this word, not just with this sher, but also with the poet himself. I do not recollect a single good sher by any other poet, that uses this word. But I know of many ash’aar by Faraaz that employ this word. I must clarify that, I am sure other poets have used this word, it’s just that I associate Faraaz with this word.

Faraaz, first and foremost, is a poet of emotions and relations. Here is a sher to illustrate that point. The reality does not have discrete stages of relationships, like in-love or broken-up. There are many shades, many hard to define stages. The following sher beautifully captures one sad shade of the pre-break-up stage.
अब तो हमें भी, तर्क़-ए-मरासिम का दुख नहीं
पर दिल यह चाहता है, कि आग़ाज़ तू करें

तर्क़ [tarq] ==  to abandon
आग़ाज़ [aaghaaz] == beginning

ab to humeiN bhi tark-e-maraasim ka dukh nahiN
par dil yeh chaahataa hai ki aaghaaz tu kare

[Even I am not going to be saddened by the loss of relationship now.
But my heart wants you to take the first step (towards breaking it).]

[I know we are going to break up, but I don’t have the courage to actually do it. Or I don’t want to be the one who actually does it. Interpret it the way you want it.]
There is feeling of surrendering to the eventuality, but unwillingness to embrace it. I adore this kind of poetry that poets like Sahir and Faraaz were so good at. They perfectly capture the multi-dimensionality of human emotions.

Of course not all couplets are going to be great. The following is one such. Pedestrian by Faraaz’s standard.
क्या कहें, कितने मरासिम थे हमारे उस से
वह जो इक शख़्स है, मुंह फेर के जानेवाला

kya kaheiN, kitne maraasim the hamaare us se
woh jo ik shakhs hai, muNh pher ke jaane waala
People who have only a passing interest in GHazal often associate it with expressing nothing but sadness. That’s understandable. They notice and appreciate the depth of sorrow found in Urdu GHazals. But these casual listeners don’t realize how diverse the paths are to this sadness. Sometimes the poet just tries to find sadness, almost in a masochistic way. The next sher captures the typical depression centric mentality, which finds sorrow even in an improving situation.
अगर किसी से मरासिम बढ़ाने लगते है
तेरे फ़िराक़ के दुख याद आने लगते है

फ़िराक़ [firaaq] == separation

agar kisi se maraasim badhaane lagate hai
tere firaaq ke dukh yaad aane lagate hai

[Whenever I attempt to get back into a relation,
I am reminded of the pain of our separation]
The next one may feel similar, but it's very different.
देख अब क़ुर्ब का मौसम भी न सरसब्ज़ लगे
हिज्र ही हिज्र मरासिम में समोया कैसा

क़ुर्ब [qurb] == nearness
सरसब्ज़ [sarsabz] == green, fertile, successful
हिज्र [hijr] == separation

dekh ab qurb ka mausam bhi na sarsabz lage
hijr hi hijr maraasim me samoya kaisa

[See, even this closeness doesn’t feel real
Why does it seem to contain eventual separation?]
Such ash'aar are perhaps hard to appreciate, and may be that's why you will rarely hear them in GHazals that are sung. I like how they highlight the contradictions often contained within human emotions.

I will leave you with my favorite “maraasimsher.
सिलसिले तोड़ गया वो सभी जाते जाते
वर्ना इतने तो मरासिम थे, कि आते जाते

silsile toD gayaa wo sabhi jaate jaate
warna itne to maraasim the, ki aate jaate
That wordplay is so typically Faraaz! Here it is also crucial to bring out the finality of the break-up. This marvelous sher is the maqta of one of most famous and wonderful GHazals by Faraaz.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Affair : Showtime Series

Review : The Affair
Aired on : Showtime (2014 - )
My Rating : 7 out of 10

I watched Akira Kurosawa’s landmark movie “Rashomon” when I was quite young. I had heard raving praises about the director, as well as the movie. After watching it, I was disappointed, because I didn’t really get the movie. Now looking back, with much more experience of life, I understand why “Rashomon” is really so great and the point it made. Truth is elusive, and memories are conveniently clouded by our self-serving interpretations of what really happened.

The “Rashomon” technique, as it is often called, involves multiple people recounting the same incidents. Each person’s account can differ, not just because their memories are not perfect, but they perceive and interpret the events differently. Some stories eventually reveal “the” truth. But things get interestingly complex when all the viewer knows is just the different versions of the same story. It can be used to build suspense. When done correctly, it’s also a great tool for defining characters, by hinting at their biases.

The latest series on Showtime, “The Affair” uses this technique as the primary vehicle of narration. Noah Solloway (Dominic West) is a public school teacher, happily married to his college sweetheart Helen (Maura Tierney). Like every year, they and their 4 children leave their suburban New York home to spend the summer in Long Island with Helen’s super-rich parents. They stop at a local diner, where Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson) has been a waitress since she finished school. She is married to Cole (Joshua Jackson), who is from a local tightly knit family of ranch owners. Something clicks between Noah and Alison, although their recollection differs in interesting ways.

These recollections are happening while they are being interviewed by a detective. Why and what crime was committed? I do not like giving even minor spoilers in the review, so I will end the synopsis here.

As the recounted story progresses, the mystery deepens - as in, even when you get to know what crime was committed, the why, and by whom is not immediately clear. The writers and directors, excel at this aspect. The story of the past affair gets told to us in discrete chunks of two different viewpoints. Each episode has 2 parts, one for Noah, one for Alison. At the same time, some tantalizing hints are given about their present. These devices, acting in unison, capture our attention and make us want to watch more.

Still, the mystery aspect is very much a sideshow. The main focus of the story is human relationships, family issues and particularly marriage. Both the main characters are cheaters, and sometimes act in poor judgement. Stories where main characters are deeply flawed are often uncomfortable. But this is reality. All the characters are very human, not very likeable, but human nonetheless. The writers do an admirable job in exploring the challenges inherent in all types of relationships. Kudos for that.

This is a smartly made series, but I was surprised that it won the Golden Globe award. It has its share of deficiencies. The series never properly explained Noah that well. In the end I understood Alison’s reasons for breaking her marriage, but Noah’s actions seemed inconsistent with the impressions created by earlier scenes. It also felt overdrawn to me. There aren’t enough ingredients to engage us for ten episodes. To be honest, without the narration technique, the story in itself is not very interesting. With so much focus on relationships, misunderstandings between lovers, emotional flip-flops and the broken hearts, I wondered if I am watching the "Lifetime” channel.

Acting is overall very strong. I was not at all surprised to see Ruth Wilson winning the Golden Globe for Best Actress. She has done a fabulous job and it’s a well deserved award. Rest of the cast is also near perfect.

I recommend this sincerely made series, if you are in a mood to watch a serious drama. It’s definitely not for kids, and is correctly rated ‘MA’.

UPDATE : Added Season 2 Review.

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