Category Archives: Column

Is Sajid Khan the worst director in India?

Everyone in Bombay thinks they can direct a movie. Amateurs, screenwriters, film school graduates (both those who want to change the way we make movies, and those who want to make a living), television directors, actors who aren’t getting meaty work, theatre artistes… everyone either believes that direction is the ultimate aspirational goal and that they’re good enough, or that it’s a mug’s game. Even producers who want to cut out the middleman. By the time you read this sentence, Kick, which released yesterday — marking the directorial debut of Sajid Nadiadwala, a longtime producer — will have earned some massively obscene amount.

As a result, we see far too many poorly directed films. We see tackily assembled films, films with weak pacing, films where the director clearly can’t imbue actors with the necessary spirit, where the narrative goes haywire every time a song appears, where it’s depressingly evident the director doesn’t know where to place the camera, where everything appears slapped on together like some messy cinematic stir-fry, films lacking in nuance, consistency and grace. These directors may be handicapped by external factors, they may learn on the job, they may eventually find and capitalise on their own strengths, but — mercy be damned — for now it’s apparent there are too many directors in Hindi cinema who don’t know what they’re doing.

sajid1Sajid Khan should not, by any measure, be counted as one of these directors. As someone intimately bound to cinema, someone who has filmmakers all around him — sister Farah is an ace entertainer, cousins Farhan and Zoya Akhtar have each piped freshness into our films — and as someone who used to wickedly skewer filmmakers for being bad at their job, he simply has no business being this kind of journeyman. He is equipped with that ideal cinephile combination, a massive library of films and a great memory. His knowledge of English-language cinema is staggeringly encyclopaedic. I have had friends call him up out of the blue to settle bets about Ghostbusters 2 and he has replied instantly, off the cuff, clearly the man you want to call if on the hot-seat and phoning a friend, or if the 3Gs too weak and IMDb isn’t loading.

As for Hindi cinema, he knows our worst and weakest films very intimately indeed, and has made a career out of mocking them. The shows he hosted on TV, Kehne Mein Kya Harz Hai and Ikke Pe Ikka, took the mickey out of Bollywood with tremendous élan. He berated films for buffoonery, thoughtlessness, crass overacting. A section of his show, “Ham Scene Of The Week”, remains a very watchable YouTube favourite, wherein Khan would zero in on some horribly overcooked moment and, basically, point and laugh. And we laughed right along.

I haven’t met him in person, but he’s apparently a man with a clever (albeit foulmouthed) sense of humour, a man who is — like most of us film fanatics — easily goaded into fanboy mode, a man who gushes about the films he most adores. My film-snob friend M met him, bonded over film-geekiness and told me he was actually pretty fun. By all accounts, this is a man who loves the movies.

Why, then, is he so obsessed with ruining them?

~

Khan’s first film, Heyy Babyy, had too many Ys. Why, for example, was it made in the first place? Why was there not a single smart gag? Why didn’t he write a script before he started shooting? Why instead did he ripoff Three Men And A Baby and, while doing so, why did he strip it of all its tender charms? Why did he throw in bad innuendo instead? And why did Sajid Khan, the man who taught most of India what “hamming” meant, feel the need to have one of his protagonists, a Muslim, fall to his knees and perform namaaz in front of a Christmas tree inside a hospital while the background score rose to a melodramatic crescendo?

housefullThe film was a catastrophic failure except for one minor detail: it was a monstrous hit, a record-breaking behemoth that did better than everyone expected. Since then, his films have gotten successively stupider. Housefull, Housefull 2, Himmatwala, Humshakals. These are not merely bad movies, they are grotesqueries, designed to torture people who can read, people who want more from movies than apes and slaps. Housefull (which ends with footage of its producer’s birthday party) and its sequel clicked — presumably with a crowd that demanded nothing but Akshay Kumar and bronzed girls in swimsuits — but by the time Himmatwala and Humshakals came around, the audience was as revolted as the critics.

(My friend M, who I mentioned earlier, sent me a picture of her armpit hair as revenge for taking her along to Housefull. Fair enough.) Even stars seem to have had enough, with Humshakals hero Saif Ali Khan openly declaring the film a huge mistake and scrapping previously announced plans to work with Sajid again. Akshay, going ahead with Housefull 3, has dropped Sajid from the project and replaced him with director duo the Samji brothers, one of whom, cruelly enough,  happens to be named Sajid. The tide is, naturally, turning.

In my review for the abysmal Humshakals, I wondered what Khan’s motives could be for churning out such awful, awful films. “Is he trying to make the country stupid? Is he suicidally trying to see how far people — producers, audiences, actors — let him go before someone assassinates him? Is this all some subversive meta-joke being perpetrated on us for not having applauded his acting in Jhooth Bole Kauwa Kaate? Is he turning his whole life into one gigantic ‘ham scene of the week’?”

I wanted, very sincerely, to post these questions to Sajid himself. The reason I’m writing this column instead is because this magazine contacted me to set up a one-on-one interview with Sajid, a slug-fest where I expected the gloves to be off, and him to shut me up with concepts of populism and how, as BJP-bhakts say, all that matters in the end is the public, um, mandate. His publicists confirmed and unconfirmed and eventually said they would be fine with an interview if nothing negative was said about his films. Mission impossible if ever there was one.

It was a debate I was looking forward to, because my questions are more sincere than glib. This is sadism, not incompetence, and I desperately want to know why somebody who — we must all assume, for sanity’s sake — knows better, carries on to keep making movies this sickeningly bad. How pathetic does he consider even the lowest common denominator he shamelessly chases? Does it not hurt the fanboy inside him to abuse the medium so criminally? To make movies that are execrable for the sake of making millions? His argument, I suspect, may just boil down to the millions, and the fact that he has many and I have none.

But directing a film is more than a job. It is an honour, a privilege, an opportunity. After creating toxic films that are invariably hurting every one of us in some way — each of us who works in movies and each of us who loves movies — dare he bring himself to watch his own work? Dare he care?

~

First published Mandate magazine, August 2014

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Hrishikesh Mukherjee: Art For Heart’s Sake

Sunday morning, I changed the caller tune on my phone. Moved from an English oldie to Har seedhe raste ki ek, the fabulous title song from Golmaal. About eight hours later, a colleague messaged me the news, minutes before it took over the television channels. A lump hit my throat and I instantly flashbacked to last year, when I had called up Hrishida.

chupkechupke1Working on a feature on India’s best films, I couldn’t look past Hrishikesh Mukherjee, the name tempting me from the film directory. Could I get an opinion from the man who made Anand? I called, and he picked up, huskily assuring me that it was he. I stammered out a nervous introduction and, making sure not to cut me off mid-sentence, the filmmaker finally stopped me. “I cannot help you, I’m sorry,” he wheezed into the phone. “I am very ill.” I hastily muttered an apologetic, awkward goodbye as the line went dead.

I was shattered and, I soon realised, heartbroken. Yes, filmmakers get old and their films live on. Yes, life goes on. But that this would happen to Hrishikesh Mukherjee somehow just hit harder. I felt helpless and greatly dismayed, and was resultantly puzzled. Not just had I never met the man, I also hadn’t ever really read up or researched his background and technique. Yet, I felt inexplicably attached to him. All I had done, of course, was fall in love with the films he made. And that’s all it takes.

There are filmmakers with a great cinematographic eye, those with powerful use of light and shadow, those who throw their actors over the edge to achieve mammoth performances and those who overwhelm you with sound and fury. In terms of emotion, Hindi cinema is packed with directors conversant with maudlin melancholy and rolling-in-the-aisles humour.

Mukherjee’s cinema stands beyond directorial technique, or mere storytelling. His are films with depth and one-liners, films with pathos and slapstick, films with farce and grand tragedy – above all, however, they are films bred in familiarity. Absolute familiarity. Wonderfully etched characters are drawn with such tender nuance that not only do we relate to them, they echo people plucked uncannily from our lives. From jobhunters in short kurtas to lanky alcoholics with telescopes, Hrishida‘s folk have been disarmingly real, even despite great caricature. You can’t help loving them.

And it was not as if he drew his actors from the haughty sidelights of parallel cinema. These were superstars, not art-house critical favourites looking scornfully at the mainstream. He gave Amitabh Bachchan visibility in Anand, and subsequently balanced out his angry-young-man credentials with roles of acting significance. In 1973, Hrishida‘s Abhimaan rose alongside Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer; 1975 was the mammoth year of Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay and Yash Chopra’s Deewar, but Hrishida did his luminous bit with Mili and Chupke Chupke. His films might not have been Amitabh’s blockbusters, but they do give us the megastar’s most substantial performances.

The stories are literature by themselves. From immense marital discord to the inevitability of death, from delicate Wodehousean farce to war of the classes, he tackled it all but laced his movies magically with an earnest realism that touched us to the core. Special cinema of course, but crucially special sans fanfare. A Hrishikesh Mukherjee film didn’t come with any massive pretentions of grandeur, any conceit of inaccessibility. This was dal-bhaat filmmaking, supremely fresh everyday slices of life, served up unfailingly warm and tender. The films he made discriminated not between frontbenchers and critics, cineastes and collegekids, critics and our mothers.

golmaal1And how they endure. From Rajesh Khanna’s babumoshaai to Utpal Dutt’s eeesh, not to mention lyrical dialogues impossible to forget, the words penetrated the nation’s collective lexicon. Even today, cable operators are well aware that their best chance of getting people to watch a poor-quality channel on a Saturday afternoon is to show one of Hrishida‘s Amol Palekar comedies. And the dramas are infinitely compelling, peopled by characters he turned into our extended family. The stories are ever poignant and never overdone, and we’re repeatedly forced back into choking back a sob. Or stifling louder-than-acceptable guffaws with our hands. The magic lies, of course, in the fact that we are often torn by both emotions simultaneously.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee was truly the heart of Hindi cinema. His films have transcended libraries and genre, and simply become a part of who we are. I grew a moustache recently and, despite the Mangal Pandey jibes, my predominant encouragement is drawn from Utpal Dutt’s inimitable Golmaal lines on the importance of a man’s mouch. I am not a man for funerals, but there are some cases where one just has to pay last respects.

The caller tune on my phone, needless to say, now stays, a tribute to the great humanist filmmaker. It is the kind of song that inevitably makes you break into a grin, but like Hrishida‘s cinema, the lump in the throat stays alongside the smile.

~

First published Rediff August 30, 2006, after HrishiDa’s passing. Here is the piece from his funeral.

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Everything about The Oscars, 2014

oscar1In which I collate everything I’ve written about this year’s Academy Awards, and then present you with a singularly weird column.

But we’ll get to that. First, the links:

Previews: Can American Hustle really win Best Picture? | Martin Scorsese and the men who shouldn’t beat him for Best Director. | Will Leonardo DiCaprio break his Oscar jinx for Best Actor? | Will controversy cost Cate Blanchett her Best Actress award? | Will Bradley Cooper score a Best Supporting Actor upset over Jared Leto? | Can even Jennifer Lawrence dethrone Lupito Nyong’o to take Best Supporting Actress?

Oscar omissions 2014: Franco, Rush, and a man named Oscar

My Oscar ballot. (I scored 18/24, better than most years, but clearly I still can’t think like an Academy Member, which, I guess, is reassuring?)

My dream Oscar ballot. Who I thought should win, but some of these people didn’t have a chance in hell. (That said, 12/24, which means it really wasn’t a bad year.)

In memoriam: Peter O’Toole | Philip Seymour Hoffman | Harold Ramis | Roger Ebert

And the Best Acceptance Speech goes to… 

Following this, in a feature wherein I detailed the ten most noteworthy moments from the Academy Awards, I ended up saying most of the things I’d normally say in my annual Oscar column, leaving me with a conundrum. Which is when I decided to look at the Oscars as they stood — the winners, the losers, the ceremony — through the eyes of the nine Best Picture nominees. Here goes:

Oscars 2014: If movies could talk

Here, in nine sections, are nine stories depicting the Awards this year, but each written in the style of the nine Best Picture nominees. (Follow the links in case you aren’t sure which nominated film is being referenced.) Because what better way to celebrate the Oscars than looking through the very eyes of the movies we’ve lauded this year?

One.

He should never have upgraded the teleprompter. Sure, it could now do a lot more, including write jokes itself, albeit a little stilted. It was too easily amused, too eager to laugh at its own feeble gags. But still, the fact that it — she — could now think on its own? Wow. That said, the teleprompter was getting too clever; he suspected she had learned to drink and now, during the Oscar telecast, was a dangerously sloshed scoreboard. She wickedly kept blinking, making almost every single presenter fumble and mix up words, and what she did to that poor boy from Grease was far too mean.

Jimc-1Two.

The old man shuffled toward the auditorium, steady yet half-limping. His lovely daughter told him it was all a scam, that the Academy would never let him win, but the old man pointed to his Cannes trophy for Best Actor and asked her to believe. Damned Academy sweepstakes, she grumbled, deciding to humor her dad one more time — so he could comment on how unfinished the montages looked and sit there while some former-comedian made faces at him.

Three.

Angelina missed her child. She rattled on and on to the nice but uncaring journalist in earshot and he gradually felt her pain as she gazed wistfully at Lupita Nyong’o. She’ll never be able to deal with adopting a kid that good-looking, felt the journalist, but still, look at the old heroine wear the smile. It’s kinda brave. He found himself warming to her, and the two became friends — but hark, there is pleasant news at the end of the night for Angelina after all! Her husband just brought home a bright, golden son.

Four.

Harrison Ford heard the music — the theme music from those movies where he had the whip and the fedora, or was it the movie with the guy in the black mask? — and walked towards the centre of the stage. But just as he started to talk, he lost contact and could feel himself float away. Maybe it was the acid Jim Carrey had slipped him, maybe it was the really, really loud background score; but here he was floating away like Major Tom. Even the girl that hosted the awards was beginning to look like Barbarella to the spaced-out Ford; he decided to quickly read all he could see on the weird, too-fast teleprompter and make a run for it.

Five.

Harvey Weinstein wanted the Oscars, but this didn’t look like his year. The Academy didn’t approve of Harv and his methods to disguise Philomena’s nominations and make them look like wins, but Harvey — who dropped a fair bit of weight to fit into his Oscar suit — wasn’t ready to go out without a fight. He decided no Academy analyst could tell him how low his odds were, and decided to slip $200 into Ellen DeGeneres’ hat. (He also gave her a painting of some flowers, painted by Matthew McConaughey’s mother.)

pizza1Six.

Captain DeGeneres, who hosted shows for a living, thought the Oscars would be just another quick, easy trip. But then she was taken hostage and the instructions appeared clear: no sudden laughs, no good gags, nothing at all that anyone might consider clever. She sighed and awkwardly tried to laugh at Barkhad Abdi and Jennifer Lawrence, both of whom — aware of the hostage situation — flashed back rictus grins. Finally, Captain DeGeneres hit upon a plan: she bought everyone a round of pizza.

Seven.

Everyone thought he was Jennifer Lawrence’s boyfriend or brother. They’d have been more inquisitive about the young man the 23-year-old Oscar-winner came to the ceremony with if she hadn’t done such a masterful job of misdirection. According to his dossier, he was Shia LeBeouf, wearing a new face, and trying to expose the hypocrisy of the Academy. (Honestly, though, he just really wanted to be invited into the selfie.)

oscarwolfEight.

It’s all about the chest-thump, he explained to Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio went on a charm offensive, trying to be the nicest, smiliest guy, in his quest to finally win what would be a very well-deserved award. The chest-thumper, on the other hand, kept thumping his chest and banging for more — more, with Mud, more with Dallas Buyers Club, more with The Wolf Of Wall Street and more still with True Detective. The voters didn’t have an option but to be impressed. Always keep chasing, he said when he won, thumping his chest once as DiCaprio watched from the front row.

Nine.

The voter wanted to make a difference. He wanted to reward the smartest, the cleverest, the most original new cinema. But the Academy had tightened its iron-vice around his opinion; they thought a certain way, he was but a cog. He had to conform. He had to give in and applaud movies that are laughed at for being obvious Oscar-bait; he had to stand and play the fiddle while Inside Llewyn Davis, Short Term 12 and Frances Ha were brutally shunted out. He had no choice but to look at Brad Pitt as if he were the messiah. But all he really wanted was a bar of hope.

~

First published Rediff, March 4, 2014

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Harold Ramis: So long, beloved Ghostbuster

ramisThere is a cycle, and the sight of a man falling from it is often hilarious. Writing about it, on the other hand, is less so. Explaining a joke — especially a bit of timeless slapstick, as with the bicycle — immediately renders it less funny; imagine the difference between reading a comedian’s monologue and actually experiencing him hurl out the syllables at you, standing-up for his punchlines. Given this ephemeral nature of comedy, which relies on so much from timing to delivery to context to flair, it is thus even harder to try and bottle down the impact and influence of a sparkling comic writer on generations that have grown up snickering at his words and his films. It’s hard to explain how much Harold Ramis mattered to us, and to the men who make us laugh.

Ramis was a killer writer, a sharp and incisive satirist with a goofy good-naturedness amusingly at odds with his fanged barbs. The balance made for movies that were almost entirely quotable and yet heartwarming, sometimes even inspiring. The pithy rarely found such empathy, especially in Hollywood. And so he wrote movies that shaped different comedic fashions of their time, like The National Lampoon Show, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes right up to Analyze This which, despite its dated schtick, has fantastically funny bits. These weren’t just hit movies, or movies that turned actors into stars — Bill Murray, for one, owes a lot to Ramis — but they were movies that inspired comedians to go out further on a limb, try harder, be more accessible, make their jokes land better. The ripple effect — through comedic directors like Judd Apatow, Jake Kasdan and many others who openly call themselves disciple of Ramis — has been coming to us ever since the late 70s. Like seismic giggles.

Asked about the way he captured the sensibility of the periods he wrote in, Ramis said in an interview, “I don’t know. I just did what I wanted to do and what interested me. As I tell writing students, the only thing you have that is unique is yourself. You can write a movie that’s like some other movies, and that’s what you’ll have: something that’s completely derivative. But the only thing that’s totally unique is you. There’s no one like you. No one else has had your experience. No one has been in your body or had your parents. Yes, we’ve all had the same cultural influences. We’ve all lived at the same time, watched the same shows, gone to the same movies, listened to the same music. But it’s all filtered through our unique personalities. And I honor the things that have influenced me. I’m grateful for whatever it is that became the particular lens that’s allowed me to put out what I have.”

In 1984, Ramis co-wrote and starred in Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters, a film where — as parapsychologist Egon Spengler — he won us over as the truly cool Ghostbuster. For those of us who, in Goldilocks vein felt that Dan Ackroyd’s Stantz was too silly, Ernie Hudson’s Winston too overt and Bill Murray’s Venkman too dry, it was Spengler who made it all matter: he was the George Harrison of the quartet. While Ramis appeared in other films, it is his wonderful character in the two Ghostbusters movies that endures. We were all charmed by Venkman, but Spengler’s the one who made the Ghostbusters feel like a real team.

And then there’s Groundhog Day, a Harold Ramis film about an infinite loop — a lifetime of days that begin with Sonny and Cher on the radio and plod through the very same paces, over and over — that will surely be remembered as the filmmaker’s masterpiece. The 1993 film is an absolute gem, with Bill Murray at his best and the film managing to keep rerunning around in circles and yet staying fresh — yes, keeping repetitiveness fresh — thanks to Ramis’ deft, light touch. It is the sort of film that priests and philosophers embraced, talking about its beautiful universality of theme, about life being a series of endless variations on the same, but it is also a truly funny film. Something tells me that’s the bit Ramis, who we lost at 69, would treasure more. Just like he might appreciate a eulogy that begins where it ends, or something like it, anyway. So long, beloved Ghostbuster. Ashes to ashes, gags to gags. There is a cycle.

~

Also: I pick ten great bits of Harold Ramis dialogue

~

First published Rediff, February 25, 2014

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Philip Seymour Hoffman: Goodbye, Master

That fat guy.

The first time I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman was in Scent Of A Woman, playing an uppity prep-school bully. I vividly remember that floppy hair falling onto his round face, scrunched up all the time, as if the sun was glaring right into his eyes even in the shade. That fat guy who made the sickeningly sweet hero appear noble, that fat guy with the smirk of superiority spread across his mug.

He began popping up in notable movies, movies like Patch Adams and When A Man Loves A Woman which got a lot of television-time, and genuinely great movies where he played weirdos, like Boogie Nights and Magnolia and The Big Lebowski. Here was a young and seemingly fearless guy, a guy deftly turning into one of those character actors New York Times reviewers call “reliably excellent.”

lester

Then, in a landmark Cameron Crowe movie called Almost Famous, he played legendary rock critic Lester Bangs and guided many of my generation about journalism. Too cool to act cool, he acerbically gave us the straight dope: about life and faith and conviction and rock, and when I turned film critic a few years later, I picked his words as my survival mantra:

“You cannot make friends with the rock stars. That’s what’s important. If you’re a rock journalist – first, you will never get paid much. But you’ll get free records from the record company. And they’ll buy you drinks, you’ll meet girls, they’ll try to fly you places for free, offer you drugs… I know. It sounds great. But they are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars, and they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it.”

(Thank you, PSH. Truly.)

It takes a lot to sell words that fiendishly simple, and Hoffman did it with such authority that while he might not have been the film’s leading man, he emerged its brightest light. Its golden god, as it were.

And it was in him we found a man willing to debase himself, to play the fool, to go out on whatever limb was furthest, all for the glory of the movie. The length of the role never mattered, and — unlike in A Late Quartet, which contained one of his finest performances — Hoffman had no trouble playing second violin.

Soon it became clear that he was one of those special actors who made an impression no matter what cinematic world he inhabited. In 2004, he appeared in a hideous film called Along Came Polly, a Ben Stiller vehicle where Hoffman’s Sandy Lyle spoke candidly about “sharting”, a grotesque scatological gag about how he defecated while breaking wind, and did it so often he’d had to coin a word for it. It was an… unfortunate film, and I wondered whether he was to be mired forever in material so clearly beneath him.

One year later, he won the Best Actor Oscar for Capote: a performance where this grizzly giant turned small and fey purely by mannerism; a performance that, through its cold mercilessness, remains a scalding critique of writer Truman Capote. Suddenly it became clear that this man could do anything at all. He could be funny, vicious, profane, cunning, brilliant, slackjawed, omniscient, obsequious, perverse, perfect — and he shone each time, often more dazzling than the films he was in. A lumbering large man who — when need be — could swiftly twist and burst into song, nimbly tangoing with a roomful of naked women.

latequartetThat fat guy. Even that girth seemed to affect different approaches in service to the material: he could be genially plump, imposingly Falstaffian, a bloated artist, a chubby romantic, a stout sibling, a flabby film-writer.. And all while staying the same size. To paraphrase something an iconic actor once told another icon who shared Philip Seymour’s last name: other performers starved for parts or stuffed themselves with protein, but Hoffman acted.

His filmography boasts of some of the finest directors of all time: Sidney Lumet, The Coen Brothers, David Mamet, Mike Nichols, Cameron Crowe. And his most significant collaboration was fittingly with a filmmaker regarded the most talented of his generation. Paul Thomas Anderson cast Hoffman whenever he could, and the duo grew together — from Hard Eight to Boogie Nights to Magnolia to Punch-Drunk Love to The Master — bold and defiant and majestic, rising dizzyingly past any expectations.

The last few years showed his willingness to hurtle past any boundary, to endow simple parts with bittersweet nuance, and to dare writers to come up with a performance that would be a challenge. Charlie Kaufman scooped up the gauntlet and wrote the impossible Synecdoche, New York — about an artist who creates a New York within New York, one that mirrors his shambolic life through a warped lens — and Hoffman trounced the writing, rising above the meta-trickery and giving us a bravura performance that might well be his legacy. A blowhard and a nitpicker, a failure and a bastard, a genius and a true visionary. It’s all there, and thanks to his propensity to stun us, that might not even be part of your top three Philip Seymour Hoffman films.

That, in fact, might have been his greatest feat. To surprise us every single time, come what may. To show us a simple enough boxed-up character and then spring out in a way we could never anticipate. He’d roll up his sleeves, make us understand and believe and wait, and then — with a flourish, while his patter enchanted us — the stubbly master would yank a rabbit out of his baseball cap. Always without warning. Always off-guard.

And now he’s dead. Before the devil could know it.

~

First published Rediff, February 4, 2014

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Michael Matters: Our virtual vigil by Schumacher’s side

I owe Michael Schumacher my career.

Writers write, quite simply, because they must. What they write, however, makes for a far more fiendish decision. I’d dabbled with journalism, copywriting, poetry and bad drafts of first novels nobody will ever get to read, but it took a certain hero to spur me on and find a voice.

Michael Schumacher mattered right from the time I’d heard his name. It was irrational, this admiration of a man in blue-green overalls dominating a sport I — or anyone else I knew — didn’t really watch, but there was just something about the young German popping up so frequently in the sports pages. A youngster who looked assuredly at home on top of the world; a champion racing for a team that made most of my winter-wear.

At the time, my Formula One viewing was occasional and erratic, and I refused even to become a casual fan daunted by the technical intricacies of the sport, harsh-sounding multisyllabic names, and decidedly too much cricket-fanaticism for any other sport to make a difference. Then, fifteen years ago, I shuddered as I read about Michael breaking his leg in an accident at the British Grand Prix. I thought of the thirty-year-old, wished him well, and wondered how barbaric the sport was.

A few months later, he returned. And almost won. Actually, to be fair, he more than won: he made his teammate win. From that day to this one, I’ve missed watching maybe eight grands prix over twice as many years. Cricket became insignificant in comparison. And this passion was born out of that one extraordinary man.

I was, admittedly, Michael obsessed. I wore vampire-red sunglasses to watch races through (Ferrari-tinted, I called them) and made friends, dates, colleagues “wear red for Michael” on those all-important Sundays. I vividly remember rounding third-base and closing in on home for the first time ever, on a park bench in Delhi, but choosing instead to bolt in time to catch the five red lights going off at the race-start. (I can still recollect that exact podium.)

I still only ever play F1 video games as Michael’s partner — never daring a try as Michael himself — and, if when rounding the final corner he happens to be a few hairs behind me, I can’t help move over and applaud instead of being applauded. Seeing anyone else on the top-step of even a virtual podium feels wrong, you see.

Quizmasters hosting at sports bars soon stopped letting me answer questions, and I won a gigantic Ferrari flag by betting on a Michael streak despite impossible odds. But there was no scheming here, no form-book to look up: I bet on Michael because anything else would be inappropriate. In 2003, as a student in the UK, I whimsically placed a Ladbrokes bet with hard-scraped savings despite the season looking madly bleak at the time, and, at 8/1, made back enough to buy my first Macbook. The odds were never unreal enough to be of consequence.

~

I was a copywriter in 2004 when Rediff asked me — based on an impassioned Dravid-bashing blogpost — to write for their sports section, and I suggested I start writing about Formula One. Because of Michael; because of the compulsion to write about true genius.

My first column was about a Michael win, and in that and the ones that followed, the words rushed out all at once, struggling to keep up with the tremendous sporting feat, the historic run we were all fortunate enough to watch in realtime. The rush of capturing the immense drama of a race in words soon put my day job to shame. Rediff, however, needed someone to write about films. So then, um, that happened. But the Formula One columns — especially those about Michael magic — have always been remarkably close to my heart.

~

How good is Michael Schumacher?

It is dashed difficult to explain Michael Schumacher to someone who doesn’t know Formula One. The world of sport, usually a fine provider of parallels, fails to throw up a satisfactory legend, leaving us to clumsily nail together an invariably inadequate amalgam from elsewhere, and here’s mine: Imagine if The Beatles lasted as long as The Rolling Stones.

If the Fab Four wrought their revolution not over ten glorious years but sixty, outlasting and triumphing over not just their contemporaries but rubbing shoulders with modern bands, getting used to the new realms of punk and metal and rap and beating Bowie and Radiohead and Madonna at their games. And even when they finally abdicated, and were visibly not the best or loudest in the world, they still played on with gusto and — despite some calling them a bit long in the tooth — still occasionally conjured up something special enough to turn hearts to yo-yos.

Imagine, if you will, what that discography would be like.

~

The last few days have been spent manning the news-wires, in prayer, in wish-making, in questing for hope. On Sunday a friend who works at a news channel texted me saying Michael was hurt in a skiing accident. An hour later the news was that it wasn’t serious. Two hours after that it began to look like a nightmare.

It is one thing getting a piece of news and coming to terms with it, but social media gets hold of a developing story and runs with it terrifyingly fast, often too blinded by its own pace to look at the facts. I spent the next days and nights on Twitter, hoping for updates, hoping for news, hoping for a picture of him lying in a hospital bed, winking that world-conquering wink at the camera.

What I continue to get is a steady stream of information and rumour, with old facts being republished by websites fishing for traffic, sensationalists who want to be the first to break bad news, and — alongside the rare but reliable daily updates — a few informed people who care enough to discuss the situation and explain its severity. A former Formula One doctor, Gary Hartstein, has been invaluable as a sane voice on Twitter (@former_f1doc), giving us perspective.

The rest is prayer. Footballers are refusing to sleep because they don’t want to wake up to fatal news. Cricketers playing the Ashes are saying they don’t care about it. Those who have never been Schumacher supporters are willing him on in what is being described as his greatest ever battle. A battle he never chose, and one for which he wasn’t even wearing warpaint. The rest of us, prone to tearing up, are cheering him and chanting for him and awaiting good news. The world, it is abundantly clear, has its fingers crossed.

David Coulthard, a former McLaren driver who once gave Schumacher the finger on the racetrack, and a man who was once almost beaten up by a furious Schumacher, has written the finest column about the legend and the situation. It is a column that, in its honesty and its timing, is worth more than Coulthard’s career, and I urge you all to go and read it.

~

“You only like him because he’s born on your birthday,” a girl accused, back in college. My jaw dropped open. Not out of indignation (for it was patently untrue) but out of the sheer thrill of discovery. We all share our birthdays with people worth admiring, but somehow sharing January 3 with Michael Schumacher matters.

He turned 45 and I turned 33 today. And all I want for my birthday is what  millions around the world — millions touched by his brilliance, his spirit, his myth, his philanthropy and his grace — want, as they pray to varied gods and continue to hope: for him to smile that smile again. And yes, that wink he winks after winning a race. This 92nd win would be extraordinarily well deserved.

I choked when Michael teared up as he went past Ayrton Senna, and again when he announced his retirement in 2006. I scampered to the next race in Shanghai and saw his last race win, in grand style. Then he returned to the sport, buckled down and learnt to lose, and even came to India where I got to see him, talk to him, say a couple of things that made him grin back at me.

And now that super smile feels distant. Distant, yes, but far from insurmountable as the odds he beat every alternate Sunday, so, so many times over.

Conquer this too, Michael. Happy birthday to you, and may you get well soon. Wearing red today, naturally.

~

First published Rediff, January 3, 2014

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Who dare compare to Peter O’Toole?

British actors have always taught us how to speak.

We in India have never quite been able to cast off our post-Colonial hangover, and it is that — coupled with a rigid love for perfectly enunciated Queen’s English, clipped as if cut like a cigar — that has always led us to look to British leading men for guidance. Traditionally, they were the actors with immaculate accents who represented class and the upper crust and almost always spoke like Psmith, while on the other side of the pond, the Americans grunted and swallowed consonants but could pack a meaner, more believable punch.

That perceptive pigeonholing went completely out the window the minute you saw your first Peter O’Toole movie.

peterotooleO’Toole was indeed a beautiful man, sculpted on a day the maker felt particularly ambitious (and unfairly generous), a man with eyes blue enough to make a desert feel bracing, spread across a face that redefined how gorgeous the word ‘gaunt’ could be. And he spoke in the most elegant fashion, his silken tongue gliding across syllables as if it polished the language itself while he said his lines. It is dashed hard for a young man to look at old O’Toole films, with the inevitable mix of awe and envy and a grin, and not try to pick up on some of his mannerisms, all of which seemed perfect. He just felt right.

And yet, despite this finely-creased appearance, he was the manliest of them all, a true man’s man. Warrior, king, pioneer, thespian, womaniser, drunkard, scoundrel — he made it all look grander than ever, and he did so with fluent effortlessness. It was as if Steve McQueen learnt to talk right, or Clint Eastwood discovered a Windsor knot, or Michael Caine had met Henry Higgins. No man on screen was ever quite as magnificent as Peter O’Toole.

Off-screen would take a helluva fight as well. O’Toole was as legendary a raconteur as he was a drinker, and approached his life with the spirit of a slightly sloshed bullfighter, fleet-of-foot and highly skilled but essentually all whiskey and laughs and a great deal of olé. He was untameable, outspoken, garrulous and justifiably vainglorious, and we didn’t quite appreciate him as we ought have. He knew this and he laughed it off.

And naturally he did so more quotably than anyone else. I remember him starring in Brad Pitt’s atrocious Troy, and laughing it off as an unwatchable film that reminded him of a bread advert. Or when in 2003, up for a Lifetime Achievement Oscar after 7 nominations (and 7 losses), he was reluctant, and wrote a famous to the Academy saying he was “still in the game” and wanted more time to “win the lovely bugger outright.” He took the prize, and though he got an eighth nomination a few years later, that outright win never came — even though every single one of those performances was terrific.

Ah, he was the drunken uncle sitting in the armchair by the fireplace, an armchair nobody else dared ever inhabit, telling us tall stories. But unbelievable as they all seemed, chances are they — like Peter himself — were for real. In an invitation to his New Year party, O’Toole once wrote “Fornication, madness, murder, drunkenness, shouting, shrieking, leaping, polite conversation and the breaking of bones — such jollities constitute acceptable behaviour, but no acting allowed.” It could well have been his life’s motto — and while he broke the rule a fair few times, we’ll pretend to look the other way.

Long, long ago, in a stand-up comedy routine, Woody Allen lamented how he was attempting to pick up a girl in Europe when O’Toole “asked her out first, aces me out, you know?” and got a big laugh. Not, as it first seems, because of the loony contrast between that marvellous man and the dorky writer, but because of that between him and every single one of us. Peter O’Toole — who dares compare?

Revel In Peace, sir.

~

First published Rediff, December 16, 2013

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