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Review: The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis

1961. The sixties but not quite The Sixties just yet. America had picked up a revolutionary new guitar but was only beginning to learn how to strum, plucking at it tentatively as genres and heroes and venues were birthed and discarded in blinks of sleepless eyes. Within the outstretched canvas of limitless hope there lies many a dead-end of bleak disillusionment.

llewyn1It is here that we meet our dour leading man, Llewyn Davis, without a home or a winter coat or any genuine prospects. He gets by with a little help from… one would say friends, but he doesn’t have any. The only one, his musical collaborator, Mike, has thrown himself (non-traditionally) off the George Washington Bridge. Llewyn might not have triggered the suicide, we never get details, but from what we see of his disposition — and his ability to turn everything to shit, “like King Midas’ idiot brother” — he isn’t likely to have helped matters much.

And so we smile drily as canny storytellers Joel and Ethan Coen give us a stumbling, unheroic protagonist and rigorously zoom in on every wart. Everything about Davis is almost cartoonishly miserable except when, eternally against the odds, he picks up his six-string and sings. The film and its viewers, the leading man and his listeners, are immediately changed by what is simple and sublime, graceful but grounded. For all his scratched and blemished life, Davis happens to be a flawless musician, a troubadour who deserves ears and cheers.

Yet, as we see at the beginning and the end of the film, as Llewyn Davis winds up a stunning set and a 20-year-old Robert Zimmerman sits down to begin his passage toward immortality, even this irascible, ever-dismissive protagonist feels his jaw drop and realise that — while standing so close to the real thing, on a night that could have changed everything — he is but a talented doodle in the margins, not fit even to be a footnote.

Instead, he gets socked in a back-alley.

Davis is played with remarkable ease by Oscar Isaac, an actor who marvellously blurs the line between performance and documentary-like realism. He’s tired and disgruntled and so jaded his stoniness seems obvious. He needs a night’s sleep, but — nomadically going from couch to couch in an era before websites and hipsters made it cool — that is easier said than found. A professor and his wife do indeed welcome him unconditionally and with open arms, but he snaps at them and loses their cat. (The cat, by the way, is called Ulysses, like the book based on The Odyssey, a book Joel and Ethan once turned into the magnificent O Brother, Where Art Thou? This new film, in case you’re wondering, has a soundtrack even richer than that great musical.)

The Coen landscape is characteristically populated by oddballs, and all of them in this one are tied to volume. Davis’s ineffective manager, Mel, lives in a dimly lit office, likes attending funerals and gets into loud exchanges with his ancient secretary. “You got Cincinatti?”, he yells. “You want it?”, she barks back. “Could I have it?”, “Should I bring it?” and so continues the hard-of-hearing tango. A young soldier denounces comfort and eats cereal loudly, and proves — despite his Llewyn-frustrating squarishness — to be a better-liked musician than our befuddled beardo. A big-time producer squelches as he walks into a music hall past upturned chairs.  A beat poet called Johnny 5 lies about his cigarettes and sits in near-defiant silence, while his companion, a jowly jazz musician named Roland Turner, is introduced to us by the sounds he makes when he wakes up with literal squeaks and gasps.

Turner, played by Coen favourite John Goodman, is an uproarious character, a cane-wielding weirdo who cuts off his own stories to start new ones, always obnoxious and quite regal in his pushiness. He’s worth a movie all his own, and — like the music — single-handedly makes Llewyn’s life (and ours) infinitely more interesting. But Davis doesn’t care, and in this destructive, all-encompassing derision lies the Coen’s masterstroke: his antipathy toward the world makes him loathsome but fascinating. Joel and Ethan and Llewyn never let up, and we watch and smirk and commiserate and feel the despondent stupor descend upon us, sliced occasionally by the music, shining in like sun streaming into a dank attic.

llewyn2Davis doesn’t even sing to reach his audience. To a Chicago music producer, he sings an English ballad, The Death Of Queen Jane, about one of King Henry VIIIs doomed wives. In a line hilariously echoed by the Merchant Marines when he goes to sign up, he’s rightly told he’s not current. It’s a catastrophically bad decision to pick a miserable lament while pitching to a man used to selling out venues, but on some level Davis believes — and this may well be all that Llewyn believes — in the purity of the song. And how it can transcend everything.

He isn’t wrong. When we sit alongside the producer, played by the wonderful F Murray Abraham, the song transports us to a different plane. As does this fantastic film. It might just be A Mighty Wind in extreme close-up, or the Coens filling in another blankly open-ended tale as brilliantly as only they can, but the thing to remember about Inside Llewyn Davis is that while it might not be new, it never gets old.

Rating:  Four and a half stars

~

First published Rediff, January 10, 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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Sachin From The Stands: Day One

(Reporting from the cheap seats, that last time.)

The most curious thing on the ticket for the second match in the India vs West Indies test ‘series’ is a warning that “banners, flags etc” displaying any commercial logos which may be in conflict with those of the official match sponsors will not be allowed into the ground. Neither, as those carrying Indian flags soon discovered, is wood, so while you can take your tiranga into Wankhede Stadium, you can’t take the mast it’s wrapped around. As a result, most of the teeming, restless crowds waved a Star Sports banner which said, quite simply, “Believe.”

A portly gent in the row ahead of me, trying to make smalltalk with a flag-distributing girl in that way men do when they’d really rather know how to flirt, asked her, “but what do we believe in?” before sniggering as he looked around vainly and optimistically for a neighbouring laugh. Similarly occupied with sporadic audience-seeking were young boys unfairly in the possession of vuvuzelas and people who had printed out poorly spelt banners.

IMG_2179It was, then, a lazy morning at the Wankhede, largely because MS Dhoni had won the toss and elected to field. While this indeed gave the crowds a glimpse of Sachin throughout the morning — every time he stopped the ball the crowd sounded like it’d just climaxed — we’ve been raised as a batsman-celebrating nation, and despite Pragyan Ojha wrapping up the Windies with a five-for, the spectators cheered only and exclusively for that fellow playing his two hundredth, that guy who occasionally waved back when he was close enough to a fortunate (and suddenly louder) part of the outfield.

It was electrifying, yes, but in a somewhat expected kind of way. As the afternoon shadows stretched across the field, with bad chicken pizzas sold by the bushel and water impossibly hard to come by, it felt like a pleasant but unspectacular rush, that of a crowd of well-meaning non-fanatics who wanted to yell out the local legend’s name and maybe trap him in their cameraphone sights.

Things changed rather dramatically, when, after India began batting and motoring along rather beautifully, moustache-twirling young stud Shikhar Dhawan holed out. The crowd — which had been cheering West Indian lbw appeals with confounding vociferousness, as if a pair of Pakistani blaggards stood in the centre instead of two of our brightest — now lost it, and roared with approval. Damn the scoreboard, the wickets, the game, the nation. They wanted Batsman No 4 out there, and a couple of balls later, there he was.

The rumble grew with every second as he strode out, swinging his weapon belligerently, as if he fancied a spot of casual slaughter to go with tea-time. And then began the glorious cacophony of support as the entire ground gasped and clamoured for him in mad, heady unison. With every ball he faced — or indeed, every ball even his partner Cheteshwar Pujara faced — the instinctive “Sa-Chin, Sa-Chinnn” yells got louder and more manic, and every spectator swayed in a sea of love and adrenaline. The momentum swallowed us whole, making it impossible not to join in, not to yell your lungs out, not to hope and fear and then exult as he leaned into that drive.

IMG_2230For what it’s worth, he seemed to be enjoying it. The madness, the collective adulation, the indescribable hysteria. He looked around and played with exquisite fluency, his each poetic flourish making us achingly aware that we were seeing what we wouldn’t, ever again. He looked buoyed by the unconditionality of the attention rather than pressured by it, and we just stood and yelled and gaped. We celebrated his mother Rajni when the TV cameras swung in her direction right before the close of the day’s play, and hoped we sounded gratefully overwhelming enough to that lady watching her maiden Test Match.

Earlier in the day, when a West Indian batsman had flicked a ball to a boundary and one of our boys dived on the rope to save it, Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar, ever-eager to save a single, deftly took the ball from the lad and tossed it towards the wicket in a graceful, flawless arc, a coconut-shy of a throw that landed inches away from the astonished wicketkeeper, who applauded. The audience, you guessed it, went wild. Right behind me a kid of about 7 nudged his friend and said, wonder dripping from every syllable, “he can do anything, na?”

Hah. And here we were wondering what to believe in.

~

First published Mumbai Mirror, November 15, 2013

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A lyric for Lou Reed

(Because paragraphfuls of prose just didn’t feel right.)

 

 

He stumbled and he rumbled, 

                          he fumbled and he humbled 

and he did it all drunk as a monk. 

 

He sailed and he failed, 

                         he smiled and he beguiled, 

but above all he worth-our-while’d.

 

O, how he made us genuflect

                        As he broke his guitar’s neck

And took over our cassette deck.

 

How helpless he made us feel

                       As our brains he did steal:

That genius, hid behind a yellow peel.

 

He assaulted us with a flower

                       And furry-legged fe-male power

And made us awestruck Spiders cower.

 

He did reflect and he did tease

                       Brought critics to their knees

(Though, sometimes, it was just a wheeze.)

 

There were whiskey songs and meth songs

                       Songs for rights; more songs for wrongs,

                      (A couple of songs for ding-dongs)

And even as he leaves us the jukebox… prolongs.

 

He taught and he fought

                      And was often overwrought,

But nothing could make him not

                      Stir the pot.

 

And when we hear it all

                     The glory and the downfall:

The messy guts spilled out in plain view

And the songs that spoke, to me and to you.

 

The words look cleverer in the light of sad today

The truth is clearer as we prepare goodbyes to say:

 

That Lou?

                     He flew.

 

 

~

First published Rediff, October 28, 2013

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Review: Ron Howard’s Rush

Formula One has the habit of making other sports look absurdly insignificant.

What, you run real quick? What, you flog a bit of leather? What, you hit another bloke in the face?

Well, I battle gravity and push physics to the limit by hurling myself at the apex of a curve, calculating and strategising about the car behind me, braking crucially late while knowing full well that I could careen into a rival inches ahead of me, and shatter a chassis or two or a neck or two.

rush-movie-1Comparisons will forever appear laughable, but not quite as much as when Formula One was bloodsport, days when — as Niki Lauda says in Rush — two out of 25 drivers died every year. Those insane statistics nutshell the relentlessly, giddily gladiatorial sport F1 had become in its quest to straddle speed and danger, and even by that unacceptable norm, 1976 was a particularly dramatic year.

So dramatic, to be precise, that one would be forgiven for thinking Ron Howard’s film, set around that year’s Formula One World Championship season, is fictional. But sport is where fact often leapfrogs the imagination, when true human conflict supersedes acceptable writing. Where we only suspend our disbelief because we’re told all that’s happening on screen, no matter how preposterous, has its roots in reality.

You couldn’t find more diametrically opposed racing drivers than the technically proficient Austrian great Niki Lauda, and swinging, Union Jacking superstar James Hunt. Lauda was one of the first drivers who understood the importance of aerodynamics, and revered for his excellent understanding of a car’s limits. Hunt was the definitive F1 playboy, a man with the badge “Sex: Breakfast Of Champions” sewn onto his overalls, a lad who’d gargle champagne before winning races. In 1976, these rivals put daggers between teeth, stared death in the face and lived to finish the tale.

Ron Howard’s film is written by the infallible Peter Morgan, the playwright and screenwriter who fashions known historical facts into riveting narratives so laden with plot they’d make George RR Martin jealous. The two had worked before on the astonishing Frost/Nixon, but armed with this much deliriously cinematic meat, they go one better. This is a Scorsese-worthy story, and Howard rises to the moment and does it justice. Rush is not just the best film of Ron Howard’s career — a rip-roaring smash about a great human story, and two damn fascinating men — but among the finest sports films in modern cinema.

The casting is spot-on, with Chris ‘Thor’ Hemsworth playing the frequently unzipped Hunt and Daniel Bruhl of Inglourious Basterds as the nearly-Vulcan Lauda. Both actors are in exceptionally fine form. Hemsworth gets the swagger right, Bruhl masters that accent, and together they bring to life an intensely passionate rivalry. (To be fair, it is a bit exaggerated. The two fought on the track but never loathed each other like the film showed; by all accounts, their’s was a relationship of competitive respect. But then again, Hunt did always say Lauda looked like a rat.)

The racing action is brilliant, with inventive cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle fitting cameras into peculiar crevasses in the vintage chassis. The viewer is forced closer to the action — and much, much closer to that Sherman Tank of an engine — than television can allow, and the results are dizzying. You do not have to be a fan to love this film, though a fan would derive much pleasure by seeing the doppelgangers cast in important smaller roles, like that of Enzo Ferrari or Clay Regazzoni. (The finest supporting actor here is Christian McKay as the memorable Alexander Hesketh, a whimsical team-owner who introduced the F1 pitlane to oysters and caviar, and a man worth a movie all his own.) The acting is top-notch all around, and the women — Alexandra Maria Lara, Natalie Dormer and Olivia Wilde — up the film’s stakes considerably.

rush-movie-2For there is so much more to this film than racing. There is a whole lot of sex: on the most important day of his career Hunt is shown waking from a Japanese hotel bed with two pairs of feet flanking his own. And then there’s even more insight: Hunt prepares for a Formula One race by lying down with his eyes closed, visualising the Monte Carlo grand prix circuit in pre-simulator times; Lauda learns that no woman can rev up an Italian man’s motor quite like a Ferrari driver can. There are even exquisite details for fans of motorsport history, including quotes that have since become legendary, and women even more so. Also, Hunt’s beloved budgerigars make an appearance.

Don’t look up 1976, don’t look up file footage, just go watch this rousing film. And then get a hold of the BBC documentary, F1’s Greatest Rivals: Hunt vs Lauda so you can watch the real men and marvel at how perfectly Morgan and Howard took the story and ran with it. Many years ago, John Frankenheimer’s 1966 stunner Grand Prix cemented my then-fledgling love for motorsport, and now Howard has, at long last, created another film evocative enough to ignite pitlane-passion in hearts that haven’t yet thumped for Formula One.

Rush is a film about a racing season — and two seasoned racers — so damned thrilling that it would compel the most stubborn Formula One hater, those people who insist mastering technology isn’t a sporting enough achievement and forget every other part of the invariably human equation. For the Formula One fan, this is a film worthy of a magnum of Mumm’s finest champagne — if only for the chance to hear those massive V12 engines explode across the big screen. VrrrRRRRRRooom.

Rating: 4.5 stars

~

First published Rediff, September 20, 2013

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Review: Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel

man-of-steel-ew1

You’ll believe a man can sigh.

That’s what the godlike alien in Man Of Steel frequently does as he looks around, before he glowers and scowls and, perhaps most importantly, poses. There is very little of the winning, geeky smile we associate with Clark Kent — indeed, the eager yet shy journalist we know and love appears for one scene in the new film — and for a character named Superman who’s just turned 75, this feller doesn’t even have the spit-curl. Nope, this is the story of The Fresh Prince Of Krypton.

Zack Snyder, a man the early trailers for his own film dubbed a ‘visionary,’ starts things off on a Krypton that looks like David Lynch’s Dune and features some Giger gadgets leftover from Ridley Scott’s Alien movies. His vision might just lie in jewellery design: the headgear worn by creepy Kryptonian councilmen is most ornate, just like the exquisitely carved trinkets we’d seen adorning almost-slaughtered heads in his 300.

His approach to the Superman origin story is hamhanded and operatic, aided well by strong actors all around. Russell Crowe, mercifully not warbling his lines this time, makes for a particularly formidable presence as the Dad Of Steel, and his committed performance makes Snyder’s unsubtle theatricality appear compelling if never evocative: bland Guignol must do when the Grand isn’t at hand.

A young boy tossed Moses-like across the galaxy in a spaceship basket, Kal-El lands in Kansas, but we never see that. Instead we see him fully grown and alarmingly muscular, a gentle hulk going around helping folks and smashing the occasional truck. His earth parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, are played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, and both are excellent in the way they guide him toward the truth of his origins, and to focussing his power. “Imagine my voice as an island,” Lane says, in one of the film’s most beautiful moments.

And this is where it must be stressed that Man Of Steel does have beautiful moments. Some are, as mentioned, conjured up by very fine actors, while others are visually pretty — even if somewhat Terrence Malick inspired. And, in terms of storytelling, while a lot of it might not truly make sense at all, it all happens commendably fast: the movie dishes out huge narrative chunks as if in a rush, hurtling past the Superman timeline in order to get to an endlessly long and considerably boring 45-minute fight — but wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Well before all the climactic cacophony we meet Lois Lane, self-praising Pulitzer-winner and one of comicdom’s most fearless women. Amy Adams is enjoyably credible as the pesky, relentless journalist, but after a bit of fun, the film — bereft of all the Lois/Clark romance — asks only that she look at Superman dreamily, and this she does. (The other big ask from her is a full-throated Wilhelm Scream, which too she delivers magnificently.) The musclebound wetsuit-wearing object of her affections, Henry Cavill, is but a dimple under a baseball cap — he has the look right and is adequately earnest, but the film affords him not the luxury to charm us. Instead, he gets to throw a million punches.

When Krypton was destroyed, prisoners exiled to a phantom zone escaped destruction along with young Kal-El. These disgruntled folk are led by Michael Shannon’s General Zod, who overacts rather delightfully. His fury is most entertaining, his eyes like apoplectic ping-pong balls, but purists will be heartbroken at the realisation that he never asks the hero to kneel before him. He reaches the Earth to hunt out Kal-El, who is, in turn, being guided rather conveniently by his dead father. Unlike Marlon Brando who was merely an interactive telegram (by way of floating hologram head) in the first, masterful Superman film, Russel Crowe’s Jor-El seems to have turned into a Siri-like helper who guides not just Clark, but Lois. And all for some MacGuffin that sounds like a cough syrup.

As you can probably tell, there is little room for simplicity and stark, shadowy moodiness now as the film juggernauts forward, crammed with much malarkey. General Zod tackles fighter planes like a livid quarterback, and Clark smashes into him, hard. They keep ramming at each other and creating giant sonic booms under them, again, and again, and again. This mindnumbing, increasingly frustrating sequence of city-tearing explosions — which feel just like waiting for friends to stop playing Mortal Kombat or at least hand you a controller — lasts for at least 45 minutes. This? This is why Snyder wolfed down huge bites of narrative? This is what we had to get to? It’s unforgivably bad (unforgivably Bay, even) and things aren’t helped by the fact that unlike in the Marvel movies where New York is New York, the fictionalised DC capital of Metropolis is stripped of all its character. So we have a skyline with lots of mirror-covered buildings, but no soul. Kinda like Gurgaon.

Oh, and while I want to rant on and on about the film’s last scene, I promise not to spoil it for you here. So when you get to the final moment, just remember there’s no possible way it can make sense after the rest of the film you just saw. No way.

man-of-steel-croweThere are, as said, small joys to be found in Snyder’s film: the early bits with Crowe, or with a young Clark who is literally too sensitive to function. There is Lois, drinking scotch and finding a way around her contract, and there’s Toby Zeigler, always a joy. The art direction is impressively detailed, as is the visionary bling, and the 3D never seems too dark. Plus, there’s a pretty good sight gag about toner cartridges.

But Man Of Steel (which invariably sounds, to me, like a rejected title for a gay-themed Remington Steele episode) never quite musters up the charm or the levity any story of Superman requires — and deserves. It looks good and is populated by fine actors (and we get a peek at trucks belonging to a bald man this movie could have used but doesn’t have), but the clunky Superman-as-Jesus imagery running through it all symptomises the problem with this narrative: too much steel, not enough man.

Rating: 2.5 stars

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First published Rediff, June 14, 2013

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Review: Bombay Talkies

Why do we love the movies?

Why do we stiffen with anticipation when that censor certificate flashes on the big screen, its signatures the size of couches, even when I may already be warning us that the film may be interminably long? Why does popcorn taste better when the lights go down? Why do we root for some movies and debate passionately against others? Why do we care about stray opinions expressed by people who don’t matter about our favourite actors who, clearly, do? Why do we let movies sunnily melt our cynicism or grimly erode our optimism with just a couple of scenes? And why, oh God why, does it feel so damned good when a movie makes us cry?

Bombay Talkies, a four-film collection of movies about Hindi cinema, is a portmanteau project that might not aim to provide a definitive answer to those questions, but is a film that certainly likes to wonder aloud, alongside us. There are four films, each roughly 25 minutes in length, made by four very different kinds of filmmakers, each a champion in their own right: Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap have made these films, and each, in a way, has unmistakably left a comfort zone behind in this commendable effort to high-five the movies.

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Johar’s film, which will invariably be the most talked about of the lot, is more statement than film. It is a bold, sensitively handled drama about an inert marriage and, perching on its fringes, a young man bursting with pluck and defiance. It is not about a homosexual, but one of the characters happens to be gay. It is a film about old Hindi film music, with Johar expertly reappropriating classic songs, classic lyrics, and making them heartbreaking in a whole new way. It is about overfamiliarity, friendship and about how a man can drag another to a place of sheer wonderment.

Saqib Saleem, who was last so impressive in Mere Dad Ki Maruti, is excellent here, playing it far too cocky in a bid to overcompensate for his fragility. It rings true while being anything but cliched. Rani Mukherji plays his increasingly indulgent boss, a woman who wears her blouses slinky and her eyes sad, and the actress is perfect in the part. Randeep Hooda, as her husband, is problematic: he’s suitably subdued but a bit too awkward throughout the proceedings — even a character steeped in self-denial should know something about himself.

Johar’s first scene is searingly explosive, a great cinematic jolt, following which it first hiccups with some on-the-nose overfriendly banter, and then steadies and settles into a more predictable narrative. And it could have been flat if not for the beautifully used music. Johar’s is a film that loves language — one “Come in?”/“Come out?” moment is particularly gorgeous — and the way he melancholically paints his frames to accompany the words “ki sabse door ho gaye,” is exquisite.

It is also a film made by a maker less sure of the format. The camera is tight and intrusive, as it should be, but perhaps too eagerly, too often. There are a few too many shots of a more ‘cinematic’ composition — of people looking on in loneliness from sea-facing balconies, for example — which sometimes jar with a narrative this stark. Because, stripped of its makeup — as savagely as its actress peels off her own, in one alarming scene — this is the most vital film of the lot.

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BT2A truly great director does not need trained actors, a fact which led the master Satyajit Ray to use lots of non-professionals in his films. It is a method frequently used by Dibakar Banerjee to terrific effect, populating his films with the unfamiliar and the awesome. It is this that might have led Ray to write the short story called “Patol Babu, Film Star” that Banerjee’s film is based on; and it is ultimately deliciously ironic that, with this very short, we discover just how good things can get when a brilliant director does indeed collaborate with a highly accomplished actor.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui, that wondrous chameleon, seems to get better with each cinematic bound, and he’s at his absolute best in this wily adaptation. Mopping up the floors as he talks to his wife, Siddiqui nimbly takes the mop and cleans under his own feet before he steps onto the freshly wiped floor. This is a film that revels in the most acute, the most magnificent detailing. Even in the chawl they live in, Siddiqui’s daughter sleeps beside a Hannah Montana pencilbox. It is a film of many and varied joys, one of the finest and quirkiest going by the name Anjali.

Siddiqui plays a failed entrepreneur who strays onto a film-set and is snapped up as an extra, and much magic follows, most of which I should allow you to experience first hand, without knowing what you’re in for. Siddiqui is spectacular, Sadashiv Amrapurkar (as his overbearing, omniscient father) is perfectly cast and quite special, and Shubhangi Bhujbal is spot-on as Siddiqui’s wife; a particular moment — when she assures him that nobody can turn him down by asking if she herself could say no to him — is one to cherish.

It’s a remarkable film, unmistakably carrying the auteur’s stamp in every frame. (No mean feat considering just how much it borrows from Ray; from his films and his fiction: Anjali constantly made me think of Big Bill, for example.)

The shots are desolate, beautiful, gorgeous and the writing is crafted excellently. It is about the magic-dust the movies sprinkle on everyone within range, but more than that it is about a director himself overreaching: taking a story from the master and cleverly doodling enough around the margins to make it his own, and also taking a song from Rabindranath Tagore and himself composing music to compliment a devastatingly good final shot. These are salutes that must in turn be saluted.

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I want to be a football, says a kid wearing a Lionel Messi jersey in the adorable opening montage of Zoya Akhtar’s film where children of various ages, shapes and heights tell the camera their dreams. (A  boy, wearing a fullblown superhero costume, is one I identified with the strongest.) This film isn’t about us, though, it’s about a kid who looks at the girls in tights longingly (not like that, no) while being forced into football practice; about a kid who wants to be Katrina Kaif.

It’s a simplistic fairytale of a film with clear-etched character archetypes — Strict Dad, Submissive Mom, Sweet Sister — and that suits both narrative and format. The youngster who dreams of glitzy outfits and high-heels is played by Naman Jain and he is simply fantastic, carrying the whole film off remarkably well.

Kaif has a cameo, wings and all, but her being chosen for this film is itself interesting, considering that till before Sheila Ki Jawaani — the song that makes this boy lean forward, agog — she wasn’t even considered a dancer. Dare to dream, but dream covertly, she tells the boy who drinks it in. It’s a sweet, escapist film — with understated ambition — featuring some great dialogues, that climaxes with simplicity and sunniness.

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Anurag Kashyap’s film does what most of us have done, at least at some point: it mythologises Bachchan to the hilt. The narrative is weak (the plot is very reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal) but the masala spirit more than willing, and Kashyap churns out something both nuanced and nutty. In that sense, there may be no better conceivable tribute to Hindi cinema.

BT1An Allahabadi youngster bolts from the Kumbh Mela to see his bedridden father who (after some top-notch Dilip Kumar mimicry) sends him off to see Amitabh Bachchan carrying a gooseberry, a solitary murabba in a jar. His mission: to get Bachchan to take a bite and bring back the half-eaten, megastar-indentured murabba so that the father can get better, bite by Big-B-endorsed bite.

The dutiful son (appropriately named Vijay, naturally) wears a scarlet, Coolie-coloured shirt and makes his way to Bachchan’s, thinking that the most famed of Juhu dwellers would take in all who hail from his hometown. The film is propelled by Vineet Kumar Singh’s stellar performance in the role, and while Kashyap crafts a nice-looking film with some delicious dialogue, this is a film that emerges half-baked. The struggle works but the end is a sham, and the cameo in the middle almost ruins everything. Or maybe the director was aiming for half-eaten?

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Right after Kashyap’s film ends, scram for the door. Because after all this, after four directors doing their best to celebrate Hindi cinema, the film’s producers massacre things by throwing in a horribly tacky song that starts with ghastly YouTube-style lipsyncing and ends with Bollywood at its most disposably shiny. Even if Anil Kapoor’s having fun dancing his Lakhan steps, nothing justifies this atrocity. Run, I tell you, hold on to your murabba jar of movie memories and flee.

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So then four films. Four statements. Four attempts. In the final reckoning, Bombay Talkies is mostly good, with one spectacular film and three that are, at worst, earnest: a collection that deserves to be watched for what it tries to celebrate more than what it ends up being. But like we say about so much of Bollywood, go for the magical bits.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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First published Rediff, 3 May 2013

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Fernando Alonso and the scarlet dream

I once made a Fernando Alonso voodoo doll.

Well, not an Alonso doll per se, but a few of us fanatically pissed Formula One supporters took a tiny F1 car, wrote Renault on it with a felt pen, and called it the Spaniard’s vehicle. Tacks were jammed into tyres, and a magnifying glass may or may not have been used to ignite its nose. Either way, we wanted nothing more than that perpetually whiny, arrogant and exasperatingly talented World Champion to crash out in Brazil, the final round of the 2006 season.

It was Michael Schumacher’s last race, and while the retiring German had handled an unfortunate, gruelling season with grace, Alonso was crying himself blue saying his own team was sabotaging his chances. It was the last straw after two years of watching a bizarrely quick brat of a champion constantly blame either his team or other drivers. In a team sport, with a team solidly behind him — later proven to even be illegally behind him, but more on that in a bit — he was enough of a jerk to compare himself to a lonely Tour De France cyclist, going uphill all by himself. It was nauseating, watching an obviously brilliant driver who happened also to be a whinging putz. Champ and chump all at once, he could win the title but couldn’t come close to earning our respect.

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1In November 2012, Fernando Alonso and I rode up a New York elevator in silence. We smiled at each other, him because he had to, me because I really felt like. I felt, as a matter of fact, like reaching out and grabbing his hand and pumping it with the love and gratitude of a sworn Ferrari fan.

This was two days after the US Grand Prix, and, again, five days before the World Championship finale in Brazil. Again, it was Michael Schumacher’s last race. Again, Alonso was locked in battle with a flawless German racer. Again, I had my fingers crossed for the result.

Things had changed. Tacks were not involved.

Ever since he joined Ferrari in 2010, Alonso had turned into a different man: a team player, a good sport, a man candidly generous with praise and one who looked at (most) on-track mishaps with unflappable calm. Just when fans around the world had made up their minds to dislike him, he switched abruptly from Heel to Face. Dashed inconvenient, but there it was. In Ferrari gear, he was a Champion’s Champion (even without winning the title) an extraordinary warrior who made even mediocre cars shine. It was as if he’d decided the Darth Vader mask didn’t go well with scarlet overalls.

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We were in Manhattan because Kaspersky Lab, the anti-virus software folk who now rent some inches of real estate on those aforementioned red overalls, were hosting a press event to highlight their links with Formula One. The Russian outfit’s charismatic CEO Eugene Kaspersky was on hand to break the ice with Fernando before handing him over to us, and this he did like a particularly personable pickaxe. Having started out collecting computer viruses when “other children collected postage stamps or butterflies,” the information security expert spoke of how he related to Ferrari as a team. “Like my company, Ferrari is like a group of friends, a gang that fights for success.” The gang is also the oldest team in Formula One, a company who started selling cars so that they have money to go racing, instead of the other way around. And all their hopes rest on 31-year-old Alonso’s shoulders.

2Alonso began go-karting at the same time that the late great Ayrton Senna — the legendary three-time world champion Alonso hopes to emulate — made his Formula One debut: which means the Spaniard was all of three years old. “I don’t remember anything,” Alonso admits, “but there are the videos and pictures at home, and also I have the drivers licence which says 1984, so it should be true. I only know that the first race was a 20-lap race in a straight circuit in a go-kart, and I think I did 3 or 4 [laps] and the winners did 20, so they had lapped me some 20 times.” Progress, however, was remarkably swift. “At 8, or maybe 7, I won the karting championship of my area, my region, and then competed in the Spanish championship, then the European championship… and when I was 14, I was World Champion in go-karts. So it was something that happened very quick.”

Success that rapid that early in life can be sufficiently heady, but Alonso’s family kept him grounded. “When you’re racing and you’re winning trophies at this young age, everyone is very friendly with you and everyone wants something from you, and you become like a toy to them; they try to use you all the time.” Alonso’s family — with his mother working in a perfume shop and his father in a mine — was quick to disabuse him of any growing notions of glamour. “Every time I went home, my father always told me that ‘you are racing now, but next year you will be studying or helping me repair homes or put in windows. I have a good friend that now puts elevators, so I think I can find a job for you in the future.’” The very idea of becoming a Formula One driver was too absurd, too unreal. “I honestly thought it sounded like a good opportunity; that I am driving right now but maybe next year I have no contract, and so maybe I’ll put elevators.”

But those hands just weren’t meant to install lifts. “After I won the World Championship, I started getting paid to race in go-karts and I said this is fantastic. I’m 14, doing what I like to do, and I receive some money. A dream come true. And when they offered me single-seaters I said ‘no way.’” Eventually Alonso hesitantly took the jump, and instantly won in single-seater racers. There was no looking back. “Yeah, I was the third youngest in history to make the debut in Formula One in 2001, at 19, and then youngest to win a race, youngest to get a podium, and youngest to win the World Championship in 2005. So, yeah, everything was coming very quickly and I enjoyed it.”

“My first car was a company car,” he says, smiling. “It was a Renault Megane when I was racing for the Renault team. And it was quite a big day because I was 18, and got my driver’s licence, and my only thought at that time was to go to school in that car. And the school is 400 metres from home! It was impossible to park, a big problem. But it was my dream to take my car to school. I was looking for a car that was nice, that was fast, but that was not the case and so I enjoyed it anyway.” A racer who leaves all the adrenaline on the track and ambles about when in a roadcar, Alonso took it so easy during his driving licence test that the teacher had to comment. “I passed the exam and it was all okay, but there was a small note from the teacher saying that I was too slow.”

It’s a complaint motorsport pundits could never consider with the Spaniard, a driver known for instinctively finding the sweet spot in weaker cars and driving them beyond their optimum. It’s a rare gift, and so adept is Alonso at disguising a car’s weaknesses that even his team engineers have complained in the past that his driving style doesn’t give them enough to work with; that he makes bad cars look deceptively good. And when given a genuinely good set of wheels — as Renault did in 2005 and 2006 — he took the fight to none other than Michael Schumacher and his wheezing Ferrari.

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3Fernando Alonso hasn’t won since then. Primed to dominate the decade, he has looked on as Kimi Raikkonen (2007), Lewis Hamilton (2008), Jenson Button (2009) and Sebastian Vettel (all three years since) have marched away with the titles. In 2007, he joined McLaren for one season where he was trounced by Hamilton, then a rookie. The scowl on the Spaniard’s face was permanent and, it must be said, most amusing. In 2008, Renault boss Flavio Briatore wilfully engineered an accident to give Fernando an on-track advantage in Singapore, bringing about his first win of the season. An investigative committee later found Alonso innocent of the conspiracy, banning Briatore and others involved.

In 2010, Alonso moved to Ferrari, and now seems so vitally a part of the team that even his accent sounds spaghetti-flecked. He has also started to smile a winning smile. A lot. (On YouTube, there are videos of Vettel playfully doing impressions of other drivers. The popular Alonso clip, on the other hand, has him casually cracking open a walnut using his neck.) He seems to be relishing racing, more than ever.

I can’t help but ask him about the discernible change in his approach, the way he has gone from being a person who badmouthed his team whenever possible to a man who stands firmly behind his team, however big the gaffe. Is it because he’s happier at Ferrari or has he just matured as a driver? “I think it’s because they do a hundred percent. If I feel the team does 99% while I’m doing 100%, 365 days a year, I say it to everyone. It’s strange because a team should do 100% for their goal, and for winning, and some teams didn’t do this in the past, and the year after that I’d change the team. I have this [kind of] luck.”

6He clearly feels things are different now, and he speaks of his new team not just effusively but firmly enough as if declaring war on rival teams. “With Ferrari, this is a racing team. They do everything for racing. They love racing, they have always been in Formula One. We can win or lose, we can do better or worse, we can have the fastest car or not, but every single person in the team dedicates 24 hours a day to this team, and they love this team. Even when they see, passing in the street, one Ferrari GT, they feel like they did something. Maybe they just painted the mirror, maybe they painted something, but they feel like it is theirs. This is very different with Ferrari compared to any other team, so I love this team.”

Another reason Alonso loves Ferrari is because he has been handed the reigns to the stable, with teammate Felipe Massa clearly in a Number Two position. This suits Alonso, who hated his torrid McLaren year with Hamilton, a partner who’d fight him to the end. Alonso prefers and flourishes in the captain’s role, even though it may not suit Ferrari’s needs: a more competitive teammate than Massa (in current form) may have taken Ferrari to the Constructors Championship. In 2012, it may well have helped Alonso’s chances to have a partner nimbly holding back his rivals. But then everything last year was achieved against all odds.

When the 2012 season began, the Ferrari was one second off the pace. It started to improve, but very slowly. Alonso — as if a crummy car (and, resultantly, poor qualifying position) were immaterial — kept his foot down and decided to stay flawless. Midway through the season — a whimsical season that saw seven different winners in the first seven races, a season with no formbook — Fernando Alonso led the field by no less than 40 points.

“We’d like to have boring seasons where we know [what will happen in] the races,” he smiles. “That will be our dream season. But it is very difficult to get that. So this year we arrived at a circuit and didn’t know if we will be tenth or pole position on Saturday. It’s something we can  try to enjoy as drivers, and the engineers and teams don’t like it too much, because with the computers and simulations everything is ready and all settled, and when something is out of control they get a little bit distressed. But it’s a wonderful season, I think, because people enjoyed it from the outside. And hopefully we’ll enjoy it more next time.”

4It has indeed been a miraculous year for him, and even after his luck wore thin and Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull started looking characteristically good, Alonso continued bullishly to guarantee victory. In a field littered with increasingly young winners and prodigious prodigies, Alonso appears an alpha-male scrapping it out with boys. The Spaniard has a samurai tattooed on his back, and frequently, in a run up to last year’s finale, began referring to himself as both gladiator and samurai, assuring the world he would win, despite Vettel having usurped his lead.

He is clear, however, that this self-assurance has nothing to do with rage. (Which also means he doesn’t have a katana handy to slice Seb’s front-wing off if he gets too close at the second chicane. Pity. ) “It is not revenge, not at all,” he assures. “This is sport and sometimes everything goes good and sometimes not so good, and what’s important is to give it everything you’ve got. And we did that this year. And I think if we win, it will be some kind of justice. Not revenge, but I honestly feel we deserve it more, so 99% of the people watching, I think, will be happy.” That includes the drivers: a poll before the last race of the year showed nearly 90% of the pilots in the paddock agreeing on Alonso deserving the title more.

Alonso says the first world championship is the hardest, because it’s so hard to sleep when fighting for that first title. It gets easier, but — when a season is heading into its climax — not by much. As a multiple World Champion, how important is winning on a race-by-race basis? “Oh, it’s not that we enjoy winning,” he beams, bathed in confidence. “It’s that we hate losing.”

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Five days later, he lost the 2012 World Championship to Sebastian Vettel. By three points. Vettel, six years younger, pipped him to the third world title, and will be gunning for a fourth. And that’s not all, by a long shot. Hamilton, Button and Raikkonen, all with blood on their fangs, are furiously circling the trophy now, each with a point to prove. There will be new regulations and engine changes, and more to get used to. As the F1 circus gets into gear again later this month, the Spaniard’s task is going to be anything but simple.

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Then again, Fernando Alonso has never had anything to do with simple.

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That November afternoon, Eugene Kaspersky gave the world’s press a tip, a tip to will Alonso to victory: “All of you please support Fernando by drinking to him. Don’t do it before, but just after the start of the race. Raise your glasses, drink to Fernando and it’ll help. We need you.” Raising an imaginary toast to himself, the driver laughingly nodded agreement.

In 2006, I had tacks. In 2012, I had tequila. Fernando Alonso defied wishes each time. Champions, clearly, carve their own fortune.

 

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First published Man’s World magazine, March 2013

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Review: Sai Paranjpe’s Chashme Buddoor

cb3There is a scene in Sai Paranjpe’s Chashme Buddoor where Farooque Shaikh and Deepti Naval are on their first date. Despite coffee and tutti-frutti ice-cream, and her cooing enthusiasm for him studying Economics, there isn’t much to really talk about. And the shy Shaikh sheepishly confesses to having stalked her, to lurking outside her music school based on timings she’d let slip when they last met. Biting her lip, Naval grins that the reason she’d spoken of her schedule in such detail was precisely that he may notice. They laugh in awkward relief, instantly and acutely aware of having both acted on the same impulse.

It is a simple scene and yet — as can be said for a majority of Paranjpe’s cinema — within it lies a masterclass. Shaikh’s Siddharth Parashar is endearingly guileless, baring his first-ever gambit because it comes unnaturally to him, and because he’d rather not lie to the first girl he’s ever struck up conversation with, but also because he is, funnily enough, proud of his effort. It all shows in Shaikh’s grin as he looks away from her. Meanwhile, there is a joyous giddiness to Naval’s Neha, a girl only too glad to express her gladness. She’s flattered, thrilled, and positively glowing as she eases his confession with hers, following which he expansively orders more coffee and ice-cream, markedly more confident as he overrides her protestations. It is an exquisite piece of acting naturalism, one of the finest of them all. And the writing is flawless.

Chashme Buddoor, digitally remastered and brought to screens in a spanking new version, might have needed the cinematic scrubbing but remains a film glorying another time. 1981. A time when 500 rupees went a really long way and cigarette companies merely wanted you to relax. A time when posting pictures on one’s wall was a very literal activity (and a striking Shabana Azmi was a pin-up girl). A time when a character’s parents lived or vacationed in Nairobi. And a time when it seemed appropriate to shoot green and lovely Delhi with an uncynical, tender eye.

As time-capsules go, it’s one of the best and brightest. Chashme Buddoor is a masterpiece, and even 32 years after it first came out, I can safely declare what this is the best Hindi film you’ll see in theatres this year.

The characters are magnificent. Ravi Baswani makes his screen debut as the cavalier Jomo, a dedicated Lothario who believes in equal-opportunity flirting: no woman is spared from an attempt, albeit a harmless one. His side of the room he shares with two other Delhi University bachelors has the Azmi pin-up alongside many others, plus tall black boots he shines meticulously, and even when he’s swallowed a few punches and is bolting out of a farcically dangerous situation, Jomo stops to gather up his cigarettes and his sunglasses.

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Rakesh Bedi’s chubby Omi, on the other hand, believes in muscle-magazines and injudiciously short shorts. He’s failed college a few times, sure, but he loves his ghazals and a spot of shaayari, and — truth be told, while he may not admit it to Jomo — prefers watching a play than chasing pointlessly after a girl.

But he talks a very big game, which leads us to the film’s finest moment: when a dejected Omi returns home, puffing thoughtfully on a cigarette and then — suddenly — throws it down and twirls dramatically on it, jumping up with an instant spring in his step as he gallops home to regale friends with a grand tale of a conquest that never was. In the snap of his fingers lies sheer, unadulterated movie magic.

Siddharth is the straighter one, the studious one mostly willing to foot the bill for his freeloading friends. There’s Gandhi on his wall and his shelves, and even the chair he sits in happens to be marked Aristotle. And, as mentioned, his artlessness is remarkable: he patiently picks out a whole new outfit and then, when his girl is impressed and comments on it, he smugly says he’s just been shopping. And he’s just waiting to be told to quit smoking.

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Naval, on the other hand, imbues her Neha with such effervescent heart that it’s impossible not to fall for her. She memorably hawks detergent door-to-door to pay for music classes she diligently refuses to ever miss (well, almost ever) and the amount of unaffected joy the actress brings to the film livens it up miraculously. And she looks dazzling, by the way — even when imagined as Chhoti Bahu, in black and white.

And that, by no means, is all. There’s neighbourhood paanwala Lallan Mia, played by the amazing Saeed Jaffrey, a genial soul who couldn’t resist peeking at the girl in the pink salwaar-kameez as she strolled by early on, giving the film its plot. He harangues the trio for never paying for their cigarettes but his threats are but barbs; he threatens to confiscate an LP from the lads but scornfully hands it back. And how he exults about the addition of a bright table-lamp in his shop.

Because Chashme Buddoor is, above all, a film about small joys. About letting a pack of cards decide who gets first crack at a girl. About admitting that a bracelet is indeed too expensive. About friends with interchangeable wardrobes, all borrowing from each other. About flying kites in the park. About finding inspiration in Amitabh Bachchan movies. And about a brilliantly placed nail to hang a censorious towel on, whenever needed.

Chashme Buddoor is a marvel. Watching it two nights ago made my jaws hurt with laughter, predictably, but also my cheeks ache from constantly smiling. It is a wildly ebullient wonder of a film, very special and soaked in far more warmth than we are currently used to. It’s a treat, and like tutti-frutti ice-cream that is far harder to find than it should, we should lap it up while we can, gratefully and ravenously. Go to theatres now.

Rating: 5 stars

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First published Rediff, April 5, 2013

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