Thursday, December 24, 2009

Watching Avatar

(Spoilers here, but you’ll thank me.)

There are many beautiful things about Avatar: plants in danger zip themselves shut, trees share knowledge, forests light up at night, the animals. But there is gift wrapping, and then there’s the gift within. Remember Pushpak?

The gift within, as it were, is the story and dialogue. The movie begins with interesting circumstances - a paraplegic finds his feet in another body. He is sent to the natives as a spy, and his loyalties slowly shift. This journey into his new life is narrated leisurely, and it feels suitably meditative. Almost Eastern, in a way.

But then it remembers Hollywood. Like an Indian copy editor pressed for time, it puts an end to the journey arbitrarily, and the result is brutal. A war follows, in which copters and flying beasts go at each other. I could not believe my ears when the protagonist screamed for war at the end. It stereotyped the stereotype. For a moment I saw Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe do their thing. Perhaps that is how battles are fought and how leaders inspire. Perhaps. But I think not. Imagine Marlon Brando going “YEAH!” and doing a fist pump during his monologue in Apocalypse Now. Weird there, weird here. There’s quiet leadership, and there’s Hollywood leadership.

There were references to Miyazaki’s work and the gargantuan machines so necessary in futuristic war video games. All this has been seen before in one form or another. Even the detailing, striking for a movie, is something I found underwhelming. I mean, once you’ve played MGS4, ‘graphics’ don’t stand a chance.

But the new thing that excited me about Avatar was the way the camera used 3D. It barely ever stood steady, with the result that you felt part of it. I can’t wait to see how that evolves in the years to come.

As for the rest, meh.

Ps. The wife put it well. "$280 million on the movie. How much on the script?"

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A visit to the CA

Years of dealing with negligent and ignorant advertising professionals have helped my CA perfect a dialect that consists solely of euphemisms. When we last spoke he asked for a particular document that was necessary "to avoid things we are not interested in".

On daydreaming

Earlier today, when the sun was bright and the air was cool and crisp, I felt happy about something that might happen a year later. A car honked, and then another, and I remembered where I was. I'm still happy. What I did then was daydream. What I feel now, I think, is a result of untouched optimism.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sketch - Who was that masked man?


Alright. So I'm scared to do faces. Sue me.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Sketch - face practice

I'm practicing faces. The profile is probably the easiest angle to get, but this took me half a day.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sketch: Bird on rod

From memory. On the iPhone.

Update: Tuesday, 22 September: How much of an improvement this version is, I can't tell yet.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Open Magazine feature: Foleys

There are men who enjoy recreating the sounds of everyday life. The best ones are good listeners. They know that a walk is never just a walk, that a splash is hardly just a splash. These men have been around for two decades now, applying their observations to film, adding realism to absolute turkeys. They are sonic anthropologists. The film industry calls them Foley artists.

“Watch this,” Sajjan Chouwdhry, a Foley artist at Aradhana Studio said, picking up a pair of tattered shoes from a messy pile of worn-out footwear that carpeted the studio floor. Scattered around him were props to create sounds that end up on film: a cage fan, a creaky leather sofa, a rusty car bonnet, glass bottles, a fake door with a knob and latches, wicker baskets, a cupboard of jewellery and bangles. Putting them on, he stood still beside a microphone wrapped in cloth on a surface of ageing wooden planks. “Ready,” he said. A moment later, a large screen came alive with Gulshan Grover, dressed formally, strolling down a boardwalk. Chouwdhry walked in place, in step with Grover, tapping his feet hard to create the cold, formal beat of a corporate man’s shoes. As Grover slowed down, so did Chouwdhry, finally turning with his soles scraping the floor as Grover turned to sit down. “The extra sound”— a regular swish—“is because I’m wearing pants,” Chouwdhry said, implying that he walks for movies without his pants. Which is just as well, for Foleys can be found in the farthest reaches of recording studios, where they are left alone to pursue an ambition considered unsexy. They are happiest there, among musty props and familiar recording equipment, grounding characters; away from unwanted attention.

Karnail Singh, a large and genial man who works with Chouwdhry, has done this since 1986. He is now considered a master. “If I tell you to put down a phone, you’ll put it right down. But we look at the character. Is he pensive about the call? If he is, his hand will search for the cradle. The phone cord will pull and jar on the desk’s edge. That’s the difference between a good Foley artist and someone who’s in it for the money.”

Until recently Singh was called a sound effects specialist, but then, somehow, people started calling him a Foley. “Even I didn’t know what it meant,” he says. The word is a tribute to Jack Foley, who spent a lifetime squeezing sounds out of props for movies. An uncredited article about Foley has his technique described by George Pal, an Oscar nominee seven times over for his cartoons: ‘Jack’s technique was to record all the effects for a reel at one time… Jack added the footsteps, the movement, the sound of various props, all in one track. He used a cane as an adjunct to his own footsteps. With that cane, he could make the footsteps of two to three people. He kept a large cloth in his pocket which could be used to simulate movement.’ (The sound created by rubbing two bits of cloth mimics the sound of human motion, of arms and legs flexing or relaxing.)

Foley art arrived in India in 1971 at Prasad Labs in Chennai, when a mandolin player and a studio assistant were assigned by the sound engineer of Sigappu Rojakkal to recreate the sound of birds (using bamboo strips) and sea waves (with mustard seeds on thick paper). They were paid Rs 250 for their efforts. But this was at Prasad Labs. In the Hindi film industry, sound effects were the work of amateurs and the disinterested. “All attention was paid to music, background music and photography, which is not surprising. The sound recorder’s work we heard at mixing time,” says Raj Sippy, who began directing in 1977. This meant anybody could pass off anything as sound effects. Dishoom, for example, is believed to be the work of a fight master who used the sound informally to guide actors. “I cannot believe how people took to the sound back then,” Sippy says. He once snuck a recording device into Excelsior to record the punches in a Charles Bronson movie. He then gave the tape to his filmmaker friends.

“I was not very happy with how my seniors did things,” says Singh, “but they were my seniors, so I had to keep quiet. They did things the wrong way. The director was focused on the hero and the dialogue. Between dialogues there was nothing, just empty space.”

After landing a permanent gig at Aradhana, they worked on Discovery of India. They were then roped in for Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda. Arun Patil, a sound effects man who specialised in explosions, came to them with a problem: create sounds for a South Indian swing that creaked and had bells attached. “That was the toughest thing we ever did,” Singh says. Chouwdhry nods. Now, they say, nothing puzzles them. One scene in Vikram Bhatt’s horror flick 1920, showed a cat being eaten. To get the right amount of crunchiness, Chouwdhry ordered a roast chicken for the sound session. Chouwdhry, the brawnier of the two, says he’s more suited for “macho sounds”, such as a man’s walk, a thump, a punch, a fall. Singh, he says, is fine with “lady sounds”: the tinkle of an earring, bangles, sandals. Singh smiles and says nothing.

Since the community of Foley artists in India is small—between 10 and 15 in Mumbai—there’s no shortage of assignments. But Nitin Chandy, the sound engineer at Blue Frog’s recording studios, says they will have to evolve. He believes that the advent of digital sound, which included digital libraries, transformed the landscape for sound designers. To pull out a sound earlier meant destructive editing—cutting from tape. “Foleys were in trouble when it became non-destructive.” Now every designer has access to libraries. “Now it’s a dying art.”

Foleys disagree, of course. A freelance Foley who worked for Ram Gopal Varma says digital libraries aren’t everything. Singh and Chouwdhry think about it for a moment before declaring that there’s more than enough work. They turn to a silent screen playing Varma’s next film. The protagonists run through the jungle, and all you hear is the crunch of leaves and the splash of water. Then it ends, promising a sequel. Varma alone could keep Foleys in business.

Open Magazine feature: The superstar problem

The modern filmmaker who strives to walk on a path of his own making asks for too much. He requires money, a commodity that is at once everywhere and nowhere in Bollywood. He discovers that the future of his tightly bound baby depends not on the firmness of the script nor on the probable cost of production. If his film is ever made while he stays true to himself, he will attribute it to hard work and luck. Mostly to luck. And to praying, with all his might, that no one asks who the star is.

The star is at the heart of everything. This we know now, again. In the middle of this decade a theory found favour in Mumbai. Like so many others, this too sprung from naivete. Cinema, it seemed, would finally be true to itself, and be free from the tyranny of stars. Finally good stories would be told, finally intelligence would be rewarded. Movies such as Black Friday, Khosla Ka Ghosla, Socha Na Tha, My Brother Nikhil, Manorama Six Feet Under and Johnny Gaddar revealed themselves at multiplexes. The last of these movies came two years ago but it seems an age. All were starless. We now know that stars are a necessity because stars are a condition; too many people can’t quite do without them. We know that with stars comes notice, and baggage too—more than a director needs.

And what happens, when that first starless movie by an idealistic filmmaker is done and dusted, and acclaim has come his way? Why, doors open. He telephones to say, “Hey, this is Navdeep Singh, the director of Manorama Six Feet Under”, and the big men invite him in. They know a finely directed movie when they see one, but pity about the box office. They tell him about their romantic comedy and ask him to direct it the way he did his own murder mystery. He emerges from meetings wondering what just happened. They tell Raj Kumar Gupta, the man behind Aamir, that they have a movie just like Aamir for him to direct (Who says man writes his own destiny?). It’s enough to make a director interrogate himself unreasonably. Is there something wrong in his approach, is he a misfit, or worse? He considers a life not in Indian cinema, but in Bollywood. He considers taking refuge in compromise.

Compromise. The word whose meaning every filmmaker wrestles with at least once. Two years after Manorama, Singh lights up one stick of Classic Mild after another outside a Juhu coffee shop and talks about how this consideration manifests itself. “There’s a strong temptation… I mean, that’s where the money lies, that’s where the success lies. I’ll admit I feel a little jealous of the people I know. They drive BMWs, have a 7 crore flat. It’s actually less work to make those kind of films. It’s a different kind of work, I suppose, but I think it’s less work because the costume person is handling costumes, not the director.” He chuckles in wonder of it all. “Same goes for the music. It works pretty independently. You’ve got to be able to enjoy that way of working. Unfortunately the kind of films I make would not necessarily attract the kind of money my children would appreciate.”

Some encounters leave small filmmakers wondering. When a popular mainstream actress heard how many songs a director’s new movie had, she called it an art film. “Not one more,” the director recalled her saying. “I’ve just done three.” One of the three—as mainstream as it gets—was arty to her because the lead had changed his facial appearance. “The definition of mainstream in India is still very narrow,” he says. “Anything outside it is not even considered hatke. It’s considered arty.”

“It’s not that we won’t work with stars,” says Raj Kumar Gupta, “In Hollywood, big stars care about the script. They don’t care if you’re a first-time filmmaker or a second timer. Over here not many stars will be interested, unless you have the backing of a big filmmaker/producer.” Gupta recalls producers being excited by a script he had written. “One producer said he would fund it if I had a star. But the story was about eight losers. The first thing a star would have asked me is, ‘Am I a loser? Why the fuck have you come to me if I’m a loser?’”

Stars are part of the overarching, all-consuming belief that every element in a movie has a value attached. And that the sum of those values must result in a profit. “A producer will say ‘Okay, I can get Abhay Deol’. He will get out a calculator. Thak-thak-thak. ‘Achcha, second lead mein Irfan dal sakte hain. Sab mila ke budget itna hai.’” For an idealist filmmaker, the ones with reputations for being difficult, the belief is understandable but alien. “For me it’s got to be about something more than money,” Singh says.
It should be, but rarely is in this city.

Mazhar Kamran, a director of photography for Satya and Kaun, is nervous about his first directional venture. Mohan Das, about an over achiever who slips into ruin after losing his identity, has no stars. It features Nakul Vaid and Sonali Kulkarni. Kamran found a financier willing to bear the low cost of production.

With that he imagined that his struggles were over. But Kamran found distribution a challenge instead. Distributors refused to buy the film—on the basis that there were no stars. “That’s what the whole thing comes down to. You will find people who back you, who fund you, but you will find it difficult to get into theatres. That’s the barrier. But the market works like this. How do you break that?” Kamran’s next movie will be produced by Venus. “They will want a star,” he says like a child who knows his summer vacation will soon be over.

The answer to this impasse, with the wannabe and the producer/exhibitor staring at each other across a table, is slight deception. “The only way you can sell something in this town,” says Singh, “is by giving your movie a genre. Call it an action thriller. You cheat a bit. You stress the more commercial aspects of it. You call it a rom-com and then sneak in the things you want.”

Producers can’t be blamed though, according to Singh. Not for their demanding stars, and not for their “lip service to better scripts”. They, and everybody else, are hostage to audience tastes. “ Viewers want new stories, but at the same time are looking for stars. Look at Chak De. You need a Shah Rukh Khan driving it. You could replicate it frame by frame, but can’t put in a Kay Kay Menon.”

In this, entertainment is a cog in life, with our expectations of local life translating to cinema. “I don’t see [the star system] changing soon. That’s how our politics is. Everything is about individuals and stars. That’s exactly how entertainment works. That’s how we expect everything to function. Look at the police. There’s one superstar cop. Everyone expects him to deliver. It’s like no other system exists.”

So the small filmmaker’s struggle isn’t against an industry but a culture, a way of being. Money isn’t the driving motivation, and it isn’t fame either. “That’s where the awards go, the money goes, the public adulation goes,” Singh says of the commercial cinema scene. “So the only person you’re doing different stuff for is yourself. My wife says I’m the most selfish bastard she knows.”

Open Magazine feature: Bob Christo has a brownie

When Bob Christo visited Brio for coffee and a brownie one morning, he triggered a reaction reserved for a certain kind of fame. This celebrity is neither a superstar nor entirely forgotten. He hovers on the edge of memory, forever linked to a particular time, like a yellowing love letter rediscovered. So, when Christo strolled in, a young man put down his screenplay, and squinted as if to trace a distant thought, and customers turned to look and slowly smile. At the height of Christo’s powers, film-makers asked mostly two things of him—being evil, and laughing evilly. This he did in nearly a hundred movies.

Christo began life in India as Sanjay Khan’s bodyguard, and soon entered Bollywood with Abdullah. Raj N Sippy, who directed him in Mr Bond, says he was struck by Christo’s size. “He looked scary. He was also the only guy around who could pop open a bottle with his thumb.”

Now seventy, Christo gently pressed a fork sideways into what he hoped was a veg brownie—the result of a minor miscommunication with a bewildered waiter—but was, in fact, a fudge brownie. He had kept the beard but was no longer barrel-chested; his legs were thin and ended in white sneakers. Spinal stenosis took hold in 2006, and he could no longer teach yoga in Bangalore. Eventually he concluded that his vastly colourful life needed recounting. “This is my book,” he said, pulling out a flat brown envelope folded into a square. “Every word is on this CD.”

For three hours the story came in disjointed chapters. It was spread over five continents and ten countries, and contained many children.

“I’m an adventurer,” Christo began. After a successful career as a civil engineer in Australia, Christo’s first wife died, and he fell apart. He moved to Vietnam as an engineer.

“All three kids were taken by my friends. But I was in Vietnam, and I wanted to get out before we were shot. When we were evacuated by plane, people clung on to the fuselage, hoping to escape. I had had enough. I moved to Hong Kong.” He visited government auctions and refurbished Jaguars. Here he met a “lovely girl who kept telling me to live in Samoa because her brothers would love me, and I asked her to move in with me”. Christo could not, because of a complicated love at whose center lay Marie.

Marie Antoinette Francesco. Three decades on, Christo says, he pines for what they shared in the Philippines.

“She calls me one day, saying she is pregnant by me. But I knew marriage would not be possible because I was leaving to locate a top-secret CIA spy ship that had sunk in the Mediterranean.” Suspecting Libya’s hand, Christo and a friend decided they needed money and weapons. So he arranged a meeting with Marie and her childhood sweetheart, and got them married.

He took a breather. Sipped water. Ordered another cappuccino.

In 1987, Christo appeared in the movie of the year, Mr India. Directed by Shekhar Kapur, Christo caricatured himself. Kapur says, “He was strange in the way that he was always drifting. It was a very Australian thing—to travel everywhere and then find a reason to settle down in one place.”

Christo now struggles to recall his travels. After Vietnam, a search for his karate teacher, whom he called Oshiro, led him to the Philippines and then Taiwan. “He was on drugs. The triads wanted to kill him off because he knew that their people had killed Bruce Lee,” says Christo. “I would sit on his shoulders and he would do 1,000 squats a day,” Christo continued. Christo demonstrated squats in the restaurant. “‘Remember how we used to do things?’ I asked him, and he would say ‘Yes Bob!’ Eventually he was okay.”

Then came Rhodesia. The search for guns and money led him to work for Ian Smith, the Prime Minister of Rhodesia, and his work involved sinking Russian ships and ferreting out terrorists.

Sippy doesn’t know about his past, but swears by Christo anyway: “He’s not a bullshitter. He doesn’t add on garbage. He’s a good bloke, an honest guy.” Kapur says he vaguely remembers Christo being with “some kind of armed force”, but can’t recall details.

Christo left Rhodesia after he was paid in Zimbabwean dollars; it was nowhere near enough. He traveled to Muscat for restoration work, and soon arrived in Bombay for a vacation. Here he met Parveen Babi, and worked in films with a dedication his directors found wonderful. He stopped just as suddenly. “After 25 years in the business, I had enough. It was time for a change.”

And so Christo seeks a publisher. He digs deep for memories of his enjoyable life. “Sometimes I forget things,” he says, “But when I’m writing, it all comes back.”

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Headache hadippa!

I'm going nuts. A relative keeps singing the lyrics of every damn song in Dil Bole Hadippa! She's doing this to irritate me. I reckon this is as low as life will ever get. But no, she pulls out the cd sleeve to show me the giant turban hung over the stage for some insipid song. I swear, just thinking of YashRaj these days gives me a migraine.

But wait, don't go just yet. Here are some lyrics:
1) Duniya firangi syappa hai, fikar hi gum ka papa hai.
2) Nach karenge, touch karenge, bach le ve yaara, ajj toh hum too much karenge, bach le ve yaara.
3) ...what you doing I liking...

This entire company has a serious midlife crisis.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Open Magazine feature: The Curious Case of Shobhalal vs Shobhalal


The first time police knocked on Shobhalal’s door to arrest him for getting drunk and being a nuisance, he was taken aback. It couldn’t have been him, he said.

Was he Shobhalal, baap ka naam (father's name) Rampratap, they asked. Yes, he said, but he wasn’t the man they wanted. They beat him anyway on principle and threw him in jail for a bit.

They came again, for drunken brawling. Then again, for some other offense. He didn’t argue when they returned. Nor did he resist. Not because it was futile to protest, to resist the police, but because he was by then aware there was some truth to the allegations. Shobhalal had been drunk; Shobhalal had fought; Shobhalal had misbehaved - only it wasn’t him.

Out there was a man with his name, his job, his money, and his life. A man whose wife had the same name as his own. He knew all this, but who would believe him?

Shobhalal’s story was ripe for fictional adaptation, and that is where it gained fame. He first turned up as Mohandas in the writer Uday Prakash’s book of the same name; a man floundering in a hellish limbo. Now, in an adaptation just as sunny, Mohandas will appear on film. There is no hope for him, no permanent respite. The appearance of happiness usually presages a cruel joke. In Shobhalal’s case the last twenty years have been one cosmic prank.

Shobhalal’s troubles really began when his father pulled him out of school. His ancestors had lived in Gunwaari peacefully for over 200 years, and he wasn’t the kind to rock that boat. No, he liked things steady. The familiarity of this village - on the eastern edge of Madhya Pradesh - was comforting. Not much happened here - good or bad. Things would remain as they had been. That was how Shobhalal saw it.

He still doesn’t know why his father, Rampratap, an educated man, sent him to the family fields. He wasn’t curious. Tilling land and waiting for rain gave him peace. When it rained the field grew dhaan, a grain that is at once rice and roti and dal to farmers. There was little else a son could do around Gunwaari. The public works department paid a pittance. The region’s open cast mines, rich in coal, hired men like it was a lottery. Of course, in the eighties a job at the local colliery paid handsomely, and most men would jump to it if they were offered an assignment there. So he borrowed a few hundred rupees and signed up as a candidate. But Shobhalal was also happy in his fields, and if there was no response he would not have bothered.

Gunwaari men aspired to work for open cast mines in the neighborhood at the time. A mining assignment made such a stark difference to their lives that it became a destination - few men looked beyond the region. Even today, connected by a web of roads, villagers refer to the nearby town of Anuppur, only 25 kilometers away, as ‘over there’ and ‘outside’. So in 1988, shortly before his life turned on its head, Shobhalal’s world was here, in the village he understood, on lanes that turned to gushing rivers of mud when God was generous.

Early on a Saturday morning in May 1988, Shobhalal, a slim and square-jawed man with large eyes and an attractive smile, took a bus to the Jamuna colliery. He was, by his own rough estimate, 28 years old. Dressed in a white shirt, he held an interview letter inviting him to the colliery. He found that the interview consisted of few words. After a picture taken against a cloth drape, Shobhalal was directed to the business end of the interview; namely, hoisting a 50-kilo load of coal on his shoulders and carrying it a certain distance. He readied himself. He bent forward and lifted the weight with one jerk. The momentum of the weight, coupled with his poor stance, sent him staggering backward wide-eyed, and he landed with a terrible crash. Concerned men rushed to him. “I’m fine,” he brushed them away. “That was heavy!” His interviewers gave him one more try, but he refused, saying it was impossible. Shobhalal returned to life in quiet Gunwaari, where things had always been the same.

The regional coal mine employment department threw him a second chance the following year. He was summoned for another interview for a laborer’s job to Dhanpuri. This time he managed to lift the weight and keep his balance. He went home happy. A joining letter arrived soon after. Shobhalal did not know what it said, but he knew the letter would change his life, and so he carried it gingerly into a dark inner room and kept it on a mud shelf. He planned to take it to the regional office to understand fully the letter’s contents in a few days. The celebration at home went on for long.

***

Shobhalal is 49 now, with a weathered face and small eyes that crinkle at the edges when he talks. His pencil mustache from the photograph has become a peppery beard. He never left Gunwaari because the joining letter disappeared. He doesn’t know how, or when. He last saw it on the shelf.

In 1990, a year after the letter disappeared, he decided to pay his nephew a social visit. Twelve years younger then Shobhalal, Loknath left school after his job letter came through. He was posted at Sanjay Nagar, a colliery 40 kilometers from Gunwaari. Shobhalal heard that Loknath had a large house and a salary of Rs 5678, and he wanted to see, first-hand, how his nephew was doing. So he rode out on his bicycle, dodging trucks and cows on his way past the court at Anuppur town, past the police station, and past the home of the lawyer who would soon come to mean so much to him.

Sanjay Nagar’s quarters were typical for colliery housing; rectangular and blockish. But the colony impressed Shobhalal. He began to feel the dull ache of a missed opportunity.

He asked around for Loknath, but no one had heard of him. Then he saw him, and happily called out his name. ‘Oh, him?’ a man said. ‘His name is Shobhalal.’

Loknath saw Shobhalal’s expression transform. He sensed trouble.

***

“I said nothing to him that day.” Shobhalal spoke softly, slowly, to keep himself from crying. We sat on a bed in a dark room, in a house he should have been far from. “I ate my dinner and left the next morning. He told me not to discuss it.” His thoughts were a jumble. All he knew was that a nephew he trusted stole his papers. “I let him into my house. I knew he stole corn and kheer, but this…

“I didn’t know about it for a year. Had I not gone there, I would not have known.” His voice began to waver. “I spoke to his father, my cousin. All he said was ‘a cow’s milk is not only for its calf, others also drink it’.”

The job is your right, Loknath’s father told Shobhalal, but you’re not in a position to exercise your right. You’re like that calf.

Shobhalal began to pull together evidence - a job number here, a school certificate there, a confirmation from the village sarpanch - that would prove his identity beyond doubt. He hauled steel lock boxes home to keep his papers secure. Then he visited the police, who told him that a minor payment, say, Rs 10,000, would ensure the job was his. He visited the tehsildar, and the district collector. All of them promised inquiries, none of them materialized. The years passed.

In 1996, a year after an upcoming young lawyer named Vijendra Soni took on his case for free, the Anuppur court admitted the curious case of Shobhalal versus Shobhalal.

Soni, a short, squat man given to sitting over standing, is a bit of a celebrity in Anuppur. He hosts parties at Hotel Govindam, and is recognized as a man of influence. That’s because, besides fighting cases, he’s also a member of the Communist Party of India. Soni joined the party in 1983 as a student looking for direction. Practicing law left him with enough time for politics, and it supported the family. “I had no real passion for it,” he said, slumped in his chair below a large sketch of Vladimir Lenin.

He brought instant steel to Shobhalal’s case. Immediately, colliery officials saw trouble on the horizon. “They instituted their own inquiry, and found that Shobhalal took Loknath to the mine,” Soni said. “Loknath got the job, and he started work as Shobhalal. They decided that Loknath had not stolen Shobhalal’s papers. The whole report was a hypothesis! The fact is, the mine’s management team never tallied the employment numbers.”

Pressed by Soni, the court began investigating the incident by 2000. Officials panicked. Shobhalal says Loknath offered him Rs 1.5 lakh to keep him quiet. “‘Why should I take that money?’ I asked him.”

That year officials dismissed Loknath from his job as a dump truck driver (the job pays Rs 25-30000 a month, Soni says). When he thinks about it, Shobhalal can barely contain his glee. He hasn’t won anything, but Loknath has lost. He thanks his gods profusely. “Now when Loknath passes by, he looks at me like he will kill me. I always told his father that one day God would see to him.” He counts the arrests as mere inconveniences.

Now he wants his job. But he has a long wait. The court will get around to it after the evidence hearings are over and a judgement has been passed on this case.

***

There’s a man named Shobhalal in Sanjay Nagar. His wife’s name is Sonia. His father’s name, Rampratap. Men in the colony referred to his ganja habit, and said he didn’t work much. From time to time they saw him drive a rickshaw. His wife made ‘good-luck-pots’ - spherical clay pots with slits for coins. She didn’t know where he was. “He left today morning, and I don’t know when he’ll be back.”

In the dark passageway were piles of pots she will soon sell for next to nothing. She blamed the uncle for all this. “He wanted this job,” she said, and mounted a defense of her husband. “His bosses said he was political at work. That he tried to unionize the workforce. They dismissed him saying he was trouble. But everyone should wait and see. We’ll show them once this case is over.”

Their savings frittered away in the years after his dismissal. Only nine years have passed but they seem a lifetime away. Their other house was bigger, she said. It had two floors, and was much nicer. Now she felt the loss sharply, almost bitterly. The neighbors had turned away. They couldn’t afford even mosquito repellent. “What can I do, babu?” she said with a smile that conveyed no joy. “You tell me. What can I do?”

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

In which he lays down his fork and weeps

Finally, success! Everything came together last night. The asparagus shoots, the lump of butter, button mushrooms, dried mushrooms (morels), dried mushroom water, cream, and a heap of tarragon. I forgot to take a picture last night, but maybe next time.

It looked like this (without the nasty peas):


Monday, June 29, 2009

Recipe: Failed tomato soup

The tomato soup I prepared last night should have been good. After all, I had followed The Minimalist's advice fairly accurately. First heat some olive oil, add chopped garlic and onions, and wait for the aroma. Add some fresh black pepper and salt. I use rock salt, so I threw in a few more pinches. Seven minutes later, in went three cups of chopped tomatoes and two cups of vegetable stock. I tore up some french bread and tossed it in. Within minutes everything except the tomatoes turned to sludge. Those stayed chunky in a nice soft way. Then the mixture began to boil, and the bread began to shine. Shine? This was not part of the recipe. Anyway, I put two basil leaves for decoration. It was like putting a tie on a pig.

A sip later I realized there was too much olive oil. The evidence was in my bowl. The tomato chunks had settled at the bottom with the garlic and onion, under a thick layer of olive oil. My Nepali cook - because of who I am forced to do these things - looked at it curiously and said nothing, which made matters worse, for he has an armchair opinion on all food.

Nevertheless, failure on soup is unacceptable, and it will be attempted again. But tonight's experiment is more complex: asparagus with tarragon and morels. Wish me luck.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Friday night commute

A trudge, a trudge,
traffic doesn't budge,
Colaba to Andheri
is always scary.

(Scrap 'scary'. Replace with 'dreary').

A trudge, a trudge,
traffic doesn't budge,
Colaba to Andheri
is forever dreary.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Open Magazine feature: The Bandra-Worli Sea Link

Enjoyed this.

On the sea link that will soon connect Bandra to Worli, fifteen men swept, tarred, and patted a stretch no longer than five meters with uncommon urgency. Noxious tar, fresh off a machine that rolled forward, steamed beneath their feet. A vast expanse of concrete ready to be layered with tar loomed ahead, stretching out to a distant point. Spurred by a deadline already gone by, they pressed on without a break from their grueling work. Like them, other teams were at work in a hurry on the bridge. Above everyone, and everything, including the giant launch trusses that lift segments of the bridge into place for alignment, rose the main towers of the sea link, each made of four thick concrete legs that converged at a point 125 meters above the roadway. And behind them, higher than the towers, stood a crane. Ten years after it was commissioned, the bridge was yet to be finished.

The world was a different place when the bridge was a gleam in a politician’s eye in 1999. The Bombay stock exchange had crossed 4000 then, and Mohammad Azharuddin was still captain. The announcement came that year: a cable-stay bridge would be built across the mouth of the toxic Mithi creek. A regular beam bridge would have done just as well, but the requirement was specific; a cable-stay, with its single tower and cables fanning out, serves as a shimmering focal point. So a city bereft of modern icons commissioned the construction of an iconic structure for Rs 665.81 crore.

Since then, the bridge has been discussed for its utility. Mumbai is an up-down city, and the existing roads that connect the city’s northern suburbs to the south are no longer enough for traffic to flow smoothly. On days when roadwork, errant pedestrians and malfunctioning signals come together, a 30km trip from the northern suburb of Andheri to South Mumbai stretches to three hours. On good days, an average speed of 15km an hour is considered lucky. The makers of the bridge have said it will cut down travel time by 30 minutes, calculating that it takes 35 minutes to traverse from Worli to Bandra on existing roads. The minimum speed permitted is 80 kmph, and motorcycles will be denied entry at the tollbooths. The bridge is part of the Western Freeway, which will eventually run from Bandra or Versova to Nariman Point.

Ten years later, in early June, two senior structural engineers with no relation to the project sat across a table piled with vellum scrolls in their office, analyzing costs on a calculator. Both were renowned in Mumbai’s architecture circles for their thoroughness. “Let’s see,” one said. “You’re saying the bridge is 4.7km long, and has two carriageways roughly 13 meters wide?” With the cost over Rs 1800 crores, one engineer tapped in the numbers to come up with a figure of Rs 15 lakh per square meter. “Fifteen lakhs?” They looked at each other and smiled. “Seems a little high. Say, how much was the bridge at Dadar? Wasn’t it around 1.5 lakhs per meter?”

Of course the difference between a sea bridge and one on land is obvious. The bridge that stands today bears only slight resemblance to what was originally planned. There was to be one carriageway, and one tower at the main span. Now there are two carriageways and two towers. The Worli bridge went from arch bridge to a smaller cable-stay. “The bridge design changed by 85%,” says an HCC spokesperson. “We had nothing to do with it. They [MSRDC] just gave it to us.” Sverdrup, the original consultants, were replaced by Dar Consultants, whose managing director, S Srinivasan, is renowned for his bridge designs. According to a scathing Comptroller Auditor General report, Dar lay down the condition that the bridge design needed to change if MSRDC wanted it on board the project. This pushed up costs significantly: over Rs 55 crore to change the single tower to a twin tower, according to the CAG report. Asked why the design change was necessary, a Dar spokesperson replied, “Ask the MSRDC. Ask the chief minister”.

In any case, the bridge is already iconic. Lovers on a nearby promenade have a focal point. Lovers park cars on roads not yet linked to the bridge. A rickshaw driver’s family emerges from the three-wheeler for an outing that consists primarily of gazing at the bridge. “There’s no question about it,” says Professor Akhtar Chauhan, the dean of Rizvi School of Architecture, “It’s an iconic structure.” Chauhan believes the bridge’s design would stand out in any city. “It’s possible to have a more poetic design,” he says, laughing, “I would have focused on protection during the monsoons with, say, a series of shell-like structures, but it’s by no means an ugly structure.”

Architects, with naturally strong opinions over what constitutes good architecture, expressed their excitement about the bridge. Chauhan says he looks forward to driving across it to take in the view – rough sea on one side, tough city on the other. Rahul More, whose firm, _opolis architects, specializes in eco-design, says he’s as expectant as his children. He plans to jog to Worli from his home in Bandra East. But pedestrians aren’t allowed on, HCC officials say. And there’s the rub. The bridge gives its users a new perspective of Mumbai. It takes them away from the city’s grind, on a joyful tour above the chaotic cluster they came from, before plunging them right back into it. The people who need it most, those deprived of space, will find it hardest to see this city from a distance.

What they will miss is an unremarkable skyline made of tall and small buildings, ramshackle huts of tin and aluminum, and communications towers. They will miss the glass twin towers mounted with triangles at Prabhadevi. Over Worli, the morning railway scene of men and women squatting and exhibiting their bottoms to passersby will repeat itself at the fisherman’s colony. To be on the bridge is to step outside city life and examine what it all means.

The sea link approach road curves into Worli, first passing under the enormous tower with four concrete legs (each about 80sq ft thick) and white cables that stretch out in a fan. Further down is the next cable-stay tower, a smaller, but no less intimidating structure. It resembles less a bridge than two razors angling in. The road then splits, with an artery winding smack on to Worli’s sea face, whose residents are somewhat annoyed by the obstruction of their view and the potential noise.

More, who visits Worli regularly, says, “These are things we needed. But the problem is that there’s no equal distribution of traffic. If the bridge led all the way to Nariman point with arteries connecting to Worli and Haji Ali it would have been fine. Right now it’s going to be a disaster. There will be some choke point because the same level of traffic is heading to one point anyway.”

The next phase of the bridge, which will deposit cars all the way to Haji Ali, near the iconic mosque, will soon begin. At the same time, work between the mosque and Nariman Point will commence. For another few years, Mumbai will be in turmoil. But these aren’t likely to take as long as the first phase, when the government agency rushed headlong into its task and found itself wrapped up in objections that resulted in years of delays.

At the time, fishermen and environmentalists argued that the bridge would affect the Mithi’s flow as well as fishing areas. The agency, an HCC spokesperson said, was now going to make sure all objections were cleared before starting the project. This didn’t stop one environmentalist from insisting that the bridge’s effect on fishermen’s catches would be seen only a decade later. And no matter what, it won’t stop the residents of Shivaji Park claiming that the spate of dead dolphins appearing on beaches is due to the structure’s foundations. This is one troubled bridge.

Open Magazine Feature: Dubai

This story required 8-10 days of reporting, and a month to write. This was extreme, even for me - a slow writer - but I kept starting, tearing up everything, and then did nothing for days. I always thought writing about Dubai would be easy; I knew it, and so I had an edge. What I didn't count on was how strange writing about people there would be. So much of what I saw went against what I knew of the place. So I wrote it down as I saw it, and put in some observations from memory to highlight how the city had changed.

On a cold night by the sea, a peculiar pretense played out in Dubai. A crowd of construction workers stood outside the Hyatt Regency Hotel as beautiful women streamed past, ignoring them. The women were ushered into Premier, a popular nightclub inside, bypassing the queue of men. Ten years ago the club opened its doors to ‘young adults’. Now the entire neighborhood was no place for a young adult to be seen.

Under purple and orange lights, women danced to Akon in groups; Lebanese, Ethiopian, Central Asian. Men stood at the bar, watching them, and making up their minds. A gray-haired Iranian man walked up to one nervously. She was the prettiest girl in the room, and she knew it. It helped that her denim shirt was unbuttoned to her navel. She paid him no attention. He extended a hand. She smiled, he smiled, he high-fived her. Aw yeah. Then he did it again. And again. And again. And again. Finally she stopped. “Is there something you’d like to tell me?” she asked. He looked at her once more before taking the plunge. “How much for me and my friend?” he stuttered.

The Iranian left with her soon after. Elsewhere in the club, perfect strangers held each other like lovers, smiling, murmuring; inches apart, doing everything but kissing, never kissing, and you could read why: someone might be watching us. Here’s the thing. On the streets of Dubai you can buy love, but you can’t kiss.

Past midnight, the line at the club inside the hotel had grown longer, oblivious to the danger outside. A policeman stopped his car across the street, turned on the beacon and marched toward the Hyatt. At the hotel’s entrance, two Russians hookers in tank tops and short skirts froze. The customer picking them up froze. The cop walked past the driver to two parked cars, tore them fines for improper parking, and returned to his vehicle. Here was confirmation for many who had heard it before: On the streets of Dubai you can buy love in sight of the police, but you can’t linger in the no-waiting zone.

Dubai is a trading place. Every manner of trade goes on here. It is a port, a go-between, a facilitator. Everything is temporary. It offers almost all residents no citizenship for services and loyalty, but promises good money and safety. That is how it has been since the country gained independence from Britain in 1971. At the beginning, these lures, combined with the country’s proximity to license-heavy India, induced many Indians to take up jobs in Dubai and its surrounding Emirates. They arrived and lived years quietly, mostly without incident. The rules were simple: be productive in exchange for moderate riches, no taxes, and a comfortable life. Along the way they grew too used to their way of life, forgetting that Dubai is a trading place, that if it were a person it would be a social climber, always trading in one version of itself for the next. When the USSR dissolved and the first planeload of prostitutes arrived, Dubai shipped them back out. But with time it let them linger for longer and longer, realizing that sex was a parallel economy.

This set off quite a reaction. More people came. More money came. Dubai was seen as habitable. Companies came. Crazy projects came. Fame came. Everything came quickly, some would say too quickly. Rents rose. Inflation was ridiculous. The dynamics changed. The old world residents didn’t know what hit them. They adapted reluctantly. Some adapted instantly, discovering their inner hustler.

“Wait till you see the women at Radisson,” B, a creative professional told me over a beer at a mall. B was a typical Dubai success story. A living embodiment of the local belief that in Dubai your life could change instantly. He was fat and bald from job stress, and on the verge of deportation in 2003. But he knew the right people, and licenses were arranged, his visa was renewed, and by the next year, B’s new design firm had billings of over a million Dirhams (approx Rs 1.3 crore). He traded in his old jeep for a Merc. Now, as he examined women at the Madinat, that life was far behind. “You know, if you’re here for a while, I can take you to the Radisson. My treat, brother.” B said his wife “thinks I earn about Dh75-80000 a month (approx Rs 10 lakh). She doesn’t know that I make Dh125,000 (Rs 16 lakh). I have to have my fun, man.”

Tracy, all of 20, was new to the sex trade. She was assigned to a busy road outside the York Hotel, where business was roaring. It was one of the few busy hotels in a town where occupancy had fallen by 60%, according to taxi drivers who worked the night shift. This was her first month in the city. “Someone asked if I wanted to travel and make money, and next thing I knew, here I was. Now I have to pay off $15,000 before I can move on.” She lived in tiny studio apartment near the Hyatt with two others, and they all worked and slept there. “I don’t really like doing this, but I asked for it.” I just feel sorry for men who think I’ll show them a good time. I’m doing my best to not let that happen.” For the first time during our conversation, she laughed. “After this I’m going to get away and study.”

Many visitors see Dubai as the region’s sex HQ, a descriptor the city prefers to not have. It would like to be the Monaco and Las Vegas of the Middle East, or even a ski destination (a range of ski slopes is planned). Up next is an amusement park as big as Dubai, an inland archipelago, and a tower taller than the 180-story Burj Dubai. It already has a marina, a Sports City, the World – an offshore, man-made collection of inhabitable islands shaped like the earth, all for sale – three giant palm-shaped islands. An Equestrian City is on the way. A perfectly plausible route from home to work would see a driver passing Old Dubai, Heritage Village, The Marina, Internet City, and Media City on his way to Education City. This is a place carved up into microcities where everything is a representation of something else. A New York architect whose firm, Gruzen Samton, developed a waterfront for Dubai, said the city was viewed by architects as something of a novelty.

And yet, Dubai is not a place for people of letters and art. Always, the residents remember, commerce has played the largest role. “To live here, you need to earn at least Dh40,000 a month, (approx Rs 5 lakh)” Vipul Meisheri, a senior executive at a legal firm said. Residents know their numbers. They can tell you, offhand, the price of land in the Business Bay area, the price of a Nissan Maxima, the average cost of a driving test, and how many cars crashed in the last great highway pileup. Numbers excite them. Numbers bring life and scale to a place that has lost all sense of either. People feel and judge through numbers. These help them stay rooted even as the city spins further out of reality’s orbit.

I asked one resident to take me somewhere exciting. The choice offered was between malls. In Dubai, you can go out and eat or drink. You can go for a drive. You can go for a concert. Or you can go to the mall. Every mall has the same stores, the USP is the side attractions. The Festival City mall, whose size qualifies as a suburb, has a canal running through it. Mall of the Emirates houses an indoor ski slope with manufactured snow. We ended up going to City Centre, the largest mall for a time, and now piddly in comparison to the others. As we window-shopped on the top floor, a frantic security guard shouted into a walkie-talkie. He cordoned off a spot and worriedly radioed for an emergency crew. Someone had spilt M&M’s. Of course, soon peace would return. Dubai was nothing if not resilient.

Truer resilience was more evident at the driving grounds of Ghusais, where expats do what they can to get a license, and examiners do whatever they want to deny them one. More than skill, it requires luck. And so, obtaining a license has, over the years, become a reason to celebrate. The fewer tests it takes, the greater the celebration; the process costs anywhere from Dh2000-10,000 (Rs 25,000-128,000) A learner waited for his turn on the testing ground, watching cars, buses, and trailer trucks navigate the circuit. He looked around and muttered, “The motto is, ‘squeeze hard and for as long as possible’.” Then he braced himself and got into a nearby car to try his luck.

The driving school was an arm of government, but it still resembled a school. Emiratis played teacher, and everyone else was on detention. South Asians stood in lines quietly, smiling at Arabs passing by. One didn’t know which line to stand in. He was from Trivandrum, and was on test for a truck license. “I failed three tests. God knows what I did wrong. They didn’t tell me,” he said, shrugging, half-smiling. He said truckers didn’t pass until they did four tests. “That is if you’re lucky. I’ve already spent Dh7000 (Rs 90,000).”

Gulf News, a local newspaper, until recently had a property section three times the size of the rest of the newspaper. But by December the extra sections were slimmer. Property’s rise as an explosive revenue stream had attracted money and talent, but with the game finally up, and the threat of jail terms for unpaid loans on the horizon, immigrants scampered. Now, in the city’s downtown, tower after tower was bathed in attractive external lighting, but the homes inside remained dark. I met Bikram Vohra, a former editor of Khaleej Times, at his large villa near the city’s new designated downtown. Vohra once wrote a popular weekly column about his family; now, several jumps later, he was considering a health magazine. “This place needs it, don’t you think?” he said with an impish smile. I asked if he considered Dubai’s recent excesses a bubble. He disagreed vehemently with the idea of Dubai as unreal. “I don’t get people who say Dubai’s just a bubble. What do they mean? How do they know this is a bubble? These people come here to earn a living, and when that’s done they trash it. This is a real place.” The emphasis on real was intended as finality; for the Dubai resident, to question the idea of Dubai was to doubt one’s own purpose in life. The editor knew, as others did, that Dubai’s breathtaking growth had led it down some pretty strange paths; the world’s tallest tower (with a spire that can be made taller, just in case), an amusement park the size of a large city, and a coastline that increasingly resembles a frozen fireworks display. This is Dr Moreau’s island of man-made wonders. That’s why real is an ambiguous word here. Nothing feels truly natural in Dubai.

If Dubai is an extension of India, Bur Dubai is the state capital. This portion of the city is predominantly Indian, and it comes closest to the bustle of a subcontinental market. Red-mouthed Sindhi and Gujaratis traders at Meena Bazaar sold textiles here. Sweet and cheap electronics shops dotted the neighborhood. Some sold fireworks on the sly before Diwali. With its unpaved alleys, leaky window units and cheap food, Bur Dubai previously had a wet, organic feel. Now Dubai’s love of fresh paint and numbers showed everywhere. Every path, however remote, was paved with red brick. The noisy lanes and old buildings of that market were gone. Neon signs and standardized store fronts ruled. Dubai had upgraded everything.

“It’s not the same, you know,” a Pakistani cobbler who had occupied one spot in a Bur Dubai alley since 1979 told me. His informal stall was now a licensed, numbered steel and plastic shack big enough only to sit in. Rubber soles were stacked along one wall. He thought the structure unnecessary, in part because he was asked to pay for it. “The authorities asked me to build a shack because they wanted the place to look clean. That’s okay, but the fun isn’t there anymore. Theek hai, it’s better than Pakistan, but earlier there was no tension. Now there’s too much. They want money for everything.”

Here is a problem unique to Dubai. A job here pays its residents more than they would earn back home, but costs have risen quickly enough to make any salary increase redundant. Change overwhelmed them. But not everyone sees it that way.

“The world’s economic principles do not apply to Dubai,” an Indian real estate adviser told me. He sat behind an enormous oak desk in his office near Dubai airport. “When people say there’s a downturn, I’m like ‘what downturn?’ I just sold a building for Dh 45 million (Rs 57.6 crore) late December. The local rental authority just registered transactions of Dh 2.3 billion (approx Rs 3000 crore). Go figure. Where is the slowdown?” He clucked like a man in on a secret, and described the dry market as a temporary setback. “Unfortunately people have more opinions than facts, and so we’re witnessing this selling.” He recommended buying. “Ah, there was low-cost housing here. You’ve heard of International City? Well, that was low-cost alright. The first buildings sold for Dh225 a square foot (Rs 2900) in 2006. Now the asking rate is Dh1350 (Rs17,000).”

What drove prices up? There’s one reason most people agree on: speculation. The Dubai boom was advertised as the triumph of man over his conditions. Tourism projections were insane. Every official chart showed Dubai’s population increasing exponentially. It was actually the triumph of optimism. Buildings were sold in clusters of flats over a day or two, and the price rose with every round of sales. Many believed that there were genuine buyers who would come to make the city their home. Others knew better. Buyers found they could earn a third of their investment within a few months. So began the process of flipping. Entire buildings were sold on the first day. “People would stand in line for two days to buy property,” the adviser said.

By December, real estate companies messaged their employees telling them not to come in. Residents stopped making payments, maxed out their credit cards, left their on-loan cars at the airport, and left for home. Some stayed behind, and the scale of folly was evident in one letter to the editor, dated December 26, 2008: “Banks have truly tightened the reins on lending. I am looking for a loan to pay off my Dh 8 million villa (Rs 10.2 crore) and have been unable to acquire one at a reasonable rate.”

For now, though, the general consensus is that economic principles do apply to Dubai. The city’s many grand projects have come to a halt. The kilometer-high tower (building cost: Dh38 billion, or Rs 4860 crore), the Falcon City of Wonders and a rotating tower are among the Dh76 billion (Rs 9720 crore) projects stopped.

The demolitions of old quarters to make way for nicer-looking towers have also stopped. Satwa, a locality known for relatively cheap housing was being bulldozed when finance suddenly dried up. A Pakistani truck driver who lived one street away from the demolition line said it was like “when American planes drop bombs in Pakistan. You never know if your time is up”. He knew why the demolitions were taking place. Pointing to the skyscrapers a couple hundred meters away, he said, “That’s why. We don’t look pretty from up there.” Then he looked at three sleepy young men who emerged from a room in their taxi driver uniforms. “Still, they come from my village. I tell them life is hard here but they don’t believe me. Because they see advertisements about Dubai on television, they see the girls on the beach, and they think that I am having fun here.”

Open Magazine conversation: Resul Pookutty

Interviewing Resul was exciting because he knew sound, and I wanted to know as much as possible about sound. The story brief was limited to Resul's sound library, but we digressed a fair bit, and this worked out well for me. I've had many rewarding conversations with people who don't mind going off topic and talk for hours. Transcribing can be a pain, though.

Before I finished my film school, I decided I wanted to create India's own sound library. In FTII, they insist that you don't use the library. You can hear the sound samples, but don't use them. You had to go out and record your own library because every film needs its own sounds. That's what makes each film different.

So when I was going through their library, I realized that India did not have an extensive sound library. When Indian films need sound, we either license it from BBC, Hollywood Edge, or Lucas Films, which are not India's sounds. Imagine a London city sound for a Bombay street shot. It won't sound the same. I started working on it in 1997. Amitabh Bachchan was the first person to bring a sound library to India, during Khuda Gawah. It came through an actor. They used to take part so much in the process of cinema. We technicians never had access to those libraries. We were pretty much recording most of it, so people had their own personal libraries. There was nothing codified and available in the market.

When I started this project, ABCL was willing to produce my idea commercially. The project went ahead, I had a decent budget. When their first film failed, they struck off all the unviable - so they thought - projects. They struck off mine too. I still had to do it, though. With a friend of mine, we did it with our own money. That was a time when stereo recording was just coming up in India. So I used a friend's stereo recording gear for months. I traveled almost all of Bombay and Pune and villages and all that. Then I realized that the entire sound spectrum in India is so huge, so vast, that it's mindboggling. It's like the language, the food, or the costumes of India.

Every part of India has a different dialect, and the sounds are different. Every culture has its own sound. Sound pieces for religion from the north to the south of India will give you a hundred albums. I thought it was like a cobweb. I could not get out of it. My idea was to give usable stereo sounds recorded neatly, cleanly, as sound effects for use in films and theatre. You need clean ambiances, clean effects. It's a huge effort to categorize it.

I was lucky in that there was no software at the time. Now you can sit in a bathroom and use Pro Tools. My first album I edited on SADiE, which worked on a PC platform. I called it Essential Indian Sound Effects, Vol. 1. I was doing everything. We managed to put in 60-70 clips on each CD. I tried to give loopable sounds, so that even if it was two minutes long, you could loop it.
Also, we used to think in analog.

It was impossible for just one person to categorize and decide what is usable. We were looking at a musical album. We put it in music stores so that people could buy it. 600 bucks for a pack of three CDs. It was mastered in such a way that it could be used as analog elements. I even learned coding in order to number tracks. It's been a huge learning experience. The challenging bit was categorizing the sounds. I had village sounds, religious sounds, public places. A south Indian railway station is so different from a Maharashtra railway station.

I'm not just concentrating on creating a library. I'm a film person. I created a platform in the beginning. So I thought I'd take it to the next level. So every film I do, I carry my sound recorder and keep recording the sounds. We, who work on sound in film, are constantly looking for how sounds affect our lives. That's what we emotionally play with. For me, sound and cinema is a temporal element. If the visual is spatial, you're making something that is intangible tangible with sound. For example, when you go to a valley, you feel completely quiet. At the sea, you feel calmer. This is because you're hearing longer expressions of sound. Valley birds have long calls. Sea waves are...wavy... but they are long in nature. Sound is stretched horizontally. In the city we have short bursts, or expressions, of sound. That makes you restless. It’s a cacophony. For me to capture a city, I have to understand all this. So for me, recording ambiances on one level is understanding it, and on the other hand transferring what I feel to the audiences.

I was very young when I started this. There was huge learning. If you see my album no.1 and compare it with no 2 and no 3, I think the third is my best work. I was learning how to record. I had a gut feeling that this is wanted to do. Nothing could stop me. I remember nights and nights when I was roaming in Pune and faraway villages. I was just moving around with my recorder. I wanted to give professional quality sound. Technically I wanted to be perfect.

I thought I'd give city sounds as one element, village sounds as another, as well as household sounds, and clips from religious and public places. I started thinking in terms of what are the public places you generally see in a film. You see bus stations, railways, airports. I started thinking filmically. With religion I had to incorporate Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims. Aartis and Azaans. An evening aarti in Pune is completely different from an evening aarti in Bombay. It's like dialect. The nature changes. If I want to be anthropologically specific, I can go into minute detail. I don't think any other country has so much diversity. It's so huge I don't know how to explore it. So I just keep building my library. I can boast of one of the biggest libraries. I'm also sharing it with my friends abroad so that I get something from them. Two terabytes of sound is nothing. I'm going to have a tie-up with one of the biggest s/fx guys in Hollywood. Like a cameraman who carries a still camera, I carry my recorder.

When I am recording a sound, I know if it is perfect or not. When you record sounds, it gives you an emotional clue. When it emotionally stimulates you, you know you have the right sound.

I generally go into as much detail as I can. Not just a creak of a chair, but everything possible that you can hear. When you slap your hand down on a table, it makes a sound. But If I add a metallic sound to it, you immediately know that this man is affluent, he’s wearing a ring. I’m going into what this man is. That’s what I mean by detail.

Open Magazine feature: Total Ten

It didn't take long to understand that the movie was a farce. Starring an ambitious young unknown who tried hard to remain decent about the subject, the production was a spoof of itself. The movie will soon be unleashed.

Not long after the night of November 26, several filmmakers had a wholly original thought. Why not make a disaster movie out of this?

And so, as the filming of Total Ten commenced at Film City in Goregaon, questions of taste and correctness were far from the minds of its actors and producers. There was, however, certain hesitation over the sensitivity of the subject, which roughly translates to: “will somebody kill me for doing this?” One actor asked another if the script had an anti-Muslim or anti-Pakistan stance, and got a shrug in response. Neither had seen the script.

Rajan Varma, who plays Ajmal Kasab, was in a pink polka dot shirt and tight denims. His thumbs hovered over his phone’s keypad while unit boys prepared the set. Tonight Kasab and Ismail would sneak past Cama Hospital and fire upon a police van. While the actors waited, a short man ambled up from the set to say hello to Varma. He bowed his head slightly at the other actors, who did the same. After he left, Homi Wadia, who played Hemant Karkare, asked who he was. “Oh,” Varma said, “He’s the director.”

It was that sort of movie. The actors expressed hope that there would be controversy. “Internet pe dekho, sir. Film ne aag laga li hai, aag!” Varma told them confidently. When asked about this, they replied that it wasn’t about the controversy, that the film had a message: terrorism does not pay. They tried hard to put a positive spin on the enterprise. But Varma took pride in publicity, irrespective of the sentiment behind it. A month ago, he says, two men attacked his car. “They had a weapon, sir!” although he wasn’t sure. In half an hour India TV and the others put him on television.

In any event, Varma and the rest were informed that the set was nearly ready. While Kasab and Karkare changed into recognizable outfits, Ashok Kulkarni, a ringer for Ashok Kamte, slouched on a bed. Varma styled his own hair and decided that since tonight’s scene was about action, he needed a lighter backpack. This was his own, and he removed a ceramic hair straightener and a hair dryer. “Iss mein bombs hain,” he said, weighing the bag mentally. Satisfied with the bag’s weight, he then pulled out a deodorant named ‘Havoc’ and sprayed himself with it.

Outside, the action director explained the sequence to Varma. His energy was manic. He swept his hands like a bird to indicate the swooping camera, and shouted ‘KHAD-KHAD-KHAD!’ when he meant automatic weapons. “The national anthem will play when they die,” Varma said. “Shaheed huey hain.” He laughed. “This is all the fight and edit department’s job,” he said later. “To show who the heroes are, and how deadly the villain is.”

While this went on, one unit hand told another that he got a discount on the blasts. Instead of six blasts in six songs, there would now be six blasts in one patriotic song. Elsewhere, the director shouted for the mike, and was informed respectfully that it did not work. There was another problem. Ismail, Kasab’s partner, had turned up without a black jacket. “Kahin se jugaad laga le,” an assistant was told.

Eventually the jacket was unnecessary, and the mike was fixed. A coconut was broken, and the shoot began. Kasab and Ismail emerged from the shadows, ran to a corner of the hospital, peeked out, and ran off screen. The director told them to do it again. Faster. Again, and even faster. “Come faster. What the fuck? Does he think he’s in a garden?! Soon all was to the director’s liking.

Varma came by and sat beside the director. Sweat dripped off his face. They talked about movies and titles. “Night Riders,” the director smiled. “Kaisi lagi? Title mere paas hai. That MTV guy Ranvijay can be in it. Filled with bikes.”

“At night!” Varma added.

“At night,” the director mused.

“I got new pants,” Varma said, pinching his cargoes. “The other one was heavy.”

As the next scene began, the actors playing Kamte and Karkare sat nearby, discussing how they wanted the film to create dialogue among the public. Not controversy. The two were senior actors, and had reputations. They were less enthusiastic than Varma, who relished this major role. As they grew less wary of each other, one actor admitted that he hadn’t told anyone he was doing this movie. “But now that I’m here,” he said, looking at the set, “it isn’t so bad. I might decide to tell people.” They were interrupted when someone shouted “mood!” a sign that actors should step into character.

Wadia looked amused. “Mood? Why do they shout mood? Do they think the actor is not in the mood?” In the distance, Kasab and Ismail stood at the staircase leading up to Cama Hospital, scowling at the production staff. In a beat, one actor looking at them said, “This movie should come and go quickly.”

A few nights later, at Ghodbunder, the crew prepared to shoot the boat hijack sequence. Two boats that belonged to local sand dealers were hired. The director realized that both boats were steered by two drunks. As the vessels began moving, he also realized that he couldn’t be heard over the sound of the generator. To add to his misery, the other boat had a generator as well. Neither his technical staff nor his actors could hear him. He yelled to get their attention, but the extras stood on the other boat, exchanging ring tones. “Where did you get me these donkeys from?” he asked an assistant director.

In one scene, Kasab would stand on deck, holding a gun to the captain’s head while his aides stood by. The boats would float by. That was the plan. For this sequence, the director asked his crew to duck inside the cabin of his ship. When Kasab’s boat eventually floated past, the director noticed that the other terrorists were missing. A frantic search ensued, and the actors were found asleep on the director’s boat, along with some of the crew. “That’s it,” the director said, looking at them. “I’m going home.”

The director returned for a dramatic shot at Chowpatty after a few days. This is where Kasab was captured, and where constable Omble was killed. Now media arrived in force to watch the shoot, to the director’s irritation. “Who called you guys up, man?” he asked a photographer. “Your PR guy,” the man responded. Elsewhere on the set a fight broke out between two Punjabis. When it ended, one ripped off his own shirt, threw it to the ground, and shouted at an extra dressed in police uniform, “You’re just standing there like an asshole, and the rest of you are eunuchs.”

The morbid sequence of Kasab’s capture and Ombale’s bravery was then filmed in one take. Only shots of Ombale gasping for breath were now required. The actor playing him, Adi Irani, rolled about for a while. Then, quite suddenly, he halted the proceedings to ask the director, “Should I say ‘Jai Maharashtra’ after I say ‘Jai Hind’? Or should I just say ‘Jai Maharashtra’”?

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Open Magazine feature: The Bollywood strike

This story had to be turned around quickly. In three days contacts had to be formed, and context had to be found. Sometimes the pressure works, although the story might not reflect it. Every assignment comes with distinct challenges, and I measure my own growth with what I've been able to do that's new (for me). Eventually, I think, everything I've learned will come together to create a good story. In this story I came by a transporter of film reels and, although our conversation was short, I think it gave a story about money light context.

Nupur Asthana directs a television mini-series these days. This wasn’t what she envisioned herself doing a year ago. For most would-be directors, the holy grail is to direct a film, which is what Asthana was on the verge of being signed up for by a large corporate house. “They then started saying things like ‘oh, we must meet’. That meant the film was on hold. It was a small movie, the kind producers slot as a multiplex film.” She attributes this to the drying up of finance. “I’m okay,” she says, “It’s not like I could stand at a signal and shout ‘Hey! I’ve got Shah Rukh Khan’ and producers would hand me everything. I take everything with a pinch of salt. Besides, it’s happening to everyone.”

Since last year, say people involved at every level with India’s film industry, the lavish budgets and huge numbers have disappeared, replaced by a more conservative thinking. This has had a direct impact on the business of production, distribution, and exhibition. Producers have stopped producing. Distributors have stopped distributing. And exhibitors have decided to cut back costs by shutting down screens or renting them to theater groups. If all this wasn’t bad enough, there is also the ongoing strike to contend with. For nine weeks multiplexes and producers have struggled to reach a solution over revenue-sharing. Producers say the share isn’t enough; multiplexes argue that films are too inconsistent. And so, since the beginning of this impasse there have been few new movies released in multiple-screen theaters.

As a result, work has dried up for the thousands of technicians and support staff who perform the tasks required to ensure the business runs smoothly. The proprietor of A Grade Samosas, who provides samosas and fizzy drinks to over 30 cinemas in Mumbai and Thane, has seen business drop by over 50%. He has seen this only once before, many years ago, during a similar strike.

But the proprietor is fortunate, for he still has business. A carter of film reels, a man named Prabhakar, sits in his office all day with three other employees for there is no work he can do. Prabhakar’s father was a eon with Warner Brothers. His brother is a peon with Paramount. He only transports reels from here to there. The strike has hit him so hard, he estimates he can go on for two months before he runs out of cash. “I have eight people to support. I have three boys to pay salaries to. Where am I going to make money from?” Prabhakar charges anywhere from Rs50-300 to transport reels across the country. Everyday, from his office at CST, he sent out 5-10 reels. He packs them into a trunk, seals it with a ten Rupee lock, and sends it on its way. The strike has denied him two months’ earnings, approximately Rs10,000 in total. “What can I tell you,” he says bitterly, asked when he thinks the strike will end. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

“I’d rather not call it a strike,” says Pramod Arora, group president of PVR Ltd. “These are partners working together to find a solution both can be happy with.” It’s unlikely that any solution would benefit men such as Prabhakar.

“You can’t really cut off your nose to spite your face,” says Aditya Shastri, whose company, People Pictures, decided they could wait no longer for a resolution to the dispute, and released their first movie, 99, in multiplexes. “If things weren’t bad enough, this strike has affected carters, processing labs, stock suppliers, cinemas, billboard guys, railway station advertisers, and even the guys who print DVD covers. Datta Samant did the same thing with mill workers.”

Shastri’s company researched audiences for a year and a half before starting production, which took an additional year. He says his movie could not be held back any further. “We were on the precipice. We couldn’t take another breath.” Twice he delayed his movie’s release date, only to find that the standoff had been extended further. “We had serious financial pressures, and I owed it to my company and the people who had worked on this movie to do the right thing.”

He described the current climate as “difficult” for business. “A year ago, Studio 18, Eros, and Ashtavinayak were buying movies for distribution. Today they just aren’t. Nobody bought us. We had to go out and sell our movie. Of course it required a different set of skills.”

Between the Friday it released and the Sunday that followed, attendance for 99 quadrupled. Upscale cinemas saw 23-25%. The movie played at 495 screens across India. “I’m ecstatic now,” Shastri says. “But I know I’m sticking my neck out. I’m sure the implications of what I’ve done [vis-√†-vis the producers association] will sink in soon enough.”

Kamal Gianchandani, head of distribution at Big Films, says that distributors have tried to adjust to the change in revenue streams. “Advertising revenue dependent formats have certainly been affected,” he says, “Which means selling a film for television doesn’t earn as much as it used to.” This is exacerbated by the rising cost of funding because entertainment is perceived to be risky.

A more low-key transformation is also taking place. Since funds are harder to come by, men such as Gianchandani are under more scrutiny for their decisions. This is vital, because while data is studied to approve film selection, it often comes down to gut feeling. “Because it deals with creativity. Unfortunately, that’s how it is. This makes it difficult to justify your decisions.”

The strike, the tightening of credit, the choosiness of exhibitors and distributors: What does all this mean to a business where no one knows what truly works? Going by the evidence, there’s more reliance on data (Which, as everyone knows, has its limits). Sidhartha Jain, who last year quit Adlabs to begin Irock, a production company, with Manmohan Shetty, is developing “India’s first horror comedy. “It’s a zombie comedy. We’re also doing India’s first space adventure and the first vampire feature. We don’t have huge amounts in development,” he says. “Earlier, we had plans to produce five films. Now we’ll do just two, and we’ll start with the big budget films later.”

Shetty says he’s being more conservative in his approach. “Since the overall recoveries and revenue potential for films have been affected, many large distributors and outright buyers have become inactive. Consequently many producers are left with no option but to release the films themselves and take the entire risk.” His advice is to keep things simple: “In times of trouble, the best approach is to stick to basics. I hope the industry does well to focus on good scripts, strong pre-production, and right-sizing of budgets.” He doesn’t see anyone benefiting from the recession, though. “… Everyone in the value chain suffers in one way or the other, except maybe lawyers who are busy redrafting agreements.”

Shastri says the strike is the more immediate problem. “You have no idea what six more weeks of not playing movies will do. People are going to just stop going.”

Another producer, however, is cynical about why the strike took place. “Who would want to release a movie during the IPL anyway? You watch. Magically, around the time of the IPL final, an agreement will be reached and everyone will be happy. Temporarily. Because there are only 52 weeks in a year. And the producers have missed out on nine due to themselves. So movie releases will be compressed, and the only beneficiaries will be multiplexes. I shudder to think of what’s going to happen.”

Thursday, May 28, 2009

How to write about people

Dan Baum has some reporting advice:
I look for stories with interesting people in them, and one of the tricks that I’m always trying to impress upon young writers is that when you’re interviewing somebody, like if I was interviewing the chief solar engineer at Masdar, a big mistake people make is talking to that guy only about solar engineering. You have to throw in questions that have nothing to do with the subject. How many siblings do you have and what number are you? What do you read? What are your hobbies? Are you married? How many kids do you have? Have you ever been divorced? You’ve got to get them talking about themselves. I’m asking these questions that are just none of my business, really personal questions, and I’ll just keep getting in closer and closer and closer.

I’ll ask, What do you earn? And you’ll see this kind of shock of recognition on the person’s face. Sometimes people say “Well, that’s none of your business,” but rarely. I can barely think of a time that’s happened to me. Usually you see the shock of recognition when the person goes, “Oh, that’s the level we’re talking on.”

People like it, when you get them talking about themselves and unrelated stuff. You need time for this, and it’s a hard thing to do on the phone. But when you’re getting all of that then you know this person as a whole person, and then you can fit them into the story in a way that you’re still writing about Masdar and solar engineering, but you can just throw in a few licks to just make that person real.

It’s kind of a New Yorker trick. When you read about people in The New Yorker, they are somehow more three-dimensional than sources in other magazines. They’re not just a font of quotes, or a representative of a point of view — they’re people.

The rest of it is useful too.

Terrors

Oriana Fallaci reminds me of Spider Jerusalem. I know I'm late on this.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Abusing election symbols

Nitish Kumar, resident prose writer:

''The lantern [RJD's election symbol] has broken and the oil that was spilt set on fire the bungalow [LJP] as the arrow [JD-U] was right on target.

Isn't it telling that they still use arrows?

The first time

Not too long ago, Rhea saw a swimming pool. Her eyes widened as gray, green, blue, and white clashed and dissolved in an endless sequence of silent violence. All manner of forces worked against each other to create movement. Seeing this, she presumed it was alive, and talked to the swimming pool for a while. Rhea is 66 days old.

Sometimes, when no one else is in sight, she giggles and talks to the fan like old friends. She sees the fan respond with another revolution.

The green silk embroidered curtains that bloat and flutter when it's windy transform into something suspicious. At first they stand somewhat still, disguised as a breathing block of color, moving only slightly. Then suddenly they puff up and advance from below, floating towards her on the bed, snapping and twisting and levitating a few feet away from her. She stares at them, eyes wide open, doing nothing else, because she has not been introduced to fear.

She stares at a wall the shade of ripe mangoes. There is nothing on it. To her, this must be masterful.

Birds. Skyscrapers. Motorcyclists. People at windows. A woman's long hair. The breeze.

Nothing compares to the drama life offers at the very beginning.

The party on television

Right now, on another screen, anchors and reporters are hosting panel discussions. Party mouthpieces are there too. And everyone's happy, like 'hey, what a great party this is', right? They're laughing and joking, and saying clever things, like how journalists think they could be better politicians, and politicians thinking they could make for more competent journalists. Everyone laughs.

I can't remember the last time I saw a smackdown on television. These guys are too safe.

Update: Actually, I do remember a very satisfying television argument. Udayan Mukherjee vs Kamal Nath. If only they did this more often.

On writing, on living

Neil Gaiman explains to an unreasonable fan what it is that writers do when they aren't writing:

And sometimes, and it's as true of authors as it is of readers, you have a life. People in your world get sick or die. You fall in love, or out of love. You move house. Your aunt comes to stay. You agreed to give a talk half-way around the world five years ago, and suddenly you realise that that talk is due now. Your last book comes out and the critics vociferously hated it and now you simply don't feel like writing another. Your cat learns to levitate and the matter must be properly documented and investigated. There are deer in the apple orchard. A thunderstorm fries your hard disk and fries the backup drive as well...

This is such a lovely bit of writing. Too bad his explanation doesn't apply to magazine writing, with its deadlines and what not. Which explains the absence.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Let Gayle be

Clive Lloyd is wrong.

Chris Gayle's declaration that there is more to life than Test cricket is refreshing. People wait for captaincy. People plot for captaincy. He did neither. He understood the responsibilities brought on by a captaincy thrust upon him and attempted to change his very nature to accommodate the burden. It is difficult for a man to change his natural inclinations. And he did so when no one else was available. If my reading of Gayle is right, his teammates would have known him well enough to understand his views on life, captaincy and everything. And so, no, "this is" not "bound to have an effect on the whole spirit of the team", as Lloyd put it. If anything, Gayle will be himself, and this can only be good for his team. Let him resign without fuss, and let a more willing man take over. It isn't the end of the world.

Busy day

Blogging comes later. An infuriating interview with an actor needs to be transformed into something coherent.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A lie

Later, as I replayed a recording of an interview, I seemed to catch a lie. A momentary slip that contradicted everything the confessor had said before. Taken in isolation, it was a miserable lie that I missed during the interview. But my wife heard the lie, and heard what came before, and she asked if he wasn't just a man hiding from himself. His life so far was spent in hiding from himself, after all. Perhaps it wasn't a lie meant for me, she suggested. Perhaps she's right.

Getting fired from the New Yorker, and Twitter

Dan Baum is twittering how he got fired from the New Yorker.

Susan Orlean, also on Twitter, takes exception to one of Baum's tweets:
Contrary to @danielsbaum, I don't think The New Yorker office is a creepy place, nor is the atmosphere "strained". He seems WAY off to me.
Much fun.

A photo as substitute

A link on The Times of India website promises to show readers their election coverage of the last fifty years. Hungry for ToI writing from when it was a readable paper, I visited the page, only to find a photo gallery of front pages from past elections.

Technically it is 'coverage', but still. I wonder what their website would look like if the good people at Cricinfo managed all that content.

An excerpt from a Resul Pookutty interview

When the opportunity to interview Resul Pookutty arose, I gave no thought to bartering a story with a colleague in order to do so. It's not his Oscar that excited me. I wanted to have a conversation about his craft and understand how sound works.

He explained the effects of sounds on the senses. Everyday sounds are what tell us where we are. The disjointed, short, cacophonic sounds of the city have no rhythm and so you feel restless. Sounds outside the city are quieter, stretched longer, and hence more peaceful. The job of a sound designer is to create an invisible environment, the one we can't see, but which adds to our understanding of where the protagonists are.

Once Open runs the story I will post it here. In the meantime, a brief explanation of what he does, in his own words, from the interview:

"Any sound in a film is not accidental. It is there for a particular feeling, to add texture. In a film if we use 400 tracks of sound, it means we've listened to more than a million files of sound. Not just once. It's far more tedious work than a composer's. When you write a characterization in film, I'm doing the same thing with sound. In sound, if its not real, the audience will reject it. Unless it's a larger-than-life movie. Ghajini was [that kind of movie], and the objective was that the audience shouldn't move from their seat. At the same time, Ghajini had a great emotional line. So I could be as violent as I could. But we decided to restrict ourselves. It's all about killing the girl, right, how brutally you can kill her to create sympathy. We could create brutal sounds. But the audience is a family audience, so if you're brutal, they'll be like "ew". So what we did is, one minute into the film, we brought in metal sounds. You hear soft metal sounds. Every sound we created was metallic. You hear a multitude of metallic sounds. Then we bring the sounds back in reel no.9, where the police inspector narrates the story of how she was killed. So on reel no.1, we started working on the audience's mind with metal sounds, and then we slapped it. The audience accepted it. For me it was a great artistic decision."

This was a brief excerpt; the actual interview is longer and more detailed. It was fun. There's nothing like interviewing a person who loves what he does, and shows you how he does it. Also, I couldn't take my eyes off his magnificent digital recoder. I wanted to go to there.

Monday, May 11, 2009

He told me that she told him that they told her...

In a sensational waste of kilobytes, a newspaper quotes a source who quotes another source about a sensational incident. If all this sensation is too much, read no further because the report's last line, the money line, is next:

There is also a tell-all blog on team's activities, adding to [sic] insult to its injuries, although the authenticity of the blog is still in doubt.

Good lord. Something's not right here.

Rushdie in The New Yorker

Salman Rushdie's in fine form with his short story for The New Yorker this week. It makes me long for my relative youth already.

Senior endured the multiple health problems of the very old, the daily penances of bowel and urethra, of back and knee, the milkiness climbing in his eyes, the breathing troubles, the nightmares, the slow failing of the soft machine. His days emptied out into tedious inaction. Once, he had given lessons in mathematics, singing, and the Vedas to pass the time. But his pupils had all gone away. There remained the wife with the wooden leg, the blurry television set, and Junior. It was not, by a long chalk, enough. Each morning he regretted that he had not died in the night.

Go on, read it.

Open Magazine: Why election symbols are weird

Among the 59 symbols released by the Election Commission for this year’s elections were a batsman, a frock, a shuttlecock, a fork, and a doli. The EC does not create symbols, it only approves and standardizes their appearance. For unregistered parties and independents late to file their nominations, it offers this list of free symbols. “These symbols were created a long time ago,” says KF Wilfred, the secretary. “They were done by someone who knew drawing.”

While the exact source of these symbols is unknown, Wilfred says the EC has a large number of images to choose from – the result of over a thousand candidates filing their papers during a 1989 Tamil Nadu election. Over a thousand symbols were created. “We’ve trimmed that list significantly to make it more relevant,” Wilfred says. “If one guy wanted one glass, another wanted two glasses. If one wanted a mango for his Mango Party, another wanted an apple because it confused voters. There was also a cycle and a motorcycle.” Also removed were symbols that made sense only in one state.

The EC now has a list of approximately 200 to choose from (The choices are also rather limited. Which could lead to interesting combinations, such as an alliance between the parties with the frying pan, the gas stove, and the gas cylinder).

The list is an example of political correctness taken to extremes; nobody could claim to be offended by any symbol without sounding silly. How to be annoyed by a diesel pump or a comb, or a road roller? And this, when the EC releases symbols, is the body’s mandate. “A symbol should not have religious connotations,” said Wilfred. “It should not depict violence, nor should it have animals and birds.” The body took a call on animals and birds in 1990 after petitioners complained that parties were using dead parrots and doves on a string during their campaigns. “Nearly everybody with an animal symbols agreed to use a new one, but you still see the elephant and the lion around.”

South Park. Here. Time to migrate.

South Park is now in India. I know this because my peaceful early morning ride was cut short when I noticed a giant hoarding of Kyle's behind. This has to be among the darkest days ever.

Open Magazine feature: Shahrukh's throne

Alright, so this story isn't exactly journalism. Khan didn't want any part of it. His acquaintances said they needed his permission. That left his rivals, industry neutrals, and professionals on the periphery. Rivals will say all sorts of things without evidence, so we didn't go there. Neutrals provide small but revealing insights, so we included some of their thoughts. But the professionals really shaped this story. Their criticism was even, they were fine with being quoted, and they made a distinction between the actor and the brand. One reader asked what was new about this story, and I found myself agreeing with him in part. The idea, however, was to take what was being said and create a solid narrative. I'd like to think that we managed that, although I'd remove lines such as "This isn't Raj's time anymore". That line sounds so whiny it's not funny.

By Rahul Bhatia and Madhavankutty Pillai, with inputs from Manju Sara Rajan and Rubina A Khan.

On December 12, 2008, a day when most visitors to the cinema had a Shahrukh Khan movie on their mind, an inspired marketing idea reminded them of a forthcoming Aamir Khan release. Behind the counters, passing out tickets for Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, were cinema staff with military haircuts and a shaved parting identical to Aamir’s appearance in Ghajini, out a fortnight later. Anywhere else this would be seen as shrewd marketing. But not in Bollywood, where the idea caused grave offense. Shahrukh used the incident to point out, "I think it is a good strategy. You take the biggest brand in the country that is SRK and then use that platform to publicise yourself. I think Aamir rocks. The problem is that I cannot use any another brand because there is no one bigger than me".

Lately, Shahrukh has found it necessary to repeatedly inform readers and watchers that he is the country’s top actor. Not by the time-tested method of performing in a series of hit films or pushing the boundaries of his art, but by saying it out loud, over and over. His declarations are reported faithfully, with all possible meaning extracted and magnified by the media. Taken in isolation, he sounds like a mouthy upstart boxer: say it, and it shall be. But he isn’t. His proclamations sound as strange as a doctor insisting he’s number one (“I am the biggest, meanest, pediatrician in the country”). And so, each new announcement makes the case curiouser and curiouser: why does a man who has achieved so much have to reiterate this? What started it? Is this insecurity? Why does he sound like he is No.2? Is he?

Shahrukh, friends and acquaintances will tell you, was a star the first time they saw him. He was sharp and ambitious and willing, and said he would be a star; and in that respect, not much has changed. He listens intently, he watches carefully, and he sums up people quickly. When he enters a room, people say, he energises it. A cluster of strangers will soon be friends. He can make a journalist feel special. He’s open, and he’s witty. He remembers faces, if not names. In short, there’s something oddly Clintonesque about him.

Whatever he does, his people believe in him. Who are his people? Anyone, absolutely anyone, whom Shahrukh has touched. His employees are paid well, his assistant directors are charmed by his spontaneity and attention, and his sponsors adore his commitment. These are grown men and women who know that life outside Shahrukh’s sphere of influence isn’t pretty, and they love him for it. Speak to them and they all say the man’s a game changer. On the sets he isn’t a star. He’s an evolved version of you and me; a father, a mother, a friend, and a councilor. He treasures loyalty and repays it. Juniors say he looks out for them. They eat out of his hand. They feel for him something that borders on genuine love. Not for his work, which can be cheesy, but for the man. If you know how love works, you’ll appreciate how stunning the achievement is.

Therefore, a conversation today with his assistants about him feels like a conversation about two people. The man they love, and the guy they don’t understand in print. The pattern is a familiar one of denial (that he uttered the words), followed by rationalising (he said he’s No.1 because he has every right to. Because he is). When it comes to it, they’re as beaten as anyone else. Why would Shahrukh keep insisting on it? Well, there’s a theory.

A journalist recalled a conversation where he once mentioned to Shahrukh how good Hritik Roshan looked in Kaho Na Pyaar Hai. “He only did it for a second, but he recoiled physically. It’s the only time I saw him react that way.” The theory goes like this: competition makes Shahrukh Khan behave unusually. “SRK has always been a very insecure person despite his phenomenal success in the business,” says a person who has interacted with him. “His desire to monopolise the number one spot is almost megalomaniacal. But as much as he is a shrewd player, he is also a very sensitive and thoughtful person to those he loves, having given them apartments and cars and many such expensive gifts in the past or done cameos without charging his superstar fees.”

His supporters say the allegation of insecurity is nonsense. Wouldn’t anyone behave this way? But what makes it strange is that in his highly image-conscious profession, Shahrukh seems to have forgotten a basic tenet: stay on message. The CEO of a sports and celebrity management company, who requested anonymity, says that there was a time when Shahrukh used to come across as someone very humble. His appeal was, in marketspeak, reliability, friendliness and accessibility, and it had reach. Aamir had trust, but not reach. This is image, the thing we react to internally, well before it is manifested in our conscious opinion. In our minds, Aamir was the better actor but the more reserved one – unlike Shahrukh, who acted out mad fantasies with abandon. This, the CEO believes, began to change two years ago when two things happened. “One, everything became about Shahrukh the celebrity. It began with Kaun Banega Crorepati. Meanwhile, Aamir’s steady run continued. He opened up to the media. He became more likeable, and because he chose his films selectively, he came across as being more credible. And his reach increased.” People began seeing more of Aamir because he let them. And with every passing snipe or defence of his territory, they saw more of Shahrukh than they wanted to. “He forgot that the guy they liked was not SRK the megacorporation, but SRK the individual, the Raj they all knew.”

The Eternal Raj

Raj. Every Raj and Rahul comes to understand this fact early in life: his name is not his alone because Shahrukh appropriated it a long time ago. In small towns the names are an implication of romantic love. In large cities they imply filmi love. Shah Rukh holds on to the two as a man holds on to his youth. In Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi he was Raj Kapoor, a smooth operator serenading his unsuspecting wife. It was the 14th instance in his 65-movie career where he played a character with either name. This is hardly a coincidence. Fourteen years ago he performed his most famous role, as the romantic Raj Malhotra who wouldn’t elope without parental consent. Critics say he hasn’t left Punjab since, even as Aamir has taken greater risks and exposed himself to new challenges.

While Shahrukh took on simple romances that allowed him to be Shahrukh, Aamir re-invented the tapori, and played a cop in a smart thriller (before two absolute turkeys). Then Lagaan happened. It was first offered to Shahrukh. He declined, Aamir took it, and then came the Oscar nomination. Ever since, Aamir was typecast as experimental, while Shahrukh was himself; safe on familiar ground. But in the invisible side of cinema, the business side, Shahrukh was a fascinating innovator. He foresaw the possibility of a man becoming an industry. On the screen, however, he was becoming a clich√©, a ghost from the past. So unexpected were his turns as a scientist and a hockey coach in Swades and Chak De India that fans aren’t sure what to make of him. One said he didn’t know which Shahrukh was the real one, and that is a revealing comment. He isn’t seen as an actor. He’s a good guy, a friendly guy, who made it big. A film like Swades throws off people because they’re trained to see Shahrukh the personality, not judge his skills. That is why Chak De was remarkable; it became bigger than its main actor and told a story. It seemed the kind of role Aamir would take on.

“That there is competition between the Khans is no secret. Both Shahrukh and Aamir are great strategisers when it comes to making their movies succeed,” says a producer who went with a script to both actors. It was an unconventional role. Aamir didn’t bother to get back but Shahrukh called the man over for a meeting which stretched half a day. After a couple more interactions on the phone, Shahrukh backed out. “Possibly because the character was just too unconventional for him,” says the producer.

Many industry people don’t agree with the notion that he plays safe. They say Shahrukh’s daring lies not in his roles (although his choices here aren’t too shabby they say, pointing to Paheli and Rab Ne…), but in his decisions. He produces movies with his own money, they say, unlike Aamir, whose productions are in large part financed by PVR, the cinema chain. “He puts his money where his mouth is,” a producer and friend of Shahrukh says. “Now that’s risk-taking. Now he runs a sports franchise. Of course he’s No. 1.”

What is a Brand?

The curious incident of the dog on Aamir’s blog now feels like a strangely silly chapter, despite Aamir’s protestations of innocence. However, people close to the matter say he was taking the mickey. That he’d had enough with Shahrukh, and decided to give it back. Shahrukh responded, and Aamir escalated the jibes. They read like the kind of entertainingly inane argument siblings have (“Your elbow’s on my side”). These statements were made only in part jest. After one lob and parry, Aamir complained that Shahrukh had lost his sense of humor. The bone of contention was over who could claim the number one status. Aamir’s supporters had a line of four straight hits to back them, while Shahrukh, even with only three hits in 17 releases (including special appearances), mystifyingly insisted on being called number one.

But then he isn’t just a movie star. He does introduce himself as a film maker. So there’s some logic, however skewed, at work. Perhaps for Shahrukh, he’s No.1 in an empirical sense. King of everything. Which fits in nicely with the ‘megalomaniac’ tag that seems to go everywhere he does. A trade analyst says, “He was a very calculating man from the beginning. The diversification into IPL is a sign of that. He’s even started making television serials now. He’s got a Marwari brain. People say he takes Rs 30 - 40 crore, but no one really knows what he takes. He’s always been a very reasonable man. Only in the last 3 to 4 years has he hiked his price. Otherwise till then he was charging Rs 2 to 3 crore, when he could have taken much more. Nowadays, he takes some percentage of the profits. He’s the only actor who reads the financial newspapers daily. You can’t fool him.”

A producer says, “You’re looking at Ghajini. Tell me how much it made. 280 crore? 290 crore? (None of these numbers, readers have to note, have been confirmed.) Well, what was the film’s budget? Look at the return on investment. Rab Ne had a greater return on investment than Ghajini. Why do you think people want to work with him? He gives you everything. He wants to be completely involved. And your film is guaranteed to make money! Of course he’s No. 1.” No room for doubt, then?

Just when you think they’re about the acting, they tell you, no, it comes down to money. Of course. “Shahrukh first tasted blood with Main Hoon Na. He had produced movies before, but nothing had worked like this,” an acquaintance says. “Only then did he decide to go full tilt with Om Shanti Om.” Perhaps that’s what Shah Rukh means when he says he’s No.1. Everything he touches turns to gold. It explains the gold on his team uniform.

Advertisers say he’s the biggest brand by far. A creative head who worked with Shahrukh says, “I think SRK is still the biggest name for brands. The reason is that SRK’s stardom is a self-propagating machine. And it has an accumulated effect on his stardom and fame. He’s sheer eye candy. Aamir Khan makes you think, SRK makes you watch. He has what we in advertising call the ‘screensaver syndrome’, it doesn’t mean much, he’s there and you’ll keep looking at it.

“The great difference between Aamir Khan and SRK, and the reason why SRK is the bigger brand is that, SRK’s fame is not derived from his movies. He’s gone beyond that. AK is very strongly associated with his movies. Aamir’s standing with the audience and their desire to emulate him draws directly from the success of his films. I don’t think that holds true for SRK. He’s beyond the stardom machine. Like Sachin’s fame is no longer associated with how he played his last innings, the brand SRK is no longer associated with how his movies do.”

But is branding about money? When you take money out of the equation, and include the many intangibles of art, suddenly Aamir seems to have no equal. That is why a photojournalist who covers Bollywood says that Aamir is clearly up there. In his mind, Shahrukh has some distance to cover. “It has to do with success and the kind of movies which he makes successful. Take a role like Taare Zameen Pe, in which he enters the film just before the interval. Which actor in Bollywood would possibly agree to such a role? And yet, because of Aamir the movie went on to become a superhit. Whenever Shahrukh has tried to do any sort of offbeat roles, he has inevitably flopped.”

There is comfort in familiarity because managing your own image is easier when you are in familiar hands, hands that belong to friends and people you’ve known for a long time; they’re as good as family. They know what he can do, and know what he isn’t capable of. They know what makes Shahrukh unique. The actor, otherwise resistant to a change in his acting technique, relaxes. He’s in familiar territory. He can be himself with friends. This is where Aamir scores over his rival. The only image he needs to maintain is his own -- as India’s most experimental actor.
And that’s why there’s a gradual change in perception.

Some Stars Fade

Ask yourself a few questions. Why do you visit the movies? Would you watch a movie for its star? Would you watch a movie without a star? It isn’t much of a choice, but you know the answer. Now rewind to fifteen years ago and ask yourself the same questions. That’s why Shahrukh doesn’t make you feel the way you used to. This isn’t Raj’s time anymore. There’s more to life than love, which is why Swades and Chak De worked for so many people in cities (Audiences in NY and London don’t count; they’re still living in 1994). There’s autism, and hockey, and anterograde amnesia (not to be confused with retrograde amnesia, which a bump on the head in the 1970s gave you). That is why, as the public image guy put it, “This disconnect between who Shahrukh is and who he was hasn’t yet spread outside the cities. But if he keeps this up, it will.”

The small circle he works with keeps his image intact, but that image, a result of his obsession, hasn’t kept up with the times. The circle is claustrophobic. In fact, few movies could compare with the intense suffocation of Rab Ne, which revolved around chiefly three characters. It feels like a miscalculation. Audiences don’t expect you to declare yourself numero uno. Not with the run he’s been having. It feels misplaced, like he’s holding on to something slipping away. Audiences know. They just know.

If Aamir is No. 1 today, and there’s no dearth of support in that corner, it’s partly due to Shahrukh’s unwillingness to come to terms with a basic truth. There’s a point when spontaneity on tap is no longer spontaneity. There’s a point where every exuberant wave feels practised. There’s a point where you say so much more when you aren’t being witty. His subordinates love him because they know him, and they know he’s a great guy. That’s because he’s natural with them. But with educated audiences – people who live in a complex world - he gives them unnatural simplicity, a forced youthfulness, a tight t-shirt and orange pants, all in the name of the grand entertainer. There’s no formula. It’s common sense. You expect an adult to act his age, so what if he’s a star?