Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Airtel and me, the media.

It was a pretty calm and unexciting day when the phone rang, as it always did, quite suddenly.

Voice: Hello. I'm calling from IMRB on behalf of Airtel broadband to check customer satisfaction. Could you spare five minutes of your time to answer some questions?

Me: Yes!

(Background: My broadband had been behaving like MTNL's dialup for three months. I would call regularly to complain, and they would respond that an engineer had come by and everything was wonderful. It was like Middle Eastern propaganda. I nearly forgot what a 4mbps connection looked like. Just the other day a guy at the call center blew up at me for being unprofessional when I called the connection "shit". His awesome response: "The shit connection, sir, is because we have server trouble." Server trouble is like the Indian online version of dog ate my homework. Big-ass faceless entity that's safe to shake a fist at. Like a picture of god.)

Voice: Is any member of your family in the media?

Me: Yes.

Voice: Who?

Me: Me.


Voice: Thank you for your time. We're not looking for feedback from the media today.

And then she hung up to go find some non-media person. Today it's us media folk. Next come the bloggers. Then the ones on Twitter.

You know where this is headed.

Voice: Sorry sir, Airtel broadband's not looking for customer feedback from anyone using the internet.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Another place, another plane, another time, another space

There are nine screws above me. Nine white dome-shaped heads pierced through the wings of the fan. Two hanging lights bracket this fan, and they all swing this way and that when a strong breeze rushes through. One glass shell contains tungsten, and the other is lit up by halogen. These are all stuck to a false white ceiling with tiny blotches, like dried rainwater in a school notebook. The fan’s tails are dusty and greasy, and someone would clean it if they noticed it the way I do. They would clean it if it bothered them the way it does me, because it feels like seeing through smudged spectacles. But for them to notice it would require them to look at the ceiling and nothing else. They would have to stare at it for thirty days and nights, the way I have, watching moths and their dramatic shadows flutter by and die, watching passing flies chase and flee, watching vampire insects float by malnourished and float away red and full and content. This is to go on for a week more, doctors say. Stay on your back. Don’t get up. And whatever you do, don’t die of boredom.

A slowdown is a heavy, heavy weight. It presses down hard, forcing you still. At first the body rebels, brimming with energies that need something, anything, to do. These turn to embers that die eventually. And then you lie there, waiting for something to happen. Until these thoughts die too. Then there is nothing. There is you, the fan, the stupid lights, a bunch of moths, flies in a hurry, and vampire mosquitoes. Like I said, nothing extraordinary.

But there’s something funny about all this. Night and day make no difference. You are neither active nor tired. There is nothing to be excited about. I stop reading the papers. For hours I lie here, staring straight ahead, listening to life go on outside. People are doing something. Insects and animals are doing something. It feels like holding life’s wrist and feeling its pulse. This always needed more than time. It needed me to clear the real estate in my head.

When a body goes on a general strike, it behaves like West Bengal. It begins on Monday and ends whenever. But there’s time to smell the flowers again, to dig into culture, to discover stories that slipped by. It is another place, another plane, another time, another space.

Next month I will have to come out and face the human race. They will stop by for a moment and perhaps see something faintly familiar when we meet. I will look at them and wonder about this. I might think about the house I’d like one day. The mountain home I see in daydreams sometimes. They might see this in my face, in my gait. But as I live among them once again, the slowdown will slowly end. The heaviness of that slowdown will be gone, replaced with something even heavier.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Amitabh Bachchan's *cough* work

Even by the breathtakingly atrocious standard of film reporting at Bombay Times, this story is incredible. An excerpt:

Amitabh Bachchan gave a funny dialogue of a South Indian film, "I will hit you so hard even Google will not be able to find you", out on a social networking site.

It became an instant hit amongst the net community, getting repeated, used as status messages and updates across the net. Of course, no one bothered to give credit to the person who set it all in motion. ... We speak about IPR rights in a country where even AB’s work is passed off by the general public as their own!

AB's work?

Monday, June 21, 2010

The wives who stayed behind

Rajni George has written a lovely story about women whose husbands live and work in the Middle East. Towards the end of her piece, George delves on the classic conflicts immigrants grapple with in a beautiful paragraph:

In [a book titled] Kerala’s Gulf Connection, ... loneliness is cited as the most serious problem Gulf wives face, followed by the burden of being the chief person responsible when a member of the household needs medical care or other help. How does one weigh this kind of loneliness against the other kind that both Amisha and Rasiya say they want to avoid, the loneliness of being in a foreign country without a social support system? Every immigrant life is shaped according to how they respond to this essential conflict. The question they are unwittingly responding to, of course, is what makes them happy and how?

I'm going to take a sentence out of context because it reminded me of something. The immigrant experience is inextricably linked to the region's story. When they left these shores to pursue a dream, they gambled that their fortunes would rise and fall with those of their host. Until three years ago they had good times, sailing through the greenest of green stretches life can provide. Until this happened, they could afford to not look at the strides being taken at home. Now the immigrant looks at home from a distance and sees it changed. The classic loneliness of being in a foreign country is slightly altered: It is also the loneliness of knowing that the home left behind has forgotten his absence.

I had the good fortune to meet Rajni, a writer and editor with The Caravan, during a recent trip to Dubai. I was surprised at how she felt about the city and its immigrants from a story-potential perspective. Surprised because I had naively assumed that my decades in Dubai had left me with a unique perspective, and that I could see stories that others couldn't. After meeting her, I wasn't so sure.

I do know one thing. If she decides to write a book on the place, it'll be far better than any literature on the subject so far.

Sabotaging bad movies

Reading a story today about the new old Bollywood meme of rumor and gossip being used to sink movies, I wondered why the firmament isn't called out more often on this lie. When a star becomes part of a movie unit, he goes public with his choices. I'm curious about what drives these decisions. What makes a movie like Kites seem like a good idea? Who sells it? What does he say to make a star buy it? What does the star see? Who does he consult? How does his existence inside this space lead him to believe that a failed movie was not undone simply by its badness? That it was sabotage?

What I'd give to be inside this bubble. Can you imagine the delusion?

The story

When I see a forgotten thing, of whose significance only I know, there’s a tightening in my chest and I think to myself that this forgetting and this discovery are a story. When the excitement fades, I remember that all this is a very old story, and that forgetting happens for a reason. Once the reasoning is over and the time to feel comes, I look at the forgotten thing from a distance, reconstructing the history that surrounded it and my place in it, and I remember that some things are most keenly felt by me only. Words only serve to lighten their meaning.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


This poor kid needs a little luck going his way. First the transfer problem, then his terrible tour, and now he suffers the indignity of a leaked mail:

"I regret that the board has sent me a notice for the incident in the West Indies, and please accept my apology," Jadeja wrote. "I had gone to the restaurant (pub) along with other Indian team members. Some other guests, which I presume were Indian origins of the USA, also came to the restaurant and on seeing us they started abusing us, this may be because they were unhappy with our poor performance. We requested them not to abuse us but they did not stop inspite of our repeated request. No way was I involved in any ugly brawl and I went to the pub only to have dinner with my team-mates."

Unless the board didn't leak it.

Whatever happened that day, there's no denying that Indian cricket fans - the only kind I'm familiar with - can be thoughtless and quite unkind. The chants at Wankhede and the thrown bottles and stones still resonate. I've seen this before in living rooms and locker rooms, two places where the filter between the mind and mouth disappears. Players shouldn't be dropped, they should be "kicked out". A captain isn't having a bad day, "he's just useless". I'm generalizing, but most of us have heard these words and uttered them too. I think we tend to forget that passion needs the constraints of civility. Without that, we can't be fans.

The vehicle

Watching Kites the other night, there were times I felt so embarrassed, exposed, and squeamish that I couldn’t bear to look at the screen. I had nothing at stake with this movie, not the investment of emotional interest, not even mild curiosity. This was because of my unshakable belief before the movie’s release that Kites was destined to fail. So my reactions confused me. Bad movies are usually enjoyable. What was so different about this one? Until I began writing this short piece, I had no idea.

My certainty about the movie’s fate grew with each round fired by the pre-release publicity. When Hrithik Roshan danced to an audience in one song, they were amazed by his moves. When he jumped up and lingered there, the background went white with blazing flashbulbs. His open shirt fluttered in the wind, revealing a body that has been exposed a hundred times before. I came away with nothing but the message its makers wanted to convey: Kites had a story, and that story was Roshan.

Most of us have our vehicles. A good gig. A profitable association. The things we ride on in life. But a movie as a vehicle doesn’t sit easy with me, especially a movie meant to be a vehicle into Hollywood. From Roshan’s first mumble to his final heartbroken leap, Kites’ purpose was to enshrine what was most beautiful about him. Whether men died around him, or true love struck, the camera remained on his face in a way parents making baby videos will recognize. In this way Kites was like a father’s message to the world: Here is my son. Take good care of him.

Well, that’s how I would have seen it if it rang true. This was a vehicle. I felt squeamish because there was nothing I could say or do. This wasn’t a movie. It was nothing. It was a modeling portfolio. It was lazy and assumed so much.

Roshan said that Indian audiences were “putting it down” instead of “nurturing this new passion that has conquered so many new markets”. He said that Kites was like pasta to biryani-fed Indians. What does this talk remind you of? To me he sounds eerily similar to men who explain markets through trends and buzzwords, men who have a reason for everything.

Does this talk come easily because actors sit at this intersection of art and commerce? I don’t know. I excused myself from a job interview once soon after my interviewer, an editor, spoke to me about the publication’s brand perception and its verticals. I know these things are important, but I’m conflicted. I walked out because I wanted to write.

Does Roshan want to act? I don’t know.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Looking through windows

A dusty new yellow skywalk winds from Bandra station, past IMG, and across the bumpy Western highway before turning abruptly and terminating in the lap of Matoshree. Before the wide path swings by the glass tower of the event management agency, and the swamp and endless asphalt that follow, it presents a rare opportunity to stop and look through windows.

At the bottom of a building constructed entirely of curling planks of plywood and nails, preparations are on for a shop's opening. Directly above it, on a wooden ledge on more than two feet wide, a perched carpenter accepts a hammer and nails from his adviser, currently balancing himself on a white paint-stained ladder. The carpenter places a rust colored corrugated iron sheet on the ledge, and discovers it isn't the right size. A measuring tape is brought out, the ledge is measured, and a discussion commences. The helper descends gingerly and disappears inside the shop. The carpenter is still now, apart from the odd sniffle. After a while he wipes his leaky nose on his right sleeve. With his left, he holds on to a wooden plank at the base of a window where two attentive young boys keep his hammer handy. A third child emerges from behind a yellow curtain and asks to hold the hammer in exchange for a screwdriver. The request is denied.

The next store is empty, but for a single telephone orphaned on a desk and the balding proprietor behind it. Above them, tattered floral prints sway gently to reveal and conceal tailors and their sewing machines sitting on the floor. One tailor's mouth is swollen with tobacco, and he communicates with expressive head shakes, never quite unsealing his lips.

Now the carpenter climbs through the window, and tiny heads bob up to evaluate his work. In seconds they are bored of this. One chokes the other, and the victim falls down dead. Immediately two hands clad in bangles close around the boys' ears and drag them in to deliver instant justice. The yellow curtain pauses a moment to take in their absence before settling down.

Beyond the building is an MNS flag nailed to the side of a ramshackle kitchen on the second floor of a firetrap. And even further is another flagpole holding up what looks like a giant rubber horn.