Wednesday, August 30, 2006


Say it never happened, it never existed. Some day you might deny leading the life you have today. Sometimes it does feel rather fragile. Look at the trees, their leaves turn brown eventually. Look at trees of families, and watch fortunes change with time. Nothing assured, nothing set in stone. You're adrift endlessly, from the first decade to the last. Some decades you have company on the raft, in others you do it alone. Sometimes the past feels as unreal as a mirage of the future.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


The second season of Lost, one of the greatest shows ever, begins with survivors setting off from the island on a raft to find civilization. Some hours later they are barely alive and adrift, clinging to tattered remains after an encounter with another boat. As the boat appears at first there is hope, these are the first unfamiliar faces they have seen for a long time. But within minutes a survivor's child is kidnapped and an explosive is detonated on board the survivors' vessel. On the island a hatch is discovered, and one by one people lower themselves into it, knowing fully that what awaits them at the bottom is not wholly pleasant. It is one of Lost's defining features: we know and relish the fact that no danger deters the survivors. They may pause for thought and consider what lies around the corner, but will always hurtle into what is inevitably an escalated level of evil.

Next Thursday can't come soon enough. More on this later.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The maharaja's molls

The monsoon is a terrible time to fly. One whiff of a cloud and the airplane begins to rise and fall like an irregular heartbeat. At moments like these you look to the bright interiors for cheer, or to fresh-faced airhostesses who smile benignly. These things reassure me greatly. So when I stepped into an Air India plane two nights ago for a two-hour flight and saw the stern lady at the door, I considered cancelling my ticket.

Our nerves were shot by the time we landed. Everytime an airhostess walked by I would sit straight with my arms where she could see them. Sometimes they would inspect us as they walked by like examiners in a hall. It felt like the worst moments of school. When I tried sleeping, one stood by me in the aisle and yelled at my wife, "Is he your husband? Is he your husband? Is he your husband? Is he asleep?" It was so strange. This profession is supposed to be lucrative and exciting and dreamy. We know it isn't so, but it's supposed to seem this way. If I had a kid who wanted to be an airhostess, I'd take her on a few round trips on this airline, and that'd straighten her out. When the seatbelt lights came on mid-flight and the plane began to shudder, the frown on their faces sunk deeper, and I grew more worried. And then the pilot's voice came over the intercom, "We are in bad weather." That was it. Five words, he was done, we were done for. Some sweated profusely because the air conditioners were switched off. A stale smell developed. Then the plane landed with a thud, one set of wheels at a time. An airhostess said, "We hope you will fly with Air India again," to which a man at the back yelled, "Hopes!"

Friday, August 04, 2006

The hair toss school of acting

Is it me, or the wine I've just had, or has Shilpa Shetty really made a career of turning back to face the camera over her shoulder, with her hair following and finally sweeping across her face? But then everyone's done this. Shah Rukh stands atop a mountain in a red sweater, legs apart, arms raised to the sky, body writing to a divine disco beat. Salman has that cold stare from squinting eyes while white-skinned women dance around him.

I often wonder what life would be like if we had a look, a thing that everyone remembered us by, something like Salman's chest. It wouldn't be much different, I think, except if we had slow motion and background music at our disposal. Yeah, imagine that! Roobaroo from Rang De Basanti playing as I - in slow motion - looked for snacks in the fridge.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Acting the part

Lately I've found myself in some pretty unfamiliar situations. Found in the literal sense because suddenly, in the middle of wherever I am, it occurs to me that I've never gone down this way before, like waking up at the entrance of a cave. This is the Tehelka gig. Given the job of a feature writer, you're pretty much in a new place every week. It's a really good thing because, well, I now know that Charles Correa and Hafeez Contractor don't like each other, that Varanasi is run by goons, that the romance of train travel runs dry after a day spent in one. But it's so easy to lose yourself. Having gone from a state of no activity to one of manic and spontaneous action, I've figured that out. Suddenly you're a lot less inquiring of yourself and a lot more curious about things outside. There exist some remarkable stories. A fortnight ago I met a man who worked for Air Deccan and faced jibes and insults with such humor that tired passengers gave up and begged him to tell them some jokes. Then there's the director who offered me half a lakh to write something nice about him, saying that it would be a matter of love and affection. He had been through a terrible week: a rotten movie, terrible music, no audiences, no sales, no income - disproportionate assets, actually - and visits from tax inspectors.

And even then you wonder. There's a fear that the cynicism I see in older journalists will one day touch me. These are not frustrated journalists, but good ones. You realise it through their eyes: after 30 years in the business they're not upset because they haven't succeeded, they're upset because they see sad things everyday. It's unnerving because this cynicism seems inevitable. One by one, people slip into that state of knowing how things happen, of expecting things to go down a depressing path. They've gone past the stage of looking at suicide attempters as novelty and bad directors as entertainment. Here they see something deeper and sadder.

I reason with myself that cynicism has its benefits. But what about optimism? What about a tale so good, so nice, that no one believes it? What if I told you about the actor who had nothing, who worked so hard that his director gave him 20,000 bucks in the late 80s for his impending marriage? What about the cricket chief who loves discussing his ideas, and is so enthusiastic about what he does that it's a treat to watch him wave his arms about and describe tomorrow? What about the guy at the morgue who got over an irrational fear to do a job well? You are swept away listening to them. They all become storytellers telling you wonderful tales, while you sit wide-eyed like a child tucked in bed. Some are terrible, some are wonderful. But you're not cynical, you're amazed. You're lost in their world. And then, when you have a moment to yourself, as you stand at the threshold of another interviewee's home, you wonder: in all these worlds, where is mine? But you ring the doorbell and the subject starts talking and you are lost in an unfamiliar place again, drifting further and further away as your own world reduces into nothingness.

“I’m more into the spirit of the play than the play” - An interview with Vishal Bhardwaj

What about Shakespeare do you find so compelling?

I think his dramatic stories are so universal in their emotion that they cross boundaries of countries, genre and language. I think they can be adapted to any time. You can make it futuristic. I could have made Othello a futuristic film also, 2050, say. Basically the story remains the same. It's about how rooted human traits are, and how it's been relevant for the past 400 years. It'll be relevant for the next 400 years.

Why did you pick Uttar Pradesh (UP) for Othello?

Because I was born and brought up ther. That part of the country has not been seen in mainstream cinema. I thought it would be interesting to bring that flavour to the mainstream, giving a Shakespearean colour to UP - it could be a unique combination.

When did you decide on Othello becoming Omkara?

It happened in October or November 2005. I was not sure of which one to pick up, whether it would be Julius Ceasar, Hamlet, or Othello, or something else.

The reason I asked was because that part of the country has been seen in a few films. There's Tigmanshu Dhulia's Haasil, for one.

What Tigmanshu did wasn't mainstream. And the language [the local dialect], I don't think it was used there. It was more... I used a heavy dialect of western UP. That movie did not have a dialect of its own. Do you remember any mainstream films with stars being done in UP?

There's Gangajal, but that's set in Bihar.

Yeah, Gangajal. There's a lot of difference between Bihar and UP. I think. Yeah, there's a lot of difference. If you travel in UP, every 50 kilometers you get a different dialect. [Pause] There also Ajay was not speaking Bihari. He spoke the normal, clean hindi. The rest of the characters spoke in bihari, and that too was an the honest dialect. I have been totally honest with my mainstream actors. So I don't want to compare.

How'd you get the mainstream actors to prepare for the dialect?

I dubbed all the dialogues in my voice, sent them cds and they kept listening to them. We did some workshops, some rehearsals. Ajay's hindi was very good, there were no problems there, but Saif had to go through a really rough patch.

When you read Shakespeare, there's a certain poetry in the language. How do you get that across in Hindi?

I didn't follow his language or his dialogue or his sequence of drama. I just picked the plot and made it my own. I didn't follow it word by word or scene by scene. I'm more into the spirit of the play than the play.

Shakespeare has been done and been seen many times. When you took up Macbeth...

It has not been done in the Indian context in Indian cinema. Hardly any Shakespearean thing has been done.

How did you approach the interpretation of it?

One thing I knew was that it hadn't been done in India. People have not even heard of Macbeth, if we talk about the common man. And in the west the plays have been adapted in the classic manner. So I knew it would be unique. I picked up the story and put it in contemporary times.

Have you seen Roysten Abel's interpretation of Othello?


What about Habib Tanvir's adaptations?

No. I have not seen any adaptations in the Indian context. I saw the films made by Orson Wells. He adapted Othello. Then the latest was 'O'.

What did you think of Orson Wells' adaptation?

It was set in the same period, the same time, and my intention was not to do that. I wanted to bring my own creativity into it. So that's why I was not really kicked about Orson Wells. Those were greatly shot, greatly made, and greatly performed, but they didn't interest me.

Tehelka, August 5, 2006.

A pooped party

“Not dangerous? Not dangerous? What do you mean, not dangerous? They’re goons, of course they’re dangerous!” After a lengthy diatribe, the owner of the Dadar cloth shop took a breather. He was speaking about his neighbours, the Shiv Sena. “Yes, the father could go. Yes, Rane and the nephew aren’t there anymore. But isn’t the son still there? He can still do damage, can’t he?” He did not buy into the idea of the party as a waning power. In 35 years of business there he had seen riots, closures, rallies, and the annual demand for protection money. “Kya Hindu, kya Muslim? Every year they come during diwali, saying, ‘See, no one touched your shop. Pay us and we’ll protect you.’ Sometimes they come here and say they don’t have money for an ambulance. It is understood that I have to pay the bloody hoodlums.”

These days, the general consensus is that Mumbai’s most notorious party is dying. In Sion, Dharavi, and Dadar – all Sena strongholds – there is little fear of violence from them. People speak of the Sena as a once fearsome but now sorry party holding on to notions they should have abandoned a long time ago. This opinion springs primarily from the bloodshed of 1993, and from the last week’s events. “They really disgraced themselves on Sunday, didn’t they? What good is it for anyone when they declare a bandh?” said a cab driver stationed at Dharavi. “The police did not let things get out of hand, and that’s only because the Sena did not control them. If RR Patil wasn’t here and the Sena was in charge, the riots would have been worse. It’s happened before.” The owner of a mobile phone shop situated a couple of minutes away from a Shiv Sena shakha didn’t take the call too seriously, but played it safe and shut shop only at 1pm and reopened it five hours later.

“The people in last Sunday’s events were not all Shiv Sainiks. They were people without jobs, people who needed money,” a school teacher and old resident of Sion said. “They were strong once, very strong, but now just look at them. They take anyone off the streets, give them some money, and tell them to burn things. What happened last Sunday was just a show. Do you actually believe they are strong now?” The cab driver suggested it was all about police control. When the Sena was in charge, he said, two things happened: the party would run amok, and the police had a free hand too. Neither kept tabs on the other. He had an example. If a major incident took place anywhere, Muslims were rounded up arbitrarily, fines were arbitrary. Innocence was a minor obstacle. It still happens, he said, but those days it was a lot worse. And what came before that? Before the Shiv Sena were good times. “Hindus and Muslims ate together, we had few differences. Then they wanted India for the Hindus, and it all went to hell.”

When Mumbai was on edge two Sundays ago, and then again on Tuesday, it began, in part, with images of a burning bus. The sight of a blaze added to the fear that the Sena could still wreck havoc, and so shutters stayed down. Then, two days later the blasts occurred and there were renewed fears that the party would strike out at minorities. They mostly stayed quiet. “It’s not always their fault, you know,” declared a young man who ran a milk stall opposite the Sena’s youth office (run by middle-aged men) in Dadar when I asked why his neighbours were so silent. His partner, an old man, spoke up: “They have been very quiet except for that Sunday. But they are not the same anymore.” He couldn’t tell if they were waiting for an opportunity to strike out but reasoned, “After the blasts Mumbai was already nervous. And the party knows it can make people nervous. So why go out and make people even more nervous?” He read Saamna, the Sena’s paper, and smiled as he recollected Bal Thakeray’s words. “What else? ‘Government darti hai, bhadwa hai.’ But I think the government will catch the culprits in time.”

If these places were tense, it was for a different reason. Narendra Modi was in town. A few words from him could start a fire. “Why is he here?” the school teacher asked. “What he says is violent and pointless.” “It’s a good thing his speech is in an enclosed hall. If he did it as Shivaji park Hindus would be chasing Muslims out of Mumbai using swords,” said the owner of the cloth shop. On his wall were pictures of family: one of himself unshaven, and the other of his grandson. “Maine usko America bhej diya. Yahaan kya karega? Yeh jeena bhi koi jeena hai?” he asked angrily, pointing at the Shiv Sena headquarters which was shroud in scaffolding.

In Dharavi, it was difficult to find a man who would even consider the Sena to be a threat. Most laughed at the suggestion, saying it was too old, too weak. Others waved a hand dismissively. The body language was bad news for the city’s scariest party. Policemen who lolled around the place repeated what others said. Over and over, too old, too weak, too old, too weak. So how does it manage to shut down Mumbai? The number of its followers doesn’t matter, although it helps. The Sena uses fear effectively, staging demonstrations in different parts of the city. One demonstration here, a bus burning there. With the images repeated over and over again it seems as if violence is spreading across the city. Like with Hitchcock, the fear is born of the suspense, not from the act, which is often anticlimactic.

Tehelka, July 29, 2006.

"If you take care of the rich, the poor get taken care of" - An interview with Hafeez Contractor

What's your take on the atate of architecture in Mumbai, in terms of ideas?

Public buildings, which are heritage buildings are okay. But private heritage buildings are in a pretty bad condition. Barring some private buildings, good architecture is seen as a vital component of only public buildings. And there have been barely any public buildings built in Mumbai in the last 30 or 40 years. We haven't built stations, we haven't built schools.

When you look across the Mumbai skyline, there's a kind of sameness, nothing that catches the eye.

When you have a residential building, it consists of a living room, bedroom, hall, and kitchen. It's only when you have something different, like a museum, or a hotel, that things are different.

Do Indians, in general, not have good design sense?

It's a very sad thing. But I'll tell you, it's like survival. You don't have food to eat, so do you talk about table manners? When you have ample food to eat, you'll be like, 'After you, no, please, after you!' [Exaggerated table manners] More than 55% of our people live in slums. That's why you have illegal houses, structures, encroachments. There is a lot of creativity in extracting the maximum out of a limited space, mind you. Today, FSI (floor space index) controls everything. It's the place where people make a lot of money legally and illegally. They don't want to lose their hold on it. But to answer your question, we do care about design but when we don't have spaces to live... We've been asking to build smaller and smaller and smaller houses. Take the Urban Land Ceiling Act - it was asking people to create a 40sq meter flat in an 80sq meter area. It boils down to whether your bylaws go hand in hand with you to create something nice.

So you're saying that if FSI is raised, things like design will generally improve?

One hundred percent. It might take some time, but yes. It'll eradicate scarcity. Today you're paying for scarcity, not for the product. You increase FSI, and the scarcity will be removed.

So who exactly benefits from this scarcity?

This is a great game which few understand. If you say that FSI should be raised, the media says 'oh, the builder lobby has asked for the FSI level to be raised, and they will gain from it. Whether you have 1 FSI or 2 FSI, the lobby will gain from it. But if you have more FSI, demand and supply will equalise. By restructing the FSI, the percentage of profit is higher for the builder, and there is more corruption in the city by restricting it. Percentagewise, the buyer is also paying more. But if the builder pays less for FSI - which is raised at the same time - the builder will be happy, and the buyer will be happy.

But do builders want this?

There are types of builders. There are some who buy single buildings and keep extracting the money. But there are professional builders for whom turnover is more important. But unfortunately not many people understand that. Whenever there is a debate about FSI, people say, 'Oh, the builder will make more money!' Initially, yes. But it will taper off.

You once said that if the FSI was raised and Mumbai moved upwards, we'd have more parks and playgrounds. How can you be sure about this?

See, nobody is Raja Harishchandra that they would want to do good things for people. In all other countries and cities, incentives are given. You make a restaurant, you get fsi, you occupy more than 50% of the plot you don't get additional FSI. That's why you have so many little parks and gardens in New York. It's not that they're in love with art. They're in love with money. So they're forced to do it. But we don't want to understand reality. In Manhattan the FSI is five, and with bonuses you can go up to 25. This is how they make cities more beautiful. In this city we are all very selfish. We don't want any construction in our back yard, we don't want our thing to change. This is wrong. The city does not belong to you. We have to provide for the future. It's held up by a bunch of retired people who don't want their lifestyle to change. On one side they demand green spaces, on the other they want low cost housing. Are they really clear about what they want? They are against any development.

The government has raised the FSI level for Dharavi, and they plan to move existing residents into new apartments. But only 51,000 families live there officially, whereas you have a hundreds of thousands who don't. What do you make of this?

I've always said that if you are providing for slums, and are providing for a housand people, make a provision to create for another thousand. You need to construct ten times more than what you are constructing today. We're 16 million people today, and will go to 25 million in the next tren years. Just imagine what will happen. In this 16 million, 55% don't have houses. And of this 55, 30% are staying in dilapidated buildings. That leaves only 25%. All these people are going to be out on the roads. People can't fathom this. They are after people who enclose a balcony, things like that. The only people gaining from this are government officials. They get their flats for free. They don't understand the plight of the ordinary person. In Dubai and Hyderabad there is unrestricted FSI. Take it from me, Hyderabad will overtake Mumbai. The money from the additional FSI should be ploughed back into the infrastructure.

We've said that making buildings and should go hand in hand with building infrastructure. On the face of it, this is a reasonable argument. But given the lack of political will, is it possible?

No, initially it won't happen. Nothing will happen because it's set in the system. It will take some time.

So is the source of the problem the laws and lawmakers themselves?

See, we have impractical laws. And the trouble with the urban scenario is that by the time you realise the laws are impractical, five to six years would have passed. By the time you think about making a new law, the whole real estate scene is so criminalised that people think that, 'If I make this change people will think I've taken the money.' So they let the law keep running, until it gets out of hand. A lot of laws are there for the appeasement of the poor. You can't do cities like that. Nobody has ever created poor man's housing, let us be very clear. All large low-cost housing is created when you have a larger new area for the rich.

Can a good transportation system help you with decentralisation?

Look at history. You will make the poor go further and further away. We've been talking about such wrong things for so many years. All our younger kids' minds are corrupted. These are not facts. Study the history of any city, and you'll see what urban plannning is. You'll see why there's been a scarcity of housing, why 30 people live in a one-bedroom flat on Mohammad Ali road. It's because you've been focussing on the railway, never the road, never the rich. I've always said that if you take care of the rich, the poor get taken care of.

You've described mangroves as ghaas-phoos. Do you believe that they aren't a natural flood buffer?

Not at all! I have always said that, against mangroves, I'd like to have promenades and forest lands. I'm a lover of mangroves. But I don't like them at the Bandra seafront. I'd rather have a garden where a man can walk. They've been saying that mangroves have been here all the time. I've sene it with my own eyes at Bandra creek when I studied architecture: there were no mangroves. If you don't do anything near the sea, mangroves will come there. When I said ghaas-phoos, I meant it as wild growth. But am I against greenery? No way. But in the city there should be greenery for human beings, and in the hinterland there should be greenery for wildlife.

Last year, after the cloudburst, you said: "The nallahs are overflowing because of the garbage. The city is not equipped to cope with the clearing because it is not earning enough. The reason for that is because half the city comprises slums that only sponge on the city as they do not pay anything..." How do they sponge on the city?

They use your drainage, your water supply, your roads. They use every aspect of your city facility, they don't pay any taxes. If in every city you pay land tax, and assessment tax, here they pay nothing. That's the main thing. I'm not saying that you should throw them out. I'm saying they are there because your housing laws are not proper.

The environmentalist Girish Raut found out that of the 800 million litres of sewage dumped in everyday, only 2 million come from the slums. The rest comes from big industries.

To prove facts and figures you can twist things. Look, if everybody were to live the way the people in the US live, you would require 12 earths. Definitely, their means and sewage must be small. Definitely. But how does it get dumped? Does anybody clear the garbage? The main dumping area is the nallahs, which get cleared once or twice a year. The Kurla nallahs get cleared with god's good grace. And because oif the sewage they get three or four feet more and their backyards increase. That's why the nallahs have become smaller and smaller and there's more flooding there.