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-à-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.”