Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Out of whim I bought a pot of ink yesterday to try on the fountain pen I sometimes use. Since I found nothing original to test-write, I thought I'll transcribe something. The following lines, which I found quoted in an Alice Munro story I recently read, seemed good enough to begin with.
There is no sorrow
Time heals never;
No loss, betrayal,
Beyond repair.
Balm for the soul, then,
Though grave shall sever
Lover from loved
And all they share;
See, the sweet sun shines,
The shower is over,
Flowers preen their beauty,
The day how fair!
Brood not too closely
On love, on duty;
Friends long forgotten
May wait you where
Life with death
Brings all to an issue;
None will long mourn for you,
Pray for you, miss you,
Your place left vacant,
You not there.
These lines were originally written by Walter de la Mare (who, I confess, I never heard of) and the Alice Munro story, it appears, germinates from these very lines: ‘None will long mourn for you, / Pray for you, miss you, / Your place left vacant—

Friday, April 15, 2011


There’s this little-known book At Home in the Himalayas that I read sometime back. It’s a non-fiction, sort of an autobiography, that chronicles the life of the author, Christina Noble, who comes from Scotland to the little town of Manali in the ’70s on a hiking trip. What began as a hiking trip soon became a way of life for her – she went about setting a business of arranging adventure trips, got involved in the local life, married and settled down with two young children, and spent a significant amount of years in the high Himalayas. In this book she recounts the experiences of those years – from the awe-inspiring beauty and grandeur of the high mountains, to the practicalities of setting up business with the help of local folks and dealing with the challenges of going about daily life. But, the most interesting bits come in the form of those little observations she has of the place and the people as well as her personal equations with them; she’s not an aloof observer and her tone is caring yet critical. So, there we get glimpses of domesticity, festival and feast, marriages and deaths, trust and betrayal – all noted with candid detail.

This is a long preamble, but probably a necessary one. What I wanted to write about is a section of this book – just a few odd paragraphs, really – that has uncannily stayed with me for a long time. In those paragraphs is described the scene and mood of a picnic. It’s towards the end of the book, and the author had already lived in the place for many long years, and has already formed a close-knit group of people who she deals with – her domestic helps, families she had known and lived with, her employees of the trekking business, her milkwomen, suppliers, and some other acquaintances. So, on the picnic day, we see all these people, along with their families and children, scrambling up the hill to a grassy meadow. Up there, frenetic activity is going on – a makeshift chulha is being dug, firewood is being gathered, pots and plates are being gathered, wild mushrooms are being plucked, vegetables are being cut, meat is being cleaned, and local brew is being poured. It’s busy yet leisurely and the bonhomie is captured with a detail that’s endearing and, in certain way, poignant. After the cooking and feasting, women sing and dance putting their sleeping babies on the grass, people laugh freely, and memories are reminisced. It’s plain, simple, and merry.

I’ve often thought about the scene and wondered what’s it that makes it so appealing to me. Given my unsocial self, it should just read like a plain high-spirited revelry. But, for some reason, it doesn’t; rather, I wonder what it’ll be like to have a day of such unadulterated fun.

Anyway, what brought this scene back to me tonight is a little endearing film named Pieces of April, which I watched while eating my cold leftover dinner from a small bowl.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


One of the first things I learned on the job – as a hassled-looking, grubby, emaciated, underpaid, overworked, and barely noticeable copy-editor – was the use of dashes. I mean the punctuation marks – en-dashes and em-dashes. I struggled then, and I still struggle, to get them correct. But, over the years I figured out a rule in my head to make use of en-dashes far more than em-dashes. Em-dashes—as you see—are “unappealingly long” (I’m filching a bit from Wikipedia here). And if you use spaced em-dashes — like this — it introduces an awfully wide break, which finicky readers may find unacceptable. So, my rule has been to use spaced en-dash – like this – at every place where I felt the need of an em-dash, which is mostly for parenthetical expressions and occasionally to elaborate something in a sentence. As should be evident by now, I like using dashes – en-dashes especially – so much that if I have to list my favorite punctuation marks, dashes are likely to stay at the top.

So, what is it about a dash that I like? I guess it’s the little wanderings it allow us mid-sentence. A dash is like a respite, a little escape, while not necessarily straying away completely. Well, of course not everyone thinks this way. More serious writers are likely to utilize dashes to infuse more supplementary ideas or give more elegant and winding sentences.

If I remember correctly, I didn’t like dashes at the beginning. As a rookie copy-editor it was a nightmare to proofread a GOP – that’s Galley of Pages, for the uninitiated – strewn with dashes. Justifying which one of these dashes stay put, and deciding which ones I strike off, were (to put it mildly) difficult. People who submits articles to scientific journals – though extremely sound in technical matters – are not always known for being careful with their language. It was rather scary to edit an article from, say, Taiwan, Sweden, or Turkey. And if they were full of strange punctuations we were in the soup.

But the initial dislike, in time, wore off. I moved from being the grubby, emaciated copy-editor to become the vain, well-fed guy who I’d have hated back in my copy-editing days. Anyway, some vestiges of copy-editing remained – often resurfacing when I had to re-read something I wrote and found them crawling with mistakes. I may not have made a competent copy-editor, but these moments told me I was not a complete failure either – I still had the eye to catch at least some of my mistakes, which I wish I never give away.

It’s only when I moved away from copy-editing that I found the pleasing sense of using a dash. I started using, and still use them – though often without fully understanding the grammatical intricacies. I hope the earnest copy-editors will ignore this fallen one of their flock. Please, allow me to use my dashes – however sloppily – and look elsewhere when I’m having some fun with them.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

First book of the year

Moral Disorder is the first Margaret Atwood book I finished reading. Earlier, I had managed to bring home a few of her books and then return them back to the library, unread. This, I’m afraid, probably doesn’t tell well of my reading habits. Anyway, coming back to the reading of Moral Disorder – which incidentally is also my first reading of this year – one feels the prowess of an author who is at the peak of her form. It’s as if the author lets herself flow – a measured, controlled flow, bearing the weight of experience – and the stories just take shape, almost on their own, following trajectories they had to follow, and described in a tone that’s perfect. These stories that do not overwhelm us with their spectacularness, but these stories that stay with us, linger in our minds, evokes strange emotions, and demands re-reading. I have already read it, in piecemeal, about twice; some stories more than that.

Moral Disorder is a collection of eleven short stories, which can probably also pass off as a novel, when viewed as a whole. These stories, brought in from different periods of time, essentially tells the stories of a fixed set of connected characters; the main character, Nell, being the apparent alter-ego of the author. There is much that tends to be autobiographical here, but that’s beside the point – this nosey hair-splitting business of how much of it is actually drawn from personal life – and it stands, like any good fiction, hovering over the tantalising realm of unknown.

It begins with Bad News, which is set approximately in present day, and introduces us to an elderly couple, Nell and her husband Tig, going about usual business one of the mornings.

In The Art of Cooking and Serving, the second story, we go back in time and meet Nell, who’s all of 11-year-old and is furiously knitting in preparation for welcoming her unborn sister. When not knitting, the girl is also taking care of household chores, because her expectant mother is not supposed to work much, her father is always away on his expeditions, and her brother away in boarding school. For some reasons, this is a story I have gone back to several times. This is a very beautiful and touching portrayal of a lonely childhood – pleasing and pensive.

The Headless Horseman, the third story, takes us much forward in time when we see Nell and her sister driving home to see her ailing widowed mother. However, as the story moves forward, the story, through reminisces of the sisters, moves back and forth in time – mostly about a Headless Horseman outfit Nell had created one Halloween and what happened to it afterwards.

In the fourth story, My Last Duchess, we see Nell on the brink of her high school finals. The title of the story is taken from a Robert Browning poem, which Miss Bessie, the English teacher, is teaching the class. In this story we also get a glimpse of puppy love between Nell and Bill, a classmate who Nell occasionally helps study English poetry. They break up over their different views of the Browning poem.

By the fifth story, The Other Place, Nell is an estranged, floating woman, living on her own, changing jobs and cities at will, carrying only her meagre belongings (books, clothes, towel) wherever she goes. This is a phase – uncertain, unsettled, and doubtful – that is not just physical, but also mental.

Monopoly, the sixth story, begins rather strikingly (“Nell and Tig ran away to the country.”) But, more than moving forward, the story goes backward from there, introducing us to the circumstances that brought Nell and Tig together. Alongside, we also meet Tig’s wife Oona and the “boys” (their two sons). With this story we also see a change in voice – from first person to third person – as if the author now wants to have a more critical view by observing from a distance. This is actually the first time we learn that the stories narrated earlier was by someone named Nell.

The seventh and eighth stories – Moral Disorder and White Horse – both deal, somewhat similarly, to the country life Nell and Tig tries to settle into. These two are expansive stories that have several pastoral themes running. There are vegetables being grown, animals being tended and raised, local folks being befriended. But, above all, it’s the several domestic animals – especially the lamb in Moral Disorder and the horse Gladys in the White Horse – that lend certain poignancy to these stories; Nell’s love and concern for them almost motherly. Indeed, we do get to learn Nell’s longing to become a mother (in Moral Disorder) and by the end of White Horse, we find Nell pregnant.

By the time we reach The Entities, the ninth story, much time has passed. Nell and Tig has moved away from the countryside. Tig’s first wife, Oona, now unhappy, lonely and ailing, now wants a home, which they eventually buy her. In the course of the story, Lillie, an ageing but fastidious real-estate broker also makes an appearance.

The last two stories – The Labrador Fiasco and The Boys at the Lab – are separated by a gap of few years but both deal with old age. The Labrador Fiasco is about Nell’s ailing father and The Boys at the Lab is about Nell’s mother on deathbed. Though they both deal with a similar theme – old age – they unfold differently. The Labrador Fiasco weaves a disastrous real-life expedition story into the narrative of a dying man, Nell’s father, who is gradually losing his memory. In The Boys at the Lab, conversely, we see memory being revived and reconstructed through a series of old photographs and conversations. Both these stories are unsentimental yet caring, sad but still full of life, even if these are the lives of dying ones.

It's probably not a suitable thing to briefly outline the stories, like I just did. It doesn't really give anyone a good idea about what these stories may be like. Much of the brilliance of these stories are due to Atwood's writing; one needs to read them to fully appreciate them.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

From PIFF 2011

Pune International Film Festival (PIFF) 2011 was a much eagerly awaited event for me. Especially because I had been irregular at PIFF for the last two years. And it turned out to be a much fulfilling experience this time, evoking memories of my first PIFF attendance. As it turned out, PIFF 2011 had enough in store I discovered new directors, glimpsed new cultures, and tasted a smorgasbord of films ranging from average to excellent to moving.

I tried a little disciplined approach this year and actually made brief scribblings of the films just after I watched them. They are nowhere near a review though; just brief commentary on what I watched, and are definitely inadequate in bringing out the essence of the films. Here they are, anyway.

I began PIFF this year with the Australian film The Tree. I don’t remember watching any films from Australia earlier, and I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew about Australia was that they play all possible sports, eat kangaroos, and have unintelligible accent. So, it was a cultural education, sort of. The Tree shows the Australian countryside and of the lives lived there. Simone, the 8-year-old girl, who lives with her widowed mother and three brothers in a rambling house beside a giant tree, begins to feel the presence of her dead father in the tree. But, of late, the tree has suddenly started throwing all sort of trouble on their house – roots clogging the house’s drains, big branches falling off and destroying part of the house, unwanted creatures paying a visit (frogs in the commode, dangling scary bats in the bedroom). When it is decided that the tree should be felled to get rid of such troubles, Simone vehemently refuses the idea. Simone suspects that her father is gradually being forgotten by the whole family – her three brothers show no outward grief, and her mother seems to be warming up to a new man in her life. Well, that’s the bare bone plot. The film, though about the loss of a dear one, is not morose. Rather, it’s a delight to watch the children, who succeed in reminding the joy of childhood. The sadness just lingers at a corner, and the beauty of living is what remains at the end of the film. A good start to PIFF 2011.

Eight Times Up (8 fois debout) shows us Elsa, who is divorced, lost custody of her son, doesn’t have a proper job, and gets evicted from her apartment because she cannot pay her rent. In short, she has lost grip of her life and doesn’t know how to fight back. Her next-door neighbor (an unkempt single male who also gets evicted later for the same reason) is an equally pitiable character. They both keep appearing (unsuccessfully) for numerous job interviews, do occasional odd jobs for cash, and try to make ends meet somehow (again rather unsuccessfully). To everyone, they are what you call losers and better be avoided. Nothing is wrong about a film on losers and their hopeless lives. In fact, they can be excellent film material. However, to me, this was just about an average attempt. The strands of desperation were lost on me, not because I couldn’t feel it, but because it grew tedious. Even the attempts of hilarity at their pathetic circumstances looked too drawn-out. “Seven times down, eight times up,” is what one of the characters say. I try to believe it. Except that, by the end of it, I seem to have lost interest in what happens next.

Probably the most-liked film of the second day was Puzzle, which introduces us to the life of Maria, a middle-aged housewife who, to the surprise (and later dismay) of her family, gets more than involved in the game of solving puzzles. The film is beautiful not because how it’s shot, but because how well it’s written. The characters come alive with such subtle movements that we barely notice how they are coming into their own distinct persona. Small gestures (Maria making a fish pattern with salad dressings), fragments of conversations (the husband sweet-talking to a lady in their store to sell something), dresses worn (the carefully chosen dress that Maria chooses to wear on the competition day) – all suggests at things and carry the story in ways that are subtle yet significant. I admired the details. There are probably more things I liked (but unable to pinpoint now), but two things I did have reservations about. One, making Maria sleep with her games partner – which seemed unnecessary – not because I hold a prudish view, but because it seemed highly improbable that a woman of Maria’s intelligence would do it. Maria is portrayed as someone who’s in control of her actions, is measured and calculative about what she does, and is unlikely to get carried into a relationship that she’s obviously not interested in, especially when weighed against her love of her husband and the family. Two, the profusion of close-up shots in the whole film, which to me looked a little too obtrusive and unnecessary. Minor quibbles apart, this is going to remain memorable for reasons I’ll continue to discover.

R is a film I didn’t want to watch (I had to go for it because the film I wanted to watch was removed). So, R turned out to be every bit as expected, and will probably be forgotten very easily. Depiction of graphic violence and shocking visuals in films are dime a dozen these days, and they are unlikely to make a film any better unless the films are written well. R shows the violence – the way factions work, newcomers get inducted, fights fought, lives lived and lost – all within the confines of the prison walls. Barely a plot, lots of blood and gore, nothing memorable. Wouldn’t have regretted if I had skipped it.

Straits of Hunger (Kiga kaikyô) by lesser known Japanese director Tomu Uchida is a film that has a long drawn out plot, which unfolds to give different interpretations to the same story as it moves forward. The film has three distinct segments featuring the lives of a fugitive (who’s running away with a loot), a prostitute (with whom the fugitive spends a night), and a follower (a cop). The on-location shots of the film was very impressive (considering that it was a black-and-white era film) and the twisted story never fails to pique your interest (it never reveals the true sequence of events, and leaves it at your own interpretation). One complain though: the screening was cut short considerably (the original version, we are told, runs a length of 3 hours, but got to see just a little more than 2 hours).

Old age and happiness don’t seem to go well together. People get estranged, love sours, loved ones are lost, and experiences make one bitter. Therefore, it’s so wonderful to see the cinematic representation of a happy middle-aged couple (Tom and Gerry) wade through life with a rare contentment and placid joy even when their friends and families keep struggling with their own troubles and losses. Another Year by British director Mike Leigh is a film that has nothing spectacular. It’s so quotidian (for once, that’s the perfect word) that it contains nothing but a plain vanilla slice of life. And I’m so very impressed and moved by watching it. It evoked a mood that stayed with me well after the credits rolled, I walked out into the noisy crowd, and quietly drove back home. Sure, Tom and Gerry (and their only son Joe) have a rare fulfilling life, but it’s made poignant and more beautiful by the bonds they share with all the people – friends and families, who aren’t as lucky. It’s like by showing the contrast of these lives, we see what it is to experience happiness. It’s not the on-your-face happiness, but happiness of feeling a gentle wind, working on a vegetable patch, reading together, sharing a good meal, and comforting and caring each other, and being thankful. Another Year is just what it’s title says – just another year in the lives of these people. Full of small joys, a little sorrows, and the lives lived in between.

Mamas & Papas attempts to look at the gamut of emotions associated with parenthood. With four disparate situations we see the pain, desperation, hopelessness, and confusion. An affluent middle-aged doctor (she helps childless couples) has to cope with the tragic loss of her own daughter and flees to a foreign holiday for some solace; a young woman who is trying everything to conceive but cannot gets increasingly touchy and ends up driving away her husband to an extra-marital affair; a cash-strapped departmental store clerk, who’s already a mother of two children, is worried about her pregnancy and decides to put the baby out for adoption; and another young couple who cannot decide whether to have a baby drifts apart after an abortion. Four strands, one theme – parenthood; rather, the troubles of parenthood. Liked it okay, but cannot find anything ecstatic to say. Maybe, the pangs of parenthood don’t get conveyed so easily. Or, maybe, I'm overdosed with films that has several stories running in parallel.

The Rowan Waltz (Ryabinoviy Vals) seemed, to me, to have a very interesting storyline – of young Russian girls who were trained and recruited to detect and clear mines that were left in the fields of Russian countryside during the World War II. But, after some time into the film, I realized it to be a cliché-ridden average film. There’s a bit of drama, blooming love, heartbreak, and finally a love triangle. A linear, simple, and old-style storytelling. This will easily get drowned in the sea of week-long movie-goers experience. However, the pretty Russian damsels, absolutely beautiful countryside, and an overall sweetness should win some hearts, as we realized (much to our annoyance) by the shrieks, mutterings, and other such exclamations of our neighbors.

Majority (Çogunluk) is a film that, on the surface, looks like many other films that has touched a similar story – of an affluent aimless spineless young man who is just whiling away his time with his friends, hopping malls and discos, driving expensive cars when bored, and without having a care of the world. Things take a different turn when he gets involved with a young waitress (of an inferior “gypsy” clan) and realizes that his affiliations are more important than his own wishes. To me, what sets the film apart, however, is the excellently chosen cast – the visibly slacker young boy who still carries all the baby fat (I could greatly identify with him), the stern staunch foul-mouthed patriarch who knows how to manipulate, the timid lovelorn young girl who’s head-over-heels in love despite knowing the impossibility of it. The other redeeming feature of the film is that it doesn’t end with a reformed protagonist – it just ends with how the protagonist realizes the futility of resistance; and the film ends with the ominous hint that he’s probably just giving in by joining the ranks of the majority.

Sweet Country, the only film from Michael Cacoyannis retrospective that I saw, is a disturbing film – it shows the horror of political upheaval in Chile in the 70’s through the turn of tragic turn of events on a family who were close to the overthrown government, and of a US family who sets out to help them flee the country. Several strands of stories are interwoven (not often successfully), but the dark and disturbing pent-up pressure (some with the portrayal of graphic sexual violence) can be felt, nonetheless. The statement against military regimes is loud and clear, but cinematically, it doesn’t seem to achieve much great height.

The Poll Diaries traces the story of 13-year-old Oda Schaefer who, after the death of her mother, goes to join her estranged father living in a crumbling seaside mansion in pre-WW1 rural Estonia. It’s a politically charged time and the Estonian anarchists are fighting the Russian military. Oda’s disreputed surgeon father Ebbo, who has the horrid hobby (he calls it experiment) of studying and preserving the body part of the dead (often the unclaimed anarchists), teaches his daughter the science of surgery, which she uses to nurse a wounded anarchist hiding in the estate, and leading to consequences that changes her impressionable mind. The film is based on real life events of the poet Oda Schafer, we are told. The dark tale moves interestingly, the tender vulnerability and affection are well-portrayed, and the film doesn’t waver from what it sets out to tell. Liked it.

Hitler in Hollywood is set as a thriller where Maria de Medeiros (who plays herself) unexpectedly chances upon (while working on a bio-documentary of an European actress of yesteryears) a plot that was hatched years ago by the Hollywood studios to suppress a resurgent European film industry. I couldn’t warm up to the film for two reasons: one, the hand-held camera shooting style (I think I have problems with films shot that way); two, it was too conversational and many a times I was reading too much subtitle to actually enjoy the film. I envy the ones who know enough French to enjoy the film with relative ease.

Italian mafia is a subject that is so very filmy – I mean it can be made, and has already been made, into memorable films. So, it was no surprise that The Sicilian Girl got the biggest audience when it was screened (I had to watch the film sitting on the stairs of the theatre). However, The Sicilian Girl is admirable because the film shows the horror more than the heroics. This a film where there are no good and evil, where the mafia works and kills purely for the purpose of business and power. Based on the real life story of Rita Atria, a girl from a mafia family who comes out in public to testify against the mafia, it’s told with a right balance. The transformation of Rita’s initial vendetta (she initially wanted to punish her family’s killers) into a more acute desire to uproot the evil system, is as good as it gets. Abandoned by friends, family, and her lover, and finally at the cost of her life, we see Rita grapple with the hidden skeletons, some of which were from her own cupboard. A brief appearance by the director (Marco Amenta) in person at the venue, followed by a small talk, made the screening even more interesting.

Sweet Evil (L'enfance du mal) is the story sweet looking Céline who comes into the life of an affluent couple – a judge and his wife – and gradually starts creating a web of evil design. Céline is young, still a teenager, but she’s street-smart, and she has a ruthlessness that belies her age, or look. We soon see that it is revenge that’s on her mind – she is trying to punish the judge for something he had once done with a verdict. And she plans her way through it with such flourish that the judge almost looks like a sitting duck. The film ends, with the judge left dying of a stabbed wound, unattended on the road, and Céline deserting him with a sorry-I-cannot-help-you look.

Zeppelin! is a visually stunning film. Very atmospheric, mostly shot in black-and-white, lots of footage (original archive as well as recreated) of the Hindenburg disaster, and excellent reproduction of the giant flying object that was once nothing short of a miracle for the masses. Director Gordian Maugg takes the zeppelin and weaves a story around it – where all the characters are in some way molded by this giant airship. Inspiring love, loss, fear, and fascination – the airship becomes a character of its own, wielding its invisible hand and shaping the fate of three generations.

Twenty (Bist) is the only Iranian film I saw this time. And it didn’t turn out to be interesting enough to keep me awake all the while. The last time I watched an Iranian film at PIFF (Café Setareh) it turned out to be exceptionally entertaining. Bist revolves around, not a café, but a public reception hall which is well past its prime – it now hosts only a few weddings and funerals. The owner, Soleimani, is a bitter man and has a hidden past that’s started troubling his mind. He decides to sell the property and serves a notice of twenty days to his workers. The hapless workers, grappling with an uncertain future, huddles together in ways the defeated gets together. It all ends happy, though, and thereby also becomes forgettable.

Somewhere, Sofia Coppola’s well-crafted film, is something that is so nuanced it almost fails to get your attention. Of all the people who watched it, the reactions varied extremely. People either like it ecstatically or hate it vehemently (source: a few comments from people around, and IMDB user reviews). Somewhere gives us a glimpse of a Hollywood star, Johnny Marco, who apparently is as clueless about his life as his super luxury sports car (which goes round and round, purring beastly strength, but actually has nowhere to go). We see Johnny going, listless, from one thing to another, but failing to get the stimulus. He’s simply inert to life and he struggles to understand what is failing him in spite of having everything he can desire. A chance vacation with his daughter from a failed marriage makes Johnny momentarily aware of things – of blissful moments of togetherness. The film has excellent moments of lingering shots (they are also the most complained about) which somehow brings in the desired effect. For example, the unusually long shot of pole-dancing girls, which contrary to arousing Marco, puts him to sleep. Or, the almost clinical shot of Marco being applied a full face pack that makes him inert for a few hours – and it makes us wonder what his hyper brain is up to in this moment of complete inactivity. Or, when the father-daughter duo is basking by the pool, letting the time pass by blissfully. We like Somewhere because it remains enigmatic – it’s a quest to reach somewhere without ever knowing where it is. This was my closing PIFF film, and it was worth it.