Sep 2, 2014

Richard Attenborough

Sir Richard Attenborough passed away in Aug 2014. Until my early twenties, I only knew of him as the man who directed 'Gandhi' (I hadn't even seen Jurassic Park.) Then, I happened to read a book about him, which opened up his acting life and shone light on his other films which had been out-dazzled by 'Gandhi'.

In 2002, for my Mastermind India final, I was fast running out of ideas for a topic in the specialised round (there were just 3 weeks between the semi-final and the final, and it would have been premature to think of the final before). I eventually ended up opting for "The Films of Richard Attenborough". It could have been a disaster, considering that these were the days before movies, especially less popular ones, were easily available all around you as is the case today. I was banking on that book from the library and IMDB to get me through.


It didn't happen - I got a call from the producers asking me if I would mind switching to another topic ('The Tommy and Tuppence Stories of Agatha Christie'). I didn't know why that happened, but I had no hesitation in accepting - it was an easier topic to prepare for and I just needed to ensure I had all the books of the series (I had 3 of them already). Incidentally, there is a tiny connection between T&T and Sir RA: his wife of many years Sheila Sim and he had portrayed the detective duo (on stage, I think).

Later, I watched a little more of his work and would have no hesitation recommending the following for your viewing pleasure:
1. 10 Rillington Place - he acts as your uncle next door who is also into serial killing.
2. Chaplin - directed by R.A, features Robert Downey Jr. in a well-acted biopic on the famous Charlie
3. Shatranj Ke Khiladi - as General Outram, the no-nonsense imperialist
4. The Great Escape - leading the secret escape committee in a PoW camp

I have yet to watch Brighton Rock, his big breakthrough performance.

I got somewhat tired of watching the slightly too-positive 'Gandhi' over the years, but it's a tremendous piece of cinematic work - kind of like watching a long, carefully constructed Test match innings by the likes of Dravid or Gavaskar. And like their notable performances, there are a lot of great behind-the-scenes stories of how he went about putting it together.

Now that would make a great movie.

Aug 25, 2014

My Mint Lounge articles and the benefits of an editor

In the past, I've occasionally contributed travel-related articles to some in-flight magazines and wrote some short stories for some publications and contests. This year, thanks to a personal resolution to begin writing with more purpose once again and thanks to the fact that I know the Travel editor for Mint Lounge (Shamanth Rao), I pitched and published two articles for Mint Lounge.

The articles are:

1. about the 'Waadaas' (traditional residences) of Pune

2. about the Computer History Museum in California

Unlike in my earlier submissions, this went through a slightly more intense editing process. Mint Lounge has a very clearly stated set of guidelines on what the article's typical 'voice' should be like: it should read like a personal narrative, not like a travel guide's summary or neither an extremely autobiographical piece. The first version of my first article fell through so many of these guidelines that I think we had to send out a rescue mission and some oxygen. Based on the editor's pointed inputs, I reworked the entire structure almost inside-out. What you see in the article above is largely that structure (and if it works, I can't take much of the credit for it).

The second time, I had a fair idea of what worked, so the process was easier and shorter. This time, most of the follow-up work was spent on fleshing out details: 'it's still not vivid enough', 'describe that object in greater detail', 'who was around and what were they doing' and so on.

Having someone skilled looking at your work really helps: it's a mix of an outside-in view, detachment, the ability to see what works and what doesn't, what can be emphasized and what can be thrown out without remorse, and most importantly, in my case - someone that I, by pitching and researching and writing, had made a personal committment to in terms of seeing this through to the end.

Aug 22, 2014

I was one of the earliest bloggers in India. That was a decade and more ago. About 7-or so years ago, I joined Facebook & then Twitter. The last time I blogged - seriously that is - was in Sept 2013. I made over 300 posts in 2003 and just 9 in 2013 (2014 - has just one before this - that too for some contest).

I think I'm coming back here now. One is that it doesn't get too many hits now, which is good. Plus, I won't be suckered into hankering for likes and RTs (which I anyway don't manage to pull). There is just so much volume (and hence noise) on every other media (social, news, etc.) that I think this is like a slow-food version that I like.

Plus I think I'm ready to write a little more. Let's see - 90% of my projects fizzle out soon, so let's give this another shot.

Jan 3, 2014

A new way to vote - Indian General Elections 2014 with social mobile apps

This entry was written for a contest organised by IndiBlogger and WeChat: here's the contest page

Ok, so everyone (above 18) can vote, and presumably everyone who can vote (at least in urban and semi-urban India) has a phone. Some of them also have smartphones with apps that can do everything from entertain you, to inform you, to keep you in touch with friends (on a second-by-second basis), and even show you pictures of cats doing Aarti with Alok Nath.

So how do you put this massive infrastructure to get people out to vote? For, if past records are any guide, voting in a General Election isn't necessarily always high in priority for people.

Here are some ideas on getting butts to booths:

1. Mobile+Social is a great way to show off your achievements. How about making the casting of a vote as an achievement worth bragging about? And even something that gets publicly commended? Here's one possibility:

- Let's say you go to an election booth to cast your vote. You get 'indelibly' inked on your finger.

- Now, get out, and take a pic of your finger with a mobile app. This sends it to a special a/c (say, a person/group on WeChat) or a twitter a/c or a FB page or an email id.

- Get a personalised autographed pic as a 'thank you' from your favourite film/sports star - people who have signed up to be election ambassadors. (Remember the BCCI-Sachin Tendulkar autographed digital picture). Perhaps even the Chief Election Commissioner or even the President of India!

- Now share that around on your network!

2. Mobile is a great way to get people banded together, to plan for a trip. Use a mobile app to find out when your friends are planning to go visit the polling booth. Or use it to get a lift to the polling booth from someone in your neighbourhood, in case you don't have easy accessibility to the location yourself. Use Mobile for Mobility!


3. Finally, sign up as a volunteer with the mobile app to help (gently) get people in your network out to vote. The app tells you who among your n/w is yet to go out to vote. Give them a call or message them on election day and see how you can get them to go and vote. You can even get a series of avatars in which to make this plea: for example, the Arnab Goswami avatar will help you ask: "the nation demands to know why you haven't yet voted!"

Ok now, go out there, and vote. That's the least you can do for yourself.

Sep 6, 2013

A.R.Rahman - Coke Studio 2013

A.R.Rahman's production for Coke Studio's Season III (which also inaugurated the season) is an almost perfect capsule of his career's work: the accessible innovations, the spiritual reference points, the C-L-A-R-I-T-Y of the sound, the difficult balance between styles, the new faces, the do-I-need-to-tolerate-this rap, the sincere yet often bad diction, and those irresistable, unavoidable goosebumps.

I sometimes think we are fortunate to have film music in India: this allows talented musicians a potentially expansive breadth with the option of breaking rules, traditions, formats, and boundaries. Part of Rahman's success has been the willingness to push beyond existing playbooks, collaborate with a diverse range of creative people, and to use his influence to bring new voices and sounds to the fore. In my limited knowledge, I can only think of Pt. Ravi Shankar and R.D.Burman to have exhibited a similar creative diversity while being hugely successful at pulling it off. What they can also do is guide you, the listener, if you are so willing, to new places, gently and gracefully.

Take "Zariya" - a Tibetan nun, a Jordanian singer, a continuum, a set of talented backing vocalists, Hindi lyrics, Sivamani. Soaked in abstract thought. It took me a while to get used to all of this (individually and together), but it works together. Ineffably so. And that deep, haunting sound in your ears, that is a Rahman trademark.

"Naan Yen", set to the questioning words of the late Vaalee, asks questions and draws from rustic metaphors. This song clearly underlines the value of knowing the language of the lyrics: unlike someone like Vishal, Rahman has been more of a 'onomatopoeic' composer, by which I mean that often, the combination of the song's lyrics and its musical neighbours is because of how they sound together rather than to underscore the semantics of the lyrics (if this was hard for you to parse, it is harder for me to explain). This is more so with non-Tamil lyrics. In "Naan Yen" (and in the other Tamil song), the music is not just a guy-in-the-next-seat to the lyrics, but is in an intimate embrace - each fits in snugly with each other. Add to that, Rahman's much improved singing (with the gamakams), and his sister Rayhanah's opening and backing vocals.

"Naan Yen" is a potential top-10/top-20 contender on that hard-to-break-into list of "The Best of Rahman". That, for me, is saying something.

"Aao Balmaa", a multi-generational classic, has in it so many things to rave about that one needs to properly sit down, focus, and make a good fist of it.

There's Rahman's piano-playing. There's the spectacular 'Guitar' Prasanna, who is an absolute joy to listen to, solo or in jugalbandi mode. There's the bass guitarist, Mohini Dey, who, if you factor in her age (she's a teenager) seems almost unreasonably talented. The family of Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan, three generations of it, completely at home in this left-field take on something they've probably sung a hundred times in a traditional manner. I am completely bowled over the percussion (Sivamani can often be too gimmicky for me, but not here). But what hit me between the eyes was the jazz-like dance between the piano and the guitar.

That's when you realise this isn't mere Hindustani-meets-Carnatic-meets-Western-meets-jazz, but something that you don't take a scalpel to.

In "Ennile Maha Oliyo" (that is one heck of an opening line), Rahman decides to show that his other sister, Issrath, can sing too. It's feels like an abbreviated song (is there more that will be revealed in the album that the siblings are working on?), but powerful in its quietness. The swarams are crystal-clear, the percussion is muted, and the arrangement adds a dimension for which the word 'ethereal' will do nicely to describe. And there's Prasanna.

Suchismita Das - I've never heard a swara-motor-mouth such as her. What a singer! To steal the thunder in a gallery of stars, as she does in "Jagaao Mere Des Ko", is an achievement. Rahman's opening for the Bengali section uses Tagore's lyrics as a prose poem rather than setting it 'properly' to a tune, but when the Hindi lyrics (Prasoon Joshi) kick in, you are ready to forgive his diction because the melody and orchestration soars. The backing ladies, Mohini Dey, Prasanna, Sivamani give the song its wings (do you really need caffeine stimulants when you can listen to this?) and its terminal velocity. For once, just for once, Blaaze's rap is tolerable. Sivamani's kunnakol is somewhat forced on the scene, but the song recovers, takes off. Off the cliff. End of story!

"Soz-e-Salaam", not telecast in the first episode (it will be on the season-ending episode), but available on the Coke Studio website, is a soothing balm from the Mustafas. It ticks off many Rahman boxes: the spare orchestrations, the higher-pitch voices, the interesting sounds. It touches, ever so lightly, on many of his best works, reminiscent of the Bombay theme and his 90s songs of the 90s that so prominently featured woodwinds.

In summary, this tells you what some Indian film musicians, when let loose, can do even if they have the baggage and expectations of two decades of work. And when you hear Rahman ask "Naan Yen Piranden" ("why did I come into this world?"), you know the answer to that.

Also see Karthik's review on Milliblog.

(A note: if you've heard the songs on TV or from the internet via your PC speakers, do yourself a huge favour and listen to them through your head-phones. There's so much happening that you can risk permanent tinnitus if ony to have this ringing in your head.)

Verbal Lice This

Does the modelling agency have a ramp up plan for its new models?
Does a book club meeting end with all its members on the same page?
Did the jail superintendent keep the hangman in the loop?
Did the stunt supervisor send out the action items to his team?
Was Mike Tyson thinking out of the box when he decided to give Holyfield an ear-ful?
Does the HLL distributor have any leverage over company salesmen?
Did that sherpa touch base with the mountaineering expedition?
What was the outcome of the parachutist's blue-sky thinking?
Just how much bandwidth did the fat drummer need?
Just how did the epidemiologist's slide go viral?
Was Dolly the sheep the best-of-breed option?
What is the obstetrician's next major deliverable?
What is the telepath's mind-share of the market?
Wasn't Cain who made the first killer app?
Going forward, get it into the marathon team not the tug-of-war team, ok?

(posted elsewhere, some time ago)