Nov 14, 2012

Children's Day Gulzar Playlist

A little playlist for Children's Day, all courtesy Gulzar-saab and friends:

1. "Masoom" (R.D.Burman)

2. "Kitaab" (R.D.Burman)

3. "Makdee" (Vishal Bhardwaj)

4. "The Blue Umbrella" (Vishal Bhardwaj)

5. "The Jungle Book" (Vishal Bhardwaj)

Nov 2, 2012

Why I'm nuts about Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro re-releases today (Nov 2, 2012), based on a NFDC restored version. So re-posting something I wrote about it a decade ago. There's a lot more I'd liked to have included in this post, but that's for a different day. Meanwhile, do read Jai Arjun Singh's book on the topic - a fine read for anyone interested in the film.

It is the Indian quizzer's ultimate Hindi movie. If you didn't know what a "black comedy" is all about, watch Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. It is comedy with depth and purpose that continues to stand quietly but unforgettably on a pedestal of its own.

A mark of any great film is if one can watch it repeatedly and keep discovering nuances in the story and performances: you can do this with "Jaane...". The reason for this "repeat-vasool" quality is the generously sprinkled collection of in-jokes, graceful lampooning of individuals and institutions, no-holds barred satirical references and an irreverent yet healthy disregard for sacred cows. Indian quizzers have long cut their teeth at movie trivia with "Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron". From classics like What are the screen names of Naseeruddin Shah & Ravi Baswani in the film?" (A: Vinod Chopra & Sudhir Mishra, from the names of director Kundan Shah's friends assisting him in the movie), Which personalities inspired the characters of the scandal-sheet editor Shobha Sen and the cake-eating and apparently gutter-loving Commissioner D'Mello (A: Shobha De and Julio Ribeiro (a joke on his virulent anti-corruption stance) respectively) to the wildly obscure but hilarious self-referential From whom have the photographers taken a loan? (A: a man named Kundan Shah). I can go on and on.

This profusion of trivia doesn't trivialise the film: on the other hand, it underscores the wit and wisdom in the screenplay. If you were so inclined, a viewing of this (may I now start saying "cult"?) movie could provide you with hajaar allegories to ponder over. As a student of film history, you might consider another aspect: an attempt by another fresh batch of graduates of the FTII along with other like-minded friends to make a film according to their sensibilities, also providing a crucible from which their names emerged radiant; any film now beginning with the credits reading Kundan Shah, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Sudhir Mishra, Naseeruddin Shah, Renu Saluja, Binod Pradhan, Satish Kaushik, Pankaj Kapur, Om Puri, Satish Shah, Neena Gupta (and a near miss from Anupam Kher) would be considered pretty top-notch. A sort of schoolboy dream-team, it seems today.

The story is good-meets-evil, innocence-meets-cynicism. Photographers Vinod and Sudhir want to make a living, no one will let them be. Sucked into exposing corruption, they're engulfed with it and only have the body of the man-in-the-middle D'Mello (would it be fair to call Satish Shah's role "deadpan" ?) to show for it. A wonderfully written climax involving a staging of the Mahabharata (fittingly the only Indian epic that embraced realpolitik as a way of life) provides the final nail in the coffin: the common man pays for his optimism again. Kundan Shah excelled at the genre of tragicomedy: his subsequent successes on television revealed his flair for understanding what life in the middle of the sandwich was all about, and why Satya does not always lead to Jayam.

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron was a singular spark, in retrospect. Its makers had varied kinds of success, some succumbing to the other lunacies of commercial art while some were caught on the fence. Why "Jaane..." works for me is because it is always consistent to its levels of illogic. The phone scene with Albert Pinto (another delightful self-reference with Naseeruddin Shah), the cake-throwing sequence, the round-figure bribes, Om Puri (taking off on his father's Punjabi accent) towing the coffin-on-wheels and the incredible sight of a de-moustached Satish Shah in a sari swaying around on stage are just a small sample of one of the most creative efforts ever on Indian cinema. Also commendable are the slices from reality, with the reference to the collapse of the Byculla Bridge and A.R.Antulay's troubles. Sure, this NFDC-financed effort trips only in the production values, but won its dues from the critics, picking up National Awards. But I cannot help feel a tinge of pathos for the fact that hardly anyone in Indian cinema dared follow this trendsetter, including the makers themselves. But humming the anthem of Hum Honge Kaamyaab Ek Din, in the spirit of it all, if I may say so : Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron.

Oct 26, 2012

Jaspal Bhatti, comic revolutionary

It is perhaps a left-handed tribute to the enduring nature of the "Indian system" that even today, the day after Jaspal Bhatti passed away in a road accident, a child watching his immensely intelligent satire "Flop Show" would instantly recognise how similar its India remains to that of 1989, when the show first began. Sure, you can now get a working telephone connection without resorting to shamans, but even today "do-shabd-vaale" chief guests arrive late, people produce fake medical bills, property sharks have only become more bloodthirsty, buildings fall at the drop of a feather, and as for TV serials, well, the tragedy is we still don't know if they were intended to be comedies.

We of the eighties, the Doordarshan Generation, often talk of how good television was during the times of DD. While garden-variety nostalgia is probably to blame for most of it, when it comes to comedy, we do have a strong case. And leading the charge, your honour, would be "Flop Show". Bhatti's creation was preceded by "Ulta Pulta", five-odd minute pieces in DD's morning show that I would often catch while getting ready for school. I can't remember a single one of them now, but I do remember an awakening to the idea of satire, of which, sadly, mainstream TV and films in India have produced very little. Even "Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro" was a fortuitous coming together of youthful insouciance ending in noir and comedy, but "Flop Show", a worthy expansion of the promise of "Ulta Pulta", was a planned and sunny "oye chal yaar" saunter through middle class angst. Underlined by the weekly pastiche of Hindi film songs that was a high point in TV creativity. If you consider that DD, that same media org that often filled entire 20-minute news bulletins with speeches of Rajiv Gandhi wanting to make bananas, has greenlit satire of the highest order that pulled down the pants of most things smug, you do have to give its officers credit.

Of course, "Flop Show" never took potshots at real people or pointed fingers at the highest of places. Nor did Bhatti really touch the high notes of national popular attention again. But he did pursue his talent, through films and notably surfacing during elections to make merry at the expense of politicians. But this part of India had changed: now humour was an excuse to get offended and buy free outrage-time, or just make Archana Puran Singh guffaw - a task achieved even when she watches paint dry. Whatever little had been achieved during the few years of comic liberation had been ceded to buffoonery of the Cyrus Broacha variety, to plagiarised stand-up of the Shekhar Suman style, or to a laughter track stuck in an infinite loop. Note milord, "Flop Show" never needed a laughter track.

You can draw neat parallels in this demise of purposeful and intelligent satire with the withering away of R.K. Laxman, or indeed even in Bhatti's own career. A few months ago, I noticed that he was on Twitter (where a semblance of satire - or at least attempted satire - has gone to live) and still had the occasional touch. Evidence:

"A chair thrown at Nitish Kumar...what else a politician wants?"

"#HappyBdayNamo ..Astrologers say nxt PM again will be bearded.Modi,Nitish,MMS already have.Rahul G's beard will grow with d worries"

People have started using diesel & petrol as body perfume to show off.

Sachin Tendulkar bowled thrice in a row...Members of parliament are not performing much anywhere

One of "Flop Show"'s best episodes was its last one, where it memorably poked fun at itself. Bhatti often did that to himself, and earned a lot of appreciation in the process. One can only attribute his untimely demise to a tendency, also followed by his old comrade Vivek Shauq (who passed away last year), of keeping a meeting appointment too early. Hopefully the gods, who will undoubtedly be the butt of a few jokes now, did him the honour of greeting him, despite this inconvenience.

In his creations, Jaspal Bhatti would be credited with "Misdirection". This was a fitting description, given that the people he poked fun of think of themselves as providing "direction" to society. It was and is an "Ulta Pulta" world, and very few Indians threw a spotlight on it like Jaspal Bhatti.

Sep 13, 2012

Yeh anda ki baat hai

I presume at some point in history, boiling an egg was an art - a minor, teensy-weensy one, but art nevertheless. Some people, the talented ones, intuitively knew exactly how long to keep it on the fire. The less talented ones had hit-and-miss days - you never knew what they would produce. The Gorans and Marats among the egg-boilers would produce a beautiful, soft yet firm, egg one day and on others, just hurl the egg at the referee and walk out. (At which point, the turbaned commentator would say: "you can't make omelettes without breaking any eggs".)

But today, in the time of timers and gas controls, egg boiling is science. Follow an algorithm, turn the heat on some H20 for 3/6/9 minutes, and almost everyone can be a yolk-star. I expect the problem went from art to science not in a series of DARPA-funded experiments that varied time, heat, and water, resulting in many post-doctoral positions, but via the obscure processes through which cultural wisdom develops over the ages.

Three cheers for cultural wisdom - which gave us much of what we love to eat (in the pre-molecular gastronomy days).

ok, this month, I actually, really, effectively learnt how to boil an egg with consistent results. Call it my Anda Andy Murray moment.

Sep 12, 2012

The Infinite Zounds 2012 Survey

My quiz blog is close to completing two years - to find out more about what readers think of the content on the blog, I am running a survey. If you are a reader (however regular or infrequent), do take the survey:

Link to the survey

Jul 29, 2012

The search for 'sur'

In Stephen Alter's "Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief", the musician-writer-director Vishal Bhardwaj speaks of the process of writing a story and compares it to finding the right "sur". It's an interesting comparison, for even the average musically-aware person will relate to the idea of "sur lagnaa" i.e. the consonance of notes and pitch, when things click and a sense of place, time, and cosmic order sets in. When it doesn't, the dissonance is laid out uncomfortably bare.

You could apply the metaphor to anything in life, not just all things creative but everything of importance. The search for "flow", for order, for a stable orbit: find the "sur" and the tunes of life seem to sound sweet.

Jul 6, 2012

An algorithm to plan your retirement

What you will need: a pencil, some paper, your brain (or a calculator), access to your bookshelves, your DVD collection (read: your hard drives), your music collection.

  1. Make a list of all the books you own. Find out your reading speed, i.e. no. of mins per page. Roughly estimate the amount of time it will take you to read all the books you want to read. (A).
  2. Do the same with your DVDs and movies i.e. estimate how much time it'll take you to watch/listen to these. (B)
  3. Add about 25% to each of these counts, to account for newer books and movies of the future. (A', B')
  4. Assuming an average life expectancy of 75 years, calculate how much time you've got left taking up valuable planetary space. (C)
  5. Estimate the fraction of the day you can spend in a day reading+watching+listening. (D)
  6. if (C*D <= (A'+B')), it's time to retire.

Maybe you don't read, maybe you like to travel, to act, to paint, to bungee jump. But the general principle holds. Otherwise, you'll find you have run out of time.

You really want to find that out? Hopefully, you'll have high senility by then.

Jun 21, 2012

CuriosITi - the Tender Leaves quiz raising funds for "Teach For India"

Can write code? Can read requirements? Can calculate your per diem? Then you surely know the 3 Rs. But many kids in our country cannot, and that's what Teach For India aims to change. It's not easy, but someone's got to do it, right?

Pune's most creative book rental Tender Leaves is organizing a corporate quiz for IT companies in Pune. One aim is to raise funds for TFI. Another is to gather the likes of us IT-types, who've been fortunate enough to take for granted our access to books, movies, education, and jobs. Not to feel guilty about these, but to help give back a little. Or rather, to pay it forward.

And an important third: to have some fun, quizzing-wise.

This isn't a quiz only for the pro-quizzer, but for all those knowledgeably-inclined. While this time, participation is exclusively for people working in IT/ITES companies, we invite you (student or professional or the happily unemployed) to watch and participate as part of the audience.

We'll see you at the quiz. And do share this with your friends and colleagues from Pune.

To learn more about the quiz and register, go to this link.

May 25, 2012

The Brain-fever bird

It's 3 am. It's frightfully warm inside; the doors and windows are shut to keep the mosquitoes outside. You can almost hear them knock. It is cool outside, they're bar-hopping, and would love some house-warmth and a pint of warm blood. Finally, the heat gets to all of us, the baby most of all, and I open the balcony door to let in the assassins and the cool breeze.

Soon, the baby gives her discontent a rest, allowing the night sounds to be heard. I hear it: it's a three-note phrase. Where have I heard it before? In a quiz. Didn't I ask a question on this?. Ah, how appropriate: it's the brain-fever bird.

The bird is so termed because of its distinctive call - listen to it and you can be easily persuaded into believing it's chanting brain fever", "brain fever", "brain fever". Aptly, for one with such a febrile name, the chant becomes more and more urgent, rushed, and high-pitched.

"Brain-fever Bird" is much more evocative than "Common Hawk Cuckoo", you will agree. It's also very easy to notice, once you've heard the call. You can prepare yourself by listening to this:

Yes, Vani Jayaram was not this monotonous in "Guddi":

They say that you can't find birds in cities anymore, but we've seen a lot of birds around us. With the help of a good book (like this one), some binoculars, and by the simple expedient of keeping your eyes and ears open, you'll be surprised what you can spot in the nearby tree (that's assuming, you have one handy).

May 21, 2012

And there were ten

This blog recently completed ten years. In 2002, inspired by George and feeling the need to stake claim to a little street corner on the information superhighway to persist my writing, my brain-dumps, my 'musings' (the word-of-the-year in the early days of blogging), I began this blog. We must have been one of the earliest Indian blogs; soon, more and more people joined in, and the resultant detritus can still be seen in the world wide web.

A quick glance at my posting frequency over the years shows an alarming decrease since 2008. Unlike many, I wouldn't blame it on the lack of time or interest, but on having moved into what in hindsight was an ultra-heavy reading phase. I had nothing to say, I was just hoovering up data, information, insights from books, essays, and yes, blogs. Then Twitter became the default home for the one-line throwaway. I look back and marvel at the relative longevity, the linkability, and the survivability of blog posts.

Blogging and I, we took each other places. I took part in a book blog, a story writing blog, a blog on the Pune Times of India, my IIT-B 'core dump' blog, and a blog on Vishal Bhardwaj. Closest to heart are my quizzing blogs: a unusual quizzing-tragic-blog that became a key marker of the BCQC's online presence, and my daily topical questions blog, Infinite Zounds.

And this one, of course: using which I experimented upon millions thousandshundreds tens of readers. During moments when I wonder what I can do, I can always go back to the blog and say: I can do that.

Anniversaries such as these are a great excuse to indulge in some miniscule personal vanity. So the next few posts on this blog will be a collection of some of my favourite posts. We're so old, we need to be recycled.

Apr 26, 2012

(story) Release

They came out like bats, screaming, steaming, streaming. Happy to be free, knowing they were lucky to see daylight. They collided with each other, momentarily scrabbling the air into an alphabet soup filled with the likes of 'aard-supercali-noccinihili-expialidocious' and 'flocci-fragilisti-pilification-zwang'.

"And those were my last words", said the sad lexicographer before the hangman tightened his noose.

Apr 23, 2012

(story) While I was away

Once the epiphany sank in, he rushed out of his Himalayan cave to inform his fellow-men. World Peace! Poverty Elimination! Green Fuel! He had the answers. Were those years of excruciating meditation worth it? You bet. All eighty three of them.

In contrast, it took him just a week to figure out all of Earth had relocated to Europa thirty years ago.

Apr 17, 2012

The definitive wife

I often see a lot of fellas, usually the young, articulate, can-write-well types, use the phrase "the wife" in personal narratives. An example:
Today, the wife and I exchanged glances that would make Emraan Hashmi feel chaste.
Ok, it wasn't a real example (no one can make the #me feel that way). But you get the point.

So when did references to the prettier spouse take on the definite article? What kind of egotistical world does everyone live in, where a reference to "the wife" can be made without any fear of misunderstanding?

I might understand if the Pandavas said "the wife" at home. "The wife is pleating the sari that Krishna gave her - will take some time", said Nakula to Yudhisthira.

Are people shy of using "my wife"? Has it somehow become politically incorrect to do so; does it imply objectification of the lady, a degree of unhealthy possessiveness? Or I am just the confused by-product of a post-modernist-feminist Captain-Subtextual polysyllabic era?

Perhaps I should just ask a wife.

Of course, the wives of these gents seldom use the phrase "the husband". They use that execrable word "hubby" instead.

Mar 19, 2012

2 TED videos, on Storytelling and about Introverts

I recently saw two interesting TED Talks.

The first was by Andrew Stanton (director of such films as WALL-E) speaking about his guidelines for storytelling. The opening joke is superbly told. He spoils the rest a tad by glancing at the monitor for help once too often.

The other is by Phoebe Buffay Susan Cain, speaking about how society needs to make itself more comfortable for introverts. As an introvert, I agree, but not with all the reasons. There have been a few articles about introverts (especially the one by Jonathan Rauch linked to in this post) over the years which have already nailed the topic. The talk becomes too sentimental for my liking.

Mar 18, 2012

Visualising Tendulkar's 100 different hundreds

Yes, I know it's an artificial cohabitation of two distinct set of numbers, but that provided an interesting dataset to try some hobby-visualising on. The idea for this 10x10 layout came from a similar graphic in yesterday's Indian Express. This was literally & conceptually devoid of any colour, reducing the communication to one lump of 100. I wanted to see the wins & losses, the calendar streaks, the Tests vs the ODIs.

This is what I came up with (click on the picture to see a bigger version). I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions about Tendulkar's career and India's cricketing history of the last two decades viewed purely through his hundreds. Of course, not every nuance can be captured in such a visual, but hopefully, it should give some cricket followers something to chew on.

I enjoy trying to visualize data. Here's an attempt to make a visual resume - slightly outdated.

Feb 2, 2012

Manneys of Pune - Beating the Retreat

As many Pune readers would know by now, the iconic Pune bookstore "Manneys" is closing down soon (in March 2012). "Manneys" has been an old Pune favourite, partly because of its vintage (about 50 years old) and partly for being one of those bookstores that is tagged as having "rare/arbit/you won't find it at Crossword" books i.e. a snob value that the more discerning book-reader can flaunt. According to Mr. Manik Mani, the owner, he is not shutting the place down because the Joe Foxes have run him out of business, but because it took up valuable time that he'd now rather devote to his family and other pursuits.

I personally had an ambivalent relationship with it. My commercial engagement with books revolves around discovery, (physical) accessibility, and affordability. Both the first and the last have decisively shifted online. I also made heavy use of the 2-3 libraries I subscribed to, and thanks to Landmark's sponsorship of quizzes, I usually had coupons to the store right across the road. Also Manneys was shut on Sundays, the price of being run by an individual who also prized life-outside-work.

The term "old-fashioned" to describe stores like Manneys emits a whiff of both nostalgia and a certain exasperation. The latter because customer service can be limited, extended browsing is difficult, and there were no discounts to grease the palm. However, as alluded to before, Manneys was one of the few places in the city where you could find an interesting book, on History or the Sciences or Philosophy. In fact, that should read as "stumble upon", thanks to the higgledy-piggledy disarray on the racks. But you could find an entire shelf or two of Tagore's works, or books about plays, or about linguistics. Sometimes you found them when they fell out as you put back a book on the other side.

Given this emotional ambivalence and the fact that I've long since deserted the store, I can't be too sentimental at Manneys' departure. However, it had an undeniable 'heritage' value, for as expressed in this post about the changing landscape of Pune's landmarks (where, ironically, I evoke it), Manneys and its ilk were outposts in the otherwise bland 'sameification' of mall culture that has cloaked cities like Pune. I was planning to write up a post about book stores in Pune, and Manneys would have been among the first to be included. There will undoubtedly be a gaping hole in that list.

So I went to Manneys last Saturday for the last time (at least for now) and scooped up a bunch of books. I also noticed the immense goodwill that the store has obviously generated among its many customers, most of whom told Mr. Manik how much they would miss the store. I could not resist joining them to wish him a happy post-Manneys life.

Manneys has a discount sale until the 4th of February, Saturday (unless this has been extended). They still have lots of great books. In Dhammo-style, here are some of the ones I picked up:

  1. The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish : Neil Gaiman
  2. Two "William" books : Richmal Crompton
  3. The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot : Robert Arthur (Three Investigators series)
  4. Pale Fire : Vladimir Nabokov
  5. Southern Mail/Night Flight : Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  6. Dog Detective Ranjha : Partap Sharma (who recently passed away)
  7. The Story of Philosophy : Will Durant

George's post on a "defining bookstore of his life".

Some press articles about the store and its closure:

  1. The Economic Times
  2. DNA: local reaction
  3. Indian Express on when William Golding visited it

Jan 25, 2012

Dead Right, Pune

This was saved in my drafts for over two months. I desisted from publishing it because I didn't know if this was a harsh over-reaction to everyday life in Pune. But today, after hearing this incident, I felt compelled to put it out. Yes, this was a unique case, one 'madman' causing damage at such a scale. But what we face each day is, IMO, just the same only at a smaller scale. Caused by us 'sane' people.

What would you say if I told you I was facing death threats? ("Lucky you" isn't the right answer.) That some persons outside, entirely unknown to me, represent a grave mortal danger to my well-being? Each day? And these numbered not in the ones or the tens, but in the hundreds?

I am not joking.

That's just how it is to go out on the streets these days. I don't think it's an exaggeration. I don't see a difference between sending these people into the city with a bunch of loaded guns with their safety catches off. Though, people with gun licenses are infinitely more responsible than with driving licences.

There are people who are blissfully unaware of most rules of traffic (don't insult the jungle by making a comparison - at least the jungle's rules are followed). There are people who will miss a turn, then reverse half a kilometer to avoid taking the next gap in the divider ahead. There are people who think flashing their lights at vehicles and passers-by automatically empties the road. There are people who will force you into a mistake by honking repeatedly. There are small people in big, ugly vehicles who think driving in a big box enables them to muscle another person off the planet. There are people who will ruin your day for you, for free.

These are people who can maim you. Or kill you. Or someone close to you.

There's nothing very funny about "that's the way we drive". You might not like it if I, like some Middle Eastern despot, shot off rounds randomly at you and said "that's the way we shoot here".

It's sickening to see anyone on foot, especially the elderly, having to scamper for their lives, each time they step out. Insensitively, I guess the problem is that somehow not enough people die in front of us. That the answer lies in mashing up Stalin's quote: one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. We need a million personal tragedies.

You may think it's more terrifying to live in Karachi, or Kandahar, or Karbala, where bombs go off each day, where people don't know if they'll make it through the next 24 hours. You might not think of it in these terms, but people who venture out each day don't know which idiot might run into them. A conscious culture of casual and opportunistic lawlessness prevails, where each one nudges the other to skip that signal, break that no-entry, burst through the wrong lane, and see these as the de facto rules. I bet more people die of road accidents in a year than in terrorist attacks. (Anyway, eventually, we don't do much about either.)

You might not have noticed, but it can be terrifying to go out there.

To tell you the truth, when I see people breaking the rules and putting others in danger, I wish something nasty happens to them during that very act. And only to them. I see them as a menace to society (even if society is busy being a menace to itself) and the only way to make the roads safer is to get them out off the way.

This is dangerous thinking. But sometimes, it's me or them.

I'm convinced that the only way to look at this is in black and white. To hammer in the bare-faced social and personal costs of bad driving. Realise this: we are an army of assassins-at-large.

And we'll get you eventually.