Monday, August 23, 2010

Bourdain about town

From the backwaters in Kerala.
Image from Wikipedia
Strangely enough, I watched Anthony Bourdain in Kerala last night. Strange for two reasons- one that I was ranting only recently that he had failed to make it even once to one of the great food destinations of the world, and two, that it just happens to be Onam.

So we have Tony going around in Cochin and the backwaters, snoozing predictably on a houseboat, sweating delightledly over mussels and fried fish. I did think that he didn't provide an adequate enough analysis of the many nuances of Mallu food, for instance, he didn't distinguish between say, Mopla cuisine and Syrian Christian cooking, and so on. To the causal viewer it would come across as routinely spicy and heavy on seafood, which of course it is, but. Still, he did mention how brightly-flavored and nuanced the vegetarian dishes were, so that's something. (There was no pork.)

He apparently spent a lot of time with superstar Mammooty. And he mangled the words "Malayalam" and "sadya." But he clearly had a jolly good time, and the episode was well-paced; in  fact, it was a surprise when it ended.

So Happy Onam, Tony. Thank you for saying you found the toddy foul-tasting, and for looking good wearing a silk kurta in the Kerala heat.
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Saturday, August 21, 2010

See you

Horrors! The Lake of Serenity hides terrors of hideous proportions! In other words, J's dad informs us that an alligator was found in this limpid lake, at which we stared for many blissful hours each morning over cups of coffee. What's worse, a water mocassin created a ruckus in the swimming pool, at which pool too we spent many hours each day. And then (to use a hopelessly inappropriate phrase), as the icing on the cake- another snake in the actual house! What is it with this sudden infestation of reptiles? Can there be no peace on earth? All I can say is that I am glad all these alarming visitations didn't occur while I was in those parts. My heart is too faint for all this.
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Monday, August 16, 2010

Watched: Peepli [Live]

What struck me about Peepli (Live) was two of its female characters: one, the wife of one of the farmers at the heart of the story, and the other, a newscaster from one of the leading national TV networks.

To start with, the farmer’s wife: in all but one of the scenes that she is on screen, she is incandescent with rage. At one point, she even beats her husband and his brother with her shoes, carried away by her fury at their losing the ancestral land to the bank for non-payment of loans. And this is where the story starts: her husband, Nattha, and his brother Budhia, discuss the possibility of getting a compensation of Rs. 1 lakh from the government in the event of one of them committing suicide. (How the older brother gets the younger to be the one to ‘sacrifice’ his life is one of the masterful scenes in the film.) Somehow, the newspapers and then the TV networks get wind of this scheme, and an entire media contingent descends on Peepli village to cover the story of the ‘live’ suicide by a desperate farmer.

What follows is the usual political flim-flam by various parties and leaders at the state and national level. At some point, the focus shifts away from the very desperation that has driven the farmer to even think of suicide, and moves to the cut-throat race by the media to ‘cover’ the story from all possible angles, quite literally. The usual ‘aapko kaisa lag raha hai’ type questions and shrieking headlines abound. This brings me to the other woman I was talking about- the sharp-edged, clickety-clack newscaster, Nandita Malik, who rushes to Peepli as part of the madness.

I was quite pleased at the way there were no apologies for the way she and the farmer’s wife are portrayed. For once, a note of authenticity- the one quality I find lacking in the vast majority of Hindi films. In fact, the whole film has been handled with a genuine flair for the authentic. The sorry state of Indian farmers is no laughing matter, yet the director (Anusha Rizvi) does elicit laughs. This laughter is directed solely at ourselves, of course, but left me wondering what one could do about the very real plight of our farmers besides pay money to watch a film about it. I suppose raising general awareness would be a start.

Naseeruddin Shah and Raghubir Yadav are the only two actors I actually knew in the movie; a wealth of talent is exposed in the others who form the rest of the cast. The farmers’ bedridden mother who does nothing but hurl invective at her daughter-in-law, the rural reporter Rakesh who admires Nandita, the civil servants who are masters at the art of nothing-speak, the ministers, and of course, the two farmers themselves- all are well-written characters who strike a chord. Particularly hilarious are the Hindi news channel sharks. All in all, I am grateful for this type of cinema which makes a point whilst shunning preaching, pandering and piffle. (The only quibble would be the forced “Interval”: why does a two-hour film devoid of songs and dances need a two-minute break?)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Grey skies and green shoes

Just back from the Dastakar crafts show at Palace Grounds. In keeping with my general motto today was, of course, the last day of the show. Still, the sister and I had grand fun strolling around all the 100+ stalls, buying this and that, and eating chilli bhajjis. Then we came home and had tea and more snacks, so yes, an ideal Sunday.
To come to the actual thought that I was having while there, it was good to see this profusion of Indian arts and crafts on Independence Day. There were luminous silks from Chattisgarh, intricately worked Kantha from Bengal, adorable pottery from Uttar Pradesh, and mood-lifting floral fabrics from all over. The sheer diversity of Indian crafts and the incredible workmanship is certainly something to be witnessed- a melange of heritage, labor and pride. The display of colorful pottery laid out in the middle of the grounds was attracting a good number of shutterbugs with fancy cameras- I felt sad that I hadn't carried even my little point-and-shoot.

I came home a rather happy Indian, with handmade soaps smelling of mint and coffee, two sunny, painted ceramic jars, and some of that mood-lifting floral fabric. The soap is individually wrapped in thick brown paper, lableled, and sold by a charming elderly lady with impeccable language and a sweet manner. I always delight in things that are well-made with a lot of thought put into them, are simple, and SMELL GOOD on top of everything else. Sundaram Soaps is the brand, and I have a feeling my Creamy Mint soap is going to be a superior product.
And -ta da, green shoes! I think this is a first for me. I hope when I wear these that the aura I give off is 'pride in Indian workmanship' and not 'failed elf.'
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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Hopeful Readings

The Read n Fail scourge continues, unabated. The latest to fall by the wayside is John Fante's Road to Los Angeles. Although it had some thoroughly funny pieces of dialog, the rambling, or rather, the ramblings of an American teenaged boy simply didn't hold up my interest.
So to keep alive my faith in my own choice of book, I plunged into something drastically different- namely, Charlie Wilson's War. I figured it might as well be non-fiction if it's about something interesting like foreign affairs. Neither have I seen the movie, so I have high hopes here.
Then, Saul Bellow's Herzog. The opening line certainly drew me in, so again, high hopes. And finally, Somerset Maughm's The Razor's Edge.  In this case, I have seen the (brilliant) movie version starring a young Bill Murray, therfore, more high hopes. Sigh. Don't let me down, Saul and Somerset.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Not so blue after all

I originally wanted to collect blue glassware. I don't know when I decided that blue glass was too hard to find (especially since my devious hints to J's mother to give up some of her pieces to me did not work), but suddenly I find that one of the shelves in the kitchen has turned into a collection of-- well, bottles, they're just not blue.
I like finding the beauty in ordinary things.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Gran Torino - Jamie Cullum

This song is great. Makes me want to see the movie again and invite Clint Eastwood to dinner one evening.
I am sure he will bring wine, despite being such a curmudgeon in the movie. Ha.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Watched: Gran Torino

Clint Eastwood stars in this self-directed movie, as the owner of the car which all the fuss is about. He is Walt Kowalski, a grizzly old widower and war-veteran whose whole identity seems shaped by his war experiences. Living alone with his sweet Labrador, Daisy, he spends his time tinkering around the house with his impressive tool kits and snarling at his neighbors.

Slowly, though, he starts becoming involved with the lives of his young neighbors, Tao and Sue, who happen to be from the Hmong community. The boy, Tao, tries to steal Walt’s prized Gran Torino one night- Walt thwarts the attempt in characteristic tough-guy style. Then the boy is forced by his family to apologize to Walt and to offer free labor around the house as a way to make restitution. Walt grudgingly accepts, and then develops a prickly, yet sweet and supportive role in the diffident young Tao’s life. He becomes Tao’s protector from the Hmong gang who try to indoctrinate Tao into their fold. Side by side, Walt becomes friendly with Tao’s sprightly sister, Sue, who makes fun of Walt and does things like call him ‘Wally’ ('don’t call me Wally,’ he growls) and drag him to her family barbecue.

But then things turn ugly and violent with the repeated intimidation of Tao by the Hmong gang. Walt’s role as the protector and avenger is the meat of the story and the crux of the ending. The car itself, the majestic Gran Torino, which features richly in the ending, is mainly a symbol. Of what, I wasn’t terribly clear. Old-time values like honor and integrity, which Walt lives by? The spirit of Americana in an increasingly multi-cultured land? The value of workmanship (given that it is a US-made car and this story is set in Michigan) and pride in one’s own abilities? I suppose it was a combination of all this.

Eastwood’s directorial touch is evident in his spare handling of themes like identity and power- the movie is devoid of nonsensical melodrama but that is precisely the hook of the more emotional scenes. Street thuggery, adolescent posturing and esteem issues, cultural mores, and finally, criminal violence- they are all there in their unvarnished reality. There is also a sort of remarkable good-natured grumpiness in Walt’s character even as he hurls epithets like ‘zipper head’ and, in one memorable instance, ‘eggroll’ at his Hmong neighbors. His poor health and lonely heart are painfully evident, even as he goes through life with genuine toughness and toil.

And this is where I rather admire the dude- his screen self, Walt, but also Eastwood himself. He is what, eighty? I wonder if I will even bother getting out of my pajamas at that age. And here he is, grandly producing finely-rendered stories that go on to win accolades and stick in people’s heads. (Note to self- Must watch Million Dollar Baby). Finally, I must mention the beautiful song, Gran Torino, which is performed during the end-credits by one Jamie Cullum. Lacking any embellishment, but full of soul- just like the movie.

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Saturday, August 07, 2010

Caetano Veloso - Sozinho (Ao Vivo)

The man's music is so effortless. Picks up his guitar and sings as though it's NO BIG DEAL. Well, Mr. Veloso, it IS a very big deal. Especially for those of us who can NEITHER sing a note NOR produce a single chord on a guitar. SNIFF.

Friday, August 06, 2010

The Happy Hound

Our street, brilliant for its dogs, has produced one of the stars of J's and my life: a skinny, gingery, always-happy, waggy, smart, endearing creature with the most arresting pair of eyes we've ever seen- presenting--- drumroll----EYES!

Yes. The name might have been more clever, but look at him! He is sure to lift my mood (and my heart) when I walk home from work, bone-tired and blank. Suddenly, a snuffling sound, the patter of tiny paws, and I am greeted like the last friend in a cold and lonely world. Heart. Melt.

Here he is enjoying, with his customary gusto, a treat provided by J. This was down near our street; nowadays, he has taken to climbing all the way up and lying in wait for us right outside our door.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Watched: El Orfanato (The Orphanage)

This is one of those movies that somehow you wish you hadn’t watched. Er…not to say that the movie is bad; rather, it’s so good, but the subject is so disturbing, that it tends to jangle you a little bit.

So- this is the story of Laura who adopts a marvelous, angelic little boy called Simon. She and her husband Carlos, and Simon live in a cavernous, hulking mansion that used to house an orphanage before. (Also, Laura had been adopted from this same orphanage years ago.) Soon after moving in with them, Simon begins to play with some imaginary friends, and this is where the proceedings turn distinctly creepy. Then Simon disappears, and Laura is convinced that one of the creepy imaginary friends has made off with him. The rest of the movie follows Laura on her obsessive hunt for her missing son- they seek help from a medium, who gives them clues, but the husband refuses to believe them. (The whole seance, as it were, is one of the more wrenching scenes I've ever seen in a movie.)

Saying anything more would be giving away the plot entirely. Suffice it to say that the ending broke my heart. The dark, gray, brooding mood, Laura’s agony, and the entirely irresistible child she loses, all contributed to my realization that…er…maybe I shouldn’t be watching at all. That said, the actress Belen Rueda as Laura is amazing. And the director is quite brilliant in his subtlety, a great blessing because this could have been just a poorly executed, cheap-looking ‘horror’ flick- but thanks to his marvelous touch, such as the role of the lighthouse at the end, the movie is so much more than meets the eye. As the medium says to Laura, “seeing is not believing; it is the other way around.”
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Monday, August 02, 2010

Read n Fail

In recent times there've been a few books that I began reading with great fanfare- usually provided by my good friend, J- both the books and the fanfare. But when I began reading, what happened? They just fell flat.
Sometimes the author disappointed after a great previous read- Peter Mathiessen, after his stupendous At Play in the Fields of the Lord, drove me to distraction by meandering along in Shadow Country.
Henry Miller and his Tropic of Cancer- well, who wants to read the diary of a cranky, lewd old man? Same with Bukowski and his Women.
Dave Eggers' Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius tried too hard. And now his You Shall Know Our Velocity- hmm, intriguing, but will I really be able to finish it? We'll see.
All this reading and stopping has led me to name this phenomenon Read and Fail. But in the  memory of a jolly joint called Eat N' Joy that I used to frequent in my youth, I will call it the Read N Fail.
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