Sunday, March 25, 2012

Book review — Lucknow Boy

Vinod Mehta’s Lucknow Boy, A Memoir, I’m sorry to say, starts quite unexpectedly dull. The first two chapterswere incredibly boring (in fact, I put off reading them for a while) and was quite a task getting past them. 

You would expect Mehta’s professional life, which was nothing short of a roller coaster ride, to be written in an electrifying fashion, but it hardly promises to live up to that. The book, then takes an interesting ride when he takes up the editorship of Debonair (apparently, India’s own Playboy).

How Mehta became the editor of Debonair is another story altogether. Tired of working as a copywriter for an advertising agency (modeling was his other option) and left with no other means of money, (he wrote a book titled Bombay—A Private View, which actually sold more copies than he expected) he wrote a letter to the publisher of Debonair and pleaded with him to give him just six months with the magazine.

The rest as they say is history.

After former Prime Minister Vajpayee’s remark to Mehta about how the former had to hide Debonair under his pillow, Mehta thought it was time to leave; but he wasn’t finished yet.

He would bring out India’s first Sunday paper, Sunday Observer, become the editor of Indian Post at the request of his publisher, resign due to a controversy (a word which always exists in Mehta’s dictionary) and later become the editor for yet another newspaper: Independent (and resign subsequently). In between Independent and Outlook, Mehta worked for yet another newspaper, which the skeptics dismissed at first, but Mehta’s arrival, reversed the fortunes of the paper,Pioneer.

His biggest project, the magnum opus,Outlook,would be the turning point of his life and would pose as the biggest competition for India Today (as Mehta puts it, “India Today stood like the Taj Mahal). 

With Outlook, Mehta looked like he would stay put in one magazine for quite a long time and he did. His career in the magazine spanned 17 long years (he resigned recently and Krishna Prasad has taken over as editor-in-chief).

The book also tracks Mehta locking horns with Arun Shourie, Salman Rushdie, Sharad Pawar, Shobhaa De etc., and his cordial relationships with A. B. Vajpayee, Sonia Gandhi and quite a few others.

The autobiography has two quotes before the introduction, one by George Orwell, and another by W.B. Yeats. The Orwell quotereads, “An autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.” The book agrees on that note: Mehta fathered an illegitimate child, something that he regrets. This, to me, is the single most scandalous fact in the book.

Lucknow Boy reads like a storybook, the flow is smooth, interesting, and honest and one gets a good glimpse into Mehta’s professional life (his personal life, however, does not get much of a mention). Lucknow Boy is one of those books you would want to keep on your bedside table and flip through it to understand journalism in India from 1980 until today.

Friday, March 23, 2012

A letter to Dr Singh

Dear Dr Manmohan Singh,

I have questions for you Dr. Manmohan Singh, and they’re coming thick and fast. But don’t worry; they’re only a meager three—nothing more, nothing less. I promise.

You’re just a bit short of being a wonderful prime minister. Make the ministers (sorry criminals who parade as ministers) accountable for what they’ve done (CWG scam, 2G scam) and I’ll agree you’re marvelous, if not wonderful.

Remember, you were the one who lost face after the scandals that India, not the actually tainted ones.

How can you allow someone like Anna Hazare to take the upper hand? As Ramachandra Guha fittingly writes in the Telegraph (Dec. 2011), “This last failure explains, among other things, the appeal of Anna Hazare, a man whose intellectual vision is as confined as Singh’s is large.” That Anna Hazare who has been compared to Mahatma Gandhi, how can you be so fearful of someone like him or your own government or should I say: Sonia Gandhi?

Agreed you did so well during the Indo-US nuclear deal, you asserted yourself and how! Then again, we might have surrendered ourselves to the US; a deal with the devil must be paid for.

Sometimes I think, and I’m sure many will agree with me on this, that you were a better finance minister than you were a prime minister; “father of financial reforms,” they call you. You welcomed foreign investment in India and opened up Indian economy. Before that you were the chief economic adviser, finance secretary, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and Reserve Bank of India governor, where did all that go?

Agreed you’re the widely traveled Indian prime minister, after Nehru but why is it that you don’t travel more often within India? Yes, the world has its charms, but so does India. It’s important that you establish a rapport with Indians rather than George W. Bush who remarked that “the people of India love you.” Right now, I don’t think that’s the situation.

You’re known for being affable, a man of high integrity, and a decent man in Indian politics but at the same time you’re a social recluse, you keep to yourself and my number one pet peeve: why you don’t talk at all.

At best Sushma Swaraj sums it up for me: “Normally, our prime minister doesn’t talk, but when he does, then no one in his cabinet even listens to him.” It’s a big day for us when you decide to hold a press conference and address journalists.

Fine you have a Twitter account like Barack Obama or David Cameron, but addressing the nation when something big happens and holding criminals accountable and a once-in-a-while-friendly-chat would do. (In case if you didn’t know, there’s a parody of you called Dr Moneymohan Singh and he talks a lot!)

You really know you’re in danger and it’d do the nation good if you could answer my three questions. Rather, it’d do yourself good if you can answer those questions.

Yours sincerely,
A concerned citizen of India

This was one of my op-ed assignments in college

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A platonic, hidden love

Is it possible to love a city, which I once disliked? A city which I preferred for shopping and small visits. A city which wooed me with its variety of restaurants and nightlife (OK, restricted nightlife). I vehemently declared that I'd be back once my course gets over and there were times when I complained that Bangalore wasn't Chennai and that life here was absolutely boring. (Of course, it helps my cause that I've been removed from the city and I reside a good 20 km away from it) 

Now, however, I've slowly started to like Bangalore. I'm suddenly OK with finding work in Bangalore, because let's face: what's life without a change? 

There's something enticing about Bangalore: long walks at Malleswaram, crispy 
dosais at MTR and Kengeri, idli, sambarupittu and coffee at Press Club, buying books wherever I find them, and I find them everywhere! (I end up buying more than I can carry sometimes and I can never have enough books!) street shopping for clothes and shoes, buying magazines and going broke for the rest of the month. 

Hell, I'm enjoying the bus rides from KR Market to my college! You know how KR Market can be with those cows taking up the entire stretch of the road to themselves while they nonchalantly *do their business* - all this whilst chewing cud. 

On the other hand there's the Victoria Hospital with people scurrying about here and there, vendors with their fruit and flower baskets spitting paan on the road (no matter where it lands!), and big buses having no concern for the common man's plight - ready to ram you in a second.

All this makes a city what it is: livable, busy, noisy, full of life. 

Bangalore, you'll never be like Chennai, but I love you all the same.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Hugo: Life in clockwork motion

I suppose the theme of this year’s Academy Awards had something to with Paris (or France). Why would three films—Midnight in Paris, The Artist and Hugo have a  French connection?

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the opening shot. Wonderfully created, it starts with parts of a clock in motion and segues into a scene of Paris at night. The camera then slowly moves into a railway station—Gare Montparnasse—and proceeds quickly like a train that is gathering momentum and focuses on a clock, from which a boy, Hugo Cabret, peers.

Hugo sees an old man, Georges Méliès, at his shop, where he sells and repairs toys. Hugo is an orphan and is effectively in charge of adjusting the time of the clock towers in the station—a job his uncle was supposed to be taking care of. Hugo is searching for something: a hidden message from his father, who died in a fire while he was working at the museum.

Hugo meets up with George’s goddaughter, Isabelle, who is craving for some adventure in her life, and together they have their own escapades.
Hugo’s obsession with an automaton passed onto him by his father leads Isabelle and him to discover Méliès’ secret—which is the turning point of the movie. The second half moves a lot quicker than the first and then the importance shifts to George from Hugo.

This film has delightful characters: Asa Butterfield as Hugo, the lonely orphan who travels through the station by ducts and roofs and pinches food from the station café while finding the missing pieces to the automaton; Ben Kingsley as Méliès, who initially comes across as cantankerous, but has a sorrow hidden inside; Sacha Baron Cohen as the overbearing but funny station inspector who fancies Emily Mortimer, the florist; and Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths, a pair of station workers who find love through their dogs. Jude Law plays Hugo’s dad in a blink-and-miss role, but he does justice to it.

Martin Scorsese has pulled a shocker in this one, that too in 3-D! Completely different from his signature films—Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, which focus on crime and violence—this one is a children’s delight and an adult’s fantasy.

Hugo is adapted from Brian Selznick's novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by John Logan. The film’s background score, by Howard Shore, is haunting and stays with you long after you watch it.

Although Butterfield is the central character, after a point the movie is taken over by Kingsley, which seems partly unfair as this is primarily a children’s movie. Nevertheless Kingsley does what he is supposed to do, as he unconsciously did for Gandhi.

Hugo won five Oscars—for cinematography, art direction, visual effects, sound mixing, and sound editing.

Watch it for Scorsese who has given a gem of a movie, a roller-coaster ride into Hugo’s life, a fulfilling experience, and fall in love with it!

He came, he saw, he conquered—and how!

I’ve never been an enthusiast of nicknames, especially misbegotten ones. I’m happy to say that my idol of 10 years is also not very fond of the sobriquet bestowed on him—The Wall.  “I’m indifferent to it,” he said, and I agree. It sounds like an insult, anyway. While Rahul Sharad Dravid is the strong and silent builder of innings, that does not make him a “wall.” That technically makes him the foundation.

On Friday afternoon, the Indian cricketing fraternity, one of the oldest and the most revered in the world, bid farewell to that strong and silent warrior after 16 years of a glorious cricketing career (tests, ODIs and T20s included). And it was only fitting that I had to be there in person. 

The name Dravid sends people into a tizzy. I remember the many heated arguments with friends, family and complete strangers I have had on how Dravid is not just good in Test cricket, but in all forms of the game. Years later when he made his T20 debut against England, he made me proud by hitting three consecutive sixes off Samit Patel.

Can you think of any other player who would’ve opened the innings, batted at Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 6 and kept wickets at the beck and call of a captain? This adaptability and versatility is what sets Dravid apart—it differentiates him from the routine and the mundane. 

Who said Dravid doesn’t take risks, or plays it safe and by the books? In fact, those who bat in a settled position are those who don’t take risks because Dravid has done it all. Hell, he has even tried his hand at bowling!

Which is the one innings that stands out the most in my mind? Adelaide. 2003. I can still visualize that day in December when I came home from school just to watch Dravid bat. I didn’t eat, didn’t change; I bunked my tuition classes and sat on the chair watching Dravid bat, watching him make those exquisite cover drives with a flick of the wrist and elegant shots in the midwicket before he got out on a splendid 233. I rose with the crowd in Adelaide and applauded. 

Each time I needed a sense of calm and peace, I’d look up his batting videos online and be content. It reassured me and bizarre as it may sound, it was as if Dravid’s batting spoke to me: everything’s going to be all right. 

One of the reasons I wanted to become a writer was so that I could interview Dravid. After reading numerous columns about Dravid, I made up my mind to somehow become a journalist-cum-writer, interview Dravid, get it published and then quit my job. That was enough, that one interview, one meet where I could confess I was his biggest fan. And on Friday, when I was clicking his photograph despite all the professional photographers pushing me away, I stood my ground and clicked away, not caring about the light, the frame or the shot. And when he glanced at me, my heart skipped a beat: I was overjoyed.

Patience, resilience, perfection, an eye for detail, perseverance, dedication, consistency…I could go on, for the words that describe Dravid are endless and no lexicographer could make an exhaustive list. It has been an honor watching him bat, and I wish it could go on, but I’ve heard that all good things must come to an end. So long, Dravid, and for your many admirers across the world like me, you will always serve as an inspiration.
The same was published in my college website