27 June 2011

Cinemascope: Double Dhamaal; Cycle Kick

My Sunday Guardian film reviews this week:

Actors made bad jokes sound bearable

Director: Indra Kumar
Starring: Sanjay Dutt, Arshad Warsi, Riteish Deshmukh, Jaaved Jafri, Ashish Chowdhury, Mallika Sherawat, Kangana Ranaut, Satish Kaushik


Double Dhamaal is a 'family film' involving four layabouts who spend their time hatching schemes to become arabpatis, a fate they seem to imagine as being mostly about hanging out in the company of well-endowed white girls in fake belly dancer costumes. (Note: they're strangely loyal to these girls; the same ones seem to appear in every one of their fantasies: from the rather fun 'Chill Maaro' song at the beginning right until the end).

Sequel to 2007's popular crime caper Dhamaal, the film retains much of the same cast: Arshad Warsi and Jaaved Jafri as the brothers Adi and Manav, Riteish Deshmukh as Roy and Ashish Chowdhry as Boman, with Sanjay Dutt still playing their bete noire Kabir Nayak. Except Nayak now has a sultry siren of a wife called Kamini (Mallika Sherawat) and a screechy secretary-cum-sister called Kiya (Kangana Ranaut) on his team. The plot involves our heroes discovering that Nayak – whom they believed had donated all his money at the end of the previous film, thus inspiring them to do the same – has somehow become a rich businessman. They cajole, beg and finally blackmail him into making them partners in his company, only to find that he's conned them again. Left to fend with an irate bhai (Satish Kaushik) who has just invested vast amounts of money in what he thinks is a newly-discovered oil reserve in the middle of Mumbai, our heroes abscond to Macau, where they set about planning their revenge on Nayak and his girls.

What follows is a series of escapades involving off-the-wall disguises and over-the-top accents which are made somewhat bearable by the actors' comic timing. Deshmukh probably gets the pick of the crop, playing everything from a Chinese trickster called Li to a wildly rich Gujarati businessman, to an Afro-haired half-black cool dude called Tukaram Kale (really, don't ask) who becomes betrothed to Kiya (Ranaut). Warsi-in-disguise, as a Sikh called Ghanta Singh who insinuates himself into Nayak's newly-acquired casino business, isn't too bad either. But most of the jokes are just gande. Or as the film itself would have it, "Gun de".

A youth film that goes beyond the urban setting

Director: Shashi Silgudia
Starring: Nishan Nanaiah, Dwij Yadav, Sunny Hinduja, Tom Alter, Girija Oak, Ishita Sharma


'Youth' is apparently the flavour of the season. Filmmakers trying to capitalise on this avidly cinema-going segment of the audience have given us, most recently, Always Kabhi Kabhi, Luv ka the End and Shaitaan. These have ranged in quality from bad to middling to promising-but-ultimately-disappointing, and from school to college. But just like every other genre of film in today's Bollywood, none have stepped outside the upper middle class metropolitan setting. It's a pleasant change, then, to watch a film about young people whose primary preoccupations don't involve the next party, the last accident, or how to find lakhs of rupees to bribe the cops.

Cycle Kick is about young people in the small seaside town of Sindhudurg. Ramu (the quietly appealing Nishan Nanaiah) and his young brother Deva (Dwij Yadav) are orphans, struggling to survive while getting themselves an education. Ramu goes to a government college and Deva to a small school. Ramu dreams of playing football, but spends his spare time pasting film posters on walls or mowing lawns to earn money. The brothers stumble upon a broken-down cycle, and are thrilled to bits when they manage to get it into working order. But before they even have time to get used to the luxury, the cycle is stolen. The search for their cycle brings Ramu and his friends into confrontation with another gang from their college, led by the flamboyant Ali (nicely played by Sunny Hinduja). Ramu and Ali become friends, eventually teaming up to fight a football battle with the town's arrogant rich boys under the benevolent gaze of a do-gooder coach (Tom Alter).

The cycle quest and the football don't quite come together, the women aren't fleshed out (a waste of the talented Girija Oak) and some questions are left hanging, like how Ali got hold of the bicycle. But these flaws and low production values aside, this charmingly shot film successfully brings to life a quiet small town world where it is still possible to woo a girl by showing her a secret view of the sea, a world where the stakes may be small but the kick is real.

24 June 2011

Alice Albinia: Epic Trawler

While Alice Albinia, the non-fiction writer, refuses to tell a well-worn tale, Albinia the novelist succumbs easily to reductive depictions

Alice Albina’s first book was non-fiction, a historical travelogue called Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River that took birth in her head, she tells us, when she was “twenty-three years old, sitting in the heat of [her] rooftop flat in Delhi, reading the Rig Veda”. Albinia’s second book is fiction, a novel called Leela’s Book, for which, too, the idea came to her in Delhi, this time while reading the Mahabharata, “India’s devastating, adventurous epic about a warring family”, as she has recently called it.

But despite each having an ancient Hindu text as its source of original inspiration, the two books couldn’t be more different. Empires of the Indus is a diligently researched and carefully structured account of the once-great river, moving slowly back in time (from the present to 5,000 years ago) and simultaneously northwards—from Karachi, the river’s mouth, to the place traditionally considered its source, the Senge Khabab (Lion’s Mouth) in Tibet. In contrast with the dense-with-information yet leisurely pace of Empires, Leela’s Book unfolds almost breathlessly, in Hindi film fashion, during a North Indian wedding.

But the differences don’t end there. Albinia’s earlier narrative was marvellously low-key. As it wove its way from Karachi via Sindh and up into the upper reaches of Gilgit, where the language and prehistoric rock art still bear traces of the region’s Rig Vedic roots, one felt the keenness of the writer’s desire to understand the people she was writing about. More often than not, they were the most marginal groups in Pakistan: the low-caste Hindu sweepers of Clifton; the Sheedis of Thatta, who trace their origins to their slave ancestors from Zanzibar; the socialist Sufis of 17th century Sindh and the mixed crowds who come to their dargahs.

Her new novel seems low-key to begin with; it opens with a wedding not even festive enough to meet the expectations of the young Muslim girl who works as a maid in the groom’s family home: ‘There were no special lights or flower arrangements, no visiting tailors from South Delhi or jewellers from Chandni Chowk, no breathless delivery boys with huge boxes of crockery… [no] marigolds and candles, jasmine blossom and giggling girl cousins.’ But it is soon clear that the understatedness of the wedding is merely a foil for the epic drama of the events that unfold around it: involving warring patriarchs, estranged siblings reuniting, children discovering lost parents (or being adopted by new ones), and plenty of sex of all kinds — godly and mortal, straight and gay, pleasurably consensual and horrifically non-consensual.

Albinia also seems to have exchanged her interest in marginal histories for the epic Great Tradition: the Mahabharata itself. Much has been made of the relationship between Albinia’s contemporary story and the Mahabharata, but in fact there is no attempt to make the new narrative map the older epic in terms of plot or characters. All Albinia does is wrap her present-day story in a playful account of the centuries-old tug-of-war between Vyasa, author of the epic, and Ganesh, its godly scribe, both also making appearances in mortal form. Ostensibly at the core of the plot is a recurring interest in the messy business of co-authorship—whether of epics, poetry or children. But Albinia’s real concern is still what it was in Empires of the Indus: the question of how people deal with their cultural inheritance.

The characters of Leela’s Book are all driven by their differing relationships with their heritage, whether defined broadly at the level of community or nation, or at the level of individuals and families. There is Meera Bose, the Calcutta girl of the 1960s who decides to follow up her Anglophone education and Presidency College training in English literature with a stint in Shantiniketan to acquaint herself with her Bengali—and Indian—literary roots. There is her sister Leela, who is her partner in this venture, but who decides to renounce her roots by moving to America and refusing to entertain any thoughts of India, going so far as to prevent her husband Hari from naming his company “Dharma or Karma or even Bharata”, insisting on Harry Couture instead. There is Hari himself, whose move to America is resented by his brother Shiva Prasad for being so infuriatingly smooth: ‘instead of struggling with the cultural and religious void which was the USA, …instead of coming home sheepishly to the family scarred and subdued by the whole experience, Hari had seemed to flourish’. But unlike Leela, Hari has not given up on his origins; he makes secret visits to Jackson Heights and secret plans to return to India, triggered by the Kasturba Gandhi Marg house that is Leela’s inheritance (‘Does a house represent a root?’). There is the younger generation—Bharati, who does not see what is arresting about India’s anarchy, but is deeply invested in what she considers her personal poetic legacy; or Ram, who is scornful of the immediate past and only interested in the historical when it can be an extravagant form of ornamentation.

The primary dramatis personae, of course, are Shiva Prasad Sharma, Sanghi ideologue, and Ved Vyasa Chaturvedi, left-liberal Sanskrit professor with a complicated connection to Leela. Sunita, the virginal, slightly silly daughter of Shiva Prasad, is marrying Ash, promising genetics scholar and son of Vyasa. Albinia clearly intends these two upper-middle-class families — and especially their respective heads — as stand-ins for radically different ways of being in contemporary India. (She never quite dwells on the fact that both families bear North Indian Brahmin surnames, making them at some baseline level not so radically different from each other.)

Shiva Prasad is presented to us as not merely right-wing but deeply anti-Muslim (he disowns his favourite daughter Urvashi once she marries a Muslim), caste-obsessed (he thinks running a newspaper is “demeaning for a Brahmin”), a linguistic fundamentalist (it is “unpatriotic to promote the colonial language”) and anti-globalisation (it is “wicked to do business with immoral global corporations”). He is also delusional, dreaming of a political career that everyone except him knows will never materialise, and spending his days dictating an autobiography in which the crucial setpiece is his childhood career as nationalist speechifier-and-young militant Krishna. The final part of this caricature is his obsession with the ‘nascent Arya Gene Project’: a quest to identify ‘a gene in high-caste Hindus that allowed them to trace their lineage back to the race of Aryas, who had composed the Vedas thousands of years ago’ and ‘prove that these noble bearers of Arya civilisation were indigenous to India’.

Shiva Prasad is thus established as a bully, bigot and bit of a fool. But none of these things prepares us for what is to come — his brutish rape of a young woman whose sole crime is that she is Muslim: with an imagined deity showing him the route to ‘the assuaging of [his] own failings as a father, to the avenging of crimes against innocent Hindu populations, to revenge against the barbaric Muslim man who had taken virginal Urvashi as his nautch girl’. The book’s primary practising Hindu thus goes from being a figure of ridicule to an embodiment of evil, a man whose religious beliefs push him into frenzied violence against the innocent. His secular bete noir Ved Vyasa, in contrast, is not only successful but also the owner of a sharp intelligence that will always manage to trump Shiva Prasad at his own game— whether it’s speaking better Sanskrit on TV or successfully arranging an alliance between their families for his own ends.

Albinia has said in a newspaper interview that Shiva Prasad did undergo a transformation in the process of her writing the novel: “He started as a comic figure. Then I thought I can’t just have a comedy. That’s not what it was about.” The ‘it’ presumably refers to the rise of Hindutva, and the BJP’s time in power, which Albinia witnessed for over two years, from 1999 to 2002. It was an embattled time for anyone concerned with tradition; it still is. But Albinia’s presentation of secularists like Vyasa, for whom culture has little to do with religion, or worse, the ‘Lady Professor’ who goes on about ‘the inherent ridiculousness of Hinduism’ on rationalist grounds (‘A god with a blue face? An elephant-headed scribe? Phantoms of trees and mountains?’) as the only alternative to the Shiva Prasads of the world belies the very possibility of a critical but lived engagement with tradition. And it seems a pity that Albinia, whose stellar first book exhibits such a dogged refusal to tread the well-worn path and tell the well-worn tale, should have succumbed to such a reductive depiction of Hindu-ness versus secular-ness. In Empires, there is a moment when Albinia muses about ‘what it must be like to live in the Pakistan of the Indian media: a grimly religious, violently black-hearted nation, apparently the opposite of everything that pluralist India stood for’. There is much about Leela’s Book that is just as absurdly binary.

Published in Open magazine, 25th June 2011

21 June 2011

Cinemascope: Always Kabhi Kabhi & Bheja Fry 2

This week's film column for the Sunday Guardian.

Most cringeworthy film I’ve seen all year

Director: Roshan Abbas
Starring: Ali Fazal, Giselle Monteiro, Satyajeet Dubey, Zoa Morani

Star Rating: 1/2

This is the kind of movie in which schoolboys are presumed to have bikes a hundred times cooler than their teachers and feel entitled to make fun of them. The kind of movie in which the declaration "It's my 18th birthday next Sunday" is greeted with "Sh**!", to which the miffed birthday girl says, "It's 18, not 30." The kind of movie which believes that Hinglish = teen anthem no matter how unmemorable the lyrics or lacklustre the choreography (Sample lyrics: "Thoda sa complicated hai yeh love ka art, Undi the condi of my heart"). Or perhaps just the kind of movie that's counting on SRK's presence in the trailer – and his bizarre appearance in the post-climactic youth anthem – to make it work. Because there's no other reason it should.

Always Kabhi Kabhi is the most cringeworthy film I've seen all year. Director Roshan Abbas collects some fairly talented youngsters, adds a few worthy middle-aged actors (Lillete Dubey, Satish Shah, Vijay Raaz, Akash Khurana) and puts them down in the ridiculously baroque environs of La Martiniere School, Lucknow with a script that isn't worth the paper it's written on. The school layabout, Sam a.k.a. Sameer (Ali Fazal) decides he must be Romeo in the school play if he is to successfully romance his (and the play's) Juliet, Ash a.k.a. Aishwarya (Giselli Monteiro, atrocious). Meanwhile, his friend Tariq (a likeable Satyajeet Dubey) first quarrels with, then romances Nandy Bull (aka Nandini), the official bad girl-who's-really-a-softie, played by the striking Zoa Morani with something resembling flair. And as if these problems weren't enough to deal with, the poor kids also have to struggle against their evil parents – MIT-obsessed, Bollywood-obsessed, exploitative, or simply unfeeling.

But the plot isn't anywhere near the biggest problem with this film. It's the shockingly amateurish direction, the abysmal dialogue (sample exchange between Ash and Sam: "Chemistry period!" "Means I'm history!"), the horrendous gags (are jamalgota and sleeping pills really funny?) and the failed attempts at coolness (using Facebook or Gmail chat to transition between scenes seems funky, but need it be so mystifying?). I much preferred Luv ka the End. That's saying something.

Story goes overboard when they hit island

Director: Saagar Ballary
Starring: Vinay Pathak, Kay Kay Menon, Minissha Lamba, Amole Gupte

Star Rating: **

2007's runaway small-budget hit Bheja Fry, based on Francis Veber's French film Le Dîner de Cons (1998), had as its starting premise a rather cruel game played by a group of friends, where each person invited to dinner the biggest 'idiot' they could find. The person whose invitee was universally judged prize idiot would win the game. Bheja Fry's plot involved the smug, self-satisfied Rajat Kapur hurting his back and ending up at the mercy of the 'idiot', a tax inspector with musical pretensions called Bharat Bhushan (the brilliant Vinay Pathak).

Bheja Fry 2 marks the return of the distressingly sincere and unbelievably irritating Bharat Bhushan – and a new specimen of the smug, self-satisfied type: business tycoon Ajit Talwar (Kaykay Menon). The first half of the film is rather good fun. Pathak's Bharat Bhushan, now finalist on a fictitious show called Aao Guess Karein, is a thoroughly entertaining presence. He breaks into song to announce the ad break, and mouths immortal lines in praise of his chosen brand of undergarments: "Darpan Jangiye: Thoda Dekhiye, Thoda Mangiye". Having won the grand prize, Bhushan finds himself on board a luxury cruise liner full of various corporate bigwigs, including the smartalecky ladykiller Ajit Talwar. Talwar, a whitecollar criminal who happens to be running away from a tax scam, discovers Bhushan's occupation and decides he's here to spy. Much hilarity ensues as Talwar first tries to keep an eye on the clueless Bhushan, with the reluctant aid of the eyelash-batting Ranjini (Minissha Lamba in surprisingly good form). He decides to bump him off, but ends up marooned on an island with the relentlessly cheerful Bhushan.

From this point on, the film loses the plot. The jokes get repetitive, Bhushan's musical histrionics get more and more insufferable, and once Amole Gupte makes his entry as the excruciatingly screechy lunatic with a fake Bong accent, we can tell we're a long way from the charmingly madcap humour aboard the cruise ship. But if you've ever been irritated by people who think they're doing you a favour by breaking into Antakshari, Bharat Bhushan will ring a bell.

12 June 2011

Cinemascope: Shaitan & West is West

My film reviews in the Sunday Guardian this week:

Stylish, dizzying, but this leaves you cold


Director: Bejoy Nambiar
Starring: Kalki Koechlin, Rajat Barmecha, Gulshan Devaiah, Rajeev Khandelwal, Kirti Kulhari, Raj Kumar Yadav.

With Bejoy Nambiar's dizzyingly shot, hypercool Shaitan, Anurag Kashyap (officially a producer here) gets to return to the dark, dystopic universe he first explored in Paanch (2003), which the Censor Board prevented from release. The plot is similar: some youngsters try to make money by staging the kidnapping of the richest kid in the gang, but then things start to go terribly wrong. But Paanch was about hubris, about an insatiable hunger for fame and money leading into the abyss. All that lies at Shaitan's core is a sense of anomie, of a disconnect from reality.

These kids ostensibly go to college, but we never see them there. Instead, we watch edgily as they float from poolside Holi to yacht party in a cocaine-fuelled haze, conducting midnight raids on unsuspecting chemists whom they distract with talk of the perfect condom flavour. They might choose to slum it out sometimes (kyonki "romance midnight buffet mein thodi hai, romance toh bhurji pao mein hai"), but when arrested by a Mumbai cop, are able only to say over and over, like someone in an American TV show: "I want my lawyer". This alienation is taken to its logical extreme by the America-returned Amy/Amrita (Kalki Koechlin), fluctuating so effectively between chilling nonchalance and dead-mother-obsession that you're just waiting for her to go over the edge.

But somehow, when she does, you're not that interested. In fact, the problem is that you never care about anyone. Perhaps the distant gaze is deliberate, but after you've watched KC (Gulshan Devaiah, a revelation) or Tania (Kirti Kulhari) do their thing twice, you're no longer morbidly arrested by them as laboratory specimens, either. Other characters who could have provided an emotional core aren't given a chance: Raj Kumar Yadav as the blustering but wary corrupt cop, or the wonderful Rajeev Khandelwal as the cop with anger issues assigned the kidnapping case, struggling with a half-baked role which doesn't tell us, for example, why he's leaving his wife or why he's suddenly back with her. Like its characters, Shaitan is the sort of film that could have been fascinating, but never quite is.

Sequel manages tricky humour-drama feat

Director: Andy DeEmmony
Starring: Aqib Khan, Om Puri, Linda Bassett, Ila Arun, Sheeba Chaddha

Sequel to the British Asian hit East Is East (1999), West is West reprises the key tension between Pakistani-ness and British-ness that plagued its characters, but exchanges some of its sharp humour for a moving (if occasionally sentimental) take on home and family. It opens in Salford in 1976, with George and Ella (Om Puri and Linda Bassett, both soaring above the script as always) still running their chip shop while struggling to deal with the one child who hasn't flown the coop: the teenaged Sajid (Aqib Khan, memorable). Sajid hates school, where white boys hound him with cries of "Paki" and a supposedly sympathetic teacher first asks him to find Pakistan on a map (Sajid picks Poland) and then gifts him Kipling's Kim.

He also more or less hates his father, whom he holds responsible. After a particularly bad outburst, the stricken George decides to take the boy to Pakistan, hoping that this will somehow settle him down and give him a sense of "who he is".

Initially, of course, Sajid struggles to find his feet, but he's soon exploring the area in the company of the twinkly-eyed Pir Naseem and his slightly wild disciple. It's rapidly clear that it's George who must figure out his relationship to the place – and people – he hasn't returned to in 30 years. As his now-aged first wife (Ila Arun, perfectly cast) says sharply to the now increasingly vulnerable patriarch, "Who is here? George or Jahangir?" Now assailed by guilt about the family he abandoned, George starts to build a house – only to find that they see his return as a threat.

The tightrope between broad humour, family drama and magical childhood travelogue is a tough one to walk, and there are hits and misses – as there are with language: the Jordanian-born English actor Nadeem Sawalha playing the Pir with a distressingly English accent; Sajid and the Pir's boy reading Kim; not to mention George's Punjabi accent lying rather too thickly over his overly-broken working class English. But like the moving scene between George's two wives shows us, sometimes things can transcend language. This film does.

Theatre in Delhi: shout-out for Begam ka Takiya & Kafka: Ek Adhyay

The National School of Drama Repertory Company is wrapping up its annual Summer Theatre Festival in Delhi this week. If you're in Delhi today, try and catch Ranjit Kapoor's splendid Begam ka Takiya (last two shows at 3.30pm and 7.00pm today, that's 12th June, at Kamani Auditorium, Copernicus Marg).

The last play of the festival is Suresh Sharma's highly suggestive production of Asif Ali Haider's Kafka: Ek Adhyay, which I saw in its 2007 avatar and reviewed for Time Out Delhi. You can read that review here though I have a strong suspicion that many of the superb NSD repertory actors I saw then have moved on since. But with such a strong script and visually arresting production, the play still ought to be worth a watch. Kafka: Ek Adhyay plays from 13th to 16th June at 7.00pm at Sammukh, NSD, Bhagwan Das Road.

5 June 2011

Cinemascope: Ready, Kung Fu Panda 2

My Sunday Guardian film review column this week.

Standard Salman fare, if that’s what you want

Director: Anees Bazmee
Starring: Salman Khan, Asin, Arya Babbar, Paresh Rawal, Mahesh Manjrekar, Akhilendra Mishra, Puneet Issar, Manoj Joshi, Sudesh Lehri, Manoj Pahwa


As a Hindi movie-goer of the 2000s, you might have been lulled into nostalgia for a time when villains had bizarre hairstyles, wore outrageously flashy clothes and mouthed menacing dialogues of the "Isse jaldi coma se bahar lao, doctor, nahi toh main tumhe coma mein daal doonga" variety. Or perhaps you've been yearning for the Hum Aapke Hain Kaun style family, with saccharine-sweet chachis, 'naughty' nephew and fluffy white dog? Either way, have no fear, Ready is here.

Anees Bazmee's film is ostensibly about a rich, beefy and jobless young man who's trying to stave off an irritating girl sent by his family Guruji to be his future wife when he discovers that she's (a) not sent by Guruji, and (b) escaping an arranged marriage. Since it has been established in the opening scene that Prem spends his spare time (i.e. all of it) helping unwilling brides flee arranged marriages, this is just his thing. So he saves her from Bizarre Hairstyled Villain No. 1. Then, needless to say, love happens. By which we mean Salman and Asin get to sing a forgettable song while traipsing around Buddhist temples, in Bangkok supposedly (but Sri Lanka, actually). Then he gets to the real work of reforming Asin's villainous mamas. With the aid of their unsuspecting accountant (Paresh Rawal), the baddies are first lured by lucre, and then, when they least expect it, subjected to deep-down lessons in family values by Salman's dad: be nice to your elders and do let your wives eat dinner before you, because "women's worlds begin and end with us, and so we really must take care of them". And so the old-style baddies (of jhoothi shaan, boorish manners and bad hair) are transformed successfully into a version of Salman's own HAHK-style khaandaan. Whether this is an improvement you must judge for yourself.

But all this is just by the way. What Ready is really about is Salman Khan – with or without shirt, with or without spectacles, with or without almost-obscene-dance moves. If you think you'll enjoy watching Salman dine out on playing Salman, go for it.


Buddhist philosophy & Panda kicks in 3D

Director: Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Starring: (voices of) Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman


2008's runaway hit, Kung Fu Panda, was about a slacker of a panda called Po who is unexpectedly picked to learn Kung Fu in fulfilment of an ancient prophesy, and then – even more unexpectedly – called upon to defend his world from the evil snow leopard, Tai Lung. Kung Fu Panda 2, released last week, has Po enlisted to battle a new villain, Shen, the white peacock, all flourish and metallic claws, who is out to conquer China – and wipe out Kung Fu – with the aid of his new invention, gunpowder.

In a kind of Kamsa-Krishna style plot twist, Shen also happens to have been the one who wiped out all the pandas in the region (including Po's biological parents) several years ago, when it was foretold that he would be defeated by a black-and-white warrior.

So in the best sort of epic tradition, Po is fighting simultaneously for Kung Fu, for China – and for himself. It seems a hard task for a genial, roly-poly panda who still seems to trundle along rather than run and admits that "stealth mode" is not his strong suit. But as his teacher Master Shifu (voiced splendidly by Dustin Hoffman) says to him early on: "Remember, dragon warrior, anything is possible, when you have inner peace."

Finding inner peace, it turns out, in Po's case, lies in finding out who one is – but also in realising that it's what one makes of oneself that matters. "The cup you choose to fill has no bottom," says the soothsayer to the ever-peaceless Shen. The film is chock-full of such philosophical nuggets, mostly delivered with panache. A proper Buddhist does not seek to harm an opponent, but just redirects unwanted violence back to its initiator, says Shaolin Kung Fu teaching, and it's fun to see this implemented literally, when Po swings Shen's cannon balls right back at him.

But the most profound pleasure of Kung Fu Panda 2 is in its stunningly visualised 3D universe. From snowy mountain passes and waterfalls to the smoky depths of ancient cities, it is a landscape that owes much to Chinese art.

1 June 2011

Odd jobs in Delhi

Just read a story in the Sunday Guardian about handpainted signs, which reminded me of seeking out the juice stall sign painter Charan Singh, in Chandni Chowk sometime in the summer of 2007. So I dug up four short sketches I did as part of that long-ago Time Out Delhi cover story on unusual occupations. Enjoy.

Juice-stall sign painter

Charan Singh
Makes: Rs 60-200 per sign

(Photo credit: Abhinandita Mathur)

Charan Singh wasn’t always a painter of signs. He used to have a job in the railways, until he decided to devote himself full-time to the kind of work he really enjoys. That was sometime in the 1960s. Singh doesn’t seem to have any regrets, and his sons Subhash and Anil have also learnt the art. (Though Subhash points out that this is not all he does.) Charan Singh claims to have invented the distinctive style of the Delhi juice-stall sign. “I started it,” he said. “Others try to copy it, but they fail.”

Whether Singh really is the sole repository of the art is uncertain, but his house-cum-workshop in Sarai Topkhana (just off HC Sen Road in the Chandni Chowk area) is definitely a storehouse of colour. Prepared signs in plastic or rexine hang all along the courtyard walls. The smallest is one-and-a-half metres, and the longest three metres. Depending on the client’s demands, the sign can have just lettering, or a fancier design that incorporates flowers, fruits and even faces. “Shah Rukh and Salman are the favourites, especially Salman after Tere Naam. There hasn’t been a Golden Jubilee film after that, na?” said Singh. “Among the heroines, it’s Aishwarya.” Singh can churn out a small sign with lettering in 20 minutes flat, but a larger one with Salman and Ash – yes, the pairing is a bit out of date – can take up to three hours, and costs Rs 200. Has the rise of digital signage affected the business? Yes, said Singh, it has. But he’s upbeat about the future. “Computer mein itni show nahi hai, chamak-dhamak nahi hai. Aap dekhna, haath ka kaam hi chal niklega.”


Urdu-English legal translator
Murtaza Ali Khan
Makes: Rs 80 per page

There is an unending series of men at desks with typewriters outside Tees Hazari, Delhi’s largest district court. But not all of them have cupboards full of documents in a script indecipherable to everyone but themselves. Murtaza Ali Khan does. Sitting behind a sheet that serves as an improvised curtain against the scorching sun, Khan pores over legal documents written in shikasta – an Urdu script that is no longer taught and that even those conversant with Urdu find hard to understand. “Shikasta ko broken script kehte hain. Tuti-phuti language aur dilapidated documents, yahi padhta hoon main,” smiled Khan. He used to be a typist, but as more and more people coming to the court with shikasta documents started asking him to translate, he decided to specialise. Most of the documents he receives are property-related ones, which need to be translated for use in court proceedings, to get a bank loan, or sell property. He also gets nikahnamas and talaqnamas. And fatwas. “I get regular customers from banks and the Pakistan Embassy,” said Khan. “Many people even come to me to get old documents forged. They know I have the skill. But I always refuse.” But Khan wants to branch out of translation. Holder of several degrees, including a BA from Delhi College (now Zakir Hussain), an Adeeb Kamil in Urdu from Aligarh, a Bachelors in Education from Taleemghar, Lucknow, and most recently, another BA in Urdu from Maulana Azad National University, Hyderabad, he is all set to start on an LLB.


Protest photographer
Joginder Dogra.
Makes: Rs 30-50 per print sold

(Photo credit: Abhinandita Mathur)

For how long have you been a professional photographer?
Twenty years. My uncle was chief photographer in Punjab Kesari, so I came into this line through him. But it was very difficult to establish myself in my own right. I would take photographs, and if they were accepted, they would appear in his name. One day I decided, enough is enough. From that day I started taking my photographs to other places.

When did you make Jantar Mantar your beat?
Well, I had been in Delhi long enough as a photographer, I knew that there is always something happening here. So I started coming regularly. Now it’s part of my daily routine – I come here at 10am and I hang around until four or five in the evening, taking photographs of any protest demonstration that happens.

Who do you sell the photographs to?
Many different places. I have a regular arrangement with two Hindi city papers – Apni Dilli (a weekly) and Meri Dilli (a daily). Apart from them, I offer my photos to press agencies. And, of course, I sell copies to the protestors themselves. Unko chahiye hota hai na, record ke liye. Nowadays, groups who’re planning a demonstration, if they don’t have a photographer, they even contact me in advance, saying arrive at such-and-such a time.

What’s been your greatest Jantar Mantar photo moment?
It was on July 29, 2006. A man set himself on fire. He was from Etah – his kids had been kidnapped and he had been sitting here at Jantar Mantar for some months. Pata nahi usko kya hua, that day he just lost it. He poured oil on himself and lit a match. Nobody else was here, it was three in the afternoon. The photograph I took, I gave it to Associated Press, and they submitted it to the International Photo of the Year competition. It came fifth out of 44,000 submissions. I got a certificate. But I still haven’t received the money.


Voiceover artist and mimic
Sundeep Sharma
Makes: Rs 70,000 a month

Sundeep Sharma’s story sounds a bit like one a successful film star might tell about himself: Amitabh Bachchan in a minor key. He grew up in a small town (Bareilly), came to Delhi with “three thousand rupees and the number of Discovery Channel” in his pocket, and was told by his first UTV interviewer that he better “pack his bags and become a writer or something”. But Sharma was sure that his voice was his fortune. Having discovered a talent for oratory in Class XII, when his school principal challenged the boys to match a girl who had won a district-level debate, he prided himself on being the kind of debater who “never came second”.

So he stayed on in Delhi, doing voiceovers for serials on All-India Radio (“mostly ten gaonwalas hearing about some new government scheme”), and working on his skills. “I learnt about voice exercises, pauses, stresses, throwing your voice,” said Sharma. “I did an acting workshop with Barry John in 2003, when I learnt that there are four vocal registers. For instance, to speak in a deep voice, you need to speak from your stomach. For a high, kiddie-type voice, you close your eyes, fill your belly and think that the voice is hitting your skull.”

UTV approved him in his sixth attempt. And then mimicry happened – by accident. Seven months after Sharma auditioned to anchor an NDTV show called Gustakhi Maaf, they called to ask if he’d like to try mimicking Pramod Mahajan, whose voice matched his in texture. “It was when that voice became a hit that I started trying out other voices,” said Sharma. “Now I do Vajpayee, Advani, Mulayam, Shah Rukh, Saif, Nana Patekar, Om Puri, Navjot Sidhu, Sachin Tendulkar. Old film stars like Jagdeep, Jeevan, Dilip Kumar, Prithviraj Kapoor are easy – they had a particular style. Imitating Aamir Khan is difficult, because he changes his voice with each role.” But Sharma prefers doing “normal characters” (a Bihari panwalla or a Bengali babu) to mimicking famous people. And he’s branching out into stand-up comedy. In Sharma’s own words: “Pehle I would call Bareilly and say ki saat baj kar pachpan minute par meri awaz TV par aayegi. Seven years down the line, I feel like I can be on stage as well.”

Published in Time Out Delhi, 2007.