27 July 2014

Secular Masala Zindabad

My Mumbai Mirror column today: 

Remembering the Big-B starrer Coolie - an iconic film that became famous even before it was made - and mourning the death of the miraculous world of filmmaker Manmohan Desai.

It used to be a quiz question (probably still is): what happened in Bangalore on July 25, 1982, that nearly changed the fate of the Hindi film industry? 

That 32-year-old event remains the industry's most famous accident: Amitabh Bachchan's injury during a fight scene on the sets of Manmohan Desai's Coolie. After an emergency surgery in Bangalore, Bachchan was flown to Mumbai in a specially re-jigged Indian Airlines plane and operated upon for a ruptured intestine. Bachchan's week between life and death was a week on hold in the nation's life, too - with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (also a family friend) postponing a foreign trip to visit him, while millions prayed for his survival. 

Manmohan Desai, who arguably gave the Hindi masala movie its most entertaining, well-crafted form, was ever attentive to his audiences. He knew people would never forgive him for having Amitabh die in the movie when he had survived in reality. Reel life needed to echo real life. And so the film's ending was changed to have Bachchan's character recover from a final life-threatening battle, and greet his followers from a balcony that said 'Philomena Hospital', the hospital where he was first operated in Bangalore. 

The film also marked Bachchan's return from near-death in another way, by retaining the infamous fight scene and inserting two freeze frames to let viewers in on the facts of the accident. "This is the shot in which Amitabh Bachchan was seriously injured," reads an accompanying text on screen in English, Hindi and Urdu, turning the film - at least for that instant - from fiction into documentary. 

Both these moves were the logical culmination of the relationship between the star and his fans. The off-screen phenomenon was incorporated on screen, pushing forward the ongoing cycle of fandom. 

Apart from displaying all the hallmarks of Manmohan Desai's cinema - bachpan mein bichhadna, amnesia, good poor people and villainous rich people, ridiculous but irresistibly goofy humour, the reuniting of families, and the ultimate power of destiny - Coolie was also Desai's overt overture to Muslims. He worked close to Bhendi Bazaar, Bombay's most iconic Muslim area, and claimed a lifelong love of Muslim culture. By casting the industry's biggest superstar as a poor Muslim railway porter, Desai also hoped to cash in on the Muslim audience, believed to be regular movie-goers. 

What makes Coolie remarkable is that it does not just have a token Muslim hero: it is steeped in a Muslim milieu. The film opens with the loving husband Aslam (Satyen Kappu) presenting his wife Salma (Waheeda Rehman) with a green joda for Eid. Note that evil, too, is personified by a Muslim. When the villainous Zafar (Kader Khan, also the film's dialogue-writer) creates his artificial flood, Salma is swept away while doing her namaaz. 

There is also a generous Desai-style sprinkling of religious signs - when the child Iqbal returns, sobbing and bereft, to his sodden shell of a home, a Quran falls into his hands, as if to suggest that God is looking out for him, even if no-one else is. The same Quran and a piece of Islamic calligraphy feature again, in a scene where Salma's memory and speech miraculously return after 20 years. There is also, of course, Iqbal's Billa No. 786, and the element that made Coolie unforgettable for children, an important part of Manmohan Desai's family audience - Allah Rakha the falcon, who magically comes to Iqbal's aid whenever needed. Desai has spoken of choosing the falcon because it was the symbol of the United Arab Emirates and would "appeal to the Muslims". There is also an iconic Haj sequence (and song), and a climactic scene at Haji Ali Dargah. 

But while Coolie brims with Muslim religiosity, it also fits the Desai model of Hindu-Muslim bhai-bhai. Right from the first scene, the Muslim family is shown fraternising with a Hindu Maharashtrian family, and it is that Hindu coolie Nathu (Nilu Phule) who brings up the orphaned Iqbal. Later, in the stupendous happenstance that makes Desai's movies so satisfying, the adult Iqbal (Amitabh) becomes best friends with Sunny (Rishi Kapoor) - who, it turns out, is not just the son that amnesiac Salma has raised as her own, but also Nathu's long-lost child. 

So the Muslim boy is raised by a Hindu father-figure, and the Hindu boy by a Muslim mother. There's also Rati Agnihotri's Christian heiress Julie, raised by Hindus. The message of all these foster children might have been that blood doesn't matter. But in fact, blood shines through - it is the biological son who will send his father on Haj, and the biological father who will give his alcoholic son his kidney. 

And yet, the lack of blood ties between Amitabh and Rishi does not matter; the Muslim and the Hindu are brothers at heart, and there's an obvious nod to their having the same mother(land). 

More powerful than this overt secular bhaichara, though, is the fact that Desai's own iconography seamlessly transcends religious specificity. When the unconscious Salma is being flown off in the evil Zafar's helicopter and Allah Rakha tries to stop him, the echo of the Ramayana - Jatayu battling Ravana to save Sita -- could not be more clear. 

We definitely could not make a Coolie today. But this Eid might be the perfect time to revisit it.

20 July 2014

Picture This: That Working Class Fan

My BL_Ink column from yesterday:

In the grainy darkness, the young man’s face is lit up only by an eerie green light — and by his memories of the video theatres in which he spent his childhood. A ticket was ₹10, and every night of the week had a genre allotted to it: Mondays were for action, Tuesdays for romance, Wednesdays might be horror. “You got to see new films, old films, and even very old films. But even watching films we had already seen was fun for us,” he chortles. “Before Rajinikanth could say his dialogue, we would say it for him.”
The young man is Sagairaj, he is a film buff and Rajinikanth fan, and a few minutes into Jagannathan Krishnan’s remarkable 2010 documentary Videokaaran (roughly translatable as Video-fellow, or Video-wallah), we learn that he grew up to run a video parlour himself.
But since the demolition of Mumbai’s Rahul Nagar Video in 2006, and the general crackdown on semi-legal video theatres like it, neither Sagai nor his friends watch movies much. “People here earn ₹10 a day, some earn ₹50. They’re not going to go to multiplexes!” He mentions a local single-screen cinema where tickets are ₹80. “How is a man like that going to take his family to the theatre? Film has been snatched out of his hands.”
For much of the 20th century, cinema was among the few pleasures that the poor man in India could afford. (And I say ‘man’ deliberately here, because women did not — could not — go to theatres anywhere near as much as men could and did.) The film industry — whether Tamil, Telugu or Hindi — needed the urban poor to watch its films. And the strongest connection between that audience and the industry were its stars.
Film scholar Sara Dickey, who worked on fan clubs in Tamil Nadu, has argued that the masculine hero in south India is always depicted as sharing “either the attributes or the desires of the urban poor”. Figures as far apart in time as MG Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, who have successfully cultivated distinct images, reveal a remarkable degree of overlap in the characteristics for which they are praised by their fan club members: generosity, compassion, humility, “the heart of a child”, strength and virility and talent in the dramatic arts. Crucially, the star is believed to feel concern for his (lower-class) fans, to recognise their “deserving but less influential” status. As the famous Rajinikanth song in Basha goes, “I am the heart that feels, I am the friend of the poor. I will always be the friend of the poor.”
Sushma Veerappa’s When Shankar Nag Comes Asking (2012), another documentary that explores film fandom as a way to understand urban male working-class culture, offers glimpses of how this belief in the star’s “good nature” and welcoming behaviour is circulated by fans. Veerappa’s film focuses on auto drivers in Bangalore, and their particular adoration of the late director-actor Shankar Nag, who legendarily played an auto driver in the superhit film Auto Raja (1980). Among the central characters in Veerappa’s film is Ramanna, an autorickshaw driver who is also president of the auto drivers’ section of the Kannada Protection Front. A film buff who came to Bangalore with dreams of becoming an actor, Ramanna remembers that he once chased after Shankar Nag and his brother Anant’s car: “Anant Nag remained in the car, but Shankar Nag stepped out. A real gentleman.”
Rajinikanth too, famously played an auto driver in Basha, immortalised by the song Naan autokaaran(I’m an auto-wallah). Early in Videokaaran, we see a conversation between several young men dissolve into an only half-jokey competition between Amitabh fans and Rajinikanth fans. Rajini’s entry speeds up the movie, says Sagai; with Amitabh, it’s not like that, you have to wait for him to open his mouth, for the dialogue. But the real basis on which Rajini wins the argument is that there aren’t fan clubs for Amitabh like there are for Rajini. Rajini gives out ‘messages’ that his fans take seriously, like when he told autowallahs to always stop and give pregnant women a free ride. “Even those who don’t listen to their families, listen to Rajini.” You can see how the wheel of fandom turns full circle: it is Rajinikanth’s relationship with his fans, his perceived ability to influence their behaviour that makes them even more devoted fans.
What is striking about Sagairaj’s relationship with the stars is its quicksilver quality. One moment he is talking about Rajini being responsible for his interest in being a kriya yogi, a deep sense of spiritual connection that dates back to his troubled childhood: “As a child, I had problems with my family. Whenever I saw Rajinikanth movies, I got strength.” The next moment, he is describing how all the actors “enter into him” when he’s picked up by a cop and wants to pretend to be badly hurt so the cop will let him go. Here, the channelling of his heroes is purely instrumental.
In Sagairaj’s relationship with cinema, you see an intimacy that people usually only have with gods they truly believe in: they’re close enough to dismiss occasionally.
But the world upon which Videokaaran casts its brief but compelling light has largely disappeared. The god of cinema no longer needs the poor. So the poor have been robbed of cinema, and even of video theatres. Television is a poor return gift.

Published in the Hindu Business Line.

How Retro Are Our Romances?

My Mumbai Mirror column today:

Our supposedly spunky heroines can't even summon the courage to become someone's dulhaniya. And they've been trying for a very long time.

This week, I watched Bollywood's latest feted love story, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya, which many critics have said is a 'sunny', 'winning', 'knowing' tribute to Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge

In both movies - one released in 1995, the other in 2014 - a young woman on the brink of an arranged marriage takes a final trip with friends and finds herself falling hook, line and sinker for a winsome young man she meets on said trip. But neither Ms Heroine nor her mischievous but golden-hearted lover-boy are willing to abandon their commitment to good-Indian-values to bring their romance to fruition. In both movies, the golden-hearted lover-boy must prove himself worthy by romancing not the girl he loves, but her ogre of a father. In the immortal words of the tag line that characterised the 1990s, at least according to Bollywood: "It's All About Loving Your Parents." 

This is not a film review, and so I will not evaluate Humpty Sharma ki Dulhaniya - suffice it to say that it's well-acted for the most part, and is good fun while it's being frothy. 

But what emerged loud and clear for me was the fact that nothing has really changed in two decades, except that the spunkiness of our spunky heroine is now proven by: 

(a) being able to guzzle down more bottles of beer than our hero (and not be drunk, thus subverting the famous waking-up-after-drunken-night scene from DDLJ) 

(b) being quite calm about sleeping with a boy she's attracted to, without making a hoo-ha about love or marriage (or babies in a baby carriage), and 

(c) being willing to do absolutely anything - con, burgle, blackmail -- for love... of a lehenga. 

Yes, that's right. A lehenga. To be precise, a designer lehenga. One that costs double what her friend Gurpreet claims to have spent on her wedding lehenga: five lakh rupees to Gurpreet's two and half lakh. And before you ask: no, there is absolutely no sign that writer-director Shashank Khaitan, or anyone in writer-director Shashank Khaitan's intended audience, thinks Kaavya's mission is funny. It is, apparently, exactly this sort of spunk that makes boys like Humpty fall in love with girls with Kaavya. And the friends and fathers of boys like Humpty hand over their life's savings to the Lehenga Contribution Fund of a girl who's marrying someone else. 

But alright, let's leave Mission Mehenga Lehenga aside for the moment. Let us, instead, consider the contemporary coolness of our Kaavyabai Ambale-wali. Drinking, dancing, stealing, wandering around town with boy she's just met, sleeping over and sleeping with aforementioned boy: this is no shrinking violet. And yet she is apparently incapable of speaking up for the love of her life. Even when their romance has been stamped with a five-day expiry-date, she continues to pout and be princessy rather than DO anything. 

I watched a 10pm show of Humpty, and the morning after, while still trying to make sense of why the film annoyed me so, I read this acute piece of film criticism: 

"And what does Ms. Heroine do? She's a literate, educated girl. She knows the problem and the situation confronting her. She is confident enough to spend the night in the same room as a stranger... She then roams the streets with this man. Could she not have fought for her rights, a woman such as her? She could have found a job and truth be told, taken in her lover and supported him. She does nothing. She is afraid, we are told. Of what?" 

I felt vindicated. The writer of the piece continued: "I'm told [it] is a film about society. No doubt it is, because the word "society" appears in it. And perhaps because it addresses the aspect that a woman who has been married off to the wrong fellow should be allowed to romance another man. I'm in favour of this, but I want to see a war being fought for such rights. Some stuff should be broken in anger. A hammer taken to hand and smashed on the problem... Opportunities have to be created to resolve a problem. Why wait for the solution to drift towards your boat?" 

I was thrilled. Someone was finally getting what was so irritating about a film like Humpty. 

Except that the film critic I've been quoting at such length is Sa'adat Hasan Manto, and the film he's venting about is PC Barua's Zindagi, starring Kundan Lal Saigal and Jamuna, and released in 1940. 

Reading Manto on Zindagi, it seems that the only striking difference between the Hindi film heroine of 1940 and 2014 is that the 2014 one can sleep with her boyfriend. But there her rebelliousness ends. Don't get me wrong - I am not suggesting that all filmi heroines must be rebels. Not at all. As in life, so in movies - it takes all sorts to make up the world. But if a film sells us this great rule-breaker, then for God's sake, can we get something slightly more substantial than this pouting girl who - tragedy of tragedies - sells her jhumkas to buy a lehenga? And then waits for her father to have a change of heart and refrain from "ruining her life"? 

As Manto said of a rather similar heroine, rather long ago, "Could she not have fought for her rights, a woman such as her?"

Note: Some typos in the published column have been corrected in this version.

14 July 2014

Post Facto: Too graphic for grown-ups? Thoughts on pictures in books

A spread from the book 'Hope is a Girl Selling Fruit' by Amrita Das. Tara Books, 2013.
ave you ever thought about what it means that we think picture books are for children? Clearly, it's not that we think pictures are for children: visual art in other forms, whether paintings or movies, is seen as perfectly grown-up. But somehow, when pictures enter a book, they become, in the eyes of most people who consider themselves "real" readers, a form of dumbing-down.
One reason for this sort of thinking is obvious. If books are meant to be about text, then anything that detracts from the serious business of words is an illegitimate interloper, that›s managed to sneak in without the permission of the Book Guards.
As the kid who never quite got why anyone should want to read comics when they could read real  books, I get that thought. And certainly, I agree that we respond differently to narrative when the only pictures we have access to are the ones in our heads. Images might hook you faster, but they also change the rhythm of your reading. Some people might only look at the pictures. Some look at the pictures first, and then go back to read the text. Some — like me — might race through the text (and wonder at there being less of it) before realising that sometimes, pictures demand a slowing-down — quite different from the swept-up feeling that can characterise a good story.
But if placing images alongside changes our experience of text, why is that necessarily a bad thing? Who decided that books have to be about text, anyway? And that art must only hang on a wall?
I started thinking these thoughts because of three stunning publications that came out recently from Tara Books, the Chennai-based independent publisher. All three are drawn by Indian folk artists, all women. In Drawing from the City, the Ahmedabad-based Teju Behan tells, in beautiful black and white pen-drawings, the tale of how she and her late husband Ganesh Bhai Jogi went from the village to the city, and how they became artists. In Hope is a Girl Selling Fruit (2013), the Mithila-style folk painter Amrita Das draws — and draws us into — meditations on her life, the life of a girl she sees on a train, the lives of women in India. The third book is Sultana's Dream, Rokheya Sakhawat Hussain's famous 1905-fable about a world where peace-loving women rule over men, is illustrated by the Gond artist Durga Bai. The text in these books is spare and simple, but it talks about serious things. The images, though, are what one lingers over. Like the albums in which the Mughal aristocracy housed their miniature paintings, this is art between the covers.
And certainly, I agree that we respond differently to narrative when the only pictures we have access to are the ones in our heads. Images might hook you faster, but they also change the rhythm of your reading.
started to think about these things again on a recent trip to Germany, where six Indian editors and I had been sent to meet German publishers of graphic novels, young adult and children's books. Some entered these genres for somewhat instrumental reasons. Carl Hanser Verlag — publishers of Sophie's World — said their children's list first emerged because they wanted to stop their authors from taking their manuscripts for kids to other publishers. Similarly, the venerable Suhrkamp, known for publishing theory and literary heavyweights, started its graphic novel list partly as a way of keeping all versions of their great books. So they started with celebrated Austrian artist Mahler doing a graphic version of Thomas Bernhardt's novel Alte Meister (Great Masters), and a graphic interpretation of Robert Musil's mid-century novel The Man Without Qualities. But last year, they stopped playing safe like that: they brought out the graphic autobiography of Volker Reiche, veteran of the German comics scene. Also, publishing Mahler's Musil was a radical thing to do — turning Musil's dense, thousand-page classic into a fairly slender set of pages, with barely six sentences to a page, could easily be seen as sacrilege.
And really, one part of me agrees vociferously: how can reading Mahler be the same as reading Musil?
Other German publishers we met come from the opposite side. They have not, shall we say, had to readjust their reading glasses to see the pictures. Some of these are, like Mosaik, comic publishers first and foremost, their adventurous Abrafaxe threesome dating back to the East German 1950s. Others, like Reprodukt, are part of the coming of age of the German graphic novel. Their recent Kinderland, about a seventh grader before the Berlin Wall fell, has won awards and critical acclaim from the "serious" quarters of the press.
But it was at our last meeting, with the Frankfurt publishers Edition Buchergilde, that I saw the most imaginative responses to the text/image debate. Buchergilde has long published illustrated titles for adults, and they're unafraid to tap into our most childlike forms of wonder: I saw a truly remarkable edition of Patricia Highsmith's dark thriller, The Talented Mr. Ripley, with 3-D illustrations that need accompanying 3-D glasses. More recently, Buchergilde published Arthur Schnitzler's classic  Traumnovelle (Dream Novel, the origin of the film Eyes Wide Shut)in a graphic version. What's great is that Jakob Hinrichs' graphic version is an adaptation, and says so — but Buchergilde pleases everyone — and both aspects of everyone — by publishing the full original text as an appendix to the graphic novel.
If the Tara books I spoke of appeal to the thoughtful side of children, Buchergilde appeals to the playful desires of adults. And yet you could reverse that assumption about pictures just as easily: Hinrich's images can be pretty disturbing. Anyway, don't we all need both?
Published in the Sunday Guardian.

13 July 2014

Woman, Uninterrupted

Today's Mumbai Mirror column:

Vidya Balan's free-spirited performances have opened up a space in our cinema where not just she, but other women, too, might begin to be comfortable in their skin.

In most Indian cities, it is still a rare joy to see a woman out and about on her own terms: walking, working, eating -- just being; a woman who sits comfortably in her skin, not 'adjusting' by squeezing into the smallest possible space simply because the men on either side have spread themselves out, as men do. 

And for me, at least, that joy is amplified when that woman isn't obsessively chronicling her every look, her every laugh and eyebrow twitch in some imagined mirror that is a man's face. 

Within the world of Hindi cinema, Vidya Balan is that woman. And in Bobby Jasoos, you see Balan do again what our film industry, like our public spaces, rarely let its women do: take the centre seat, settle in, and thoroughly enjoy herself. 

After the slow drying-up of Priyanka Chopra's A-for-Ambition appearances (Fashion, What's Your Rashi, Saat Khoon Maaf) -- and up until Kangana Ranaut's Queen (and the disappointing but risk-taking Revolver Rani) -- Balan has been the only heroine with commercial billing to test the Lakshman Rekhas the industry draws around its female actors. 

Having bid a loud and lusty goodbye to her good-girl reputation with Ishqiya and The Dirty Picture, she went on to carry a thriller like Kahaani entirely on her shoulders. 

After some years of grief, Balan has also figured out that her performances are enough to soar above the low-level depredations of the KJo-led fashion police. That liberation from starry compulsions translates into Balan's roles as well - can you think of anyone else in contemporary Bollywood who wouldn't have balked at doing a whole film with a big pregnant belly? Or embraced Silk Smitha's larger-than-life physically, literally spilling out of her clothes, with such joyous lack of inhibition? Or jumped with such gusto into the atrociously loud outfits of fashion-magazine-obsessed Neetu in Ghanchakkar

Balan is one of the rare Mumbai heroines who enjoys that most basic element of acting: becoming someone else. And in Bobby Jasoos, she gets to do it in the most enjoyable way possible. As an intrepid, if somewhat inept female detective, Balan's Bobby gets to walk the crowded alleys of Hyderabad's Mughalpura as everything from a turban-wearing beggar man to a young bangle seller with a wispy moustache. Balan looks like she's having as much of a good time as Bobby is meant to -- and I certainly revelled in watching Bobby, disguised as a large Kanjeevaram-clad mami with an impressive shelf of a bosom, suddenly start jumping with joy upon receiving her largest payment cheque ever. 

But it isn't just playing dress-up. For most Indian women, the idea of being able to melt invisibly into the -- inevitably male -- crowd is a pervasive fantasy. Bobby Jasoos taps into that often unarticulated yearning by having its heroine achieve, in multiple forms of masquerade, the freedom she might not have otherwise. 

By making Bobby a roza-keeping Muslim woman who's never without her dupatta, the film aims for a social realism of sorts. This is a conservative lower middle class milieu, in which a woman who hasn't married and borne children by thirty is beyond the pale, and a man having a serious chat with his son sends his wife -- who's massaging his head -- into another room. It is no surprise that Bobby's father can only respond to the gift of his daughter's first salary with the pronouncement that "This household doesn't run on women's earnings." 

Yet when Bobby wears a burqa, it is only as another form of disguise. Her usual uniform is a loose salwar-kameez, her hair escaping an untidy plait and a packet of Parle-G biscuits peeping out of her satchel. Her workaday look is also a reflection of her priorities: we have here a woman whose response to having the car door opened for her by a personable young man is to say caustically, "Mereko aata hai gaadi ka darwaza kholna". Bobby is the elder sister who, when she needs to enter a five star hotel on assignment, gets one of her more feminine younger sisters to do her make-up. 

And yet, even while Bobby (and it's important that she insists on being called that, instead of the more feminine Bilqees) does largely what she wants, she continues to crave approval from her father (and in an interesting mirroring, from the life-changing older man who becomes her mystery client). 

The other remarkable thing about Bobby's character is that she's too busy working to bother chasing men -- and when love does appear, it is gentle and unbombastic. 

Especially for a film that returns us, after an aeon, to an all-Muslim milieu, Bobby Jasoos almost makes no concessions to romantic nazakat Muslim Social style. In fact, it sustains its tenor of comic mystery quite remarkably: if there's any gazing at feet in this movie, it's to look for a man with a missing toe. 

With Bobby Jasoos, Balan gives us a reel-life heroine who's neither a doormat nor a head-tossing rebel without a cause. She'd be a treasure even in the real world.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

Mediterranean Maldives

(In one of those rare moments where my working life suddenly becomes all it's cracked up to be, Outlook Traveller magazine sent me to the Maldives for three days -- to review a Club Med resort. This is that piece.)

Trisha Gupta finds an island-wide watering hole to wallow in at Club Med Kani

I’m usually the sort of person whose holidays involve lots of seeing and doing. I’m the museum girl, the city wanderer, the excited jungler. And yes, sure, I love the sea, but I could never get myself to plan a whole vacation around being a beach bum. Until now.

At Club Med Kani, a swim in the sea is the most hectic thing you can do. Actually, no, I should take responsibility for my decadence: it’s the most hectic thing I did.

The tone of my holiday was set on the first morning. After a long and lazy breakfast, I was idling in the sea-facing pool when they announced aqua gym time. I considered the temptations of wa­ter aerobics, but my waiting gin and tonic won out. I swam one last lap quickly and got out, and didn’t get back in for the synchronised pool dancing or the water basketball game that came immediately after. Instead, I moved my deck chair into a carefully orchestrated patch of palm-tree shade and finished the last third of my David Mitchell novel. And more G&Ts, of course.

With a beach bar that opens up at 11 in the morning (and stays open until the action shifts to the evening bar), superb and varied buffet meals, and the gener­ally mellow vibe produced by a calm blue sea, Kani makes decadence seem normal. But Club Med’s all-inclusive vacation style caters just as well to the sporty, active holiday-maker: you’d certainly feel like you’re getting your money’s worth if you’re the type who goes sailing in the morning, snorkelling in the afternoon and kayaking in the evening.

I didn’t sail or go kayaking, but the snorkelling was a revelation. Two snor­kelling trips are conducted every day at Kani, and all you need to do to sign up is a basic swim test. An instructor (often two) accompanies each boatload of snor­kellers to a coral reef (there are over ten different spots in the vicinity) and keeps track of them in the water. I’ve only snor­kelled in India before, in the very shal­low, small stretch around Sindhudurg Fort, on the Konkan coast. I enjoyed that very much, but the reef in the Maldives is something else. I went thrice in three days, and before you ask: no, it doesn’t count as hectic. To float on the surface of a turquoise sea and let your eyes feast on the most spectacular-hued fish below, as the sun warms your back above: it’s as close as I’ve gotten to paradise.

The island itself is also quite lovely: great big bushes of cheerful red ixora act as buffers between one beach villa and another, and the path down to the villas is lined with fragrant frangipani trees, many-coloured hibiscus and multiple kinds of coleus. The beach is the classic palm-fringed variety, the water a perfect temperature and waves in the lagoon almost non-existent. The only thing you might complain about is that the sand isn’t powder-smooth, but I think that would be churlish. I didn’t spot a large variety of birds, though it was fun to watch the white-breasted waterhens chase each other and a solitary grey heron stood sentinel by the poolside for so long that I actually thought it was a life-size sculpture.

As with most Maldivian hotel resorts, at Kani the resort is the island, the island is the resort. Upon arrival, this can bring on the slightly surreal sensation of what I call ‘Hotel-California-ness’—the realisa­tion that unless someone sails or flies you out of there, “you can never leave”. But once you get over that and stop imagining  yourself in some postmodern version of an Agatha Christie desert island where people are going to start dropping off one by one, you could even begin to enjoy the resort’s rather predictable routine: large buffet breakfast, even larger buffet lunch, evening display of suitably tropi­cal cocktails and post-dinner display of artistic talent by Club Med staff, who go by the name of GOs (Gentils Organisa­teurs). And the opportunities for people watching are aplenty. The international beach divides itself neatly into West Europeans and East Asians, one group spreading themselves out en masse to receive the sun, the other swathing themselves in scarves and edging their chairs into the shade. The staff, too, feels truly international, and since GOs are meant to drink, dance and generally hang out with guests, you can actually have conversations with someone of a differ­ent nationality at every meal.

I stayed in one of the 24 beach villas, which are ranked between the more reg­ular rooms and the über-luxurious suites on stilts that are arranged at one end of the island in the shape of a palm tree. The first thing I did when I checked in was to experience that ultimate in ironic resort luxury — a shower open to the sky, with a high wall to protect you from prying eyes. The other highlight of the room for me was the wooden sit-out through which you can access the beach, equipped with its own long chairs and beach umbrella — and most marvellously thoughtful of all, a large earthen pot of water placed there with a coconut-shell ladle, to wash sand off your feet before you enter your room.

On my third and last evening, I signed up for something I’d never done before: a Balinese massage. Run by the Mandara chain that owns Balinese spas across the world, the spa at Kani is a calming space, with water gurgling gently into a little pool and therapeu­tic herbal smells wafting out of the curtained cubicles. The masseuse of­fered me a choice of four oils, dabbing my hand with them in turn. The one I picked turned out to be called Island Spice: a soyabean-oil base infused with ginger, clove and nutmeg, which I was told was a warming oil, good for ener­gising sore muscles. After being slowly kneaded with it for fifty minutes, my body felt both energised and perfectly relaxed. It was in a happy haze that I arrived at the open-air Kandu Bar for my sundowner. I spent another hypnotic hour or so enjoying Kandu’s most fantastic feature: a light cast into the water that turns the sea around you into an open-air aquarium. By the time the evening’s stage show rolled around, I was ready to roll into bed. After all, it had been a hectic three days.
The information
Location Club Med Kanifinolhu, North Malé Atoll; 35 minutes by speedboat from Malé airport
Accommodation 117 Superior rooms, 24 Beach Villas and 75 Lagoon Suites (also called Suites-on-Stilts)
Tariff Per person for 3 nights: $748 (superior room), $1202 (beach villa), $1634 (lagoon suite)
Contact +960-6643152, clubmed.co.in

Published in Outlook Traveller magazine, June 2014.