Boyhood and the art of gimmick.

There is a scene in ‘Boyhood’ that comes five minutes before the end credits. Olivia (played with amazing restraint by Patricia Arquette), breaks finally and yells at her son who is leaving home for college: “..then I sent Sam to college and now you. You know whats next? my fucking funeral. I thought…I thought there will be more…” and in probably the best cut in the entire film, there is a beautiful aerial shot of a lush highway. Brief Silence. That for me was the essence of the entire film, in one fleeting moment. The answer to the question my friend Nishant famously asks any film – ‘why should this story be told?’. But I had to wait more than two hours for Linklater’s answer.

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‘Boyhood’ is a unique cinematic experience where your affinity and affection for characters grows organically, progressively. They all falter but most rise and win your love over time. It is something to experience. And time itself is the protagonist – in the sense that it prevails over every character and remains unconquered by the end of it all – much like John Wayne or Rajinikant, if you may. And much like either of the afore-mentioned gentlemen, it is ‘time’ that seems to be the poster boy, selling the film at box offices and award circuits – ‘Its that film that got made over 12 years! So awesome, no?’.

But as much as you journey with these characters intimately across Real passage of time, you really don’t get to know anyone personally. The writer doesn’t let you. It is almost like you traveled with them for years on a Mumbai local train. You know their faces. They grow older in front of you. They might even smile at you. But you really don’t know anything about their lives – their Loves, embarrassments, hatreds, ambitions, pains or fetishes. And there in lies the tragedy of Boyhood – a film that had twelve years to get to know itself, but was just too lazy to. The result is a mind numbing menu of set pieces – Olivia is a professor and so she always had to be surrounded by books on a table; Mason is an adolescent and like all cool adolescent stereotypes in film history, he should talk less and be a non-conforming rebel; There is even a beer drinking, ex-army husband of Olivia who walks around home with his work jacket (with the word ‘Corrections’ written behind it) – the kind of role you would cast Ronit Roy in, without battling an eyelid; There is also a scene completely disconnected from the rest of the film – a customary boy’s washroom scene with high school bullies – why? because what kind of coming-of-age-Hollywood-film doesn’t have a boys washroom high school bully scene? Duh!

But there are refreshing breaks. Over the years, the kids’ father – played by the ever earnest Ethan Hawke, comes over to take them on little, fun trips. And they are breaks for the audience as well. The conversations Mason has with his father are the best written parts of this film and then there is the legendary scene in which Father, son and daughter learn to have more interesting, less awkward ‘car conversations’. But for the rest of it, this viewer felt extremely let down and even border line bored. Which made me wonder, is this really an underwhelming independent film, making news ‘only’ for the length of its shoot? Isn’t that a bit gimmicky?

The film ends with this scene, set in the beautiful Big Bend (spoiler alert). Nine out of ten film makers I know, would have re-shot this or used a different take. Why? the last line is flat and Ellar Coltrane is sleep walking through this take (unless of course that was his brief for the entire film). But it might just become known in history as the famous last scene of an Oscar winning film. Coz ‘Its that film that got made over 12 years!!!’.

Ah well…

A few weeks back, I wrote this post about Indigo airlines. When I wrote it, I was not really expecting them to get back to me. May be it is because of what I have been seeing in this category on social media for many years – Indian airline brands are generally averse to sensitive conversations on this medium, perhaps for fear of making things bigger than what they already are. I was also not expecting them to get back to me because the damage was already done, in both instances.

So it was a pleasant surprise when a few days back, someone called me from their ‘in-house’ social media team and asked me for the name of the personnel, etc. I shared the details thanked them profusely for caring about my post. I promptly got a tweet from them asking for my contact details, which I shared. Even at this time, all I was expecting was just a mandatory closure of the loop or at best an apology of sorts. I had already moved on in any case.

But what happened next, did blow my mind! They sent me an email (below) on why they cannot refund my ticket. Wait. What??? I re-read the email again and it was true. They had indeed sent me an email on why they cannot refund my ticket!! Now I went and re-read my post. No, I have never asked for a refund anywhere. I have largely only talked about how impersonal and ‘PLASTIC’ their customer facing organization is becoming. And this email is…ah, well.

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Why I love an errant Meru and hate the awesome Indigo!

Lao Tzu famously said ‘A Journey of a thousand miles, begins with a single step’. For me, it has always been a Meru. I cannot think of an occasion where I have not taken a meru to an Indian airport – irrespective of which city I have lived in. And not just to airports. Whether it is a loved one leaving home in the night or when a friend is stuck somewhere, it has always been this brand that was top of mind. I am not exactly sure how / when this kind of an extreme loyalty happened.

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A few months back, we were brain storming for a campaign in our office. The question was: ‘what are the brands that you trust unconditionally’? There were many suggestions. Mine were Reynolds pens, Meru and Apple. The common thread here was the ability of these brands to deliver quality consistently, over long periods of time – to a point where you take them for granted. With Meru, quality for me was availability, punctuality and demeanor of the staff. The first two are operational, but friendliness and courtesy are softer skills. What differentiates a Meru driver for me from any other service provider is their professionalism, their customer-friendly communication skills and the evident consciousness that they are part of the service industry.

Over the years, a lot of the operational efficiency has been eroded. There have been occasions where a chauffeur has not shown up or the app has been erratic or card readers haven’t worked. There was even that one time when three cars drove up to our gate for one passenger, because of a system glitch. The fleet is ageing as well and that isn’t pretty. But the service hasn’t changed. A few weeks back, I was taking an early morning flight and took a Meru to the airport. Half way during the trip, I realized that I did not have enough cash and that the driver did not have a card reader. But thankfully there was that one road in between, where there were three ATMs. We quickly stopped at the first one, but soon I realized that the machine was out of order. Normally, I am a reasonably lucky person (I have gotten away with more shit than I should have, in life). But that morning, everything I touched was kaput. What are the odds that all three ATMs on the road would fail? Well, pretty high apparently. So I get into the car panicking, as I realized I had lost a good 15 min in all this and my last resort – the airport ATM, was at the very end of the building and will definitely jeopardize an on time check-in. I had never missed a flight in life and I was not planning on breaking that record that morning. And then the man behind the wheel said something: “Dont worry sir. You can pay me after you return to Delhi”. I clarified that I was going to be out for a week. He said he was OK. “You have my number. Call me when you return and when it is convenient for you”. I wanted to hug the man, fist bump, kiss him and buy him a beer. But then I got myself together, made a mental note to blog about him, renewed my love for Meru and dashed into the airport.

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There is this other brand that I adore – Indigo airlines. Put simply, it takes a monumental vision, brilliant management and truck loads of chutzpah (Not to mention an absolutely killer Upma), to make a  600 Cr profit in a market where all of your competition is making thousands of Crores of losses. It is not just their operational efficiency that I admire, but also their entire branding. With great minds, everything can be a media property – the flight ramp, the bus, the in-flight magazine, the biscuit tin and hell, even the head rest. And when their ‘on time is a wonderful thing’ campaign broke out, I was definitely sure we had our own, homegrown Southwest. Only a better version!

But things changed a few years back. Flights were delayed, delays were rarely acknowledged, check-in experiences became disastrous, egg-shells started appearing in sandwiches, in-flight service went from non-existent to streaky to just plain absurd some times (There was this one time when I was served food 2 minutes before we commenced descent),  and the staff went from being generally excitable to largely indifferent and frequently rude. I once witnessed a passenger behind me almost passing out mid-flight, but thankfully doctors were on-board that day and they recommended that the man be given some food for blood sugar. When he was revived though, he was promptly handed down a receipt and was asked to pay for the sandwich they served him – with a smile, of course.

But the tipping point for me was the 27th of September. I had another early morning flight (6:20 AM) from Mumbai to Delhi and thanks to a long check out process at the Hotel and a slightly late cab, I reached the airport about 55 minutes before take off. Too close, even for my standards. I had no check-in luggage and so immediately went to the closest counter. The lady there was servicing a customer and so I politely told her that I was taking the 6:20 Delhi (which she acknowledged) and went back to my place in the queue. Five minutes passed and then my turn came. She told me I was too late and can’t make the flight. I was a bit surprised and told her to please check again. She asked me to speak to her manager. I waited another 5 mts for her to come over and told her about my situation. She immediately declined and told me that she had ‘sent the papers to the pilot a long time back’ and I had no option but to buy a new ticket. She continued to chat with me about the ‘process’. This must have taken another 5 mts and while I was patiently listening, I was also sub-consciously analyzing my options.

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Then it struck me. I looked at the watch and it was still 40 mts before take off, which meant I must have been there at least 50 mts before the flight (I was sure I had been at that counter for at least 15 mts by then, but I want to give the benefit of doubt to the airline and went with 10 mts)  and so I stopped the manager and asked her to tell me what time I asked to be checked in. She asked the person at the desk, who replied “5:35 AM”. I asked how that was late (as 45 min is the legal deadline to check in and my flight was at 6:20 AM). Then she said “No sir, wait….it was actually 5:33 AM”. My tone was rapidly moving from polite to disappointed to angry, but the manager’s was consistently ‘rude’ from the beginning. Two minutes later into the discussion, I was given another time of “5:31 AM”. Now, I am not an expert on airline data systems but to put this in perspective, either this is a field that ‘is’ recorded in the system or it ‘is not’. If yes, then it is a number that doesn’t change and if not, then I am reasonably sure my watch is working. My hypothesis is that Indigo is happy to close a flight 5-10 mts before the 45 min deadline, if only a negligible number of passengers (read 0-3) are yet to check in. I am not basing this theory on one isolated incident (where all things considered, I was a borderline case), but on accounts from so many friends and colleagues. The reasons are obvious.

Two days back, my wife missed coming home for Diwali because an Indigo flight from Bhubaneswar was late by 80 mts and so she missed her connecting (Indigo) flight from Hyderabad. The treatment she was meted out by the staff at the Hyderabad airport (post mid night), when she enquired about her options was indifferent, rude and inhuman.

These incidents led me to wonder if running a tight ship meant losing the service DNA. I don’t think so. I can give you at least ten organizations who have grown in scale and trust, simultaneously – from Saravana Bhavan to Red Bus to Uber. The reason I write about these two contrasting brands together is because they make for a fascinating case study. Both are in categories where dog eats dog. Both need to analyze every measurable data point and ensure maximum efficiency to stay afloat and they do. One company seems to have its customer service DNA intact and the other seems to have lost it to some sterilization along the way. When did the ‘plastic’ nature of Indigo’s customer-facing organization set in? May be around the same time their hostesses were asked to use wigs?

The rapidly shrinking ball park

(as appeared first in The India Digital Playbook)

The history of measurement by the human race dates back to the 4th and 3rd millennia during the Indus Valley civilization, where the first tools of measurements like the ‘yard stick’ were used. Interestingly, most of these tools were calibrated in line with some body part – forearm, hand, fingers, etc. Time was measured by the movements of the sun, stars and other heavenly bodies. In other words, the most visible or accessible things became units of measurement. It was just easier that way. In due course of course, measurements became more complex and its applications more critical.

Similarly during 2010-11, when Indian brands went through a watershed moment in social media adoption, the metrics that marketers chased were the most visible and accessible – the number of likes, mentions, followers, etc. A million suddenly moved from being a number to actually a unit of measurement – a Million this and million that. If you did not have an ‘M’ on the “number of likes” field on your brand’s Facebook page, you were doing something wrong. Something Terribly wrong.

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The following years were more fruitful. As marketers, we understood that this was a medium that worked both ways – people were talking back and within these conversations lay the key to rewrite a brand’s future. You only needed to listen carefully, for the right marketing decisions to reveal themselves. And listen we did – ‘buzz volume’ and ‘sentiment analysis’ became terms that we used in everyday conversations in cubicles and board rooms.

This held us in good stead for a while. However, we are at the crossroads again and we have been forced to re-look at our scales. We might need to discard a few of them soon and acquire newer ones, if we want to move to the next level – a sentence that can also be worded as ‘if we want to survive the next few years’, in this industry. But before we go into that, what has changed? How did we get here so soon? Two reasons.

  1. Zuckerberg was right. The World has indeed become a more networked place. The average online user today is connected to more people and more brands than he was a few years back, last month, even yesterday!
  2. Online behavior and social media consumption behavior in particular has evolved:
    1. Web destinations have become strongly networked and accessible from social destinations.
    2. Content distribution channels have consolidated and the most efficient ones are today the most popular social platforms like Facebook and Twitter
    3. The user’s readiness to share something has increased and this in turn has dramatically increased the speed of content transmission. It is now a multi point injection.

In other words, content and information flow has moved from a complex map of rivers to a few, very steady streams with multiple feeders. and these streams are moving rapidly. So, your brand’s content, flowing across this stream, now has to fight more number of other pieces of content, so it can reach the intended user. The fact that networks like Facebook have altered algorithms to keep the stream more useful for the user, has further added to the challenge. But at the same time, in the positive side, the increased speed of the stream and the multi-point injection has also made good content more potent.

Whichever way we look at it, the stream has become key and the need to understand it, critical. The good news is that the stream can be monitored and is measurable – at least most of it. So we are ushering in an era where brands need to operate like a newsroom – conversations monitored, trends analyzed, content created on the fly and decisions made at the moment – Welcome to the ‘Now’ network. And in this network, measurement will evolve:

  • Buzz volume & sentiment will give way to consumer insight & brand health
  • Crisis management will morph into crisis avoidance
  • Search & social metrics will no more be silos but talk to each other
  • Brands will move from catching up with trends to trend-spotting and owning it.
  • Influencers will no longer be scouted to amplify campaigns. They will become campaigns.

And all this will lead to a rapid shrinking of the margin for error. Being “in the ball park” wont be enough. You will have to land it on the damn pitch!

The thing about Sundays…

Elections are over. IPL has become predictable. It is too hot for a brunch. And all your worries about the Indian economy have been magically wiped out on May 16th. Now, what will you do with your Sundays? Aren’t you worried? You should be.

How about throwing in a haircut? What’s that? I struck a chord there? Of course. You can thank me later.

The thing about Sundays is that it can be the best and the worst day of the week for a hair cut. Best because you appreciate the rhythm of the scissors more on a Sunday. Your mind is open to it. On any other day, it almost sounds like channel music on an elevator – you hear it, but are really not listening to it (think Kenny G).

Why is it bad? Well, because it invariably ends with a mild head massage – one, which can vary from a prolonged, pleasurable event (if the barber in question believes you are a big tipper) to a mild dusting of the hair (if he is not sold), which is more like a faked orgasm or non-alcoholic beer. Now, if you got the former, you are gonna feel reasonably sleepy and if you live in a city of ‘chronically sensitive’ drivers like Delhi, you do not really want to venture walking by a road on a Sunday morning (*cough*hangovermornings*cough*).

But really, none of these are as important to the Sunday haircut ritual as your regular barber itself. Think of it like going to your most frequented watering hole in the city:

“Welcome sir” says the beaming bartender. He then vacates your ‘favourite’ table and pauses expectantly.

“The usual” you say in the most indifferent manner possible.

“Of course” says the bartender as he turns his attention to your date, who is by now expectedly impressed (significantly increasing the prospects of the evening).

Cut to the Hair Salon.

“Welcome” says the owner of the shop and calls out “Asif, Karthik Sir aaye huey hain”.

“Hello Sir” says a beaming Asif, as he walks you inside, completely indifferent to the 3 other people who have been waiting before you.

As you settle down on the chair and as Asif is done placing the ‘reverse super hero cape’ on you, he politely enquires “regular same sir ji?”.

Your most minimalistic smile is usually enough, so you can sit back, relax and enjoy the music.

So you can imagine my shock the other day, when I entered the place and the owner welcomed me and yelled “Naushad!”. He might have as well pulled out a Walther PPK .8 mm and pointed it at towards my left ventricle. My reaction would have been largely similar. Reading my mind, he said ‘Asif is on leave, sir’. The revolver was still pointed at me. So he added: ‘Naushad is excellent sir. Very good’.

When it comes to choosing between the opportunity to cut a queue and the prospect of an unknown barber, the human mind (of the Delhi variety) usually decides in favour of the former. You may think it is not a wise choice. But when you have spent multiple Sunday mornings of your growing up years waiting for ‘Uncles’ of varying sizes to bleach their skin, dye exactly 5 strands of hair, mow nasal lawns or clear dense ear tunnels, I am sure you will catch my drift.

So here I am, on the guillotine seat and Naushad has just caped me down, with something that has a L’oreal sign where there should have been a bat. And he is waiting expectantly for my orders. I mumble something about how it should be short overall and even shorter around the sides and the back of the head.

“Machine? Number 3?” he asked. And all my worst fears came true. Which self-respecting barber uses a machine? That is like Rembrandt using a stencil.

For years, I have scoured through hundreds of election manifestos of different political parties, looking for a specific combination of words – “We will standardize machine blade measurements across barber shops in this country”. No, along with Dalit rights, and sustainable energy, this issue continues to be largely ignored by the political class. Let me explain why this matters – if you got a #3 cut in ‘Ambuli Saloon’ in Chennai and if you got the same in “Hair we ‘R’” (real name) in Malviya Nagar, Delhi, the length of your hair vary between Malinga’s and Abhishek Manu Singhvi’s. In other words, I have no fucking idea what Naushad really means when he says ‘number 3’.

“Scissor se?” I say, with the same look that Rahul Gandhi had when Arnab asked him about the 1984 riots. And so it began. The symphony of metallic clicks suddenly felt like tremors of a 7.6 on the richter scale – with every sound, I had to check if there was a structural damage. After 7 minutes (which in earth quake time is about 47.2 years), Naushad moved away briefly and I surveyed the epicenter: for a moment, the whole head ‘seemed’ a bit….out of shape. It seemed like the backside of a Maruti Ritz or the façade of Antilla or the home page of IRCTC – you get the drift.

That sinking feeling that I will never look the same again crept it (I hear you say “dei, it is only 4 weeks max”, but rationale was not exactly in the top 5 priorities at that moment). I was framing an angry sentence in Hindi in my mind (a process that usually takes a minute when emotions are running high), when suddenly, an alternative thought revealed itself – “Dude. On fourth thoughts, it doesn’t look that bad. Wait…you might even like this, actually”. And then it happened. Like the Indian market embracing Hyundai Santro, like an average Rahman song growing on you, like how our senses learn to survive an Arnab News Hour, like how we started appreciating Nargis Fakhri for things besides acting, I found contentment in my new look.

Meanwhile, Naushad was back with his knife. Apparently he wasn’t done yet…

Trip.

There is a scene in Imtiyaz’s ‘Highway’, in which Alia is sitting on a rock in the middle of a potent river, that is overwhelming both in its flow and in its roar. She starts laughing uncontrollably, one that is soon overcome by tears. The soulful brilliance of being one with nature and the painful absurdity of life as she has lived it until then…she gets it. We get it as well, for it is not just her reflection at that moment but ours too (Even the guy next to me who was on the phone telling his friend “aa raha hoon’ since intermission, paused for a few seconds). There is neither a background score or lines in that scene. Just a cut from her to the river and back. It is for moments like this that we go to the movies. Thank you, Mr. Ali.

‘Highway’ is a simple film that is bound to be many things. More number of friends (than you would like), will talk about how they cant believe ‘Alia was the same girl who was in SOTY’. Some will tell you they saw a lot of ‘Jab we met’ in this film. A few ‘elites’ will even tell you how the film is ’15 mts longer than it should be’. Everyone will discuss the locations and Delhiites might fondly remember their drives to Spiti or Leh. And everyone will talk about Alia and her interpretation of this character, more than anything else. And not a single time would it be undeserved.

I hope they mention Aarti Bajaj, who dances with your mind and pulls out cuts that make this film almost genre-less. I hope many mention the Hariyanvi who plays the male lead so beautifully. In the scene at the bus stand where he smiles in the film for the first time, you can almost feel the actor’s relief that a writer has finally given him a part that he could sink his teeth into. Or the original score. I feel this is one of Rahman’s best as far as background scores go – something that he has always treated like Sachin would, his bowling – indifferently. I hope they mention the casting. And mention it many times, because a film like this relies on the world that the supporting cast creates, more than the protagonists who wander in it. The Durgesh Kumars (Aadoo) and the Pradeep Nagars (Tonk) of this film who dont even have an IMDB page yet, make you wonder how this director / casting director combo went so wrong with a leading lady famously in their last outing.

Above all, I hope many who have watched this film, remember it for the honesty of the writer, director. Nothing epitomizes that more than the last scene. What a way to call for the curtains! You can tell that this is a story told told almost exactly the way it was conceived. Much like the brownish water gushing out of an irrigation hose that Alia dips her face into in one of the scenes, this is pretty much direct from the ground. And that makes this film an ‘experience’ you should make time for. This is (like a famous motorcycle brand’s tag line), a ‘Trip’.

the unbearable cruelness of radio…

Wine was born in the middle east, exactly in the same countries where it is banned today. There was a time when people mixed wine to purify sea water and make it potable…

The rebel group in Syria asks:”why this outrage over chemical weapons? we have been dying for years and the ‘method’ they use to kill us is what really bothers the outside world now?”

Steven Soderbergh never did a screen test of Michael Douglas and Matt Damon for ‘Behind the Candelabra’. It could also be his last film ever, as he wants to take a sabbatical to ‘tear down everything he knows about film making’ and start as a ‘primitive’ again.

Jim Morrison did not write ‘light my fire’. Robby Krieger did and he composed its first version as well. But it is the tweaked Ray Manzarek version that eventually made it to our ears. Among his many inspirations for that piano riff was Johann Strauss.

Joseph Kennedy – the patriarch of the Kennedy family outlived nine of his children and also went through the mental illness of his daughter Rosemary, whose lobotomy he ordered when she was 23.

Pandit Ravi Shankar hated the Woodstock. He calls it an experience that he had to endure. He felt that the people in the audience were like ‘water buffaloes’.

Sarah Polley, who won multiple awards for her film ‘Stories we tell’, found out during the filming of this documentary that her father was not her biological father. The film was about the life of her mother, in the words of her family and friends who knew her.

For more than half a decade now, I have started a majority of my week days listening to anecdotes like these, in first person, thanks to a certain Terry Gross – the legendary host and executive producer of ‘Fresh air’, on NPR.

It is a radio experience like no other: the art of conversation so evolved that the audience becomes the third person at the table – whether they are driving on a San Francisco Interstate (where I first heard Terry on air) or passing the Sultanpur metro station. If you are one who likes the pursuit of information and experiences, then you will love the Terry experience – like how an entire generation before us did!

The art of interviewing is a delicate craft. Far beyond the worlds of Arnab Goswami or Charlie Rose or Simi Garewal or Tim Sebastian or even David Frost, there exists a realm where the interviewer has no ego. No temptation to judge. There is openness and wit, admiration and panache. Indulgence and Honesty, even. That is Terry’s realm. And you should take a trip there. It is a delightful place and I go there every morning, almost. And over the years, it sort of feels like the right thing to do while driving.

And then there are days when I forget to update the podcast or the phone runs out of juice. Well there is always the local Delhi FM, I assure myself. And with great indulgence and patience, I drift on from 91.1 to 105.7, patiently and intently waiting for that one sound. One sound that will hook me and make me take my finger off the scanner…..dinkachaka, realty ad, Ranbir’s last film’s song, prank call by RJ, realty ad, dinkachaka, ranbir’s new film’s song, prank call by ‘guest’ RJ….wait….what is this? wow….94.3 has changed programming to entirely English music? That is refreshing….at least a change from about 10 other stations playing the same genre….lets listen in….’Good morning! This is Kris, your host and coming up, Bryan Adams with Summer of 69…are you excited???’…..

On those days me and my car decide in favour of silence. Just us and the road. You should try it some time…

Getting the drift…

Why talk about a film that you saw three full weeks back? Because I can? I should? it was important enough to be documented? No. It is more like ‘I somehow still remember how I felt after watching this film and so I need to get this thing off my chest’.

There is a scene in Mani Ratnam’s ‘Kadal’ (Ocean), conveniently set in a prison, in which the character played by Arvind Swamy is dressed in White and the one played by Arjun, in black. I am led to believe that it was apparently because they represent Good & Evil in the narrative. This nuance has as much depth as the practice of buying blue or pink balloons, depending upon the new born’s gender, when you go to visit the parents in the hospital. And this is the kind of fare you are dished out throughout this film. How and when did Mani Ratnam get so simplistic? What motivates him to make a film like Kadal? A few years back, I swore to never say that a film was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – only whether I ‘liked’ it or not. So this is largely from the eyes of a fan, who doesn’t quite understand the job description of a film ‘critic’.

‘Kadal’ has one of the most stunning soundtracks by Rahman in the last year. The genre is so diverse that when you listen to it for the first time, you wonder how the blues, rap and jazz is going to blend in with the rustic Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) fishing hamlet, where the film is set in. Turns out, it is not just the genre. If you listen to the lyrics, it is as though the songs themselves were written for a different film. For example, the title track ‘Magudi’ is about a woman talking to a man who she is obviously smitten by. This is overlaid on a scene where a prostitute’s son is being shunned by his own society. ‘Nenjukulle’ – another song that is in the words of a woman hopelessly in love with her man is filmed as a duet where the man is in love and the woman might or might not even know it, given her mental condition.

Kadal starts off with a blast. One of the most powerful and intriguing first 30 mts of any Tamil film that I have seen in the recent past. A mother (who the society considers immoral) has just died and is given a customary burial by her lover, on the beach. Her child looks on. The makeshift wooden box being used as a coffin is too small to fit her legs and so they break and badger it in. The child cries.The theatre chokes and your subconscious mind whispers – ‘welcome back, Mr. Ratnam’. The film probably has many such moments, later on. May be I missed them or they did not register. Because somewhere in the next one hour, I stopped caring for the child, who is by then a man and the protagonist. And the others.

Talking of others, there is one actor who is obviously relishing every scene that he is in. The amazing Arjun – one of the most underrated Indian actors, who has consistently surprised the Tamil audience over the years (with films like ‘Kurudhipunal’, ‘Rhythm’ & Mudhalvan), is among the few to survive the screenplay and come out of it largely unscathed, even though the lines have been particularly unfair to his character. To watch him in the opening scenes as a priest who indulges in ‘sin’ and generally seen having a good time, is one of the few convincing and enjoyable moments in the film.

‘Kadal’ is actually the least Maniratnam-ish film that Maniratnam has made. The writing doesnt have his strong footprints. Jayamohan’s script and dialogues are so rooted that you hardly find the typical ‘Ratnam’isms like truncated, anglicized sentences or out-of-the-blue references to Subramaniya Bharati’s works. There is so much attention to detail (especially to the local slang and life), that you often sit up and wonder whether you are actually in the middle of a classic. But after a point, you just avoid ‘sitting up’ altogether.

I recently read a book about Maniratnam. While largely forgettable, the book (which is written as an interview with the director) conveyed something very important in the journey of this creator. It seemed like as a story teller, he was becoming more and more conscious of efficiency and is ready to sacrifice indulgence for objectivity. You could see a lot of this in Guru and Raavan, where you almost wish the film would linger more on the characters so you start to love or hate them – at the least, just care about them. I wonder whether somewhere in this ‘correction’, the artist was killed by the ‘management graduate’.

The climax of the film is shot amazingly well on a fishing boat, which is inexplicably sailing in the middle of a storm. No one really knows why it is there and where it is headed. Ironically, you feel pretty much the same way about the script which by then has drifted beyond the horizon for you. You feel lost. I was told a week after by a friend, that the film is essentially about Good Vs Evil and largely inspired by Dante’s work (the association apparently goes beyond the character ‘Beatrice’). I dint get it. May be this film was meant for a more ‘evolved’ audience. I am just the lowly ‘paying public’, who thought a film titled  ‘Kadal’ will actually have more ‘Ocean’, than just in the climax. I walked out tired and parched.

Parting ways – a weekend with Blessy & Farhadi

Watching a film is a lot like having a drink. You soak in a bit of your soul in it, there is almost always a hangover, the experience can be enthralling or nauseating and most importantly, you should never mix two kinds successively. I did and it was brilliant.

I have never seen any of Asghar Farhadi’s films before and so the first time I heard about it was from the awards circuit. I have loved and worshiped Iranian film makers over the years (like millions of others globally) and like everybody else, have wondered endlessly about the seemingly effortless magic they have been able to weave around human and social drama, time and time again. So, when I sat down to watch ‘A Separation’, I was ready for moving, profound cinema – the kind that your mind sub-consciously prepares itself for the moment it sees olive leaves on a DVD cover.

What I was not prepared for though was a stunning piece of film that gave me one of my most intimate experiences ever with cinema. Two minutes into it, the audience is introduced to the most important character in the film – the green glass door of a house that will host four beautiful, yet tragically and dis-harmonically juxtaposed characters: A husband and wife contemplating a divorce, a pregnant mother who enters their life as a maid and their daughter (played wonderfully by Sarina Farhadi – the auteur’s own daughter).

A simple incident of the maid leaving the husband’s aged father alone for a few hours to go for a doctor’s check-up, spawns a series of turns that include a miscarriage, a divorce, and a murder charge. Though dramatic, these elements are weaved together in a screenplay with emotions that the audience is always able to relate to. To borrow from the inimitable Roger Ebert – “The film involves its audience in an unusually direct way, because although we can see the logic of everyone’s position, our emotions often disagree”. Farhadi uses his craft so well to bring us closer to his characters: A large part of the film has been shot from the POV of a judge hearing the case (metaphorically putting the audience in the jury throughout the film); The husband’s father – suffering from Alzheimer’s goes around as a mute (and probably the only) witness to everything that happens in the house; The most important scene in the film – when the husband encounters the maid for the first time, happens in a fleeting moment that the audience themselves don’t take note of and hence cant judge any of the characters. These and many more.

Barely a day later, I decided to watch another film which cannot be more different from ‘A Separation’ but yet is similar in so many ways.

Blessy – like the Iranian talents I worship, is a master of his craft; Both films are anchored on a divorce; Some of the most talented actors in their respective countries carry the load of both the films; And both narratives revolve around a lie that is simple yet tragic and relationships that are precious, yet fragile.

But unlike ‘A Separation’, ‘Pranayam’ is not a spell. It is a journey. The movie has many distractions like Anupam Kher and Jayapradha, whose brilliant performances are marred by the fact that they are lip syncing in a language that they don’t speak. And like the numerous interludes in the form of songs that are not always montages. The end in both the movies also represent two different sensibilities – ‘A Separation’ ends as a comma, where the audience is not fully aware of what happens next (and they needn’t be as well)  while Pranayam ends with a closure – a logical culmination of all threads (which equally needn’t have to be the case as well).

‘Pranayam’ is probably one of the merrier films to come from the Blessy school, which boasts of powerhouse classics like ‘Tanmathra’ – that Mohan Lal considers his best ever and ‘Brahmaram’. In ‘Pranayam’, the writer in Blessy traverses a path that I can safely say isn’t oft taken in Indian cinema and explores the relationship between three wonderful human beings, played by Lal – a retired professor who is paralyzed partially, Anupam Kher – a retired, single father and Jayapradha – who had divorced Kher’s character Achutan forty years back and is now married to Lal’s Mathew. While the film has a lot of other not-so-well-written characters (like Achuthan’s ever-smiling grand daughter, who we cant figure out whether indifferent or doting) occupying the screen in the first half, it is the bond between these three that carries it to the end and also weaves the magic.

 

The first thought to hit me post the film was the casting decision, especially between Lal and Kher. It was so tempting to imagine the actors swapping their roles, but it also makes a lot of sense this way. Kher’s Mathew would have been too restrained and Lal’s Achutan would have reminded us of numerous roles the actor has done before. What Kher’s rendition and Blessy’s writing have done is to make Achutan, a character you would instantly fall in love with and remain loyal to. And the bond Kher and Lal create on screen proves yet again, the difference between actors and Masters.

The film doesn’t lose itself in flashbacks and stays true to the present – much like human memory itself. And the sense of practicality of the three characters is so real, it is unnerving. ‘Pranayam’, like ‘A Separation’ will stay with you for months if not years, because like all great cinema – it stays honest to the Human story. The rest are details.

You ain’t got ‘Class’!

I took my first flight ever in 2001. One of the soft benefits of choosing a niche career in Internet security used to be the paid-for trips to “cryptography conclaves” across the country – the real life equivalent of a ‘Big Bang Theory episode’. I was making one such sojourn from Chennai to Bangalore. 300 Kilometers for a crow. 45 minutes for Boeing – not exactly ‘Bon voyage’ types, but hey it was my first time ever in an airplane! I was genuinely excited.

They had me at Fresh Lime.

It was a Jet Airways flight and I had a lot of thoughts about the journey before I boarded. But a welcome drink wasnt one of them. For someone whose travels to Bangalore hitherto have been either in a ‘state transport corporation’ bus or a sleeper coach in Brindavan Express, I wasnt used to in-flight ‘anything’. So when the radiant smile asked me “orange, fresh lime or butter milk?”, I made a random choice at the time – “fresh lime, thank you”. Little did I know that it was a ritual I would end up following for years to come. It was a beverage befitting a great airline – you could almost hear it say “sit back, relax and enjoy me”. I would never ever know how their orange juice and butter milk tasted.

A perfect start to a ten year affair. I was smitten by most things about Jet Airways from that day – the yellow on white, the radiant smile, the classy magazine and even their Pongal-Vadai. It is not easy for an airline to find ‘True Love’, in our times. If you are a frequent traveler, that means about 7-8 ‘magical dates’ in a month. And thats not easy, what with the taxes, fog, terrorism, share holders and governments – ask Cinderella! But over the last 11 years, Jet remained my first choice airline, since that first date – business, personal, domestic or international. The reason was simple. All airlines screw up and Jet would as well. However, there was always a minimum service level beneath which a 9W experience would never go. Which is why it quickly became one of the brands I would trust Blindly – like Bose, Royal Enfield, Hamam, Southwest Airlines, Samsonite and Alacrity.

And I got used to the love. Many of times that I would have an argument at the check-in, an upgrade would wait for me at the gate. Every time a Mumbai flight got delayed, the Clipper lounge would make me feel at home. Hell, I even have the airport manager’s cell phone number and she would always pick up the phone and make an effort to resolve. I was a content customer. Something drastic needed to happen to shake my loyalty.

And happen it did. A few months back, I was buying tickets for my sister and four-year old nephew from Chennai to Delhi and back. As any self-respecting ‘mama’ would, I wanted them to travel business class, using my upgrade vouchers. And I planned meticulously for this (people who know me would find that completely out of character, but that’s for another day). I called Jet Privilege roughly 8 weeks before the proposed date. Strangely, they told me that all ‘voucher quotas’ were filled up for ALL days. I was baffled – 56 days, 112 flights and not two seats in business? Why were so many people traveling from Chennai to Delhi? It wasn’t even 2G season yet. Still, I gave JA the benefit of doubt and stayed on the ‘waiting list’.

A few weeks went by and I got a call from JP, claiming that they have blocked a few dates and that I can buy the tickets now. I was delighted. I booked the tickets in 5 minutes flat, beaming. Only to be told later in the day that I apparently booked a wrong class. The conversation went something like this (not verbatim):

Me: What class? I booked the ticket on Yatra. They don’t tell me ‘class’.
Jet: That blows, man. Hey, you can always book it on our site. We got ‘class’
Me: How much would it cost me.
Jet: Rs. XXX
Me: What the hell! But that’s only Rs. 200 below the actual cost of business class. Isnt this supposed to be ‘free upgrade’?
Jet: Shit happens, dude.
Me: but I am a JP Gold member and all that shebang.
Jet: That’s pretty cool, man. But it is what it is.

I was baffled. The romance was developing cracks. My family traveled ‘on time’ by Indigo and my wallet remained a tad heavier. But I did not give up. I tried many times over the next few months to exhaust my pile of vouchers – 5 days before, ten days before, one month before, 45 minutes before – but it was always the same set of responses:

“your class isn’t A,#,$,%,^,&,Y. Not even #,$,%,^,&,* or (”.

“Quota over”. “Full flight”

What I have learnt through all this are two things. One – there probably is no system behind the usage of upgrade vouchers at JA. IF there is one, it definitely seems as complex as the algorithm for building a large hadron collider out of confetti. Nobody at JA clearly has a clue. Two – The purpose of the JP program is not customer delight. It is more of ‘how can we create a perception of delight, without actually having to add value. Any value.

I started seeing others. A few dates with Indigo and even got Kingfisher’s number. And just like that, we broke up. (FYI Jet, it dint help that you changed the Fresh lime to LMN). After 11 years.

In passing, I wanted to share something that happened 5 days back. It was 12:30 AM in the night and I was supposed to fly to Mumbai early next morning on Air India. But the meeting had just got cancelled. So I called Air India (I know, right? Who the hell is going to pick up the phone past mid night in a state run airline?). Not surprisingly, the call got cut. I was about to go to bed, when the phone rang: “Hello Sir, I guess you were trying to reach us? Sorry the call got cut. This is Air India. How can I help you?”.

Airlines calls back? At 12:40 AM? What the fuck? What else have I been missing?