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Sunday, September 18, 2016

2016 movies so far

Apart from cooking and running, one of my favorite destresser is watching movies. A good movie just makes you forget everything. It has been little difficult to make time out for movies but in between, I did manage to catch a few and some of them have simply been amazing.


Spotlight -
Aah spotlight!  Tom McCarthy's Spotlight is one of the best movies of this year. A behind the scenes take on Boston Globe's expose of how priests where sexually abusing young children, Spotlight makes one feel back in love with the process of journalism.

There is a scene in Spotlight which just moved me. As the journalists are unraveling this mystery, they are all shocked to hear that even their local churches are involved in this. Since the complete depth is not clear, they can not confide with any of their friends outside work. And when 9/11 happens, they have to further wait before they publish. In one such waiting moments, Mark Ruffalo reveals heart broken he is. He had a religious upbringing but with youth he became agnostic. He had stopped going to church. But even with his skepticism, he believed that there could be a day when he may start believing again, he had hoped that church may offer him some solace. But this story has killed the dream and he can no longer respect that institution after what the team has uncovered.

Spotlight is very beautifully written, acted and directed. It has got to be the best movie for me this year.


Sully -
Sully, directed by Clint Eastwood, is a dramatic retelling of the real life incident in which a Capt Sullenberger successfully managed to land an airplane on Hudson river with no casualties. It was called "miracle on the Hudson". I was there in US when it happened. I remember hearing about the story but did not view it to be a miracle. I was too busy to worry about miracles then :)
The movie follows up here and explores the aftermath of this, in particular, an investigation by the NTSP, on whether the plane could have gone to land at a nearby airport. In a typical Clint style, the movie has an easy pace, great acting and lot of patriotic fervor to it. It is a human emotional drama told in a style that is getting old, yet it is a delight to watch.
The only problem with Sully - the film comes after the movie when upon research it is learnt that the investigation as told in the film never happened. It is a let-down. It is ok to take artistic liberties but to falsification at this level takes some glean out of it.


Pink
Pink is the movie of our times. There are very few movies that depict the society we live in, very few that can capture the imagination of a country, especially its urban middle class. Queen, Jhankar Beats, Khosla Ka Ghosla, A Wednesday has done so in past.  Movies like Dil Chahta Hai or even Rang De Basanti do not fall in this genre, because even they do try to attempt our society, the Bollywoodization is too much for us to relate to them. On top of it, Pink is a legal drama, a genre for which I have a weak spot.
Pink is a movie about three girls who are molested at a Surajkund resort. They escape after one of them breaks a whiskey bottle on one of the perpetrators. The perpetrators intimidate these girls, the girls file a molestation complaint and in retaliation the perpetrators file an attempt to murder case. What follows is a legal drama.  But the underlying context is how our society views women, how we judge them and finally what is the meaning of consent.
The first half of the movie is very taut, like a noir with an edge-of-a-seat thrill.  Without revealing the original incident, it is beautifully left to our imagination and the intimidation, even though is quite simple, manages to touch a raw chord.  Till the first half, it could have easily been an Anurag Kashyap movie. With the difference that in a Kashyap cinema, things go further downhill, but in this one, we get the regular cliches to make it an happy ending cinema. Despite this, the social commentary and the hard straight dialogues makes it a movie that we have been waiting from Bollywood.  The industry has to grow and this movie is showing a way.


Udta Punjab
I loved it! Yes, the ending is far too much contrived for the first 75% of the movie but the first three quarters is so good that I don't care. Basing on the drug menace in Punjab,  Udta Punjab got into spotlight because of censor board recommending many cuts. The courts provided some sanity and the movie was released with just one cut.
Udta Punjab has many many flaws, the whole Kareena Kapoor arc is far fetched but it is still a special film. I have wondered why? I was instantly happy and ready to overlook so many things. Why this movie works while others don't?  The answer lies in the tone of this film. Boosted by its soundtrack, the background score, and the genuine human absurdity replete in this case, it just keeps you engaged. Subconsciously, one is aware that the underlying drug problem is very real and the movie's second sequence establishes it very convincingly. The four fictional story lines are a refreshing change and avoid the common tropes. The music has definitely grown on after the film.  This is good cinema, dark and serious but much needed.



Masaan
It takes heart to watch Masaan. I waited for a year to finally put the dvd in my DVD player. I was not ready for the film. I knew that watching the film is going to be a stressful experience. So, one Sunday, after a good sleep, healthy breakfast and sleep, we put it on. It is exactly how I anticipated but loved it.
Masaan is a story of 4-5 different people living in Varanasi. It is as much their story as it is the story of Varanasi. The characters in film personify the city - a crumbling, sadistic, cynical city. The best sequence of Masaan is the falling in love sequence. How does one fall in love with small towns where main line of work is to burn bodies after death? How friends influence and how a  mela is the place to be. Plus the amazing lyrics and sound track of this film makes it a delight to watch. Richa Chaddha gives a tour-de-force. Her performance really fills the screen. Pankaj Tripathy fights for his screen presence and is able to pull it off in a manner that only he can do so.  Sanjay Mishra is at home here and newcomers pull it off very well. Overall, Masaan is not an easy film to watch. But once it gets going, it is not that difficult either. A million other things could have gone wrong but they don't.  It is definitely part of the new-age Art cinema of India.



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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Now, that is what I call a perfect family entertainer. We watched if when my dad was ill and we were looking for a light hearted movie that all of us can enjoy. A black & white movie, that too on politics but MSGW is an endearing effort, not enough for a one time watch.
Based on a fillibuster, MSGW is a lovely film. Played with heart by James Stewart, MSGW is a story how a rookie Mr. Smith gets nominated to the house of Congress. Naive and completely unfamiliar with the inner workings of Congress, he decides to pass a law to build camp for scouts only to realize that the space is earmarked by a corrupt businessman for his personal gains. It is a classic good vs evil movie, pure heart vs greed and MSGW is an out and out feel goodness that one seeks from cinema.



Shop Around the Corner
James Stewart again. Who knew that the cute and lovely You've got Mail is actually a remake of an equally lovely and affable film - Shop Around the Corner. Given that SAC came before You've got Mail, it is a truly remarkable script.



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Other decent ones to watch - Nil Battey Sannata. Jungle Book. BFG
Did not like/Hated it - Dhanak, Captain America - Civil War.




Monday, August 15, 2016

Kanishka & Arvind's Vietnam Visit - Feb 2016


I will begin with an admission - There is a certain charm in blogging about a trip 6 months after it has happened. You get to revisit it once again - through pics, emails and locked memories. Presently, I am sitting at Cafe Mondo, taking a break on our Independence day and documenting our trip to Vietnam.


Why Vietnam? 
It is an intriguing question. Most of my trips typically have no rationale other than the one reason - it will be nice to explore this place. In Vietnam too, that was the majoritarian reason. But subconsciously, I wanted to explore another developing country in Asia.  Vietnam has a very interesting history due to the US invasion in 1970s and i wanted to see how a country copes out of such an experience. Also, in my mind, I had always visualized that Vietnam will be better than Thailand or Malaysia, as in less touristy and more virgin.
There is another backstory to this one. Actually, we had wanted to go to Vietnam as part of our honeymoon but it had to be cancelled because my passport was close to expiry. Hence, it was on the bucket list.


Trip preparation
TripAdvisor is my go-to guide for trip planning. My logic is very simple -  Find a good hotel, find a good tour operator and book travel tickets. Beyond this i never plan. It did not took us long to zero down on Zoom Zoom Vietnam travel - http://zoomzoomtravelvn.com . Her website images had raised our hopes considerably and we quickly got on a Skype call with her. Choosing which itinerary out of the many options listed on her wesbite was a little challenge but we quickly zeroed on to Sapa and these images of Tam Coc made us difficult to look elsewhere.
As luck would have it, I had also read that world's longest cable car system is coming at Sapa and it is going to be operational by the time we reach there. So, that was also added to the bucket list. Online money transfer from India to Vietnam became a challenge. Vietnam is not a popular tourist destinaion from India and after couple of visits to Western Union, we finally requested Zoom to trust us and we will pay her when we land there. She agreed.
We booked Hanoi Guest House Royal hotel, it looked decent and it had great ratings on TA. It was also next to the  main market which anyways we wanted to visit. I had looked at homestays/airbnb but it was difficult to figure out which one to book.


Day 1
The flight was ok. There was a stop-over at Kuala Lumpur. I did not find anything fascinating about the airport. There was Starbucks there which became the defacto place to pass the time.

The first thing that hit us when we landed in Vietnam was that it is basically India but with a language barrier (for us). We were foreigners in this country and just like how we treat foreigners in our country, we started getting the same treatment. To begin with, they wanted to extract more money from us at every possibility. You have to haggle and question everything which is kind of problematic when there is a language barrier. Our taxi driver was charging extra and was feigning complete ignorance of English. I had to speak with his owner who convinced me of this extra charge which we were eventually able to save thanks to the good concierge of our hotel who quickly said no the driver in local language. (Choosing a good hotel makes takes care of half of your travel worries). But this was a good wake up call and lesson was learnt.

The second thing about Vietnam is the currency conversion. Vietnam's currency has completely melted so everything is in thousands there. The way math works is that 3000 Vietnam dong is 1 USD which is 70 Rupees. Anyways, we had converted INR-USD from India, and at Ha Noi airport we did USD to VND (Vietnamese Dong), so we had anyways paid the conversion price twice.  And now, we had to apply this tricky multiplication in our head every time to understand how much an item will cost in INR. That was fun and challenging.  In terms of standard of living, when compared to India, food et al is definitely more expensive while other items such as clothing is cheaper.

The hotel welcomed us with a nice glass of fresh juice and rice crispies which tasted heavenly. We got 3 packs of that same brand rice crispies back to India, this is after spending 2 hrs hunting the store that will sell the exact same brand. We had tried other variations but they were not that good :)  Hotel was placed at a very strategic location. It had good access and a common landmark point.


Our Day 1 was hectic. We were starving, so the first thing we did was to get some food. Just one block away, there was a great restaurant which served a tofu sandwich was the best meal for me in this trip.  We had already booked a local food tour followed by a puppet show and then we also had to meet Zoom to pay her advance for our travel planning.  Our next day was visit to Tam coc




The local city food tour was not the best. We had two tour guides, one was learning from the other. It seems food tours are good for folks who are non-vegetarians. Our bellies were already full because of late lunch. Plus, the concept of typical Vietnamese food is little strange for us, which i will get to later. Walking the local market was fun. There are hundreds of small road-side cafes where people sit on small sized stools and have alcohol or coffee. In evening, it seems the entire young generation of town is there and sometimes, it is even difficult to step foot in the market.

We met Zoom and she was a great person who had studied in Alaska and she had a great passion for country side. It was infectious. We knew we were in good hands. The food tour was actually a tragic waste, it was very expensive and we felt that the tour guides were very lazy in showing us around.  There is also something called Egg yolk coffee which is a local delicacy which part of the tour but we ditched it. The puppet show was decent but not extraordinary. It is one-time watch but there will not be any regret if it is missed.

We walked back from the puppet show. Our mobiles phones were dead out of battery, so we navigated using a physical map which was fun. Now, coming back to Ha noi.  With so many people. the market is just like an old Indian market like Chandni chowk. Old buildings in crumbling condition are there everywhere, almost everything is available to buy, lot of fake items with original branding,  small shops, small alleys. But with some key differences such as even with this big population, the streets were still decently clean and there was a much better sense of lane discipline.  It also felt safer to walk, shops were open till late at night, people hung out at cafes, music going on.


Day 2
Day 2's  plan was to visit Tam Coc with Zoom. The moment you get out of the city, Ha noi's countryside is just like ours - fields and fields of rice. Theirs is also a heavy agrarian economy. The national highways was also similar to ours, little better planned as they had notion of exits, likely inspired by US system.  First thing that we did was a boat ride that went through three caves. We were quite early so there was nobody else there. Our boat was rowed by a lady and she did so using her legs.






After the boat ride we had a giant lunch followed by a walk where in we went into the paddy fields.  It was interesting. Post that, we climbed the Ngu Han Songh mountain. Tam Coc is known to be an inland Halong Bay but this was not the best time to visit. We had anticipated







But what we got was

The yellow color comes when the rice is flowering. When we had gone, rice was being sown hence, it was all brown. Zoom had mentioned this to us when we were planning the trip with her but we were not able to understand her argument. Anyways, the trek to top was good. We were happy. It was a good start of the trip. Vast open country side without much population was a very welcome change and we enjoyed every bit of nature.




Zoom took us to a pure-vegetarian restaurant for dinner.  It is at this dinner that I understood the real meaning of Vietnamese food. Vietnamese food is basically food meant for survival. A good diet should have carbs, fat, fibre, minerals and proteins. That is how Vietnamese have food. There is no notion of pulses or spices. For carbs, there is rice. For protein, there is either egg or Tofu, for vitamins and minerals, there is boiled green leaves. If you want some flavor, there is soya sauce. At this meal, we finished our side dishes before rice came and then finally had rice with soya sauce. 
Their Pho which is Noodle soup also represents the same combination. Noodles are made of rice which is the carb, veggies, green leaves provide the fibre/vitamins and they add some protein to it. Mixed with water to gulp it down. 


Our Day 2 ended with a train to Lao Cai (next to Sapa) It was an overnight train. Train travel is one of my favorite memories for this trip. It is at train travel, train stations, train compartments where this small developing country has totally leapt miles compared to us. To start with, their platforms are incredibly clean. They have no vendors except one or two which i believe are licensed by government. People without tickets are not allowed to enter platforms.  Their trains have toilets which are bio degradable and their compartment is brilliant. Ours was an AC compartment where in they provided clean comforters (not blankets) , pillows and clean sheets with a dustbin and flowers. I was totally blown by this. 




Day 3
Day 3 started very early as our train reached Lao Cai at 5 am. From Lao Cai to Sapa, we took a shared tempo which was ok. It was cold and chilly but enjoyable weather. Sapa is a hill station in true sense. When we reached Sapa, it was raining mildly and everything was covered in mist. Our guide Sanj was there to pick up where he took us to a fancy buffet breakfast place which had a fireplace with burning wood. We just went and took the nearest table and had our breakfast. Food was ok.  Kanishka bought a thicker jacket and gloves to take care of cold weather. And post that, we were all set for our trek. Our destination was a village homestay after 15 kms of trek, the idea was to experience how a Vietnamese village looks like and how people live here.  

Sapa trek is filled of terrace farming views. In the right season, all slopes are yellow and beautiful but it was brown when we went. To top it, it was raining and mist had covered most of our views. It was Go-chala all over again for me. The trail was little uphill but simple. Our lunch was bad as the dhaba (it was not a restaurant) ran out of veg food because of too many tourists. Unfortunately for us, tt was the only dhaba in the entire trail. 



Even though the weather was a little downer, there is still a lot of charm in walking through mistly trails. It is very mystic and a calming experience, full of introspection. Along the way, we even stopped for shopping and bought some amazing table cloths and stoles. We had a 4 kg extra stuff to carry now. For the last hr or so, something snapped in my legs and my knees were paining. The pain went from bearable to horrible after 90 mins of walking. Reaching the home stay was definitely a relief.
I was not prepared for the rustic aspect of this homestay. My biggest surprise was that the walls had giant holes. It was a wooden homestay which the owners had built it themselves. They were a well to do group in this area, they had a stove to cook food . They had their own farm and were in the process of building a good fence around it. 

We were tired of walking the whole day and that too with no bath since morning. We were cold. We were also hungry after that bad lunch. Upon reaching there, we asked for a bath and they said that it will be provided after some time. With language as a barrier, my attempts to understand after how much time, were futile. We went along. After some time, they served us Garlic fries which was finger licking delicious and I write this not because we were hungry. It was one of the best garlic fries that I have had in my life. We were joined by a traveller from Australia, a retired man, who had decided to trek alone while his family and friends were in city. He had been to Vietnam many times and had good stories to tell. Good company and garlic fries suddenly made the evening better. But the best was yet to come. 

After some time, they told that they had arranged for a herbal bath. I had a puzzled look on what is an herbal bath exactly. A Sapa herbal bath is hot water mixed with some minerals in a big wooden can. Like the wooden cans you see in Western Hollywood movies. At first, i was intrigued on how I would squeeze into this wooden can. Our homestay owner lady has mixed it well and told that it was ready. I jumped in. I can't explain exactly how it worked but it was heavenly. I stayed there till water became lukewarm and in those 15-20 mins all exhaustion from the body seemed to go away. We were new souls in new bodies. There are some experiences in travel which takes the wind out of you, in a good way, and this was one of them. It was too good. I still remember that feeling. When we came out, it was pitch dark. We trekked our back to the homestay. We were nimble, energetic. 


What followed was even better. It was a sumptuous meal which we had with the entire host family and the Australian tourist. The lady owner was an excellent cook. Even though it was still the same carbs, proteins, vitamins, it tasted better. Or maybe it was herbal bath that made us like it. 

Day 4
We had rice pancakes for breakfast with coffee and left early. All exhaustion was gone. The nagging pain in my right knee continued but i had to carry on. It had rained during the night and hence the entire trail was sludgy. We walked for about 6 hrs and after that we were picked up by a cab. Day 2  was even more misty and devoid of any views. It was getting comical when our guide would stop at certain points and say - If there was no mist, this would be a lovely view point. 

Fansipan is the tallest peak of Sapa, it is a strenuous trek to go up there and people who have trekked up had great memories about it. Trekkers suffer the pain of climbing up but the views from top is what remains when they come back. It is an experience to trek up there, something of an accomplishment. All that was made easy for lazy bums like us by a newly opened cable car system that happened to be the world's longest cable car system. I had read about it and had decided to put it in our itinerary. That is why we had an early breakfast and left early.  We were a little worried as it was all misty but the operators said that it is all clear at the top. The tickets were quite expensive, 40$ per person. But given that we were there, it had to be done. 



We could see the altitude, how much hard work it would be for trekkers. But we were shameless. We enjoyed every bit of the peak. After Fansipan, we had a great lunch in which we tried a sizzler like dish which was prepared on our table. This was an experience on its own. Post that, we did local shopping and took the tempo back to Lao Cai. Local shopping was an interesting experience. We went to a market where some 50 old ladies stitch traditional clothes. And they had an eye for a customer, all of them pounced on us as we approached them.  From Lao Cai we boarded an overnight train to Ha Noi.  The train experience again was awesome!




Day 5
We checked into the same Hanoi Guest House Royal Hotel upon reaching Ha Noi. To avoid any haggle issues, we even booked a pick up from them. This was 5 am. Even though our check in time was 11 am, they were gracious enough to give us a room in morning. We took some rest. Today's plan was to visit Halong Bay. Our bus + cruise was already booked, again via Zoom :)


Ha Long bay, as I learned upon reaching there, is a UNESCO heritage site and one of the new seven wonders of the world. It is unique as you can see big giant mountains rising on top of sea.  The cruise had people from Phillipines, Australia and Malaysia.  For the developed country foreigners, the bus ride was scariest as they were not used to lane-less driving style. It was an adventure ride for them. We were totally comfortable with it. While Ha Long bay is definitely beautiful, the cruz definitely looked very touristy to us. This is after we had trekked for 3 days and lived in a wooden home stay whose walls had holes :)



But the surprising feature of Ha Long bay is not these mountains but giant caves. The caves are indeed jaw dropping. You feel nature as you enter them, feel those lines as passage of time. You feel their solitude, hear the sound of waves crashing against them.  The caves made up for everything in the cruise trip. 

There are even bigger caves if you go further down and the best way to experience Halong bay is to take an atleast 3 day cruise. We did not had that much time but were satisfied with what we saw. Day 5 evening's plan was set on day 1 when we had stumbled upon an old temple and there was a poster there which said that there would be a concert of some rare and ancient Vietnamese music on Day 5. Upon coming back, we quickly rushed to this concert. Day 5 was Friday and the entire market was in a festive mood.  The ancient music concert was little too heavy for us (not to mention expensive - who says it does not cost money to support art).  Or it may be that after a train ride, a bus ride, a cruise, my capacity to understand anything was gone. 

After the concert, we went and explored the weekly night market that goes up to 1 am. It had all kinds of chinese items being sold there along with few Vietnamese local ones. We walked and came to our hotel, dead exhausted but after a good day of travel.  

Day 6
The plan of day 6 was to do local Ha Noi sightseeing. We started by going to Vietnamese museum of Ethnology. Museums is another class where Vietnam totally outshines us. This museum was brilliant both in its content and maintenance. They had documented history of some 53 odd local tribes of Vietnam along with their customs. This is a must visit. We spent 3 hrs in this museum and we felt it was  a rushed visit. 


After a high of first museum, we went to temple of literature. This was basically an ancient university which was taught in a gurukul like manner. Since this was a weekend, it was also quite busy and was overall decent.  After this, we went for a lunch at Cafe Koto. Cafe KOTO is an interesting experiment as it is actually an NGO. Not only they serve excellent food, but all servers come from a backward background and KOTO helps them. KOTO accepts donations and is fully packed which is to say something as it has four floors of seating. 


After lunch, we went to see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. At this point, I would like to reflect on the political side of Vietnam. Vietnam was a communist country and it still is one, even though most of the countries have adopted capitalism. It meant Vietnam has to answer interesting political questions when it participates in global trade and how they survive the ills of communism. In certain cases, they have been able to get around it using something called Ho Chi Minh doctrine which is similar to the spirit of Ho Chi Minh laws instead of their literal meaning. At the same time, corruption is quite rampant and favors those who are in power.  I didn't go much in detail but it will be a fascinating non-fiction read.





After visiting Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, we decided to call it a day and returned back to our hotel. While we had meant to enjoy a walk in the bazaar, it was crowded beyond measure. All cafes were full with people even sitting on the street. It was quite difficult to walk. We had to buy a new airbag to fit our extra shopping. Vietnamese clothes are quite good in quality and very cheap. OAur shop next to our hotel had a few shirts that i had once bought in US and had liked them. So in between, we had gone there and shopped a lot. We also went for a hunt our favorite brand of rice crispies in the night!

Day 7
The last day. We had 2 hrs of time before heading to airport. We could have gone to an ancient temple or a women's museum or other historical places. But instead we decided to visit Cafe Always which is a cafe based on Harry Potter theme :)


We ordered something at the cafe that was quite bad but it was nice to see this craze of Harry Potter at Ha noi. They had wands and brooms and other accessories. On the way back, we roamed more into Kuala Lumpur and tried samosas there. They were ok.


Lastly, Ha Noi is northern part of Vietnam. In the 70s, when there was war, It was essentially a north vs south war where northerners were victorious. As we know history is always written from the perspective of victors. You could see a sense of pride, a sense of superiority amongst the northeners. Southern climate also tends to be litter warmer, hence they all say that prefer the northern side. 

It is a fair question to ask on whether it makes sense to travel countryside of another developing nation when you have not given due justice to visiting your own country's countryside.   Many people have asked me whether I would recommend Vietnam? What is so special about this?

To all these questions, I think my answer is both yes & no. To many of my friends, I would not recommend Vietnam, to few I would. We had a great time.  We had a very memorable experience. But it is very important to understand reasons behind why you travel. If you travel just to enjoy nature or just to get away from city life or to see new things, such as what you get in developed nations or if you want great beaches, lavish lifestyles, relaxed vacation, then Vietnam is not an ideal trip for you. But if you want a little bit of everything, a different perspective of how other developing nations have evolved, get some context on how two countries with similar background have shaped up differently, enjoy nature, different cultures, then this is a great experience.  Vietnam's economy has also grown at the same pace as us and many feel that with a growing economy, it is brining corruption, killing the countryside and making people more money minded. It is a story very similar to ours.  It is interesting to observe how human beings think similarly even though our backgrounds are completely different. 

Our itinerary was also an highly unusual one as well. We mixed touristy places along with treks to countryside, museums and market walks, it had lot of variations and it was all planned like that. We got a lot of different flavors to this country.  Even in US, you never get a feeling of a foreigner because language is not the barrier. But here, you feel it and you get it in a royal way.  While many a times the food sucked, when it was good, it was extremely good. Also, there are many reasons to crib about this country, but still people identify with this place, there is a sense of nation-hood which is slowly evaporating from our culture. 

Overall, i feel that it is an effort to like Vietnam, it does not come naturally. But as I look back, especially after 6 months, I feel that this kind of experience is better than a trip to another US national park or Europe. While those will make me feel better, I know that this one will stay with me longer. 




Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Hurray! Classie movies are here!

Summer cinema is trashy. Mindless. Filth. It corrupts the mind. Of all the junk that was there, I caught up with Age of Ultron and MI5 to realize futility of enjoying mindless crap.  Kingsman - the Secret service, Ant man were more enjoyable but nothing more than a one time watch. Bad Mass was too full of itself.  Sometimes, you just have to fight for good films. Say no to nonsense, be patient,  wait for the right one, the one that will make you sit with elbows on knees, leaning forward in a cinema hall.  Come fall, we have been truly blessed with such a mix. Below is a post of my experiences.

But before I begin, a big shout out to AVClub. I have followed lots of ratings, IMDB, rotten tomatoes,  Slate reviews, Hindu reviews in India, but if there is one source which truly understands my taste, it has to be AVClub. If AVClub rates a movie with A, be it A- or A+, it is truly remarkable. It is the best filter that exists when it comes to choosing (and rejecting) movies.  For TV series, i still find them ok, but when it comes to films, they really get what I expect from cinema - be it a Action flick or a serious drama. Thank you AA Dowd and to the cool gang.



Bridge of Spies.
While watching Bridge of Spies, I was reminded of Saving Private Ryan and The Lives of Others, both films are truly loved by me. The former is understandable, it comes from the same Speilberg and Tom Hanks combination . The latter was driven primarily by Mark Rylance's nuanced performance as Abel which resembles so much with Ulrich Muhe's one.
There is something about Tom Hanks, something in him, which makes him pull off these roles be it the officer in Saving Private Ryan, or captain in Captain Phillips, or this one - this one normal person in an extraordinary circumstance, uses his idealistic principles and street-smartness to turn odds in his favor - to do all that in a manner which is believable, non-preachy, and with integrity is a rare talent that he gets it. Written by Coen brothers and directed by Spielberg, this one definitely makes your hand go up in the end with yay!


The Walk
When I first saw the trailer of Walk based on Phillip Pettit's true story where-in he put a wire between the Twin Towers and walked on it for 30 mins, my first reaction was Why? I have seen Man On Wire, while I do not remember its actual plot, what I do recall is that I loved it and till now, It gives me a feeling of satisfaction to have seen the film, a sense of proud to have done so.
But then the trailer revealed that Joseph Gorden Levitt is playing the character and Robert Zemeckis is directing it, instantly I knew it is in good hands and it has to be seen, and that too in IMAX only.  Zemeckis is a genius with this craft, his Polar Express is a proof of story telling with digital IMAX technology put to a good use together. I will not get into Forrest Gump now, but just the line that once you read the book Gump, you will realize what a leap of imagination it is to take in for that movie.
The Walk is superb. The last 30 mins or captures the essence of walking between those towers with masterful camera-work.  Levitt is awesome, side characters are ok, the background plot development is decent but the movie shines the moment the wire is made taught. People who were sitting next to me in theatre hall had their jaws dropped down for full 20 mins when he was there. Everyone takes a sigh of relief when he comes back to the building.


Sicario
I went to watch into Sicario purely because of AVClub, and I am so glad about it. Every once i a while that gives you an unexpected story, full of anti-climactic punches but made with a texture that makes you realize that you are being played here. Tarantino did masterly with Pulp Fiction, Kashyap pulled it off with Ugly and there are many more. Many people try to spoof it, which is easier and funny (example - Cabin in the Woods) but to it is incredibly more difficult to pull it off while being in the genre.
Sicario is a crime war movie where the CIA is trying to fix Mexican gang wars, and along the way it hires a hitman (Del Toro) and a police officer (Emily Blunt) to help them.  The soundtrack is chosen aptly to create that sense of "something is coming" and something does come, just that not when you expect it and right when the soundtrack is not there. It just plays with you but it does so in style.

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Below are some other flicks that are awesome, just that they were not blogged

Mad Max - The Fury Road
What a movie. An out an out action movie. Again, what a film. Standing ovation. Chase sequences are awesome in films but what if the entire film is a chase sequence. The heart thumping never stops. The emphasis on creating the world is also very appreciable, the costumes, rituals, car designs and the setting is greatly done.  Clearly the best action movie that i have seen in the last decade. Sheer pleasure at the end, big smile. Like a child who has seen action movie and cant stop enacting scenes from it, it just transports you to that mental model. You just want to watch it again, to soak it more, to understand the process behind making it.

Inside Out
Very creative and nicely executed. Often, you get a seed of an idea but it takes some serious reworking to make it into an epiphany and not an epiphanot. Inside Out is a feel good movie with lots of room of creativity and it uses the space available to its full advantage. Movies like Matrix and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind did something similar - established a premise and then took it somewhere else and closed it with a very strong story lines. Inside Out does a great job in establishing the premise, it is okay-ish in the mid-innings but manages to close it up in style. It does so in a way that even children can enjoy it and can relate to it. Animation is very good as well, plus Lewis Black as the voice of anger is perfectly cast. Loved his performance end-to-end.



Quilla
A marathi film that came to my attention only after it had won the national award. It was playing only in 1 cinema in Blr and that too in just 1 show a day. Yet we went and we are so glad to be able to do it. The story is simple - a mother and son move into a new small town, the boy takes time to make new friends, adjusts to new surroundings and in the process tries to discover himself. I have always maintained that in this world of escapism, if someone just gives us the true depiction of simplicity and good, it just becomes an escapism in itself to enjoy it. Its a throwback to my growing years, to the kid in Masoom. The treat of this film is Pandya who has done an incredible job of breathing life into this film. A lot of things will not work without his character. Music is also very well done, remains in the background largely but comes out in measured amounts but makes its presence feel.


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Force Majeure
For those of us who love drama in cinema, just plain drama, no gimmicks, no unnecessary romance, no sugar coating - just a case study of human emotions, how we are, how we act, react and try to live with our decisions, this one is a gem. Barbarian Invasions come to mind as I was watching this one. And so was Woody Allen and Linklater as the husband-wife go about talking their perspectives. And how it unfolds is very well done. In front of a couple at restaurant, in front of their friends, again very anti-climactic and it creates such a tension in the air.  A treat for drama-fans!











Friday, April 3, 2015

On AAP, YY, PB, AK


I don't know if my opinion counts for anything or not. I have mostly been a passive volunteer with few monetary contributions, but nevertheless, I was a strong AAP believer and supporter. 

Today, I find it very hard to support AAP. I have spent many many hours reading everything out there, heard every video and have been following the party for last couple of years very closely. Here are my few observations and opinions - 

  • I find Prashant Bhushan to be impeccable. When AK or Kumar Vishvas claim that they had 12 candidates investigated, they forget to mention that PB had to fight really hard to get those candidates investigated by Lokpal. I will admit that he may have a proclivity to go public but in this case, he was arm-twisted as AAP was not ready to get them investigated in the first place (by PB's own account and i trust him [1]). Also, out of 12, 2 were removed, 4 were given clean chit and remaining were cleared conditionally with a warning issued by General Secretary. [2] What those warnings were are not disclosed.  For a party who claims to be honest, this is a very bad sign. My expectation is that they should have welcomed an investigation in the first place. 
  • There has been no reply in regard to investigate the distribution of liquor by AAP candidate or the dubious money issue. Again, these are red flags. If anyone has any pointers of investigation, in this regard, please share.
  • The way PAC ousted YY and PB. Read Mayank Gandhi's blog [3]. Very disappointed.  And the way Ashish Khetan attacked Mayank Gandhi on Twitter post his blog, it was sad. I had loads of respect for Ashish for his Tehelka articles on Godhra, I still do, but i do not support him at all as a leader in PAC/AAP or any other body.
  • The way NC ousted YY and PB.  Kumar Vishwas is saying that he asked YY to stay after the voting had taken place to discuss it. Shouldn't this be done before the voting. If AK is hurling such accusations, shouldn't there be a platform for the accused to make their defense to the council at large.  
  • The way Admiral Ramdas was asked to not come, the way people showed up with those "gaddar"  placards,  the way people with valid invitations were not allowed to come in, all this in itself was quite sad. And then if there is an iota of truth to bouncers claim, then all hopes are lost. 
  • I admit that YY could have political ambitions as well. If AK has some minor deficiencies, even YY also has some. But overall, I do believe that YY is a well-intentioned man, as much as AK is.  If you recall, YY had earlier resigned from AAP last year and had pointed very similar reasons. Manish Sisodia had attacked him then as well [4] . That the internal democracy was not followed (even by YY as well) is true and that is again a red flag.
  • In the recently shared Arvind Kejriwal's speech, he shares "hum yahan jeetne aaye the, haarne nahin" . He repeats it again, this time louder, and then again and then he adds a line "imaandari ke saath".  Even though he adds honesty, it definitely comes across that winning was more important here.  (This point is my reading, you can call me biased)
  • AK's decision to form government with Congress was very naive and it speaks about his desire of winning at any costs. I am sure that as a Delhi CM he will do loads of goods and he was hungry to prove it. But, for me, the means is equally important. Since this has happened in past, I don't doubt that AK will allow candidates with grey backgrounds to contest as long as he is convinced that it improves his winning chances. While it may be ok for AK, I think it has to be a decision of the party, not just one man. I agree that it should be one man making decisions but if the same man is not listening to the voices of dissent, then it is problematic.
I am a man of process, the journey is more important than destination. I would rather loose Delhi elections  than win with tainted candidates. I want to give an honest effort and i do believe that people will support good. I am not a cynic yet, and thats why i was a loyal AAP supporter.  But with what i have witnessed, i am filled with despair. I don't think so I will be able to support AAP anymore, atleast for some time to come.  

I agree that the system has to be cleaned from within. But I am not sure that AAP is the right channel for it, atleast for me. This time, the cynics have been proven right. Maybe time will heal this wound, or maybe I will find some other champion to support, howsoever small way that i do.





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Here is another article that i found to be quite pertinent after the whole episode - 








#FenceSitting



Win you should,
Win you must.
Blind people here,
Cant see the fence rust.
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Fools amongst them
Morons amongst you
It doesn't matter
Thousands or a few
I search for a Kabeer
Darkness lies there
You are pale blue. 


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Couple of poems I wrote before Delhi elections, 2015. There will be a post on what has happened to AAP post Delhi as well. 

Movie Review : Boyhood



Boyhood
By Richard Linklater


There is certainly a lot of charm in watching a movie without knowing anything about it. Sometimes, it is more than enough to know that its made by Linklater. The fact that Linklater has made it piques curiosity on its own.

About 40 mins or so into the movie, the realization dawns on me - its the same boy. This boyhood by Linklater sahib is actually shot using the same boy or person as he grows up, over 12 years. Shot for a week in a year, for a dozen years, with the same cast, Linklater keeps the look natural so that we can witness the aging as a natural process. It could have been a documentary but then it would rob us of fiction. That there exists a script is interesting, but the way it gels and progresses just proves that Linklater is a god amongst us.

Soon after my realization, nothing mattered anymore. It was evident to me that watching this film is an experience in itself. I was in awe with the art. The natural growth of this human being, the travails and joys of being a teenager, the journey through adolescence, and the search to find oneself and the true meaning of life at the same time, it is like life being captured on reel. I was reminded of Tree of Life several times as I was watching this film. How much they talk about the same thing, yet how differently they treat it.

Ethan Hawke plays the boy's father and there are some awesome scenes between the two, including a discussion on what makes Beatles so great! Patricia Arquette plays the mom and her performance is brilliant. It was no wonder that she has won every award where she has been nominated.


After watching Boyhood, i was confident that it is an effort worth the best picture oscar. To dream a project of this magnitude, to deliver it in this manner is a feat extraordinaire. That the film was denied the best director and best film just reinforces our belief that even Oscars does not get what true cinema is.


Boyhood must be seen. It must be experienced. It is amazing!



Wayanad - The second part of Honeymoon

Wayanad - Where we planned to do nothing and ended up meeting that expectation.


We wanted to do a road trip as part of our honeymoon. Wayanad was chosen only because we saw Banasura Hill resort . It was the best decision as it is a unique place to stay.

We started around 8ish from Bangalore and drove continuously. Breakfast was done on some place along the highway. The drive was good. The route to Wayanad goes via Kabini lake and both of us were curious to see water from close. So, at one place, we could see an open ground, followed by some fields and then the lake. This visual cue was enough for us to go for a small hike to the lake. Kabini lake is quite beautiful and serene. What should be a 6 hr journey took us 9 hrs to finish.


Banasura hill resort is very nicely done. Located at the foothills of Banasura hill, it is completely made of mud. At the foothill, there is a small forest. These folks have just removed few trees and in place created mud houses. So, it feels like you are living practically within a forest. Living in a mud house is like living inside a matka (ghada), it is naturally cold.









So, while on one side, Banasura is a natural paradise, on the other side, it just spoils you when it comes to food. They prepare proper Kerala food and it is mind-numbingly tasty. For people who live to eat, I can not recommend it enough.


We had taken a package at the resort. As part of that we visited the Meenmutty waterfall and Banasura dam. The waterfall was nice as we even got to hike on stony rocks to see the source of fall up-close. Banasura dam is known to be second largest natural dam, we took a speed boat tour to enjoy the cool air. The evening was spent to relax our old bodies by means of a kerala oil massage.





The next day, we hiked to see a local waterfall and saw some coffee/pepper trees along the way. The evening was spent in watching movies sitting at the porch. We watched The Wind Rises and Alive Inside. The Wind Rises is the last Miyazaki film and a decent one. Alive Inside is just brilliant, it will move you to tears. What couple goes on to honeymoon, stays at an awesome natural resort and ends up watching movies on their laptop. Well, I don't know how many have done it but for us, it was a memorable experience. Later that day, the resort guys had set up a candle light dinner for us.





On the day of return, we did a short hike and toured their local tea plantation. Kanishka by this time had realized that if Arvind Batra hears that there is a hike, he will be on it in a short while. We also visited a small cave which was used by some Raja as a hiding place during British era.




On our way back, we ended up touring the famous Kuruvadweep, an ecologically preserved island on our way back to Bangalore. The only thing that I would like to remember from Kuruvadweep visit is to not visit it ever again. The place is underwhelming beyond description. But thanks to its elaborate setup, our 6 hr return journey became 12 hrs. 







The end


Andaman - An ideal itinerary

Kanishka and I went to Andaman for our honeymoon. As a touristy destination in India, it is one of the good ones. As a honeymoon place, it is as cliched as they come. To give you an example, on the plane from Chennai to Port Blair, it was filled with couples, all recently married - an easily observed fact as almost all women had mehendi up to their elbows, at-least, and long set of bangles (chuda) on their arms. This pattern was repeated or every touristy destination that we visited. But thankfully, there were only a few of those.



Day 1 : If there is one place that you must stay at Port Blair, then it is Sea House by Noble's homestay. It is a small house standing in the middle of sea. There is no electricity, but there is potable water and a stove. It also has an awesome balcony, hammocks inside and you experience perfect serenity. We saw the Sunset, the sunrise and the steady flow of sea water under the house the whole night.












For this experience, you have to be at Port Blair by 2 pm and start for the Sea House early. We landed at Port Blair and straight went to AnnaPoorna, the best Veg place in town. We packed our dinner as well from here. The food is pretty good.



Day 2: We had to leave the homestay early as we had booked an early morning ferry to Havelock island. Makruzz is the cruz operator we had used. The sad part of ferries is that they don't let you go out. The govt. operated ferry on the other hand is cheap and you can stand on the deck. We took it on the way back and highly recommend it. At Havelock, we had chosen Barefoot at Havelock as our place for next couple of days. Barefoot was chosen based on TripAdvisor's recommendations and its photos. We did not knew that it is next to RadhaNagar beach, the best beach at Havelock.

As we entered, the guy at reception welcomed us by saying - "There is no internet, no cell phone connection, no cable connection, no intercom, basically, you have come here to relax" Radha nagar beach is very clean and beautiful. We just hung around the beach during the day. We rented a Scooty there and felt liberated. We roamed around downtown and went to a local Mela at night. Though there is a lot of tourist influx, all said and done, Havelock is a small village and the mela there, was a reminder of that.  I played those little mela games that i had played when i was a kid. It was awesome to relive that memory.









Day 3: Kayaking time. Tinaaz Noble was our Kayaking guide and she was awesome. Kanishka and I were on one kayak and it was brilliant to navigate on our own. We took the local mangrove tour. The tour lasted for an hr or so and to compensate for all the paddling done, we went to the Full Moon Cafe (For my Bay area friends, this place was as good as the cafes at Half Moon Beach) . Now, half moon cafe is awesome. We had the hummus platter, some milk shakes, and an amazing Banofee pie.

Post the heavy meal, we did a small trek to Elephant beach and spent the afternoon doing water sports . Kanishka, as usual, was quite brave and says to me in the end "It was not that scary". Meanwhile, i was holding the handle with all the energy that i was able to transfer to my grip.  We trekked back and by the time we were back, we were tired and relaxed by watching the Sunset at the beach.




Day 4: We had planned to go for Snorkeling but laziness is a trait quite difficult to loose. We relaxed during the day, took the ferry back to Port Blair and then visited Kanishka' cousin sister over dinner. Our second Port Blair stay was booked at The Sea Princess, a decent place at Wandoor. On the plus side of Sea Princess, it is next to a beach and a decent quite place. On the negative side, the food is horrible and it is far away from Port Blair.


Day 5: Before, i share our Port Blair journey, it will be a good time to explain Port Blair. Port Blair is a lazy town. People here have long lunch breaks. They close their shops just after sunset, which happens at around 5 pm and by 7 pm, the city is deserted. On top of this, they will have Monday off because the usual Sunday holiday has been taken away because of tourism. 
We rented a day long cab at Port Blair and ended up visiting the Archaeological museum, Samudrika museum and finally the Port Blair jail. The jail is a good place to visit, a very sad place if you look historically. The exhibitions inside the jail are fairly well documented. It is a must see place, though not sure from honeymoon point of view. They have a song and light show in the evening, which i strongly recommend should be missed. 




Day 6: Our initial plan was to visit a limestone cave, some 100 kms away but that plan did not materialize because the town takes off on Monday. We ended up just roaming around Wandoor. There is a small Gandhi museum there, which is only open from 8 am to 10 am, and even this small 2-hr-a-day museum was closed, because it was a Monday. We strolled on the beach and enjoyed a swim in the pool.  A nice day to relax and not do anything is sometimes enjoyed more than destinations. And in between, Kanishka saw a puchka wala and both of us ran towards him. Kanishka is counting number of states/UTs where she has tasted Puchkas. 





Day 7: We started the day with the idea to see the Sunrise and checkout a Japanese bunker nearby. Even after walking for 30 mins, we could not spot the bunker, so came back. Before the flight, we quickly did a tour of Ross island which is a beautiful place. We also took a small adventure ride to reach the island. The way back was peaceful. 





The end. 






Sunday, December 21, 2014

Life in Aug 22 - Dec 21

Four months and one update post. The list is long one, again in no chronological order. Some of the individual tasks have been blogged -


~Travel -
:- Trip to Cochin to meet Ekta, Nani , Mamaji and everybody. Did a cruise tour to Fort Kochi and had lots of food as usual. Gappe with Naniji was the best part of this trip.
:- Trip to Ranchi for a weekend to meet parents, Aarti and see the banquet hall.
:- One day trip to Mumbai for work.
:- A weekend trip to Delhi to attend Manmeet's wedding and meet Gursharan.


~Work -
:- Lot of stuff :)
:- Hackathons - Wah.io, Thack
:-Conferences - Mobile Sparks, Weekend ventures, TechHub Demo.


~ Books -
:- Jaya by Devdutt Pattanaik
:- Y: The last man. Unmanned vol 1. Okayish.
:- And then one day: A memoir by Naseeruddin Shah


~ Food
:- Puchka at Puchka are good especially the shell. Chats are good as well.
:- Finally went to Samarkand, excellent food.
:- Luo Han in HSR has an interesting decor, reminds of Chinese joints in US. Food is okayish.
:- Revisited Ants cafe after a long time. Loved it again :)
:- French toast at Smoke House Deli is delicious.
:- Marriott's rooftop food joint was decent.
:- Malgudi with Justin and Neeraj. Very spicy food.
:- Maduvaram never disappoints. Have shared the love with many folks.
:- Oh Calcutta delighted in first visit, turned out to be catastrophic in subsequent ones.
:- Annapurani at Indirangar has a good Thali.


~Events
:- Stories in a song
:- Ruhaniyat
:- Diwali at home.


~Downers -
:- Cough, cold, mild fever has plagued me for the last 45 days.
:- Running has gone for a toss. Disappointed.

~ Misc -
:- Attended Sarika's birthday party.
:- Met Santosh after a very long time.
:- Reconnected with Justin and Neeraj after a long time.
:- Passport renewal procedure done. Phew!


Book review : Jaya

Jaya : An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabaharata
Author: Devdutt Pattanaik

One of the great things about oral mythological books is that there are several stories about the same development. As if somebody had started a round of Chinese whisper in ancient times and it is still continuing.  Sometimes it is mind-numbing on how many variations exist and often I find myself marveling on the creativity to come up with such a variation.

Devdutt Pattanaik's Jaya is a very interesting book as it cherry picks stories for each plot development. This reading of Mahabharata is not for the first-timers, it is for those who are familiar with the story to quite an extent and are looking for some entertainment out of it. The author has done a fine job in covering the entire book and his plot selections to cover are perfect to match the intended pace of the book.

What makes Jaya interesting is how Devdutt employs the selection algorithm. For every development, Devdutt picks a story that has some sexual connotation, or something that is inconceivable either in today's society or how we view our traditional past, or has a comic element to it. Relying a lot on various folk tales, Devdutt also gives comparative stories on how the same development happens in other tribes. The other unique aspect is how Devdutt sometimes ties stories in Mahabharata with issues such as role of  women in society, justice, meaning of marriage and ofcourse no discourse on Mahabharata is possible without talking about Dharma.


All characters in Jaya have a very colorful ancestry and their own lives make the picture more livid. Devdutt's voice in the book has a playful tone, he is as much enjoying sharing this story as much as we are in reading them. He also, along the way, dispels a lot of misconceptions that people have, for example Kauravas went to heaven after the battle not hell. A notes section accompany with every story and it is fascinating to read as he shares other tidbits about the account we just read.


The illustrations, although done only in black and white, are neatly executed and complement the book very well. Their placement, interspersed with text, makes the story more alive. A lot of effort has gone in to make the illustrations gel well which is not evident as we go through the book but once you have read, as you just flip the pages, one realizes that they are very neat illustrations.

Overall, a very entertaining read, especially for those of us who love mythology.