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 -, 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.

:- 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.

Roka in pics, 17 Aug, 2014

Chandigarh + Manali + Hampta pass trek

The good thing about documenting a trek done 4 months ago is the memory stores only the relevant stuff. While there is no excuse for being late, atleast I can be positive about it.  So, rather than going about the chronological order, I would just pen down some of the memories that have stayed with me from this whole trip.

~First trek with Kanishka. Interesting experience! In a good way :)
~ Chandigarh is amazingly well planned. There is atleast 10ft difference between where the road ends and the boundary wall of the adjacent house/building.
~Rock garden is huge :) The lake is ok.  Afghani restaurant in Chandigarh is quite good.
~ Bus ride from Chandigarh to Manali is beautiful.
~Stayed on a tree house. Very nice people and amazing homestay. Lingdi pickle was a delight.
~One day tour to Naagar, a small town. Calm, serene, good waterfalls, interesting temple architecture, museums and cafes
~ Hadimba temple has tall Deodar trees. Very very tall.
~ Trek day 1 was good. Hampta pass terrain was more in the lines of Kashmir great lakes trek. Green.
~ Trekked on snow several times with clamp-ons. Also rolled down a snow slope. Instead of sliding, I was tumbling down. Someone should have shot the video.
~ Day 3 camp-spot has 6-7 waterfalls in our vicinity. The next day morning, a rainbow was visible on falling water.
~ IndiaHikes support was as always awesome. Not only in terms of food but also helping trekkers along the route.
~ The idea to use a garbage bag for trash and cleaning up the trails was an excellent idea.
~ Hampta pass was all snow climb. Loved the feeling. Also saw an avalanche on a nearby mountain.
~ Chandrataal was beautiful, but that camping spot near Chandrataal was even better.
~Did not like that trek involved a drive component as well.
~ Trek was short, would have liked a longer one.
~ Day 3 scenery was very beautiful.
~ Did two river crossing. Cold water. Feet still goes numb as i think about it.
~Rohtang pass was all covered in fog. We ate Bhuttas there :)
~ Mall road on Manali is quite interesting. Crowded but amazing food and shopping options.

See all pics here -

Stories in a song

Stories in a song

Justin called me about two weeks before this play was to be performed at the annual RangaShankara festival this year. "Batra! you must attend this play, I have seen it 3-4 times before and i am telling you, you must attend this one."  There has never been a time when i have disagreed with Justin's recommendation. I checked my calendar and for some reason, it seemed difficult to confirm at that point of time.

Being a true citizen, i had broadcasted this recommendation to near and dear ones. Even if i can not attend, others should. On the day of the event, at 11 am, Nikesh says that lets go for this play. The play time was 3:30 pm. Being at EventsHigh, it felt difficult to turn down an impromptu request and that too of this one. So, lo and behold, we attended 3:30 pm show.

Stories in a song is a motley of different stories with songs as a theme in each one. They depict a time and an era where a certain kind of music was used. There is a story on how a Brith lady tries to learn hindustani music from a local musician and applies it to western classical music. One story talks about how Gandhiji used the paakeezah like singers to promote the message of freedom. There are stories from Lucknow on their unique style of singing, a nautanki musical with lots of slapstick comedy built into it. Stories are laid somewhat in a chronological order. As we get to modern era, we see how a classical music song is remixed into a party number, right in front of our eyes.

This is one of those plays that has to be seen to be appreciated. The music is by Shubha Mudgal and it is beautiful. But what makes this play a must watch is its amazingly awesome cast. They nail the characters and their comic timings are outright brilliant.

Some thirty minutes into the play, I was so immersed that everything else was forgotten. The world outside was meaningless, time was controlled by these stage magicians and they could have taken us anywhere. Once the play ends and I walked out of the theatre hall, it felt like an eternity has happened while we were inside. Somebody had massaged the mind, it was active, ready to fire and take on the world. The worries with which I had gone inside were completely lost, they were meaningless in the new world. A new day had begun, although it was 7 pm in the evening.

Diwali 2014 in pictures

Making Rangoli

Making Rangoli

Front door decorated

Lunch: Alu Poodi

Rangoli with Diyas


Malpua time
Lights in Balcony

Malpua done

On Newsroom

Last week, Aaron Sorkin's Newsroom aired the final episode of its final season, season 3 to be precise. What started as perhaps the best openings of any TV series ever, Newsroom's ratings plummeted with every season. Newsroom had it all - support from HBO meant complete freedom, a talented cast except with couple of minor hiccups, a subject matter that deserves attention and fresh treatment and most important, Aaron Sorkin at its helm. Yet, even with all of this, something was always amiss.

The first season of Newsroom was quite creative as it showed real life incidents being covered live by a news channel. With the power of hindsight, Newsroom was able to poke holes in the coverage of the present news channels such as Fox or CNN and at the same time, it tried to project how an ideal coverage would look like. It would have been a great season had it not been the unnecessary romantic sub-plots infused into the media story line. More than 50% of key newsroom characters are in a relationship with another main character. Any time spent in going into their personal lives was a drag.

Not everybody liked the fact that Newsroom was covering actual issues. I am not sure with how much seriousness Sorkin takes the fan reaction, nevertheless, the second season was completely fictional. Newsroom's fictitious channel is in the middle of airing a fake story regarding US defense. The show deconstructed how a story is manufactured at such a grandiose level and what are the  repercussions of airing a fake story.

Season third consisted only of six episodes and has no major arc whatsoever. There is a small arc with Neal gets access to some highly confidential Govt. documents and rest of the series mainly talk about issues regarding source protection.  The final episode has a big flashback component and it was put in there because Sorkin wanted to write it in to give the show a background.  The background in no meaningful way compliments the finality of the episode.

The fundamental problem with Newsroom is its sub-plots and side characters. A lot of criticism comes because Sorkin's dialogues are actually monologue rants between two individuals who tend to disagree. Even when there is no disagreement, there is still a monologue rant. I agree with the charge but I disagree that this is the issue with the Newsroom. Newsroom suffers because it fails to put these rants in the right context of things. The rant-ing characters are only utilized to air these rants. Most non-rantish discussions are related to office romance which nobody cares about for the most part.

Maggie is one of the most awful and frustrating character in the entire series. It is not because of the actor's acting but just how the character is defined. She is emotionally vulnerable yet emotionally strong, and she goes into these extremes every other episode. It is impossible to empathize with her. Other side characters are not developed enough and suddenly are given enough screen time to make us like them but it rarely works that way.

The other charge against Newsroom is its pushed-down-to-throat idealism. It is preachy, like a self help book, rather than based on observations and experiences. No-one likes to read a self help book.  This type of thing worked on West Wing because it was a point of view from a democratic government standpoint and there were enough contrast points to add richer flavors to the argument. In comparison, Newsroom has its own point of view which is the only one and it is right as well. Newsroom appears smug in many conversations and hence the audience fallout.

The problem with Newsroom began when even loyal fans of Sorkin failed to defend him. The failure of this show lies entirely in the treatment of the subject matter and nothing else. But, it was okayish entertainment overall but in patches, it was magical. This fan will wait for another Sorkin series, atleast he is trying to raise the level of programming.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

2014 movies : Aug - Dec

I had not blogged various movies i had seen in 2014. Below is their names and my one line review.

Hunger Games - Mocking Jay Part 1: (3/5) . Pleasantly surprised that this movie did not suck as much as the book. Inspite of it being a 2 part split, the flow is not so slow and screenplay credible. Would not recommend though

Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (2.5/5) Had to watch it to just get over with it. The whole trilogy of Hobbit has been a big let down given the LOTR trilogy. Battle sequences are nice but because of no story depth, they have very little influence.

Khoobsurat - (1.5/5) My attempt to watch a regular Bollywood film of this year. Reasonable plot executed without any brain, a lot of legs and bad songs. Nothing works in the movie except the fact that it ends, even though the end comes an hr too late.

Gone Girl - (4.5/5) A brilliant thriller. Very good script and executed to perfection. Highly recommended watch.

Interstellar (3.5/5) Full credit to Nolan for attempting to make larger than life films. Matthew McNaughey delights as usual. Some major issues with screenplay as the first half feels longer. Second half starts brilliantly but the end becomes little too hyperbolic for us.

Sex Tape (2/5) Funny in bits, time pass film. Popcorn flick but fails to hold a grasp even during its small running time.

Wreck it Ralph (3/5) Delightful watch, very creative concept and well executed. Moments of delight but the attempt to bring it back to a happy-ending plot seems too sugary.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (4/5) Wes Anderson films are always a delight. Quirky, imaginative, arbit and strangely beautiful. Liked it a lot. The movie grows on you as time passes. Definitely requires multiple viewings

Book Review: And then one day - A memoir

And then one day - A memoir
Author: Naseeruddin Shah

One of the key dilemma that i have about reading a memoir or an autobiography is whether my perception about the person would change after reading the book or not. Whether the artist would gain respect or loose it in my mind. It is a difficult question because i want to preserve the image for some reason. Yet, in the case of Naseeruddin Shah, the curiosity to know more about him overtook this dilemma.

The book starts with Shah's school days. He chronicles his life growing in a fairly conservative muslim family, attending a convent school, seeing and being influenced by Shakespeare plays, his life through college, first marriage, National School of drama, Film and Television institute in Pune and his struggles as he manages to find a place to stand in this intricate Bollywood industry.

One of the fascinating aspects of this book is how honest Naseer is as he describes his journey. Naseer bares himself, as an adolescent with his sexual travails during his late school days, as a young man in a hurry and fool-hardiness during his college days. He admits his arrogance on the art of acting at NSD and you can see a transformation in his sensibilities as he enters FTII Pune. Later, he talks on how luck played such a big role in him landing roles in Shyam Benegal's movies, giving no credit to his talent. As someone who has seen his early movies, it is difficult to put two and two together because the man on screen does not match his description which makes me agree to Girish Karnad's assessment that this book is nothing but Naseer's account of overcoming the handicap of being an exceptionally gifted actor that he really is.

Naseer as an actor excites me because as an actor, he is an idealist and a successful idealist, in its own way.  The successful part comes because of his pragmatic nature, he has done commercial films as well. In the book, he talks about the student strike at FTII where actors demanded that the student directors should cast student actors as opposed to outside students leading to a big  stand-off between the two factions. Here is an example where Naseer exemplifies idealism and ends up on the loosing side, but the experience shapes him to understand the realities of life.

It is only in the last chapter that Naseer opines on the state of Bollywood industry. In a fairly substantiated rant, and also a very well articulated one, he writes -

Let's not drag out the long-exhausted argument that the common man needs these films to get away from his own drudgery etc.; what i find terrifying is the degree of dumbing down of the audience that these films have managed to achieve, I daresay intentionally. A habit for consuming junk has over the years been created in the audience. They are now irrevocably hooked on that taste, they crave it so they swallow anything that comes thus packaged, and ironically they are blamed for having pandered to. The films we make reflect no one's inherent taste but our own. Every few months when some nonsensical multi-starrer flops, everybody assumes the audience has finally come of age but very soon they flock right back to something else equally shallow. It's impossible to explain. 

The other interesting layer is the role played by his family, his parents in the early years and his brothers in later years. Sometimes supportive, sometimes practical, having Naseer as a son would not have been an easy job. How do you explain a son's ambition to pursue yet another acting course after graduating from NSD after studying acting for 3 years. Naseer's first marriage is something that i find it very difficult to grasp. It does not make any sense, yet it happened, it helped him but it has a male bias that makes it little uncomfortable to read and acknowledge.

Naseer's quest to learn and master the art of acting plays a very fundamental role in shaping up the actor he has been. His transformation from  arrogance to know-nothing is something that is beautiful to read. And then once he is fairly established, he challenges himself to fringe schools. His expedition to Vienna to study under Grotowski and then coming back disillusioned, yet grateful, is an experience that few would dare to venture out.

Naseer is a special man, a lucky, gifted man. Sometimes society needs such men to pave a path for others.  As a generation, we are grateful that he exists otherwise, without him Bollywood would be in some other darker age than it is right now. And then one day, read in Naseer's voice will stay with you for time to come. The book achieves a feat of not influencing my perception about him a bit. It is this feeling which makes me believe that it is true.

Ruhaniyat 2014

A pale blue light casts shadow of the big Banyan tree on the giant placard standing at the back of a make-shift stage. This open air stage next to the Banyan tree is adorned only with lights which also serves the purpose of illuminating the stage, under this star-less darkish night. Bangalore weather is lovely, it had rained yesterday but today, the evening chill is just right to cozy up. The stage is simple but what emanates from it touches the core of us. The big blue placard says Ruhaniyat 2014, there could not have been a better word to describe this event.

Staged at the beautiful Jayamahal palace in Bangalore, Ruhaniyat is an annual event organized by Big Banyan Tree. About 5-6 artists from different parts visit and sing songs, 30-45 minutes each giving us different flavors. There is one god (soul) and there are different ways to reach to him. Each artist shows us a glimpse of their approach and in such short duration, they immerse us into their world. Language does not matter. Some artists try to explain lyrics but even without it, the soul understands.

This year, our evening started with Avadhoot Gandhi and group from Maharashtra. Their energy is insanely infectious and just with their body movements, the stage is set for a great evening. Their performance is followed Bhai Nirmal Singh Khalsa's beautiful Shabad (hymns). His voice calms us, and just slows the pace of time. We are also in trance now. Speechless. I catch a glimpse of this stranger sitting next to me  and he is smiling. We look at each other and realize that we are connected by this music.

Next, we have a Jugalbandi with Senegal's Solo Cissokho and Gullu Khan sahab and his group. Before Jugalbandi, Solo performs a solo rendition on his instrument Kora. This is the first time, like most of the audience,  i was listening to Kora, and i could not fathom the range of notes coming out of this stringed instrument. It is a lovely instrument and something that you have to listen to believe that it is only one instrument, not a collection. The Jugalbandi mixes Tabla, Kamaycha (an instrument similar to Sarangi) and Kora instrumentally, Rajasthani and Senegali vocally. The collaborative energy is electrifying, not as in a rock concert, but as something which in the end leaves us wanting for more.

Paravati Baul comes next and if you have not seen her perform, you have truly missed something. She is a one-woman army. She plays Ektara with her left hand, her right one plays a small tabla which she wears on her waist as a belt. She wears large Ghungroo on her ankles which adds to the musical ensemble when she dances. And she sings Baul songs, all at the same time. Her devotion to the mystic is contagious. At the end of her performance, in a way to give words to her performance, she advises us to just go with the evening and it is ok to drown yourself in this ambience.

After a small break, Ghulam Waris and his group performs Qawalli. Qawalli as a medium of music is unique as it is devotional and immensely tangible at the same time. Singing in Hindustani, Waris sahab also breaks down the meaning of verses so that we can journey the rendition together. As if he is the priest and he is holding our hands in our journey to see the God. As he sings Amir Khusro, he also teases us with this question - Are you able to see him or not?  

It is difficult to look at the life the same way as it was before the show. Some events has this way of changing us. Somehow during the daily grind of this life, we tend to forget what is real joy and happiness. Ruhaniyat helps us in reminding us this feeling and then leaves it up to us.