The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de motocicleta)

US Presidential hopefuls take RVs, Che went on a motorcycle. The point is you need to go on a road trip to become a successful leader of the people

Ee Adutha Kalathu (Recently)

Strange and familiar make an appearance together for the first time in Malayalam cinema and the pair is a hit

Ladies Vs Ricky Bahl

Four feisty ladies, upbeat music and a handsome conman. Anushka gets Ranveer. Bollywood gets Parineeti

Das Boot (The Boat)

Best WWII film ever, in fact the best war film ever. In true German fashion, restraint is applied by shooting the entire movie inside a U-boat

Neelathamara (Blue Lotus)

Blue lotus shares the same stature of blue moon in Malayalam, so do good remakes. This one bucks the trend.

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Aug 31, 2017

Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu

If director Sathyan Anthikkad had aged like fine wine, Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu (hereafter referred to as RBO) is what he would have come up with. Regrettably he didn't and thankfully Ranjan Pramod, the script writer of some Anthikkad's later movies has filled the void.

The best thing about RBO is it seems so natural and light. The flow of dialog, the ease with which characters appear or slide in and out of frames, the sounds, the ambience, the effortless attention to detail which in reality must have taken some effort and all this put together and delivered as a well constructed entertainer is commendable. Bravo!

And then there is Biju Menon - the king of reinvention in contemporary Malayalam cinema, playing the title character Baiju. His journey from the handsome, brooding, youngest son in Doordarshan TV series - Mikhayalinte Santhathikal through emotional dramas like Meghmalhar in the early 2000s to the man who found his funny bone in Vellimoonga, Maroobhoomiyile Aana and RBO - has been like watching an evolving chameleon in action. We are left to wonder what other colors or characters would he comfortably grow and morph into in the coming years.

The natural ease in direction is reflected in the performance of other actors too. Aju Varghese, Deepak Parumbole and many other new comers who play significant roles give the feeling that we are watching their daily goings-on without a veneer of pretense. I also loved the absence of dubbing as it helped in interring the phantasm of the same female character's voice that used to come back to grate you in every other film.

I started watching RBO with the expectation of a syrupy feel good movie. It is a feel good movie but it is also comfortably real and uncompromising without ruffling many feathers. There is not much of a story and the only character introduced to create tension (played by Padmaraj Ratheesh) is the only weak point in the narrative.Nice work, Ranjan Pramod and a treat for the audience.

Aug 30, 2017

Munro Thuruth

On the seemingly long train journeys symbolic of my childhood summer vacations, Munro Thuruth was a mysterious station with a distinct multi-racial name. It was quite unlike other Kerala railway station names like Karunagappalli, Vadakara or Payyannoor, which all seemed staid in comparison.  During evening journeys north from Thiruvananthapuram, Munro Thuruth station was one of the first stations the train passed through after darkness had settled in for good. The peculiar name and its association with a long dead British official, who might still be haunting the dark estuaries guarded by looming, ghostly coconut palms on little floating islands, had created an aura of supernatural spookiness in my young mind.

The movie Munro Thurath by Manu does not really help in erasing out that impression. It is still metaphorically dark in the movie which is not about ghosts, but an unsettling story with live people. Since this movie seems more like an intellectual exploration rather than a prospective commercial pot-boiler, there are no givens, not in a formulaic sense.

Indrans portray a stalwart grand father figure who takes up the challenge of housing a mentally unstable teenager, his grandson. This role is a far cry from the comedic or disposable side-kick roles Indrans had enacted in his past movies and brings out the matured actor in him.

The troubled teen looks less like a teenager and more like a young man in his mid-twenties which reduces the credibility of his character and makes the surveillance setup around him seem a tad overboard.

The main character to me is the psyche of the place, Munro Thuruth. As the grand dad, a life long inhabitant of the 'thuruth' says in the movie, "there is here," referring to the slivers of land buoying on Ashtamudi lagoon and "then there is every where else,"  encompassing the vast namelessness that lies outside Munro Thuruth. The 'thuruth' is like an organism (almost reminds me of King Kong or Godzilla), cauterized from the rest of the land, with a life of its own, closing in on its inhabitants and all their actions are just reactions to its heart of darkness.

Aug 24, 2017

Three Book Reviews

Reading fiction makes me strongly aware of passing time, sand grains traveling faster than ever down the constricted throat of an hour glass. Most often I find myself questioning, why am I wasting my time reading some one else's version of 'non-reality' when there is so much of reality or real world left to explore. Even if I succeed in reading a truly genius work of 'non-reality', there is a strong tendency for these stories to disengage, tumbleweed like and blow away, fast fading across my prairies of forgetfulness. I simply cannot seem to hold on to these superbly crafted non-realities by any of the master wordsmiths of our times.

Non-fiction on the other hand gets hungrily ingested and cataloged for future reference, adding on to an accretion of wondrous snippets of information about the universe and everything in it. There is so much to learn and non-fiction writing is one of my most primary, go-to learning aids.

Being a lifer in the digital era - searching on Google or taking the endless elevator down the Wikipedia rabbit hole is usually my first nature as it might be for any urban human of my vintage. But there are times when you feel the spiritual need to disconnect from all technology, start on a diet of eating fruits and berries, stop shaving, plant your organic cotton, pick it and weave your own clothes and chirp with the crickets at sundown. Knowing my own limits, I have so far only attempted the first step of this yogic regimen - disconnect from all technology.

During the few hours of my technology abstinence, in the absence of search engines and other crowd sourced enlightenment, I revert back to reading scrolls - books, if you insist on using the correct modern terminology. Whether it is to tackle existential questions or to figure out a past President's horticultural habits, there is a usually book out there somewhere documenting just that.

Every other month I become fascinated with aging, death, growing old and the old age's titillating promise (or the only silver lining?) of making a person wiser. In search of this wisdom or you could say as a part of prepping early for the final act, I attempt reading realistic accounts of people who have been there and done that or books about old age written by people who have worked and lived close with old people like physicians and care-givers. I have chanced upon some very illuminating reads this way - like Sherwin Nuland's The Art of Aging: A Doctor's Prescription for Well-Being and Atul Gawande's Being Mortal : Medicine and What Matters in the End.

Most recently I landed upon The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman's Life by Ann Burack-Weiss, that belongs to the preparing for old age genre. Unlike Nuland and Gawande who (were) are physicians, Burack-Weiss is a social worker and her book reads a little bit more like an academic work than a non-fiction best seller (which the other two were.) 

That said, her focus on the writing and thoughts of notable women on old age and death and curating these into a cohesive account, is unique and as a woman, interesting to me. There were places I skimmed through the pages when it started reminding me of protracted thesis documents and the hours spent in musty libraries jotting down references to beef up the appendices. Yes,that's how we did it in the dark pre-digital era, right around the time when I was young and the wheel had just been invented.

The Lioness in Winter is interesting if you are curious about the winter of life and are familiar with some older women authors like Maya Angelou, Anais Nin, Joyce Carol Oates, Simone de Beauvoir and a bunch of others and might care to know what they thought about growing old. Or if you are a woman with some free time to read (that's a rare animal, the free time factor eliminates all the probables), it might be worth a try.

How many times have we relived with Holocaust ensconced in the warmth of our couches? I know my answer, far too many to count. The list of non-fiction books on Holocaust I have read is shorter compared to Holocaust movies. There was Night by Elie Weizel and Diary of Anne Frank - that's about it.

Last week I added one more to the list - Man's Search for Meaning by  Viktor Frankl. Again like The Lioness in Winter, Man's Search... also verges on being an academic dissection of life in concentration camps through the eyes of Frankl who was a psychiatrist imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps, almost through out the entire war. He was imprisoned in four concentration camps, including Auschwitz. The author intended his writing to be a honest description of every man's life in those dreaded camps and wanted it to serve as inspiration to never give up on life even when it gets as tough as it got for those Jewish prisoners.

Frankl's work to me seems like a treatise on hope penned in the most hopeless of situations. A first-hand account of the most wretched people on Earth (at one time) and written matter-of-factly by a person of scientific and logical temperance - which I am pretty sure Frankl was. Are you like that? Then you might like Man's Search for Meaning.

Mohsin Hamid is a notable novelist of our age, the kind you keep watch on especially if you have roots in the Indian subcontinent. Why did I pick Exit West? It is fiction, but it is one of the very few fictional takes on a very contemporary crisis and I was curious how the 'non-realistic' version of contemporary reality looked like. Also, I have read a few of Hamid's earlier works like The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, that I found interesting. Since the current truth of the Middle East refugee crisis is too hard to bear, I thought maybe fiction might present a more tolerable picture. I was not mistaken.

Exit West names no names, geographies of conflict are kept deliberately obscured by the author. Although that didn't stop me from imagining it all playing out in Syria. We get to see the yin and yang of human nature responding to wars and displacement through the two protagonists - one female and one male. Unlike the refugees of the present day crisis, in this work of fiction, magical realism makes sure there is no heart-wrenching, lifeless supplicated forms of little children washed up on Europe's beaches.

It is a quick read. Despite the place and the time where the story is set, the narrative does not delve into the miseries of people fleeing their native lands in the wake of wars but rather on exploring the psychology of human nature and relationships in a dystopian but seemingly (new) normal future.

Aug 17, 2017

Noor : A movie review

Why am I quick to equate flakiness and self obsession with millennials?  The first few character building scenes of Noor showcase the text book enactment of these traits that I have come to associate with the people of this particular age group. Maybe my lack of understanding stems from me falling prey to the oft-quoted affliction of older people - the generation gap disease. I had a similar reaction recently to the whiny, flighty, empty shell of a movie that was headlined by Alia Bhatt and propped up by Shah Rukh Khan - Dear Zindagi.

Noor is much better off when you come to its story's core, in the sense it tries to have some pith - a journalist trying to catch her big break, in search of 'the' big story that will set her apart from the pack. Adapted from Pakistani writer Saba Imtiaz's debut novel, 'Karachi You Are Killing Me' the content holds pace with the current social media and reporting trends. It correctly identifies, to post or not to post as the existential question which will make or break the day for the millennials.

Sonakshi Sinha playing Noor almost makes it to the big leagues with a lead on a socially relevant breaking news story, but let's stay clear of spoilers, shall we? Kanan Gill - a Bangalore-based standup comedian and YouTuber gets his Bollywood break in this film directed by Sunhil Sippy which is a nod to internet influencers and emergence of non-traditional news reporting.

One of the biggest advantages Sonakshi has going for her as an actor is that she can be your relate-able girl next door, the non-size zero type. The movie is built around Noor's soliloquies, self-reflective news presentations and blog posts - and she does do a lot of soul searching of every kind, enough to provide material for a film. But most of the time the enlightenment from these ruminations dawn too late upon Noor, after she had already screwed up the situation. Enter, the ever-present social media, the savior of our times with its all righting corrective-fluid facility of making things viral, equal and ultimately just. Noor is saved, movie gets to end with a happy face and I get to make a positive blog post.

Aug 11, 2017

Book Review: Born A Crime by Trevor Noah

Comedy Central must have really done its research and as a member of its audience I thank them for introducing us to Trevor Noah. To get a comedian all the way from South Africa, an unknown face to most of the American public, as the presenter of a headlining show is a gamble they took. I hope it will pan out for the both Noah and the network. With two years under his belt The Daily Show hosted by Trevor Noah is slowly inching up in the ratings chart and holding it steady after an initial slow year.

Reading his memoir, Born a Crime, I am all for team Noah and want him to be successful. The man has come a long way from his humble South African beginnings. The book was an eye-opening introduction to what is like to grow up straddled on the race fence in South Africa during apartheid (albeit it was in its final descent.)

As a child of a forbidden union, a secret child who needed to be kept invisible and then later on as a young man who defied categorization and racial profiles, Noah's a staggeringly mind-blowing journey. From the teen hustler churning out copied CDs in the slums of Soweto to the interesting new face chosen to replaced the legendary Jon Stewart, it almost seems like an impossible hop.

Noah dedicates his memoir to his mother, "For my mother. My first fan. Thank you for making me a man." An extraordinary woman in an extraordinary time, she chose to have Noah because she wanted a child, her child, who will have everything she didn't have. She did not have Noah to consummate her marriage. For there was none between her - a South African Xhosa woman and his Swiss-German father who was twenty years her senior. In a way, Trevor Noah and the way she brought him up was her raising the middle finger against apartheid and boy, I am sure he has made her proud!

Born a crime is a powerful account of coming of age in a historically important time and place, lived through and written by one of the astute commentators on society and culture of our times. Definitely worth a read.

Aug 8, 2017

Naam Shabana

Best thing about Naam Shabana is its perfect casting of Shabana. Bollywood is discovering the girl in their own backyard who had to travel south first to prove her talent. Manoj Bajpai is all gravitas, as we expect him to be. Akshay Kumar in his super man cameo is an elusive and slithery master spy and Prithviraj is exploring the negative role niche further in Bollywood (or digging himself into a deeper hole, you decide.) 

Women in combat sports is a happening theme Indian movies (Bollywood and regional) for the last few years, thanks to the medals Indian women have been bringing home from all the international sports meets. Naam Shabana takes Shabana's combat sports talents and shakes it up with a revenge drama stirs it into an international spy thriller. I am glad it is a girl bashing up the bad guys, but not really glad that often times our evasive male master spy has to extract her out in the end.

I watched this movie as a Tapasee Pannu vehicle, a Bollywood movie helmed by a female actor and didn't try to dissect the script or the direction (Shivam Nair.) Had to fast forward most of the last scenes and while doing so caught a glimpse of Anupam Kher in what looked like a baldness cure job gone bad - no idea what he was doing with computers, didn't look like he should be anywhere near one.