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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Sep 5, 2021

Thoreau de la Walden : The Hipster from Concord

Walden is my chill-with-a-book book, my meditation guide, my psychedelic trip without psychedelics. I took that trip again this weekend and I want other people out there in the vast wide world to know that you too can take tickets for the same ride. That is why I am writing about Thoreau and Walden, lying in my backyard hammock at the dark hour of 11 pm, listening to crickets, enjoying the slightly nippy late summer air – it is as much Walden as it can get in the rural Pacific North-West.

Thoreau, came to me late in life. In my late thirties, I stumbled across Thoreau in my quest for a true American thinker, and found the first American anarchist. I realized that the concept of civil disobedience that I had credited Mahatma Gandhi with and on which much of India’s freedom movement had hinged on, got main street cred through Thoreau’s essay on Civil Disobedience in 1849, twenty years before Gandhi was born. When MLK referred back to Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement to push forward his dream of racial equality, the idea of civil disobedience completed a full circle. A modern American construct, expounded and practiced by Thoreau came back home to roost during the Civil Rights era.

The people who resemble Thoreau the closest in this day and age, to me, is not the Sierra Clubbers (for Thoreau is often credited as being one of the people who laid the foundation of the modern environmental movement) but the Antifa. I often feel that the black hoodied hipster with long hair from Portland (OR) protesting police brutality could be Thoreau, if he was present in the present day. When Thoreau defended John Brown in his ‘A Plea for Captain John Brown’ before even other fellow abolitionists would take up a stand for John Brown shows he was the original American anarchist and practiced what he preached.

Reading Walden again, I am struck by the timelessness of the work and how contemporary Thoreau sounds even now, almost two centuries after he had penned his masterpiece. Here he is anticipating the meat-free destiny of man kind, the creation of PETA, vegetarianism and alternative meat - “...whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of human race, in its gradual improvement, is to leave off eating animals….” He condemned hunting although he had been on hunting expeditions as a teen. Here is Thoreau again from Walden, “no humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood will wantonly murder any creature which holds its life by the same tenure that he does. The hare in its extremity cries like a child. I warn you, mothers, that my sympathies do not always make the usual philanthropic distinctions.”

Thoreau sounds relatable because there are a lot of similarities between his day and the times we are passing through now. Whether it is the millennials who cannot afford to move out of their parents’ homes or the matter of black lives being a hot topic again or the polarization of the nation into conservative south and liberal North/West, 150 years hence we are fighting about the same things and feeling their effect as Thoreau and the U.S populace did in the mid 1800s.

Thoreau lived at his family home, he worked at his family’s pencil factory, paid his rent to his family. Later on, he learned surveying to take it up a vocation. He is the millennial brother-in-law, who will baby sit your kids (he did this for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s kids) while you and your wife goes out on a date in town. He is the same millennial who abruptly quits the rat race to live off the grid in Alaska (Thoreau had to settle for Walden because Alaska was Russia’s at the time), in a tiny home he built all by himself. He was a minimalist, an environmentalist, an abolitionist fighting for the rights of slaves, a vegetarian, a tiny home builder building a home using recycled materials and a disobedient civilian before any of these were considered cool.

He was a white man from Massachusetts, who could quote Vishnu Purana in the 1850s. You have to understand Hare Krishna movement was still one hundred years in the future and Beatles was yet to discover Mahesh Yogi and transcendental meditation. Thoreau says that Vishnu Purana says (I have to take Thoreau’s word for it, despite being born in India, I have not read Vishnu Purana), “The house-holder is to remain in his courtyard as long as it takes to milk a cow or longer if he pleases, to await the arrival of a guest.”

Just like us, currently bewildered by shipping delays in Amazon and shocked by empty shelves at Walmart, Thoreau was utterly surprised by where the things for his daily use (in the days before his life at Walden) came from. Most of our stuff in 21st century comes from China by the way. That’s why the shelves are looking forlorn at big box stores these days, thanks to the Covid triggered supply chain bottle-neck, Chinese govt. restrictions and to a small extent to that minor traffic incident at the Suez canal turn pike. Here is Thoreau again on learning the pots he used at home was made by an actual potter who lived in town and were not the ones passed on down unbroken from our Mesopotamian ancestors, “I had read of the potter’s clay and wheel in Scripture, but it had never occurred to me that the pots we use were not such as had come down unbroken from those days or grown on trees like gourds somewhere, and I was pleased to hear that so fictile an art was ever practiced in my neighborhood,” Thoreau could have made a solid career in stand-up comedy if he was alive now.

Many intellectuals classify Walden as fiction and Thoreau as a loser, a cynic disappointed by the system and the order of things. But Thoreau is much more than Walden. Walden is just a field-guide for all the could-have-beens if we were brave to jump off from the gerbil wheel we all are endlessly running on. Thoreau stands tall because we are still talking about him, the issues he stood for and the stands he had taken are still as relevant today as it was then. 

May 28, 2021

Sandeep aur Pinky Faraar : A review

After the long drought brought about by Covid19 in 2020, which seemed to have affected Hindi / Bollywood movie industry more than the regional Indian movie industries, I finally saw a watch-able Hindi movie - Dibakar Banerjee's Sandeep aur Pinky Faraar (SaPF).

The opening scenes of SaPF are uniquely NCR-ish with a camera mounted on the hood of a fast-moving car, trained on a bunch of rowdy passengers as they zip past the almost deserted Delhi highways in the dead of the night. The viewer is placed directly into the fight or flight situation of the lead characters right after this high-octane ride meets an abrupt end in the first few minutes of the movie.  And the protagonists - Parineeti Chopra (Sandeep) and Arjun Kapoor (Pinky), decide to make a break for it. Why, What and Where to will be revealed as the movie progresses.

Sandeep aur Pinky Faraar reminds me of a few other movies. I could catch glimpses of Ishaqzaade in SaPF. Ishaqzaade  was Arjun Kapoor's debut movie where he was paired with Parineeti. That too was an us-against-the-world story of escape. I recently watched an exceptional 2021 Malayalam film - Nayattu (meaning the Hunt) which is about a group of three people escaping the system that is trying to hunt them down. SaPF is very similar in its theme with Nayattu. Instead of three almost-strangers, in SaPF we have two hitherto unacquainted persons thrown into a dire do or die situation and fleeing across geographies just as in Nayattu.

The burly Arjun Kapoor (Pinky) is a suitable fit for a cow-belt roughneck who is a suspended Haryanvi cop and a hitman for hire. Parineeti has held her usual bubbly persona in check and comes across competently as an educated and sophisticated woman (Sandy Walia) at the top of the corporate ladder. 
By giving a girlish name - Pinky, for the brutish cop and a masculine name for the female character, the title of the movie offers an insight into gender bender roles the director has envisioned for his protagonists. The film and the script also feature several artful instances where these two unconventional leads scrape against the pillars of the patriarchal landscape they flee across.

Although there is predictability at many places, it is while watching movies like SaPF (versus something like Parineeti's previous disastrous outing - "The Girl of on the Train") you realize how much of the actor's output and performance is molded by the director. Dibakar Banerjee is not only able to extract outstanding performances from the lead pair, but the actors who played side characters like Raghuvir Yadav, Neena Gupta, Jaideep Ahlawat, Rahul Kumar are also remarkable in their modest but fully fleshed out roles.

May 2, 2021

Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Before Oscars So White Redux (2021) I didn't care much about Ma Rainey's Black Bottom to write a review.  I wished Riz Ahmed would win the Best Actor award, although like most people who had kept tabs on this year's nominations, I knew it would go to Chadwick Boseman and was mostly reconciled to it. After all the incredible human being and actor that Boseman was, he would never again get a chance to be in the Oscar race ever again. Everyone else, including Riz Ahmed, who I hope will have a remarkable career ahead,  will have more chances.

Then the Academy went ahead and did its thing- awarded Anthony Hopkins who was blissfully sleeping in his bed and didn't even Zoom into the award ceremony, the Best Actor award. This made it imperative that I had to write about Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, to make peace with Chadwick Boseman, even though he is at a place where they are indifferent to gold-plated bronze statues of Uncle Oscar and other such earthly knickknacks.

Viola Davis put in a power house performance as Ma Rainey, the so-called Mother of the Blues. But it is Chadwick Boseman as Levee - the trumpeter who steals the show. I did not even recognize him at first in the film. Considering it was shot during the last few months of his life, physically, he was a shadow of King T'Challa he was in Black Panther.  That did not deter him from pouring his soul into Levee. 
Chadwick Boseman as Levee at the center, in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom has all telltale signs of being adapted from a play. That coupled with my absolute no-clues-about-blues persuasion didn't endear me to the content of the film much. Ma Rainey also says in the movie that it would be an empty world without the blues. Maybe for you Ma, not for me.

The silver lining for me was Boseman's Levee. Despite his irreverent, go-getter attitude, his was the only character I found myself rooting for. The script gives a handful of theatrical monologues to Levee, knowing that this might be the last time Boseman would have an opportunity to deliver such hard hitting lines. Like this one on death, which considering the circumstances add to the poignancy,

"Now death. Death got some style. Death will kick your ass and make you wish you have never been born. That's how bad death is. But you can rule over life. Life ain't nothing."

The black and white footage at the end brings home the message that black artists didn't get their due and had their intellectual property stolen from them. It is heart-rending to watch white musicians play Levee's piece sans any emotion, while we the viewers know how much the black musicians had poured their souls into their compositions and never got credit.

Apr 30, 2021

Minari : A review

You could have watched several K-dramas but you might not still acknowledge that a real flesh and blood Korean family is nothing like in those K-dramas. Flawless, mother-of-pearl twenty somethings who inhabit Korean TV shows is a far cry from reality. Minari, is the first time I've seen a depiction of a real-life Korean family on screen, ones who are not funny 24/7 like the Kim family in Kim's Convenience. Although they are a close second as far as authenticity is concerned.
Minari is an autobiographical sketch of a Korean American family that moves from the west coast to rural Arkansas to purse their dream of setting up a family farm. The director Lee Isaac Chung is setting a new path for immigrant film makers in the U.S where they make movies in their native language and English, in a setting that is quintessentially American. I see it as a harbinger of a new genre of U.S immigrant films recording the varied experiences and life reflections of all the peoples who call United States their home. 

Minari proceeds as if a camera-man is following the daily life of a Korean-American family in Arkansas boonies with a camera. The actors don't feel like they are actors. The time period is early eighties and the family of four - mother, father, daughter and son live in a trailer in the woods / potential farm land and are later joined by their spirited grandma.  This movie like Joji I watched recently is also about subtle nuances, where exceptional nuggets of everyday scenes are strung together to make a visual poem. 

Even though the family is Korean, there is plenty of evidence and presence of the rural Arkansas landscape the family inhabits. The water dowser, the cross-dragging (only on Sundays, that is his church and penance) Pentecostal neighbor and the chicken factory where the parents are employed as chicken-sexers. While all the actors have done exceptional jobs, I liked the wacky-ass grandma the best, the one who brought Minari (a Korean herb used in cooking and medicine) and found a home for it and made it thrive on the banks of an American creek.

Apr 12, 2021

Joji : A movie review

Joji is an operatic movie about a dysfunctional family, set in Erumely. The director Dileesh Pothan is on his way to becoming the Bard of Kerala's malanadu (the foothills of Western Ghats) - the Kottayam-Idukki border lands.

I was on a K. J. George rediscovery trip during 2020 and Irakal, one of K.G.G's path breaking movies I watched a few months ago is still fresh in my mind. Joji is very similar in setup and composition to Irakal than Macbeth which Dileesh Pothan acknowledged he was inspired by, in his movie announcement poster.

Joji is a 21st century version of the K. G. George's 20th century masterpiece.  Then again, I have not read Macbeth, except as an abridged comic book, thirty some years ago. Pardon my Shakespeare.

If Joji reminded me anything Shakespearean, and it does with its operatically wailing violin BGM, it is King Lear. I had to sit through repeated screenings of Grigoriy Kozintsev's Russian B&W classic Karol Lir from 1970 at an impressionable young age of 8 or 9. All I remember of that King Lear movie is that the King had 3 adult children and they were all plotting/waiting for him to die, much like in this Dileesh Pothan classic half a century later. 

Joji is a socially detached loner, the youngest son of a rubber estate owner. His American equivalent will be the 30 year old son living in his parents' basement, surviving on Cheetos and video-games, without a job in sight. While the youngest no-good son of a rich plantation owner living in a joint family is the common theme in Joji and Irakal (there are more similarities which I am not going to explore as I don't feel like going into thesis mode today), their greatest contrast is in the treatment and exploration of this theme. 

Irakal in 1985 presents you a Gen X-er dealing with his powerless position, taking matters into his own hands and exerting his independence. Ganeshan in his debut role as Baby, the youngest son - engineering college drop-out and black sheep of the family, is very much a product of the turbulent 70s (ref: declaration of emergency in India in the late 70s) when he came of age and is a seething angry young man with some psycho-social tendencies thrown in for good measure.

Joji meanwhile is a millennial and he inhabits a movie reflective of our current times. He is laid-back and lacks focus, but acts too cool to care. The writer, Syam Pushkaran, the master of minutiae, reveals every one of his characters and their psyches through layered yet succinct dialogue. Shyju Khalid's camera is instrumental in capturing the fine nuances of the characters and the location in a film that relies very much on subtlety. 

There are only a handful of characters in the film, and the story and camera are tightly focused on them. There is the iron-fisted patriarch Panachel Kuttappan (V. P. Sunny), who is in better shape than his three sons and does several push-ups, too many to count, every day. He is served by his two older sons - the divorced elder son Jomon (Baburaj) who loves the bottle and the meek second son Jaison (Joji Mundakayam) who manages the family businesses with the trickle of money released each day by the patriarch. Between them is Jaison's wife and the daughter in law of the family, Bincy (Unnimaya Prasad), and finally there is the title character - the lazy dreamer with half-assed plans - Joji (an almost emaciated Fahadh Fazil.) Other significant characters are essayed by Shammi Thilakan as Dr. Felix - Panachel family's friend and physician, Basil Joseph as Father Kevin and Alister Alex as Poppy, Jomon's teenage son.

Joji's transformation from a detached sleep loving loafer who spends endless afternoons with a fishing rod that catches no fish (the fishing rod or the fishless pond might be the problem here) to the person he ultimately becomes is a bit incomprehensible for my Gen X brain. Unlike Baby in Irakal who had all the makings of a psychopath from scene one and whose character arc was predictable, Joji's metamorphosis has shades of implausibility. Despite this flaw, the technical harmonization of all the elements of the film - script, camera, acting and background score makes it a treat to watch.

Apr 3, 2021

Dear Edward : A book review

Dear Edward is the story of a boy - Eddie Adler, the sole survivor of a passenger jet crash that killed 190+ people, written by Ann Napolitano. It is fiction and not a real-life incident although the author says she did draw inspiration from the Afriqiyah Airways 771 crash at Tripoli in 2010 where a lone 10-year-old Dutch boy survived

The weather conditions used in the crash of the LA bound jetliner from Newark airport in the book are modeled on the conditions of anAir France passenger jet crash over the Atlantic in 2009.The final minutes of conversation between the pilots in the novel is taken from the black box recording of the Air France carrier.These acknowledgements by the author led me to spend a few hours on YouTube watching documentaries on these particular plane crashes before I moved on to several types of Top 10 crash lists - like top 10 deadliest airplane accidents due to pilot error, top 10 crashes where an octogenarian survived, top 10 worst air disasters due to bird strikes and other such morbid compilations.Like everyone who has flown on jet-liners, there has been fleeting micro-seconds before a flight when I have doubted the airworthiness and reliability of these flying tin cans. Then that brief moment of doubt is wiped clean by science and statistics (more chance to die in a car crash than an air crash yada yada)

There was one time in the recent past though that made me question my faith in air travel. Two summers ago, right after Boeing 737 Maxes were grounded the world over due to their faulty MCAS, we got on a Boeing Dreamliner flying from London to the U.S. The name Boeing was still freshly suspect in our minds with all 737 Maxes still grounded everywhere when we got on that Boeing-made plane run by one of the best budget airlines in the business.  The airplane was brand new, must have been built around the same time as the grounded Maxes, I thought, as we took our seats, towards the middle of the aircraft.

We were seated a row in front of the galley, the plane was cruising westward over the Atlantic. Two hours into the flight we noticed all the cabin crew quickly putting back the food trays which they had taken out to serve the passengers and talking in hush hush tones huddled around the phone in the galley. This went on for a few minutes. Through the window I could see the blue-black inky stillness of the Atlantic below. Then the captain's voice came on, "we are experiencing an electrical issue and we are returning to Gatwick," I experienced a minor heart attack right then. Immediately after the announcement the power was cut off to all electrical outlets and the interior lights were turned off which added to gravity of the situation.

Inflight info : From London Gatwick to London Gatwick
 We were about a fifth of the way to our destination and the pilots have decided to turn back - this was a sign of something serious. Should have only gotten tickets on the airlines that had Airbus fleets instead of Boeing, I reprimanded myself as I checked the inflight map showing our location. Faroe Islands will forever be etched in my memory, that is where I saw our plane making a 180 degree turn, planning to return to our port of departure. The islands looked lonesome out there in the middle of the vast Atlantic Ocean. There will be sheep grazing on the islands who couldn't care less if an aircraft burst into flames overhead, I thought, as I looked over at my kids. They are too young to die. All the way back, I who didn't believe in any God, tried to make our case with the universe to let our airplane travel back without any electrical hiccups and land in one piece.  Thankfully it did. After about a couple of hours waiting, the airline put all the passengers back on another Dreamliner which made its way to the US without any problem. I am yet to make an overseas flight after this incident, mainly because of the Covid19 pandemic and not because I've sworn off air travel.

I picked up Dear Edward for the same reason our mind cheers the triumph of indestructible human spirit in the worst tragedies or rejoices seeing a dandelion poke its bright yellow head out of a crack in the pavement. The central character Eddie Adler is a sign of hope and jubilation amidst disaster and death. Like most humans I find it uplifting to read about hope. I find myself eager to know the ways and worlds the hope that is Eddie will grow into.

On the basis of this triumphant survivor rationale, I was expecting a heart-rending gut punch, some hairs-on-end reunions or revelations but the novel overall had a lukewarm effect on me. It could also be that my expectations are misplaced after not having read fiction in a long while. The chapters switch between Eddie's current world and reminiscences of a handful of passengers on that ill-fated flight. The recollection chapters are styled as characters thoughts during the last few hours of their life, before the crash happens, not knowing the fate that is awaiting them. All in all it is an okay read, but there is some key ingredient missing that could have transformed it from mediocre to phenomenal. I don't know what it is.

Apr 2, 2021

Recursion by Blake Crouch, a book review

There are movies made from books after the book creates a current and a following of its own and catches the eye of an actor or a director. Then there are books written to be movies, like Recursion by Blake Crouch. Never heard of him before, I blindly picked the book from my public library's Overdrive, sorted by 'Most Popular at the Library', filtered to 'Available = Yes' and then read a quick blurb to make sure I can finish it off in a night or two. I was in a fiction reading mood after years, can't let that slip.

Blake Crouch is an interesting name, my thoughts went a full circle from William Blake to Crouching tiger tiger burning bright back to Blake, W. Maybe this Blake will be exciting. The blurb had enticing statements about a time travel/memory puzzle box.

Recursion has Christopher Nolan written all over it. There are three main characters - an NYC cop named Barry, Helena a neuroscientist/inventor and a billionaire technocrat - Marcus Slade. These characters embark on several repetitive cycles of time travel using a chair (which can also be considered a character) invented by Helena. The outsiders, which is everyone except the primary players, consider this groundhog day years as a syndrome called FMS - False Memory Syndrome. Helena was Helena Bonham Carter and Slade was Elon Musk in my mind the whole time I was reading the novel. Russell Crowe could be Barry.

The first 1/3rd of the story is amazing, the second 1/3rd is alright, but things are starting to venture into a Nolanesque maze of multiple timelines and the characters are glitching out. The last 1/3rd is the reader realizing none of these timelines matter, as we say in Indian Sanskrit, sarvam maya = everything is an illusion. Overall it is a fun ride, if you don't try to make sense of the groundhog years.

Further research into the cinematic prospects of Recursion brought up news stories that Shonda Rimes and Matt Reeves are adapting the novel to a movie and a series for Netflix.

....and then I watched the movie Boss Level. Its story line is extremely similar to Recursion except Boss Level has a video-game skin on top. In Boss Level it is only the day that repeats endlessly just like Bill Murray's day in Punxsutawney, not several years as it does in Recursion. Will review it as a separate post.

Mar 25, 2021

That time when the revolution almost came to America : The Trial of Chicago Seven, a review

It was counterculture Sunday for me last weekend, starting with The Trial of the Chicago Seven.  Then I went down the tube through Prague Spring, hippies & flower children, LSD & peaceniks, protestors and poets, civil rights leaders' and Kennedys' assassinations, Kent State and Jackson State and the great divide of Vietnam war - the timelessness of it all chokes me up. Half a century later those years that I have never lived except through grainy pixels on a flickering screen is deja-vu material. 

There was so much anger, frustration and helplessness seething under the surface and erupting as protests in the last four years that I thought we were living through the worst of times with no end in sight. It felt like the America I knew was unraveling. Then I used to remind myself of the only opening lines I remember, of any novel I have ever read - from Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, set before and during the French Revolution. People were feeling the same kind of angst and helplessness as Dickens' opens his novel describing the tumultuous last years of the 18th century, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us..."    

The 1960s in the United States was not much different from those last dozen years of the 1700s for France. 1960s takes the prize for Revolutionary Years with the Best Music, with their rocking BGM. Compared to the great anthems that straddled the summer of '69, it has been all downhill for music ever since then. 

The Trial of Chicago Seven takes place during a brief, rebellious and beautiful interlude before most of the Seven grew up and went on to live staid lives in suits as yuppie stockbrokers or unoriginal academics. IMHO, the massive cultural and political uprisings that characterize the decade from 1965 to 1975 was the only time any kind of meaningful change was affected through people's protests in the United States.

Unlike India where I was born and brought up or the UK which has close historical/political ties to India, where people's protest movements brought down sitting governments and modulated the course of the Future, the world's oldest democracy in modern history - the United States' protests movements are weak sauce. The U.S has rarely seen any administration overthrown or have had sustaining and meaningful change happen through people's protests movements, except during the Civil Rights-Vietnam War-Nixon era. 

With the advent and encroachment of social media in our lives, we have become mostly keyboard warriors and slacktivists who dutifully discharge their political advocacy duty through signing online petitions. This is not just the scene here in the U.S but the world over. But in a nation where most of the adult population is classified as "interested bystanders" it has now become even more easier to be an activist. Wonder what the Chicago 7 or Black Panthers or MLK or Malcolm X would say about our activism? 

But there is something that United States' does for protest movements at home and all over the globe, that no other country does (nowhere close) - the Americans make or fund great movies/art/music documenting, giving and extending the voice of ordinary people rising up against broken systems. Watching The Trial of Chicago 7, I was happy for the existence of art, movies and other forms of output of creative minds. They immortalize and provide an account of the times, the events and the people and the struggles and beauty of their lives. I am glad art exists.
An original poster in support of the Conspiracy 8/ Chicago 8

Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, The Trial of Chicago Seven (originally Eight, including Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers) is a very Sorkin subject. The 1968 protest at DNC at Chicago has unconventional leaders breaking new pathways. Sorkin showcases these guys while they are in the midst of creating turning points in U.S history. Sorkin's characters are charismatic and articulate to the point of bringing a collective frisson of optimism and hope in the audience. Sorkin is the writer behind exceptional movies like A Few Good Men, Charlie Wilson's War, The Social Network and Steve Jobs.

The Trial of Chicago Seven has eight intense characters on trial in a courtroom with an unreasonably acrimonious judge presiding. All the eight are the kind of people who are at ease on a podium with the ability to draw people through their words. My favorite is Abbie Hoffman, played by Sacha Baron Cohen. There are some incredible retorts from Hoffman in the movie, during his court room testimony. I found the transcript of the real testimony here and realized that Sorkin has summarized and retained the lines with the most impact without diluting the narrative.
Six of the real Chicago 7 -  Front row, from left: Rennie Davis, Rubin, Abbie Hoffman. Back row, from left: Lee Weiner, Bob Lamb and Thomas Hayden.

Steven Spielberg almost made this movie in 2007, Sorkin was the writer at the time too but the effort was canned due to the Writers Guild of America strike. Coincidentally Sacha Baron Cohen was slated to play Hoffman back then as well. Heath Ledger was to play Tom Hayden and Philip Seymour Hoffman was to be the defense attorney William Kunstler. These roles were played by Eddie Redmayne and  Mark Rylance respectively in the 2020 movie. 

As a lover of words and history with a fondness for cheeky one-liners, Aaron Sorkin's interpretation of the Chicago Seven/Eight's trial is edgy and larger than life. If we read the real history of the trial you would be able to see that the director has taken plenty of liberty interpreting the real incidents for dramatic effect and to shore up certain characters like Eddie Redmayne's Hayden and Joseph Gordon Levitt's prosecution attorney, Richard Schultz. Still it is a movie worth watching because as per the quote attributed from people ranging from  Edmund Burke to Santayana to Churchill, if you don't learn from history, you are doomed to repeat it.

Mar 16, 2021

Kannur Deluxe: A(n Accidental Feminist) Caper

Once upon a time there was a deluxe KSRTC (Kerala State Road Transport Corporation) express bus, the most majestic of its kind, connecting Thiruvananthapuram and Kannur - the southern and northern ends of the habitable civilized world of the kingdom of Kerala. To hop on this bus's tale, please ignore certain fundamental facts, such as - Kerala is not a kingdom, but a southern Indian state formed after the independence of India in 1947. Kannur is not the northern most district of Kerala, it is Kasargod which is mostly Karnataka in disguise, thus Kasargod can be conveniently overlooked the same way KSRTC disregarded it as any kind of destination worth traveling to, back in the sixties.

Kannur Deluxe is one of the first road movies in Malayalam. This sensational 1969 whodunit stars Sheela and Prem Nazir in the lead roles.  The story travels from Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Kerala to Kozhikode in the north, the last but one destination of the KSRTC 's longest and premium bus service at the time, called the Kannur Deluxe Express. This deluxe express bus service was like the Concorde of that era - fast and sensational, a mythical creature that zoomed past to glamorous destinations, while the rural countryside stood by and gaped, their mouths wide open.

Deluxe Express Bus from the movie Kannur Deluxe (1969)

This is the same bus my parents used to take on their yearly vacations to go back to their homes in Kannur from Thiruvananthapuram where they both lived and worked, before I was born. Indian Railways didn't have an unbroken train service connecting the state capital with Kannur at the time, so Kannur Deluxe - the 12 hr. overnight KSRTC bus service was a practical and convenient transportation solution for them. To immortalize these journeys my parents even got me a wooden KSRTC express bus toy - my first ever toy vehicle, that kind of looks like this. This guy makes these miniature scale model toy buses for anyone nostalgic about old Kerala public transport buses.

Sheela, K.P. Ummer, G.K. Pillai in Kannur Deluxe

Kannur Deluxe, the movie, is a crime caper that opens with a damsel in distress - Sheela, is seen running from the cops and finds refuge at a rich old guy's (G.K. Pillai) house. Why is she running from the police - this question along with several other burning questions will be answered before the curtain falls, hold on tight. The rich guy gives her a stenographer job at his company, while his son (K. P. Ummer) is a bit sweet on her. 

Prem Nazir and Sheela in Kannur Deluxe
Being a disposable employee for the company (Sheela does not know she is), Sheela is tasked with delivering a stash of cash from the company H.Q at Thiruvananthapuram to a business partner at Kozhikode and she uses the Kannur Deluxe as her mode of transport. The money is stolen and then dramatics and excitement ensue. The crime that forms the crux of the movie was an adaptation of a real life crime incident that happened in Kerala a few years before this movie was released. 

Prem Nazir and his side kick Adoor Bhasi are also on the bus as a slightly off the rocker Namboodiri and his helper. So is Jose Prakash - the favored villain in those days. Up and coming directorial talents - I.V. Sasi and Hariharan assisted the director Antony Bhaskar Raj or A.B. Raj (Trivia : A.B.Raj is south Indian actress Saranya's father.) Nellikkode Bhaskaran has the glamorous job as the conductor of the Kannur Concorde and devises a clever plan that traps the small time crook Jose Prakash, half way through the journey. There are also other familiar faces like Sankaradi, Paravoor Bharathan and T.R. Omana. 

Kannur Deluxe at Kollam KSRTC bus stand
As a firm believer in the religion of inspirational quotes, I know it is not the destination that matters, it is all about the journey. Kannur Deluxe is the movie for us believers. A lot of drama and songs happen as the journey progresses and cleverly the layers of intrigue are peeled off, leading to an unexpected revelation at the climax, which I won't reveal since I am not into spoilers. All I am willing to give away is at the end Kannur Deluxe becomes an exercise in accidental feminism. 

The journey through the length of Kerala in the company of an unpredictable story is thoroughly engaging. Along with the riveting story and characters the movie also gives a window view of the scenes and places of everyday Kerala from the 1960s, keeping it authentic. There is Palayam church at Thiruvananthapuram, Neendakara bridge and clock tower at Kollam, the round and Vadakkumnathan at Thrissur, Feroke bridge near Kozhikode, KSRTC bus stands at Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Ernakulam, Aluva and Kozhikode and a lot more Kerala in the frames in-between. If you are a Malayali who wants to take a trip down the memory lane through the geographical length of Kerala, take a ticket on Kannur Deluxe - the accompanying  story of intrigue and mystery enacted by your favorite actors is a bonus.

Mar 4, 2021

Mattoral -a K.G. George film

K.G. George movies explore the darker side of human nature. If you go to the movies for the popcorn, you should never go watch a K.G. George movie in the theater. Not that they are playing in movie-halls anymore unless there is a retrospective of old 80s movies. These movies are heavy, the kind where it is better to nurse a whiskey on the rocks and chew the cud on the vagaries of human mind the film showcases. 
I have been on a K.G. George rediscovery spree during the past one year. I think I am old enough to understand them now. Except for his Yavanika, Adaminte Variyellu, Panchavadi Palam and Ulkkadal - the four I had watched a million times during my childhood, I have re-watched most of K.G. George's filmography in the last 12 months. He directed a total of 18 films during the period from mid-seventies to 1990 and one in 1998.  

K.G.G's films are not intended for 8 year olds or 12 year olds for that matter. No wonder I was scared of them as a kid, not in the Frankenstein kind of way,  but more like being made aware of the human monsters in our midst. The unfathomably dark depths of human mind was not an area I wanted to be made aware of that early. The seemingly ordinary themes and characters of his movies made me uncomfortable with their layers of psychological intrigue.
Seema and Karamana Janardhanan Nair in Mattoral

Mattoral (The Other Guy along the lines of the other woman) is a study of a husband-wife relationship in the 1980s Kerala. Karamana Janardhanan Nair and Seema essay the lead pair. There are other husband-wife pairs in the film, as if to show the contrast and variety of the same relationship between different sets of people.  Karamana is a government officer while Seema is a typical Malayali housewife toiling away in the kitchen, without much exposure to the outside world. Their relationship have reached a plateau after having done the necessary procreation to propagate the species. 

Mammootty and Urvashi play a younger couple who are the family friends of Karamana-Seema duo. Theirs is a more modern and liberal relationship with Veni (Urvashi) working at an ad company and Balan (Mammootty) is an intellectual and Karamana's best friend. Also making appearance is Jagathy and another lady whose name I do not know, as his wife, whose raison d'ĂȘtre is to interfere in other people's lives. 

The director has taken the actors from their comfort zones and placed them in roles we do not usually see them doing. Seema as the naive house-wife and not playing Mammotty's love interest is unusual, so is Mammootty playing second fiddle to Karamana's more central character. This is a film that would make no sense to teens or younger audience. There are so many nuances and subtleties in the frames, dialog and the story. No wonder I went to sleep when I had watched it for the first time thirty plus years ago.
There is more to the story, but I will leave it here. The revelation I have had as I tick off my list of K.G.George movies is that he was/is a director or a man who could truly think like a woman and bring out the woman's perspective through his female characters. There have only been a few men authors or directors that I have come across who understand and can present believable women characters in their work, K.G. George is one of those rare species, especially in Malayalam movie world.


Feb 17, 2021

My first impression of Silicon Valley vs Uncanny Valley : A Memoir by Anna Wiener

Fresh off the boat, San Francisco Bay Area / Silicon Valley was my first home in the US of A. Above is a screenshot of an old blog post from my now defunct Live Journal describing my very first impressions, written 4 years after the said impressions were first registered. The static nature of the content is a tell-tale sign that it belongs to a prehistoric time when blog posts and not reaction videos ruled the day. 

Silicon Valley was and is a bubble, floating in an ether of its own making, far above in the exosphere and beyond the comprehension of the rest of America and the world. It is a strange place full of contradictions that questions its own existence. Is it for real? How could such a place exist where a roof over your head - the rent of a one-bed apartment could set you back $4-5K/month easily but you could get a filling burrito from a hole in the wall eatery for $5?

Anna Wiener calls it the uncanny valley in her memoir, "Uncanny Valley." Documenting her move from East coast to SFO after accepting a job at an eBook startup,  Wiener's memoir provides access to the inside track of the Silicon valley in 2010s populated with 20-somethings. Reflecting on the peculiar feelings that Silicon Valley evokes, the title could also be a play on words pointing to Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori's original concept of the uncanny valley

You know you have arrived in downtown San Francisco if you can spot homeless people wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the logos of Silicon Valley companies taking a shit on the sidewalk. A city of opposites where the homeless junkie shares the streets with hoodied 20-something CEO of a startup, both probably wearing the same hoodies although most tech companies have a strict policy not to give away company merchandise to people who do not provide any value to the company.

As you walk/read/proceed across the (uncanny) valley in the shadow of meth, you will fear no evil, for Ms.Wiener walks among angels(investors), evangelists, CEOs, CTOs and brogrammers who would rather overdose on protein bars and vitamin D pills. Reading the 2010s version of the tech boom, I realize the Valley has not changed at all from the dotcom boom era of the late 90s-early 2000s that I briefly brushed against. It is still riding the roaring twenties. It will always be the roaring twenties in Silicon Valley. I am older and too tired to keep up. I am glad we got out of that forever young place while we were still nimble to make a break.

Most of Wiener's observations about San Francisco's tech industry elicit a sigh of relief from me. It is similar to the calm feeling you get after committing the premeditated murder of your Facebook account. You no longer have to play catch-up with your 500 'friends' posts and their photos living the high/lie-life. You can live at your own pace, stress-free.The tech-bros in Japanese denim can micro-dose and meditate on their next big disruption or take nootropics and bio-hack their way to being the pioneers of the better world they aim to create. 

But you are free. You are delighted to find that you are still in a world where you can be a wee bit evil and you are not pressured to think different all the time. You are no longer part of the Silicon Valley ecosystem. It could be a different planet for all you care. In case you still want to keep in touch, once in a blue moon, read inter-planetary dispatches like Ms.Wiener's. She does a really good job as an outsider looking in. The outsider who almost became an insider and bowed out before being sucked into the cult of the Valley.

Feb 16, 2021

C.I.D Nazir: The Malayali James Bond

c.i.d.nazir movie

CID Nazir, 1971 Malayalam blockbuster stars Kerala's evergreen movie star Prem Nazir as Malayalis' James Bond. For the uninitiated Malayalam movie star Prem Nazir holds two Guinness records for playing the highest number of lead roles in movies - in 524 films and acting opposite the same heroine (Sheela) in 110 of them. The man was a prolific hit making machine back in his day. No wonder he was chosen to play Malayalam's adaptation of Ian Fleming's famous spy.
CID stands for Criminal Investigation Department officer. The department in real world gets their marching orders from CBI - Central Bureau of Investigation, India's counterpart of the FBI. For a movie CID officer, the character has to be a master of disguises, here below are the many faces of CID Nazir.

The 60s & 70s Malayalam cinema CIDs or detectives had to have excellent cosplay skills. A CID's crime solving abilities were a distant second. Since CID Nazir is Malayali incarnate of James Bond, he is shown as an irresistible ladies man. Unlike other Malayalam movies of the time the hero does not form a lasting bond with the heroine when this movie ends. 

The 1969 movie Kannur Deluxe can be considered a prequel of CID Nazir. In both movies Prem Nazir is the CID and Adoor Bhasi is his assistant CID, although P. Venu, the director of CID Nazir did direct a film called Detective 909 Keralathil (1969) prior to this, it does not have the continuity you expect in a movie series in the absence of the main character CID Nazir, which Kannur Deluxe has. P.Venu will go on to make a sequel to CID Nazir in 1972 called Taxi Car. 

Other CID movies that I am familiar with from the same time period where Prem Nazir stars as the CID are Cochin Express (1967), Love in Kerala (1968), Danger Biscuit (1969), Ernakulam Junction (1971) and Lankadahanam (1972).

CID Nazir - the movie starts off with a different  CID - a young and handsome Raghavan as CID Chandran. As a young and junior hero, he is expendable and is finished off before the opening credits. CID Nazir is then tasked with finding and bringing the criminal gang behind Chandran's killing to justice.

raghavan malayalam actor adoor bhasi malayalam actor sreelatha malayalam actor
Raghavan as CID Chandran Bhasi as Bhasi Sreelatha as Sreelatha

Adoor Bhasi plays the assistant CID, Bhasi. He also provides comic relief. Unlike the Malayali Bond - CID Nazir, assistant CID Bhasi has a permanent lady love in this movie, Sreelatha. Bahadur, another actor who assists Bhasi in the comic relief effort plays the caretaker and helper at the bungalow Nazir stays in. It is the same house where CID Chandran was originally murdered. Bahadur and Bhasi were like Laurel and Hardy of Malayalam of that era.

bahadur malayalam actor

 A masala potboiler Indian movie has to have a good looking heroine so that the dashing CID officer can engage in some stress-release in the form of singing, dancing and running around trees with her. A very young Jayabharathi, in her late teens is CID Nazir's girl friend for two and half hours of the movie's running time. While the girl is hopelessly in love with the CID, the upstanding CID never really expresses any deep feelings for her. She is mainly there as the subject of his songs and the movie did have some chartbuster songs thanks to this romantic track.

jayabharati malayalam actor
Jayabharathi as Shanti

The villains, the semi villains, the vamp and the villain's lair showcases the usual suspects like Jose Prakash, Nellikkode Bhaskaran and Sadhana. The underground (looks like a bomb shelter) villain's lair is typical repurposed studio set that has stood many movie villains in good stead. The super villain never shows his face, as the camera shows the back of his head from behind his chair and you can see his foot soldiers facing the camera. There is an ominous globe on the villain's desk as if to say the world is not enough.

The villian's lair and the standup meeting with his 'employees'

Sadhana, a Malayalam star from the 60s and 70s who specialized in vamp and cabaret dancer roles is the femme fatale. She gets a pretty meaty role trying to mislead and murder the ladies' man CID. She also gets a cabaret dance number and song and in the end she switches side, thus redeeming herself and reuniting with her ex-boyfriend. I tried looking up Sadhana and found that the lady died penniless - the same fate met by many supporting actors in Malayalam film industry.

K. P. Ummer - another mainstay actor of 1960s-70s Malayalam movies makes his appearance as Das, Miss. Lovely's boyfriend and CID's secretary. He makes his entrance one day at mid-night at CID's bungalow, looking for a job and CID offers him the job of his secretary. Why at that hour is a question we should not ask, it could be that the investigative types could only be cornered at their abodes at mid night and therefore it was the best time to ask for a job. Ummer was usually the second hero, if the movie had space for more than one or on rare occasions, he donned negative characters as well. Speaking of not-so-innocent characaters, Nellikkodu Bhaskaran and Jose Prakash play a couple of dapper characters who are sus.

nellikode bhaskaran malayalam actor
Nellikkodu Bhaskaran
CID Nazir is a complete entertainment package. You have ghosts, ghostly killers, murder, mayhem, dashing heroes, sensual damsels, suave baddies and a taut script sprinkled with a bunch of melodious songs. IMHO it delivers bang for your buck. In 60s and 70s when Malayalam cinema was afflicted by tear-jerkers, where all was never well at the end, CID Nazir was 100% entertainment. Here below are some more entertaining stills from the movie.
Jayabharati as Shanti - a song scene

Shanti and CID Nazir - all in a day's work for the CID

prem nazir malayalam actor
CID Nazir breaks into a song to cool off when things get too heated up on the investigation front

T.S. Muthiah, Jose Prakash as Sivaram and CID Nazir

This is one of the last scenes of the movie. Malayali 007 is returning to New Delhi after successfully completing his assignment. Shanti (Jayabharati) is seen giving a parting gift - a red rose, but 007 tactfully friendzones Shanti. Next movie, next beauty or bevvy of beauties.