Sheer Melody

A mole's eye-view of the Cosmos

Black Friday - Indian ocean

With the album Black Friday, Indian Ocean has finally come of age. I remember the first time I watched them perform at our college, astounded at their technical proficiency and at the same time, the wonderful fluidity in their music. And it’s extremely nice to see that they have matured with each and every album. While Kandisa had a simplicity and a little immaturity in it, Jhini was a considerably more consistent album, and Black Friday simply defies all expectations.
Bandheh is probably the most listened-to song in the album, is a wonderfully composed number. Rahul Ram on the bass is wonderful as usual, giving his usual soft, gentle licks, unassuming but always in control. Susmit is excellent in the guitaring department, transitioning between acoustic and light distortion with effortless ease. The vocals are spot on as always, angry and mellow in parts, changing with the mood of the song. Watch out for the faint strains of the guitar which continue all through the last bars of the song, accompanying the vocals with acute dexterity. An extremely well-composed song.
Opening is a very un-Indian Ocean song. The opening strains of the soprano sax make you sit up and wonder. Distinctly influenced by jazz and middle-eastern music, it’s tough to accurately identify the inspiration in this. The jugalbandi consists of a well orchestrated amalgamation of the recorder, sax, the drums and an instrument I couldn’t quite recognize. However, I just wish they would have let the medley of various drums in the end not drag on for as long as it does. But of course, I guess the music would have been composed in consonance with the pace of the film, so I am not complaining.
Training is also very unlike any of Indian Ocean previous songs. The first bars of the song share a distinct similarity with the opening strains of the Opening. One also notices a slight similarity to a few songs of Jhini in this one. Also the traces of studio recording and synthetic drum usage in this song are quite apparent. Somehow, not the best that the band can offer. But again, a movie soundtrack should never be judged only on music proficiency, for that would be committing a grave injustice against the composers.
Bomb planting is a masterful song, and for me, is one of the best alternative compositions this band has done. Orchestral in nature, with a lot of keyboards and artificial brass sections, the way Susmit uses the muted acoustic guitar in this song is really beautiful. The drummer and the saxophonist ( I am really not sure who were the guys who were behind the sax in this ), have done a wonderful job with their subtle touches in parts. All in all, a wonderful composition, with a jazzy texture, and a very nice overall feel to it.
Chase is reminiscent of one of the albums which Shankar Mahadevan released with Taufiq Qureshi , called Rhydhun . It starts with an experimentation of sorts on obscure rhythms, and continues with a host of other percussive instruments coming together as the song progresses, giving an impression of chaos, pots and pans falling over, structures being razed to the ground, until the guitar and bass combine with the rhythms in one rollicking ensemble.
Badshah in Jail would remind you of the previous Indian Ocean albums, the same guitar strains, and the same melancholy melody. However, the maturity of the band, which it has achieved over the years, is clearly evident in the consistently befitting arrangement throughout the song. The vocals have just the required amount of pathos and are wonderfully executed. Especially beautiful are the flute parts which stray into the song every now and then, merging effortlessly with the vocals. The guitar starts with a somewhat laid-back attitude, and gradually picks up pace, with the characteristic fluidity which defines this band so well; and merges with the flute to give way to the vocals. With its myriad instruments and awesome vocals, this song, for me, defines this album.
Bharam Bhaap ke is a very well-composed song. The guitar has a strange feel to it in this song, almost electronic, very unlike their previous sounds. The vocals share uncannily similar characteristics with one other song, Bhor from their previous album Jhini . The combination of the dholak with the tabla to give a fluid tempo to the song is commendable. The guitar playing in this is very similar to the previous albums of the band, and would definitely invoke a sense of déjà vu. In spite of the similarities, it’s a very enjoyable song, with wonderful use of the suspended chords.
RDX is probably their most adventurous song in the album, and probably the song which would stand next to Badshah in Jail and Memon House in my list of favorites. A wonderful jazz experiment, with an obscure rhythm, an exquisite saxophonist and keyboardist fusing effortlessly with the main vocals, this is a song which reveals itself with multiple visits.
Memon House is an excellent song, absolutely unlike Indian Ocean and any of their previous compositions, but magnificent in its own right. The keyboard riff which plays throughout the song is one of the best riffs I have heard in recent times. The keyboard gives way to the flute, which in turn gives way to the saxophone and the cycle repeats itself over, reminding one of Prasanna’s experiments with Carnatic classical , until they all come together in one consummate whole. And then, the vocals join in typical Indian style, breaking away to a languorous drawl, which is tough to categorize. The whole song has a very refreshing sound to it, with quite beautifully executed experiments in different instruments, things which had been absent from their previous albums.

All in all, a very refreshing album, one that endears itself to you after continued listening.

A few personal favorites

Choosing a meager twenty songs as your favorites out of the vast treasure trove of Hindi Film Music (HFM) is a humongous task. But since I have nothing much to do today, I thought – why not do this?

Raaton ke saayein (Annadata): A pretty amazing composition from Salil Chowdhury , from an utterly forgettable movie. The movie being forgettable has a lot to do with the popularity of the number, which still is one of the most haunting songs I have heard in my life, with a complex chord progression and a very beautiful melodic line.
Chhoti Si Asha (Roja): Somehow I always feel that Rahman , with his enormous repertoire in Hindi and Tamil film music, can ever recreate the magic, the innocence, and the sheer beauty of the music which he created in Roja . One of the most beautifully picturised songs in HFM, this is sheer magic.
Aiye Meherbaan: I can’t seem to recollect the name of the movie where this song occurs, but it’s definitely one of the best compositions by O.P.Nayyar , capturing the mood of the cabaret and seduction at the same time.
Mera kuchh samaan lauta do: This song requires no introduction and is probably one of R. D. Burman’s most formidable compositions. It is said that Burman reacted with “Next time, you can ask me to compose music for the news in the TOI” or words to that effect, when Gulzar gave the lyrics to Pancham. A lovely song, filled with pain and anguish, almost tragic in its beauty.
Na Jaane Kyon (Chhoti si Baat): An absolute gem of a song from a quirky comedy, with rather nice lyrics and beautiful instances of experimentation in a jazz from a composer who was trying out new things in his music every other day. Especially beautiful is the choral soprano which runs through the length of the song accentuating Lata’s beautiful rendition.
Pyar hamein kis mod pe (Satte Pe Satta): Again, a song which requires no introduction at all. From an immensely popular movie, with a host of other hit songs, this is the song closest to my heart, for reasons which are manifold. I admire this number, for its transitions, for the energy, and its mind-bending complexity in spite of sounding deceptively simple.
Jaane woh kaise log the (Pyaasa): Wonderful composition by S D Burman , and rendered with finesse and a extremely personal touch by Hemant Kumar . One of the under-rated all time beautiful songs of HFM.
Is Mod pe jaate hain (Aandhi): R D Burman is one of those composers who could give you a rollicking number in a film, and follow it up with a song which simply astounds you with its meditative and contemplative nature. This is one of those meditative romantic songs sung with impeccable grace by Kishore and Lata.
Ajeeb dastaan hai yeh (Dil apna aur preet parayi): A lilting tune based on a soft gentle rocking country-style rhythm by Shankar Jaikishen , with Lata sounding exceptionally sweet and vulnerable all through. A gem of a song.
Na tum hamein jaano (Baat ek raat ki): Another Hemant-da song with the traditional Hemant Kumar characteristics – soft, gentle, laid-back and inherently sentimental.
Dil ki Girah khol do (Raat aur din): Normally, I am not the biggest fan of Shankar Jaikishen’s music over the years, but this is one song which showcased their talents in the best possible way. Manna Dey’s voice has never sounded so beautiful, and rarely has a waltz been adapted so adroitly to suit a Hindi film song.
Lag ja gale se (Woh kaun thi): A haunting melody by one of the under-rated music directors, Madan Mohan , whose association with Lata is legendary. Just one more song from the immense collection of gems which this man has given the world.
Kal nahin tha vo aaj hai (Vishwa Vidhata): Another Rahman song, which lacks the populist touch to it, and has a gentle orchestral background with a lovely vocal rendition, which enhances the beauty of the song. This song is conspicuous by the absence of the ornate beats which normally characterized Rahman’s music during this period, and is one of my personal favorites.
Zindagi Kaisi hai paheli (Anand): An awesome song from an equally awesome movie, this song captures pain, longing and desperation in more ways than one. Many a time, I have closed my eyes, watched Rajesh Khanna on the beach, walking without a care in the world, and have felt amazed at the strength of human resilience.
Ye raat bheegi bheegi si (Chori Chori): Another beautiful and lilting melody from Shankar Jaikishen , I love this song for the way Lata and Manna seem to complement and encourage each other, and of course, the lush orchestral background.
Ye Haseen Wadiyaan (Roja): The other song from Roja which had fascinated and stunned me with its complex arrangements and deceptive simplicity. Warm and sensuous at the same time, this definitely ranks as one of Rahman’s best compositions.
Pehla Nasha: One of the best things to come out of Jatin Lalit’s stables, Udit Narayan has never sounded better than this ( and I am not a big fan of his singing ). But I guess, it’s got all what the love-sick child wants, written all over it, sweetness, innocence and the warmth of first love.
Dil se Dil ki dor baandhe (Chhaya): This is one pretty unknown number from a rather nondescript film. Originally composed in Bengali by Salil-da for Hemant Kumar, this is the Hindi version, and is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. Mukesh and Lata justify the trust placed in them, and each of the interludes are so beautiful that they could be songs if played in isolation.
Tu Hi Re (Bombay): The only film after Roja in which, I felt Rahman lived up to his own expectations was this one, with some really awesome compositions, starting from the orchestral theme to the tragic flute theme. But this song is an achievement in itself, words cannot describe the beauty of this composition.
Dil tadap tadap ke (Madhumati): Vyjanthimala never looked more beautiful than this, and Bimal Roy couldn’t have chosen a better time to picturize this song. Everything is perfect, the rustic setting, the sweet minimalist background music, and Lata’s angelic voice. Masterful and simple at the same time, I guess this was the best song to end my review with.

I am sure I have missed a lot of very popular and universally loved songs in the process of writing this review, and I guess it’s just that twenty is a restriction. Given a chance, I could write reams and reams, but well, that’s just not the objective of this website.

Satire and Humor at the rawest

This is one of the funniest books I have ever read. And probably the best attempt at humorous and mind-bending satire by an Indian author. It all starts with the name, to be more precise: the comma in the name . What’s the comma supposed to mean, one may ask. Probably two facets of a personality which are at constant loggerheads with each other, in which each facet is confused about the other. English August is a thought-provoking, rollicking ride of the Great Indian bureaucracy and its many foibles through the eyes of a disillusioned but compassionate and wildly cynical individual named Agastya Sen (called English by some of his friends, Ogu by his dad and relatives, and August by other friends).

Spoiler warning (not that it matters greatly, plot details follow)

This is Upamanyu Chatterjee’s first book, published in 1988, and lacks much of the ponderous nature which is somewhat prominent in a lot of the great Indian novels. English August begins simply with Agastya in a car with his friend Dhrubo in Delhi, smoking marijuana and getting stoned. Agastya has qualified the Indian civil services examination (IAS to some) and has been posted as a trainee in a remote, made-up town by the name of Madna, somewhere in central India. He is worried and a little disillusioned, clearly expressed in Dhrubo’s words – You will get hazaar fucked in Madna. Agastya moves to Madna, a terribly hot place, and stays in a dilapidated and crumbling guest house which is a den of mosquitoes where he is fed by an irreverent cook called Vasant who he suspects is feeding him his turds. Agastya lives a sheltered but lonely life in Madna, making acquaintance with the collector of the town, Srivastav and his fat, but surprisingly sexy wife, mostly against his will. The rest of the book is a view of a typical Indian village-town through the eyes of this man, who is perpetually confused about his identity, his Indianness and a lot of the bureaucratic methodology of the civil services. Agastya realizes that the Indian heartland consisting of its myriad villages and people is a total stranger to him, just like it is to a lot of the urban folk. He makes friends with a frog and gives it a name (Dadru), and struggles with the local language in his daily work. He is modern and secular and gives a damn about religion, at the same time, terribly alienated against his own self, which is again reflected in the title of the book, English August. Even though he is named after a famous saint from Indian mythology, pronunciation issues have shortened his name to August, a perennial problem with a lot of Indian names, and a staple feature of pseudo-modern India.

Be it dissociation of a person from his culture, or the feeling of alienation in his own country, the book is a wonderful and amazingly funny critique on the daily musings and thoughts of a very confused man. In fact the confusion of Agastya is exposed beautifully in one of the sentences – There wasn’t a single thought in his head, about which he did not feel confused. The confusion is partly due to the extremely gigantic proportions of alcohol which he drinks and the marijuana which he smokes, and partly due to a lack of self-importance and confidence. All through the book, the author tries to understand and put a name to Agastya’s confusion, and in the process provides a hilarious insight into the working of some of India’s most esteemed offices. What is very refreshing about the book is that Chatterjee makes it very clear through myriad references to very Indian objects, articles and events that this book IS meant for Indian audiences.

Humor is obviously the mainstay of this novella – and mostly irreverent, and wildly satirical humor. Agastya is a blatant liar and likes making up stuff as is evident in the following passage:

Local biggie: Are you into physical exercise?
Agastya: Yes, I once climbed Mount Everest.
Local biggie: Good, you can join our badminton club.

The author writes an assured English, and frequently cluttered with frequent references and additions from Hinglish , a tongue spoken by most people from the northern part of the country. Agastya, as a person is the perfect mirror image of several Indians who are in the same dilemma, or similar kinds of disillusionment. Smoking pot, mostly against his will, is an activity which is done actively but frequently not enjoyed, as is listening to the alien sounds of Keith Jarrett or the imagined sweetness of Tagore. He is unable to find direction, and the will to try and understand any of the official tongue and this perception of the services stays till the end of the book. Frequently toying with the idea of branching into a different profession, Agastya simply goes through the motions of being the Assistant collector, meeting influential people and going to important meetings, sometimes stoned and drunk.

The humor in the book ranges from the comical to the stupid, from the farcical to satire, but rarely does any of the humor come across as forced. And in all the humor, Chatterjee manages to take potshots at an enormous variety of Indian mindsets and vices. Just for example his take on marriages - Eventually, he knew, he would marry, perhaps not out of passion, but out of convention, which was probably a safer thing. And then, in either case, in a few months or years they would tire of disagreeing with each other, or what was more or less the same thing, would be inured to each other’s odd and perhaps disgusting ways, the way she squeezed the tube of toothpaste and the way he drank from a glass and didn’t rinse it, and they would slide into a placid and comfortable unhappiness, and maybe unseeingly watch TV every day, each still a cocoon. Each and every view of Chatterjee comes across as a confused thought in Agastya’s mind, and yet is a very perceptive observation on a fallacy, an event or just a tradition.

All in all, the book is a highly recommended one for everyone, and with every reading, it’s possible to discover newer nuances in the way Agastya looks at the world, and thus change your own perspective on things known and unknown. And what’s most important is that, in spite of all the confusion in his mind, his blatant and consistent lying, and his conspicuous lack of self-importance and self-confidence, Agastya manages to endear himself to the reader. So much so, that the reader is a little disappointed at the end, when he realizes that in spite of everything, the bureaucracy is still the same and unchanged, and Agastya is still as confused as he was at the start of the book.

Narcissism at its best

He He He. This is me with a guitar. To be fair, the guitar is really nice and has a beautiful filling sound, which would explain this post :)

Ray and his movies

Satyajit Ray is universally regarded as one of the greatest auteurs of 20th century cinema. Born in Kolkata into a well-known Bengali family, prominent in the fields of the arts, Ray’s education was in Presidency College followed by a few years in the Vishwa Bharati University in the town of Shantiniketan. With an interest in movies which was inculcated in his childhood, this urge to make a difference on the silver screen was further reinforced after a meeting with the French filmmaker Jean Renoir who had come to India to shoot his movie, The River. Considerably inspired by the art of Italian neo-realism, and by one particular movie, Bicycle Thieves, Ray was also a prolific writer of Bengali fiction, most popular of which are the Feluda stories, and his science-fiction novellas on the travels of the inimitable Professor Shonku.
While working in an advertising company named D. J. Kreymer and Co. in Kolkata, Ray traveled to London on an assignment, and in the course of his stay in the city, happened to watch close to a hundred movies. One of these movies, Bicycle Thieves, would prove to be his inspiration, and land him on the stepping stone to becoming one of India’s best known directors. It was on the way back from London, that he decided that Pather Panchali, based on the novel of the same name by the author Bibhutibhushan Banerjee, would become the basis of his first film. With an utterly inexperience crew, the cameramen having only been accustomed to still-film shooting, Ray embarked on this humongous task of making this movie out of a well-read novel. With dwindling funds, shooting was postponed, cancelled at points, with the result that the movie took an incredibly long three years to finish, being financed by the West Bengal Government in the end. This was the movie which defined his career and a lot that followed.

Pather Panchali is easily Ray’s most well-known movie. Having won the award for the Best Human document at Cannes, it went on to rave reviews from critics and flamboyant criticism from Indian Bollywood stalwarts, with Nargis Dutt going on to criticize him for exporting poverty to the West . Pather Panchali was a raw film, but a movie filmed with a earnest desire for good cinema, with an eye for detail and with compassion for India and its villages. It’s a moving picture of the simple life in a village, and the ties which bind a brother and sister, shown with acute precision and amazing simplicity. Ray’s career started in full earnest with his second movie of the Apu Trilogy, Aparajito , a wonderful movie in its own right, which shows the increasing conflict between a mother and her child, the child with his ambitions and the mother with her fears. Aparajito was not well received by the audiences in Kolkata, but went on to rave international reviews and won quite a few awards over the world. The third film of the trilogy was Apur Sansar, but before making the movie Ray went on to make two other movies, Parash Pather, made primarily for comic relief, and Jalsaghar. Jalsaghar is one of my favorite Ray movies, based on the novel of the same name by the Bengali novelist, Tarashankar Banerjee. A detailed study in decadence and the last days of a wealthy zamindar in the old Bengal days, it’s a wonderful insight into one of the most deadly sins – pride. A story told with an eye for detail and wonderful empathy, and is considered a landmark in cinematic achievement by a lot of people. The long Indian classical music and dance sequences could be unfamiliar to many, but provide interesting insights into these art forms which have changed and transformed themselves over centuries.

Post Jalsaghar, Ray went on to make the third movie of the Apu Trilogy, Apur Sansar. Lacking some of the rawness of the first two movies of the trilogy, it is nevertheless a very touching movie, told mostly with simplicity with tinges of bitterness at times. This film follows Apu as he moves from the village to the city of Kolkata, living in a nondescript house close to the railway tracks (a perennial motif throughout the trilogy), in the wrap of acute poverty. On a trip to a marriage of his friend, and by a strange travesty of circumstances, he gets married to Aparna . Tragedy never leaves Apu, and his young wife dies in childbirth, and Apu loses interest in life. The trains bring to him an option of suicide, but he desists and finally in the beautifully filmed climax of this movie, he reunites with his long-lost son. Devi, made shortly after Apur Sansar is another wonderful film, which deals with superstition and the blind faith in it in Hindu society, and is a wonderful achievement in addition to being a social critique. Ray’s first original screenplay was Kanchenjunga, a quiet uneventful film about an afternoon in a commonplace Bengali family, laced with wonderful dialogue and indefinite undercurrents, as the family tries to get the youngest daughter engaged to a worthy suitor.

In 1964, Ray made Charulata, considered his most polished and refined work, and one which he himself considers his most accurate and precise. Based on the Tagore novella, Nastanir, it deals with the passions of a young neglected wife for her brother-in-law, and her inner conflict and despair. Told with wonderful detail and serenity, Charulata is one film which would amaze the casual and discerning viewer alike, with Ray’s insight into human behavior and follies. In this period, he also directed a few movies, which include Teen Kanya, which was shortened and released as Two Daughters abroad, which is a collection of stories; Mahanagar, which deals with a homely wife’s search for a job and her success in it after her husband loses his post in a company. Post Charulata, Ray forged into various other fields, including science fiction and detective fiction, making his children films, including Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Sonar Kella, Joy Baba Felunath and Hirok Rajar Deshe. All of these are wonderful movies, told with dollops of humor and are as enjoyable today as the day they were released. Of these, Sonar Kella and Joy Baba Felunath are detective stories which would fit more into the thriller genre, and Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and Hirok Rajar Deshe are musical fantasies, both taking potshots and political controversies and the futility of war. Although categorized as children films, these movies are strong critiques of the Indian political system, and Hirok Rajar Deshe was a direct jab at the imposition of emergency, tariffs and restrictions.

Following this Ray made a few movies which are considered weak by several critics, most important among them being Nayak. Casting Bengal’s darling, Uttam Kumar, in the lead role, this was a very intense portrayal of the troubles and mental condition of a famous man, but received a muted response in international circles. Aranyer Din Ratri, is however a tremendous and very polished film. Made in 1969, this movie isolates and removes a group of young men from their natural habitat in the city, to stay in a village, where each of them gets involved in revealing encounters with one member of the local female population. It’s a great film which is lyrical and critical at the same time, with a fair bit of commentary on pettiness of urban existence in addition to doing a revealing study of the Indian middle-class.

Aranyer Din Ratri was the stepping stone for Ray’s Calcutta trilogy , consisting of three somewhat less-understood movies, Pratidwandi, Seemabaddha, and Jana Aranya. The films, although composed separately share a loose similarity in their themes and hence have been frequently classified under one heading. Pratidwandi is a scathing critique on governmental apathy and the problems of the unemployed, namely disillusionment, and what it leads to - corruption. Pratidwandi is unique amongst Ray’s films because it uses a fragmented narrative style, jumping back and forth, a consistent use of flashbacks, and dream sequences, something very uncommon to Ray’s directorial style. Jana Aranya, though not in the same class as Pratidwandi, follows the life of a young man as he is forced to give in to corruption and decadence to eke out a living for himself. Seemabadhha, is the story of a successful man and the mental torture which he goes through as he is forced to choose between morality and monetary gains, finally choosing the latter. In 1977, Ray finished Shatranj Ke Khiladi, an Urdu film, his most expensive and star-studded one. Ray’s other Hindi movie, is the hour-long hard-hitting Sadgati, which was conceived mostly as a short film and is a searing jab at the problems of untouchability and it’s existence in the country in spite of government denial. The last film of this period was the short film Pikoo’s diary, which starred Aparna Sen as Pikoo’s mother, and is probably one of his most under-rated yet beautiful films. Wonderfully filmed, it’s a warm insight into the troubled feelings of a young innocent boy who wanders through the garden painting nature as his mother engages in an extra-marital relationship.

Ghare Baire was the movie, during the filming of which, Ray suffered his first heart-attack, and was forced to give up shooting outdoors altogether. The last three Ray movies are considered by many as considerably less powerful and moving. Ganashatru loosely based on Ibsen’s The enemy of the people, is uncharacteristically verbose and long. Shakha Proshakha, is a considerably better film, which follows the life of an honest old man, who is pained to learn about the corruption of his three sons, and is forced to accept the solace which his only uncorrupted, albeit mentally retarded son offers.

Agantuk is Ray’s last movie, and considered aptly by many as Ray’s swansong. Filmed in the nature of a Chekov comedy, it’s a humorous look into the world of a entirely commonplace Bengali family from the eyes of a filmmaker who has lost faith in humanity but hasn’t given up on it altogether. The story of Agantuk, has been dealt with in Hollywood in detail and practically beaten to death, but it took Ray to give the Indian touch to the movie. Semi-autobiographical in nature, Agantuk is a beautiful movie with a few flaws, but beautiful all the same. Through witty dialogue, and a subtle undercurrent of tension, Ray gives us valuable insights into the worthlessness of civilization, the universal pettiness of money, the universality of identity and the vibrancy and color of tribal life .

By 1992, Ray’s health had deteriorated beyond recovery. An honorary Oscar was awarded to him just weeks before his death, which he received on his death-bed, in a barely recognizable body ravaged by numerous heart-attacks.

There are perhaps very few filmmakers in India and abroad, who had total control over their art, and all aspects of it. Ray was responsible for scripting, casting, directing, scoring the music, operating the camera, art direction and editing, and designing his own credit titles and publicity material. What is likeable about his movies is the fact that they represent a personal expression of a kind not seen in films as a rule. Perverted, bizarre behavior and graphical sexual scenes are rarely present in his films; being concerned with human emotions and their inter-dependence on relationships is what he has been concerned with mainly. A person who always believed in depicting human emotions as honestly as possible, the strength of his cinema lies in the equal amount of importance he provided to form and content. Spectacular locations and flashiness was never a quality of his cinema and he is known to have rejected locations for scenes just because they were too overpowering, they would upset the balance . Ray’s sense of realism is abstract and wonderful at the same time. He makes us re-realize the commonplace and appreciate it in all its simplicity. He helps us recognize the mythic in the ordinary, and his movies have the capacity to invoke a thousand feelings without a single word being uttered. Ray’s movies are meditative, dreamy and contemplative, something that is profoundly and totally Indian; and that’s probably their greatest quality.

Saw - the movie

Saw is one overhyped movie. And although there is a lot of stuff to get really scared about in this film, the scariest is the acting. What’s painful about Saw is that although the movie starts promisingly, and with a wonderfully and undeniably clever premise, the director loses track midway, and the momentary twitch you start feeling towards the middle of the movie, intensifies as you realize the incompetency of the actors.

Spoiler Alert: Plot details follow

The movie starts with two guys who don’t know each other waking up in a dirty, tiled room, rather, bathroom. Chained to pipes at opposing ends of the room, the first few moments of the movie are pretty clever as horror wafts over both of them as they observe the grisly remains of an apparent suicide in the middle of the room between both of them. Which brings us to the centerpiece of the movie - the serial killer, Jigsaw, who has left a tape consisting of his terms and conditions for the benefit of the two captives. His basic idea is to teach people how important and beautiful life is, by placing the captives in the most terrifying situations possible. Jigsaw is probably the most imaginative part of the movie, and there is a terrifying feel to the whole premise of keeping the victims alive for enough time to feel the beauty and transient nature of life. After revealing Jigsaw’s plans to the two captives, the director unfortunately goes astray, guided by some of the worst acting in recent times by the lead. Elwes (who plays the quiet doctor) is shown as resourceful and patient and between the two of them, they think of ways to get themselves out of their predicament. Things are made tougher by the fact that the only way Jigsaw portends that the doctor can escape is by killing Adam, the other captive. If he fails, both of them would die, along with Gordon’s family. The rest of the film is an exercise in paranoia influenced by claustrophobic surroundings and the harrowing message of insanity coupled with a strangely potent death-looming-straight-in-the-face feeling.

To be fair to the film, it has its moments of gruesomeness, but the director really knows how to let the heroes play the mind games devised by the killer and try and come up with a way to release themselves. The entire process of constructing and reconstructing their lives and getting to know the other captive is an eerie and entertaining process at the same time, but the film loses track as the director resorts to a patchy flashback narrative style to drive the point home. Clarity is sacrificed for an intrusive back-and-forth approach, in which we come to know about the Jigsaw and his previous attempts at murder, and attempts to catch the perpetrator. There are several moments in the film, where you are forced to reconsider your internal logic, and you are amazed as the policemen act in ways more stupid than teenage girls in slash flicks, running into danger without backup. Combined with the usual shock-and-scare cliches, you feel disappointed. Questions pile up in your mind faster than you can answer them, and you are left begging. The usual shocks, the usual twists, though are several and can serve to entertain you, but not for long. Not with so many questions troubling your mind.

Saw is not a bad film, not by any means. It could have been an exceedingly clever film, and could have been much better, had the director involved a more direct narrative style rather than the flashbacks which set to confuse than clarify. It would have helped if he hadn’t resorted to the horror-hack cliches like every other summer-horror flick. Saw owes a great deal to Seven and other similar serial-killer flicks, but it fails because in spite of a really clever premise and some really intense opening scenes, because it insults the intelligence at several points. I guess I would have liked Saw more if the director wouldn’t have used the same old tricks to scare and shock me. I would have liked it more if the gore was shown indirectly than directly. Sometimes the imagination has more power to scare than a visual. I guess I would have liked it more if the acting would have been better sans the faked British and American accents which, by the way sounded desperately out of place. Most importantly, I would have liked it better if the amateurish rants by the newcomer Whannell could have been left to a minimum.

However Saw does succeed at some levels. Perhaps, because it is based on an extremely clever idea.

Guitar gods and mayhem

Some great masters of the guitar.

Jimi Hendrix: This man will always top my list for the simple reason of bringing more innovation into the art of guitar playing than everyone else. With prodigious talent and an absolutely wonderful eye for detail, Jimi Hendrix is probably the best exponent of the blues and blues-rock. And in the course of his experimentation with the blues, he brought a great deal of color into the instrument, be it style, be it effects, or be it overall skill. Hendrix had it all.

B. B. King: One of the most respected and talented blues musicians over the world, B. B. King is known best for his trademark guitar, ‘Lucille’, a custom guitar which he started using the 1950s. His musical journey has been a long one, right from the time when he fell under the spell of the blues, in spite of the fact that it was considered ‘devil music’ by his community. His journey took him to Memphis, where he started playing the blues and gospel on street corners. From that, he has come a long way. Considered one of the biggest influences on Rolling Stones guitarist, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton, his impassioned guitar style and rock-solid voice ensures that he is perennially sold out on the blues circuit. One of his best quotes till date remains: “If five out of hundred people get something out of my music, then it’s worth it.”

Eric Clapton: One of the greatest living guitarists, a person who has dabbled in probably every kind of music possible. Each and every album of Clapton right from his early firebrand addicted days to the present sobered-down version is a masterpiece and a clear definition of the musical talent that he is. His “Unplugged” series with MTV, till date remains one of the best acoustic performances of all time. With an unflinching passion for perfection, all of Clapton’s life has been a journey in musical discovery.

Dave Gilmour: This is one person who is a legend, not because he was a virtuoso, but because he knew how to use his talent the best. Best known for engineering psychedelic rock and enhancing it, thereby making it popular, along with his companions in Pink Floyd, Gilmour accomplished with the guitar what a lot of singers accomplished with their voices. “Shine on you, crazy diamond” is one of the most haunting guitar solos ever, and I respect and admire this guitarist for his sparing usage of notes and his capability of successfully molding blues into psychedelic rock.

SRV: Jokingly regarded as the only white man who could play the blues the way it’s supposed to be, Stevie Ray Vaughan till date remains one of the most under-rated but amazing guitarists in the blues and blues-rock scene. Eric Clapton was once invited to a concert, and there was a guitarist in the band who simply blew everyone’s mind out with the way he played the blues. That guitarist was Stevie Ray Vaughan. This was a little story which Clapton in an interview during a tribute concert for Vaughan organized by his brother Jimmie. And in spite of the fact that he is under-rated, it’s tough to find a guitar-player who hasn’t been influenced by him at some point of time. With one of the most soulful and inspired playing styles of his time, SRV was a man who had the technique rock-solid.

These are just five of my favorite guitarists; mentioning five names seems a gross injustice to a lot of rather amazing players and musicians who did not get into the list, because …. Well …. The slots are already taken.

The alma mater

IIT Kharagpur, as the name suggests is located in the sleepy town of Kharagpur, around 110 kilometers from Calcutta. Established in 1951, it’s the oldest IIT in the country, and with the largest of campuses amongst the IITs, and untouched by the vagaries of materialistic existence, provides a beautiful and idyllic setting for undergraduate studies. The institute has an expansive campus, dotted with unkempt green parks, old and new hostels, some crumbling, some garish by their opulence. The departments are laid out in the academic campus, not too far from the main entrance of the institute, which houses all the academic complexes, and a few large auditoriums. The old institute building is a little further down the road and is now a tech museum with a few administrative offices. Originally the site of the Hijli Detention camp for prisoners of the British era, it also has a badly maintained Hunter and an extinct Railway Engine on display. The Hostels are all laid out along the arterial road of the campus, justifiably called Scholar’s Avenue. Close to eight undergraduate hostels and a few postgraduate hostels are located in two distinct areas – the old and new campus. The institute police station is a ramshackle establishment bang opposite the main gate of the academic complex. Cycling is the predominant mode of transport for most students, with most of the cycles being donated to the juniors as the elders mature and stop attending classes. The Scholar’s Avenue is lined with a generous green cover which stays green mostly all through the year, the campus being mostly untouched by the cancerous growth of civilization and the plague of construction.

The institute, just like any other institute with a long history, has its share of traditions and events. Some notable events which have assumed some popularity after the Telegraph made forays into the campus are the Illumination and Rangoli events of Diwali, which are great examples of the dedication which entire hostels put in to create a riot of colors and lights on the auspicious day. Students here have a tendency to abbreviate everything. So, anything meaningless, vague or random becomes arbit. It’s a technique often employed by professors to ensure that the class assimilates the most crucial points of the discussion. Nonchalance, brevity, machismo, sexiness, beauty, and excellence are all classified by the one word – cool; the director becomes the diro, your rank becomes your hawa, the vice-president of the Gymkhana becomes the ubiquitous VP, and the head of the department becomes the hod. Most KGPians tend to use the word maaro extensively, which simply means action. So you don’t smoke a cigarette, but maaro a fag; you don’t drink but maaro booze, and most importantly, you maaro mugga (study). Maaro over the years, has been universally accepted by all residents as a fully flexible verb. Girls are conspicuous by their scarcity here, with a lot of girls in the campus harboring a false sense of self-importance in turn leading to a sense of look-down-upon in the boys. Beautiful girls (and boys) are all referred to by the all-inclusive word juice. PJs (poor jokes) are an essential ingredient of life in KGP, and a lot of the poor jokes are born in dimly lit classrooms with disinterested professors trying to drill sense into severely disinterested students. Funda is the all-encompassing word for knowledge and fundoo in direct consonance translates to excellent, great, intelligent, and the likes. Water fights are a big part of KGP tradition with the upper hand generally held by the residents in the top floors of the hostels. TFS (Technology Film Society; everything in KGP is prefixed by the mandatory Technology) movies are another big tradition in the campus, especially for the distressed male populace. Watching a movie at one of the TFS screenings is unique, enervating experience. The crowd is in a perennially boisterous mood, and choice comments on the scene on display are common. A lot of slogans get shouted, with people clarifying their affiliation to a particular group or hostel in no small way. Tarapodo is the mysterious man who handles the projector, and is a cult figure all over the institute. However, NO constructive evidence has ever corroborated the existence of this mysterious person.

Events in the campus are multifarious and numerous, and are classified into several kinds – Open-IIT, where all kinds of people participate; Inter-halls, where the inter-hostel-rivalry is something to be watched and cherished. The TSG (The Gymkhana) is responsible for conducting all events and also the annual fest of the institute (The Spring Fest) which is held in January. In addition to this, the institute has a lot of student-controlled societies, most popular amongst which are the dramatics (ETDS, HTDS and BTDS, referring to English, Hindi and Bengali drama respectively); the music societies (WTMS and ETMS, referring the Western and Eastern music societies); and the TDS (the dance society). The institute has its problems too. The professors are good, and they are regular, but they are inadvertently sadistic and love to trouble the students to no end. There is a total absence of a city anywhere close (other than Calcutta, which is over a hundred kilometers away), and the sudden transition can be a trying phase for several students. Over the years, through consistent measures and strong patrolling, ragging has become practically non-existent, which though in some ways is laudable has resulted in lesser interaction between the juniors and the seniors. As a result, the bond which developed between the different batches is not as strong as in previous years. The administrative officials in the institute are frequently non-accommodating and can turn a deaf ear to several complaints which can get a little frustrating. Most of all, the spartan existence can seem like a nightmare to some.

However, in spite of all the problems and the rather hermit-like existence which is the norm rather than the exception here, KGP is a wonderful place to spend four years of one’s life. It instills a faith in relationships, fosters the strongest bonds of a lifetime, and makes one capable of facing hardships with an equal eye. The absence of city life nurtures talents and creates superstars; in short, it goes a long way in developing a personality, albeit in a very different way. The numerous events, technical and non-technical keep students busy all through the year, and the rigorous academic schedule keeps one on the tiptoe at all times. Rarely will you find a KGPian who doesn’t speak gloriously of his alma-mater; years after he has left KGP, he will connect instantly with a junior and ask him, “What’s Chhedis like nowadays?” [Chhedis is the 24-hour tea-stall just outside the campus, a meeting-place for the junta (junta=people)]

Memories of Kolkata

Kolkata stirs up different emotions in different sets of people. For most Bengalis, it signifies homecoming, for some it signifies a lost part of their soul. For a lot of other people, it signifies culture, and for others, it is imperfection personified. All in all, it is a city with so much variety, so much beauty and so much ugliness, all in good measure that, you may leave it, but it’s tough to take it out of the mind…

Over the last few years, Kolkata has changed a lot. Sprawling malls and multiplexes have sprung up in the remotest nooks and corners of the city, and more are in the pipelines. The average income of the common man has increased by leaps and bounds, and things have started becoming expensive. The horrendous traffic seems less disorderly and more controlled. The IT industry has surged in bursts and a very conspicuous yuppie attitude towards life has become commonplace. However, in spite of all this, it’s amazing to find the soul of the city untouched, the charm continues unabated.

Constant separation from the city makes the heart grow fonder of its many abnormalities. Kolkata is unique in many ways, it’s a special place which disgusts at first, but somehow, with years of endurance, endears itself to you in no small way. It’s a city which can boast of discussions on music and art in as dingy a place as Olypub, in a backdrop of frustrated blue-collar professionals nursing a last drink before getting home. It’s a place where you can leisurely stroll in the dark by-lanes of College street, in a maze of booksellers and booklovers, enthralled, the musty smell of old books on your face and a spring in your step. It’s a place where you can enjoy the age-old ambience of the Indian Coffee House, and have a cup of coffee and relive the days of revolution, of unrest, of intellectual and pseudo-intellectual uprising. It’s a place where you can walk by the riverside, with your lady love, hand in hand, gentle breeze rippling through your hair as you watch the boats and the fishermen go by. It’s a place where you can enjoy an evening to remember in one dark corner of Someplace Else, with Amyt Datta playing the blues like never before, and have Long Island Iced Tea, the way it should be without burning a hole through your pocket. It’s the place where you can take stroll in the bright lights of Park Street, and feel comforted in its homeliness. In the days of Lighthouse and New Empire, it was the place where you could enjoy a furtive drink after the end of the movie in the overcrowded Lighthouse bar and restaurant. It’s a place where you can have the ubiquitous double chicken, double egg roll at Kusum’s, the way it should be, greasy and meaty at the same time. It’s a place where you can immerse yourself in Brahms, Mozart and Bach at a weekend recital in the Calcutta School of Music, and at the same time, marvel at the power of music and the talent of people. It’s a place which has Howrah Station, infamous for its crowds, poverty and all the wrong things, and as the train trudges into the incredible sights and sounds of this crumbling monument, you get a glimpse of one of the busiest stations in the country, and at the back of your mind, you see the Kolkata of yore. It’s a place where you can have fantastic breakfast, cakes and coffee at one of the best coffee shops in the country, Flury’s, far removed from the snootiness of Barista and the banality of Café Coffee Day. It’s a place where you have Outram Ghat, right opposite the imposing gates of Fort William, where you can hire a boat for an evening cruise on the gentle waves of the Ganges, and watch lovers, some happy, some embarrassed, on quick trysts away from the noise, the commotion and humanity. And in Kolkata, you have the Maidan, dotted with parks, with playing grounds, a window to a glorious past, a forgotten time, where you see the love of sports for what it is, uncluttered and unadulterated by politics and money.

Kolkata is changing, the people are changing, and the close-knit inquisitive neighbor has been replaced by the keeping-to-itself nuclear family, with the least interest in the outside world. The gentle banter of the people and the untarnished emotion in the common man has been replaced by a worldliness, understanding and control. But the yellow taxis are still there, and the dilapidated steel buses have not raised their rates by any big margin; and the people at some level have remained the same. Food is still the cheapest here than in any other city of the country; and the sweet tooth of the quintessential Bengali has not changed in the least. Kolkata still remains a charming city at heart, and never fails to imbue a warm fuzzy feeling deep down in my heart every time I go back…

The pianist

OK, a somewhat late review on an absolutely brilliant film.

The Pianist, released in 2002, is a magnificent movie, and by far, Polanski’s most polished and personal work. Polanski survived the Warsaw ghetto bombings and escaped from the Krakow ghetto by escaping through a fence. This is a very different take on the holocaust. It does not present any particular angle to it, and for the initiated, it may look distinctly un-Polanskisque.

Spoiler warning – Plot details follow:

Casting Adrien Brody in the role of the Polish pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman, Polanski extracts a wonderfully restrained performance. The film starts with Szpilman playing Chopin on the Polish radio, when a German bomb lands in the studio, creating a ruckus of sorts. Szpilman keeps playing, with the nonchalance of a musician who is perhaps a little detached from reality. This becomes clearer in his altercations with his brother, his lack of understanding of his brother’s jealousy. And he doesn’t come out as a brave person either, opting out of the fledgling ghetto resistance against the German forces. When his family and all its members have been hauled off to the concentration camps, he exhibits no qualms in seeking the help of a freedom fighter and getting away from the problems of the ghetto. The remainder of the movie is a complex mixture of narrow, almost unbelievable escapes as Szpilman moves from house to house, and at the same time, is witness to the gruesome battle between the Nazi machine and the few Jews in the ghetto who would not give in without a fight. Szpilman is almost on the verge of losing his mind and his life when he receives help from the most unlikely quarter, a German officer, who comes upon him as he is trying to open a can of watermelon juice, and keeps him safe and fed for the remainder of the German rule. The movie ends with a beautiful performance of Chopin, by a dapper, recovered pianist for the same Polish radio.

There are several good reasons to see the Pianist. Firstly, it’s a movie shot with relentless eye for detail and an adherence to authenticity rarely seen in holocaust movies. Perhaps, it lacks the emotional touch, because all that Polanski shows is the ruthlessness of the Nazi killing machine with a matter-of-fact, in-your-face approach. Secondly, it’s a movie which is filled with moving pictures about the strength of human resilience. And thirdly, because it’s a fantastic story told in the best way possible.

The pianist is a movie of riveting power and unadulterated sadness at the same time. In the pianist, the concentration camps are never shown. The incarceration and the gas chambers are all off limit. The movie shows violence which was beyond the purview of the concentration camps. Even at the harshest moments in the film, there is rarely an attempt towards an overmuch of sentimentality of crudeness. Even though the tone of the movie is distant, and rarely does Polanski let the view get inside Szpilman’s head, there is never an excess of detachedness which would have marred the spirit of the movie. It’s a very Hitchcock-ish approach to film making, in which by actually tackling the violence and the dread with a sort of dramatic reticence, Polanski actually intensifies the impact rather than reducing it. At no point of time in the movie will the viewer feel an enhanced sense of uplift. Even at the end, when Szpilman is helped by a polished and refined German officer, the context and the material is handled with excellent restraint and pathos. And when Szpilman himself is unable to help the German officer after all of them have been taken in by the Soviets, the movie further exhausts all chances of an uplifting mood.

One of the most poignant scenes in the movie is one which is closely related to Polanski’s personal experience. One evening as Szpilman is still in the ghetto, walking home one evening, he notices a few boys, trying to crawl under the infamous walls, pursued by German guards. He tries desperate to help one of the children who has crawled half way in but is being pummeled by the German guard on the other side. He finally manages to pull him in, but by the time he actually does so, the child has died. It’s a touching statement made by a person who himself escaped form the confines of the Krakow ghetto through a hole in the fencing at the age of seven.

The pianist does have its flaws, like finding a perfectly tuned grand piano in a battered house in the Warsaw Township, as is the exceptionally flawless playing by Szpilman when asked by the German officer. However, those are but minor flaws in an otherwise spellbinding film with awesome performances by almost each and every member of the cast. Shot with solemnity and serenity, the Pianist ranks as one of the finest non-documentary films on the holocaust – probably the deepest stain in the history of the twentieth century.