Sunday, February 25, 2007

Violence, yes, history, why?

A year too late, but you know, better late etc. Every critic from J Rosenbaum to M Dargis (ya ya Dargis, I know but dammit, Rosenbaum loved it) raved about A History of Violence. Trustable Jai seemed to like it too. I meant to see it anyway, for the king if nothing else, but for some reason or the other it was the only movie that I didn't end up seeing in last year's nominee list. So went and borrowed it from Marylebone library this weekend (btw, the public libraries in this country are nowhere as big as the libraries of the States, but what they lack in space, they do seem to make up in quality, so I am not complaining yet) and it turned out to be a little, well, more than a little disappointing. Don't get me wrong, it is a really good movie and some excellent filmaking throughout but for moi it just didn't live upto expectations.

The basic problem, the way I see it, is with what the movie was meant to achieve. Is it about whether a man can turn over a new leaf, put his mobster past behind him, and live a completely different life? Is it about how violence begets violence and there's no way out of this endless cycle? If that's all it was, a thriller about one man's struggle to not let the ghosts of his past haunt him and his family, then A History of Violence is right on target. But hey, that's not really what I remember people (Cronenburg included if I am not mistaken) saying about it - It is supposedly a critique of the Bush administration's failed policies, it is about how violence lurks just beneath the surface of America's idyllic suburban homes, its about how little it takes to fire a shotgun. I am sorry, I must be a bit dense, but the movie did not tell me anything of this sort. You see, not all of us in America used to once belong to the mob, or married someone who did. So excuse me, but I really don't see how this movie holds a mirror to my face.

The saddest thing about the movie is that it holds so much promise in the first half only to squander it, shot after shot, through the second. Here's the gist of the story - Tom Stall, upstanding member of the community, loving husband and father, loved by all, becomes an overnight hero when he shoots and kills two men who attack his diner. Soon after, the east coast mob recognizes him as one of their own starts paying visits to Tom and his family, and our man has no choice but to go to Philly and kill a bunch of people he used to know in his mobster days in addition to the ones he shoots in his suburban lawn back in Millbrook. Where was the promise, you ask? Everywhere through the first 40 minutes actually - the deceptively simple Indiana town where you know something bad's going to happen, the first cheerleader sex scene, the way the son smart-talks his way out when confronted by the school bully, in the talk of monsters and pies, and right through the diner shooting, and when the son beats up the bully and that absolutely amazing scene in which Tom confronts his son, but pretty much right there was where it ended. The second the bodies pile up on the lawn and Joey says "I should have killed you back in Philly" you know its over. Might as well not see the rest of the movie. Unless you came in with different expectations.

Violence in America is not exclusive to the crime-ridden cities of the East Coast (ok, LA too if you insist) but we knew that already. Too well. Violence follows the mobster into suburban America and rears its head at the most inconvenient moment, but thats only expected, no? Where this movie could have gone, so easily considering how talented the crew is, is where only a select few have gone before - violence lies beneath the surface of every ordinary home, not just a seemingly ordinary one, not just the home of a man with a past. In refusing to do so, in not even willing to go the ambiguous route which personally would have been much more exciting, the movie exonerates you and me totally. We don't have history, you see, and so this is not our violence. Neither are we associated with anyone who has, and so, we do not have a stake in this. Which when you think about it is really not true.

PS: I am undecided about the last scene, yes, it was a little ambiguous and all but really thats the best he could come up with? I am not so sure. And please, do not get me started on the most talked about second sex scene. Violence and sexuality are closely related, so a lot of people think. All I can say is if you anyway discover you are married to this mobster guy and decide to stick with him, you don't have much of a choice, do you?

Update: After a bit of googling, I discovered why was it that I didn't see this movie earlier. Sepoy's review here. While I think he is being a little too harsh, agree with him on most things.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Make-A-Bish: Help Bill get to work (It can get you fish)

Do you want to make a real difference to someone else's life? Do you want make the world a better place to live in? Do you want have the satisfaction of helping someone go to work? If your answer is yes, then here's the perfect opportunity:

Did you know that just for £30, you can help this poor post doctoral fellow catch that train to Cambridge and back? For £365 which is our pound a day level, you can almost fund his monthly pass. Ofcourse you give because you want to and because it helps a poor fellow and his family, but we want to show our appreciation too. If you were to join at our pound a day level, you will get a free romantic dinner for two, made specially for you by the fellow himself the next time you are in London. Our leadership circle level starts at £1000 and for that, you get flown to San Francisco for a special dinner with our uber cool art director, the one and only Black Mamba. She's promised that she will even bring a recorder and record any poetry that you care to recite. How cool!
We know you have been thinking about this, you have always wanted to fund a poor post-doc, now is your chance. We know you can do this, now is the time. Contact us now to make your contribution.

PS: No, no, only the idea of making money is mine. Art credits to BM. You must agree that it takes a certain amount of talent to put Satyajit Ray and Jorge Cham in the same frame. Special bonus for the Bong in you, here, enjoy the original too:

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Monday, February 12, 2007

Mani time

In the maamidom that is Madras, the January depression blues do not hit until after the month. Once the kutcheri season is over, there's always Pongal to look forward to. Its only when Pongal is done with and all the new movies have been watched, does it set in. But by then, there are always other things to keep us occupied. We talk about Mani, for instance. Doz has an interesting post here about holy cows in general and Mani Ratnam in particular. B Rangan has an excellent piece here which makes any more conversation on Mani plain redundant. But hey, I am a blogger, I talk about redundant stuff, so here goes:

Rangan talks about some specific moments when we started realizing that Mani was not in his element anymore - Yes, by the flag scene in Roja, I, for one, was mourning the death of Mani as I knew him but it really wasn't the kidnapping scene when "I started shifting uneasily on my seat". It was a little before that. Because the Mani I knew was a slightly different Mani from the one Rangan's talking about. Rangan starts his post with "I am Tamilian. I am in my thirties. There you have it". I think that's missing a key point which is actually pretty obvious from the rest of his post. It should have been "I am a Tamilian. I am in my thirties. I am from Madras. There you have it." Because for those of us who do not really have any real connection to Chennaipattinam (or if you want to be little more general, to certain urban centers in Tamland), Mani was about how they lived. Those cousins and family friends and those strange people there. Not us. We too cut classes to see the first day, first show of Roja, and we too oogled at the first shot of Aravind Swamy smoking, perched on his car by the Ghats in Tirunelveli district, but we started shifting uneasily right then. Because we did not understand what (the hell) Mani was doing in Sundarapandipuram, of all places! He tried to do it again in Bombay and we were aghast but by then, we knew he was lost anyway. To get rural Tamland right, you need a Bharathiraja (of the 70s and 80s) or more recently, say someone like a Thangar Batchan (I am thinking only Azhagi here) or a Cheran (think first 30 minutes of Autograph). Mani saar, as much as I like him, cannot handle it. Not to say that he shouldn't venture into anything rural, just trying to make the point that the feeling that Chennaites get when you see Mani doing Pan-Indian films, it is not very different from the feeling we get when he tries to get into rural Tamland even for a short while.

I can see people who know me scratching their heads by now. When did I become an expert in rural Tamland? Yeah okay, lets just say that that's the only Tamland I know (except for a certain suburb of Coimbatore). And I know it well enough to know that I don't like the vellayappam they make in Tirunelveli. Fair enough? But anyway, that brings me to my next point. For those of us who grew up outside Tamland, we were also faced with the task of explaining our films to the people we live with. Now, this is a really easy task if you happen to live in the Bollywood belt and in Teluguland because well, do I really need to explain that? But if you happened to grow up in Malluland in the 80s / early 90s, its pretty much all uphill - this was literally the golden age of Mallu (mainstream) movies and you want to explain to an audience weaned on "Poochaikkoru mookuthi" and "Ramji Rao speaking" that Janakaraj in Agni Natchathiram was funny? That the movie, despite being a masala movie, is really cool in so many respects? Well, good luck. So anyway, I liked Mani until then because he was so easily defendable. You do not have to be a Chennaite, or even a Tamilian to appreciate a Mouna Raagam or a Nayagan. (Seriously, do you know anyone who didn't like these movies?) Mallus fell in love with Revathy (after all, she is Mallu) and cried along with Kamalhassan and agreed that yes, some Tamil movies are good too. (But if you have to know, they cried more for Sivaji Ganesan in Mudhal Mariyadhai.) Then Roja happened, and from then on, I dreaded going to school the day after a Mani movie opened.

So that's my Mani story. To tell you the truth, Mani was only going to take up one little paragraph and then I was going to talk about why I don't really like thayir saadham and filter coffee but I guess that will have to be part 2 now.

A green wedding

Apparently "the biggest contribution that you can make as a young adult" is to have a green wedding. And for the honeymoon, you can fly to Fiji and "look at different animals while getting a massage in a tree.”

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Bills for Bill

#1 Infuriating thing in this city:

Every single time Bill and I have dined at a restaurant in the month that we have been here, the check has been handed to Bill. Needless to say, every single time I have pulled my wallet out and paid. If no one sees me put the card down, they always come back to Bill expecting him to sign. It took us a while to notice this, the first two times we were just amused but no, it happens at every place. No exceptions. It is so jarring that for a moment you think you are back in small town India. I am not one for political correctness usually but there's something to be said for it. Back in the States, the check either goes to a neutral place on the table or to whoever demands it. Almost every woman in this city works for a living; London also has a long history of feminism and while not as good as States, Britain has pretty decent anti-discrimination laws. And for God's sake, this is the New York of the "international" world! Any one care to explain this behaviour? Any Londeners around who could tell me that its just me and it does not happen all the time?

Monday, February 05, 2007

Scenes from a Marriage: More randomness

Yeah okay, I am getting a little bored of this myself but I am too lazy to do anything else. So.

"You haven't really graduated, right?"


"So this is a pre-phd post-doc?"

"Something like that"

"So we can put you down as a full time student?"

"I guess"

"You are sure about this?"

"Not really. What is this for?"

"Tell me if its alright if I put you down as a full time student"

"I am not really one. Not in this country anyway"

"But you still hold a valid F1"

"And a UK work permit"

"Oh..wait, do you have any history of mental illness?"


"Well, any history in your family? Or have you ever been to a psychartist? Will he certify that you are mentally impaired?"

"You are mad"

"But the problem is no one with authority will certify that"

"What is this about anyway?"

"You are well, vertically challenged. You think you can pass off as an 18-year old? This could be your gap year"

"My passport says I am 10 years older than that. And still, if I may remind you, younger than you by a year"

"Ten months. Only ten months. Hm..are you a member of any international institution?"


"I dunno. Something or the other. Whats that techie thing you all belong to? IEEE. I wonder if that counts"

"For what?"

"Maybe. Have you ever been in prison? In this country?"

"Hello? Whats going on?"

"This is a good one. Can we pass you off as some sort of a monk? A Buddhist one, maybe?"

"Yeah, I am the new Lama. Cool!"

"Hmmm..but what are you doing here in London?"

"Masquerading as a post-doc to run away from the Chinese?"

"Not bad. Might work"

"Yeah right. That will only get me into prison."

"Thats good too. Either you are a monk or you are in prison. We win either way."

"Thats enough alright? Whats going on? What is that you are reading?"

"When we work out the full Council Tax amount, we assume two adults are living in the property and it is their main residence. If only one aduly lives in a property, we reduce the amount they have to pay by a quarter. When considering the number of adults living in a property, we do not count certain people. These include:
- full time students, student nurses etc.
- patient living in hospital
- people who are severely mentally impaired
- poeple staying in certain hostels or night shelters
- 18 and 19 year olds who are at or have just left school
- care workers working for low pay
- members of visting forces and certain international institutions
- foreign diplomats and certain members of international organizations
- members of religious communities (for example, monks and nuns)
- people in prison (except those in prison for not paying Council Tax)

Which one do you want to be?"


In other news, Bill has been making friends with all subcontinent junta in the neighborhood. Like yesterday, he was telling the clerk at Tesco that yes, he is indeed from Bangladesh. He told the kebab-seller at Church Street market on Saturday that ofcourse he is from Karachi. Worse, he speaks such chaste Hindi with the bhaiyya at Marylebone station that I couldn't understand a word of it. [To be fair though, I must say that my Hindi speaking (comprehending) skills are legendary. Once, under attack by a particularly virulent army of salmonellae in Cuzco, I spoke in rapid Hindi to the nurse to get her to use a new syringe, thinking that I was speaking in well, Spanish while a bewildered Bill looked on. I mean, both foreign languages, so easy to get confused. No?] Anyway, the point is that all these neighborhood junta, despite Bill's Hindi-speaking skills, are actually sympathizing with me. Like the above-mentioned kebab-seller in Church St market who told Bill on Saturday "Bhai, apne jeb se bhi paise nikalo na?"