Friday, May 29, 2009

The Great Game: Invasions and Independence

While I am sure we all know how important it is for a country to have a flag, I am not quite sure all of us know the importance of a map. The map and the flag together were the two greatest assets a country could have in the Age of Exploration. In fact, I am quite convinced that it was the map making obsession that made the British Empire. Imaginary lines result in real events. The old European map makers knew this, any unsuspecting tourist who happens to walk into Stanford's or wanders into Cecil Court will find this out pretty quickly, the Royal Geographic Society has always known this. Without a map, there is no nation, no Empire. This is why these Fellows trampled across continents, recruited natives when the going got tough, and surveyed every inch of land they could possibly get to. This is why maps tend to occupy a large space in the British imagination, and the children of the world are subject to mugging names of numerous imaginary lines which mean nothing.

This very British idea that maps define everything is the central theme of Durand Line, Play 2 of the Great Game (Part 1) series that's currently playing at the Tricycle Theatre. In Durand Line, Sir Mortimer Durand the then Foreign Secretary of British India is sent to negotiate with Emir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman Khan over the demarcation of boundaries between Afghanistan and the Russian possessions in view of keeping the Russians as far away from India as possible. Sir Durand is your quintessential colonial British civil servant with some very brilliant lines, played almost to perfection (slightly overdone, I felt) by Michael Cochrane trying to convince the Emir to sign on the dotted line in return for improved weaponry and a monopoly on the opium trade. The Emir, played convincingly by Paul Bhattacharjee, comes across as witty, indolent (at one point, Sir Durand refers to "the perfumed indolence of the Eastern court" which the Emir doesn't let go that easily) and remarkably perceptive about the far reaching consequences of drawing lines on a piece of paper. In a particularly memorable exchange, the Emir takes the map of the United Kingdom that Sir Durand had drawn up and draws a line across the middle of Scotland, erases the Highlands and calls the upper half of it Durandistan. He signs finally as he must, stuck between the British and the Russians, there isn't much of a choice. The point is made but both Sir Durand and the Emir of the play are caricatures, a bit over the top, taken to extremes to balance the tilt and therefore, the most memorable character in this play happens to be that of a young British engineer brought in by Sir Durand to explain to the Emir how he would be able to modernize his weaponry.

Paul Bhattacharjee plays an Oxford professor of Afghan history in Campaign (Play 3), and this time, he is so comfortable in the role that it is like he is playing himself which is not surprising considering this is set in 2009. Part 1 of the Great Game covers the period from 1842 – 1930 but given that the audience might not be familiar with the history of Afghanistan, Campaign is a rather sneaky way of providing context and history for the play that comes after this. The Professor, originally from Pakistan, is invited to a Cabinet Minister's office where the Minister's Private Secretary (an Oxford man himself) attempts to test him on his history. The Professor for the longest time is puzzled as to why he is there but indulges the arrogant Secretary all the same. The overarching theme of Part 1 is the futility of playing with a country that one does not know the first thing about and while the other plays use the weight of history to make the point, Campaign does the same very effectively in an absurd and light-hearted manner. This is possibly the only play in Part 1 (and I suspect, in the whole series) that is comic without being depressing but that is only because the campaign that the Secretary is suggesting is too absurd to be taken seriously. But this surely isn't the first absurd idea to be implemented as a real strategy, and it will be far more depressing in a few years when we begin to see the real consequences of this campaign to bring about secular, liberal democracy in Afghanistan.

The last play of Part 1 Now is the Time is set on the day in 1929 that Shah Amanullah Khan left on his lifelong exile with his wife and father-in-law. Amanullah Khan fashioned himself as the Ataturk of Afghanistan and introduced social reforms that would be considered sacrilege in his country in the current day. The reforms made him unpopular and he was forced by the tribal chiefs to abdicate the throne and leave the country along with his mentor and father-in-law Mahmud Tarzi and his wife Soraya Tarzi. Their Rolls Royce gets stuck in the snow en route to the Russian border and the British drivers goes to get help while the three passengers are left to discuss their state of affairs. Of the four plays in Part 1, this one for me was the least effective – it tries to do all the right things and make the right points, brings out Amanullah's desperation and helplessness, and the problem with introducing groundbreaking reforms in a country perhaps not quite ready for it but it seemed to fall into the very trap that these plays warn us about – that of not understanding the region and its people. I don't mean the fake accents; one can easily overlook that but the portrayal of the characters and their interactions were more in tune with what Western spectators would expect them to behave rather than the how real people are. To be fair though, all the plays were guilty of this caricaturing (which led Bill to remark that it wasn't surprising that all the lines he thought were most convincing / effective were all spoken by the British characters) but as this play has all its main protagonists as Afghan, it was more noticeable.

Last but not least, Play 1: Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad. Regular readers of this blog know that Peter Hopkirk is a recurring theme in this space. I take my childhood obsessions a little too seriously sometimes and this happens to be one of them. If any of you reading this who has not read the Great Game, I suggest you go buy it right now. Anyway, one of the vivid images that I have of the book is from 1842 - that of Dr William Brydon, the sole survivor of the British retreat from Kabul, at the gates of Jalalabad proclaiming "I am the army". This play is about four British soldiers at the ramparts waiting with their bugles to see if there would be more survivors. There is no hope and their conversation is supported by excerpts from the diary of Lady Sale who remained behind in Kabul as a hostage. The soldiers do encounter an unexpected visitor, the one misstep in this play in my opinion. Regardless, Bugles captures everything there is to be said about the situation in Afghanistan, 1842 or 2009, imperialism, ignorance, wars, religion, and the futility of it all. It is a difficult choice, but this play is my favorite of the four in Part 1.

The Great Game is playing at the Tricycle Theatre until June 14th. It is trilogy with each part consisting of four plays and you can either see it all together in a marathon session in the weekends or take it one at a time on weekdays like I am doing. If you have even a passing interest in history or political theatre, I suggest you go get your tickets now. It's a small, intimate theatre and the seats get filled up pretty quickly.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Chotu, Motu, BM in Beijing: Olympic Glory

Still Day 2. This time we are on a taxi (Day One was all about public transport; Day 2 we had just discovered that taxi drivers understand maps, so we were taking full advantage of this discovery) to the Olympic stadias. Our driver proudly pointed out the Bird's Nest to us as we got off the highway. We were all suitably impressed. Little did we know about the Kafkaesque adventure that was awaiting us here.

BM: "Bill, you know the drill. Here's the camera"

BM poses and Bill plays cameraman while I walk ahead to what looks like the entrance.

"I am so hungry. You think we will get food inside?"

"I am hungry too. I can see some food stalls already"

"Cool. You think we should go in and get a tour?"

"Why not?"

"Okay, there are people inside. Let me see where the entrance is"

"There are no directions anywhere but it says Entrance E"

"Yeah, but I see no open gate"

"There are security guards there. That must be the entrance"

"No, nothing open here. I think we have to go to the next gate. Maybe this is the VIP entrance"

So we start walking. This Bird's Nest thingy might look like a small thing on TV but trust me, it is not. It takes a while to get from one gate to another. The weather and the wind wasn't helping either.

"Man, I am so hungry"

"Hey, there's the Water Cube"

"Oh cool, we should go there also"

"Of course, of course, Phelps ki jai" (BM)

"Alright. Lets do this then - lets go inside the Bird's Nest first and come out and get food and then head to the Water Cube"

"Ya ok"

Bill: "This gate isn't open either"

"You've got to be kidding me"

"Serious. Look for yourself"

"Shoot. Next gate then"

"I guess so"

Ten minutes later we were in front of the third gate. By this time we have gone halfway around the building. Closed.

"Maybe there is no way in"

"There are people inside"


"Maybe they get there on a chopper. Sure there's a pad inside"

"Could be"

"What's the plan people? I am so hungry"

"Why don't we go to the food stalls and get some food and then come back?"

"I am not coming back. I am happy just seeing the Water Cube"

"Actually so am I. I got some good shots, good enough"

So our tired and thirsty travellers headed to the broad avenue between the two stadiums which seem to have a few booths. BM takes her time as she is shooting Water Cube in every angle possible and every lamp post in sight.

"These are selling phones"

"Oh fuck"

"Why can't they have food here? This is like the middle of nowhere"

"That seems to have some food, lets go see"

The one food stall has instant noodle boxes and what looks like baguettes with cholocate sauce inside.

"You think that's chocolate?"

"What else can it be?"

"Do you really want to know?"

"No, but lets get it anyway. I am going to faint if I don't have something soon"

We eat. It is chocolate sauce but as to be expected, not good chocolate sauce but were too hungry to complain. BM notices a mermaid sculpture and runs to take picture. She poses and asks Bill to do his thing. As is usual, a few locals want picture of mermaid + BM + themselves. BM obliges. Once this is over, we walk to the Water Cube.

"Yes, the entrance is open! yippee!"

"Yeah there's even security check and stuff. This place is more guarded than Tiannamen dude"

"Looks like it only"

We get closer to the Cube. Visitors (all local) are queueing up to get through the security check. I suddenly notice two young men on my right, they seem to have come from nowhere. I look closely. It might be more than ten years since I have gone to a movie theatre in India, but I have spent enough time at KG and Central and Karpagam (all Coimbatore establishments) to recognise black ticket vendors. I turn to one.

"Tickets lady, how many?" One whispers.

"They are actually selling black"

"In front of these scary looking guards, yes"

"Yeah man. Lets just go get proper tickets. Who knows these might not even be real"

"True" (Huge mistake, needless to say)

We turned left and walked towards the direction where people with tickets were coming from.

"You cannot buy tickets here. Far away" One of the black ticket men said. We said No thanks and continued walking. After about ten minutes, we realised what was going on. It is like the queues at amusement parks. You think you are there but no, once you make a turn you realise you have another turn to go. So we walked for another twenty minutes.

"We should have bought tickets from those chaps"

"Yeah. What's the point now?"

"Hmm. I don't even want to go inside anymore. If we don't see a ticket booth in the next five minutes, I am out of here"

"Yeah? Which way will you go? Do you see any taxis or buses here?"

I look around. No. Nothing. Just these buildings. Which look nice and all but we were trapped.

BM: "You can check out any time you please..."

"There's a reason why everyone here looks so pained"

"Hey, hey there. I see it"

BM ran. Bill followed. I stayed put. They can go get tickets. Since we have to walk back this way I wasn't going anywhere. Two minutes. Five. Ten. Fifteen. Twenty. Where the hell were these people? I started walking towards the booths. More scary secuity guards with huge rifles. Something is wrong. No. They are on their way back.

"What happened? Long queue?"

"No ya. There were more secutiry guards than people"

"What took so long?"

"They didn't let us go buy tickets without checking us thoroughly"

"What nonsense?"

"Dude, by now nothing about this place surprises me"

We walked back. Half hour later we were at the entrance to the Cube. We showed our tickets and went through the security check. Yes, again. Five cartoon men in front of the Cube.

"Hey look at these cartoon things" BM started shooting. "Bill here take picture of me with one no?" She handed Bill her camera.

Moi: "You want pictures with these things? Where do you think you are Disneyland?"

"30 RMB. We have to make it pay" She went towards the charaters. The cartoons were just saying good bye to the people in front of us and were turning our way. They all walked towards us, excitedly. What we (in our determination to get value for 30 RMB + plus all the pain we had to endure) hadn't thought of was that we were more of an attraction for them than they were to us. One of then came and shook and hand. Another one shook Bill's hand and said "Hello". Mine hugged me. Bill's hugged him. He smiled and tried to take picture of BM.

"Hey, where is she?"

"There, behind that one. Its dancing with her" Orange cartoon was twirling BM around.

Bill took picture.

"Guys, this guy is not letting me go"

We laugh.

"I am serious. I am trying to get out of its grip"

"Turn around this way. This angle is good"

"Bill, enough of picture. Come save me!"

Bill to the rescue. Knight-in-Slacknerny-tshirt walks over to BM and the cartoon (in the process of molesting her). Cartoon sees Bill and lets her go. However, wait, twist in plot. Cartoon next to me has caught hold of me by now. It tries to twirl me around.

"People....." Knight turns around. Laughs. I break free and run into the Water Cube. BM had already taken this course a few seconds ago. Bill joins us a minute later.

"What the hell was that?"

"I hope we aren't going that way on our way back"

"You forget, we aren't going back. This is it. We can't leave"

"True enough"

Oh, there was nothing much inside. You are better off seeing the pool on your TV. Our ticket also promised us a restaurant and a bar which was a popcorn stall and well, vendor selling water. Also, in the restrooms, the stall I went to had no toilet paper and BM had to pass some under the stall from the adjacent booth. That's when realisation struck. We were in real China. This place wasn't ready for foreign tourism yet; by the summer it would be but for now, our experience is all very authentic. We are one among the billion.

BM: Good time to put up 798 Art post / pictures. Together, they will make so much sense. Really.

Oh, before I go, bonus picture: You should be able to see more than one nest if you enlarge.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

A few bloggable items

1. Dear friend Anoop is getting married. Since he has already given me my lines, I shall probably tweet the wedding. (BM, BG - Can you like call today when you wake up? Need to coordinate itin. Already those bastards at United are charging me a "close-up processing fee" for making a booking so close to travel date)

2. If you want another opportunity to make fun of Bill and Bongs in general, here - fun with Bill puns over at ??!'s. Also, learn why stash of marijuana is much more useful than Bill (thanks to Falsie).

3. Public Service Announcement for foodie Londoners - Taste of London tickets are on sale.

4. Film time. French New Wave at BFI Southbank.

Seen till date:

- Chronique d'un été - This collaboration between movie maker / anthropologist Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin takes us through a series of interviews with a cross-section of Parisiennes in the summer of 1960. The cast (no real actors I understand) includes a Holocaust survivor, a black student from Africa, a haunting Italian immigrant, an artist couple, college students, factory workers and children. Starting from an innocuous "Are you happy?" question to people on the street, the film attempts to explore everything from Algeria and Congo (people, this is 1960), the Holocaust, and the monotony of modern life to boredom, solitude and well, St Tropez. While all these topics bring out interesting reactions, it seems as if the real driving force behind people's reactions is the camera in front of them. The experiment (as I understood it) that Rouch and Morin were performing was an attempt at finding how much reality can one get when the camera is rolling and the movie closes with them wondering about the results. Chronique d'un été is apparently considered an innovative experiment in cinema-vérité and I, for one, definitely wanted the camera to keep rolling for longer. (Would appreciate if the experts would weigh in. SB - Post, no?)

La Peau Douce - Truffaut's The Soft Skin is a love triangle (yeah, the man seems generally fond of triangles). A well-known publisher, seemingly happily married, falls in love with a flight attendant on a trip to Lisbon. He attempts to hide affair from wife but is forced to face up to the music at the end. Jean Desailly as the fumbling publisher gives a superb performance and his relationship with his wife is done to perfection though one can't say the same for his relationship with the other woman as this seems a bit contrived. The film is hilarious in a rather cynical sense - the blurb said it was considered a serious and cold movie coming from the director who made Jules et Jim but I (along with most people in the theatre) were laughing through most of the movie. Very watchable.

Have about half dozen more to go before the month runs out, so expect to see notes on this over the next few weeks. Suggestions welcome.

5. Those of you wondering why China posts aren't happening, please to shout at BM. I have posts, she hasn't sent me pictures I asked for 4 days ago. Thanks!