Thursday, November 29, 2012

Movie Recommendation: The Stoneman Murders

Note: Because Talaash disappoints this week, I am going to recommend a lesser known Bollywood alternative to give you the chills. This one gives you the goosebumps and keeps you on the edge.

Genre: Crime, Thriller, Suspense

This movie is based on the true life incident of serial killings in Bombay in the early 80's. Interestingly, this was never solved according to police records. The movie director gives his own spin (and conclusion) to this whodunit.

The movie dwells right into the crime in the initial 10 minutes. A pavement dweller is brutally killed (his head smashed by a stone) one night in the Matunga area of Mumbai. A local policeman who has been recently suspended sniffs a serial killing spree but the other policemen wave if off as a random killing on the streets. As suspected, there are numerous killings that follow and establish a pattern - the killings happen between hours of late night and dawn only and is targeted at the pavement dwellers. The suspended policeman thus continues to investigate about the murder, off duty. He sets out to gather evidence and prowls the streets in the night to prevent the killer from harming any more people. But he soon becomes a suspect after police find circumstantial evidence incriminating him. Who is the serial killer and why is he targeting only the pavement dwellers? What is the motive behind the killings? The movie solves these as it approaches the climax.

This movie is bone chilling. The pace is quick and keeps you on the edge. Except for the stray song in a bar, there are no such distracting interruptions in the movie. The underbelly of Mumbai - street dwellers, tramps, bar dancers and the flourishing businesses in the dark add to the mood - most of the movie is dark. There are several times where policeman and the killer run into each other. This makes the movie very racy. The conclusion is believable (backed up by a possible and practical reason for such brutal killings). However, it is not something new - this kind of a conclusion has been seen before in other movies and is rather the only weak point in an otherwise gripping thriller.

What can I say about Kay Kay Menon? As the suspended policeman who tries to solve the mystery, Kay Kay Menon shines and how! He has such formidable acting skills and is convincing as the trigger happy and reclusive cop. Contrastingly, Arbaaz Khan in a smaller role struggles. Rest of the cast does ok. The direction and editing is slick. This movie would have had more impact on a big screen, in fact. 

Overall, a good psychological thriller sure to be enjoyed by thriller movie fans. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Being generous is ridiculously easy

"Did you see that?", I ask my friend sullenly. 

"See what?", he shoots back. 

I replay how I just saw an old ailing couple, sitting on a pavement and sharing halves of what looked like an orange. As I recollect, I realize how cold I felt on the shaded street that winter evening. I couldn't help but wonder how tiny rags did any good for the homeless couple on that street.

It doesn't help much to discuss at length about such "obvious" things in India. Things that wrap me in pangs of guilt. Because we speak about them and easily forget. Like every time, I try to push out such gloomy thoughts out of my mind. But there is always a breadcrumb of trailing thoughts that follow me, eventually.

"There is so much I can do. There is so much I can give back. Then why am I not doing that?", I keep questioning myself. The feeling is unsettling at best. But I can easily distract myself through work, books or movies.

The next morning at work, I am vile about a news story that ran last night. I narrate to my co-worker about a group of cops (I think?) who defused couple of bombs in metropolitan Pune this year (with no body protection) and the government gave them 100 rupees (2 US dollars) as a reward, the story reported.

"Why? Why do we (Indians) put cricketers and celebrities on a pedestal and shower them with huge monetary rewards that they apparently don't even need, but we insult such acts of bravery? Why is a human life so cheap in India?". I seethe in anger as I eat my lunch. "I hate how we are so contradictory. And yet here we are eating a big lunch and watching a stupid cricket match.", I mutter under by breath as the match plays over a big LCD in the office cafetaria. (Two people across the table shoot me questioning glances. I was loud enough apparently.)

"You cannot think about everything at once", my lunchmate replies matter-of-factly.

I am furious and he does his best to calm me. We decide to take a walk and talk about it.

"We must do the really tiny things we can.", I say.

He nods in approval. "Did you see how much food is being wasted in the cafe?"

We have a whiteboard where the cafe team puts up the quantity of food wasted everyday. Data that embarrasses me. I again sulk in depression. 

He waves me aside and tells "That's the power of data. Unfortunately, that isn't leveraged to send the right signals to everyone. Do you know how many people are even taking notice of it or pausing to reflect over their food wastage?", he asks. I continue, "To bring out the real problems, we need both - data and insights that evoke a reaction from people." We both nod and sigh in approval.

Charity starts at home, they say. Do your bit, they say. But how many of us really do our bit? Yes, each of us have personal goals, commitments, promises to keep. But is giving back such a big deal at all? I think not.

I am now going to obsess over how much food I am wasting, or how much coffee I leave behind in the cup. This week I have decided to journal this. Yes, I want to quantify this. Yes, I want to be pedantic about this so I can take a stand for myself - That I will never waste food. Maybe I am selfish because am trying avenues to live up to my conscience. So be it. But the repercussions are plenty and unknown to us - for example an article that tries to demystify Why India can't feed its people put me on the edge once again. 

I think everyone knows and agrees that we don't have to be the Bill Gates of charity. We just need to our bit - our own acts of kindness and generosity. Because being generous, it seems to me, is ridiculously easy.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Movie recommendation: Stanley ka Dabba (Stanley's Lunch Box)

Note: It takes a lot (for me) to like a kid-centric movie. Yes, I am heartless like that. It took me two times and undivided attention to even appreciate Taare Zameen Par. But this one is different. It is a winner from the get go.

Genre: Children, Family, Drama

If there is a movie that can connect to you in nostalgic ways, this is it. It brings back your school days. Of trivial fights, innocent friendships, crushes on teachers and the like. Plus, an important message delivered to the audience is the icing on the cake. Every movie story must connect with the audience, emotionally, for the greatest impact. And Stanley ka Dabba has this one in the bag.

Stanley is your average high school kid. He is bright, smart and a favorite among kids and his "Rosy" teacher. His friends share their lunches (tiffin boxes) with him since he doesn't get his own (his excuse is his mother is out of town so there is no one at home to prep his lunch box). Meanwhile a gluttony school teacher who teaches Stanley's class sets eyes on their substantial lunch boxes. Stanley's friends are not too happy about it and evade the teacher by changing their lunch spots everyday. But not too long, as the teacher soon understands that he is being tricked. Out of anger and humiliation he asks Stanley to attend school only when he can bring his own lunch box. Will Stanley get his own lunch box? What is the mystery behind his lunch box? This forms the rest of the story.

Without giving too much away, this is what works for the movie - a suspenseful precedent (why doesn't Stanley get his lunch box?), heartwarming high school moments, subtle digs at Indian teachers who emphasize rote over practical projects (yes, our education system is wrong in so many ways) and a surprising but impactful message at the end of the movie. You come to understand in the end that "dabba" (lunch box) was only used as a metaphor for the greater message it wants to get across.

Incidentally the director, Amole Gupte was also the writer for Taare Zameen Par (a film on dyslexic kids). And no, both movies have no similarities and neither is it a sequel (the kind of assumptions people make, uff!) In fact, he excels much more here with his storytelling that sounds far less preachy and yet has a far reaching message to deliver. A message that will leave you brooding for a couple of minutes after the movie ends. The genius lies in the honest treatment and the powerful climax that ties in with the story beautifully. 

It isn't every other day that you come across honest cinema with a good message. Sometimes I wonder why Bollywood movie folks are spending boat loads of money on insubstantial, brain-dead and purposeless stories when they could easily make a dozen such meaningful movies. Stanley ka Dabba proves that cinema can be both honest and entertaining at the same time. And for that you owe yourself (and your family) to watch it.

Plus heartstrings will be strummed. Guaranteed.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Yeah, I know. I just made up that word. Fits right in with the culture of "wannabes" we experience today. This is one of those days and without wasting any more time, I rant. 

This world can be seen as two sides of a coin. The two sides make up what I call - "Lazy is too much lazy and achievement is too less achievement". Lets decrypt the achievement side of the coin first. Because you know, it is easier to be bloody jealous of achievers. Haha. 

Day in and day out, I see countless kids in India getting pressured into stuff in the name of achievement. Because you know if you aren't a topper in the class, a world class sportsperson, eat the right food and dress the right way, you don't belong. Reminds me of this Chinese parent taunting his own kid on an ice skating rink, one cold winter evening. He kept snapping at his kid -  "You go right back and don't bother returning if you haven't done your routine X times". While, I am, you know struggling to keep it together on the rink and taking frequent "breaks". I can't believe what I am seeing and I am thinking - "Whatever happened to loosening up? Jeez!"

Anyway, so I know I don't belong in the land of overachievers. I was pretty average in grad school and didn't care much then. And then boom, I graduate and I am holding to a job. I am constantly bumping into smart kids at work. That leads me to think that there is no escaping this phenomenon. So I can imagine how pressured kids must feel in this godforsaken generation.

But there is so much evidence that all this pressure is leading nowhere. Atleast if you are taking all this pressure to your head. Which is what the majority do anyway. So a like-minded co-worker and I are comparing notes on all the toppers in our school. I mean really all that exam stress, tears and avoiding friends and experiences for what? For a drab corporate job? Thank God for Software Engineering, we tell each other. It is a great equalizer. We can't talk for other professions. But here, you are what you do. Not your school accolades and other pressure cooker stuff like that. 

But try explaining that to parents. *Crickets chirping*

Ok. So now that we have established (I think) that overachievement is leading to nowhere but the same corporate job (yes, you overachieving people you heard that right. Sorry to break your heart), we can move on to our other opposite side of the coin.

The favorite lazy world beset with oodles of boredom and idleness. Because you know, Einstein said a lot of these things like - "The monotony of a quiet life simulates the creative mind". And who are we to question a great mind like Einstein no?

So we are wallowing around in the cozy nest of laziness. Showing up in bursts and trying to meet deadlines. Other times we are just switching between watching reality TV and spraying graffitis all over social media on how excited we are about reading a book (that was probably the only book we read in the entire year). Einstein didn't mean this I am sure. Theory of relativity wouldn't exactly come out of just another lazy day. Yeah, I know acknowledging that is sort of unsettling. But it is the sad truth.

For once, either sides of the coin are taking us nowhere. In fact even all that charade about passion and following your passion is becoming a painful cliche these days. It is only adding fuel to all that confusion. The single most common sense (but not so common) answer arises. The problem is we never ever acknowledge our flaws or our vulnerabilities. 

You almost always never hear people say - "Oh yeah, I am fat. Check." or "Oh yeah, I am average. Check." You almost always hear people say - "Oh no, I am fat. I must die." or "Oh no, I am average. I am a failure."

Shame, you see, is the single most determining factor in our lives. And this is overpowering our abilities to make a dent in our worlds. Instead, we want to patronize those who we think are perfect. 

Perfect people are those who have embraced their flaws. Perfect people are not perfect, they are flawbulous. This is the only revealing fact we need to practice in our lives. This is the same trick Lady Gaga used when she posted her non-photoshopped pictures on the Web. This sounds like an anti-climax. But this is our only redeeming factor - for all those years of lives wasted, being ashamed, terrified and panicked about our flaws. 

In the end, there is only one way that coin can fall. Into the garbage, where it belongs. 

Friday, November 09, 2012

A Middle Class Indian's Dreams and Beyond

Stranded at a traffic intersection in India, waiting for the traffic lights to change, strangely gives you a small window of time. Time when you are not peering at your phone. It is eerily relaxing. Until your gaze follows to the roadside troop of hawkers, beggers and homeless children. As they go about their business with the agility of a superhero, you cannot help but wonder what happens after the day ends. Where do these people go? What kind of lives do they live? 

For some reason, Indians are desensitized to the poor in a way that is very complicated to explain to outsiders. The truth is the middle class Indians perceive this in a different way - a kind of fear internalized inside them as they grew up - that they could end in poverty just like the infinite homeless on the roads. A fear that drives their dreams of a home, car, bank balance and a well paid job, that it makes them look at the poor in disgust and fear. And India has probably one of the fastest growing middle class population in the world.

Over the last couple of decades, the baseline expectations of middle class Indian parents have been roughly the same - a good college education, marriage at the "right" age, a job in a multinational company, a decent home for living and a healthy retirement plan. The path has been set in stone, from the time of birth till retirement. This kind of thinking is not new even in countries other than India. This is how the middle class milieu functions.

However, India thrives on a different tangent. A co-worker recently suggested how India is not truly democratic, secular, socialist or republic. We are a heady mix - a little of everything. Our policies and decisions are driven by an indecisiveness and our inability to take a stand. And that is a dangerous place to be in. Unfortunately, the middle class India survives unaware of the repercussions of such a dangerous phenomenon.

Take for instance a recent trend in the cities - the dream of living in a gated community. Billboards across the cities splashed with adverts of a high rise sanctuary, conveniences that rival those of the Western world - large pools, tennis courts, retail stores, 24/7 alarm systems and surveillance - the promise of an America within India. 

"You wont even have to step out to buy groceries. They will deliver them to your door. We are also building mini movie halls and nightclubs for your private parties", said a building contractor to me once, trying to sell a high-rise apartment.

"But this place has the most acute water problem", I said in reply.

"That is everywhere madam", he replied almost instantly.

In that one instant, it all came back to me with amazing clarity. No matter how much money a middle class Indian makes, we are still very much a part of India that is plagued by power outages, water scarcity, deep-rooted corruption and a serious lack of security for women. You cannot avoid the filth and chaos of India by secluding yourself in a high rise building and working out of air-conditioned luxury cars or offices. These things will come back to bite you sooner or later. And you will not even know what hit you.

Like I said, this is a dangerous place to be in. This is a bubble of a different kind. Not recession, not technology bubble. But a bubble of inequality, ignorance and indifference that will pull us all in the path of a storm that threatens to destroy the pseudo Indian economy we are building. No amount of high quality graduates, high rise buildings or FDI boom is going to save us from this impending destruction.

We have forgotten what it is to be middle class. Middle class of the 60's and 70's was not just raising the income levels of families through hardwork. It was about hardwork with honesty, integrity and self-respect that no longer exists in modern day India. We used to live a life of values and cherish our sense of community and togetherness. If our neighbor's house was attacked, we stood up and said "No this is wrong and we will fight together". Now we don't even know our neighbors.

We now take pride in doing "wrong things" - like littering the street, driving arrogantly on roads, treating women like secondary people - and giving an excuse that "Why do we care when others don't?"

The problem lies in the way we have contorted our traditional values and culture. 

If a woman wears a Western outfit, you brand her as a "slut". You say India is conservative and this is not "allowed" in Indian culture. But when the same woman is assaulted, it is her fault. Now imagine that woman was from your family. How does it change your perception now? Of what use are the great Indian values if you have forgotten to treat your own people with respect?

The problem lies in our infinite tolerance to everything and our negative digs at people who do the right thing.

Parents and teachers now teach you to do the "silent" thing. To pull yourself away from epicenter of problems. If it is not a problem that concerns you directly, you have no business getting involved. If you do, you will be victimized and demoralized by the very people who taught you to be "silent". 

The problem lies in looking only at the big picture.

How many times have you heard the "common man" in India say - "Nothing is going to happen to this country. Our government is the most corrupt and our economy is dying". Now count how many times you have failed to do your job as a citizen? How many times did you toss that cigarette or paper or coke tin on the road? How many times did you fail to cast your vote? How many times did you manipulate your tax returns? How many times did you bribe your way through things that probably could be done the right way? How many times have you parked in a no-parking zone? We look at problems at the high level and fail to understand how little problems like these amass to become such big problems.

The solution does not lie in ranting about things in social media. We need to go back to basics, to our roots. About things that were written in our holy scriptures. About doing your duty, the right way. About treating people with respect and fighting tooth and nail for your community. About teaching your children the right values. About calling a spade a spade.

Forget the government, forget the local goons, forget the trash, corruption, crime, scandals. Own your roots, the true middle class way. And make a difference. This is going to take generations to make a real dent in the top. But forget even that. Your goal right now should be to do "the right thing", in whatever ways you can. Declare war on things you know you can set right.

Patriotism is not about celebrating a World Cup win or a war with Pakistan, it is about owning our civic responsibilities every single day. Anyone who is not doing his job is your enemy and is a threat to your community.

If you are overwhelmed by the gravity of this all - think about it. As a middle class Indian, we have always had hoops to jump. If we can navigate through a tedious process of acquiring higher education, arranged marriage, preparing and winning coveted jobs, getting a drivers license, taking house loans and making our way through the US visa process etc., why can't we do this?

There is only one thing standing in our way i.e failing to live by the values we have been taught. As the fastest growing population of young and smart minded people, we are frighteningly clueless when it comes to "core values" - the only thing that can and will make a difference to what happens in this country. 

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Movie recommendation: Teen Deewarein (Three Walls)

Note: I had no expectations of this movie. In fact, I wanted to catch a bit of Hyderabad Blues today. I was surprised that Teen Deewarein was the only movie of Nagesh Kukunoor's that I haven't watched. So I gave it a shot. And boy was I surprised!

Genre: Crime, Suspense, Drama

I love watching experimental cinema. I like to give myself a break from the usual, predictable Bollywood plots. That's when I lookout for some offbeat movies like this one. Of course, the more non-Bollywood it is, the more patience you need. Sometimes these movies don't end well and you are left with a bitter taste. This movie is definitely not one of those. The plot is unfolded slowly but it all ties in well and makes sense in a revealing climax.

This is a story of three prisoners facing a death sentence and a filmmaker (Juhi Chawla) who wants to shoot a documentary of their lives in the prison. Each of them have murdered a woman in their life. As Juhi gains trust of each of these men, their stories unfold and give us a perspective of their circumstances. Since all of the movie is inside a prison, you get a glimpse of what goes on in an Indian prison. What happens inside the prison and how Juhi turns around their lives forms the rest of the story.

Jackie Shroff, Naseeruddin Shah and Nagesh Kukunoor play the three prisoners and fit into their roles perfectly. Naseeruddin Shah gets the meatiest role - he plays a small time crook who is also a smooth talker and has escaped several prisons before. Jackie doesn't get much footage, but he is good in the limited role he has. Nagesh Kukunoor is a natural when it comes to playing a Hyderabadi, so this was an easy part for him. Juhi is a revelation! I have never thought of her as a "serious" actress - she was wasted in far too many ridiculous roles in her career and wish she did more of such roles. Because she is indeed a fine actress. The first 30 minutes of the movie runs at a slow pace. It continues in the same pace, but characters and events are blended well in the rest of the movie that you forget the pace after some time.

To a careful viewer, you will get subtle hints throughout the movie on what might happen later. Although the end isn't shocking, it wasn't predictable either. The twist at the end neatly ties in with the the story - i.e nothing in the movie happens without a reason. The fresh take at storytelling surprised me. Definitely a few shades of Tarantino style screenplay - with crime scenes switched in and out as the prisoners open up to Juhi; like pieces of a puzzle fitting together. The dialogues have been written in a mix of Hindi, English and Hyderabadi slangs to give authenticity to the characters - which I liked. Jackie's poetry on life and prison remind me of Red's narration in The Shawshank Redemption

There are a few scenes that can be hard to watch for an average Indian cinema lover. And definitely not recommended for family watching. The movie runs like a short film (under 2 hours duration) and this keeps the movie on track without swaying too much away from the main plot. i.e it fits in subjects like adultery, domestic abuse, prison hardships, love and betrayal etc.

This movie might not be a Shawshank Redemption in terms of impact, but it definitely proves that there are so many talented directors in Bollywood who can tell a story and an original one at that. A must watch if you are willing to take a break from Bollywood masala movies.