Sunday, February 24, 2013

Movie recommendation: The Essential Akira Kurosawa movies - Volume I

First an introduction to the Japanese legend Akira Kurosawa, one of the pioneers of cinematic excellence. His movies are not your average cinema. This is the compelling kind of cinema - the kind you go back to, again and again. So when Hulu opened up their criterion collection for free viewing on President's Day weekend, I lapped it up. One after another. Like an hungry audience ready to feast. What heaven!

Seven Samurai was my first introduction as a kid to Kurosawa's prolific cinema and storytelling. My dad grunts in disgust whenever Sholay is aired on television and for a good reason - Sholay was inspired from the Magnificent Seven which was in turn a remake of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. So like all conosseiurs of original cinema, he could never really get around liking Sholay. Of course, there is no comparison with Seven Samurai - it is one of the most legit samurai epics every made.

Finding Kurosawa's early works from 1950's and 60's was tough then. But not any more, thanks to criterion and modern day video streaming! I relished four of the best Kurosawa creations and many more to go. There is really no dearth of reviews on his movies; undoubtedly classics and the stuff of the legends. So this is just a teeny overview of the massive impression his movies have had on me.

Seven Samurai (1954)

Genre: Action, Adventure, War

Seven Samurai is an adventure-warrior movie set in a village of peasants who hire seven samurai to defend their village from bandits. This movie was the lethal combination of groundbreaking camera work (much ahead of its time) and an intense storytelling (frame after frame) that resulted in a 3.5 hour epic cinema. This movie has all elements going for it - incredible story, technique, characters, well executed battle scenes, story of honor, trust and adversity and at the top of it all, a movie with a soul. You can find influences of this movie in so many Western movies (too many to list). If you want to ever buy a DVD for your life, this should be it. This is required viewing. This is cinematic gold.

Yojimbo (1961)

Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama

So if you haven't had enough of samurai dose (how can you anyway?), another classic is Yojimbo (Japanese for bodyguard). A samurai comes to a town in strife and ripped apart by two resident gangs who fight each other. He plays them against each other to get rid of them and free the town of bad elements.  Yojimbo is entertaining from the word go! A lot of elements and style in the Western movies - like a long lens shot of a cowboy, taut and skillful action scenes and visuals seem to be picked up from this movie. It is entertaining to watch as the story unfolds, as the samurai crafts his devious plans unknown to both gangs and how he methodically takes down each of them. Some amusing scenes and humor are thrown in as well. The movie is such a clever masterpiece and still looks fresh for a 1961 movie. A stroke of genius.

Ikiru (1952)

Genre: Drama

Ok, I had had enough of samurai flicks. I wanted a good drama and I got more than I wanted from Ikiru. Ikiru was on my "to watch" list for a long long time now. It is the story of a bureaucrat who discovers he has stomach cancer and only 6 months to live. He tries to search for purpose in the time left. Yeah, I know, we have seen maybe a dozen movies on this theme by now. But who knew, this movie would be the most "real" of them all. My tiff with other movies in this genre is they never show a terminal patient battling with finding a purpose. All the focus is on his emotions, past, memories etc. Of course, we have all of them here too, but this movie sucks you in because it makes you think beyond your sympathies for a dying man. This movie is relevant even if you are not battling a life-ending disease. It's sole focus is how we do "busy work" and not really anything credible or purposeful. It is also a satire on human behavior. The last 40 minutes just threw me off - it was a fantastic satire on how average humans are influenced by good things but for short time, they are mostly "all talk and no purpose" and do not have the courage to change things.

The opening lines puts everything in perspective

"Ah, here is our protagonist now 

(Protagonist is seated on a desk, buried behind stacks of paper in a bureaucratic department).

But it would be tiresome to meet him right now. After all he's simply passing time without actually living his life. He might as well be a corpse."

Rashomon (1950)

IMDB entry:
Genre: Crime, Drama

Rashomon is an experimental movie - four witnesses to a crime tell their own version of what actually took place. Each version differs from the other and is left to the audience to believe which is true. The witnesses testify in a courthouse but the interrogator is never revealed - the camera is always facing the witness. It is as though the witnesses are talking to us, the audience, explaining the series of events that led to the murder of a samurai. The woman who plays the samurai's wife is brilliant. The scene where the dead samurai himself testifies (wtf, i know right!) using the woman's body as the medium, is creepy. Very well enacted by the actress. Other notable features of this movie was the clever camerawork. While each witness's story is played out, the camera is positioned differently to show how a different perspective or angle changes our own perception of the crime. The story takes place entirely in woods and the visuals are so well shot for a 1950 movie.

Apart from the interesting storyline, it was really the underlying theme that interested me more -  Why do humans lie? Do we need to be selfish to survive? Like Ikiru, it questions our weaknesses as a human and our faith in humanity.

PS: If you really have to pick your first Kurosawa movie, I would highly recommend to go with Seven Samurai. Can't go wrong with it! While I can't wait to see four other movies of his I picked for my next viewing.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Looking back: All things Chinatown

When the Lunar (Chinese) new year happened this year, I felt nostalgic. I miss just doing the rounds of Chinatown in any city. And tasting a lot of Chinese delicacies. There is something exotic about their food. Of course, I am not too daring to go overboard with their exotic stuff (eels, frogs and the like). But I love some of their seafood variety, fruits and exotic flavored ice creams. And the dragon masks and decorations :-) And I love dumplings. And their herb teas are great for the palate. You know where this is going - I am such a big foodie. Gosh.

I think a fair share of affinity to street style Chinese food comes from my love for Indian dhaba style food. Give me a plate of greasy chowmein, stir fries and lots of sauce and I am good to go. So I was mildly surprised when I saw the real Chinese food taste so different from the Indo-Chinese fast food that's served in India (sort of like Panda Express). A lot of actual Chinese food is broth baised/steamed/lightly cooked.

I am huge fan of dumplings so I made a trip to Prosperity Dumplings in New York's Chinatown. Of course I went alone ;-) I venture out on my own on explore-as-you-go type of food crawls. Because it requires an appetite for patience and handling stomach upsets. And I am not sure how far my company can push. Hence alone.

They are a hole in the wall. But I wasn't too surprised by the long waiting line (and this was on a weekday late noon). They have about a 1000+ reviews on yelp. I have been to some elite Dim Sum places, but they pale in comparison with the dumplings at Prosperity. They are famous for their pork chive fried dumplings - too bad I don't eat pork. So I just went for their steamed veggie dumplings, duck and carrot stuffed sesame pancake (greasiest!) and a noodle soup. Washed it down with a bottle of cold water. All for a total under 10$. Now who could beat that?!

After that I got two scoops of lychee and black sesame ice cream from Chinatown Ice Cream Factory - their asian flavors are the real deal! I then made my way through a whole alley of souvenir shops (btw   this is where you should buy those "I love NY" shirts. A lot of tourist end up buying them from Times Square. Not done :-)) And then reached the open markets to buy fruits and seafood. Btw, you can't bargain with the Chinese - not only because you don't understand their language but also because they are very relentless. You are better off trying but wouldn't guarantee a discount. Haha. So I didn't push the lady in the picture too much and got a bountiful of dragon fruits, cherries and plums.

Then I headed to the seafood stores. Oh what heaven! Picked up some fresh shrimp and snapper (their seafood deals are a steal!). But careful not to get cheated. They mix in some stale fish with the fresh ones. I also always walk up and down few stores to compare prices.

A word of caution to the vegetarians, some of the sights and smells at a Chinatown can be really hard to take in. Because there will be, invariably gregarious window displays of slaughtered animals for purchase. Yeah, the Chinese are all out about displaying meat and not shy in this case. I have seen the ballsiest of my non-vegetarian friends go dizzy in their stomachs, on such sights.

As for me, I was born to walk around Chinatowns in every city :-)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Movie recommendation: Dosti (1964)

Note: I tend to revisit this movie whenever I am in mood for a classic:) This is easily one of Hindi cinema's most cherished but less heard classics. The legendary music and Rafi's voice is just an added bonus.

Genre: Classic, Drama
Language: Hindi

First a slightly amusing story about how I happened to watch this movie. When I was a kid, I loved watching commercials (crazy I know!) over anything else. So when this movie was played on the television I got up to leave. But my parents coaxed me into watching it. How you ask, would they achieve a rare feat like that? A little girl in the movie (who plays a small but pivotal role) goes by the name Manju. And presto, I fell for it. I was mighty amused (and proud) that they would use my name in a full length feature film. 

Alright, that might not have been so much amusing after all. But anyways. You MUST watch this movie if you are into long lasting friendships and all (who isn't?). This is the single most awesome movie on friendship and will ever be in Hindi Cinema. And please, I don't mean Dosti - Friends Forever, a 2005 Bobby Deol movie. Sigh. This is a 1964 classic with unknown faces but who will melt your face with their acting and emotions. Also, for those who think Sholay is the greatest friendship movie ever - b**** please.

Btw, full movie is available on YouTube (yay!)

The movie follows a rare friendship between a blind boy (Mohan) and a crippled boy (Ramnath) who live in extreme poverty and meet each other by fate. Mohan leaves his village in search of his sister (he doesn't know her address) while Ramnath is homeless and orphaned and has the passion to study. Penniless and poor, they roam the streets of Bombay. Mohan has a gifted voice. Ramnath plays the mouth organ and both of them make little money off their street (singing) performances. Rest of the story is how both brave hardships but find what they want - Mohan helps Ramnath achieve his dream to study while Ramnath helps Mohan find his sister.

If you are an Indian, you would've definitely heard atleast one track from this movie. The music of this movie is legendary and has some of the most melodious tracks rendered by the lethal combination of Laxmikan- Pyarelal and Md. Rafi. You will also happen to recognize a young and bright Sanjay Khan (the guy who played Tipu Sultan in the 90's, remember?) in a miniscule role. The rest of the cast is pretty much unknown. 

What makes this movie so endearing is the sanctity of it all - a no frills story, poverty in post independence Bombay, the general apathy towards the poor (yes, this has always been there, not just a modern day malady) and above all the rare friendship between two young men who depend on each other for survival initially but form a strong bond later. You will be really embarrassed for modern day Bollywood - the storytelling in this movie is so pure and human relations are depicted so accurately (no over-the-top drama and no ill-conceived characters). If there was an IMDB list for top 100 bollywood of all time (is there), this should be in it - no exaggeration.

If you want to watch a Black and White Bollywood classic, please make it this one. Worth the 2 hours, if not for anything, atleast for the music. I bet you won't forward the songs in this one.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Getting back to fitness: Week 1

Last 3 months have been the longest break I have taken from my workouts since 2009. And thanks to my extreme sickness and medications, I struggle with even 5 lunges today. But what seemed like an even bigger shock is it is SO MUCH harder to start from scratch. Hmm..

Now I start to wind down within 5 mins of anything that is cardio intensive (I mean 3 mile sprints were a breeze before so it is very demoralizing for me now). This is so so so hard. Now I get it why people who have never worked out their entire lives shudder at the thought of it.

So I thought why not make it simple and responsible by journaling some of the progressive routines I will be using to gain back all the muscle and stamina I have lost.

Firstly, we need to focus on getting the basics right before starting the routines. This is essential because most of us have very little understanding of the basics of fitness and tend to ignore them. To ease into a fitness regimen it is important to first take care of basics and then build from there (aka everyday diet and well-being). I have skipped many of them owing to my illness but no more excuses. So here goes:

- Drinking plenty of water. I almost always don't do this. Your energy dips when you don't consume enough water. Sometimes when I get a slight headache or I am stressed out, all I do is drink some water. It really helps. Plus, water is the most natural way to flush toxins. The reason we need to drink more water is to get rid of excess sodium or toxics in our body.

- Taking care of your spine.  This is another thing I tend to ignore. Owing to long hours near laptop or other gadgets, it is not just your eyes but your spine that will hurt. It is the single most important part of your body. It is very very important to maintain a good posture, regardless of whether you are standing or sitting. Worthwhile to practice sitting straight without back support for few minutes each day like the meditation/pranayama pose. Even better if you can do some back stretches and yoga routines every day for few minutes. You can fix anything in life, except for a damaged spine.

- Getting adequate stress-free sleep.  I have been really erratic with my sleep schedule. This is in fact the simplest lifestyle change and yet so tough to stick to, given our "busy" lives. 7 hours on an average is said to be best duration. But things to note are: to keep away from gadgets before sleeping, ease into sleeping i.e relax and clear your mind of troubles, put away lights that might interfere with your sleeping. My bedroom windows face street lights, so it is very annoying. I will need to fix this by getting thicker curtains.

- Getting adequate Vitamin D. Believe it or not! We don't get enough Vitamin D anymore. Yeah, I know that is ridiculous right? Tell me how much time you spend out in the sun these days? Rarely. I don't even see people taking a walk. Half our lives are led in air conditioned rooms and cars. A little sun exposure is all we need.

- Keeping active.  Don't sit for too long. Get up even if it is for 2-3 mins once every hour. This will help in the blood circulation and you will feel less sluggish. (In fact, I opted for a standing desk at work last year and it really kept me fit and nimble.) Always take stairs! This is one of the most natural ways to rev up your metabolism anytime anywhere. Apart from that of course, you should aim for intensive cardio routines for a minimum of 20-30 mins, atleast 3-4 times a week if not everyday. I will talk about them in my later posts. 

- Eating a well balanced diet. Please don't starve! Rules of a good diet are simple - aim for multiple colors in your food selection. A few greens, reds, yellows. You get the point. Keep away as much as possible from processed foods - fried food, soda, cakes etc. Try to reduce sugar/salt intake in your foods. Don't drastically cut them - you will have a rebound! Instead try to reduce a bit at a time. If your body is used to a certain kind of carbs, you don't have to replace them completely - you will get fatigued. For eg: I am a big fan of rice. I eat generous amounts of rice everyday. Instead of cutting rice completely from my diet, I try not to eat rice for dinner most of the days. This is my way of controlling rice intake. You can also substitute with brown rice, but I really don't care. You should almost always eat what you like, just keep an eye on portion control that's it.

- Practicing to breathe. I have NEVER done this. And sincerely, I always turned myself away from mindfulness or meditative practices. This is definitely a very new thing for me. So I am not going to advice on this like I know it; because I don't. So I am going to start with a 5 min meditation everyday and go from there. Let's see how this goes. 

So anyway, this week my aim is to get back to habit with the above and include some easy stretching routines (my next post). Hopefully this helps you all.

"Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going. --Jim Ryuh"

PS: I can tell you how hard it was being sick and miserable for more than a month. I have learnt the hard way that good health is the greatest gift from God and I am definitely taking care of it and being grateful for it, from now on. 

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The best advice on nurturing creativity

"Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through."
---- Ira Glass, renowned American Public Radio personality

You can watch the complete video of Ira Glass on Storytelling on YouTube: