Happy Bhaag Jayegi (#18 of 52)

Happy Bhaag Jayegi is a clean feel-good comic movie. That in itself shouldn’t be a big deal but it is. I can’t recall the last proper Bollywood funny-movie (not indie) which did not have

  • Rohit Shetty type stunts and general over-the-topness
  • Akshay Kumar or Ajay Devgan’s by-now old routines or cast with Aftab’s, Ritesh Deshmukh’s, Shreyas Talpade and co.
  • A group of scantily clad bimbettes on the poster with not much of a role
  • Making fun of dumb/deaf/injured people, or those with accents or cuckolded husbands doing a slapstick routine (I’m looking at you Tanu Weds Manu 2)
  • General innuendo-ish or toilet humour

Basically something beyond the Golmaal or Housefull stereotypes.

I realise I sound like the ultimate urban Indian snob while writing all this – but if you’ve watched Happy Bhaag Jayegi you’ll realise that isn’t the case. Again, as with Madari – it’s not a great movie. But it’s a very very refreshing movie in this genre in Bollywood.

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The plot is simple enough. The girl Happy wants to run away from a marriage she’s forced into. She ends up in Pakistan. Her true love, her forced love and her dad want to rescue her. The Pakistani family she’s landed up in wants to send her back without too much of a fuss. Cue standard confusion routines which you can probably see some distance away and a climax borrowed from any Priyadarshan book. But it’s been done very sensitively. I especially liked (really liked, as in made me happy) that they showed Pakistani’s as pretty normal people. The characters are all a little dumb and except for Abhay Deol, very one dimensional. But they’re nice to each other – even the supposed villains. The acting seems decent enough without being outrageously good or bad. There are plot holes, but you know you’re not watching a very realistic movie anyways (unlike Madari for example), so I found myself more willing to ignore them. And I came out feeling quite happy and in a good mood.

Good enough 🙂

★★★

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Madari (#17 of 52)

Madari is not a great film even if you watch it independently, without any biases. There are too many plot holes, for a story based on realism and which requires the viewer to empathize with the protagonist it requires a fair suspension of belief and the payoff at the end is a bit of a meh. It’s not an awful movie, but it’s not a great one either.

But movies don’t exist in a vacuum by themselves – and Nishikant Kamat, a national award winning director with a pretty long filmography should be aware of that. The biggest problem I had with Madari was that I found it all – been there, seen that. And I’m not the biggest watcher of movies – Indian or anyways. Dombivali Fast in 2005 was about a man rallying against the system. A Wednesday (and even Mumbai Meri Jaan which released around the same time 2008-09ish had similar elements) kinda took the concept forward, only adapting it to the era – adding mobile phones, cellular tracking and a lot of gizmos. Madari now adapts that to 2016. So there’s a bit of social media, children brought up in new-age urban India and the people taking power into their own hands (a la the Nirbhaya incident of 2012). I actually thought A Wednesday was also by Nishikant Kamat because they’re so much alike.

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Even Jimmy Shergill seems to be playing the same character he was in that movie – only half a decade older. He seems to be relishing playing these foxy cop roles (and thankfully he doesn’t have a love interest), Irfan Khan does his shtick (which is good, but again he could probably sleepwalk through it now) and there’s a precocious young boy who’s kidnapped who sort of grows on you as the movie progresses. The supporting cast is a mess though – I could recognize lots of Marathi TV or theater stars who seem to have been roped in by the director, and who also seem to have woefully misunderstood the medium. Note the Home Minister and the other minister who overact like their lives depend on it.

This is old wine in a new bottle, the wine has gone stale (if that can happen, it’s a metaphor) and the bottle by itself isn’t that pretty either. And the wine makes you smug and feel you’ve done something as well, when you’ve just heard a relative narrating an old story you’ve already heard again.

★★

Stephen King – Pet Sematery (#15 of 26)

There are some authors you ‘discover’ as you grow older, as you read more about reading, meet more people and in general as you broaden your horizons. And there are some whom you’ve always known of but you still ‘discover’ their work at a later point of time. Stephen King is one of the latter category of authors. I remember this even from when I was younger – much much younger – as I waddled (I assume) to Shri Gajanan Circulating Library as a 7 year old to grab my Enid Blyton’s or a few years later when I gravitated to the mysterious Franklin W. Dixon & Carolyn Kleene – Stephen King’s works would always be there in those bookshelves, within reach and seemingly worn out. Why then I never thought (or dared) of picking them up over the last 2 decades I do not know. I explain it in recent times with a rationalisation – since I seem to have developed an aversion of sorts to the horror genre – whether it is books or movies. But before that I have no logical answer – it just seems to be ‘one of those things that can’t be explained’.

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Pet Sematery, my first Stephen King has a few ‘things that can’t be explained’. But it’s an enthralling and captivating read above all because it does start of trying to explain. Lois Creed – the protagonist – is a skeptic like every intelligent reader would like to be, explaining away mysterious occurrences and rationalising every experience that he can seem to for as long as seems humanly and logically possible. And even his descent into the murky world of magic and powers he can’t control is made extremely relatable – something which I can and I’m sure you can, believe happening to you. It has battles in the mind and decisions that don’t make sense but you know that maybe, just maybe in that kind of situation you may have taken that kind of call yourself. Or maybe you’re too chicken to do so but you could certainly empathize with someone who did take that kind of call.
Alas, I get ahead of myself. It took a chance comment on a Facebook group, a second-hand bookseller on Amazon who gives away wonderful books at throwaway prices and a quick Google search for me to pick up Pet Sematery and then actually pick it up to read it as well. One of the reasons was to explore newer authors and territories in this endeavor over 2016, which is why I did not pick up the DI Rebus work lying besides this. Another reason was to attempt to find out if a fear of fear existed with the general unwillingness to go towards this genre or was it just basic Resistance to Change 101. I started reading this on a flight where I should have by all means been sleepy, but I didn’t feel so once I started reading this. And then over a busy 4 or 5 days – time was squeezed in while travelling, in the wee hours of the night after everyone has gone to sleep and when logic tells you it’s not a good time to read spooky tales, and one particularly delightful session with a vista I would like to believe I will always cherish and relish.

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King is a master of creating an atmosphere and the initial part of the book certainly takes it’s time doing so. Atmosphere isn’t quite the perfect translation of what I want to say, although it’s probably the closest – the Hindi word mahaul seems to have more subtle undertones around it which convey the idea. The beginning is as idyllic as the blurb on the back would tell you – picture perfect American family, lovely country house by the woods, a seemingly friendly old couple across the street – you’d be forgiven for expecting some more cliches to come pouring out of the pages that follow. But there aren’t – he takes his time creating this utopia, opening up the characters incident by incident, chapter by chapter of differing size. And so we learn about the eponymous pet cemetery, Lois’ world at work, his wife’s fears and backgrounds, the undercurrent of tension in the extended family, the fears of a young girl, the simple joy of a father flying a kite with a son and the history of this small-town – all unveiled bit by bit.
I could realize why this is an author who is oh-so-successful, King has a way with words to convey the most complex of thoughts by breaking them down into the easiest to comprehend pieces. And also a talent for knowing when to release some information to keep you well and truly hooked – something that mirrors what TV novellas and series look to do with their still-to-come’s but in an almost casual manner. And an imagination bar none – to be able to pick up from real life incidents as he’s mentioned in interviews, do what I’m sure was extensive research and on folklore and customs and then mix and match the two together. There were parts where I found the descriptions too detailed – especially the exhumation scene – where I would constantly be skimming through the pages, only to catch myself and with a reproach read it properly – where perhaps crisper editing could’ve helped. But it’s a minor quibble, maybe more to do with an incorrect self-assessment of my own patience levels and which could have led to a lesser mahaul. It also was a nice flashback to a life without omnipresent mobile phones, cameras and computers – without which certainly this tale would not have been possible – along with a Norman Rockwell-ish portrait of 1980’s Americana.
Mid-way through the book you kind of figure out what’s going to happen in the second half and you put two plus two together. A pet cemetery that brings pet’s back from the dead and a dead human being – you know what’s coming. But there is a masterful pulling of the strings to try to get you to side with Lois although you know you shouldn’t be and this can’t end well. And the third part (which is hardly a part) but which will give you the goosebumps that you knew were prickling up.
Pet Sematery has convinced me to accord more respect to the category or genre as a whole. Mr. Stephen King, I will definitely be back.
Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★★★
Readability : ★★★★

Ian Rankin – The Beat Goes On (#14 of 26)

I have a Ian Rankin novel (Let It Bleed) which has been lying with me for a while now but I somehow never got around to reading. Amazon has forever been pushing ‘And The Beat Goes On’ to me as something ‘I might like’ or under ‘this was bought by people who also bought something else which I happened to buy’. I was tempted but didn’t bite because there already was one of his works lying in wait for me. Until, there was some super sale and I got a 500 odd rupee book for a 100 odd rupees. As an Indian, I’d like to think that I know a good bargain when I see one so I latched on to the bait. And boy, am I glad.

Background for the uninitiated (as I was until a few months ago) – Ian Rankin is the author of the best-selling series of novels all based around the central protagonist Deputy Inspector Rebus (DI John Rebus), set in and around Edinburgh, Scotland – part of a genre which is now known as Scottish Noir.

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The Beat Goes On is a collection (a large collection at that) of short stories about Rebus from over the years – an omnibus of sorts. The wonderful part about the character is that he’s aged over the years as a normal person would do, when Rankin started writing about him in 1984 – he was a forty something detective, divorced and with a young daughter. Over the years he’s grown in rank, experience and curmudgeon-liness perhaps? Rebus is a fascinatingly normal character though – refreshingly free of any Hercule Poirot-ish behavioural quirks and Sherlock Holmes-ish genius. He has at best a discerning eye, a keen sense of intuition for who’s a bad penny and what’s wrong but at no point does he seem like superman which is what made him so endearing for me. His overall character is also well roundedly normal – a world weariness and cynicism towards his job, a love for music which goes deep into indie territory, an affinity for some drink with special mention for IPA, a platonic friendship with a junior detective.  And in a way an omnibus of stories like The Beat Goes On is the best way to see this transition over the ages – the adjusting to technology, time, age and the world around you in general.

A fine fine read, the perfect kind of book to curl around with a cup of tea on a Saturday evening. DI Rebus, you’ve got me hooked for your longer works.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★★
Readability : ★★★★★

John Le Carre – The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (#13 of 26)

Ended up reading this book on many a lark – first purchased because it was cheap in a second hand book store online, and then picked up for reading because it was small and compact making it the ideal travelling companion. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold comes with a lot of baggage – from Le Carre’s self-assessment that this was the book that changed his life and ensured he would never write in the same carefree way again to Graham Greene’s recommendation on the book cover reminding us that this is the book that changed the espionage genre – there was plenty of pressure anyways.

I think there are 2 aspects to every book – well fiction at least. The first is obviously the plot. Content is King. A good plot can in most cases salvage everything else. Realistic or fantastic, past or future – but a good plot is step 1.spywhocameinfromthecold

Step 2 is how that plot is presented. This is in other words – the writing style of the author. The manner in which the content is put across, how easy it is to read, how words are pierced together to form beautiful sentences, how suspense is created, how tension is strung, how readers are caught in a web (OK I’ll stop, you get the idea). Whether it is the writer or the editor who takes responsibility for this is something I as the final reader am not too concerned about.

The problem with passing judgement on famous books is that everyone (as well as at a subconscious level, you yourself) feel – ‘who are you to be saying these things’? Hence one treads with caution.

I think (as have millions before me I’m sure) that the plot of TSWCIFTC is fantastic. A double, double cross – or is it a triple cross (?) which is complex enough for you to not be able to understand until every layer is peeled away one by one is the work of a genius. The other part though, the Step 2 which I mentioned above – well, if I can be polite I will just say it didn’t come across well to me. And this is more about the small things – characters who speak in prose and polemics, who ‘cried’ and express themselves in stilted dialogue – especially the ‘commies’. And an atmosphere of cold-greyness which seems thrust on us rather than inviting us into it.

By no means do I mean to say that this is the same as a writer not being skilled. To unravel a plot like that by releasing information at the right time is no mean feat. There are complex ideas and thoughts presented as well in a pithy manner – what a pity they’re not more quotable or relevant today. It’s just a style which is not fluid or graceful like many others.

 I wondered if this was a product of the era from which the book came from, but I then I remember Arthur Hailey’s books which are from the same time zone and had a tremendous amount of irrelevant content, but still always seemed to ‘flow’ ( I can’t think of a better word to explain what I meant). Likewise for Agatha Christie going a few decades further back, and even to an extent Arthur Conan Doyle despite the Victorian era influences making them a little more ‘formal’. Would be interesting to read a recent work of Le Carre who has continued to churn out works even as an octogenarian and see if this is an issue which persists. So once I could accustom myself to the discomfort of the way the characters speak and think and sink my teeth into the story, TSWCIFTC is gripping and educating like few others.

PS : A great influence on how I perceive this work comes from this wonderful break-down of the book by the Guardian in their Rereading column. I am convinced more and more, there is little point to watching a movie, reading a book or for that matter experiencing any form of art unless we take the time out to discuss and deliberate about it, read about it and the context in which it was written and exchange thoughts on how it came across to us. A stunning exposition which helped me view TSWCIFTC in a much brighter, if not new light.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★★
Readability : ★★★

Manto – Selected Short Stories (#12 of 26)

Reading Manto was an important milestone for a while now on the journey to reading more Indian literature and learning more about your country than the Occidental world. I’d first found out about Manto through Aakar Patel’s columns on the weekends. I’d seen a rendition of Toba Tek Singh in college which I totally did not understand.  I’d then blamed it on my poor Hindi vocabulary. Today I’m not sure. And then Gyan Prakash sang many a paean to Manto and Ismat Chugtai his academic magnum-opus Mumbai Fables (yes, that of the Bombay Velvet fame).

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I really don’t know what to say about the Manto translation I read which is titled ‘Manto: Selected Short Stories’ and is translated by Aatish Taseer (s/o Tavleen Singh of Durbar fame lest I forget).  If I can be entirely honest, the part that is likely to stay with me longer than the others is the initial part of it where Taseer speaks about his attempts to learn Urdu, how he found a teacher, the relationship they shared. It seemed contemporary, contextual and relatable.

But what about the short stories? They’re simple, they look at human emotions and they could easily with a few alterations fit seamlessly into the Mumbai of today. But at the cost of sounding sacrilegious, I missed an X-factor – something to pull me into it and want me to continue to read it or invest myself in each of the stories. Of course there would be stuff lost in translation, and maybe it’s just that…but apart from the one story about characters on a film-shoot (My Name is Radha) – which in itself was a bit anti-climactic, but that’s another thing – I wasn’t sucked in. The new, authentic me is trying to be bold enough to say that.

I enjoyed the characters in Ram Khilavan as well – the story about the Dhobi.  Toba Tek Singh, the Dog of Tithwal are deep tales with a message underneath – surely an intelligent metaphor to drive home many points which can’t be stated directly. But as a story in the simplest, most visceral form – I couldn’t get out of textbook mode because you seem to know that there’s an underlying message, a metaphor which you mustn’t miss.

Ten Rupees (about a young girl whose mother ‘pimps’ her for 10 bucks, but who couldn’t care less because she gets to sit in a car), Blouse (about adolescent fantasies at a tailoring outlet), Khaled Mian (about a man who has a prophecy that his son is going to pass away), License (about a coachman and his wife who isn’t allowed to ferry passengers), The Mice of Shah Daulah (about a child who is given away to a performing circus and whose mother wants him back), For Freedom (about what a freedom fighters motivations morph into down the line) and Smell (about a fantasy for a Marathi girl) all probably have an underlying message or meaning as well. Until you ‘get’ that or have a CliffNotes for Manto, there’s only so much you can revel in the Mumbai of the 1930’s and 1940’s. I’m glad I read it for sure. And it wasn’t a waste of time or anything remotely like that. But I honestly don’t think had someone given me the book without the famous name on the cover, I would have given it too much thought. I would very much like to read this again in 10 years time. And see if I have a different appreciation of this taste then.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★
Readability : ★★★