Sunday, October 25, 2009

Wisecracks

The Bengali penchant for repartee is almost like an affliction. If there is a situational joke to be cracked, the true Bong can NOT resist it. Usually sarcastic, never unfunny and more often than not involving interesting word play and puns, some samples are available here. And here.

Yesterday, I was reminded of some more of these.

In mid-90s Calcutta, there existed a revivalist organisation called Amra Bangali. When I say 'existed', I mean it in a purely circumstantial sense because there was no physical manifestation of this group - except posters and grafitti. They DID nothing to revive Bengali pride except write slogans on walls, exhorting fellow Bongs to do the needful.
Their most common slogan was - "Bangali, Jago!" and this was found across the city in all the wall-space that was not taken up by CPI(M) and Congress. However, laid-back Bengalis took this metaphysical awakening in a literal sense (or pretended to!) and very soon, a repartee was seen scrawled under the original message.
Under "Bangali, Jago", it was written - "Jegechhi, ebar cha dao." ("I am awake. Now get me some tea.")

In a story recounted by Satyajit Ray, he mentions actor Kamu Mukherjee. Kamu was a regular in Ray's cast & crew and a great wit.
In one of the scripting sessions at Ray's Calcutta residence, his wife (Bijoya Ray) served tea and biscuits. The biscuits were a little soggy. Kamu took a bite and asked innocently, "Boudi, biscuitey ki silencer lagiyechho?"

But why was I reminded of them yesterday?

I was alone at home, with my son. We were about to leave and I was getting ready. My son was sitting on the bed and picked up one of my books.
I said, "Why are you holding my book? This is my book. You can't hold it."
My son obediently put it down.
When we left the lift, I instictively held his hand.
He looked at me with a smile and said, "Baba, why you holding my hand? This is my hand. You can't hold it."

You can take a boy out of Calcutta.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Spiritual Ancestors

It has been seen that often, characters in later creations of the same author or filmmaker are ancestors or progeny of their earlier creations.

For example, Deshu of D (played by Randeep Hooda) is actually the starting point of Malik of Company (played by Ajay Devgan). D ends with Deshu becoming a fearsome mafia don by taking control of his godfather's empire. Company begins with exactly the same plot point and carries on with the trajectory of his don-hood, where his trusted lieutenant turns against him. The director/producer of the two films mentioned this as the connecting link between the two films, which read - quite unsubtly - D Company.

The idealistic police officer of Zanjeer - Vijay Khanna - was destined to come up against political interference, corruption, nepotism and rot in the system. He had exorcised his personal demons by killing his father's killer but he was unable to cleanse the system. His honesty being a liability, the authorities would have posted him in an obscure police training school. And over the years, he would have become a cynical, tired man - until he was called for an assignment of a lifetime.
Meet Anant Srivastav, of Khakee.

In Satyajit Ray's Pratidwandi, the protagonist - Siddhartha (played by Dhritiman Chatterjee) - goes through a series of debilitating job interviews. His obvious sincerity, strong articulation and intelligence comes to a naught as he faces questions with pre-decided answers. In the most famous sequence from the film, he is asked 'What is the most significant event of the last decade?' and Siddhartha answers 'the war in Vietnam'. This is not only at variance with the 'correct' answer (landing on the Moon) but sets up the damning next question - 'Are you a Communist?'

The previous year, Ray made Seemabaddha about an upwardly mobile executive - Shyamalendu - whose obvious sincerity, intelligence and charm made an observer wonder that if Pratidwandi's Siddhartha had indeed answered 'moon landing' to that question, he would have become Shyamalendu later in his career!

So, why this sudden chain of thought? Because of 2 States. Which is a love story between a Tamil girl and a Punjabi boy set in IIM Ahmedabad. The Punjabi boy is from IIT Delhi, had an affair with his professor's daughter and was almost expelled. His grade point average made him a Five Point Someone. The protagonist from Chetan Bhagat's first book is back!

And the book ends with the cheesiest line I have ever had the privilege of reading. Even if you don't like Chetan Bhagat, just pick up the book and read the last two pages. Its brilliant!

So, any other spiritual ancestors you can think of?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Autumn Nostalgia

In a burst of autumn cleaning, the blog gets new fonts and a brilliant new header, sourced from here. I could not identify the photographer from the link mentioned in the post. Therefore, anonymous thanks are in order.
If some copyright is violated, I would happily take the picture off. Or, give credit.


A picture like this evokes memories of old times.
Of time spent in Maddox Square. Of haggling for books near Gol Park. Of gazing at antique film posters in the lobbies of dilapidated theatres.
Basically, it smells of nostalgia and we all know what a sucker I am for that.

On a personal note, there is a reverse nostalgia when I see my baby cousins as adults and find it difficult to reconcile with my memory of them as infants or at best, little boys and girls.

My kid cousin (who is closer in age to being my niece!) now talks about Arthur Miller's The Crucible. She finds the play unbearably tragic and rejects my suggestion to watch DDLJ to lift her mood. She sternly tells me to read it. I am so speechless that I am unable to tell her that I did - at her age. Which was twenty years back and that has kind of dulled the impact.

Another cousin (on his way to becoming a lawyer) shares his thoughts about Monginis cakes, Old Spice, floppy drives and New Empire Cinema. I did not even realise that he was old enough to watch and remember an ancient film called Mohabbatein. And here he is, pointing out that some things don't change in Calcutta. Apparently, people still play chess under Gariahat Flyover. Wow - I thought that's something only I would notice.

This tells me that I should be careful. I cannot generally blabber about SRK and WWF with my cousins and get away with it any longer.
But it also tells me that the conversation is going to be very interesting in my old age!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Its Been a Long Time...

It has been such a long time...

Since I saw a father write 'Man' with a knife-point on his new-born son's chest.
Since a young man in a jeep followed the object of his affection and her friends on bicycles.
Since a ghost attacked a girl having a bath.
Since a doctor came out of the operation theatre, took off his gloves and glasses only to say that the patient needs prayers, not medicines.
Since both twins wore lockets of Maa Sherawali.
Since a rich father refused to let his son marry his chauffeur's daughter.
Since one brother was in the police and another in the underworld.
Since a comedian was fed purgatives and a he tried desperately to find latrines.
Since a film took its name from a word in most pivotal dialogue exchange in the film. No other connection.
Since a mother shed tears of joy. And prepared carrot halwa.

It has been such a long time since I watched films with villains named like these.
It has been such a long time since I watched films like these.

PS: This outburst got triggered by (a) Nilendu's post and (b) Sid (of Waking Up fame), who failed in B Com exams. When that scene happened in the movie, I instinctively thought it has been such a long time since a Hindi film hero said, "Maa, main pass ho gaya".

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Kab Tak Bachchan?

I still recall a cover of Sunday magazine in end-80s. It had Anil Kapoor in full unshaven, black-shirted, shirt-unbuttoned glory. And the cover story was 'The Next No. 1?' - which also featured an interview with Amitabh endorsing Anil's numero uno status?
Anil Kapoor was the hot property then, with hits like Tezaab, Ram Lakhan and Parinda under his belt and I thought it is only normal that Amitabh - nearing 50 then - now eases into 'character' roles.
Felt a bit sad because there were so many roles I wanted to see him do. All his roles had been in the conventional mode and that was a little disappointing. In fact, I hoped that Satyajit Ray would make a film with him. Sigh!

About two decades after that Sunday issue, I read an article in Hindustan Times last week that a study has found MS Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar, Shahrukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai to be more powerful brand endorsers than Amitabh Bachchan - who was the only sexagenarian (actually, the only one about 45!) in the Top 10.
In between, of course, there have been many obituaries like this one.

For the last god-only-knows-how-many years, Zee Cinema has been running Shanivaar ke Raat, Amitabh ke Saath. SET Max is going on and on with Ab Tak Bachchan. Surely, SRK now has a decent body of films to let us spend successive Saturday evenings with him?
Rajesh Khanna refused to work with him after Namak Haraam. Vinod Khanna became an Osho follower. Shatrughan Sinha alleged that AB got his roles chopped. Mithun's lobby claimed the same with him. Anil Kapoor did not have the best of relations. His battles with SRK are now part of industry folklore. I am seriously hoping that Shahid or Ranbir don't get into a tussle with him!
Of course, not forgetting VP Singh, Raj Thackeray and their ilk...

I mean, give the man a break.
Two generations of Bollywood have been squabbling with him now and to be fair, he has not held back the punches either!
It is time that we found newer heroes to battle with.

When Manmohan Desai famously said, "Amit is like Haley's Comet. A star of his stature comes once in 73 years.", it sounded like a fond exaggeration for his favourite star. Now, it seems almost accurate.
Hang in there, Mr Bachchan. Your successor is exactly 6 years away!
And guess the coincidence? You have six more roles from this list to tick off!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Bookstore Mojo

What makes a great bookstore?
Size can be one big draw. A massive store with miles and miles of shelves can be mesmerising. A riot of colours of the spines looking like a kaleidoscope from a distance.
Knowledgeable store attendants can be another. This, for example, distinguishes every counter guy at the College Street bookshops. For every arcane request you make, they invariably manage to come up with "Apatoto-out-of-print-oi-lekhoker-second-boita-achhey-Bibhu-Robin-Wooder-hardcoverta-nama".
A critical part is also an understanding management. That don't insist on hissing "May I help you" when you are silently devouring Tintin in Congo in one corner!
Bargains are most welcome. Haggling preferable, but not essential. A 15% discount on the cover price makes the book go from exorbitant to reasonable in a jiffy. Or at least, seems like it.

In my book, however, the biggest attraction of a bookstore can be the promise of serendipity.
You are wandering in a largish bookstore, lazily flipping through books without really looking for anything in particular. And then you come across this book. It could be a book, which you borrowed as a child/youngster and had to return before you could finish it. It could be an out-of-print title, which you were hunting for a very long time. Or it could be a book, which you had only seen in your dreams. Or best of all, it could be a book that you felt somebody should write one day!

On a recent holiday to Dubai, I was taken to a bookstore called Kinokuniya. By my sister, who knows exactly where to take me to if she has to shop uninterrupted with my wife.
And for the first time, I realised that the Bengali word digonto-bistrito ("spreading to the horizons") can be applicable to a bookstore. I walked into the store and two minutes in, I could see neither the entrance nor the extremity. I was excited enough to start taking pictures before an attendant requested me not to!

What an amazing place to get lost in, which got me wondering about my favourite bookshops.

The Landmark Bookstore in Chennai is this huge expanse of books and CDs that you can get lost in. As is Walden in Hyderabad.
I remember these two stores very fondly because the first two postings of my first job were in these two cities and the two bookstores provided immense succour in times of stress. More specifically, I completed my entire Calvin & Hobbes collection from these two - apart from several other serendipitous findings.
My only crib about Landmark is that (probably) because of its size, the store attendants are uniformly clueless as are the merchandisers. Calvin & Hobbes comics, for example, are always found under the Children's comic section along with Superman, Tenali Rama and Tintin!

On the other hand, my latest favourite bookstore - Quill & Canvas in Gurgaon - is owned by this very up-to-date lady, who manages to recommend very good books basis what I bring to the billing counter. And that invariably gets my bill to inflate one more time! Bookstores should realise that the additional salary one has to pay to well-informed attendants is more than recovered by the additional stuff they manage to subtly push.
Quill & Canvas has the added benefit of having an art gallery within the bookstore, which is a stunning way of keeping browsers engaged.
And inspiring too. I always realise that I have to work much harder to buy that Shuvoprasanna whenever I am in Q&C!

Serendipity is something which I found in abundance in Bangalore. The Strand, in particular. Mumbai's iconic bookstore has a smallish setup in Manipal Centre (off MG Road) and has a rather quirky attitude towards classifying books. So, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy would be found in Popular Science. Lust for Life would be hidden among coffee table books on Art. And of course, there is the standard 15-20% discount applied to all purchases which becomes much more lucrative at the time of their Annual Sale.
Many Bangaloreans have gushed about Premier Book Stall (I hope I got the name right). It is a bookstore, which looks as if the walls have been constructed out of books. I did not find it too great simply because browsing was next to impossible. The massive, slightly leaning stacks of books meant that you could never pull out a book without the whole edifice crumbling all over you.
On the other hand, Blossoms on Church Street is a happy mix of chaos and order. Two floors packed with new and old books. All kinds of books. The staff is cheerfully clueless about location of titles but very helpful in being unobtrusive and letting you browse to your heart's content. Their second-hand selection is supposed to be very good (and at nice discounts too!) but unfortunately (and surprisingly), I have never bought anything from them.

Coming to my absolute favourite bookstore, I have to admit it is not really a 'store' but more of a 10 feet by 8 feet booth on a pavement near South Calcutta's busiest junction. The stock is only about 100 titles of the latest bestsellers - in both English and Bengali. The junction is so dusty and dirty that all the books he keeps have to be wrapped in polythene.
I have been buying books from this place for the last 25 years or so. My standard operating procedure used to be to go to Oxford Bookstore or any other browsable shop and take down the titles. Barun-babu, the shop owner, used to get them for me within a day at a 10% discount.
Apart from the obvious ones, I have lost count of the number of obscure books he has tracked down for me. My standard instruction would be to give him the name and a budget. He got the book only if it was within the budget!
He knew about books. He read most of them. Gave a whispered review for most of the books I picked up. Even let me 'borrow' books overnight to sample before I bought them. A pretty bad business decision, I would say (because I did not like the book).
Once when I had resigned myself to buying a hardcover (the fourth Harry Potter), he asked me to wait for a week since the paperback was about to be released. I guess he lost about 200 bucks in the price differential of the two books and got a lifelong devotee. Not a bad business decision, I would say.

To get back to Kinokuniya, I bought a really eclectic selection of books, all of which were horrendously expensive and weighed down our luggage a lot but TOTALLY worth it - in hindsight!
A lovely 2010 calendar of 12 posters of iconic movies.
A pop psychology book, which classifies people on the basis of their favourite (Hollywood) movies. There is such a crying need for a Bollywood equivalent!
The best stories from The Onion - America's Finest News Source.
99 classic movies, explained in 4 comic panels. This is like a Bluffer's Guide. But why would anybody want to bluff about seeing Chinatown or The Good, The Bad and The Ugly? They should be seen anyway!
And The Rough Guide to Film. Which is, well, a rough guide to film.
Here, take a look at the booty!


Updated to add: Here is a list of the 10 Coolest Bookstores in the US. New York has the most entries, followed by San Francisco.