Monday, January 31, 2011

Icons

I have started posting on a collective food blog - Foodnama - started by friends and this is my first post. Some very eclectic posts there on Nizam of Calcutta, chocolate chip cookies and potatoes.

Every city has a few iconic places to eat – restaurant being too pretentious a term for some of them – that are part of the city’s social and cultural history. It is not only about the food they serve – which is usually fantastic – but about the ambience and quirks of the place. Somehow, these have become part of the image of the place, adding to the legend.
For all of them, the aura is as important as the menu. Many of them have been described as over-rated by non-regulars. There have been complaints of poor service. That is again part of their charm. Old-timers, wanting to keep the riff-raff out of their favourite adda, even tacitly support this!
This post is the first in (hopefully) a series in which I try to recount my experiences at these places.

Bangalore – Koshy’s
I love the way they put a table cloth when you order a beer. I love the way old-timers refuse to sit in the AC section. When I asked a friend why he didn’t want to sit inside, he said “That is not Koshy’s. That is Jewel Box. Koshy is out here.” I love their Brain Masala. Of course, I have been repeatedly told I should always be ordering the steak at Koshy’s. Its location – at the cusp of St Marks Road and MG Road – is as iconic.
When I was in Bangalore, there used to be a night-club called 180 Proof (now Hard Rock Café) just ahead. I remember clearly a discussion I overheard at Koshy’s on the meaning of 180 proof and whether absinthe was 180 proof alcohol.
It was as if I was back in Calcutta. How better can I compliment a place?
Picture courtesy: Iyer Matter.

Bombay – Britannia & Co.
Any restaurant which shuts on Sundays and opens for only 4 hours on other days gets undying admiration from Bengalis. I mean, the bugger doesn’t care about money and only about the quality of the food. Wah wah – one more Caramel Custard, please.
The red-check table cloth. The chatty owner shuffling from table to table. The bow-tied waiters. Even the hideous-tasting ‘unique drinks’ are part of the Britannia lore. It is a small matter that the legend was started by Berry Pulao and the Dhansak – which are quite fantastic.
I had lunch there again yesterday – after a gap of nearly five years – I was a little apprehensive whether I would like it as much as I did the first time. I needn’t have worried. From the first spoon of the Pulao to the last mouthful of Caramel Custard, it was beautiful. The warm sun outside, the patience of the waiting crowd and the sleepiness of Ballard Estate on a Saturday were all just as beautiful too.
Did I tell you that their Sali Boti is even better than their Berry Pulao? Well, try it and tell me if you agree.

Calcutta – Peter Cat
Very few restaurants – actively or passively – discourage mobile phone conversations nowadays. Peter Cat not only puts a tent card requesting patrons not to speak on the mobile phone, the stewards walk up and whisper polite warnings if you do speak!
Peter Cat is all about legend. As I had written some time back, an overwhelmingly large number of Calcuttans have been to Peter Cat after their first salary and that is a sentimental high no other gastronomical creation can match.
And their iconic dish – Chelo Kabab. No single dish in any restaurant in the world would form such a large part of the total orders as Chelo Kabab does in Peter Cat. It is currently described in their menu as ‘the protected regional product of West Bengal, our special kababs prepared in rare spices blended with Persian herbs and served on a bed of rice with butter and an egg’. Whoa!
When I was in Peter Cat last, I took a picture of the menu with my mobile phone camera. As I took out the phone, the steward frowned and started towards me. When I pointed the camera at the menu, he smiled and turned away. Must be happening a lot in there!

Delhi – Karim’s
There is nothing left to say about Karim’s that Lonely Planet, HT City Eating Out Guide or Time magazine hasn’t said already. Except that contrary to popular belief, the restaurant did not start in Bahadur Shah Zafar’s time. The descendants of the Mughal emperor’s chefs started the restaurant in 1913 (CENTENARY ALERT!!) and has been serving soul-stirring food ever since.  Which means no other restaurant in the world is probably as Mughlai as Karim’s.
Part of Karim’s charm is, I think, the inaccessibility. Jama Masjid and Nizamuddin, I can understand. Even their Malaviya Nagar outlet is particularly bad for turning and parking. I guess you feel the food better when you work hard for it.
I don’t know if there is any one dish that Karim’s is really famous for because I manage to forget every item I order by the time I visit next. Actually, I forget the dishes by the time I walk out of the restaurant. All that remains is a whirl of meat, ghee and spices that tend to engulf one’s senses. In fact on the way out, I manage to lose myself in the bylanes as well. How does the second left matter after Chicken Jahangiri?

Hyderabad – Paradise
How many places in the world do you know where a street or a square is named after a restaurant located there? Paradise Circle is the only one place I know of.
For those who think biriyani is paradise, Paradise is biriyani. In a city known for biriyani, they have taken it to a different level altogether. Actually they have taken it to three different levels altogether – the air-conditioned section upstairs, non-AC downstairs and the terrace outside!
Their chicken-mutton mixed biriyani is an innovation that deserves a Nobel Prize – either Chemistry or Peace. And their take-away section deserves one in Economics – for the most efficient revenue generation. Their hermetically sealed packages of biriyani and kabab are handed over in one smooth motion after the money is handed over and you are back in your waiting cab even before the ignition is switched off.
Visits to Hyderabad are incomplete without a sealed packet of Paradise in your hand baggage. Don’t tell me you’ve not done it even once!

Lucknow – Tunday Kababi
They have opened branches in malls of Lucknow and Delhi. And yet, their original shop hidden in the labyrinth of Aminabad remains the touchstone of all carnivores. I had written about it once earlier and haven’t eaten there recently to add on that.
Except that I’d give anything to eat there right now. (Updated to Add: Apparently, even the Aminabad shop is not the original. The real thing is in Chowk.)
Picture courtesy: Outlook magazine

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Tag


I don't know if this a new tag or an old tag but since this is a Mad Momma tag, I dare not ignore it!

20 years ago I . . .
1. was preparing for my first board exams – Madhyamik.
2. was looking forward to watching Hum, first day first show.
3. was quite sure I would flunk Biology and have to sit for the exam again next year.

10 years ago I . . .
1. was King of Bihar, with 12 salesmen and some 80 distributors ready to die at my command (or so I thought). I also thought thought real men did sales and Marketing was for wimps.
2. got a mobile phone for first time and thought it was a pain. Especially the T9 text input.
3. was spending two days a week in Calcutta, of which most was in Olypub.

6 years ago, I had started my blog at around this time of the year…

5 years ago I . . .
1. was about to join a media company and all my friends asked if it was for a position in journalism.
2. was juggling with a notice period to be served and being in Calcutta & Kerala for my sister’s wedding.
3. just got to know that I was going to become a father.

3 years ago I . . .
1. was about to move into a Marketing position (and I thought Sales was for analytical people while Marketing was for the creative types).
2. watched Ramgopal Verma ki Aag alone in a hotel room.
3. did not imagine one day I would send SMS-sized updates on my life and thoughts to people I didn’t know.

1 year ago I . . .
1. saw my father give up on something for the first time in his life.
2. was about to do the most I have done in a year (but I didn’t know it then).
3. bought a somewhat expensive work of art for the first time.

So far this year I . . .
1. have tried to teach my son Hindi (and had my wife laugh at us).
2. seen only one film (in the theatre) but have bought 7 VCDs of films I missed last year.
3. have seen my book in print and my friends paying good money to read it.

Yesterday I . . .
1. downloaded two issues of Wired magazine on my iPad and realized that I was a geek at heart.
2. went to Deer Park near Hauz Khas and debated with if we should make a detour toward Gunpowder.
3. wondered No TV Day would be quite easy to do but a No TV Week would be brutal.

Today I . . .
1. complete 8 years of annoying one woman
2. have taken half a day off from work
3. will not annoy that woman (*conditions apply)

Tomorrow I will . . .
1. again annoy that woman
2. be back at work (full-day)
3. hopefully come back from work to find my son awake

In the next year I will . . .
1. complete writing a non-fiction book on Bollywood
2. visit Jaisalmer to see Shonar Kella for real
3. be a father again

Friday, January 21, 2011

Another Prick in the Wall

When I had first heard that Harper Collins was starting a series of monographs on iconic Indian films, I rejoiced. Two of the authors were spot on - Jai Arjun Singh (on Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron) and Anuvab Pal (on Disco Dancer). The third book of the series was on Deewaar - which is my third favourite film of all times, of all languages.
I loved Jai Arjun's take on JBDY enough to pre-order the other two books. The Deewaar book got delivered day before yesterday and I finished in two days. For all the wrong reasons.
One, it was a short book - more like an extended essay. Second, I had to get to the end to confirm that the book is indeed as bad as I thought after reading the first 20 pages.

Because on page 15, I came across this line: "That spell, I have merely hinted, arises from an awareness of the multifarious ways in which Deewaar simultaneously works upon mythic material, contemporary narratives of the nation-state, a profound rootedness in Indian culture, histories of the self, the architecture of memory, and even, if I may hazard this phrase, 'autobiographies of the street'." WHAT THE EFF?
In the page just before that, I found the following words: dyadic, Lacanian psychoanalysis, id, ego, super-ego.
On page 85, we have: "Whether or not the apotheosis of motherhood has attained in India scarcely matched elsewhere, it is arguably true that Indian civilisation has always had a substratum of matriarchy, certainly antecedent to the patriarchy that is far more characteristic of Indian society today."
And the piece de resistance (on page 93): "Writing is the harbinger of hermeneutics of suspicion, introducing new hierarchies of power; and the signature is the infallible mark of identity, and forgery of a signature is tantamount to what, in modern parlance, is called identity-theft."
What, in God's name, is the author trying to say? Apart from 'I conned you into paying 200 bucks'?

Maybe I am getting this all wrong. Maybe I should not be seeking 'stories' in this book but 'interpretations'. Maybe this book is meant for film scholars only. How else do you explain these Ulysses-like sentences that go on for 6-7 lines on an average?
In that case, my grouse shifts from the author to the publisher.
Why the hell did you publish a breezy, episodic story about the making of JBDY in the same series as a jargon-laden treatise about an even more popular film - Deewaar? Why is there a 8-page description of Emergency in a book meant for - presumably Indians?

The author has not met any of the stars, writers or director of the film. He has chosen to pontificate and speculate on things that any of them could have answered.
For example, he has written a 145-word footnote on the significance of the number 786. If only he had asked any of the two Muslim gentlemen who wrote the film, we would have had a readable book.
There are pages and pages of 'subtext analysis' - including a (unintentionally) hilarious one on the film being a disguised Partition story. Apparently, Pakistan is the 'errant brother' increasingly going towards lawlessness! Unbelievable! To be fair to the author, he is 'not inclined' towards this theory despite knowing that the director was born in pre-Partition Lahore (along with, of course, half the directors of Bollywood of that age).
Oh - there is a chapter called 'The Art of Writing' which is all about the symbolism of the signature in Deewaar. Anandbabu signing on behalf of the workers, Vijay signing to buy his mother a skyscraper, Ravi asking for his brother's signature. Amazing!

According to the blurb, the book 'assesses Deewaar's unique space in world cinema'. There is a 3-page description of a 1931 film called Public Enemy (which had similar plot points) but no mention of Deewaar's international release in a dubbed version - I'll Die for Mama. Where did it release? How did it do? How did the Western audience react to intense Indian emotions like mother-worship? No mention.
It talks about the film's 'unrivaled popularity' but it never tries to explain why the film is still so popular despite mothers and moral standards having changed completely in the intervening four decades? Has the author heard of a film called Aatish - where the story is similar to Deewaar, except that the mother sides with the errant son?
Has the author noticed that all of Yash Chopra's directorial ventures for other production houses (Dhool ka Phool, Waqt, Deewaar, Trishul, Parampara) have missing father figures or estrangement from fathers as a key element? His own productions don't ever have them. Has he thought it would have been a good idea to ask Mr Chopra about this?

Just because the previous book of the series had many stories about the script development, shooting and the actors, it would be unfair to expect the same from this one as well. But surely, it wouldn't be too much to expect that author would give us some sense of the mental states of the lead contributors of the film - to know their inspirations and motivations.
Instead of peddling pompous theories, the book would have given some real insights. And it would have been far more interesting.

I once read Khuswant Singh saying that he got his inspiration to write from bad books. Great books scared you into thinking "Oh my God, I am nowhere as good as this". Bad books, on the other hand, made you think "Hey, even I can do better than this".
The only positive thing about this book is that I felt the same way.

The Book is Here... Almost!

The first copy of the book has been received.
Much joy has permeated through the family - with my sister doing her version of banshee screaming on Twitter. My grandmother doesn't know yet, I think. Once she does, there will be more excitement and tears!

It is a major kick to see one's name on print (as opposed to computer screens). And on computer screens too, when it is on an online bookstore. A shameless self-promotion tab to the right links the places where you can pre-order the book at discounts ranging from 15-20%.
A tech-savvy colleague has discovered the book on Amazon as well, at a princely price of $22.50. Since the  e-book is not available yet, he also recommends putting a request on Amazon to make it available on Kindle.

Till the e-book happens, do facilitate the killing of a few trees by buying the paper version of the book!

UPDATED TO ADD: My editor informs me that it should be in stores by next week. It better be. Threats of bodily harm in case of delays are being communicated to me as we speak!  

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Rabindra Sangeet in Cinema

I had been toying with the idea of this post for some time and the demise of Suchitra Mitra was the sad - but appropriate - trigger that forced me write it down.
Having spent a lot of time out of Calcutta, I found that Rabindra Sangeet is by and large considered as the mandatory art form to be perfected by Bengali women (and displayed when prospective grooms come calling) that is also to be accompanied by Bengali men on the tabla. It is also considered slightly soporific, slightly maudlin and therefore, slightly boring.

To correct - or more accurately, try to correct - this notion, I thought I will put down a list of my favourite Tagore songs as depicted on film. This is not pristine Rabindra Sangeet but interpretations by filmmakers from different genres and brought to life on screen by extremely charismatic actors.

Kharo bayu boi bege - Kabuliwala 
The first on the list is also my earliest memory of a Rabindrasangeet on screen. Chhabi Biswas - in the title role - sees his daughter in Mini, one of the cutest child actors ever to grace the silver screen (played by Tinku Tagore, Sharmila's younger sister). And in one sequence, Mini performs in a dance programme that has her Kabuliwala and the audience enthralled.   
For the life of me, I cannot locate the movie clip so you will have to make do with the audio.

Ami chini go chini - Charulata
This is as masterly as it gets. Probably the greatest Bengali actor lip-syncs to the voice of the greatest Bengali singer under the helm of the greatest Bengali director - in a story by Tagore himself.
Satyajit Ray was hell-bent on getting Kishore Kumar to sing this song. Kishore - Bollywood's busiest playback singer - did not have time to go the loo, let alone Calcutta despite being terribly keen to sing. He requested the mountain to come to Mohammed. To solve the small matter that Kishore Kumar could not read a score sheet, Bijoya Ray (Satyajit's wife) recorded the song which he heard and sang in one clean take.
And just in case you are wondering, the piano was played by Ray himself.

Je raatey mor duaarguli - Meghey Dhaka Tara
As a life-long devotee of Ray, it is a little difficult for me to accept that the best picturisations of Rabindrasangeet is not done by him. But the case Ritwik Ghatak puts up is unassailable. And this is the prime example. 
The tragic story of the eldest daughter of a refugee family would have degenerated into melodrama with any lesser director. In the film, this song happens on the eve of her sister's wedding to her boyfriend as she tries to learn it and sing it at the wedding. The male & female voices are simultaneously mellifluous and tragic while the camera moves as a lurking shadow on her misfortune. And in a sort of first, Ghatak cut the song with a sound effect of lashes - a leit motif in the film of the protagonist's misfortunes.

Bhalobashi bhalobashi - Shwet pathorer thala
Indrani Sen's magical voice transforms this song to a different level altogether, which is performed on screen by the very beautiful, Aparna Sen.
This is supposed to be a run-of-the-mill song picturisation with a giggly, happy couple singing love songs on a boat. But there is something about the music, the words, the setting and Aparna Sen that takes it a level or two higher.

Akash bhora shurjo tara - Komal Gandhar
This is the second exhibit in the list of Ritwik Ghatak's brilliant filming of Rabindrasangeet.
The song - rendered by the inimitable Debabrata Biswas - has all the qualities of a hymn. He is the most well-loved among all artistes of Rabindrasangeet and this is - in my book - the song that benefits the most from his sonorous voice.
The relationships within an idealistic theatre group form the basis of this movie and in some ways, this becomes a 'romantic' song in the movie while in isolation, it is anything but.

Ei kathati money rekho - Chowringhee
I had to sneak in an Uttam Kumar song and this is the one.
Uttam Kumar plays a suave front office manager at a Calcutta 5-star hotel and this is a romantic interlude with an air-hostess who stays in the hotel.The film is based on one of the most popular Bengali novels (now available in a very good translation).

Purano shei diner katha - Agniswar
This is the ultimate nostalgia song. Inspired from Auld Lang Syne, this is the staple song to be performed at all farewells. And reunions.
In the film, the protagonist (Uttam Kumar) brings together his old friends and one of them sing it (in the magical voice of Hemanta Mukherjee). Nothing really happens during this song but the voice and of course, the words are too strong to not get it into the list. I wish some new filmmaker just uses this soundtrack and picturises the video better.
Or I should just ask Bishwaprasun to sing it at our next school reunion.   

Pagla hawa badal diney - The Bong Connection
This is the best remix of a Rabindrasangeet. Shreya Ghoshal picks up the baton from iconic performers as Raima Sen takes over from her grandmother Suchitra Sen in a wonderfully peppy rendition of an already wonderful song.
Anjan Dutt - the director - has a very strong music sense (being a composer and lyricist himself) and his son, Neel Dutt - the film's composer - adds the 'jhankaar beats' with just the right mix of exuberance and restraint.
And uh - ignore Shayan Munshi's tomfoolery. But that's part of the song's energy, I suppose.

Tomar holo shuru / Chhoonkar mere manko - Yaarana
Bollywood has never shied away from lifting great tunes from anywhere. And Tomar holo shuru is as good as they get! The original is about a passing of the baton from the older generation to the newer while the lift is an out-and-out romantic song, where Amitabh woos Neetu Singh in the empty expanse of Netaji Indoor Stadium in Calcutta.
As a kid when I saw this film with my mother, I remember thinking "Oh my god, they copied that Bengali song from Amitabh" but then, hey!

Jana gana mann - Rann
And this is my final - and most controversial - entry to my list.
Tagore's most famous composition is the second-most popular song in the world - with nearly a billion people knowing it and singing it (though a little unwilling, I am sure, in some cases). Ramgopal Verma's take on modern media had a scathing re-working of our national anthem, in line - he claimed - with the toxic times. Guardians of our morality and patriotism felt it was too 'seditious' (ah! that word again!) and censored it from the movie. But I think, Tagore - the original modernist - would have approved.

Honourable Mention: I was thinking of a good picturisation of Shokhi bhabona kahare boley, a big favourite of mine. An earlier version in Balika Bodhu (Bengali) was filmed with too much nyaka-ness. This is a rather interesting mix of video and audio, though I have no clue about the film or the actors.   

Now - quick, tell me what I missed!