Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Engineers: More the merrier ??

Time for a quick rant on one of my pet subjects. Came across this news article in Mint today, which talks about the Government considering increasing 200000 engineering seats across the country, ostensibly to address the 'growing shortage of engineers' in India. This assumes that just increasing the supply of engineering seats (to satisfy the growing demand of such seats within the student community - which I am not sure is that true today as it was maybe a decade ago) would resolve the shortage of engineers in the country. What, of course, nobody bothers to look at is the quality of such engineers and how 'employable' they really would be once they get their degrees and diplomas.

To illustrate the point, consider my case. I went to a top-3 engineering college in Mumbai University to 'study' mechanical engineering. And I did fairly well, if the yardstick for that is securing a first class throughout and a first-class with distinction in the final year. Then, as with the majority of my ilk, I joined the software industry, then riding on the Y2K boom. As I strung together pieces of codes, I drifted further away from the 'knowledge' gained during those four years. So much so that, ten years down the line, I admit, with more than a tinge of sadness, that I only vaguely remember the workings of an internal combustion engine or what the Bernoulli principle is. If that is my story, coming from a college that had decent infrastructure and some very good professors, I can only imagine the plight of the tens of thousands of engineers today that graduate from the hundreds of non-descript, two-classroom-two-professors colleges that are present throughout India.

I guess the key question to ask is : shortage of engineers FOR WHAT ? At the time I left engineering college, I was told that the logical and analytical skills were the assets that made me fit for work as a programmer. So if the shortage of engineers is primarily to work in the tech and other sectors, then maybe increasing the number of seats might reduce the resource crunch that is being faced. However, it the shortage of engineers is in the R & D or maybe even the teaching fields, then increasing 20000 seats is simply not the answer. What amazes me is that I never come across the headline that reads: "Government to recruit 5000 teachers for higher education". As long as teaching is not made a lucrative career option, especially in higher education, it will only attract people who could not make it elsewhere. Even during my engineering years I could sense it, where the younger profs were ordinary at best and the experienced ones used to add value to our knowledge. I shudder to think what the situation is now. As long as the standard of teaching is not improved, then adding 2000 or 200000 seats would not make any difference. The students that will come out would be engineers only in name.



Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Change is in the air....

Today it finally happened. It started off early morning, when I left for my workout at around half past six. As soon as I had gotten out of my building, I felt the unmistakable chill in the air. While coming back an hour later, though the sun had come out nice and bright, the temperature did not seem to have increased much. And when a brisk 20-minute walk from Santacruz station to my office resulted in not more than a couple of drops of sweat, it was official. Winter had finally arrived in Mumbai !!

Now the arrival of winter in Mumbai, unlike in the West, does not result in too many ooh-s and aah-s from the local populace. Nor can it be captured on film and posted on Facebook, unlike the many snaps of the first snowfall. But it is an important event nevertheless. For a city that has suffered for nearly ten months in 30+ C temperatures and 90%+ humidity, the onset marks a welcome relief to the millions of Mumbaikars. For one, the daily commuting becomes less of a nightmare. No longer are you subjected to various odours while travelling in the suburban locals. And neither do you arrive in office fully drenched in sweat. I reckon that, in itself, should account for an increasing in productivity at the workplace. No wonder winter is so soothing and pleasant.

For me, the only flipside to winter is the reduced duration of daytime. Unlike most Cancerians (who are creatures of the night as described by Linda Goodman), I am more of a diurnal person. So I do not particularly like it when, by the time I leave office usually at 6.30pm, it is already dark outside. Sometimes, I wonder how people in the northern latitiudes manage to live in the extreme colds and just a few hours of sunlight. Of course, they do get, by way of compensation, pleasant temperatures and eighteen hour days a few months later. Would'nt it be great to have mean daily temperature of 20 C and 15-hour days throughout the year ??.. If wishes were horses.. :)

Till that time, these two months of the winter chill are the ones to enjoy in Mumbai....

Monday, October 18, 2010

The season of scams..

Well, the title above seems a misnomer, since in a country like ours, there isn't really a season for scams. They seem to be happening left, right and center and throughout the year. But even by those lofty standards, these are heady days indeed.
The CWG mess, of course, is garnering all the headlines and it is really gratifying to see that no sooner had the Games ended than the media knives were back out. This time though, the GOI obliged and promptly set up a committee under the CVC (Chief Vigilance Commissioner). But again, in a country like ours, probe committees are dime a dozen, and how quickly it completes its probe is the question on everyone's lips, followed by, of course, action against the culprits. But as Mr. Kalmadi and Ms. Sheila Dikshit trade allegations, there is hope for the common man that finally, there might be some action at the end of the tunnel, given how vigorously the media has been pursuing this.

But while the government has shown unusual alacrity as far as the CWG fiasco is concerned, it will surely find itself in more than an embarrassing position as regards the other huge scam of the day, the 2G spectrum scam. The Mint cover story today bought out the grim details of the scam as exposed by the CAG probe. In terms of sheer numbers, this is almost unparalleled. What, of course, catches the eye is the loss to the national exchequer: a mind-boggling, eye-popping, gut-wrenching etc etc Rs 1.4 trillion !!! It took me a few seconds just to convert this into something comprehensible: Rs 140,000 crore !!!. To put this in perspective, the entire 3G auctions recently bought the government only Rs 68,000 crores. Or, to drive home the point like a bulldozer, the budget estimates in FY11 for personal income-tax collections are approx. Rs 120,000cr. Which means, that the loss to the exchequer is more than what the individual tax-payers of this entire country pay in a year !!!. And all of this just because Mr. A Raja and the DoT followed arbitary procedures while allocating 2G spectrum (of which what took the cake was this: a press release on the DoT website at 2.45pm asking prospective bidders to submit their demand drafts by 3.30 pm !!!). And while the CWG attracted the media attention because of the international prestige at stake, this is far superior (?) in magnitude. And, as a last thought, are not these things taken through the Prime Minister atleast ?? Beats me that the PM was not aware about such an arbitrary way of allocating spectrum so crucial to the government coffers.

As these two incidents make us hang us head in shame, one hopes that the culprits are bought to book without any mercy !!

~ Amit 

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Lets talk about life....

Now that the title has (hopefully) got your curiosity going, let me assure you that this post has nothing to do with philosophy or with unraveling the great mystery that is life. After all, neither am I any great shakes in talking about the philosophical and nor do I want to have this post (my first after over a month – the blogging tempo needs to be pushed every now and then !!) to talk about something that I myself am not very adept at. Anyways, before I digress, the title of the post is a close translation of ‘आयुष्यावर बोलू काही..' a musical evening presented by the well-known music director Dr. Salil Kulkarni and the poet Sandeep Khare.

And Salil-Sandeep do a great job of talking of about life in various hues and colours. I had seen the show on TV a couple of times but, to my great delight, got a chance to see it in person during the recent Ganesh festival at my in-laws place (Shastri Hall), as part of their Sarvajanik Ganpati. For about three hours, Salil-Sandeep take the audience through the complete variety of life. Starting with the title track (‘आयुष्यावर बोलू काही...’), they wind their way through the various human experiences, be it romance (‘ढिपाडी ढिपांग....’), pathos (‘नसतेस घरी तू जेव्हा...’), the joy of nature (‘सरीवर सर ...’) or the playful joy of childhood (‘Superman’, ‘अग्गोबाई ढग्गोबाई ...’ – this seems to be their particular specialty). Interspersed with the songs is the poetry recitation by Sandeep in his deep baritone, often adding that extra zing. The show has been going strong since 2003 and it held its 500th show last June in Pune. In fact, the one that I saw in Shastri Hall was the 650th.

Some of my personal favourites are:

a.       मी पप्पांचा ढापून फोन ….’: Don’t all children like cellphones and often sneak their parents phone and start playing with it ? Here, Salil-Sandeep bring alive the playfulness of a child randomly calling people with his Pappa’s phone. Watch especially how the mood of the song changes from the playful to the dead-serious in the last stanza (without any change in the background music) when the child accidentally dials the Almighty and asks for his ‘Appa’ (grandfather) to be sent back.

b.      मी मोर्चा नेला नाही......’: A poem dedicated to most, if not all, members of the audience: typical middle-class Maharashtrians, content with life has given them and not having the slightest inclination to show aggression, either real of feigned. Sandeep presents the view of ‘just another common man’ with such conviction that the audience instantly identify with it. Note especially the comparison with the inanimate in the last stanza.

c.       दमलेल्या बाबाची कहाणी ….’: Probably the high point of the show. Salil-Sandeep take the show to its zenith in terms of raw emotional appeal by describing the gut-wrenching emotions felt by a father unable to devote time to this darling daughter. The lines of the poem are absolute gems, so much so that the audience almost seems shell-shocked by the end of it. Not to mention, hardly any dry eyes around.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

'झेंडा' engages you..

As continuing evidence of the comeback of Marathi movies (not withstanding the current row over ticket sales and show timings), ‘Jhenda’ (The Flag) (released earlier this year) takes the not-so-uncommon political movie genre but gives it a different treatment in terms of the issue that it seeks to address. Written and directed by Avadhut Gupte (more known for his Jai Jai Maharashtra Majha number), Jhenda has as its backdrop the famous uncle-nephew rift that was the talking point of Maharashtra politics a few years back. However, Avadhut Gupte uses that only as a reference point and instead focuses on the political foot soldiers (the कार्यकरते ) that, in many ways, are the heart and hands of the party. The turmoil that the rank and file of the party experiences as a result of the games played by their leaders is the point of focus here and the movie is refreshingly different because of that.

The movie begins with the grand patriarch (shown only via his feet and his rudraksha-bearing trembling hand) anointing his son as his political heir (and thus overlooking his nephew who is seen to be a more natural successor). The political fallout of this on the lives of the people lower down in the party hierarchy is what is depicted. Specifically, there are four main characters (all portrayed by relative newcomers – another plus point) that are affected because of this. Santosh and Umesh are best friends living in one of the many chawls in Mumbai from where the parties get their manpower. While the former is a devoted follower of the partriach and his party (Jan Sena), Umesh is enamored of the fresh ideas and appeal of the nephew and his breakaway party (Maharashtra Samrajya Sena - MSS). Needless to say, when Umesh joins the new party, their relationship is put under severe strain. Then there is Avinash, the youth leader of the MSS in Kolhapur. Well educated but wanting to make a career out of politics, he begins with high hopes from the breakaway party and of his own political ambitions, but ends up being used by his political bosses for their own ends. And finally, there is Aditya. Working in a media company, he begins as wholly dismissive of, and uninterested in, politics. But when his job puts him close to the charismatic nephew (RAJesh Sarpotdar) he gets drawn in the political whirlpool and, towards the end of the story, emerges a completely different man. In fact, all four of them undergo a seismic change in their lives, mostly a result of excessive devotion, followed by disillusionment, towards their ‘jhenda’. Finally, the question of ‘कोणता झेंडा घेऊ हाती ?’ (‘Whose flag do I pick up ?’) - part of a brilliant title track - becomes largely rhetorical, underlying the fact that in politics, everyone is the same at the end.

As a first effort, credit is definitely due to Avadhut for taking up a sensitive subject (and he had his share of pre-release controversies) and handling it well. By taking up the issue of the ‘karyakarta’, the movie conveys the basic point, which is, ‘नेता कोणीही असो, शेवटी मारतो तो कार्यकर्ता आणि मारतो तो ही कार्यकर्ता !! ’ (‘Whoever is the leader, the people who kill are the workers, and the people who die are the workers !!’). The performances are all good, especially Santosh Juvekar (as Santosh) who convincingly shows the pain and disappointment of a soldier unable to come to terms with the changes in the party he so much adores. The music is passable, however the title track stands out. All in all, a good directorial debut by Avadhut Gupte.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

The book review trilogy: 'THE IMMORTALS OF MELUHA'

Welcome back in time about four millenia. In around 1900 BC and in the kingdom of Meluha (where Kashmir is today). The kingdom of the Suryavanshi (followers of the sun). The ideal kingdom and the ideal way of life established by Lord Ram centuries earlier, but which is fighting a losing battle against their natural adversaries, the Chandravanshis. And the legend goes, only one person can save the Suryavanshis. And that person happens to be 'a rough-hewn Tibetan immigrant'. A person who we all worship today as Lord Shiva !! The neelkanth !!

'The Immortals of Meluha' is of the racy thriller kind, cleverly marrying mythology and fiction, though there is, probably thankfully, less of the former and more of the latter. The first in the a trilogy of books by Amish (who, incidentally is not a priest or a religious person but a 35-year old IIM Kolkata grad with a day job in the insurance business), the central point of the book is to tell the 'story of the man, whom legend turned into a God'. So the book starts of with Shiva as a tribal leader of his clan living near Mount Kailash, spending his time battling his rival tribe the Pakritis and smoking marijuana through his chillum. Until a chance meeting with a foreigner from the land of Meluha reveals to the latter Shiva's great secret, his blue throat, the neelkanth. From that moment on, he is revered as the saviour of the inhabitants of the kingdom of Meluha, the Suryavanshis. The crux of the book (and of the forthcoming books of the trilogy) is to describe his life and times in the kingdom of Meluha and how he carries out the task assigned to him. And Amish does a good enough job of it.

As mentioned, the book takes us back four millienia and offers us a glimpse of the imaginary kingdom of Meluha, with its ideal way of life. However, and in a pleasant surprise, the tone and the language of the book is modern (imagine Shiva saying words like 'dammnit' !!!). That is probably what makes the book a page-turner. As also the fact that the references to reality do not hamper the narrative, thus allowing fantasy and reality to live in harmony. And the book has all the elements of a Bollywood potboiler: fast-paced action, flashbacks and, definitely not the least, romance between Shiva and the princess of Meluha, Sati (later to be called Parvati) !! Undoubtedly, would be adapted to the silver screen sooner than later.Also, the way of life of the Meluhans is described very well, allowing the reader to visualize vividly how the kingdom, its people and their way of life would look like.

So if you are a lover of Indian mythology and do not mind a good fantasy woven around it,'The Immortals of Meluha' is for you. So go ahead and lap it up !!!!


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The book review trilogy: 'THE PALACE OF ILLUSIONS'

At first, I almost dismissed it as yet another book on the Mahabharata. I have read quite a few of those and did not really look forward to discovering anything new in Chitra Banerjee Divakurni's 'The Palace of Illusions'. But then,a small caption on the cover said 'Panchali's Mahabharat' and that got me hooked. Draupadi has always been an enigmatic character in the epic, and yet, I believe, has been sidelined as far as popular literature on the subject is concerned (considering that most major characters have their own interpretations of the Mahabharata). In fact, that seems to have been one of the reasons for the author to write this book. As she admits in her preface that she was 'left unsatisfied' by the portrayal of the women of the epic, though the women were 'powerful and complex characters that affected the action in major ways'. And so, Chitra Banerjee delves into the mind and heart of Draupadi, probably one of the most powerful characters in the story. And some might say, may be even the driver of the entire epic itself !!

The story begins with Draupadi's birth from the ceremonial fire along with her brother Drishtaduymna ('she was as dark as he was fair'). As soon as she emerged from the fire, she was destined to change the course of history. The book is a decent journey through Panchaali's life, from her swayamvar  (where she was specifically told by her brother and Krishna to reject Karna), going on to describe her life with her five husbands, the incident where Duryodhan falls in the pond thinking its solid marble (interestingly, the book claims that it was not Draupadi, but one of her maids, that said those fateful words :'a blind man's son will be blind'). the the disgraceful events during the game of dice at Hastinapur and finally, culminating in the terrible massacre at Kurukshetra. Each of these events are well described from Draupadi's view and her, the author is faithful to the generally-accepted version of the Mahabharata. There are not too many factual deviations.

However, it is not the factual events, but the inter-personal relationships that Draupadi had, that enliven the book. Firstly, Draupadi's relationship with Kunti comes across as a typical saas-bahu relationship, both trying to hold their own against each other with an undercurrent of tension beneath. The book does not talk much about the Pandavas and how Draupadi regarded each of them. Krishna is shown as her friend, philosopher and guide, always there for her, not least during the vastra-haran. But the sauciest portions of the book are reserved for Draupadi's fascination for Karna. That is probably the only genuine new insight that the book gives us. Draupadi's longing for the eldest Pandava is always spoken of in hushed tones in popular literature, but here, Banerjee portrays Draupadi as being almost head-over-heels in love with Karna. As Draupadi says in the book of her five husbands : '"I see that I didn't love any of my husbands in that way... even during the best of times, I never gave it (her heart) fully to them. How do I know it ? Because none of them (her husbands) had the power to agitate me the way the mere memory of Karna did". Throughout, the book is littered with examples of Draupadi's longing for Karna. And towards the end, Karna too confesses to Bhishma on his bed of arrows, that while the promise of the throne and power never tempted him to switch sides and join the Pandavas, when Kunti offered him Draupadi as almost a bait, he was truly tempted and had to use all of his famed willpower to keep him from deserting Duryodhan !!. All in all, this is one heck of a fascinating relationship, and just for this one, the book is well worth a read !!

So finally, what does one make of Draupadi after reading the book ? Apart from her extra-marital longing for Karna, Draupadi is portrayed as mostly a character bounded by her destiny ('to change the course of history') and most of her actions are portrayed as a natural outcome of the way her destiny plays out. Probably the only issue that one might have with Banerjee's Draupadi is that she is portrayed in lighter shades of grey than probably what is popularly imagined.



Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The book review trilogy: 'OPEN'

Most sports autobiographies that I have read belong to one of two categories (and that, I suspect, is true of most books in this genre). On the one hand you have books that chronicle the life and times of the sportsman, without really giving good insights into the finer aspects like his/her personality, eccentricities etc. On the other hand, there are those autobiographies that are a delight to read, either because of the personal circumstances surrounding the athlete (Lance Armstrong) or because the biographer/athlete has taken that extra step in going beyond mere recounting of public facts to presenting a very different face of the subject to the readers. Andre Agassi’s autobiography ‘OPEN’ belongs to this category. To put it in a few words, ‘OPEN’ is not to be missed, especially if you are a sports buff. Agassi fans, of course, would need no invitation.

‘OPEN’ begins with Andre lying on his back in the change room, receiving medical treatment after winning a tough five-setter against Marcos Baghdatis at the 2006 US Open (his last grand slam). Andre then takes readers to his childhood, dominated by his almost-dictatorial father and the tennis court he had built for his children in their backyard, in the middle of the Vegas desert. His father had one ambition of his children, to become No.1 in the sport. And the methods he adopted to ensuring this (forcing hours of practice on the Agassi kids) took their toll. Andre survived this, but his brother quit, no longer able to withstand his father’s incessant pressure. From here, Andre moved to the Nick Bolleteri academy at age thirteen (‘a glorified prison camp’). This is where the rebellious streak, that came to symbolize much of his playing career, set in. The book is refreshingly open on many aspects of Andre’s personal and professional life. For example, he admits candidly that when he saw one of his contemporaries during junior days (he was a star even then), he openly declared that the boy would not even make it to top-notch tennis. That boy, of course, turned out to be Pete Sampras, later to be Agassi’s principle nemesis. Another rival that is prominent in the narrative is Boris Becker, with whom Agassi shared a particularly personal and venomous rivalry. In fact, Andre admits to having tanked a semi-final match so that he would not need to play Becker in the final (he was not at his fittest then). His playing days are otherwise well chronicled and his special moments, like winning his first slam at Wimbledon 1992 are well recreated, almost giving the reader a court-side view of the action. The book also talks at length of the relationship Andre shared with people close to him, especially his physical trainer Gil Reyes (who almost comes across as the father figure Andre wished to have) and his long-time coach Brad Gilbert.

And of course, who can forget his two high-profile romances ? ‘OPEN’ dwells at length on the Agassi-Brooke Shields relationship, both during its rise (on how they exchanged faxes across continents – no cellphones then- during their courtship) and then, during its fall (on how they drifted apart after marriage, not able to handle the stress arising from dual celebrity lives). And then comes Steffi Graf into his life (a pity that she makes her entry with three-fourths of the book done). Rather, it’s the other way around. Andre again goes into detail on how he wooed the supposedly ice-cold Ms. Graf, finally culminating in a dream marriage. Ten years on, and with two children in tow, it has indeed become a dream marriage.

On the whole, ‘OPEN’ stood out for me for being candid and for describing Andre’s journey from just another Vegas kid to the holder of all four slams. That it does so without ever resorting to self-flattery and excess glorification is indeed commendable. Credit of course, goes to Andre’s collaborator JR Moehringer, who does a great job of converting endless taped transcripts into a near 400 pages of smooth prose. Andre was not my favourite during his playing days, but after having read ‘OPEN’, I have to admit a new-found respect for the man. What more could one ask for from his memoirs ?


PS: You might ask, why a book review trilogy ? Well, simply because I have read two more fascinating books, and hope to review them next. So stay tuned…..

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Trekking resumes..

The first monsoon showers bring the Sahaydris alive. Rejuvenated by the rains, the hills take on a picturesque coat of green. And following the monsoon showers to the Sahaydris are hundreds of groups of trekkers of all ages and ability, eager to soak in the magical moments of nature at its best. Though calling myself a regular trekker would be stretching it a bit too far, I have always been wanting to go myself on some of these treks myself. I had done a handful of treks a few years back, but then the habit died a natural death. So it was wonderful to revive it yesterday when me and a few friends went to trek the Tikona fort near Lonavala.

Tikona fort is situated around 15 kms from Lonavala and is, in fact, a group of forts (Tung, Lohagad and Visapur being the others) with the Pavana lake situated almost in between them. In fact, it may be a good idea to set base at Lonavala for 3 days or so and do all treks. Anyways, coming to our trek, we started from Andheri at around 7.30 am in mostly clear weather and set off on the Expressway. After getting out at the Talegoan exit, we joined the NH4 and then moved towards the Kamshet junction. On the way we encountered a great sports cafe (of course mostly empty at the time), which was ideal to fill ourselves with aloo-paratha and omlettes and two rounds of tea. With content tummies, we approached the base of Tikona fort (a village called Tikona Peth) by around 11.30 am. The weather was fluctuating between sunny and cloudy with, unfortunately, not much sign of rain. After parking our cars outside the village temple, we set out by foot. After walking for about a couple of km, the hike started.

Oh yes, before that,something about the fort. The name Tikona actually should be Trikona (triangle in Marathi) and is so named because it is almost like a equal pyramid (hence the front view being a triangle). This means that the ascent to the fort is short but steep at places. Doing a trek after a couple of years offered me the opportunity to test my stamina and fortunately, after some initial hiccups (as a result of the burning sun and the heavy breakfast), I managed to last the distance well. The ascent is part in steps and part in trails created by fellow trekkers. After about an hour and a half of exertions, we were at the top at around 1.30 pm, which was slightly late in the day, since we saw quite a few groups who were on their way back. On the top, there is not much to see, except the fort ramparts and the mandatory temple and water tank. Another omnipresent part of the fort is the friendly locals serving 'pithla-bhakri'. This traditional rural Maharasthrian dish can be found on almost all forts and is a big hit with all trekkers. This particular family, in fact, sells almost 100 plates on a typical monsoon weekends !!. And we enjoyed in thoroughly, more so because the clouds finally opened up (through not as heavily as we wanted).

After about an hour at the top, we set to a quick descent (almost 30-45 minutes) back to the base village. By dinner time, I was back home, extremely happy to add to my limited trekking experience and promising myself to add a few more in the coming weeks.


Sunday, June 13, 2010

Heady cocktail of politics and epic, but...

In hindsight, it seems almost ridiculuous that Bollywood did not think of this mix before. Politics is, after all, an omnipresent theme in Hindi cinema, being contemporary in every generation. And then on the other hand, you have the country's greatest poem, which, of course, is all about politics and the struggle for the throne. Thus, it seems unlikely that Bollywood would never have thought of marrying the two, weaving the Mahabharata into the cesspool that is modern-day politics in India. But then, whoever would have thought of this earlier would have realized that it is not so simple as it seems. A thought that Prakash Jha can testify to. And while he gets more than full marks for attempting a mix as potent as this, in the final analysis, Rajneeti could have been better.

Prakash Jha goes back to the heartland of India and this time, rather than taking up any particular issue (unlike his earlier movies like Gangajaal and Apharan), he paints a grim, but a near-realistic picture of modern Indian politics with all its shades (violence, bribery, seduction et al..), And in doing so, he anchors his characters (a fantastic ensemble of gifted actors) in the Mahabharata, thus elevating it from just another Hindi potboiler to a story that the audience can readily identify with (and in the bargain, heightening expectations). So you have the present-day Kunti, who lets go of her new-born in order to escape social ridicule. The new born (Ajay Devgan) then grows to become a Dalit leader and a vital cog in the wheels of the political machinery. Then there are the two warring cousins, Arjun Rampal (sketchy characterization, it was none of the Pandavas) and Manoj Bajpayee (outstanding as Duryodhana), hotly contesting the rights to lead the state's premier political party in the upcoming assembly elections. There is also the all-knowing Krishna (Nana Patekar), acting almost as the narrater of the movie. And finally, you have the modern Arjuna (Ranbir Kapoor) who, like the hero in the epic, is pushed into a war he would rather not fight. But once he is into it, he plunges himself headlong into it, a war that finally culminates in him eliminating Duryodhana and, unknowing to him, his elder brother. In the end, like in the epic, he is left to savour a near-pyrrhic victory, left only with his former lady-love (Katrina Kaif in a vastly improved performance).

So does this mix work ? That is the million dollar question, In my opinion, to a large extent, it does. Lets admit it, the task in front of Jha was not simple by any means. He does give his level best and his cast gives him more than stellar support (Bajpayee, Ranbir and Nana Patekar stand out), But then, whether because of cinematic compulsions or the effort to make the movie more like epic, the script resorts to some filmy moments in the name of cinematic license. While the Kurukshetra war was certainly epic and gruesome, to make broad day-light killings of politicians (albeit regional level) so commonplace in the movie is stretching it a bit too much. So too is the gory display of blood at various points in the movie (was surprised to see only a U/A certificate). And at the end, how Ranbir Kapoor walks scot free to the US after having killed his political rivals was certainly beyond me. All in all, the movie slightly went off track in the last half an hour so. Plus, some other key moments in the Mahabharata could have been portrayed too. For e.g. to watch the Gita unfolding with Nana trying to cajole Ranbir into taking up arms would have been interesting. Here, the transformation of Arjuna is too dramatic.

But these are occasional flaws in an otherwise good movie. In the end, Rajneeti is a heady cocktail of politics and epic, but falls short of intoxicating.


Saturday, June 05, 2010

Sky gazing begins...

So the month of June is upon us. In our country, the transition from May to June does not just mean a flip of the calendar. With the arrival of June, the collective gaze of the nation is transfixed to the sky, looking to see the first glimmer of grey cloud, feel the first whiff of the south-westerly winds and, finally, hold the first droplets of the monsoon. The sky gazing has thus begun in full earnest....

The monsoons transform India perhaps like nothing else does. And no one is immune from the sky gazing. People living in the high rises in the cities await the onset of the monsoon in order to alleviate their water woes, but on the other hand, the people living besides them in slums actually dread the rains, not knowing when their homes would be flooded (memories of a July afternoon five years ago are still fresh). The civil contractors gaze at the sky and perhaps hope that the monsoons, like all things Indian, would arrive later than expected, thus giving them precious time to complete their long-delayed projects and thus escape the citizen's wrath. Teenagers welcome the arrival of the monsoon and off they go on their treks to various hills in the Sahyadris. And of course, who can forget the real India living in the rural areas ? For them, the monsoon does not sustain life, it is life itself !!!. 

The first rains transfer the landscape into a nice cover of green. The smell of the earth after the first rains is simply the most beautiful aroma one can hope to savor. And although it does bring about the occasional havoc in the cities, there is no denying it resuscitates life, quite literally, after a hot and sizzling summer.And this year, the monsoons are more important than usual. With Mumbai reeling under its worst water crisis and the rural areas having faced drought-like conditions, it remains to be seen if this season, the monsoon acts as the elixir that they always have been.

So here's praying for great monsoons (especially in the fields and the water reservoirs :))


Thursday, May 20, 2010

The years keep passing by...

So another year has gone by. Tuesday marked the completion of another year of my employment with Asian Paints, the count of which now stands at six. Needless to mention, I am now part of an extremely small minority within my MBA batchmates that are still with their first job. And I admit that I do get the occasional look of disbelief,  sometimes laced with a tinge of sympathy or fascination, when I tell people I am still attached to my first company. More often than not, the inevitable statement follows: "You must be having a near-dream job, and working in a great organization, in order to put up with it for so many years, isnt it ?". And to be very honest, I still don't know the answer to that one.

But I have wrestled with this question for quite some time : "What binds people to their jobs ?". Especially on evenings after a rough day at work, I have spent considerable time trying to come up with a reply. And of course, since I cannot speak for others, I will only answer that for myself.  Strange as it may sound, I feel what actually 'binds' me to my job is the fact that I don't bind myself to my job !!!!.. Let me explain. By this, I mean that if one treats his/her job as nothing more than a source of livelihood (उपजीविका), then one will not develop that emotional attachment with his/her current job. More importantly, there will also not be that attraction towards the greener grass outside. And therefore, all jobs (current as well as prospective) would seem the same. This is, of course, not to suggest that one should  not love his/her current job.  And I am also not talking about being disinterested or, even worse, disloyal to the job. But then, lets face it, how many of us are in the jobs that we truly want to do ??. So my mantra, don't attach undue importance to a job and you will be fine. Here I am reminded of that great Marathi personality Pu La Deshpande's words "नोकरी म्हणजे लग्नाच्या बायको सारखी, दुसरी चांगली म्हणून पहिले सोडायची नाही !!, शेवटी सगळ्या नोकरया, आणि सगळ्या बायका, सारख्याच !!!" (A job is like your wife, you don't leave her just because some one else looks good. Finally, all jobs, and all wives, are the same !!). Of course, I would also like to acknowledge my luck in getting a good employer, great compatriots and, above all, being in my home city. To be living with parents, and having most things given to me on a platter, is a joy and help one can never forget. I could not have imagined myself lasting six years if I was living alone in some other city.

Finally, I would like you sign off with the thought  (especially for those who are compulsive job changers) that if one has a life beyond a job (even at the cost of slightly less money) and finds time to pursue his other interests and ambitions, then that person is better off and will really not bother what he does, or where he works, between nine to five daily.


Saturday, May 08, 2010

Timelessness of the Epic !!

The Mahabharata continues to remain an enigma to us. Over time, I have developed more than a passing curiosity about this great epic. For me, the beauty of the epic is the fact that it is open to interpretation i.e. there is no black and white in it. And over the years, there have been multiple interpretations of the story seen through the eyes of its various characters. Refer to my earlier post regarding Duryodhan. Before and since then, I have also read other books related to the epic, notably 'Mrityunjaya' and 'Yugantaa' by Iravati Karve - that takes a matter-of-fact look at some of the events as well as views the epic from the point of view of the principal women in the epic. And each time, I learn something new about the Mahabharata.

The latest in the series of books about the Mahabharata that I am currently reading is the near provocatively titled 'The Difficulty of Being Good' by Gurcharan Das. Here, the author of India Unbound talks about his discovery of the Mahabharata over the course of his three year sabbatical in the US and how the moral questions it raised are as relevant today (though it talks less about the present than about the epic itself) . At the core of the book is Gurcharan's discussion on the true meaning of the word 'dharma' (धर्म). It brings to the fore Yudhisthir's dilemma on what the true 'duty' (synonym of 'dharma' ?) of the king is ? Whether to practice ahimsa and peace or to engage in combat if only for the benefit of his subjects ? In arguing that 'dharma is subtle', the author drives home the point that there are no easy answers to the question 'what exactly is dharma' ?' The book also talks at length about Arjuna's despair when he is forced to take up arms against his own elders. Another interesting essay from the book is regarding Karna's status anxiety. Here the author argues that all of us suffer from some sort of status anxiety that often frequently results in us making the incorrect choices (as when Karna sides with Duryodhan just to get his place amongst the kshatriyas), sometimes with disastrous consequences. All in all, an interesting book and a must-read for all those who are into the Mahabharata at more than a superficial level.

To add to the 're-discovery' of the epic comes Prakash Jha's forthcoming movie 'Rajneeti'. Said to be the story of Mahabharata applied to contemporary Indian politics, it sure promises a lot. Of course, Prakash Jha is not the first one to get inspired by the epic. Nearly three decades ago, Shyam Benegal had made an all-star cast 'Kalyug' that set the Mahabharata in the corporate world (with Shashi Kapoor playing the unfortunate Karan/Karna). At the time, it may have got lost in the parallel cinema movement and hence not endeared itself to the general public. Hopefully, Rajneeti will not suffer a similar fate. I, for one, would be queuing up at the ticket counter (sigh, these days there is no such thing, Book My Show takes care of everything !!). And I hope to be back real soon with the movie review.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

Local v/s national ?

So, are local loyalties more pronounced than national loyalties ?? I have put this question as my status update on Facebook, but felt it deserved some more elaboration, hence writing a few lines. The genesis of this is, of course, the IPL. As I watched the Mumbai Indians display another patchy batting performance and lose, I felt the same feeling as when India loses, but, surprisingly so, the magnitude of that feeling was higher. As a supporter, it probably pained me more to see MI lose than to see India lose. (In fact, i had raised the same issue two years ago in my cricket blog, Read it here).

Which then, bought me to the next question. A question, that I feel, is more relevant than the question above. And that is: Why do I support the Mumbai Indians in the first place ??. For starters, the team is just a franchise that happens to have my city's name in its team name. Beyond that, there is hardly anything to link them to Mumbai. Excepting, of course, that their captain is a true-blue Mumbaikar and their owners have made the city their 'karmabhoomi'. But apart from Sachin, none of the XI yesterday can claim to be a bonafide Mumbaikar (Zaheer was born near Aurangabad and has played for Baroda in the past). To put the question in another way, had this team been called 'Reliance XI' for instance, would it have received the same support at the Brabourne last weekend ? I wonder. To me, it is those six letters in the team name that stand for my city that give the team my support. In that sense, the IPL has pulled off a masterstroke by calling them 'city-based' franchises rather than 'club teams'. The dilemma would be even more pronounced next season, when, in all probability, Pune and Kochi will have hardly a couple, if any, local players in their team !! So will a Punekar or Kochiite support their teams ? They still will, because the city and its fans have been tied unextricably to this team solely by adding the city name in the team.

Till that time, here's offering more of my support to the MUMBAI Indians !!...


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Where are those serials today ?

Have been away from the blogging scene for a quite while, but yesterday, the thoughts (and words) could not be held back.

It happened thus: 

A typical scene in most middle-class families these days, and no different at our place. We were having dinner yesterday watching, as usual, the Marathi soap operas (given that we stick to having dinner together, Marathi serials - which my parents prefer - score over the IPL as well !!!). Anyways, the scene in the prime-time serial was this: the typical joint family (the patriarch, sons, bahus, grand children et all) are celebrating on the eve of their grand-daughter's wedding. Then, as it so often happens, disaster strikes. It turns out that, unknowing to the others, one of the sons has taken a business loan with the family house as security. When the business fails, the money lender arrives at the door telling them to vacate the place. The usual melodrama follows: the son is ostracized, the patriarch collapses in grief etc. etc. Quite the typical soap opera you would say, typical in any language. Even during the breaks, the trailer of another serial showed a person threatening another on the phone, warning him of dire consequences once he breaks free from jail et et.

Now why am I narrating all this ? This is definitely not a tirade against the quality of today's TV serials. But just that yesterday, my eight year-old niece was also watching all of the above, and about as intently as anyone else. Quite what her mind made of all this I do not know, but looking at her, I moved back in time about two decades ago. At a time when I was about as old as she is today, or slightly older. And I tried to recollect what kind of television programmes we used to see then. And the difference was stark. And I fondly recollected one serial that was made specifically for people of my age then: secondary school-going children. The serial was 'Sanskaar'. Set in the famous King George school in Dadar and starring Mohan Joshi as the Principal Ballal, this delightful serial showed how a school, provided it was guided by the right person with the right ideas, could inculcate strong values in the children. It had characters of all kinds: the cane-happy teacher, the upper-class and well-off child, students from the poorer sections of society, variety of parents etc. And it did not resort to sermonising. It connected big time with its primary audience: school-going children like me and their parents. No wonder I looked forward to watching it every week.

The point that I am trying to make is that while we complain that today's kids watch too much of cartoons etc, do we really ask ourselves: What other alternatives do they have ? How much of television today tries to address the future generation by communicating the right kinds of messages in a way their minds can easily understand ? Except for reality shows, there is hardly anything a kid can look forward to (and we all know the other controversies the reality shows create !). What about some good old-fashioned serials for a change ? Serials like 'Sanskaar' and, for example, 'Bharat Ek Khoj' (surely no better way to teach Indian history ?) are the order of the day. But the question is, will the television production houses listen ????


PS: I have shared on my FaceBook profile, the wonderful title song of 'Sanskaar' (by Sudhir Phadke).

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Call of the Wild !!

A couple of weekends ago, I was in Nagpur to attend a family wedding (my first taste of the big fat Indian wedding - ceremonies all through the weekend, lavish resorts, a few thousand attendees at the reception etc etc.). Anyways, that is not the point of this post. Getting to Nagpur (which has, believe it or not, a spot that marks the geographical center of India) gave me the chance to go visit one of the several wildlife sanctuaries that are not more than a few hours drive from the place. After evaluating the options (Kanha, Tadoba etc), we finally settled on a visit to Pench National Park (about 90 kms from Nagpur on the Maharashtra - MP border).

It seems that the best chance of seeing animals in the wild is in the morning safari, so that is what we decided on. This involved starting from Nagpur at around 4 am (in the February cold), sipping hot chai on the way and making sure we reached the park by around 6.30 am. When we reached, the open-air jeeps were already lined up, ready to cross the gate and into the wild. After paying for the entrance and the jeep (I believe 750 bucks each), the nine of us got ourselves into two jeeps. And once the jeeps entered the park, a wave of emotions swept through the body (especially since it was the first time I was in an open jeep in the jungle). There was, of course, excitement (after all, don't all of us want to get in the shoes of the guys on NatGeo n all ?) and fear (to think of what would happen if a tiger happened to cross the road ?). But on that day, it was the feeling of getting frozen that dominated everything else. Although it was early morning, the cold temperature (must have been around 7-8 C) and the open jeep made us especially cold.

The initial hour or so was pretty uneventful. Most of if was spent seeing deer, monkeys and the odd jackal. The other jeeps that were doing the rounds also did not have better luck. Information related to the possible whereabouts of the big striped cat was being exchanged regularly (to put in perspective, about 290 sq km of the park is open to tourists and it is said to house 22 tigers, so the chances of seeing one were actually not that great). After about an hour and half, with patience thinning, we got to hear the news that a couple of tigers had been sighted (by forest officials on elephant who navigate the thick interiors of the jungle). So , after a small break, promptly the jeeps went in that direction. After going as close as the jeep would take us, we then moved over to the elephants. Then the elephants went inside the vegetation to find the resting tigers (they had, apparently, hunted the previous day and hence could be counted on to behave themselves ;-). After around 10 minutes or so, we finally got our money's worth !!. Hidden amongst the bushes were three of the 22 tigers in the national park !!. I could make out that one was still feeding while the other two, at some distance away (tigers are generally not social animals). The excitement in our camp was palpable. Of course, the elephant and tiger did not come too close for comfort but we did get those precious few minutes to savor our encounter with the tiger in the wild (at just about 30 feet or so ;-).

The day's objective being achieved (and we were told later that we were quite lucky - people have gone there thrice or so and returned back empty-handed each time), everything that followed was almost an anti-climax. But we did get to see a lot of peacocks, sambhar etc etc. That included a wonderful moment when a peacock glided from one side of a small lake to the other: I did not know peacocks could glide that far. The flora was also very good, most notable amongst them were the so-called 'ghost trees' which are so-named because in the dark, their white trunks give them a ghostly appearance.

After about 3.5 hrs of travelling we finally arrived back and where we started. I personally was delighted with my first experience in then wild and will definitely visit some other and more famous wildlife parks.


Saturday, January 30, 2010

Natrang : Movie Review

As mentioned in my last post, Marathi movies have, of late, been refreshingly different in their themes, the issues they address and the stories they tell. The first release of this decade was 'Natrang' directed by Ravi Jadhav. I saw the movie last Sunday in a packed mutiplex screen at Goregoan with my wife and parents (a complete family outing after a lonnnggg time !!) and came out highly impressed.

The movie opens with an award ceremony (sponsored by Zee Marathi no less - the producers of the movie !!). An ageing Gunya (Atul Kulkarni) is offered the lifetime award for his contribution to the dance form of 'Lavni' (traditional rural Maharashtrian dance form). As he accepts the award to a standing ovation, his mind goes back in time to his roots, a small village near Kolhapur.....

A place where a virile and muscular Gunya works as a daily labourer in the fields. He has a family to tend to (his old father, wife and a son) but visualizes himself as his own master, never to bow down to anyone. And his pet addiction is the 'Lavni', where a lot of his hard-earned money is spent, much to the chagrin of his family. Finally one day, when he loses his job due to mechanization, he dreams of starting a Lavni group with his other jobless friends. They soon realize that the heart of the lavni group is the lady dancer. After finally getting Naina (the beautiful cat-eyed Sonalee Kulkarni - different from the Sonali Kulkarni seen in Dil Chahata Hai,Mission Kashmir etc), they think that they are all set to go. But then she drops a condition - the group should also have a 'Nachya' (the traditional character in a Lavni who is a man dressed as a girl and who provides the comic relief in between the narrative). After no-one else agrees to play Nachya for obvious reasons, its finally Gunya who turns himself into Nachya. A 'pehelwan' who dreamt of being the king of the Lavni group is reduced to playing the feminine Nachya !!.

The rest of the movie is a commentary on the social prejudices at the time. Almost universally is Nachya reduced to the butt of jokes and ridicule. As his act and the group become bigger by the day, he finds it more and more difficult to get out of Nachya's body. His father dies heartbroken, his wife and kid leave him. Even his companion Naina refuses to marry a Nachya. All alone, he yearns for freedom. He also becomes a pawn of local politician-thugs, ultimately ending in a chilling sequence where Nachya is 'raped'. Having lost everything, he slowly rises from the ashes and wins everything back, finally culminating in him winning the lifetime award and complete respect from society.

While Ravi Jadhav has done a commendable job in handling a difficult subject (based on a novel by Dr. Anand Yadav - and it was nice to see due credit being given right at the start ;-), the two stars of 'Natrang' are Ajay-Atul (the music composers) and, of course, Atul Kulkarni. The music transports the listener back to the Lavni era, albeit with a modern touch. Most songs are current chart-busters (generous credit for which goes to Zee for its incessant promotion on its channels) and I particularly loved the title song. Ajay-Atul (who have recently entered Bollywood) are certainly a name for the future. The only grouse that I had with the movie was that the end was far too abrupt. Nachya / Gunya's journey towards redemption could have been detailed - it directly went to the award ceremony.

And finally, Atul Kulkarni excels in the role of a lifetime. Non-Marathi readers will remember him as the right-wing Laxman Prasad in 'Rang De Basanti', the wronged Muslim doctor in 'Khakee' and the crime reporter of 'Page 3'. Remember his thin frame at the time ?
Well, the man went through a rigorous routine (that lasted for a few months) in which he first gained muscles and weight (about 16 odd kgs) to play the masculine pehelwan Gunya in the first half, and then lost all of it in order to look the feminine Nachya. Needless to say, this meant that he was working full-time on this project only (word has it that he refused Mani Ratnam and Ram Gopal Verma, amongst others, because he could not work on any other movie). A small aside here: he was trained by Shailesh Parulekar, whose gym I go to, so I am personally proud to see the transformation (though it is definitely not the healthiest thing to do !!). But finally, it is said that the results justify the means. And the results are definitely mind-blowing !! Of course, it is not all about the body-transformation. Witness the scene where his fellow group member makes a pass at him, after which Nachya, desperately trying to break free, suddenly starts doing 'surya-namaskars' and then breaks down. That one scene is enough for the audience to be convinced of Atul's acting abilities.

If not for anything else. Natrang is watchable as a tribute to one of the finest contemporary actors around.


PS: Natrang is running with English sub-titles in select theaters in Mumbai.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Natrang : Another step in the right direction for Marathi cinema !!...

Till about a few years back, Marathi cinema was, to put it bluntly in a word, dying. Of the little movies that were made, most were of the slap-stick comedy variety and the very few different films that were made suffered due to lack of publicity. The Marathi public had generally shown their back to Marathi cinema, resulting in the chicken-and-egg problem of low audience, reduced number of screenings leading to still lower audiences (not to mention the advent of the multiplex, we middle-class Maharashtrians are thrifty when it comes to spending 100+ bucks in a mutliplex :-)). Till 2004, only one Marathi movie had won the Golden Lotus at the National Awards, and that was way back in 1954 ('Shyaam chi Aai') !!

Things probably began to change in 2003. Then 'Shwaas' happened. It won the Golden Lotus award and then went to the Oscars. And the publicity it gained on account of this led to a revival of interest in Marathi cinema. And most importantly, the money started coming in. Theaters like Plaza and Bharatmata (bastions of Marathi cinema) came back from near extinction (in fact, there is a movement to save Bharatmata from being razed down to make way for a multiplex). Along with the money came the publicity. Simultaneously, channels like Zee Marathi, E TV etc started becoming popular, creating a vital publicity medium for new releases. New talent came in (e.g. composers like Ajay-Atul), bringing with them new ideas. No longer were Marathi movies only about wise-cracks. Then recently came two breakthroughs: 'Harishchandra chi Factory' became India's entry to the Oscars and last week, Marathi cinema bagged five awards at the National Film festival, including best actor for Upendra Limaye.

To add to this feeling of optimism is 'Natrang', the very first Marathi release this decade. And it has been a spectacular success (going by the full houses at multiplexes past Sunday, when I saw the movie). Will post a review of the movie soon, but for now, suffices to say that if this continues, there is no reason for Marathi cinema not to regain its glory days (V Shantaram, Prabhat Movies etc) and claim its place besides Bengali and the movies from the South as one of India's premier movie industry. Way to go !!

Check out ... an informative and comprehensive look at today's Marathi movie industry.