Monthly Archives: August 2010

The Madras-Chennai Local Presents “First Shorts”

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Now in its second instalment, The Madras-Chennai Local — an occasional arts festival that I co-curate with Sajani Ganapathy Murugan — is proud to present “First Shorts”, a screening of short debut films by seven filmmakers.

Sunday, August 29 2010

6.30pm

Spaces, 1 Eliots Beach Road, Besant Nagar, Chennai

(last house facing the beach, on the opposite end to Vailankanni Church)

The films are:

“Nanbaa” by Rohin
“Ore Oru Naal” by Abhilasha
“And she flies” by Mugil
“Penn Vesham” by Prasanna
“Tripura” by Neha Sharma
“The Colour of Sound” by Rathindran Prasad
“Missing” by V. Sree Mohan

Films are subtitled in English, and some of the filmmakers will be present for an interactive discussion.

You can RSVP on Facebook if you like. All are welcome!

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Guest Column, iDiva: Food In Film

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The sweet, underrated magic realist film Woman On Top is probably best known for the image of Penelope Cruz associated with it: a sultry gaze at the camera, a bright chilly poised tantalizingly close to her lips. Yes, we get it: food is sexy, sexy, sexy – this philosophy is thrown at us in everything from advertising that uses the suggestive forms of fruits to imply other ripeness to the lust and aggression that propel cooking-based reality shows. And it is, of course. Sexy, that is. Hunger, in both its desiring and satiating stages, is just as physical as sex. But food is also equally as psychological and – let’s just say it – equally as emotional.

In life as in cinema, there are piners and there are bingers. Food is emotional not just because, paired as it is with the supreme mnemonic of smell, it is full of memories and rituals (the ritual of a family meal, a first date, the food associated with occasions), but also because our relationship with it is affected by our relationships with other people. Some people, arguably, sublimate the sex drive into the appetite, giving rise to the erotically charged sequences of the also magical Like Water For Chocolate, in which a family’s youngest daughter, by decree of tradition, must remain unmarried and take care of her parents – which results in a recipe of forbidden lust, envy and voodoo victuals. Some use it to enhance their erotic lives, as in Tampopo’s use of an unbroken egg yolk in a tricky kiss or the ubiquitous Chocolat, in which a beautifully androgynous Johnny Depp is seduced by a maker of that most famous aphrodisiac of all. In Chungking Express, a brokenhearted Takeshi Kaneshiro compulsively devours canned pineapples, having decided that on the date on which his stockpile expires, he will either have been reunited with his love, or lost her forever.

The converse is also true – the master chef patriarch of Eat Drink Man Woman loses his sense of taste, until he is able to make peace with his widowering and his daughters’ lives. The same goes for Tortilla Soup, a Mexican-American remake of the Taiwanese original. Food is identifiably cultural, but responses to it are identifiably universal.

Of course, sometimes craving is uncomplicated. Who can forget modern cinema’s most iconic food-sex parallel: when a virginal high school senior is caught making sweet, sweet love to a pastry in American Pie? Or even Jamón Jamón, which first paired Cruz with Javier Bardem, in which a pork-loving delivery boy turns gigolo against a backdrop of cured meats, double entendres and even a soda-can wedding ring.

Drinking, strangely, seems to have has less cinema devoted to its pleasures, but the likes of Sideways, Bottle Shock, Autumn Tale and A Walk in the Clouds certainly do justice to the wonderful world of wineries. For those on diets of two highly-compatible vices, Coffee and Cigarettes brings the triumvirate to a neat convergence with the third C: conversation (the fourth, cancer, I’ll leave to preachier types).

Which brings us back to why Woman On Top is underrated. Quirkily spiritual and hopelessly romantic, Cruz’s domestic goddess cannot help but long for her philandering husband. Her otherworldly culinary skills are muffled in her loneliness. What’s more important – the meal or who it’s shared with?

It’s not always the saccharine answer that’s the best one. The way to a man’s heart, the saying goes, is through his stomach. But all goddesses are gluttons, and for many of us, our hearts are our stomachs. And in heartache and in heartburn, we’ll take good care of them.

An edited version appeared in Times of India’s IDiva supplement today. A previous guest column in this supplement can be read here.

Book Review: Aamer Hussein’s Insomnia

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There is only one problem with “Nine Postcards from Sanlucar de Barrameda”, the exquisite introductory story of Aamer Hussein’s collection on dislocation, travel and binding ties. In snippets of monologue rendered with the subtle elegance of watercolours, a Pakistani man in Andalucía revisits the thought of an erstwhile beloved, seeing their ghost in every glass and fragrance. The perfect pitch, devoid of overt sentimentality, of his lingering ache sets the bar for the rest of Insomnia high – too high.

That precision never again quite surfaces in the book. Although several of the remaining pieces in this slim collection of seven stories have their own pleasing qualities, nothing as memorable or as stirring occurs again. The story that immediately follows “Nine Postcards from Sanlucar de Barrameda” suffers especially. The sophomoric romance of “Crane Girl”, about a student in London who falls for a moody Japanese girl, dulls in comparison to the richness of the preceding piece. But this is also because the adolescent voice is not the author’s strong point, as “The Lark”, about a student Nawabzada from Karachi (exoticised in Britain as “the Black Prince”) who is about to set sail back to an undivided India, confirms. There is something under-developed about Hussein’s younger characters, and it is not because they themselves have yet to mature. Throughout the book, all of his protagonists come from a certain elite cosmopolitan background, but where his adults are skillfully rendered in their accumulated worldliness, jadedness and emotional complexities, their younger versions come across as shallow, their motivations uninteresting.

Nowhere is this clearer than when “Crane Girl”’s protagonist, Murad, makes a reappearance in the eponymous story, now a globetrotting intellectual, that character niche at which Hussein is most skilled in his rendering. In this instance, as with all his melancholy adult artists and scholars, the story is executed with charm and believability. When the adult Murad, speaking to an Indonesian poetess in Italy, summons the memory of trespassing a peach orchard at age twenty, it’s hard to believe that this is the same character who had proved so facile in “Crane Girl”.

Writers are frequent protagonists in this collection, most notably in the excellent “The Angelic Disposition”, in which the subversive author S.S. Farouqi grieves the loss of a contemporary, whose friendship had sustained her spirits and her work. This is the book’s other standout tale – it is scaffolded by its historical context of Partition and military censorship yet avoids becoming overwhelmed by it. Similarly in “Hibiscus Days”, in which a translator contemplates his deceased friend, colleague and rival, and the time a small group of Pakistani academics shared in the 1980’s, commuting between continents together and apart. The world of Hussein’s strongest characters is a finely-etched one: dynamic with journeys, conversations and layered emotion. Besides these three stories, “The Book of Maryam”, about a feminist poet – another friend of Murad’s – reading poorly-received political work to an audience in the West, is an almost sly interlude, almost a statement on Hussein’s own mellow touch. It is not the strident characters who remain with us as we leave the book.

Insomnia is, at its best, a wistful meditation on what it means to be of a certain class of global citizens – of a diaspora that may well find the term itself outdated – and it stands out at a time when the postcolonial hangover still hasn’t quite retired its hold on the subcontinent’s literary output. Its more successful characters, by and large, are past that. It is not cultural angst that plagues them, but something more timeless and delicate, profoundly intimate yet recognizably universal.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.

The Venus Flytrap: The Unbirthday

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In January, I had a deep weep session – in anticipation of the end of July. The event I was dreading was an annual affair that I had never before not looked forward to, or celebrated, or otherwise been excited by. Yet there I was, seven months from it and already filled with an unprecedented sense of panic.

My unamused older friends thought this was way too much drama to turn, as one of them put it, one year older in puppy years. Only, through the runny mascara-streaked lenses of my anxiety and alarm, it was very clear to me that it was people years I was dealing with. And 25 in people years was an absolute shock.

Leos can’t help but announce their birthdays. Birthdays combine the best of the famously leonine generousity and the equally famous leonine narcissism: stroke my ego, and I shall smother you with really excellent cake. So I did announce it. Variously, I made passive-aggressive statements about aging disgracefully and how any visiting wise men were welcome to bringeth Stolichnaya from the East, Sampoerna from the East Indies and… something from Easter Island (the clever quip got quashed by the questionable lack of cheer). And just as I do every year, I bought myself way too many beautiful things, “for my birthday” – only this time I was simply channeling my distress into retail therapy, not just exploiting a damn good excuse to the fullest. Especially reproachable behaviour considering that since I spent the day itself holed up at home writing, and then indulged a most unglamourous KFC craving, none of those accouterments saw the light of (birth)day anyway.

But that’s okay. The only thing better than being the birthday girl is being the unbirthday girl.

An unbirthday party is where Alice met the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Dormouse in Wonderland. An unbirthday party was what I had, the first one a week ahead of the big day, when a couple of friends down the coastline whom I had definitely spent some time wandering in rabbit holes with called up one morning and said, “We’re half an hour to Mahabs. Have lunch with us.” You could say I am presently in the midst of an unbirthday series.

I could bore you at length about just why hitting 25 had me so stressed, but as I discovered between that curveball realization in January and my birthday, this was textbook quarter-life crisis behaviour. Only, being an overachiever, I ran smack into it five whole years before it was due. Many told me they’d experienced it themselves before turning thirty; it coincides with what in astrology is called the Saturn Return (yup, in Western astrology as in Tamil curses, Saturn is one and the same). Most also said that a sequence of Mad Tea Parties was the only known remedy.

Knowing all of this was right on track did make me feel a little better. I’m even quite cool about what is supposed to be the real bugaboo, the big three oh, considering that I seem to have mostly exhausted my quota of quarter-life angst. Besides, as one hedonist friend put it, if there’s any number that people who frequent Mad Tea Parties should worry about, it’s 27 (just ask Janis or Jimi). Which is… oh oh.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: The Compulsive Creator

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In the age of the Twitter trending topic, nothing exalts the artist quite like death. When Dennis Hopper, Hollywood maverick and counterculture icon, died a few months ago, this happened in a more interesting way than usual: not only was Hopper remembered for his work in cinema, but a resurgence of curiosity in his photography was sparked. Lauded for half a century as an actor, director and screenwriter, his work with still film – although widely published – came as news to many.

Hopper taught himself photography at 25, and expertly chronicled Americana and the art(ists) of that generation. His subjects included his friends – Paul Newman, Andy Warhol, Tuesday Weld, Ed Rushcha – but mostly, a certain milieu and moment. A self-described “compulsive creator”, Hopper was not unlike many artists, who visibly succeed in one field, but whose body of work runs along several parallel tracks.

What the audience receives is distillation; in the artist’s life, these tracks converge. Back when I first began to develop an Internet presence, I perhaps injudiciously let my bios tip over in their exuberance, listing the various things I did: dance, painting, photography, theatre and (oh yeah) writing. This was meant without conceit, for truly, I was passionate about all of those things, and had yet to understand the benefits of streamlining. Writing was not the first love, only the most extant.

In the same way, it took years for me to think of myself as a poet (instead of as a fiction writer who sometimes wrote poems). When I stumbled into journalism at 16, I did so thinking it a lesser form, with not a shred of the admiration I have for non-fiction now! But now I’m a manquée novelist, a dabbler in many things, but mostly a writer of poetry and non-fiction. Art must necessarily be incidental in a life fully lived (the ash of a life that burns well, as Cohen – who himself was a bard turned balladeer – put it). Recognition is even more secondary, and what one becomes recognized for is almost arbitrary.

Then there’s the question of money. The starving artist is increasingly something of an anachronism: art requires money, be it to buy time, materials, or enough to eat so that the spiritual hunger supersedes the visceral one. So, knowing that both terms of recognition and market value are vagaries, at what point does one become a sellout? At the point of commercial success, or at the point of intention?

Still, the life of a piece of art cannot be charted at the outset. Even sincere intentions can be diverted. Tamra Davis, director of a new film about the legendary Jean-Michel Basquiat, says that toward the end of his life Basquiat was saddened when friends would sell his gifts, if they contained his artwork. They valued it less than their buyers, or their giver.

In some ways nearly everything I do, creatively, is a vanity project. But some things are more likely to succeed than others (and what does success mean? Ah, perhaps another time…). I find the best way to balance ambition with humility is to go back to the naïveté with which I proclaimed all my many passions: to do all of it, love all of it, and then let it go, allowing it to become what it will.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.