Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Amplitude Vs Magnitude

Latitude & Longitude are invariably constricting

Verisimilitude is only an illusion

Attitude is highly susceptible

Aptitude is intrinsically self-centered

Altitude can be dizzying

Fortitude demands enactment

Gratitude becomes part of give and take

Rectitude is relative

Solitude is liberating

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Twain on stage, albeit off the Mark

"Mark Twain: Live in Bombay!"

Written by Gabriel Emanuel
Staged by Padatik-Rikh

Photo courtesy: India Today

At the outset, thanks to Gabriel for the wonderful reimagination of an actual event that dates back to the Bombay of 1896. It's always easy to pinpoint subjective flaws in hindsight but it takes both craft and conviction for a purposeful recreation rooted in history. Twain's three-month visit to India was essentially a plan to recoup the heavy losses he and his investors incurred from his failed enterprise and yet it was profound in the manner Twain captured the India of that time in his 712-page travelogue Following the Equator, and the effect he had on the people here. That a voyage to a deprived nation should stem from an economic necessity is a story worthy of dramatization, and given Twain's wit and wisdom, a tale for posterity indeed. Gabriel's adaptation hence assumes greater significance, in that it urges the audience, Indians in particular, to look back and learn more about the peculiarities of India from Twain's perceptive quips. The more you delve deep, the more you would agree nothing much has changed here, even though a lot appears to have.

Vinay Sharma's version of Samuel Longhorne Clemens - white suit, untidy hair, shaggy eyebrows, furrowed face, probing eyes, nasal drawl et al - is engaging in flashes - especially in the parts where Mark spares his inimitable tongue-in-cheek advice for the youth of the time, or makes a few perceptive 'India' observations. But ahead of Sharma's effort, though a feat of sorts given that he pervaded the stage for a good ninety minutes, it's Sudip Sanyal's astute lighting that spins more magic through its wonderful variations. Just to cite an instance, note the 'illumination' of the book atop the table at the very end, as if speaking on Mark's behalf: "Mark my words as you leave the auditorium".

Sharma is first-rate in his personification but you hardly feel he's addressing a Bombay crowd of a bygone era. We may be wrong but we heard 'Mark' make a mention of his wife's demise in the play. If she was alive during the Bombay visit (Twain reportedly traveled with his wife Olivia, daughter and a colleague, Mr. Smythe) why should this reference find a place in the script?

Besides, Sharma's talk unknowingly takes the form of a know-all sermon as he moves from one handpicked reference to the other, and is hardly consistent with the acquired diction and intonation. (The 'Baaambay' gets a bit put-on at times) This comes as a great disappointment when we learn that Twain preferred an informal, conversational style for his talks which he referred to as "At Home." An essay titled 'Mark Twain's Little Known Travels in India' published in the April 1996 web magazine edition of the Hawaii-based Hinduism Today informs us that Twain tailored each talk to suit the sensibilities of the given audience. A Bombay newspaper had this to say about Twain's Bombay lecture "With his feet planted some distance apart and a hand sometimes in his trousers' pockets, elbow sometimes placed against his cheek and supported by the other arm whilst his eyes oftener than not gazed as he would in the presence of a group of familiar friends and never once raised his voice above a conversational pitch."

Sharma's rendering is not even remotely "At Home". It even sounds glaringly rehearsed in one longish, over-vehement Pap-Huck enactment, a passage from Twain's profound work "Huckleberry Finn" (No wonder, Hemingway famously remarked "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.")

Sadly, Sharma goes overboard both as Pap and Huck, but the crown for his most fanciful portrayal must go to the 'Golden arm' narration. This being a rather preposterous folktale condemning the perils of avarice (one that faintly reminds you of Tagore's Lost Jewels), winning the listener's attention called for more zing than what Sharma assumed. Luckily for him, he was helped by many flashy enthusiasts among the audience who seemed keen, nay desperate, to underline their incredibly-timed guffaws as living proof of their gushing intellect and interest. The 'Golden Arm' bit was God sent for this tribe and, not surprisingly, fetched a thundering applause.

While we feel audience involvement as volunteers is a great idea, it runs the risk of fanning the inherent desire of many craving for their moment of glory, which could disturb the play's conviction if not dilute it. Thankfully, the volunteer chosen for the occasion (with the customary preface "That lovely lady in so and so dress") didn't add her own histrionics to Sharma's ghastly rendering of the ghost story. In the play on Einstein, one frisky remark 'You remind me of my first wife' prompted a needless response from the volunteer and ended up trivialising the story of Einstein. As it is, for a large part of the audience, watching a play on Einstein/Mark is more a staged exhibition of their 'intellectual' propensities than an earnest desire to know the scientist/writer better. It should come as no surprise if they pounce on anything that even remotely sounds frivolous.

However hard one tries to dismiss the temptation, one is inclined to compare Sharma's Mark with Naseer's Einstein. The latter was a vastly superior portrayal and left enough to savour long after Naseer was done with it. Thanks to Naseer's studied approach - an intricate mix of discipline and discretion, intuition and insight, effort and facility - Einstein came alive on stage through an engaging monologue with his audience that underlined Einstein's diverse emotions - delight, despondency, reminiscence, regret, fear, fulfilment, belief, bewilderment, guilt, and gullibility. Sharma would do well to learn from Naseer's reflective utterances of the celebrated Einstein aphorisms (with a delightful German twang), undoubtedly a case study in effortless acting. Playing legends on screen and stage is more about bearing the weight of responsibility, not throwing that of authority.

The flip side of the Padatik production notwithstanding, it was great to note the almost full house that greeted Mark Twain at Prithvi. We hope Gabriel Emanuel's love for Mark Twain will motivate the younger populace to probe deeper into the reflective realism of Huck Finn, mesmerising romanticism of Tom Sawyer and piercing pessimism of The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson. Else, much of Twain's timeless works would remain classics as he defined them: books that people praise and don't read!

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

October in April

Hats off to writer Juhi Chaturvedi and director Shoojit Sircar for giving us October minus the heat. The narrative is indeterminate by design. This story of love, fidelity, redemption or something else depending on how you interpret it, takes root in a hospital ward, blooms amid urine pouches and jasmine flowers, and is almost oblivious to the din of intimidating equipment, constant medical intervention, and even the plight of helpless kin. The wonderful support cast and veritable hotel and hospital backdrops make October immensely watchable, so do Varun Dhawan and Banita Sandhu. The former happily takes off his 'student of the year' robes and the latter trusts her eyes to do the needful. That the story demands it is another story.

Not everything about the film is convincing, certainly not the overdone brashness of Varun's hotel intern character. The liberty he enjoys - both at the hotel and hospital - is a deliberate directorial ploy to plug in 'JUST FOR LAUGHS' moments in an end-to-end sombre film. But what the film conveys in mute frames, and through everyday dialogues of everyday characters, more than condones the indulgence of a few implausible scenes.

A review of October is truly besides the point, as any attempt to distill Chaturvedi’s script into illuminating lines would prove futile. This is a film for viewing and ruminating. And without a thought to the media buzz about its alleged inspiration - the 2013 sci-fi flick "Her". True or untrue, why should we bother?

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

The Twain Shall Meet (apologies to Kipling)

Naseeruddin Shah’s portrayal of Einstein should have made Canadian-born poet and playwright Gabriel Emanuel a household name in India. That it didn’t tells a lot about the sorry state of theatre in India. The customary attendance at Prithvi and NCPA, more often than not, is more of an intellectual pendant flaunted by the elitist SoBo brigade (and their deprived and desperate cousins from distant suburbs). Their applause, barring few exceptions, largely smacks of a theatrical love for theatre (befitting, they would claim). Having said that, the play was hailed by critics as Mumbai’s topmost stage production in 2014. That’s no mean achievement, thanks to the celestial, long-distance chemistry between Emanuel and Naseer that left audiences of all makes enthralled. Einstein is Emanuel’s most popular play that premiered at Toronto in 1985. Translated into more than a dozen languages, it has had a great run across the globe, winning accolades in the US, Brazil, Portugal, Israel, Argentina, Spain, India, Pakistan, Dubai among other nations.

Refer to for a NCPA show review and a dated tete-a-tete with the dramatist

Emanuel is back in India, bringing us Samuel Clemens, or Mark Twain as we know him better, in what promises to be another delectable stage offering. Following the premiere at the Prithvi on April 21, two shows are scheduled at the Padatik Theatre in Calcutta on April 24 and 29. A tour to other cities is in the works.

Being a lonely molecule, disillusioned at that, I am not adequately qualified to promote the play, more so after having made a royal mess of all private relations (blame my brief stint in public relations)

But I sincerely appeal to a few quintessential mavericks to go watch the play, if they are not aware already, and spread the good word in their circle of influence, based on a rather elusive rapport I share with them, having had some delightful email and text conversations on a host of issues - from Kosambi to Kishore Kumar, from Ray to Renoir, from Shaw to Shakespeare, from Bicycle Thieves to Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.

Among them, Manohar Parrikar, CM Goa who is currently in the US for treatment but sill very much accessible, Amar Ambani, partner at IIFL Wealth and a dear friend, actor director Naseeruddin Shah, star actor Aamir Khan, offbeat actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Ray biographer Andrew Robinson, Ray's photographer Nemai Ghosh, actor-psychiatrist Dr Mohan Agashe, film makers Tigmanshu Dhulia and Mansoor Khan, and a few casting directors from Mumbai.

Excerpts of my conversation with the prolific playwright:

After Einstein, what drew you to Twain, or to India, or perhaps both at the same time?

Ironically, I was drawn to Twain before Einstein. Years ago, I had written a one actor play entitled “Mark Twain in the Holy Land” which was about Twain’s visit to Palestine in 1867 which he wrote about in The Innocents Abroad. The play was to appear at a festival in Jerusalem but at the last minute the actor was lured away by an expensive film contract and the play got shelved. After watching Einstein at the Prithvi Theatre a few years ago, I suddenly recalled that Twain had also been to India and wrote about it in "Following the Equator”. Whereas the Palestine of the 19th century he had found to be desolate and mournful, India, for Twain, was “the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty of splendour and rags of palaces and hovels of a thousand religions and two million gods, the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of speech, the mother of history, grandmother of legend, the one land that all men desire to see…”

I was struck by Twain’s fascination with India and knew that this time, the play was meant to be. And no better place for the play to premiere but at the Prithvi Theatre. Indeed, I was amazed to discover that while Twain was touring around Bombay, he stopped to give an entertaining public lecture at the Novelty Theatre on January 24, 1896. Who knows? Perhaps the Novelty was the Prithvi of its day. And so, my play imagines what that magical evening must have been like…

What was your key source for the research - was it Twain's ‘Following the Equator’ besides books and chronicles about him?

Yes, to all the above but more important, perhaps, was simply having been a dedicated reader of Mark Twain since my youth. In Twain I had felt a kind of kindred spirit for I had been quite an unreformed rebel in my youth and Twain’s inimitable disdain for all those who exercised power and authority resonated well with me and my kind.

What makes Twain's visit to India a story for posterity, was it the fact that it was essentially a plan to recoup the heavy losses he and his investors incurred from his failed enterprise and yet it was profound in the manner Twain captured the India of that time in his memoir and the effect he had on the people here.

First of all, I think it’s always fun to see ourselves as others, in particular great wits like Twain’s, see us. For example, and I’m purposely not giving away anything here, when he describes the “spectacle” of the great train station in Bombay he says that “it seemed like the whole world was present, half of it inside and the other half outside…and both halves bearing mountainous head loads of bedding and other freight, trying simultaneously to pass each other, in opposing floods, in one narrow door.” And then you have to ask, how much has really changed in the past 120 years? And beyond the local observations lie his unsparing skewering of all things sacred: publishers, priests, and politicians, to name but a few. For example, he attacks the press for promulgating what is commonly referred to today as “fake news”. As Twain said, “If you don’t read the newspaper you are uninformed. But if you do read the newspaper you are misinformed."

How did you go about the reimagining? Could you share your approach and method for the benefit of aspiring dramatists?

I think that when an idea gets hold of you and doesn’t leave you, as with this play the core of which has been embedded in my brain for decades-that’s a sign that sooner or later you must become engaged and wrestle with it until you tame it and cajole it into some new shape and form with substance and life of its own. If the subject is based upon a real person or historical figure than it is essential to devour every bit of information that you can possibly absorb before you begin to write a word in order to painstakingly breathe life into the character. While the character is forming you need to become aware of his taking up residence within you. This may progress to daily conversations. After the extensive refining process comes to a halt, there may only be a small recognizable percent of the raw material which is preserved intact. But if the essence rings true it will pave a path for the character to finally emerge, warts and all. I don’t know if that makes any sense to anyone out there or whether it can benefit any aspiring dramatists. Probably not. More likely I have even depressed a few. But that is my method and what works for me may not work for someone else. Or, to paraphrase Twain when asked whether he had any advice for others how to reach old age cautioned that his own habits included drinking, smoking and a liberal use of profanity. “Those are the habits that protected my long life,” he said, “but they might assassinate yours.” In other words, you can’t necessarily write by adopting another’s method. You have to find your own.

Were you tempted to include characters like his wife Olivia and colleague Smythe as fellow characters?

Olivia was indeed the love of Twain’s life and she does figure at times in his thoughts in the play. It never occurred to have other characters acting in this play because Twain's presence is too commanding. Anyone else would be upstaged. It’s the same reason any actor worth his salt won’t set foot on a stage with a child or a dog. They know that all eyes will remain on the child or the dog.

How did you zero in on Padatik for the enactment? Were you aware of Vinay's profile or Padatik's legacy and body of work beforehand?

I was expecting this question and the honest to goodness truth is that I have no adequate answer. Mark Twain himself believed in something he coined “mental telegraphy”. I know I was first to initiate the contact with the talented Vinay Sharma and he immediately and proudly confessed to owning a moustache (a detail which I was unaware of, by the way.) How and why I arrived at his doorstep remains a mystery to the both of us. I have since become exceedingly impressed by the venerable artistic achievements of both Vinay and Padatik. But we have yet to meet in person and neither was Padatik’s legacy known to me at all before that first contact was made. It can only be explained as a surefire case of "mental telegraphy".

Your expectations from the India run…

On a personal note, I am greatly looking forward to returning to Mumbai and especially to the Prithvi Theatre. The Prithvi is one of those very special theatres and quasi-holy spaces which immediately envelops you in its aura of intimacy. Seeing Naseeruddin Shah perform “Einstein” there in 2015 was simply an unforgettable experience. I had no expectations at the time but the combination of Prithvi’s magic and Naseeruddin's brilliance produced one of those rare and magical evenings of live theatre whose sparks linger long after they have stopped flickering. I was also most impressed by the audience at the Prithvi. They are of various ages though predominantly young; all are full of energy. I am excited to bring something new to the Prithvi stage and audience and to bask in that theatrically charged pool of energy again.

April 5, 2004 and Nov 14, 2015

Days pass, Months lapse, Years roll by
Few dates stay etched in bold

gloriously detached from calendars
old and new

Urging you to look beyond, not lurk behind
day in and day out

Timeless tributes to those
No longer with you, now within you
making your breaths deeper
and lives sublime

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Hyderabad Hues

Another business trip to one of India's most evocative cities, a fine blend of ancient monuments and modern landmarks. This time round, unlike the prior purposeful road voyages, it proved more of a leisure visit...with no regrets of course!

Gateway to the city

Filth and fumes galore

Being a Mumbaikar at heart, have no reason to complain but arrogant and fraudster rickshaw drivers and dirty pavements infested with drug addicts make the ordeal rather scary - steer clear of auto rickshaws - either drive yourself or prefer cabs when in Hyderabad:

Vintage Karachi bakery (the mirror image of Pakistan's Bombay Stores) - not just biscuits, try their milk mysore pak and kaju katli - out of this world:

Taj Banjara

This property won't make Bombay House legends proud (certainly not Ajit Kerkar, the architect of the Indian Hotels transformation) - what with a filthy adjoining lake, ridiculous access road and poorly equipped toilets (no water outlet on the toilet floor leads to frequent water clogging and the slippery floor could gift you with a fracture any moment)

Having said that, the genuinely friendly staff of this place, excellent food and vintage ambience make your stay memorable. Just few words of genuine warmth and they drop their five star poise and unwind to glory! Priyanka of reception was very proactive and did her best to make us feel comfortable. God bless her!

Manan from travel desk, Suresh from housekeeping, Ruby from reception (one of India's very few ladies manning - rather 'womanning' - the early morning reception desk) and a bespectacled gentleman from Shayne's team - we could not capture them in clicks, but their fond memories would stay with us forever...

Highly efficient F & B team: Navya, Shayne, Chowdhary and Sachida

Sandhya - makes the world's best masala omelette

Smiling Security guards

Our God sent friends from the travel desk - Keshav sir and Narasimha sir provided us with minute details of Raichur Road and blessed us with Tirupati prasadam

Timeless Telephone in the lobby area

Soumalya (originally from Hoogly), Abhishek, Priyanka (a proud Bhopali at heart) and Payal (native of Chandigarh) from the reception desk

Iqbal from Artisan - the Pearl shop

Sweet but not short

Chinese fried rice and noodles redefined

Ram babu - the tall and handsome security guard

Our city tour Saarthi Mohd. Aziz bhai

Md. Azam bhai - our cheerful friend from the restaurant team

Street Treats

Al Rasasi - attar shop

Attar-smeared hospitality - we bought a small bottle only worth Rs. 200 but the three musketeers extended a 24-carat welcome - speaks volumes of the Hyderabad hospitality

Wedding cars on hire

Mobile Market

Enlightening Landmarks :
Lumbini Park, Chowmala Palace, Salarjung Museum, Charminar, Birla temple, Hussain Sagar, City college, Osmania Hospital

Fag end blunders

Having suffered the wrath of the rough, under-construction road on the Solapur-Hyderabad highway, we decided to try out the Hyderabad - Jadcherla - Raichur - Lingsugur - Hungund - Bagalkot - Belgavi route on our return journey (profusely advertised on many travel sites as a great alternative stretch to reach NH 4). It proved a mega blunder given the horror of horrors the route happens to be. Countless speed breakers (Karnataka loves them but they do nothing to make your travel safe, instead end up doing the exact opposite), errant pedestrians, mad motorists, suicide-inclined bikers, raging bulls and adamant cows, corrupt cops, lavish village fairs right in the middle of the highway: all that can go wrong does go wrong here. And unlike what googlers tell you, this route is not a simple "move from one place to the next" trail, there are many confusing detours and exits esp. en route Lingsugur and Bagalkot sections.

But like every cloud has a silver lining, even the roughest of roads spares a greener pasture - for us, it was the sight of the ancient Mudgal fort, 10 miles south-west of Lingsugur. This is an enchanting fort with several inscriptions of Seuna Yadavas from Devagiri... Remembered my archaeologist dad and his frequent meaty discourses on the art, architecture and archives of so many little known places in India. I am sure he must have visited this fort during one of his official 'Nehru Centre' tours. The sleepy town is known for its historical heritage and communal harmony - both sorely missing now. Pity we couldn't afford to spend quality time here.