Friday, June 22, 2007

Watching 'Sivaji'

Yes, the movie was enjoyable. But the movie-watching experience itself was a lot of fun as well. Here are a few snippets:

- Dhigha, an old BITS friend (and one of those Microsoft nerds/whizkids depending on your viewpoint) was in Chicago. He had conveniently managed to send off his wife to Urbana Champagne for a wedding, so we could have a boys night out. So funkaboy and I decided to watch the movie friday night with him. The logistics were mundboggling. Funkaboy boy drive in from work, picked me up from my place. Then we drove to the train station to pick up dhigha (who was staying at a hotel in downtown Chicago), and drove to the mall where the theater was supposed to be located. I expected posters and cutouts and aarthis for thalaivar, but we couldn't even locate the theater. Finally, got directions from a desi store in the mall ("next to Circuit City") and made our way to the 'potti kadai' theater.

- When the titles were rolling, Dhigha and I decided to take a video of the audience reaction, but then the organizers showed up from nowhere and threatened to haul us out of the theater if we used our cameras. I was about to retort, but the prospect of leaving the theater without watching thalaivar movie was beyond contemplation. So we shut up. But everytime one of us got phone calls and opened our cell phones, the guys came running and flashed their torches on us from both sides. Baguth insult!

- We were sharing this huge ass coke. Dhigha had a sip and wanted to put it back on its holder located in the backside of the front seat. And being the clumsy type, he thought he got the right spot, placed it and took his hands off. It turned out that the bucket-like thing was still in mid-air and was taken over by gravity. Oh, and did I tell you the holder was right in front of me? So the thing splashed and drenched my shoes and pants. While Dhigha and I were frantically looking fora napkin, funkaboy didn't take his eyes off the screen for a moment to help his friends in distress. A tsunami at that point in time would not have distracted him. The rascal!

- It was a multiplex, but there didn't seem to be any audience for the other English movie running there. It was funny to see harassed Americans serving samosas and trying to maintain a semblance of order in a theater full of thalaivar fans.

- At the beginning of the movie, there were some ABCD kids right behind us who seemd to be deriving some kind of satisfaction in passing comments on the hardcore front benchers. We could hear them shouting "you are disgusting!" and "go use some deo" and the like. Such fun. But once the movie got underway and the front benchers outshouted them, they disappeared never to be seen again.

- When the movie got over and we walked out, we were shocked to see the long line for the next show snaking all the way back into the parking lot. Had this urge to shout out "Mottai Rajini will come in the climax", but a fear of life and limb took over and better sense prevailed.

- Finally, the 3 of us took a photo with the Sivaji showtime in the background. After the satisfaction of watching a good entertainer, it was time to head back home, down a few margheritas and discuss the movie with other friends who were planning on watching it the next day. Yes, I know, I'm evil.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Sivaji: The Boss

Can you believe the hype and the publicity this movie has generated? I had my first glimpse of this hype when the album was released. By Rahman's standards, it seemed an unremarkable one. The songs were reasonably catchy but none of them seem to leave a lasting mark (remember "Antha Arabi kadaloram..."). And then a few months ago, the second wave arose, with mainstream media and the blogworld abuzz with news about potential release dates. Shankar, as is his wont, let the word of mouth do the publicity for him, by keeping things close to his chest and postponing release dates. In the process, I imagine he also managed to screw up the release plans for countless other movies. As the relase date got finalized and we approached D-day, things seemed to reach a feverish pitch. I couldn't open a desi blog or web-site without catching a news item or photo of the Boss. The worst part was the day of the release when various bloggers started reviewing the movie. I had tickets for the next day (Friday - June 15th), and had to really try hard to stay away from reading these. Growing up, I've always been a huge Rajni fan. But as maturity, and the accompanying burden of logic and cynicism set in, I couldn't get myself excited about 'thalaivar' movies anymore. But now, inexplicably, I was caught and swept along in the frenzy. I keep shouting "superstar" and "thalaivaa" to my Sindhi-Gujju wife. She just thought I was plain crazy. For someone who's never known the Rajni phenomenon, its hard to explain. How do you make her understand that its not about the looks, the acting or even great movies. Its all about the STYLE!!! Anyways, let's move on to the movie review.

When news got out that Shankar and Rajni are coming together, people went ballistic. There is a simple reason for that. Currently in Tamil cinema, noone does things bigger and grander than Shankar. Ofcourse, he's not all glamor and glitter. He pays attention to a good script, usually churns out a pretty tight screenplay and explores social issues. But his biggest selling point is his ability to bring in the best talents in every department and get them to seemlessly work together to create perfect masala movies. However, questions arose whether he would be able to work with Rajni. In the past, Rajni movies have been directed by servile directors who only had to pander to the wishes of legions of thalaivar fans. And the movie would be a surefire hit. Everyone knew Shankar had a huge ego, and that he got his way with his actors. So who's movie is 'Sivaji' gonna be?

By now, everyone and his aunt knows the story. Sivaji is a foreign return (a software architect, no less!) who comes back with cartloads of money and wants to do good to society. He wants to miraculously provide free education, hospitals et al to everyone. Ofcourse, there are bigwigs like Adisheshan (Suman in a useless role) who want to stop him. Sivaji encounters corruption at every level. After initially scoffing at the suggestion, he's eventually forced to bribe officials at various levels to get his order through. But Adiseshan has other plans and even changes governments (at a cost of just a 100+ crores, this sounds ridiculously easy!). Sivaji is left without a dime on the street. Like any good cornered tiger, he fights back using negative tactics. He accumulates an army of goondas, gathers information on everyone who has loads of black money and then goes about extracting this from them, launders them and is on his way to creating a social revolution. Eventually, he's arrested. Then follows the most absurdly illogical medical scene (CPR after a few hours!), a new and smashing avatar of Rajni and a gripping climax sequence. Shankar thinks he's just handed out a working solution to the corruption/black money problem, and continues to dole out advice while credits roll on screen.

Let's start with what I did like about the movie. Its a complete entertainer. And Shankar has delivered exactly what thalaivar fans usually crave - style, explosive action, good comedy and great punch lines. I thought Shankar set the first half up perfectly, especially the part where Sivaji turns to corruption himself. The comedy is good in parts, with Vivek really kicking ass in some sequences. However, some things are in poor taste - like the 2 dark-skinned sisters. Rajni's histrionics to turn fair are enjoyable to some extent, but could have been tempered. Shreya is hot hot hot! Oh, and did I mention she's hot? Shankar has really managed to make Rajni look remotely like a youngish guy, which is a pretty tough task. I liked his 80s kind of hairstyle. His wardrobe is pretty classy while retaining the slightly jingchak style the frontbenchers associate with thalaivar. And yes, the songs! Shankar proves once again that there's noone in Tamil cinema who can beat him at song picturization and grandeur. "Adhiradi" where he's simulated Venice (along with the mandatory masks, latino villains and great stunts) is a visual treat. So too is "Vaa jee" where Shankar has almost created a palace of the order of a vegas casino. But my favorite was Oru koodai sunlight". I loved Blaaze's voice, and the picturization was creative and hilarious. I couldn't help wondering if Shankar and Rajni were putting thanni while discussing and finalizing this song. They've both had a ball! And the best part, undoubtedly, is the "mottai boss" who comes for the cllimax sequence.

This brings me to the place where I have to part ways with the hardcore fans, and actually mention some things I didn't like about the movie. On top of this list would be the fateful car fight sequence in the drive-in movie theater. What the hell was that?? After the first half of the fight that left me scratching my head, Rajni takes a breather and taps his fingers on his wheels while Shreya and his enemies look on. I thought "machan, thalaivar's coming up with a plan. He's gonna do something really cool and smart". And before I realize it, thalaivar just drives through and sends all the other cars flying. Excuse me!!! ithu romba over... I would've expected something better. This fight sequence should've been completely avoided. The crux of the movie is the bit where thalaivar extracts blackmoney from corrupt businessmen/politicians and launders this. You would think Shankar would put more thought into making this believable. Instead we see, thalaivar simply employing some goondas to get everything done. The whole "please wait in the office" sequence is pretty funny. But when this forms the backbone of his comeback, there should be slightly more logic. After completely stereotyping muslims (money laundering/foreign contacts), thalaivar lands in New York and asks a bunch of desi/ABCD folks to split the 150 crores among themselves, take it with them and write out donations to Sivaji foundation. Ah, how very original! If only the income tax could figure out this masterplan... And ofcourse, they don't. I felt these sequences could have been handled with a bit more maturity and logic by Shankar. I can already hear some of you mumuring that logic should be left outside the theater while watching Rajni movie. Believe me, I tried. But when Shankar is involved, I tend to expect something better than that. But the bit that completely knocked me out was when Raghuvaran revives thalaivar through CPR a couple of hours after he stops breathing. Are you kidding me??? Any self-respecting doctor would hang himself after watching this scene.

So is this a Shankar movie or a thalaivar movie? Sure, the actual story follows Shankar's tried and tested formula - expose social issue, hero gets affected and wants to bring about change, honest ways don't work, hero is frustrated and takes the negative route, people come on board and hail him as savior etc etc. You know the rest! While in movies like Gentleman, Mudhalvan and Indian, Shankar has followed up this formula with a great script, screenplay and dialogies, his handling of the Boss is actually a letdown. He's explored the bribery issue very superficially, and there are gaping holes in every scene. But in the end, the movie works because of Thalaivar. Nothing else in the movie matters. If there's one thing that Shankar has done right in the movie, it is understanding what makes Rajni ticks and then delivering exactly that to his fans. And yes, over the top. Its a complete "paisa vasool".

When the movie got over and we were walking out the theater, I called my wife (who understandably decided to skip the movie 'coz of lack of subtitles) . She picked up the phone and let out a "thalaivaaaa..." that had me in stitches. That, for me, summed up the movie. Its Rajni riding towards the sunset of his career, at his boldest, baddest and best. Nothing in Tamil cinema can come close to this phenomenon!

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Tipping Point

Managed to read Malcolm Gladwell's much-acclaimed best-seller The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference recently. Since there has been so much hype around this book, I approached it cautiously, and prepared myself for a bit of disappointment. The book started off unremarkably, with Malcolm droning on about various people he has met with remarkable qualities - of mavens, enablers and connectors. I found the writing a bit haphazard at first.

But as I delved deeper into the book, things started getting clearer. I understood why he was describing these different people, and how their qualities make them unique in the market place. He equates a big wave, revolution or trend in the marketplace to an epidemic. And how most of them get started on a very small scale by a certain type of people, and how they are spread initially by another kind of people. And how the rest of us adopt them later on a much wider scale. An epidemic kind of behavior. These things sometimes seem unpredictable and counter-intuitive, but Gladwell discovers a common trait in a lot of edpidemic-like phenomenons. The moral of the story is concerned with how we could use this information productively. You don't really have to think big to make big changes. You just need to recognize the pressure points (the right people at the right place) and push the right buttons.

How do a bunch of yuppies in New York start a major Hush Puppies fashion on a global scale. How does cleaning up graffiti in the NY subway system reduce crime drastically? Or how does one popular guy's suicide trigger more such incidents in an island community? All interesting and varied questions, and the answers sometimes are expected, and sometimes very surprising.

The book is of particular interest to marketers, but a lot of other sections of the populace can benefit from it as well - law makers/politicians, the fashion industry, new technology poineers etc. Towards the end, he even comes up with some interesting take on why teenage smoking is so difficult to contain and why our approach to it thus far might be completely wrong. I didn't always agree with what he has to say. Statistics are very malleable. You can use them to support or oppose anything you want by looking at them from different angles. For this reason, I found Gladwell over-simplifying issues and solutions a lot. I guess that's kind of necessary to make a splash with his book. After all, no one is going to buy a book that says "this could be one reason why this happens, but I'm not really sure".

Bottomline: This is a good read. Especially if you are in the business of having to influence mass opinion. Also, there doesn't seem to be a lot of thinking outside the box these days. So I found the new approach to old issues refreshing. I would highly recommend this.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Europe! Europe!

Just got back from a whirlwind tour of Europe, where my wife and I travelled through some 10 countries. It was hectic and exhilarating. An adventure. Let me start with a list of countries/places we visited during the tour, hopefully in the correct order.

England (London)
Belgium (Brussels)
Netherlands (Amsterdam, Rotterdam)
Austria (Innsbruck)
Germany (Black Forest, Heidelberg, Cologne)
Switzerland (Zurich, Geneva, Jungfrau, Mt. Titlus, Interlaken etc.)
Italy (Venice, Florence, Rome, Pisa)
Vatican City
France (Paris, Chamonix)

We spent most of our time in Italy, Paris and Switzerland, while stopping just for a day in most other places. I've always been a fan of spending more time in one place and exploring it completely. But this being my first time in Europe, we decided it might be a better idea to just travel through and experience a bit of as many countries as we could. And as we expected, we now know which countries/cities we would like to go back to for longish stays.

We were mostly blessed with some glorious weather. But London and Amsterdam were washouts, especially since we only spent half a day sight-seeing at each place. I wasn't too disappointed, since I'm pretty sure there'll be a few more visits to London in my lifetime. Really wanted to walk through the RLD in Amsterdam, but the weather and the logistics conspired against it.

Some initial thoughts:
The spectrum of cultures, people, languages and landscapes we encountered was delightful. Especially when it kept changing constantly with every new place we stopped at. However, within some countries, there seemed to be a kind of uniformity - like America - that I had not expected. For example, there is no doubt that Switzerland is picture-perfect. But you could have taken me to Geneva and told me we were visiting Zurich again, and I would've believed you. Both these cities are located around huge lakes, and the buildings, churches, roads and traffic everything had a kind of eerie similarity about them. This was not, however, true of some other places. Take Italy for example. Venice and Rome are miles apart and very unique in their own way.

Favorite cities:
My favorite cities have got to be Paris, Rome and Venice. Paris has got a sort of surreal beauty about it that I've never seen anywhere. There are these beautiful 200-300 year old buildings, palaces and castles now converted into museums, railway stations or post offices. You drive through the city and you feel like you are transported to a very different era. You come across beautiful opera houses, churches and even Napolean's apartment. The church of Notre Dame (remember Victor Hugo's 'Hunch back of Notre Dame'?) is an architectural delight. The view from the top of Eiffel tower is worth the wait. Add to these the cute cafes and restaurants that dot the sidewalks. You realize that this is a city which definitely mixes a lot of pleasure with business. It helps that the official work week here is only 35 hrs.

I knew that Italy would be one of my favorite places even before I set foot there, and I was not mistaken. Venice is one of a kind. Its a heady mixture of narrow alleys, canals and bridges, lined with old buildings that seem ready to fall apart. At the Piazza San Marco (St.Mark's Square) by the Grand Canal, the church is beautiful beyond description. And ofcourse, the gondola ride is a must for every visitor. There is a really laidback feel to the whole place, as if everyone there is just vacationing. That's because the number of annual visitors there is something like 100 times their actual population.

What can you say about Rome that hasn't already been said? The city is a treasure chest of history, mythology, legends and a testament to human achievements. If the colosseums took my breath away, then so too did some of the ruins that dated back to before Christ was born. And how do you even begin to describe the beauty of the Trevis fountain? How do you deal with history of this magnitude? Yes, all roads do lead to Rome. In Florence, where we spent time at the Piazza Della Signoria (Signoria Square), there are these amazingly powerful sculptures, testament to the Renaissance movement. A great example is a very reknown sculpture of a naked man by Michelangelo called 'David'. There is one of Hercules, the slaying of 'Midas' and even a couple of rape scenes that send a chill through your spine. The depiction of the naked human body with rippling muscles and raw energy reminds you of the violence of ancient Rome and the various mythologies associated with it.

Favorite places:
I admit I did not know much about Vatican city before 'Da Vinci Code' came along. But as I entered the main square, the sight took my breath away. There was the Sistine Chapel on the right, where the cardinals have their conferences to elect the pope. The papal residence was on top, with the Pope's window clearly marked. And ofcourse, there was St. Peter's Basilica towering ahead of me, the biggest curch in the world. If the outside of the church was beautiful, the inside is unbelievable. Every inch of the church is adorned with masterpieces - sculptures, paintings, murals and stained glasses made by some of the greatest talents ever. The most famous of these is ofcourse the 'Pieta' (Virgin Mary holding the now-dead Jesus on her lap) made by Michelangelo when he was only 23. I felt overawed to be here, at the centre of christianity.

If it were left to me, I would add the Louvre to the list of countries I visited. I kid you not. The place is incredibly huge, and its a no-brainer figuring out that its the largest museum in the world. It was actually a palace that was later donated to be turned into a museum. It holds approximately 400,000 works of art. For those who love numbers and statistics, consider this. If you spent 1 minute on each exhibit, it'll take you one whole year to completely cover this museum. That's how big it is! Ofcourse, the defining moment for me was when I walked into a huge room and saw from afar a big crowd gathered around a tiny picture on the far wall. And as I took a couple of steps, I realize with a jolt that this was the Mona Lisa, easily the most famous painting ever made. My heart seriously gave a little yelp. That was a dream-come-true moment for me.

Cologne, Germany (yes, the birthplace of 'Eau de Cologne') houses the biggest Gothic cathedral in the world. The spire here is gigantic, and the church was built some 800 years ago. It was one of the most imposing structures that I've ever seen. Nothing else comes close to it. Not the Sears Tower, not the Eiffel tower and none of the countless other impressive churches we saw on the tour.

The Leaning tower at Pisa is very weird. You really feel like its gonna fall down at any moment. Romans had this habit of building a bell tower with every church. In Pisa ofcourse, the tower has become much more famous than the beautiful church next to it. People all around were taking snaps with various poses of holding/supporting the gigantic tower.

There were plenty of cruises. On the Rhine river near Heidelberg, Germany. On Lake Zurich. On the Seine in Paris. Through the canals in Amsterdam and Venice. These proved to be a wonderfully relaxing way of seeing these places.

Special mention:
If you were to collect a few of the most beautiful picture postcards, put together a book and then decide to use that as a blueprint to build a place, that would be Switzerland. Ofcourse, no engineer/architect/builder can come close to emulating the abundance that nature has privided this place with. Everywhere you go, you are surrounded by lush green m0untains, with snow-capped mountains providing the backdrop. There are natural gorges and waterfalls that end up in beautiful brooks and rivers. There are miles of sweeping countryside, with cows grazing serenely. We went on top of a few peaks, most notably Jungfrau (the highest train line in the world at around 12000 ft), Mt.Titlus etc. Even did some sledging and snow tubing. Nature has been extremely partial to the Swiss. We saw the small town of Interlaken, the setting for many a bollywood song-and-dance sequence. However, its true that you get used to all this beautiful scenery in a couple of days. Then you wonder "what else?" Before you leave the country, you will get tired of looking at the Swiss flag (Did you know this is the only country flag that is a square and not a rectangle?). It is omnipotent. On top of every other building. On every t-shirt, cap and magnet. And plenty of flagpoles on the road as well.

No description of Europe would be complete without this. So here we go in no particular order.
- Extremely expensive, especially with the current rate of around $1.4 for a euro. A regular coffee at a small roadside cafe would put you back by around 4 euros (close to $6). You are better off having a bottle of wine at close to the same price! And if you want to buy souvenir t-shirts, forget about it! A regular round-neck cotton t-shirt starts at 20 euros. Even airport shops in the US are cheaper.
- No water! Absolutely! You won't found a single water fountain if you combed through Europe with a pair of high-definition lens. Not even at the airport. And when you sit at restaurants, they don't just bring a jug of water like you are used to in America. So either, you bring along the water wherever you go or you buy it. And ofcourse, water is expensive too. I didn't believe it at first, but beer is indeed cheaper than water.
- Closely in the heels of the water menace is the toilet menace. There are hardly any free toilets in Europe. Most places, there is an attendant with a table and chair outside the toilet, and you have to deposit the money with him/her before entering. At some gas station shps, there are automatic turnstiles like train stations. And some places, paying is optional. But the cleaner guy would be standing outside with a bowl, looking expectantly at you. Some places, I had to pay as much as 1 euro to take a leak. Its ridiculous! I could've almost stayed an extra day in Paris with all the toilet money I spent.
- When we asked our Gondola guy in Venice to sing us a song, he said there were only 2 places in the world where Gondola men sing - in movies and at the Venitian in Vegas (and only because those gondolas are motor-driven). Maneuvering these long gondolas through the narrow canal passageways and turning them at right-angles requires a lot of concentration and stamina. Plus these guys are not really trained to sing.
- Most places, you can get by with English. But Paris was a bit notorious in this regard. There are no English signs or translations. Even at the Louvre, every item on display is described only in French. I had to get one of those audio commentary headsets.

Yes, we did do a lot of cliched things. We bought a cuckoo clock in Switzerland, and a wonderful hand-carved ceramic beer mug in Germany. And don't forget the jewellery at the famous Swarowski museum/factory/shop in Austria. I sampled some Sicilian wine in Italy and the Rose wine in Paris. We even ate blackforest cake in Black Forest, Germany! Whenever we saw a signboard, nameplate or flag, we would take photos (to stay true to my previous post!). We took so many snaps we ran out of 3 GBs of memory cards, yielding approximately some 1700 photos and a few video clips. Every inch of our fridge is now filled with all kinds of magnets from the countries/cities we visited.

We didn't get to sample much of the nightlife, since we hit the bed everyday tired out from our excursions. We did manage to catch the Lido show on our last night in Paris, widely hailed as one of the best cabarets in the world. Halfway into the show, somewhere between watching beautiful topless women in colorful headresses and sipping the bottomless champage on the table, the weariness of the last 2 weeks hit me. And I actually dozed off for a few minutes in a show I had paid $160 to watch. And did I mention it had topless women?

In the end, it turned out to be a wonderful trip, filled with great memories. Europe is so rich in history and culture. Just like India. But this has been preserved well, and it is a pleasure to visit and appreciate each building, sculpture or painting. Its easy to travel. The countries are quite small, and are well-connected by roads and trains. The Schengen visa makes it easy to visit a lot of countries with one visa (with the exception of England and Switzerland). And the Euro is a boon since you don't have to carry 10 different currencies in your wallet. We were glad we made this trip now, before being burdened with responsibilities of kids and my oncoming MBA. It certainly was a trip of a lifetime.

PS: Will probably follow up with a photo blog of the trip very soon.