Tuesday, October 30, 2007

No Smoking

I liked ‘No Smoking’. I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to.

The imagery, philosophical sub-text, iconoclastic screenplay, crowded symbolism and cocky coded allusions to theology and absurdity are not easy to digest. The entire film skates between being unfathomable to being mind altering. As to which side the film veers in the viewer’s mind, well…there’s no way you can make that out. Some people shuck their first oyster and spend their lives caged in that heavenly, briny taste. Others do the same and vomit.

The lighting – mostly dark and grimacing magnifies the cratered wryness of John Abraham, the wholesomeness of Ayesha Takia, and the crippling notoriety of a lit cigarette. At times, the scenes suffocate. At times, close-ups of dismembered fingers and sounds of wracking coughs unhinge you. But the most startling effect is, probably, the way these dark nuanced visuals refract the seemingly unblemished righteousness of non-smokers.

I am sure there is an appropriate cinematic lexicon that can describe this film’s approach and structure. Here are, however, a few things that I liked.

The barren incisive jokes:

Quotes by Socrates, Plato, and Sinatra at the beginning of the film:

To be is to do – said one

To do is to be – said the other

Dobe Dobe – sang the third.

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John to Ayesha: What do you want for your birthday?

Ayesha: A divorce

John (continues to smoke, and doesn’t bat an eyelid): I don’t have that kind of budget.

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John’s name is K, simply K. His brother’s name is J, simply J.

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Ayesha Takia, explaining her marital problems to her friends:

Religious differences. He thinks he is God; I think he is *****.

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An absolutely vagabond monologue of a baba (Paresh Rawal) explaining the difference between fine, penalty, and fees for the no-smoking program.

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A rotund friend launching illegally imported cigars under the label ‘Fidel Incastrated.’

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Slather of kinks:

Thought bubbles with Hindi and English invectives.

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A spirited run by a comatose patient.

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Mundane long, hollow silences that jettison traces of coherence.

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The music, the score – that anthem to anathema.

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Dips of tortured souls in fire.

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Frank Sinatra…just like that.

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Very strong references to Dante Alighieri’s Inferno and several other Lucifer-type damnation undercurrents.

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Final screw of the cork:

The scathing sarcasm that not many would really get. A fabulous tongue-in-cheek commentary on the brackeny Puritanism of non-smokers; their self-righteousness that mirrors a self-loathing of sorts; the unholy lengths to which they will push ‘improvement’ programs.

A smooth subterfuge to mask the ‘The joke’s on you!’ wink on the proselytizing non-smokers.

(Of course, this is only my interpretation. And the reason I interpret the film this way is because I am trying to be a vegetarian now. But when I was a non-vegetarian, I detested the moral rectitude that almost stunk from the vegetarian sorts who’d tell me to be off meat because it is cruel to kill animals. And to all those people, I had asked and I continue to ask: How do you explain wearing silk? It’s less brutal to scald a worm to death than to kill a goat for raan? I will desist now, because memories of good raan bring tears to my eyes.

And yes, I don’t like smoking. It is my observation that when people take up smoking, their prowess to empathize dies. They become a little hard-hearted. Slowly, they get self-centered and this self-centredness is inevitable. The notion of breathing in air, a community property so to speak, contaminating it, and breathing it out to the full detriment of everyone around you is plain thoughtless selfishness. But again, I know of two smokers who are actively involved in afforestation programs, so I suppose the human soul seesaws plenty between selfishness and selflessness.)

The animated 'wherefore art' debate that it has spurred.

My mother hated the film, and believes that I liked the movie only to be the devil’s advocate. “Why bother making a movie that no-one understands?”, she asked me.

“Why bother going to a movie you don’t understand?”, I asked.

“How will you know you won’t understand a film unless you watch it?”

“How will you know no-one will understand a film unless you make it?”

That’s just plain stupid. Of course, you know. Now, there will be all those pseudo-intellectuals (of which I am one, I think, according to mom) who will just pretend to like it because most people didn’t understand.”

Well, the movie appeals, the movie appalls. Would I recommend it? Let’s just say, people do get through life without shucking an oyster. But then, they remain those who went through life without shucking an oyster.

Friday, October 26, 2007

A possible new haunt

I usually walk home from Vashi station. Nowadays, with the colors and sparkles of Diwali emulsifying through every shop, home, cart, and mall, the walk is rather pretty. Sometimes I may make a stop at Centre One and have a glass of green apple and wheatgrass juice (which is too tasty to be healthy). But most times, I try to avoid getting run down by people and cars and just get home. Until something tells me I need to take a detour.

The other day I noticed an insipid looking edifice called ‘The Tunga’.

Why anything in Bombay, a city where space is receding like most hairlines, has so many buildings named after vastness (Eternia, Olympia, Coliseum, Large Horizon, Wild/ Big/ Green Acres, Tunga, etc.) is beyond me. But I saw a shimmer of frosted pink fairy lights, so I decided to peep in. The hotel has a few restaurants, a small gym for the people staying at the hotel, and a Kerala Ayurvedic spa (why are all spas so immersed in ‘Kerala Ayurveda’? Is there any other kind of Ayurveda? What are they? I would find Pune Ayurveda very amusing.) One of the restaurants there is Crimson or Crimson Tide or something. All that cursive print and modern abandonment of line spacing makes things difficult to read. As Tunga describes it, Crimson’s a place for grills, coffees, and drinks. The stylish italic font and a cute little fishie picture next to it made me want to go there.

I entered into a decent but strangely posh area. There was a bar area that had wooden flooring, a metal tree with liquor bottles placed as branches, rows and rows of medicinal orange Bacardi Breezers, and a grave bartender wiping martini glasses with a snowy napkin.

There was a preppy arrangement of chic black chairs by the bar. A couple of alcoves were done up in black, copper, and rust with low, glass tables – items that are so essential for the swish factor. Next to the bar was a dining area that, thankfully, came with an uncomplicated ambience of tables without inflammable pots and wicks, music you could listen to and not be flurried over, and straightforward menus. The best bit about the bar is that I happened to be there around 10 in a room full of men, yet didn’t feel odd. No-one stared, no-one spoke in hushed tones or threw me lurid glances. A techie-sort of guy enjoying his drink looked at me quizzically, undoubtedly trying to place me from somewhere. He later gave up and went back to his drowsy comfort.

I settled in a corner and wondered if I should have a quick drink and scoot. This was, after all a new place and I wasn’t sure if I should be frequenting bars alone in Vashi. But the place looked safe. Or more than safe, it looked regular. The lighting was adequate and ambivalent enough to make it suited for a restaurant, lounge, or pub. The service, though slow, was polite and unobtrusive, and the crowd (peppered with a few eloquent French people) seemed harmless.

So, I decided to have a long, languorous time having a drink and reading my book. I sipped a ‘Chilli Mocker’ (a Kermit-colored mocktail that came with an immersed chilly) and ate some besan and corn fritters. I peeled through page after page of ‘The Diana, Chronicles’ stopping to look at a yummy platter of grilled shrimps and sausages ordered at another table. I cleared my head a little, muddled it up some more, and took in the nice, quiet buzz of eating, reading, and thinking in a bar alone.

I think I’ll frequent it more often. Seems to be a good place for grills coffee, and drinks. Just like what the poster said.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Two babies, two parents

I saw two babies at the food court this Friday. Each of them was being carried by an adult. From the non-grimacing way these grown-ups wiped baby drool and runny noses, I guessed they were parents. Both babies increased their enthusiastic squirming near a Gelato cart.

I suppose they really liked what they saw - a guy wearing a fetching pin-striped hat, grinning and scooping up luscious blobs of coldness and placing them in cosy, biscuit-cones. Now, they wanted a part of the action. One of them was making little leaping actions to grab the hat, while the other made goo-goo sounds at gelato containers.

The parents glowed and beamed at how cute their munchkins were getting. Then they started moving away and what followed was volte face extraordinaire. The babies started screaming – a robust, extended bellow. Both of them. No googoo or cuddly leaping actions. Deep guttural cries because parents moved away from a gelato cart. As I had watched the whole thing, I honestly hadn’t anticipated such a volatile reaction. But maybe, there is no such thing as a ‘disproportionate response’ from someone who wears padded duckie knickers.

The father meekly suggested to the mother that they probably get some ice cream for the kids. The mother refused. The father shrugged and probably resigned himself to the fact that mother knows best.

The kid in the father’s arms started kicking him in the gut. The one in the mother’s arms, completely devoid of an original idea of harassment, copies his brother.

Both parents look at the angry chubby babies – unfathomably agitated – and suddenly, they smile – a little conspiratorial grin.

It’s fun watching young parents bask in the ephemeral happy phase – when they regard their babies as a private joke.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Disillusioned

Sometimes the absurdity
Of a man peeling an orange perfectly and wedging a lump of pink-red salt
In the groove between the fleshy quarters

Brings to mind the hollow soulless drain
Of traveling in a crowded train
Close to a midnight that seems to have the witchery scrubbed off
So the stars are pallid
And the moon is an orb with dried up tears

And people, listless and worn, look out their windows
With mouths partially open
No song in the rhythm of a pulsating train
No wanting or hopin’

Just as well…
Because I caught myself smiling
At the deft hands peeling the orange
And feeling quite nice
But it wasn’t really a twinkle in the Universe
It was business
And it came at a price.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Huffing and puffing

Last night, I reached Chembur station to find the Harbor line not working. Was stranded as I didn’t know where to get a bus from, autos didn’t want to get caught in the Navratri fiasco, etc. Finally, I called my father to pick me up from Diamond Garden, and after much ‘Mashaal’ type walks up and down the road, I finally hopped into a rick to take me there. It was late and I couldn’t see the place where my father would be waiting for me. The rick guy, testy in traffic, snapped at me to ask whether I should go left or right.

I yelled at him to please be polite. Positively yelled. Loudly, raspily, with curdled blood and dripping ire. His voice came down a few notches and he politely told me that he was merely asking me to make up my mind as the light was turning green and the cars behind me would get antsy.

I calmed down and told him to take a left. Was appalled at my behavior, was amused by the situation – you can actually be a boor and make someone be polite. Reminded me of a T-shirt I used to wear in college: “O God, give me patience…but please hurry!”

Friday, October 12, 2007

First Impressions – A Million Little Pieces by James Frey

‘A million little pieces’ is Frey’s memoir of the time he spent in a de-addiction centre. James is 23 when he is addicted to crack, liquor, and is wanted in three states. He started smoking and drinking since the age of 10 and had tried drugs since the age of 13. One day, after a virulent session of crack, Frey has some sort of an accident and gets injured badly. Then, he is flown in to Ohio by his parents. This is where they admit him in a rehab centre.

Frey then recounts day after difficult day on his road to recovery. He explains the fury that envelops him when he is getting detoxed. The rage he feels when he is around his parents, especially, seems to be a running theme in his life. He writes about the total hopelessness and despair when he thinks about his life. There are paragraphs on the sordid tribulations that his body undergoes – constant, incessant retching where he vomits ‘blood, food, and chunks of his stomach’; an aversion, yet an obsession to fill a hole with anything –food, mindless T.V., coffee, cigarettes, or routines of cleaning the toilet. Perhaps what is mind numbing is his strategy to methodically relive every little experience.

When James is first brought in to the addiction centre, he is badly wounded. He has a hole in his cheek, scars and wounds around his eyes, a broken nose, a broken jaw, and several broken teeth. His mind runs amuck with hatred, guilt, shame, and despair. He is angry with everyone and everything. He doesn’t believe in God or any of the 12 steps in the Alcoholics Anonymous program. At first, he and his thoughts are a congealed mass of wounds, scars, and screw-ups. He undergoes four root canals strapped to the dentists chair without anesthesia (anesthesia cannot be administered because he is on an addiction recovery program.) He scrubs toilets (as part of his duty in the Centre) even though he is faint from puking violently. Expectedly, he attempts suicide, and during one such attempt, an inmate talks him out of it. Frey and this inmate, Leonard, later go on to share a very close bond. (James Frey’s next book ‘My friend Leonard’ is based on this friend.) Leonard’s simple advice to James is to hold on.

As the book progresses, the author writes about how he held on. He decided to just be mindful of one moment at a time – not necessarily categorize it as good or bad, progress or plateau – but just go through each moment, choosing not to bolt or kill or drink or die. As with all kinds of addiction, the healing signs come by really slowly. At first, he can simply taste the sugar in his oatmeal. That is a notch in the scale of recovery. Then he can eat one donut with his coffee without throwing up. Later, he gets past 3 hours of nightmares and sleeps for 15 minutes without fear. He can sit beside someone and not feel like ripping the guy’s head off. A girl called Lily smiles at him and he smiles and stares, long after the girl is gone. This too, is healing.

Sporadically, James introduces portions of his life before he joined the Centre. He talks about the girl he fell in love with – ‘the one with Arctic eyes’. When his family comes to participate in the Family Program, he introduces pieces of his childhood when his father wasn’t around much and his mother seemed to be overprotective of him. He talks about his run-ins with the law.

At the end of the de-addiction program, James needs to make a list of all the things he must confess to a priest. Although James doesn’t believe in God and isn’t a Catholic, he still consents to meeting one. He knows that he won’t be able to go further before he senses some sort of closure – something that marks the end of this phase.

This book courted controversy briefly when it was published. It was nominated to be part of Oprah’s book club and later it was found that Frey had exaggerated or fictionalized portions of the memoir. In an interview with Larry King, Frey talked about what kind of changes he had made to the book – he changed the scar on the lip to the scar on the cheek, he changed criminal charges of DUI to charges to possession of drugs, certain names in the book were changed to protect the identity.

And since the colossal trademark of our times is to completely miss the point, certain factions were furious about the book being a fallacy. Memoirs were supposed to be factual and anything falling out of this puritan premise was to be discarded. Oprah, who interviewed James Frey, ticked him off over this. Later, in an interview with Larry King, Frey defended his book. A memoir, he explained, was a personal account of one’s own experiences and by virtue of this, it can’t be objective. The undisputed portions of this book are what are most important though.

The journey of a man who wept with shame and guilt before bleeding and cussing every night at a de-addiction centre. His story talks about dealing with fury (in graphic, gravelly detail) by pulling out his toenail and washing the blood in cold water. The parts, which Oprah later commended Frey on in the same Larry King Show, were what resonated with so many people – this explanation of the light that comes to you when you hold on. Grief and guilt can be undignified little pellets of emotions. They come tangled and snotted and it is so easy to give up when they trap you tight. Frey, through some sort of serendipity, fell in love in the midst of this trap, was nourished by teachings of Lao De Jing, serenely deconstructed his life on paper over black coffee and cold, icy wind in the park. It took him time and turmoil, but he finally came to terms with this simple fact that so many of us take for granted – that there is a tomorrow.

I took up the book to understand somebody else’s story. I understood my own. I have always believed that life, even the most menial kind, comes with a very strong force. Sometimes the force is strong enough to self-destruct. I am that type, although I have never been an addict. (I have, consistently though, made the more difficult and inconvenient choices.) Sometimes, that force shatters everything you’ve got. And then, slowly, when the dust settles, you pick up itsy bitsy fragments and make something beautiful of your own.

The wondrous thing about life is that you remember it as one strong thing. The wondrous thing about life is that you forget it was, once, a million little pieces.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Something New

When I start a book, any book, it takes me to a different place. Whilst I am reading it, I literally disconnect from ‘this’ – whatever ‘this’ is – ‘this’ sum total of everything and everyone and ever after. When I am done reading a book, it stays with me always. Life goes on and so does time, and portions of the book swell its own formless limits until they become my idea. But before a page seeps into my mind, there is this little blizzard that happens in my brain. Portions of sentences and associated thoughts; fragments of words and associated sensibilities; bits of characters and associated resemblances. I think I should write about those. Because these little blizzards took me to a different place – and every time they did that, they brought me home.

I’ll call this series of writings ‘First Impressions’.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Wisdom at 300

This is my 300th post. I thought that it is perhaps high time to allude, at least now, to something greater than myself and bigger than my mind.

This beautiful piece is verse 80 of Lao Tze's Tao De Jing:

Utopia
Let your community be small, with only a few people;
Keep tools in abundance, but do not depend upon them;
Appreciate your life and be content with your home;
Sail boats and ride horses, but don't go too far;
Keep weapons and armour, but do not employ them;
Let everyone read and write,
Eat well and make beautiful things.

Live peacefully and delight in your own society;
Dwell within cock-crow of your neighbours,
But maintain your independence from them.


Here's the link to the complete Tao De Jing: http://www.chinapage.com/gnl.html