Monday, June 30, 2014

Book Review: Holy War by Mike Bond

War is a human situation that started with the beginning of our race. At any point of time there is a war waging on one or the other part of our planet, bringing destruction and endless sufferings to millions of people- soldiers and civilians alike. If it causes such irreversible damages, why not stop engaging in it? Why not give peace a chance?  There are many antiwar thoughts going on in the world, coming out as literature, movements, as artwork and in many other forms. But war continues, unstopping, as a reality. In his brilliant novel Holy War, Mike Bond tries to answer these questions and more.

Neill is an American journalist, staying in London, with a family life on the verge of collapse. Need for money makes him to take up an assignment for MI6, getting Lebanese Hezbollah leader Mohammad interviewed in war torn Beirut city. The catch is that in order to get the money, Neill has to wear a GPS chip in his body revealing Mohammad’s position to Neill’s employers. Mohammad is the charismatic Hezbollah leader who is slowly warming up to the idea of everlasting peace between warring factions in the city. Rosa is a Palestinian woman who can go to any length for exacting revenge on Israel. Andre is the brother of a French Para soldier who dies in a suicide attack. He wants Mohammad, who he feels is responsible, to die and with the intention of killing Mohammad enters Beirut defying his seniors. The novel deals with their intermingling paths and the quest for an elusive peace.

Holy War is a stunning book. Mike Bond succeeds in taking the reader to the places were real war happens through the strength of his writing. The violence and underlying tension that builds up throughout this novel is enough to knock the sense out of the reader. On the top of that, it involves some intriguing characters, three dimensional and real. All the characters are written in such a way that, reader always feels there is much more to them than what meet the eyes. Through them the writer makes a statement of strong impact that condemns mutual destruction for the purpose of ego-boosting. Also commendable is the fact that, he never takes sides and maintains a balance between characters that make them more believable and the writing more authentic. It succeeds in making the reader think deep into themselves and come to a conclusion about the folly of war without doing any preaching.

Holy War is a must read book, that can stimulate our mind and soul. Don’t hop in for any cheap thrills, try it for the introspection mode that this book can put your mind into. Expect lot of explicit violence and sex.

Bangalore Days: Return of the Average Malayalee

I know now it is late to put a post on Bangalore Days. The movie released 2 months back, received much acclaim and has turned out to be a massive success. I watched it only last week. Quite a lot is written about it in various media by now, so I am not attempting to write about the brilliant direction or fantastic acting, which most of the readers are already aware of by now. Let me just point out one aspect of the movie that I felt makes it significant- its depiction of an average Malayalee.

It was in mid-eighties that an average Malayalee became integral part of Malayalam movies. Before that he was present as a character, but the movies were not much about him. Social and political movies prior to eighties were more about social changes and optimism. Most of them had leftist leaning. Family dramas and romances mostly had members from upperclass as characters, with those from lower strata entering to create conflict, as a plot device. Other genre of movies that ruled box office were Vadakkan Pattu martial arts dramas filmed with much incompetence and devoid of any local flavor of North Kerala were it was supposed to happen.

Eighties saw a sudden change in society. Agriculture, the back bone of economy, started its slow decline, causing the youth to think of an alternative. Securing a government job became a dream. Educational reforms created lot of young persons armed with a certificate, but not able to achieve the economic greatness it was supposed to bring, mainly due to the lack of opportunities. People started their massive exodus out of the state in search of greener pastures. All these factors populated a layer of society whom we termed middle class. Eighties projected them as the average Malayalee.

Depiction of a perfect specimen of an average Malayalee was probably done by Sathyan Anthikkad in his movies with Mohanlal. They were highly successful as people were able to relate to the daily struggles the protagonist- whose ambition invariably was to reach the upper class and his biggest fear,  getting demoted to the lower. Srinivasan, I feel is the bridge that connected social, political and family lives of the cinematic average Malayalee through his scripts and movies that were actually mirrors turned on the Malayalee psyche.

This went on till the mid-nineties. Several other film makers and actors joined the bandwagon and successfully explored (and exploited to some extend) the mind of average Malayalee. Mukesh and Jayaram became second level brigades of Mohanlal and Srinivasan. Kamal and Priyadarsan armed with scripts by Lohithadas treaded the path. In mid-nineties thanks to globalization and exposure to the wind from outside world, the average Malayalee slowly changed. His social outlook changed, his political views changed (the opening scene of Bangalore Days hints exactly on this), his ideological inclinations changed and his way of living changed. Film makers never got this; they tried to continue making stories about the same character they were familiar with. Slowly it became a non-profitable venture- making movies on the average Malayalee and the genre died a natural death. In its place were substituted mimicry comedies, action and political thrillers about crusaders and feel good romantic dramas.

If we check Bangalore Days, we can see that it is a movie that puts an average Malayalee back on the spotlight. It deals with three youngsters, cousins, who struggle to find their destiny in the competitive world. Here the makers of the movie are successful in portraying the mind set of Malayalee perfectly- not the Malayalee of eighties or nineties, but that of 2014. Getting a job or settling in life is not a struggle for them. (It is for their parents though, who are offspring of the eighties).

(*Spoilers Ahead*)

The character of Nivin Polly is nostalgic about his village, is an innocent sort of guy who fantasies marrying a traditional girl. But when circumstances calls, he has the practical mindset to retract from all these and choose what is good for him. The character of Nazriya, a bubbly and playful girl, is forced for an arranged marriage. Though she is dissatisfied, she displays the maturity to put her foot down and give wings to her ambitions, at the same time rebuilding her family.  The character of Dulqar is a rebel, a product of tumultuous family life created by the society of eighties. His wild nature subsides when channeled to the race tracks thanks to his coach and a lady love. They are essentially different from the protagonists of previous movies, but at the same time are truthful portraits of today’s youth.

Bangalore Days is significant because it succeeds in creating a realistic portrayal of average Malyalee, depicting their altered social, economic and family lives, without compromising in its entertainment value, something our filmmakers has not done from last two decades.  

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffagan.

Jim Gaffagan, I can gather from several reviews from internet, is a successful standup comedian. Lately I have read many books written by standup artists. They are fun. Their language has a flow, an irreverence that cannot be matched by regular comic writers. The one issue I have with their books is that, their books tend to be made entirely from parts of their shows. So when you read the whole book, it tends to be repetitive. Their books generally will be lacking a solid structure. But they are normally fun to read. Problem is when you try to read another book of theirs, it sucks. It sucks because the humor, the jokes will be entirely similar to the previous book. Just the order in which it is told and the tone may be slightly different. All these thoughts were swarming my head when I selected the book Dad Is Fat by Jim Gaffagan.

Dad Is Fat is a book about parenting. No, it is not something written to make expectant parents realize the beauty of raising kids, or essays that analyze ways to raise supermen and wonder women. It is about Jim’s experience of raising five kids, along with his wife, in a cramped two bedroom apartment in New York. The title of the book, he claims is what his daughter told him one day. It starts with a letter posthumously written by Jim to his kids, in which he explains them why, for whom and how he wrote this book. Then he recounts many of his adventures, misadventures, travels, celebrations and many other experiences with them, in the next chapters.

Jim Gaffagan’s real strength lies in self-deprecation. He calls himself fat and lazy and a really horrible dad. But it’s all done without leaving any bad taste in us. Each of his experiences are recounted quite hilariously, but at the same time with such natural flair that we never doubt if there is any exaggeration in it.  I’ve never heard any of his shows, so I’m not sure if he has repeated any of his material in this book. His humor is very simple, without any word play or any unnecessary criticisms towards others. It’s clean and sober and that is a welcome change from other such books that I’ve read in the past.

I was really entertained by this funny account of parenting. The book is a quick read and as I told before, never turns bitter. I will recommend this one to all readers who love something that is easy and fun to read without much negativity to others.

The Lego Movie: Deserving Watch For Kids

Lego group is a firm that makes construction toys who are pioneers in the business. Their product Lego consisting of interlocking plastic bricks comes with different accessories and miniature figures which can be joined to make buildings, vehicles and many other objects. These sets come in a variety of themes. Now when I read sometime back that they are making a movie based on Lego blocks, I was expecting it to be another product placement attempt that is going to backfire. After all to make a watchable movie based on plastic construction toys, you need a crew of incredible talent. Apparently, they were able to assemble such a crew for The Lego Movie.

The Lego Movie takes its inspiration from so many other movies and we can see many characters from other movies, history, sports and popular culture walking in and out of the movie. You have Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Star War characters, Lincoln, Michelangelo, Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, Shakespeare, NBA player Shaquille O’Neal and many others in their Lego forms appearing in various times in the movie. The makers have managed to make these appearances not becoming distractions in the flow of the movie.

The Lego Movie is about an ordinary construction worker named Emmet, who finds a Piece of Resistance and is thereby mistaken for Special, a master builder who according to the prophecy will put a stop to the control exerted by evil Lord Business, who is against any kind of creativity in the Lego World. Emmit, along with Wyldstyle (a character like Trinity from Matrix) and Vitruvius, the old wizard assembles master builders all over the world to fight Lord Business. The difficulties they face to unite and fight for saving creativity is the crux of the movie.

What makes this one outstanding is that it works differently for different level of people. Any age group- kids, teens, young adults and adults can enjoy the movie for different reasons. Everyone can take back home something worthy. It is such a clever movie, which is at the same time infinitely funny too. The master touch is the sudden change to live action from animation, which really change our perspective about the movie and raises it to a totally higher pedestal. The animation is top notch, and the imagination that went behind it has to be specially appreciated. Lego landscapes and Lego Ocean were fantastic to watch. The eye for details is praiseworthy.   

This is a movie that the kids totally deserve to watch. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

White Death by Clive Cussler: Fishy Fishy Proceedings...

In 15th century, a fierce battle in sea forces Spanish inquisitor’s galleys to abandon the search of one Basque leader and the relics he possess. Years later in 1935 a secret German air ship Nietzsche flies to North Pole and stops on the way to help a lone ship, never to be seen again. In the present, an environmentalist organization is out to make a point against whale killing in Faroe Islands when they cause the sinking of a Danish cruiser. Kurt Austin leader of NUMA’s Special Assignments, intervenes to rescue the trapped men. He stumbles into a conspiracy by a large fishing organization to monopolize their trade by genetic engineering. To prevent them from destroying the entire sea life and confront their mysterious Eskimo leader, Kurt has to first find the connection between Basque relics and the lost German air ship.  

I had read two books by Cussler before. One was Arctic Drift and other was a Dirk Pitt novel, the name of which I forgot. It involves Atlantis, that much I recall. I was not mighty impressed by any of them. They were sufficient for the thrills. When I picked up the novel White Death (fourth book in NUMA Files series) coauthored by Clive Cussler and Paul Kemprecos, my expectation was a forgettable, fast pace read. The book was just that and I don’t mean it in a bad way. It sustains your interest and at the same time doesn’t tie you emotionally with any of the proceedings. It is a formula driven novel that can serve a check sheet for successful escapist novel at the best.

I loved the breakneck pace of the novel. Things happen one after another and Cussler and his partner take the readers effortlessly to the climax without boring them or overbearing them in any point of the narration. The characters are likable, even the minor ones, who appears just ones or twice and mostly die gruesome deaths. The technology part thankfully, is not dealt in a textbook kind of way. In-fact nothing much technical is revealed to the reader. We are made to just assume that the futuristic things told in this novel, genetic engineering of salmons or deep water suits are possible. But that also does not prevent you from enjoying this made- in – an- assembly line thriller.

One issue I really had was the antagonist. He was supposed to be a ruthless, mysterious guy, whose goal is world domination. I felt the character lacked the chilling effect that Super villains should give the reader. If you have spare time and don’t want to bother your brain too much, go for this one. It's a good escapist novel that gives the right amount of thrills.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Life of Brian: A Multilayered Comedy

Years back, in a book by Nityachaitanyayati, I happened to read about this comedy movie called Life of Brian. His description of the movie was so comic that whenever I read that short piece I ended up giggling uncontrollably. Last day I saw the actual movie. It is a movie by the famous team of British comedians called Monty Python. The movie came in 1979 and even decades later, is as fresh as new. It is a religious-political satire happening in Jerusalem parallel to the life of Jesus Christ. The movie was highly acclaimed and a commercial success, but was banned in many countries due to the religious overtones.

Brian Cohen is born on the same day as Jesus, in fact in a cow shed very near to the one in which Jesus was born. The three wise men worship him by mistake and grab back the costly things presented to his mother when they realize their mistake. Brian grows up to be a man who resents Roman occupation. He tries to do his bit for the nation but is crest fallen by seeing the internal politics among different fractions of Jews. While running from a botched up attempt to kidnap the daughter of Pilates, crowd mistakes him for Messiah and follows him, much to his irritation. His life runs parallel to that of Jesus and ends on a cross, but in a more positive way.

The movie never gives rest to the viewer’s laughing muscles for even a second because gags keep coming one after the other throughout the running time. Like typical British humor, comedy in Life of Brian is very slapstick in nature, with too much exaggeration and repetition. Its crudeness and political incorrectness may put off many viewers. At the same time, to a thinking viewer, who can look above the buffoonery, the movie is a treasure trove. It raises several questions regarding true nature of beliefs, politics, conduct in public and a society that create a Messiah when it need.

I will heartily recommend Life of Brian, because I believe it will be influential to one and all if we have  a state of mind to look above obvious.

India's Biggest Cover-up by Anuj Dhar

As per Anuj Dhar, the biggest cover-up that occurred in post-independence India is the truth behind the alleged death of Subhas Chandra Bose in a plane crash in Taiwan. He and his colleagues are relentlessly following up and even fighting sometimes with Indian and even some international governments for an unbiased final investigation and acknowledgment of truth behind the mystery along with the declassification of several confidential documents with the government so that the ambiguity among the mind of Indians about the fate of one of the biggest patriots is cleared. India’s Biggest Cover Up is a work that covers the history and most of Dhar’s research work about the mystery.

The book gives a chronological narrative of the mystery. It starts with the official account about the plane crash that allegedly resulted in the death of the founder of INA and Forward Bloc, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Thereupon it describes several Government investigations and their findings on the case. It also deals with many related stories that compound the mysteries surrounding Bose like the treasure of INA, which Dhar suspects was looted by some former INA people themselves. There are also the details of sightings of Bose included- like the Shaulmari baba or the more probable candidate Bhagawanji.

The book questions the official line endorsed by each of the Indian governments till date and suspects foul play by vested interests in covering up the facts wantedly. Dhar also suspect foul play in keeping many documents related to Bose mystery as classified and so top secret that if leaked they have the potential to compromise national security. Dhar has pointed out several inconsistencies and serious errors in the investigations by various commissions that were neglected while concluding to make the end result fall in line with the official version.

To the credit of the author, he has presented his case really well and without any loop holes. Inclusion of several photographs and images of declassified documents and commission reports shows the amount of painstaking research gone to the writing of this book. Another positive factor that I noted while reading this book is that the author has taken good care to avoid bias from his side. He has substantiated most of his statements, doubts and questions with proof and has abstained from making any emotional outbursts.

I would recommend this book for every Indian whatever may be their take on the issue. I believe this book will make us part of the struggle to make the truth, whatever it may be, come out from the hiding in a way that gives no scope for a doubt.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Book Review: The Poor Man's Guide to Suicide

There are many books and movies that tell a story from a loser’s perspective. There are many characters in literature and movies to whom nothing good ever seem to happen and if anything happens also, it never brings the desired results in their lives. I am not a sucker for such characters as they tend to be depressive. One example I remember is Joseph Heller’s infinitely boring novel Something Happened. When I read the blurb of the book The Poor Man’s Guide to Suicide written by Andrew H Armacost, I was apprehensive as this one too seemed to tell the story of a loser. But then I ended up reading it anyway. Let us see how it fares.

Wesley Weimer is having the worst period of his life. Nothing seems to be working out for him. Being a two times divorcee, a major amount of his income goes in providing child support for his kids from his failed marriages. Professionally too, it seems he will never reach anywhere, he is a prison guard working in graveyard shift. Socially he is a misfit as his love life seems elusive and his only best friend gives him hell of an inferiority complex. Finally the pressure becomes unbearable and he decides to end his life. He arranges the help of a convicted prisoner for that. But from then onwards his life turns for good.   

The best thing about this book is that we never cease to relate to the protagonist even when he does things that demonstrate his fallacies. Even when he demonstrate his mental complexes, his narrative style and his deep understanding of things happening to him and to others, make us realize that this guy is not as shallow as he makes us and himself believe. This is one factor that makes his transformation towards the end totally believable. The whole novel is more of a long character study of this individual, our protagonist. Occasional humor helps a lot.

On the negative side, every bad thing that plagues “Loser Literature,” as I would like to term this genre shows in this book too. The self-pity and self-victimization that the protagonist displays tends to go overboard in many places. The narrative becomes a bit depressing and dry sometimes. Still I will say The Poor Man’s Guide to Suicide is worthy of a read thanks to its protagonist, who despite not being likeable in conventional sense, makes an interesting three dimensional entity.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Counselor and other movies: Flop Show

Last week I happened to watch lot of movies compared to my normal consumption rate. All of them had the potential to be good, sensational or even excellent as the talent associated with them had produced excellent work before. All movies had some really interesting thought process behind them, which was the basic reason why people cared to make them first of all, but invariably all of them failed in the execution. So when I say I do not like these movies I do not demean them or the people associated with them. I really hope they make something better next time.

Mannar Mathai Speaking 2: Let’s start with the bottom of the barrel. The only thing this one succeeds is in destroying all good that were the previous movies of the series. There were some laughs in the beginning, in-fact more or less the same ones for which we laughed decades back while watching the previous installments and then it was all chaos…

Konthayum Poonoolum: Well, this one had an interesting concept- an episodic horror movie. The cast was good, technical aspects were brilliant and the concept on paper should have made it a safe bet, at a time when experimental movies are striking gold in Kerala. I believe the problem was with editing. The plot was all around and the way in which the stories were tied together made it all the more absurd. Nothing much made sense. The CD that I had was faulty, fortunately I could not watch the last half an hour of it and when I told it to the shopkeeper later, she offered replacement. I opted for cash back instead.

Samsaaram Aarogyathinu Hanaikaram: I watched the Tamil version and I really forgot the name of it. I can Google it, but why waste time, considering that I already lost some by trying to watch it. This too had an interesting concept- about a disease that renders an entire village mute for days. They tried to make it a comedy, emotional, political, social satire with romantic undertones of a three-way love. There is a dose of female empowerment thrown in somewhere. Result is a big black HOLE.

Kallathuppakki: Ok, I doubt any of you have heard of it. If you haven’t, you haven’t lost anything. How I wish we were in same pedestal on this issue..!

Maan Karate: This one starred that guy from Varuthappadatha Valibar Sangam, the movie that surprised me by its quick wit. Maan Karate started promisingly, was progressing enthusiastically, only to demolish in the end the whole of its potential by just sitting on all the good it could have done.  Starting as a fantasy, it quickly goes into hero-worship mode and never recovers. Problem is the guy has not yet reached there himself nor does the movie do anything to establish him there.

The Counselor: Great crew, talented cast, stylish production, good acting, wonderful dialogue- almost all dialogues in this one are quotable (I don’t know about the Spanish ones as the DVD didn’t had subtitles for them. I presume they are also good by the satisfied look of extras appearing to mouth them), and no point in the whole movie. It just goes on and on, with most of the scenes involving several of the characters giving their two bit of advice to The Counselor, the protagonist. I don’t know why should I care, when apparently even the guy doesn’t follow any of them and lands in a soup. I don’t even know how he gets into the trouble as no much detail are given in the movie. The last scene has a piece of dialogue that goes something like, “I think you’ve told me more than I wish to know”.  That dialogue sums up the feeling after watching this extravagance. The joke is that slide they display at the end of the movie which says, “The making and authorized distribution of this movie supported over 13,000 jobs…” It is satisfying to know that something good comes out of every catastrophe.