Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Book Review: Open-eyed Meditations

Meditation is an essential tool for introspection. It helps you to look deep into your self and come up with fresh insights that is inherent within you. According to Indian thought, every knowledge that a man needs to live in the world is already provided to him. It is coded inside his subconscious. To uncover this knowledge, it only requires a patient quest into oneself. This quest itself is termed  introspection. Meditation is one practical way to do introspection. It is done by concentrating hard on only a single aspect and avoiding every other distractions, caused by self as well as the world.

Most of the ancient knowledge from India developed after undergoing a thorough polishing through meditation. All the vedopanishads, sciences and epics of India are fruits of countless hours of meditational thought undergone by several saints and teachers. That is the reason why all these works contain timeless spiritual as well as practical- real world wisdom in equal measures. For the benefit of common men, who were tied up with the living, conscious world, saints embedded the knowledge gained through meditation into tales with which they can relate easily.

The intention behind the writing of Indian epics was not just the entertainment of the masses, but their upliftment in life. The intention was to cause an awakening of sorts after understanding the principles of thoughts generated through meditation retold as relatable stories. Mahabharatha and Ramayana were stories depicting conflicts between kings. But these were conflicts that happen universally in human minds. These were tough choices and dilemmas that men faced and still faces every moment in his life. These were about how to deal with a merciless world effectively without compromising on one's innate goodness and sense of justice.

Open-eyed Meditations is a book written by Shubha Vilas that aspires to interpret some of the wisdom emanated through our epics and find out how it can be beneficial to modern living. I had read some parts of his series Ramayana- The game of life, which concentrated on retelling Ramayana in a way that would be helpful to practically use it in our everyday life. This book also has a similar approach, but instead of a structured retelling, it consists of simple essays that deals with individual issues that we face daily and remedial measures that can be adopted from classics. This is more like a self help reference guide, that can be consulted easily by using the content section which, I find more practical and effective.

The book consists of sixty four short essays about topics as varied as professional choices, mental health and marital relations. Each chapter has a clear example from either Ramayana or Mahabharatha from which we can learn how they tackled similar issues and how we too can take a similar approach in our life. Each chapter has a crisp summary in its end which is really helpful for future reading and referencing.

The topics covered in the book is pretty exhaustive, so I would have loved if the chapters were clubbed into sections dedicated to a particular aspect of life- like profession, relationships, family, society etc. It could made it more user friendly.

This review is a part of the biggest Book Review Program for Indian Bloggers. Participate now to get free books!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Jolly Good LLB 2

I didn't watch the first part of Jolly LLB starring Arshad Warsi. But I've heard pretty good reviews of the movie. The second part was a bit controversial when the makers decided to cast Akshay as the lead and up the stakes. Fans of the first movie were pretty vocal about this decision, but Arshad decided to stand with the director.

I am not in a position to comment about the differences between them, but the second part is a good one time watch. It tackles a serious issue in a semi serious manner, satires the legal system in a healthy way without getting preachy and never loses focus. The story is nothing new or original. But the narration is thankfully devoid of clutter.

For a change Akshay never try to go overboard with comedy or action, even with ample opportunities present. That decision turned out to be a wise one. It is the supporting cast who does a great job. Even the minor ones deserve a pat on their backs. The moments to watch out happens between the judge, played by Saurabh Shukla and the opposite lawyer played by Annu Kapoor.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Manchester by the Sea : To Be Or Not To Be...

Manchester by the Sea is nominated for Oscars. I would love if it wins one for the best picture. Actually I would love if Silence wins, but as I told before, its the Blade Runner of 2016. And it's not even nominated. Coming back to Manchester By The Sea, I don't think it'll win the best picture award. It doesn't have any narrative gimmicks, no social realistic theme and not even an existential conflict. It just has a protagonist who let his chances of redemption pass. So the award jury too probably will give it a pass.

But that doesn't make it any lesser movie than the one that is going to end up winning it (La La Land?). It is a very personal story about a man who lost everything once and is not interested in rebuilding it. He passes all the chances of redemption that the life throws at his way. Casey Affleck shines in a career defining role and gets full support from a perfect script, the director and all the supporting cast.

All That Man Is by David Szalay: A Warm Portrayal of Male Psyche

All That Man Is is written by David Szalay and was short listed for Man Booker prize 2016. Though it is listed as a novel, it is actually a collection of nine stories with many recurring elements and themes. Basically it is a portrayal of manhood through specimens of nine European men of different ages and at diverse stages of life.

The book starts with the story about Simon, a young introvert British teenager, sightseeing in Berlin along with his friend. It ends with the story of his knighted grandfather Tony who is seventy three and recuperating from surgery. In between there are diverse stories about men of many ages and social status facing testing life situations where either love, money or in most cases both are at stake.

All the protagonists are invariably flawed men in humiliating circumstances, mostly of their own making. Some are indifferent, some are with bloated egos and most of them totally break down. The stories are pretty bleak, but told with a very mild dose of humor and with much sympathy. They are so realistic that they have the potential to be case studies of psychologists.

All nine stories feature their protagonists in international journeys- some of them holidays, some personal errands and some business trips. Invariably while they are in a foreign situation, they face an issue where a tough choice has to be taken which can affect their life. The stakes- sex, love, money, job, assets and ultimately life- build up as the age goes up. The book is an existential comedy.

Buy the book :

Friday, February 3, 2017

Hell Or High Water: Resurrection of Westerns

There's nothing new in Hell Or High Water, the Oscar nominated heist movie directed by David Mackenzie. It is essentially a western movie set in modern times, with many elements derived from great movies of yesterdays. Even the character of Jeff Bridges getting ready for his retirement after cracking a final case reminds you of Tommy Lee Jones from No Country For Old Man. The decadence, crazy bravado, casual violence, all the usual point outs of the genre are thrown at the viewer. There's even a cowboy-Indian duel albeit with words and in good spirits.

But none of this stands in the way of enjoying this well crafted, gritty character drama. The movie is shot picturesquely, with a pacy, razor sharp narration and specimens of wonderful acting. I loved the care given on the minute details that tells a lot about the setting and the characters. It also helped to do away with a lot of exposition.

The movie follows two brothers who team up with a plan to rescue their barn from loan shark banks by robbing them and two Rangers who are out to nab them. The heist plan is pretty basic, but interesting nevertheless when we review how it finally ties up all the loose ends. The violence is kept minimum, but once unleashed, gets effective and shocking. The movie plods to the climax with clockwork precision and every component of it works well within the whole. It's a must 'watch'.

Nocturnal Animals : A Novel Within A Movie...

Nocturnal Animals is an acclaimed psychological thriller movie directed by Tom Ford. It is intense and dark with a unique novel-within-movie structure of narration. A women receive a book from her novelist ex-husband. The movie moves in three parallel routes- the present reality, the novel that she reads and the flashback of their life together.

I loved the movie for the finesse with which the three narratives are blended. The biggest pleasure was watching them culminate in an awesome climax, the like of which I have never seen in my life. The depiction of the novel is very violent and dark. The plot of the novel is very basic, but that part got the benefit from some great acting talent that elevated it and bridged the remaining two narratives solidly.

I loved the parts that established the parallels between the novel and the events from real life. There is no real connection between plot of the novel and reality, but the way it is visualised, we get convinced. This adds ambiguity to the plot. We are left doubting whether it is intended by the writer or is it just the imagination of the reader.

The visual tone of the movie is reminiscent of the thrillers that used to be made in late eighties and nineties. It was good because these days we never get to see that style. Background score is excellent and contributes in adding impact to the visuals. The movie has a relentless pace with frequent cutting from one plot to another. I think after Nightcrawler, it is the first time I am watching such a good thriller.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Eileen : A Dark Comedy About Dreary Existence

Eileen, the 2016 Man Booker shortlisted novel by Ottessa Moshfegh is not the kind of book that normally appeals to me. It is the story of a woman who has very low self esteem, living a dismal and pathetic existence. Nothing dramatic happens in the first three quarters, except routine, dreary existence of her, always wallowing in self pity. But still, while reading it, I wasn't able to put the book down. There's something about this dark comedy that touches and make you empathetic.

Eileen is a young women doing a boring job in a children's prison (correctional facility is not an appropriate name for it, as told in the story). A motherless child, she lives with her drunkard and senile father, in a dilapidated home, performing her daughterly duties like a slave, albeit hating him and wears her dead mother's ill fitting clothes. She is a social disaster, never been loved or cared by any and her self pity and self indulgence never let her engage in social relations. Her plan to run away from her home in search of a better future never materialises.

All this changed when one day a new staff is appointed at the prison. Rebecca is just the opposite of her. She's pretty, a great talker, well dressed, well mannered and most importantly, she is friendly with Eileen. Eileen is ready to go to any lengths for maintaining her first chance of starting a social relation. But what is the true intention of Rebecca?

The book is narrated in Eileen's point of view. Like the mental state of her, the narrative is a long rant that moves in times and coils around. But in spite of the wallowing, repetitive nature of it, the narration has a charm that makes it hard to put down the book. It is an easy read that took me just hours to finish.

More than the plot, the author gives priority to the premise. She makes us live Eileen's existence, which believe me, is rather uncomfortable. But the subtle black humor and a satisfying resolution, which is impossible to see coming, makes it a worthy read.

Buy the book :

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A Monster Calls- An Anti-Fairy Tale

A Monster Calls is another among the 2016 movies that was favorited by critics but fell flat at the ticket counter. I watched it and felt that it is an amazing fantasy, a very personal tale about confronting your deepest fears and carrying on with life. Why didn't more people appreciate this movie?

These days we want our movies clearly and safely bracketed. We are uncomfortable when we see a movie that we expected to be a fantasy with a boy playing the lead discuss dark topics like death fear. This movie was unsuitable for kids who these days are totally safeguarded from uncomfortable truths and certainties of life. Adults will definitely not watch it because it is about a walking, talking tree that appears to help a boy.

This is the story of a boy whose mother is dying from cancer and he has repeated nightmares about she falling into an abyss in spite of him trying to hold on her. The prospect of living with his grandmother, who is a strict and dominating lady is another turn off for him. He gets socially inept, suffer in studies and get regularly bullied at school. When things go from bad to worse, a tree monster appears to tell him three stories. After the third story is told, the kid has to tell his story, the truth.

A Monster Calls is a movie that is basically a fantasy, but defies its conventions. The fairy tales that the monster recounts aren't actually fairy tales. In them, seemingly good people do unspeakable wrongs, and bad ones are spared. The monster tries to make the boy realise that pent up emotions are not going to help. Sometimes it becomes necessary to burst open and do bad things. And doing bad things need not make you punishable always. He understands that humans are complex beings and cannot be labelled good or bad.

A Monster Calls is a film that has potential to appeal adults and matured children who didn't grow up all padded up from the sharp edges of the world. It is a treasure trove of wisdom, not the quick fix type that Hollywood regularly churns out in the kids-friendly tag. It speak of a real world, real sorrows and real challenges. 

Everybody Wants Some!!...- Great Plot-less Fun

Roger Ebert used the adjective anthropological in the review of a movie directed by Richard Linklater. All his acclaimed movies serve simultaneously as wholesome entertainers and strong social commentaries. His movies are mostly plot-less affairs, but based on great characters and solid dialogue.

Everybody Wants Some.., his latest, follows the tradition. A spiritual successor of his earlier movie Dazed And Confused, this movie follows Jake, a newbie baseball player on his first weekend before college starts. Jake has just arrived into college after a successful stint as a high school baseball player and learns that he has to stay with his fellow team members in a separate house. He has a whole weekend to pass before college begins. The movie follows his interactions with his team mates and all the fun and games of one-upmanship they have in those two days.

The movie, like every other Linklater film, relies heavily on strong characterisation instead of a structured plot. Here you find genuinely etched characters who display distinct world views and temperaments, but are totally relatable. Linklater uses these characters by making them interact in different social situations to create humor as well as social commentary. The movie is totally fun and enjoyable.

Jake and his friends, being sportsmen and team mates, uses every other situation to gauge their companions and to prove that they are one step ahead in competition. Failure, even in minor affairs causes much frustration. In the highly competitive world of college baseball, a stepping stone to being professionals, it becomes essential for survival.

Tremendously stylish and featuring a killer soundtrack its a must watch movie.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Silence: Scorsese On Religion, Faith and Suffering...

Silence, the latest by Martin Scorsese got just one nomination for Academy Awards. La La Land got 14, the highest ever. If you see Silence, you will understand why. Silence is not the kind of movie that wins at Oscar or create magic at box office. It is the kind of movie that after a decade, people may watch with awe and wonder why it failed when it was released. It is not Forrest Gump or Shakespeare in Love. It is Shawshank Redemption. It is 2001: A Space Oddesey. It is Blade Runner.

Silence is a period movie set in 17th Century Japan. Japanese monarchy is heavily coming down on converted native Christians and European priests who relentlessly try to import the religion. They are tortured brutally and made to apostate by stepping on a stone figure of Christ. When news reaches that Father Ferreira is captured and has apostated Christianity to become a Japanese, his two disciples decides to smuggle themselves into Japan and find out the truth. The movie follows their painful journey- in both physical and spiritual sense to find their mentor.

Silence is a companion piece to Scorsese's much derided masterpiece, The Last Temptation of Christ. Both movies are meandering, difficult ones that test the viewer's patience. But once you break the mould, both movies are immensely rewarding, I would even say meditational experiences.

Both movies have protagonists on whom greatness is thrust upon, who continually try to decipher God's messages to show them their way and get desperate when they fails to hear from him. Both movies need an emotional and intellectual maturity from audience who has to figure out that, it is not what is shown that is intended. They need the viewers to see through elaborate symbolism and decode the intent of the director.

Silence is a movie that gives you enough freedom to intellectually and emotionally involve with it. I feel that Scorsese is daring the audience to introspect about their faith and believes, engage with the movie, accept or even disagree with the concepts that it put forward.

You can watch this movie in many levels. The easiest would be the literal one, in which Japanese Buddhists torture converted Christians and force them brutally to abandon the religion. I saw it as the fight between a steadfast individual's believes and the social reality. A powerful drama about, how surrendering to greater good can be liberating. It resonates with my idea about one's religion being a very deeply private affair that should stay within his soul. I was clapping my hands when I watched the last shot of the movie, because that was what I felt pure faith should be.

I will not recommend this movie. Please don't even think of watching this movie if you are not ready to put your effort on it. It demands that much. If you are just in for mindless entertainment, you are going to lose your money and three hours of your life.

His Bloody Project: Account of a Gruesome Crime

His Bloody Project is a novel by Graeme Macrea Burnet that was short listed for Man Booker prize, 2016. It is a historic crime novel based on the Scottish peasant life of 19th century. The novel narrates the story of a young man in late teens who end up murdering three persons in cold blood and is awaiting trial. His brutal act marks the title of the book.

The story is told as a collection of  documents acquired accidently by the author about a long forgotten crime. The main body of the novel is an account narrated by Roderic Macrea, a teenager imprisoned for murder, on the insistence of his lawyer. He writes about the events that lead to his desparate action. It also contains legal testimonies of the people of his village, a paper by a criminologist about his involvement in the case, post mortem report and trial report.

The novel maintains its intriguing style for its whole length and manages to keep the reader invested. It is successful in making us feel inside that the truth is not what that meets the eye and there is something more than what's revealed. It exploits the unreliable narrator technique. Instead of being just an account of a gruesome action, events that lead to it and the aftermath, it stands as a powerful character study of a young man who is in the midst of tremendous pressure due to his conflicts with the society and family.

The novel also is a study on inequalities, abuse of power and existence of class in society. Though the background of the story is the Scottish croft system, I felt that there is a universality to it. In some form or other, our society displays the same callousness and absence of empathy. We can observe the distrust between people of different social structures of our society.

His Bloody Project is a remarkable novel that mirrors the contemporary reality in the guise of historical crime fiction.

Buy the book:

Sunday, January 29, 2017

La La Land : A revival of Musicals

La La Land starts with a long musical and dance number in one shot happening on a highway. That and the retro looking opening titles clearly indicates that we're about to watch a movie that is intended as a tribute to the musicals of the Golden era of Hollywood. I've watched only very few of them. I can remember Gene Kelly starrer iconic movie, Singing in the Rain and old classic The Wizard of Oz. But being an Indian, I will never have an issue with appreciating Hollywood musicals. Most of our movies, be in any genre, feature song and dance sequences.

The title La La Land refers to a place that can exist only in fiction, in dreams. La La Land also denotes Los Angeles, the city of angels, of Hollywood, the place were dreams realise. This is a story about two dreamers, strugglers who falls in love in the city of angels. He is a pianist and a jazz puritan, who dreams of reviving the genre that is on its deathbed. She is an aspiring actress, working as a waitress and trying to audition for a dream role.

Their love is told through songs and dances that are beautifully staged in dream like setups. I used the word staged deliberately, because the movie, following closely the tradition of musicals from the bygone era, doesn't portray any semblance of realism in any shot. Yet the narration, instead of feeling made up and artificial, has a strong sincerity that force us to believe in them and their tribulations. The love story and the following breakup seems very genuine.

While watching it I was thinking that the movie looks and feels good, but the plot is pretty dated. But Damien Chazzelle, who shocked me with his astonishing drama Whiplash, had better plans. It is the climax that elevates it into a whole higher level. The climax, which was devoid of any dramatics was one of the best that I saw ever.

La La Land is a movie about movies, jazz, ambition, struggles, dreams and dancing in love. More importantly it is movie about the ability to let go of our great assets in order to achieve the passion of life.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

(Na)Kaabil: Short of Expectations

Just like this week's other release Raees, Kaabil serves its audience a generous dose of worn out clichés. The movie tried to blend the revenge plot of Mohra with the logic of Aankhen (the Akshay starrer). But it failed to replicate the raw energy of the former or the smartness of the latter. Story follows a blind man who avenge his blind wife's death.

The treatment reminds you of movies that used to be made 20 years back. At that time, makers never worried about viewers questioning plot holes. (Spoilers ahead) Sanjay Gupta is in an illusion that time hasn't changed. His hero kills a guy after a bloody fight, drops a towel on the dead body and boasts not leaving an evidence for police. The fact is that there are enough finger and DNA prints lying around and the proof of crime is just short of a red banner with Hrithik's name, address and Aadhar number printed on it being displayed on the spot. For Sanjay Gupta's policemen, forensic science is a very foreign science.

The movie is a good show case of Hrithik Roshan. He displays wit and vulnerability in equal measure without much bother about the catastrophe that the plot is leading to. He is the saving grace of Kaabil. The supporting cast were really good, but never get any chance to shine. I hated the acting of heroine and her appearances in the second half of the movie. Misplaced songs were another spoil sport.

There were several scenes that really stimulated my interest. I was expecting that from that point, things are going to pick up. But unfortunately it was not to be. The scenes that hero exacts his revenge is supposed to be the backbone of the movie. The build up towards them were genuinely interesting, but at the time that matters, we find that our hero doesn't have any semblance of a plan with him. Somehow by luck things fall in place. The title of the movie should ideally be Khush-kismat (Lucky).

Friday, January 27, 2017

Raees And The Fall...

Raees is a gangster movie and comes generously packed with all the regular clichés of the genre. There are very few elements that we never watched before in better movies. The film makers were able to execute some of them successfully while sadly certain elements remain sore thumps.

Raees is the story of the rise and fall of a spirit smuggler who loves to call himself a business man. Set in Gujarat, the movie is based on alcohol prohibition. It shows us what happens when availability of a commodity is made scarce by legally banning it among a group of people who have the reputation of the biggest business minded ones. Raees has an ingenious business mentality and a daring criminal mentality. He scales the ranks effortlessly. The spoilsport is an officer named Majumdar who is hell bend on taking him out.

As I told, the plot just follows the worn out path of countless other mafia flicks. The difference is the characterisation of the protagonist. In other movies either the guy is forced to a life of crime by circumstances or is a born criminal. In Raees, the lead character had no such compulsions. Any doubt of a strain of criminality running in his blood is soon quelled by scenes showing his compassion. As per him, he is doing business and he will do whatever is good for business.

Though initially we see Raees turning around some situations to his advantage by some quick thinking, that part of the plot soon dries out. I was disappointed because that was what fascinated me in the beginning. The second best thing in the movie are the confrontations of Shahrukh and Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Both actors shows off their best in those moments and the makers have included a lot of impressive combination scenes. 

No other supporting characters put up any remarkable show and are content with being perfectly good fillers. I have an issue with the action scenes. Recent Hindi movies had some amazing action sequences. But in Raees fights appear shoddy. The songs also break the pace of the movie and contribute little to the plot. 

If we put aside the matter that this is just a movie and meant for enjoyment, Raees put forward some serious doubts. Is it healthy to show a man doing illegal business by selling banned and spurious products that can harm the health of public, being a hero of the society? There are many movies that deals with the same subject including the great Godfather. But that movie never wanted the audience sympathising with the guy. He was a corrupt and bad man, who nevertheless had certain ethical codes and stood by it. Though audience loved him and gets sad when things go rough, they feel that whatever bad deal the person got, he deserved it. The same is the case with its Indian clones like Nayagan, Sathya or Once Upon A Time in Mumbai. 

What Raees tries to do is to emotionally manipulate the viewer into rooting for the bad guy. It seemed unnatural for me. I lost it when they showed him bash up violently an anti-alcohol possession (that was led by a corrupt politician) just because it was harmful for his business. It was okay if they left it like that. But what made it worse was the pathetic justifications that came afterwards. 

Though the makers have denied it, Raees is based on an actual criminal from Gujarat. Just a look at his biography in Wikipedia will confirm the parallels. This person was responsible for supplying RDX for Mumbai blasts. Raees team includes this also in the story and justifies it as a mistake. And to make it worse, he is given secular credentials. An antihero movie can be interesting if the power of judgement lies with the audience. Otherwise it is just manipulative...

Book Review: A Mother Dies

One of the most difficult experience one has to sail through in life is to face the fact that someone very dear, someone whom one took for granted, is no more. A Mother Dies, a short book of just around 50 pages written by Arusha Topazzini deals with such an issue in her life when her mother passed away. It is very personal and heartfelt account about her mother and their relationship.

At the same time, it is also a universal theme, because in this world there will only be very few lucky people who never had to endure the pain of losing. The writer was able to bring this universality in her writing. It makes you relive the days when you had similar experiences. I feel it has a therapeutic value, when after reading about another person's life, you get a chance to go through your own past, your pain, reevaluate your life and appreciate the value of those who passed by and those who are still with us.

A Mother Dies is available at Amazon Kindle.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Moonlight: A Delicate Movie

Imagine a movie that's simple, delicate and very life-like. Moonlight is that movie. Its a very sincere film about the growing up of a shy, introvert, bullied boy into a tough nut. It's about identifying oneself in an unforgiving world. It's about choices that you take in life and how they work in your transitions. It's also about relations, friendship and love.

The movie depicts three stages from the life of Chiron, a black kid living with an abusive and possessive mother. The first part titled Little, deals with bullied Chiron's budding relation with a drug dealer who tries to fill the gap of a father figure. Second part is titled Chiron and here we see a teenaged boy trying to come in terms with social pressure, parental neglect, budding sexuality and betrayal.

Third part titled Black, features a transformed Chiron who has become a drug boss like his mentor from the first segment. He tries to bring some sanity to the troubled relationship with his mother. Also he attempts to rekindle his one-kiss relation with his friend Kevin who calls him after a decade. But for that he has to resolve the issue of a betrayal.

The best thing about the movie is the characterisation of Chiron. Though three different actors portrayed him in three segments, all of them succeeds in bringing a surprising consistency to the character. It is well evident in the third segment in which he physically looks menacing and beefed up, but displays deep down the same vulnerability as in previous parts. The supporting actors were also fabulous.

The movie is filmed in a very sober manner, with minimum exposition. It follows a natural flow that is so rare to see these days. It reminded me of the movie Fruitvale Station that I saw some time back. It was about the wrongful killing of a black man by police. Though it was a sharp social movie exploring racial tensions and this one is a mellow psychological drama, the focus of both movies was on realism. There was a sincerity in both attempts.

I loved that the three parts of the movie were titled by the names that different people call the protagonist. Each title when looked back, makes complete sense and gives precious insights about his behaviours in that segment. Probably Moonlight is the best movie that I watched recently. It's sincere, beautiful and universally significant.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Moana: Latest In Assembly Line Animation

Moana is the latest animation movie that is gobbling all the critical and commercial appreciation that's coming it's way. Last year, I think except The Good Dinosaur, all major animation movies by Hollywood did good business. Not surprising, because the general quality of the rendering is top class. Most movies had a solid premise and a charm that attracts kids, their target audience.

Ok, Sausage Party was an exception. It was an adult comedy and a sleeper hit of 2016. I saw that and felt it was hilarious for around half an hour, and then it turned repetitive and too derivative of movies that it was trying to parody. The Secret Life Of Pets, another animation movie that I watched was also too similar to past hits. Zootopia was a genuinely good movie which was a fresh breath of air.

Coming back to Moana, the Disney movie won't disappoint kids. It is a fun ride that contains an inspirational strain. The characters are appealing and well portrayed by the voice actors. It's also a musical and the songs are impressive. It has a message about preserving nature subtly embedded into the story. It's a perfect movie to take the kids to.

My issue is the assembly line sensibility that it displays. The plot is very predictable and formula driven. Elements of it are assembled from several other movies. The movie is about a quest and the stakes are high. But it doesn't show onscreen. Even the resolution is very abrupt that any surprise it generates may turn to disappointment if you think of it afterwards.

Motives of the demigod played by The Rock is unexplainable in any regards even after inserting a feeble back story. Though his antics are fun to watch. The film makers' struggle to insert some payoffs by the climax has resulted in some really silly scenes that doesn't gel with the movie.

Moana is like a McDonald's burger. You know what you are going to get. There is no point in complaining as that's all you're going to get. No more, no less.

The Sympathizer : Complex Duality..

Vietnam war is a much repeated plot point in American movies and novels. The plight of soldiers has been repeated so often that it has been turned to a cliché plot device. Making a lead character a Vietnam veteran automatically injects him with a new level of maturity, outlook and weariness and makes any further exposition needless.

The Sympathizer is the first work of fiction that I encountered which tells the Vietnamese perspective of  the war. In American books and movies, even the ones that are sympathetic, Vietnamese are either faceless victims or perpetrators of violence.

The Sympathizer is the Pulitzer prize winning novel of 2016 written by debutant novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen. The book has its protagonist a half Vietnamese- half French unnamed man. He fights with Southern Vietnamese army along with US army, but is actually a sympathizer, an undercover Communist spy.

The novel portrays his dual nature that accepts both perspectives. It proves to be a handicap for him because both sides actually wants from him unflinching loyalty to their individual causes and unlimited hatred against other side.

The book is written in first person singular narrative and when the protagonist becomes aware of his dual nature, turns to first person plural 'we' in the final chapter. The narration, which is matter-of-fact in the beginning, slowly turns more complex as the story progress. The mechanical recounting of events give way to personal narrative which, as time progress even involves fantastical elements.

The Sympathizer is an intense and profound novel that is primarily about Vietnam war, but deals with contemporary issues like migration, alienation and futility of blind idealism. It is a worrying portrayal of how the society tends to keep apart the individual who are broad minded in outlook.

Read the blogpost on the 2016 Man Booker award winning novel The Sellout by Paul Beatty.

Buy the book:

The Dance of Reality: An Unreal Movie Experience

According to Alexandro Jodorowsky, reality is just a dance created by our imaginations. The Dance of Reality, his first movie in 23 years, is a validation of that statement. It is an autobiographical movie that is as much fantasy as musical. The movie is about his growing up in Chile and his relationship with his parents. The movie uses heavy dose of surrealism, which means there is lot in it than what meets our eye and there is also high probability that you are not going to make much sense out of it.

The movie portrays Jodorowsky's life as a kid, his search for an identity and the part played by his parents and society in its formation. An integral part of the movie is the spiritual journey that his father who is a Stalinist and an atheist, makes, which concludes in him realising his true nature and identity. His mother who delivers her speeches in an operatic singing tone appears docile and silly, but soon proves that she is really the pillar that emotionally and spiritually supports the family.

The first thing that strikes you while watching The Dance of Reality is its insane color sense. To say the movie is colorful will be an understatement. Complementing it's visual tone are the images that accompany it and the poetic dialogues. Out of the world is the only suitable adjective. Though it is biopic, do not expect any realism. Jodorowsky claims whatever shown in the movie is real, but portrayed through art. So we see a theosophist in a loin cloth dancing on beaches, a piece of rock when tied to balloons floating in sky and people walking on streets always wearing face masks.

This treatment is deliberately done. I feel the reason is to make the viewer uncomfortable and aware that there is something hidden underneath of what is being shown. Probably like how his masterpiece El Topo used insane violence to alienate viewers and make them seek the meaning of it all.

I feel Jodorowsky crafts beautiful visual puzzles aimed at the audience in every scene making them take part in the creative process. He make sure that they doesn't just go along with him while watching the movie. His aim is to make them try and make sense of his puzzles or question him even if they are unable to answer them.

The use of violence and sex is much mellowed in this movie when compared to El Topo, his other and much older movie that I watched. But still there are numerous scenes that has potential to cause discomfort, like the one in which his mother cures his father of plague. Several imagery and ideas seems reappearing from El Topo, but overall this movie has a more positive vibe to it. The Dance of Reality is a beautiful poetic puzzle of a movie that demands audience participation in appreciating it.

Read my blogpost on Jodorowsky's Dune, a documentary about the failed attempt to make the world's best movie.

Read my blog post on El Topo  another masterpiece by Alexandro Jodorowsky. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

XXX: Xander Cage is Back and Ridiculous

What makes a good sequel? I feel it is the upgrade that you do to the basic idea of the original like in the case of Fast and Furious franchise. Every succeeding movie covers the previous installments, brings back the good characters, increase the stakes and never compromise on the quality. XXX series already squandered the chance when they made State of the Union, a very substandard sequel in terms of everything that was XXX. I consider it an excuse rather than a sequel. Now they are back with XXX: Return of Xander Cage.

...and screws it up again.

This one is still a few steps below the first part in every element- action, stunts, pace, suspense, plot, characters. The movie looks good, Vin Diesel is OK, Deepika and Donnie Yen are awesome. I am really happy to watch Yen getting noticed in Hollywood. He is a terrific actor. Deepika Padukone makes her presence felt. A few stunts are indeed breath taking. And that about sums up the good things of Return of Xander Cage. Ok, and the entry of Neymer in the first scene.

A gadget that can control satellites is stolen by a bunch of former XXX operatives and Xander Cage, who has feigned his death, is the only person capable of fixing the situation. He goes on the mission after recruiting some new members.

We had seen how bad the idea of recruiting new members backfired in Expendables 3.  The same issue repeats. All we get is a bunch of uninteresting nitwits whom we are to suffer for the entire running time. Other minor characters are also a pain to watch.

The character introductions never reveal anything interesting and take up half the movie. By the time some action set pieces start showing, we cease to care. There was a scene that was more ridiculous than the Batman- Superman patch up that we saw last year.

Tony Jaa got a raw deal. Here is a guy who has proved that he can carry an entire martial arts movie on his knees and all he do is appear. The only relief is that his role is a tad longer than the blink-and-you'll-miss-me one that he did in that Fast and Furious movie.

The stunts come no-where near the original. While XXX was made as a fun alternative to serious spy flicks like James Bond ones, this one tries to imitate Expendables and Fast and Furious. While XXX had some great music, this one is a letdown. The plot is an excuse, no context, no suspense and totally predictable.

The only surprise twist they finally came up was to remind us of the bad aftertaste of XXX: State of Union by bringing back the guy who made it unwatchable. The better alternative to XXX: Return of Xander Cage is a rewatch of the original. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies...

Martin Scorsese is a director who has delivered a string of great movies. Undoubtedly he is one of the living legends of cinema. That's why I was excited about a movie in which he talks about movies. A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies is a BFI produced  documentary. Made in three parts, it spans a total of three and a half hours.

As the title says, in this movie, Scorsese recounts the history of cinema in America. As he himself is a director, he narrates it from the perspective of a director. This is evident from the first movie that he introduces- The Bad and The Beautiful, a drama about the relationship between a producer and a director. The creative struggle of the director forms the backbone of the documentary. His dilemma, whether to make a movie according to his sensibilities or to cater to the whims of the investors and to play it safe, is a constant theme that Scorsese often falls back to. His selection of movies is divided into four segments according to the different roles played by the director in making movies.

He starts by lauding the role of director as a story teller. For this he introduces three genres that has got identified as distinctly American- Westerns, musicals and crime film. He describes the inception, growth and evolution of these three genres, showing clips of movies from different eras as examples. He talks about directors who established the ground rules of generic film making and explains how social changes of different times were reflected in their evolution.

Next, he shows us the director as an illusionist who uses technology to create images instead of just copying them. It is incredible and inspiring to watch how new technologies and new ideas in editing, cinematography and special effects progressed step by step and made it possible to create movies with increasingly complex narratives. Directors who used techniques effectively opened up new frontiers and revolutionised movie making. From silent to sound, from black and white to colour, American directors were more open to embrace and experiment with innovative technical processes. 

The studio system seriously curtail the freedom of a movie maker. But there are directors who worked within that system, cheated it and got away with it. They discreetly included their personal visionary statements in their movies. Most of these directors were champions of B-movies because B-movies suffered lesser interference from studios. Scorsese calls them smugglers. Along with horror and science fiction, film noir was also a genre that facilitated smuggling of ideas and political and social statements into the movies. It's another matter that the directors never knew they were making film noir, as the term was created much later by French.

The last part deals with directors who are to be considered iconoclasts. These are the directors who unlike smugglers, took the system head on and made groundbreaking movies that defied convention. Sometimes their uncompromising nature made them failures. These include visionary directors like Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Sam Peckingpeh who had to suffer the ire of studios at some point of their life. But more than the ones who conferred to the system and made movies that earned money for studios, the iconoclasts earned longevity in the annals of movie history.

In a movie that constitutes of a procession of movie clips and footage videos, Martin Scorsese's passionate narration is the element that binds it. He speaks with a precision and clarity that gets straight inside your heads. Adding to the pleasure are clips from interviews of several iconic directors. From Griffith to Kubrick, the movie showcases greatness in its many forms. It's an essential watch for movie enthusiasts.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Little Prince: Reminding Our Days Of Innocence

Normally most of the books have designated target readers, who are interested in consuming them. Like crime thriller or romantic novels will be appealing only for readers having taste in them. There are novels that appeal only to people living in certain region. Sometimes some books are made which will be interesting to readers liking diverse genres- like Paulo Coelho's novel The Alchemist which was lapped up by enthusiasts of different genres like romance, fantasy and self help. But few books have such universal appeal that anyone belonging to any age, region or personal liking can benefit by reading them.

French novel The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint- Exupery is one such book. I had read a Malayalam translation of it when I was a small kid. That book was there with me till I was 16 and the times I had read it is countless, each time giving me immense pleasure. A few weeks back I read the English translation and realised that, even after these many years, it is still relevant- to me as an individual and to the society in which I am living.

The Little Prince starts by the author recounting an incident of his childhood. He drew an elephant eaten by a boa constrictor, but all adults who looked at it saw a hat. The author stopped drawing after that. Story fast forwards, and now we saw him, who went on to become an airplane pilot, stranded in a desert following a crash. He meets the Little Prince, who used to live in a tiny planet in space there. Prince tell him his story. The author learns valuable lessons about living. The novel ends in a sad note when Prince return back to his planet leaving the author alone in the desert.

The Little Prince is written in simple language intended for kids. But it deals with several issues like love, possession, patience, selfishness and the difference between adults and kids. It stress the importance of keeping the life simple and thereby more enjoyable. This book is a must read for kids. They will definitely enjoy the story and illustrations, at the same time learn valuable lessons about life. Adults also will enjoy the story as it will remind us of our days of innocence and may prompt some of us to simplify our complex and hectic lifestyle.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty: A Loose Cannonball

I just finished reading Paul Beatty's novel The Sellout. It is the Man Booker prize winner of 2016. The Sellout is a biting satire about post racial US society, the one with a Black person as it's President. It was a tough read for me as it took almost double the time that I usually take for a book of its length. I had to re-read many parts again to find out if I had missed something and there were many points that were clear only while re-reading.

The protagonist of The Sellout is a black man whose first name is never mentioned and his surname is just Me. He is summoned to the Supreme Court to deliberate a case of apartheid. It seems the guy was reinstating segregation and owning slaves in his home town, Dickens in Los Angeles.

This guy is the son of a psychologist, a single black father, who used his son as a Guinea pig for his psychological experiments. He was counting on his memoirs to take them out of poverty. But one fine day police 'accidentally' shoots him. The son continues his father's part time career of a Nigger- whisperer - rescuing suicidal black people.

When he realised that his home town is no more in the American maps, totally wiped off, he comes upon the idea of reinstating segregation as a means of retrieving it, much to the horror of his father's friend and later rival, Foy. An aged black actor, Hominy forces Me to take him as a slave. What follows are the attempts by the duo to reintroduce segregation and reclaim Dickens.

The book consists of a torrent of wise cracks and jokes about post racial US society. As a novel, it doesn't have a strong structure or plot. The whole book gives you a feeling of watching a very long stand-up act about racism. Several of the jokes and observations are ingenious. The author deliberately avoids any meaningful characterisation and keeps them all two dimensional caricatures. Instead of weakening the novel, it makes you not to care for them and concentrate on the rants of the protagonist, which is actually the strong point of the book.

I feel the intention of the book is to criticise the attitude of modern society to avoid discussing of racial difference altogether. The author tries to put forward a view that it is better to go back to the old ways of segregation if there is no atmosphere to openly discuss and agree on racial differences. It is more difficult for the minor ethnicities to live in a society that obliterate it's identity and makes it conform, rather than giving it space to develop its culture. In the novel we can see that segregation leads to better performance of students and general uplifting of the quality of living.

The Sellout is a highly contextual novel. It is specific in its historical, political and social contexts. To appreciate it fully, one has to physically experience these. There are many elements that are universal, and easy for people without the background to enjoy, but I feel it will be a different reading experience for people who are aligned to any of the sides portrayed in the novel.

If you enjoyed reading this post, don't forget to share it in your social media circles and spread your pleasure.

Buy the book:

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Sceptical Patriot: Auditing India Facts

Internet is a medium for transmitting information. The problem is that there is no guarantee that it is right information that reaches us. Day by day we are assaulted with loads of data on dozens of subjects and most of them come without substantial proof.

We wisely ignore some of them, like the ones about wives of overturned dictators trying to transfer their ill begotten wealth out of their countries and the ones about Mark Zuckerberg donating one dollar for the cause for every one share or like of a picture. But there are others that appeal to our soft emotions and make us believe them. Finally we end up sharing it and becoming part of the chain.

The Sceptical Patriot is a book written by Sidin Vadukut, Indian blogger, writer of Dork series of satirical novels and journalist, that sets out to evaluate how much truth lies in the kind of forwarded stuff that he has named India Facts. I think there won't be any Indian who hasn't encountered forwarded messages containing list of all things that are supposed to make us proud as Indians. Some examples are the claims that India has never attacked another nation in the last 10000 years, or the claim that it was Indians who invented zero.

The patriots amongst us immediately pat their own back and spread the good words. The sceptics shout aloud that all these are bogus and ignore or delete the message. But Sidin, being the sceptical patriot, took upon himself the task of making the record straight.

When I took to read this book, I was in-fact sceptical about it. Sidin, being a writer of humorous pieces and the task being the inspection of history, I was sure that this is going to be a terrible mish-mash of humour and shallow history. But there was one statement in the introduction that made me feel that my expectations are going for a toss.

"...just when it looks like we have unshakeable proof to buttress some historical argument, new discoveries will come along and make everything before them meaningless."

If he is smart enough to figure out this fact, the uncertainty in finding out what exactly happened in the past, I felt it would be reasonable to give my time to this book. And I wasn't dissappointed. For a book on history that is designed to entertain the reader along with its other goals, The Sceptical Patriot scores.

In ten chapters the author tries to find the truth in as many India Facts. To his credit, he never goes for shortcuts. Most of his missions end in more questions. Some of the claims stand meritorious and some dubious. Most stand in between. Without going for the temptation to proclaim each claim as true or false, Sidin gives them a rating out of 10 according to their truthfulness. I appreciated that element the most in this book.

The Sceptical Patriot is a book that instils in its readers a sense to question the knowledge bequeathed through internet and to gauge its merit instead of blindly choosing to believe or deny it.

If you enjoyed reading this post, don't forget to share with your friends and spread the pleasure.

Buy the book :

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy: A Deceptively Simple Tale

Hot Milk is a novel written by Deborah Levy and was short listed for Man Booker prize 2016. On the surface it appears as a sweet, short and simple tale about the love-hate relationship shared by a mother and her daughter. But I feel the simplicity of the plot is a clever facade, below which can be identified a complex study of human identity and self esteem.

Rose and her daughter Sophie is staying at a beach side holiday spot in Almeria, Spain. But they aren't vacationing. Rose is partially paralysed and they are to consult Dr Gomez, a doctor with a dubious reputation. Sophie feels tied up with her dominating mother and is tired of tending her whimsical wishes. She is not even sure if her mother is actually sick. But a chance meeting with Ingrid, a German girl transforms her life and makes her confront her absent Greek father. She finds herself finally fighting her worst fears.

The cover of the book, picture of a bikini-clad woman and its beginning like a chick-lit generic story is the first deception in this book. My knowledge that it is shortlisted for Man Booker is the only factor that kept me from tossing it aside then. But gradually it made me invested in the proceedings. The characterisation and narration is very effective. Each character make us feel that there is something more to him or her that will be shared with us soon. And we keep on reading. Apart from the mother and daughter, the character of Dr Gomez kept me thoroughly entertained and I was perpetually waiting to see what new trick he pulls up his sleeve next.

It is only by the time we reach the part of Sophie's meeting with her father, which comes around second half from the middle of the story, do we appreciate the symbolic importance of several instances in the first half that we thought trivial while reading. And by the end the author succeed in making us realise the strong undercurrent of drama and emotion that never makes it to the surface, but nevertheless makes us aware of its silent presence underneath.

Still I feel many important instances and their significance went above my head. Probably I may have to read the novel again to appreciate and understand its nuances fully. It is a captivating read, of course, but as I mentioned before it is also a slippery and deceptive one. And, if somebody who read the novel could educate about the connection between its title and the story, I would be grateful. I know it is something related to Sophie's occupation in England as a coffee maker and how she prepare milk, a fact that is touched upon a few times in course of the novel, which is also the only reference about milk in it as far as I observed. But I cannot pinpoint the payoff of that information to the themes covered in the narrative.


Sunday, January 8, 2017

Durbar by Tavleen Singh: Criticism of Dynasties

Years back I had read a book called Political and Incorrect by journalist Tavleen Singh, which was a collection of several of her articles written for various periodicals. I loved her integrity after reading it and started following her articles through her twitter account. Now I got a chance to read another of her book Durbar, which is about the situation of our nation when late Rajiv Gandhi was our PM.

Durbar is a scathing criticism of Rajiv's tenure as Prime Minister and of the dynasty politics. Tavleen Singh establishes how most of his decisions and actions costed India dearly in home-front as well as in international arena. The book starts by explaining the situations during the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the infamous killings of Sikhs that followed. While it was declared that Rajiv was going to be the prime ministerial candidate, even after his justification of the killings, general feel among public and media was that he was capable of changing the course of our nation for good. But it was not to be.

The book is a chronological account. It has the feel of a memoir and not that of a political discourse. This vastly improves the readability of the book. The author had personal connection with Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi and she is able to give a lot of insights into how their relationship worked. Her interactions with different players of the time and their perspectives makes it all the more interesting. I was impressed by her adventures inside the Golden Temple.

Another positive of Durbar is the objective stand that Tavleen takes. She doesn't criticise for the sake of it. I still felt the account just skimmed the surface of the time period and lacked depth especially while dealing with the case of Bofors scam.


Oryx and Crake: A Dystopian Novel About An Imminent Future

The whole human race has succumbed to a mysterious virus and possibly the only human survivor in an apocalyptic future is Snowman, who lives near an artificially engineered race of humans called Crakers, who believe him to be a prophet of their creators, Crake and Oryx. Once upon a time, when the world was divided into compounds by profit hungry corporates playing with genetic and bio-engineering experiments, Snowman used to be Jimmy, Drake his friend and Oryx his romantic interest. Oryx and Crake tells the story of how the world ended up with the extinction of humans and the survival of Jimmy.

Oryx and Crake is a novel by Margaret Atwood that was short listed for Man Booker on 2003. It paints a scary picture of a future that is possible due to the many long strides made by innovations in technology. It is the portrayal of a society that is on the hold of profit hungry corporates who are interested in using science for feeding off the worries of the public instead of helping them.

The novel is told from the perspective of Snowman. The narrative flips from his adventures as Snowman to his past as Jimmy told in flashbacks. This makes the novel structured like a jigsaw puzzle, where you fit each bit of information as you lay your hands on them and finally get the whole picture once you assemble all the individual pieces.

Oryx and Crake is an enjoyable apocalyptic science fiction, that succeeds in making the reader imagine a future where bio-engineering makes the life of humans and animals a means for profit generation and the horrible results of that.


Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten: Intellectual Workouts

Is the world around us and everything that we take for granted real? What if all these are illusions created by a tricking demon- even our skill to reason rationally?

Suppose we are watching a red ball. What guarantee is that the red colour that we see on it are perceived in the same way by both of us? What if the colour that I see on the ball is red and for you it is actually green?

Suppose we come across a twin planet like earth and there instead of hearing music, they smell it? Do sound has a smell? What if we are just unable to sense it due to our physiological limitations?

Suppose in that planet there is a liquid that is clear, tasteless, odorless, falls from sky, that the people over there drink to sustain life, just like water on earth. Can we call it water if the chemical composition is slightly different from water in our planet? What if humans find out about it before we deduced the composition of water? Will there be a dispute over which of it is really water?

Suppose you are offered a chance to enter a virtual reality machine for your whole life and live a simulated life that is in no way different from ordinary life, other than every decision that you take become right and all luck is aligned on you side. Would do enter it or prefer to continue with you ordinary existence?

The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten is a collection of 99 such thought experiments written by Julian Baggini. As you can see, all the situations presented here are far fetched ones. But when we start thinking on them, we realise that our points of thought show real life parallels. When we base our thoughts on out of the world scenarios, it helps us to think unbiased and without prejudices. Baggini has written a book that helps us to frame our thoughts on.


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Rogue Star Wars Movie...

I never cared for Star Wars. I never used to miss Hollywood movies at the times when the prequels hit the screens. Even then I didn't watch them. To me they were movies in which dudes fought with tube lights. Then I read the humorous comics by Jeffrey Brown and slowly caught up what the fuss was all about. I have watched the original trilogy and Force Awakens till now and am yet to see the prequel trilogy. Now the latest one, Rogue One is out.

Rogue one is the prequel to the sequel trilogy and the sequel to the prequel trilogy. How's that? I love it when I speak about Star Wars to those who never watched it. I have acquired expertise in confusing the shit out of them. It's total chaos when I explain the time line of the movies. (Before Star Wars, I used the John Travolta- Nicolas Cage movie Face-off for this purpose. But people sometimes actually figure out the plot of that one.) To make it simple Rogue One leads to A New Hope, which happens to be the first Star Wars Movie ever made. It came in 1977.

It seems the idea of Rogue One came from the opening scroll of A New Hope. To those who watched A New Hope, it will be interesting to find out how the maps of Death Star, the WMD developed by the empire ended up with Luke Skywalker. The title Rogue One is also apt because this movie, though very much part of the canon, stands apart from other movies. Several characteristic traits of other movies in the series are absent in this one and with reason. There is no recurring mentions of the Force, no Jedi training, no comic side kicks and most disappointingly we get to see a light saber only by the end of the movie.

Rogue One is more like a war movie. Its like that last part of The Matrix, in which cool fights in green tint were kept minimum and much focus was given to the war between humans and machines. It sucked because we all went to watch the cool fights in green tint. But Rogue One gets its feet right because, unlike The Matrix Spoiled, it makes sure we care for the handful of characters. We know how it turns out in the end but the story and situations, though similar to other installments, really invests in emotional returns.

Those who never watched Star Wars before might get frustrated by the climax. But watching A New Hope is the only solution for that.

The Distorted Mirror by R K Laxman: Curios and Collectibles

R K Laxman, creator of common man is the most revered of Indian cartoonists. Many cartoons that he drew decades ago still resonate with the political and social situations of the country. The Distorted Mirror is a collection of his writings and includes short stories, short travelogues and sketches in prose.

After reading the book, I felt that stories are the weakest in the lot. For me they were a little bland and too simplistic. An Accident, the first and then best of the lot is a mystery about how a newspaper became a murder weapon. The Golden Frame is a story about a frame maker who accidentally spoils a revered photograph of his client and his attempts to restore it. Other stories are simple childhood anecdotes which has just a very low amusement value.

Travelogues are considerably better written than stories, though I felt more details would have considerably added to the reading pleasure. The writer just superficially touches on the aspects about the places that he visited. But we can clearly see his acute observation skills illuminating the sceneries that he describes now and then.

The third segment contains sketches about his life, career and society. The ones about cartoons are clearly great pieces, must read in my opinion because of the glimpses they give into his genius mind.

But the elements that stand out in the book are the illustrations by the author. They supplement the text beautifully lending it personality. It is not a surprise as R K Laxman is in his elements while doing what he does best.

As an admirer of R K Laxman, I am not satisfied with The Distorted Mirror. But it does not in any way takes away the greatness of the cartoonist in my mind. I have a feeling that these pieces are curios made for amusing himself rather than for public consumption, collected for commercial sake.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Spy by Paulo Coelho: Crossing Wisdom and Wikipedia

When Paulo Coelho's novel The Alchemist was published more than a decade back, I had really enjoyed it. Not because it was great literature, but for the simple wisdom that it dissipated and for the dazzling narrative. Later I tried reading his subsequent novels like Veronica Decides to Die and Adultery. But I wasn't able to move past 50 pages every time. When I chose to read his latest novel, The Spy, I decided to read on and finish it no matter. Surprisingly, it took just two hours to read.

The Spy is a story about Mata Hari, the famed femme fatale, the queen of espionage, as legends claim. I had heard about her intriguing story of seducing army men, trading top secrets and daring double crosses. The biggest take away from this book was the knowledge that this was all an eye-wash and in fact Mata Hari was a victim of war games between nations. She had taken jobs of smuggling war secrets for Germans and for French with money and favors as remuneration, but it seems the only secrets she diverged were gossips. When the French arrested and executed her, as her prosecutor later divulged, there was not enough evidence even fit to punish a cat against her.

There was enough scope in her life to write in hundred different angles and come up with a great novel. But Coelho chose to squander the opportunity and write a quick, shallow book that never goes in depth into her psyche or persona. I felt that for writing this book, he selected hundreds of motivational quotes that we regularly share on social media and joined them together using a plot copied from the Wikipedia page  of Mata Hari. I can tell that because after reading the book I visited the Wikipedia page and I could see passages lifted verbatim!

The Alchemist was good because the motivational message gelled with the plot being told, but in case of The Spy, the plot suffers due to the author's fetish for disbursing street wisdom in between every sentence. I felt he did a disservice to Mata Hari, who I feel is not an emotional wretch as the novel depicts. The dialogues too were too much mushy and generative for my liking. But like hundreds of motivational images shared daily on the Facebook wall, some of the wisdom hits the mark and we are able to resonate with it. If you are into that, then you will like this book.

The first half of the novel, I feel strangely find parallels with author's literary endeavours. Mata Hari after living in Indonesia for some time and learning the local dance form, later imitates it titillatingly in her stage shows leading to tremendous praise from top critics and public. After repeating it for years and leading to the emergence of several imitators, all got tired of her and her popularity declined. Paulo Coelho struck gold by writing a novel that infused traditional wisdom from east and west in the form of a fable. With The Spy I think he is tapering off like his protagonist.