Monday, February 27, 2006

Chronicles of Narnia

The Lion, the Witch, the Wardrobe

C.S. Lewis along with J R R Tolkein are the two authors who hugely influenced fantasy writing in the 20th century. Peter Jackson's adaptation of Lord of The Rings (LOTR) has now become the standard against which all such fantasy films will be measured in the near future. This first film in the Narnia series is in many ways more difficult to visualise than LOTR, especially because a large number of live action scenes have to be mixed with animation.
Narnia was released by Disney amid a lot of hype about its allegorical content. But kids unaware of its sublime messages and intellectual baggage are the ones most likely to enjoy the movie.
I haven't read the book, but some of the background against which the kids' passage to Narnia is set is in more detail in the film than in the book, apparently. Four children of the Pevensie family of London are packed off to the countryside when Germany begins the bombing of the city during World War II. Jim Broadbent appears early in the film in the role of the children's professor uncle who owns a large mansion full of empty spaces into which the children move in. Old, mellow and kind hearted, this is a role Broadbent can now perform with his eyes closed. And he seems the only one initially to believe in Narnia ironically when Susan and Peter - the two older kids - are disinclined to believe in Lucy's tale of the world hidden in the wardrobe. Edmund, meanwhile, is already caught up in the battle between good and evil.
Lucy's passage into Narnia, the first of the memorable scenes in the movie, is captured in a series of breathtaking shots. A promise is made here to reveal a new land of wonder and magic, but then that is reneged. The children's search for Mr Tumnus and Edmund, both captured by the White Witch, especially the run through the tunnels and the snow-capped cliffs, is too much like LOTR. Lucy's scenes with Tumnus are some of best in the movie, the two really playing off each other.
The children finally find Aslan, flowing mane, a deep voice (Liam Neeson) and all, just as he is trying to regain Narnia from the White Witch who has banished the land to an everlasting winter. His death, I thought came too quick, just a few scenes after we get to see him for the first time. It's a bit like there is lot of talk of Aslan in the first half and then he appears and is almost as quickly knocked off.
Nevertheless, his sacrifice is superbly shot and performed in the scene that Tilda Swinton is really at her evil best and delivers probably the film's best lines. Compared to that, Aslan's lines, if I may call them that, are really lame.
Georgie Henley potrayal of Lucy is rivetting. She is not very pretty, but is cute. She tramples on the snow rather than walk on it. It's a restrained performance far better than any other on screen. The only who actually holds his own against Georgie is Skandar Keynes, partly because his conflict between the Witch's tempting offer and the good within him is so ingrained into the movie. His weakness for sweets, the gleam in his eye as he yearns for power, his bitterness in being separated from his father, Keynes really bites into whatever potential the role offers. Compared to the performances from the younger kids, the older ones played by Anna Popplewell and William Moseley are trite.
The battle scenes are not much of an improvement from Braveheart. It's hard to explain what could have been done better though.
I watched the movie in a theatre full of adults who seemed to be tremendously enjoying the movie and ultimately I believe this is the greatest success of the film: To make something which children see one way and the adults another.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Rang De Basanti

There is an unwritten line that every good director of patriotic movies tries hard not to cross, a line that divides cheap, jingoistic patriotism and the real thing. Rakesh Omprakash Mehra is aware of this line, but nevertheless crosses it a few times over. The success of the movie is in hiding this cleverly from the viewer, opening him up for the message: Get up, get out and save the Nation. It’s my job to point out the obvious: while you are out improving your country, Rakesh and his team are raking in the money.
Had the message been subtle and the implications of the story left to the viewer, Rang De Basanti would have been much better. But that subtlety is lost upon Mehra. He has actually worked in the message into the script so much, that it becomes a part of it. He relies on two extraordinary men to carry the movie with him, Aamir Khan and A R Rehman. Apart from the brilliance of the editing, the production and sound design and the cinematography, these are two artists who hold the movie together.
Aamir is confident enough to let the other actors steal the best lines and scenes from him and then, with all the mastery of a great showman, pushes the envelope to go one up. The other actors, particularly Atul Kulkarni and Siddharth, seem to have good roles written for them, while Aamir seems to pull his performance from pure ether. His mastery over the Punjabi accent; the scene in which he cries to Sue (Alice Payton) as struggles to eat the first bite of his roti; his snarled, angry, almost evil looking face as he performs an assassination, Aamir, in a just few key scenes that he has, infuses the movie with depth.
Rehman is inspired and inspiring. The jingle that begins Sue’s journey in India, is repeated in so many hues that by the end of the movie, it has moved from being a soundtrack to its emotional core. Most of the songs are packed in the first half, but with every song the movie seemed to have progressed a little further. But the cuts in between the songs to dialogue are meaningless and lay bare the director’s insecurity in filming the songs as, well, just songs. Karan’s (Siddharth’s) first meeting with his industrialist Dad played by Anupam Kher is scored in such a way that it darkly foretells the fatal end the characters are going to meet with eventually.
Mehra cuts back and forth between the two main threads of the story: Sue’s attempts at making a film on five Indian revolutionaries, including Bhagat Singh and Chandrasekar Azad, and the second, the film that she creates. The technique of having a film within a film is difficult and Mehra seems to struggle to get it right. The drama of the revolution against Britain is so great that Mehra needlessly shows us too much detail of this. The cursory manner in which the Jallianwallah Bagh Massacre and the ``Simon Go Back'' protest is dealt with is bad enough, but even worse are the silly parallels to contemporary politics.
The ensemble is so large, that actors like Om Puri seem to be wasted. Kiron Kher is typecast again. Alice Payton, who turns in an impressive performance as Sue, and Soha Ali Khan are entrusted with bringing a feminine touch to what is otherwise a movie on male bonding. The sound design is too rich and the editing too slick.
The different strands have to come together at some point and they do so predictably in an emotion charged climax, beautifully written and enacted. But a little willful suspension of disbelief is needed to digest most of the second half.
The scene, among the last few, in which Waheeda Rehman comes back from coma, is perhaps a metaphor for the slumber of corruption and murky politics that the Great Indian State is awakening from.
Siddharth plays the archetypal Hindi film hero leaving the more refreshing role to Aamir, who seems to be again in a movie that doesn’t on the whole deserve him.

I leave a link to Ekalavya's rant.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Bob Dylan

I discovered Dylan in 2000. Time magazine had featured him on its list of most influential entertainers of the century. I saw a photo of Dylan and about a year later bought my first Dylan album - Live in 1966. Many songs on the B side were so noisy, I could harldy hear Dylan. But tracks on the A side were superb and I was hooked.
Then a friend played me songs from Biograph, especially Blowin' in the Wind. We even tried to use the song on a documentary about Naxalites in Kerala that a group of us made together. But that didn't quite work out.
Then I was gifted a copy of Biograph myself. It is not Dylan's best collection, but it's very comprehensive.

Dylan is not a very good singer, in my opinion. But he is brillant songwriter and can emote words really well. Just listen to him on the Jerry Maquire soundtrack. It's hard to understand Dylan as a rocksinger, because he is anything but one. No rock star that I know of writes songs quite like him. Visions of Johanna, Desolation Row and To Ramona are my favs. I recently began reading Chronicles: Vol One, which is Dylan's memoirs. One of best books on him, we can say, written by himself.

Btw, Dylan didn't sing in the Royal Albert Hall in 1966. The concert actually took place in another hall nearby. Why it's advertised as the Royal Albert Hall concert, well I never did quite find out.

Political movies; Illayaraja and Rehman

Very few political movies get made in Tamil. Only Manirathnam's Iruvar ( on MGR and his relationship with M Karunanidhi) comes to mind immediately. Even though most actors turn to politics at one time or other - Karthik and Sarath Kumar are again in the news this election year - the film industry hardly takes a serious view at politics. But there are a thousand stories to be told. The rise of J Jayalithaa in politics must be a fascinating story. A story on the death of the Congress and the rise of the DK must be another story waiting to be told. Even the ones that do get made are harldly critical of their subjects - a movie on Kamaraj, in recent years - and lack a modern story telling style.
MK recently wrote the story for a movie - Pasakkili - on two socially aware men saving their town and sister from the baddies. MK took a break from politics, stayed in some resort for a few days and came up with this absolute crap. A poster shows the two men - Murali and Prabhu - looking defiant in chains and the sister begging a baddie with a gun for god knows what. It's in this absurd scenario, that Hazaron.... gets made and is seen and appreciated. Like Zinda, Hazaron is a movie with a superb soundtrack, some solid acting by KK, and a well crafted script. A trifle long yet highly stimulating movie.
Recently, my friend Eka Lavya has written that Rehman started out in 1993. That seems wrong to me. Roja was made either in 1991 or 1992. Not sure which year, but 93 is a little too late. And there seems to be a marked difference to the kind of songs he made and the songs in Zinda and Hazaron. Besides, Rehman has harldy made a dent on Illayaraja territory, Tamil folk music. Rehman did score for movies of this sort - Kizhakku Cheemaiyile with Bharathiraja and Sangamam - but they are really no match for Illayaraja's prolific contribution to Tamil cinema. In Tamil Nadu, Rehman is seen a hi-tech, electronic music making wizard, who lacks soul to his music. Not true, in my opinion. In addition to using a lot of orginal instrumental music - e.g Duet for with Kadri Gopalnath work with AR - Rehman has indeed composed some of most soulful tunes even done in Tamil.
But Illayaraja is not dead yet. There is a good song in a movie as recent as Mumbai Express.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

On Writing

On an endless night a couple of years back, my friends T, J and I sat in a flat in Adyar (Chennai) and discussed our writing projects. On J's shelf, amidst his books collected from the city's second hand book shops and discount stores, were a set of notebooks that he told me were his screenplays, short stories and various other jottings. He was reluctant to show them to me, so I had to leave it at that. T was writing a horror play. A few people meet over dinner at a house and one by one, they are killed. He told me that story, it was quite frightening. Since then, they have gone on to other projects. Last year, I bought a very expensive notebook to begin my own story. It was to be a set of stories on a friendship between two eight year olds, a girl and a boy. I wrote about five pages and it didn't seem to work. So I stopped. I never wrote again.
Then I began this blog, essentially to write non-fiction, in Jan this year. After hours of labour, the blog seems to be finally taking off. And the links from here, Urban Hymns and Sarpvinash are indeed T's and J's. Keep it up chaps.

Friday, February 17, 2006

SF, Horror, Fantasy

Science Fiction is the biggest genre in Hollywood now. Include a liberal idea of fantasy movies (in other words, allow movies based on comics), then there is no genre that can even come close in terms of box office success.
Look at some of the biggest Hollywood hits last year:
Revenge of the Sith (sci fi)
Chronicles of Narnia (fantasy)
Batman Returns (comics)
War of the Worlds (sci fi)
Charlie and the chocalate factory (fantasy)
King Kong (fantasy)
And fans of this genre are so devoted that film-makers working in other genres must really envy James Cameron, Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Lucas and such. Take a look at what one sci-fi fan has to say. Click on the link. Makes for interesting reading.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Cricketing High

Is India on a cricketing high? Has our team finally found the right combination for the next world cup? Have we ever had a better wicket-keeper batsmen than Dhoni? Has Yuvaraj ever looked better?
We lost the Test series against Pakistan 0-1. But that was not too pathetic. The last match was a little too much for us. Besides our bowlers were not very penetrative after the first hour or so. But in the one-dayers there is no doubt that we are looking the better team. Even as we stand 2-1 and series is yet not over, I can clearly say that India is the better one-day player if they are playing like this in Pakistan.
There was a slight worry that the tour might be discontinued after yesterday's rioting in Pak, but the tour is still on. And I say bring it on Pak, we are ready.

Post script: India won the One-Day series 4-1 but lost the Test series 0-1.

Kubrick, dictatorial perfectionist

American director Stanley Kubrick, everyone says, is a legend. One of the most successful indepedent directors to work in Hollywood and later in Britain, Kubrick's name is hissed with reverence by film buffs.
As a kid, I have longed to watch 2001: A Space Odyessey. What a title! I dont think there is another movie with a more fascinating title. I read the screenplay to this movie with Arthur C Clarke worked based on one his short stories, The Sentinel.
By this time, Kubrick had already made a clean, visually appealing Roman epic, Spartacus, besides two classics - Dr Strangelove and Lolita. He was in his creative peak. The announcement of his collabaration with Clarke was made amidst unprecedented hype. The movie, besides turning out to best science fiction movie ever made, ensured that Kubrick's name would always be associated with the genre.


`Upakathai', a five-act play, is a set of stories from the Mahabharata, Ramayana, the Mughal period, the Vedas and a modern tale of classroom woes created by playwright Pralayan. A single thread runs through all these tales. All of them are of a victim and are told from a victim's point of view.The first of these is of Ekalavyan, the mythological ruler of Nishad in the Mahabharata. Vyasa's version is that Ekalavyan, the tribal king of Nishad, after a showdown with Pandava prince Arjuna, cuts off his own thumb as a sacrificial act for his guru Dronacharya.
Prayalan inverts this myth in the first act and then uses Ekalavyan in the rest of the play as a surrealistic narrator, sending him back and forth in time, from the Ramayana to the modern era and back to the Vedic period.The playwright doesn't show much respect for either mythology or history, but has a rich knowledge of their intricacies. He blatantly and brilliantly changes each myth and tailors it to suit his theme of Dalit oppression.Pralayan's stripped-down, on-your-face direction suffers from over-exposition, but makes sure that every single soul in the audience understands this complex story. His protoganist, Ekalavyan, meticulously explains each detail of the text and warns the audience of impending changes in the time period to ensure comprehension.
The first act is a Dalit take on a Mahabharata`upakathai'. Arjuna after suffering defeat at the hands of Ekalavyan, returns with his guru Dronacharya, who threatens that Nishad will be razed and its tribal population exterminated. To save the people, Ekalavyan lets Arjuna cut off his thumb. An anonymous character accuses Ekalavyan of changing the popular myth. ``Everyone knows that you gave up your thumb for your guru to please him. Now, you are changing the story to reflect your needs. These changes are outrageous. Who would believe that you defeated Arjuna, the famous warrior and Pandava prince?''Ekalvyan, however, insists that his story is the truth. ``The victors gave their version. I have given mine. I am not Vyasa to tell the story in a way that does not shock you,'' he replies.Inversion of popular myths are not new to Tamil literature or art. Puthumaipithan (1902-1948) had established this as an art form in his lifetime. The genius in this play lies in the eclectic and heady mixture of mythology, history and modernity that the playwright brings to his theme.In the next act, Rama, helpless and lonely after sending Sita into exile, is led into believing that he must kill a lower caste boy to prevent him from learning the Vedas, a right which only Brahmins enjoy. ``I murdered Taraka because sage Vishwamitra asked me to. Then Sugrivan asked me to kill Vali. Up to this day, I have not done anything for myself. Now, you my ministers, are asking me to kill Sampoka,'' the king says. In thus mocking Rama, the playwright is savagely destroying ``images of the golden period of the Ram Rajya.''The hero has been made the villain, his murderous act is one of meaningless vengence to preseve caste heirarchy.The next act, which jumps a few centuries forward in time, is perhaps the weakest. This is the when the play gets a bit contrived and sentimental. Set in the modern period, this is a parody of the education system, and like all good parodies hits straight at the truth. The hero of this act, a Dalit boy, is a budding poet and painter in his school. But his talents go wasted in a school that confines itself to the textbooks.The next tale is of the Mughal prince Salim's love for court dancer Anarkali. Ultimately, despite Akbar's misgivings, she too is beheaded.Salim's mother was a Hindu Rajputan queen. When Salim points this out to Anarkali, the court dancer replies that Hindustan may tolerate a Muslim Emperor marrying a Rajputan, but won't allow a marriage between her and the prince. The playwright rightly points out through this story that the difference between Salim and Anarkali is one of``caste''. Caste divisions till today dominate over religious differences, he points out.In the fifth and final act, Renuka finds herself with a upper caste head and lower caste body after she is first killed and then brought back to life by her son.The play was performed by the Chennai Kalai Kuzhu, an amatuer group of 40 players, some of them very new and, therefore, under rehearsed. The stage, sparsely lit, had a superb and unusual backdrop, a lit tree.Right from the beginning, the play is moving.
In the first act, when a furious Drona arrives at Nishad, he finds every tribal willing to give up his life for their king Ekalavyan. Later, Parasurama, in a emotional moment, says, ``Father, this is not some woman you are asking me to kill. This is my mother.''There was irony in that fact that these dialogues - deceptively simple and deliberately overwritten - were delivered in traditional Tamil theatre style, while the content of the play itself was anything but traditional.This is a play with a hard-hitting political message that uses the art of the theatre to convey it. As a playwright, Pralayan, well-known for his street plays in Chennai, is probably incapable of creating art without politics.
Staged with very few props and almost ``devoid of stylistic and illusory devices,'' the play is a testimony to the power of the theatre and a reiteration of its relevance during the age of the TV and cinema.Everyone in the audience - over 1,000 of them - understood the story, going by the laughs and claps. A few kids were seen enjoying every bit of it.Though this is a play heavily dependent on dialogue, its visuals are also extraordinary. The stage is divided into two - the lower level a few feet above ground and the upper level, an eight-feet tallplatform. The upper level is for what the playwright calls his ``heirarchy characters'' and another for the lower castes and ordinary people. Rama, Akbar, Arjuna, Drona, the school headmistress and drill master appear either on the upper level or are carried on stage in a moving platform. All the victims appear on the lower level.By inverting existing myths, historical and modern narratives in favour of the Dalits, the playwright is in way empowering them. Instead of the Khastriya Prince Arjuna, the tribal warrior Ekalavyan is here their hero who speaks in their voice. The sham as old as Hindu civilisation itself stands exposed. Conventions shatter, images crumble and out of it the Dalit voice is finally heard.
`Upakathai', written and directed by Pralayan, was staged during the 10th state-wide conference of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers Association on the eve of Gandhi Jayanthi at the Danish Mission School in Tiruvannamalai.

Cultural Churning

Tiruvannamalai, Oct 1: More than 20,000 people from Tiruvannamalai and its surrounding areas are expected to attend the all-night cultural festival on Sunday night. The festival, which will conclude the 10th state-wide conference of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers Association (TPWA), has nowadays become a much-awaited event.
An eclectic mixture of speeches, modern plays, folk songs, book release functions and short films, the all-night culturals have captured the hearts and minds of the people of this region.
Two of the architects of the festival – BaVa Chelladurai and Karuna who have been active writers with the TPWA - spoke to *Express* today. Both writers are immensely proud of their achievements in Tiruvannamalai, the influence the cultural night enjoys within the TPWA and the impact it has had on the people. They recalled that the first of the all-night events held in 1985 had attracted just 50 people. The next year, the organisers had miraculously managed to attract 10,000 people.
``We tell the people about issues that affect their lives. We avoid events that trivialise art and are purely commercial in nature. People are aware that this is serious stuff and are attracted to it,’’ Karuna, the treasurer of the reception committee for this year’s conference, said.
The event is funded at the grassroots level. On September 4, about 400 progressive writers met here, divided themselves into small groups, and spread out into the town. Knocking on each door, these groups managed to collect Rs 60,000 this year. Small merchants in the area too contributed, some of them up to Rs 10,000. ``This is not a big industrial area. Getting corporate sponsors is out of question,’’ Karuna said. ``People who contribute know that the money will be put to good use,’’ he added.
``The all-night events used to be conducted on New Year’s Eve. Dalit art forms take precedence over others,’’ BaVa, secretary of the reception committee, said. BaVa’s infectious enthusiasm and boundless energy must have been a driving force behind this conference. Virtually his whole life has been shaped by the cultural nights. He said he had met his wife Shailaja, also a writer who has translated works from Malayalam to Tamil. Years later, he lost his only son during another cultural night.
Also born out of the cultural churning was the concept of *Muttram*. Tamil writers such as Jayakanthan, Sundara Ramaswamy, P. Kandasamy and T. Rajanarayanan are among the past invitees to *Muttram*, where they sit as one with the audience and share their ideas, views and inspirations. Then ``running out of Tamil writers’’, the organisers began inviting writers from outside the state. Noted Malayalam writers K Sachidanandan, Balachandran Chullikadu and K.N. Panniker, and Paul Zacharia have also taken part in this programme.
``Many of these writers have nothing to do with TPWA. However, we are able to persuade them to come and share their ideas,’’ Karuna said.
``The posters and banners that we put up for the events are quite famous. Artists like Trosky Marudu and Aadimoolam have helped us immensely by creatively designing these posters,’’ BaVa said. Karuna himself has designed the posters this year.
Books of writers such as Jayamohan and Konangi have been released during these cultural nights. This year’s cultural night is being presided over by Pralayan, playwright and street theater actor.

Raven Kingdom

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Susanna Clarke

Price (Hardcover): Rs 809.10


LAST year, Bloomsbury unleashed on the English-speaking world its biggest marketing campaign for a single book. That the publishers also brought out the phenomenon called Harry Potter was not missed and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell quickly went on to become a best seller.
In the light of J K Rowling's success, fantasy, at least in books, had found a new life. This enabled Susanna Clarke, a cookbook writer turned author, to spend a decade writing a book that would be billed as Harry Potter for adults.
But Clarke owes almost nothing to Rowling; instead her style is a marriage of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Her attempt is to write a magical history of early nineteenth century England. With the help of 185 footnotes which provide the deep background to the story, she sets about telling her tale in a dry but delightful tone.
JONATHAN Strange and Mr Norrell is set in Regency period (early 19th century) in England. Magic has almost been reduced to a memory and the country has no more magicians. Enter then Mr Norrell, a reclusive magician with a library full of magical books, who arrives in London with the sole intention of single-handedly restoring magic to its ancient glory.
Magic has become rather ungentlemanly so the public remains sceptical until an important official's fiance is brought back from the dead by Mr Norrell using black magic which would later have disastrous consequences. The government quickly finds him useful in its long, drawn out war against Napoleon.
As Mr Norrell's feats of magic become famous, many young men through out the land become eager to learn this new profession. Jonathan Strange, a country squire, acquires a prophecy through luck and soon becomes Mr Norrell's only student. Though the mentor grows to become extremely fond of his student, Strange's ambitions eventually outgrow his teacher's. He travels to Portugal and helps the English military campaign there.
But Mr Norrell, who is paranoid about another magician challenging him, denies Strange access to his library, which causes the two men to fall out. Strange decides to go on his own way - he is fascinated with the legend of the northern king, John Uskglass also known as the Raven King and wants to learn about the faerie lands. His loses his much beloved wife and his attempt to recover her end in a climatic battle with unknown powers, in which he is finally joined by Mr Norrell. More....
CLARKE takes a hundred pages to set the milieu of the tale, but once in, the reader is hooked. Clarke's magic is more like an experiment performed in a physics or a chemistry lab. Given the methodology and materials, you can do it as good as Mr Norrell.
None of her characters are purely good or evil, including the protagonists. The indifferent and thuggish John Childermass, the irascible Lascelles and the hesitant black butler Stephen are no heroes. Clarke offers them no place for virtuous, self-righteous behaviour; they are all exploitative, cunning and resourceful, more interested in survival than in moral principles.
Indeed, some may perceive the lack of heroes to be a drawback. There is nobody here that you can root for and that added to Clarke's deliberate, dull tone can drive some up the wall. Clarke is not quite so successful as say, Tolkein, in transporting you into an another world, a criterion with which many judge a work of fantasy. Some episodes between the black butler and the ``gentleman with thistle-down hair'' drag and the deliberate obtuseness of the plot is sometimes maddening. Clarke's archaic spelling of some words like chuse and shew, used to give a flavour of Old English, is more likely to hinder than help readers.
Add to this the total lack of sexuality in the book; Much like Tolkein's characters, Clarke's too are devoid of sexual feelings. Even Strange's love for his wife Arabella, a central thread of the story, is sterile.
But Clarke's dry humour and her literate, knowing descriptions of early 19th century London and her understanding inhabitants more than redeem the novel.
London society and mannerisms are described with such authenticity that one ends up wanting to believe that magic actually existed in this age. The author adopts not the tone of a high-brow writer, but the gossipy manner of the neighbour sharing with you the city's happenings. She is also mildly (and sometimes this mildness is used with devastating effect) sarcastic of her characters' ideas and their life.
BOTH Mr Norrell and Strange are well fleshed out characters, but they pale before Clarke outstanding creation: The Raven King. Though only a presence, this human brought up by fairies who later invades England is as chilling as he is intriguing.
Strange's obsession with him, which begins soon after the Napoleonic wars, is superbly plotted, giving the book its racy and startlingly fast-paced climax. The last 200 pages of the book, in sharp contrast to all that came before, are a riot, with the author letting loose her imaginative and narrative power. It's impossible not to be gripped by Strange's feverish attempts to invoke the Raven King, as he fights the madness and darkness surrounding him. Clarke's book is a remarkable debut, a clever work of sophistication filled with rich metaphors. The book's size make you work hard for its pleasures, but plough ahead and you will be rewarded.

There is news that a film on the book is to be made.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Magic of VPN

With the growing popularity of the Internet, Virtual Private Networks (VPN) have gained acceptance as a way for companies to communicate with each other,with their distant offices or with employees working remote.
Expected to replace the traditional Wide Area Networks (WAN), VPNs have today become popular and for many in the West synonymous with using the Net.
WANs typically used ISDN or optic fibre lines through which companies expanded their network beyond their immediate geographical area. This was reliable and secure, but was expensive because of the physical costs involved, particularly if offices and employees were in distant areas. VPNs became a low-cost alternative to WAN. By using the intermediate network of the Internet, it saves costs on long-distance phone service and hardware costs associated with dial-up or leased lines.
VPN is a shared network where private data is segmented from other traffic on the Net, which only the intended recipient can access. Supposing Joe is an employee who is working from a remote city in Tamil Nadu, he can log on to his Chennai office's Local Area Network (LAN) from his laptop using VPN. The data that he sends to his company is encrypted and secure.
In a typical VPN deployment, a client initiates a virtual point-to-point connection to a remote access server over the Internet. The remote
access server answers the call and tranfers data from the VPN client to the organisation's LAN after authenticating the client. VPN connections can also be between two office sites linking two portions of a private network.
Three of the properties of VPNs - encapsulation, authentication and data encryption - are worth remembering. VPN technology provides a way for data to be encapsulated with a header that allows data to traverse the Internet.
Authentication could be either in the form of digital certificates or the usual user name-password format. Encryption is when data is coded so that only the intended recipient computer can crack it. For example, let's say that the code is A is C and B is D and so on and only the sender and recipient are privy to the code, then the encryption is successful.
Another aspect of VPNs are the protocols that they use. Point-to-point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), the most popular one, is heavily reliant on the older and popular Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP) designed for dial up and dedicated Internet connections.
In India, companies like Airtel and Reliance offer VPN service to their clients. Airtel offers VPN connections with a bandwidth between 2 MBPS to 155 MBPS to many of its clients that include software firms and banks.
Reliance offers a carrier-grade, MPLS-based VPN service in 172 points-of-presence (PoP) of bandwidth that can be anywhere between 64 KBPS to 1 GBPS. ``In the last six months, over 100 customers that include many multi-national companies have chosen Reliance for their mission-critical tasks. They have even preferred our service to those in countries they are based in,'' a Reliance spokesperson said.
He also asserted that in situations where offices from multiple locations have to be connected, VPNs are at least 20 percent cheaper than leased lines.''
Both Reliance and Airtel offer service level agreement-based services to their clients. The service provided is end-to-end, which means that companies with the dough can actually avoid the infamous last-mile restriction. If Joe has a laptop and a mobile phone, he can use his
company's VPN service to send data over a secure line instead of just using the unreliable, insecure medium of the Internet. And that is the allure of VPN, which companies and remote employees are falling for.

Tribute to Sura

MY grandfather Sundara Ramaswamy, who died over a month ago, leaves behind a rich legacy shaped by his written works — novels, poems, short stories, critical essays. But for me, he was just Grandpa.
My earliest memories of him are of a bald man sitting in his room, a wall entirely made of glass, loudly dictating Tamil words, to the clang of the typewriter. Sentences would jump out of him, the typewriter would struggle to keep up, and words would start again. When permitted inside the room, I always found it boring in a few minutes.
He was strict and unapproachable, more in my imagination than in reality. Most of my holidays I spent in his house, but I tried hard to avoid him. There would always be some small sin I had committed that he was bound to pull me up for. His idea of playtime was colouring books, mine included violent games, the victim usually being my brother.
I detested Tamil and never read anything outside of school work. His first short story that I read was a little known translation into English of Stamp Album. When I told him about it, he was surprised and asked for the book. He didn’t realise that the story had been translated. That incident left no impression on my mind. I thought compared to Sherlock Holmes, Stamp Album was nothing.
Then for years, he was absent from my life. I rarely visited my grandparents and for a time it seemed like I didn’t know them anymore. My father would keep mentioning JJ: Sila Kurippugal in his conversations about books. After one such conversation, I dusted a heavily marked first edition copy of the book from the loft and looked at it. I had never read a Tamil novel before and I seriously doubted I would read this one. The first sentence on JJ's death was striking. I was curious about how a writer could start a novel with his main character dying right in the first line. I kept reading and over three or four days finished the book.
I realised then that books do change your life. And for the first time in years, I wanted to meet my grandfather. I went over to his place and told him that I had read JJ. He wanted to talk but I grew shy. He said he would like to suggest a couple of books that I might like, but I somehow slipped away.
Years later, after my mother died and father became ill, I moved to my grandparents’ home. I read a lot of him during this time which gave me the confidence to ask him questions about his work, his idea of creativity and virtually everything under the sun. I joined him in his evening walks and we would have long conversations. Looking back, I realise that I was more naive that I thought I was and he was more patient than he needed to be.
He had a mind that always thought things through. He could with great style incisively analyse issues, a quality that make his essays valuable. But there are aspects to him like his conversations — funny, clever and poignant — that went unrecorded. He also laughed like no one else, his facial muscles completely loose, his mouth wide, his eyebrows as if frowning.
I remember talking to him when he had just begun his third novel — Kuzhanthaigal Pengal Angal. From random conversations to the manuscript to the published book, the creative process was fascinating. He approached it like a 10 to 5 job. Even 10 minutes away from his work affected him badly.
It was as if he had tons to say even after 50 years at it. He would always keep grumbling about distractions that keep him away from work. He had a spirit that wasn’t easily suppressed. From the way he exercised in the morning till in the night when he read himself to sleep, he displayed an enthusiasm for life that I envied.
One of the first things that my uncle Kannan did around the time he revived Kalachuvadu, the literary magazine, in the mid 90s, was to publish my grandfather's collection of poems. Unlike his other works, the poems kept growing on me with every reading. When dramatised or sung, these poems reveal a dimension to them that make me marvel at their writer.
He was in great health when he wrote the short stories collected in Maria Thamuvukku Ezhuthiya Kaditham in 2003. It’s hard to believe that barely two years later, he is no more.
When news that he had been admitted to hospital came, I grew restless. His voice when he had last spoken to me had been really subdued. Even after seeing his body in the casket at the funeral, the reality of his death never hit home. It was unreal to see people crying unabashedly and to walk among showering petals to the cemetery alongside his body.
My relationship with him was in many ways unfulfilled. I had somehow deluded myself to thinking that he would always be there. Today, I regret deeply that another conversation with him is impossible.
The day after his funeral, my six-year-old cousin imitated my grandfather's ritualistic arrival at the dining table for lunch. The door of his room would open, my grandfather would emerge humming a tune and walk the few feet to the large hall, switch on the fan and sit in his regular chair. None of us look at the time. It would always be 1 pm.
Most people, I think, go through life without ever having a shot at what they really want to do. My grandfather decided in his teens that he wanted to be a writer and pursued that path with rigour. Amidst all this sorrow, that’s one thing that makes me happy. Happy of his fulfilled life and our unfulfilled relationship.

Swimming Pool

The Censorship rules are sometimes pathetic in India. While more perverse forms of sexuality are allowed, straight forward frontal nudity continues to be censored. Swimming Pool, shown in Chennai's Studio Five, as part of its Pure Cinema series, suffered from such cuts that almost destroyed comprehensibility and enjoyment of the movie.

At least in such cases, where audiences are mature enough to witness such scenes without being disturbed or disturbing others, the Censor should allow such scenes. Why Satyam needs a Indian company to distribute the movie itself remains unclear. Also, shorter movies could be shown without a break.

The movie itself is an affirmation of what is possible for directors to achieve on a small budget with good solid actors. But it is too slow and bogged down by art house pretensions. The movie was nominated for the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Monday, February 13, 2006

China Town

This film from Roman Polanski gave rebirth to film noir, the kind of dark, nightmarish films inhabited my men with guns and smoking cigars and women who seduce them.
After enjoying a golden age through the 1940s, with films like Maltese Falcon, Cat People and Sunset Boulevard, noir went out of fashion till Polanksi created this classic.
A woman hires Jake Gittes, private detective, to find out the identity of her husband's mistress. Jake, played with a mean mouth and a snarled face, by Jack Nicholson does find the identity of the woman who is sleeping with the husband - he is the chief engineer of LA's water and power department - only to realise that he wasn't hired by the engineer's wife at all.
The real wife shows up, the husband is killed and Jake finds himself in middle of the biggest racket in LA. He is not the sort of guy who wouldn't throw a punch if required, but gets more than he gives anyway.
Chinatown, is a place where Jake used to work as a cop. A place where as little as possible is done. Nothing moves. ``Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown'' are the famous lines towards the end of the movie.
It's not hard to understand why this movie is a classic. One reason was that it boldy revived the noir tradition. The naturally lit yet dark places; the even darker minds of troubled, unstable women; men who seem to always have a cigarette hanging from their lips, the movie brings back everything. Also it paints a harsh view of the world. Almost everyone in the movie is mean.
John Houston's multimillionaire villain seems to have very little different from Jake. But look closer and you will see that Jake is actually keen to get the girl or at least save her and put the baddies in jail. But look further and you will find out how hopeless Jake's situation is. The world that he arrogantly and confidently confronts at the beginning of the movie is the same. But Jake has changed. He has learnt his lesson. It's Chinatown. Do as little as possible.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Annie Hall

Woody Allen, con6sidered to be the greatest of the directors making quintessentially American films, stormed into Hollywood with this romantic comedy in 1977. Largely autobiographical, the story is of a comedian who works his way up from nightclubs to political rallies and TV shows.
When the story starts he is already twice married and divorced. And he has been seeing Annie Hall, but they have broken up.
Allen can be savagely funny of other philosphers while being one himself. The joke that opens the picture goes like this.
Two old women sit are at a ski-resort having lunch. One woman says: The food here is terrible.
Ya, says the other one, and such small portions.
Allen then turns philosphical saying that's the way he feels about life. Happiness, sorrow, guilt , fear through your life and it's over much too fast.
Even as he courts Annie, Allen's Alvy Singer pokes fun at all things American. Godfather ( ''I am standing here with the cast of the Godfather''), Los Angeles (``the only cultural advantage to NY is you can turn right on a red light'') the country (``it's quiet, there are crickets and you cant walk after dinner'') and then some.
The story is told in a series of flashbacks, sometimes one within the other. There seems to be no particular logic to the way the story is told. For example, when we are introduced to Diane Keaton (Annie), the two have already met, fallen in love and are perhaps on the verge of a break. Sometimes Keaton and Allen (and often Allen alone) visit their past to give us insights into what kind of people they really are.
The photography is mostly of urban NY - its streets, cafes and apartments, except for a few scenes in Beverly Hills and Hollywood. And the camera work by Gordon Willis (Godfather, All the President's Men) is exquisite. And Allen knows enough to go against the grain and still be aesthetically pleasing.
The characters are potrayed in an off-key, casual manner, sometimes to a fault. They never look like they are in costumes or delivering lines. They always look like they are talking like they naturally would.
The movie took home the Best picture oscar besides three others.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Thavamai Thavamirunthu

A RECENT poster of Cheran's latest movie, Thavamai Thavamirinthu screams out that he is the Satayit Ray of Tamil cinema. The comparison is unreasonable, of course, but a viewer of Tamil films who only knows Ray by reputation (there are many who have seen his films and more who havent) may be deluded into thinking this is true.
This is especially the case because Thavamai has ambitions to become a realitistic movie. Almost everybody who has seen the movie marvels at its ability to be interesting and real even as it does away with current commerical trends. The movie is undoubtedly gripping. This is the classic coming of age tale of a boy as he grapples with a paternal relationship, laced with guilt and unbridled respect.
Cheran does bring a kind of realism to Tamil cinema. It's refreshing and for most part authentic even at the cost of being simplistic. Balaji Sakthivel and Chelvaraghavan, too, have attempted this with widespread success and acclaim.
Raj Kiran's role as Cheran's dad has justly been praised by viewers. Method acting in Tamil cinema has had only a flickering existence, I suppose, largely due to overwhelming presence of Sivaji Ganeshan even years after his death. But Kiran is nuanced and confident of expressing himself just in body language without resorting to verbiose dialogue.
The scene in which he visits his eloped son and his daugher-in-law in the city is marked with the gravity with which Kiran performs his part. But unfortunately for Kiran, the role is too straitjacketed. He is almost the male equivalent of the perfect mother we have seen for so many years, especially in MGR's movies. Take one of MGR's mothers and give her a sex change operation and you get Raj Kiran.
But Kiran has got this face, the face of a non-actor. A rustic. Somebody who doesnt need to act when the camera rolls and lights come on. He appears as if he as slipped into the persona of the father effortlessly and it seems just like he is being himself. This is a delusion that helps add to the success of the performance.
Kiran's character, however, doesn't have a single negative trait. The guy doesn't even get angry. To conceive a role as perfect as this is really unrealistic and a father who dies when his son accuses him of unfair treatment (`enakkumattum enpa koravachenga') is really plumped for its commercial potential. This isn't really exploitative filmmaking but it does seems so the way Cheran shoots the climax.
I counted some of the other commercial traits and there are quite a few. some of them are avoidable. Like the song in the rain shot in soft focus after which Cheran's character has sex with his girlfriend.Other scenes are just badly written. Cheran's dialogues in college with his girlfriend are really cardboardspeak.
Then there is this contrived village sensibilility and aesthetics that Cheran imposes on himself. The father who teaches his kids Thirukkural and talks of Bharathi and other great freedom fighters.; the way he constantly hugs them; the kids who can't celebrate Deepavali due to crippling poverty; the family that places dignity and self respect above all else; the mother, who is the protector of culture and virtue. May be some of these are cliches because they are so enduring.
But there some are very jarring. The eloped couple who don't find any job in the city are strangely crying for just over 10 months because of they feel guilty, instead of worrying about achieving success which mysteriously arrives after they have been embraced by their families.
Admittedly the film is also about Kiran's sacrifices for his sons, but is it neccassary to underline this so much?
On the other side, the technical aspects of the film are brilliant. The art work of the printing press and its single low watt bulb. The unfailing frequency with which the camera always finds itself in the right spot to capture the action - this needs some explaining. For example, Cheran is always framed in a triangle with his mom and dad. He is mostly in line with Kiran in the scenes they do together. There was a time when a moving camera was so much in vogue. Now it's irritating. Cheran's camera is still and remains so for as long as it can capture the action aptly. The scenes are carefully staged making maximum use of the set and using as few camera set-ups as possible. Each cut done at the editing table seems to have reason. This delibration in the editing sequence is to be admired.
Cheran has often referred to the influence of Bharathiraja in his movies. Bharathiraja had attempted a home-grown variety of neorealism in his movies which he later altogether abandoned for crass commercialism. Then he reinvented himself as an arthouse director whose movies won all the awards and but none in the audience. Because some movies - Kadalpookal comes to mind - weren't even distributed widely.
A couple of questions need to be pondered over. Has Cheran really imbibed the idea of making realistic movies. Are the compromises that he makes for them to commericially successful consious. There is nothing in the movie to indicate that Cheran is a brilliant film-maker crippled by the need in Tamil cinema to deliver commericial success repeatedly. Even this level of realism in Tamil movie, it is widely belived, is a sure recipe for failure. When was a movie last made like this? Uthuri Pookal? 16 Vayathinile? Were they better than this or have they acquired vintage status?
This movie became possible because only because of the unparalled success among recent Tamil movies of Autograph. A script of this nature usually never finds funding. But Cheran has managed this, and deserves appreciation for the effort.

Braveheart in Tamil

Braveheart in Tamil on KTV today. dont know why it was so poorly translated, the script. especially some of the lines that work in English are really bad in Tamil. William Wallace's speech before fighting the English from the north works really well in English. the lines if you leave now, you might live and die in your bed one day but you will forever think of this day as the day you could have changed all this. the day you culd've fought for your freedom. those lines are hollywoodish but work. in tamil they suck.