Thursday, February 24, 2005

Meri Amrita - An Interview with Usha Rajagopalan

“I’ve always been a small town person. I lived in Anand, Gujarat, and now, at Manipal, Karnataka. Chennai is a big city for me in contrast, and I visit my mother and other relatives here once in a while. My daughter who studied here, became quite the Chennai girl at the end of her course!”says Usha Rajagopalan, author of the novel, ‘Amrita’. 

Usha was in town to speak to students of the Women’s Christian College, as well as to participate in a reading and panel discussion on her debut novel, at the British Council.

Usha’s relationship with writing began in her childhood. “I was always into reading and writing, and assumed that it was a part of every child’s life. My grandfather would insist I write a review on every book I read, and would later go through the reviews, marking out phrases or words that he thought were well used in the context, as well as those that could be improved upon or expressed differently.”

Much later, Usha worked as Executive Assistant to Dr. V. Kurien, Chairman, National Dairy Development Board, at Anand, Gujarat. She recalls it being an intensely punishing job, and she worked from 9.30 a.m. to 8 p.m., 7 days a week, with only a half-hour lunch break. This half-hour lunch break was the time when she did most of her writing.

“I wrote many pieces for newspapers that got published almost instantly. Many readers wrote in to share their opinions about my pieces and mentioned looking forward to reading more of my work.” Says Usha. Ever since, her articles, travelogues, short stories, poems and features, more than 80 in all, have appeared in almost all the leading Indian English newspapers and magazines.

After she left her job at NDDB, she turned to full-time writing. Usha won the Commonwealth Short Story prize for three successive years: 2001, 2002 and 2003 and also won prizes for her poetry.

How did ‘Amrita’ happen? “I wrote the first draft of ‘Amrita’ during my stint as the Andrew Fellow in Fiction at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver in 1999. This was a period, when I could focus wholly on my writing. Since that first draft, the story has undergone much editing and revision and it’s a relief, to finally see it in print!” she says.

“The inspiration for ‘Amrita’, came from a visual I saw on television, of a girl leading another. I wanted to write about siblings, about a girl whose elder sister is dependent on her. The reason for the dependence, in the final story, is mental disability. ‘Amrita’ is the story of the deep bond between the mentally disabled Amrita and her mercurial younger sister Maya. Their parents, Raghu and Kamala, are resigned to their fate but Maya is determined to bring her sister within the fold of the family and society.”says Usha.

Having researched the subject of mental disability in great detail, Usha, however, believes that the book is not for those with a mentally disabled child in the family. “It’s especially for those who have non-disabled children, for them to appreciate how fortunate they are not to encounter the kind of challenges that families with mentally disabled children face on a daily basis.”

“I have tried to portray the challenges that the rest of the family faces, especially the siblings. And the biggest issue in a family such as the one in ‘Amrita’, is one of breakdown of communication. Although many people who have read the book have told me that they know families exactly like the one in the book, the portrayal itself is a composite of many people I met, places I had visited and stories I had heard from those working with mentally disabled children. In fact, the antics of Amrita’s non-disabled sister Maya, in the book, is modelled after all the naughty things my son used to do as a child!”

So, where to, from here? Usha says, “Many people have told me that the book is incomplete without more on Maya. They’ve wanted to know if I will write a sequel. I have no idea what I will write next. But one thing I know for sure, is that having spent about five years writing my first novel and understanding the process, it will take me a lot less time to write my next!”

(edited version published on February 24, 2005 in Madras Plus, the city features supplement of The Economic Times, Chennai. Pic courtesy Third Eye, as published in Madras Plus. Book cover courtesy Rupa Publications)

Jurm - It Happened One Night

A man lies unconscious in his farmhouse. There’s blood on the floor and a murder weapon under a sofa. The police mentions that the man’s wife had earlier called the control room and said, ‘He wants to kill me! I’m Sanjana Malhotra. My husband…’ and screamed before disconnecting. 

Here’s my question: How can the man be arrested for the murder of his wife, produced in court, and denied bail, when there’s no victim’s body to begin with?

Thus begins Vikram Bhatt’s Jurm. Sure, there are twists aplenty, but any self-respecting crime thriller must support those twists with attention to detail. Sadly, few Bollywood films live up to the demands of a taut script in the crime genre. The only exception to the rule in recent times being Robby Grewal’s Samay.

Back to Jurm, Avinash Malhotra (Bobby Deol) is arrested for the murder of his wife Sanjana (Lara Dutta). He pleads innocent, but doesn’t recollect a thing, as he was drunk when it happened. Avinash narrates the entire story of how they met, fell in love, married and what happened before he got drunk the previous night, to the police. His pillar of strength through life, and even now, when in trouble, is his lawyer friend Rohit (Milind Soman), who contests his case in court, and finally helps him escape from prison when all legal attempts to free him fail. There’s also a good friend-cum-silent lover, Sonia (Gul Panag) who visits him in prison, with tiffin dabbas of food.  

What actually happened when Avinash was unconscious, and how Avinash finds the real culprit, and avenges himself, forms the rest of the story.  

Bobby Deal and Lara Dutta have acted together in E.Niwas’ Bardaasht (incidentally, scripted by Vikram Bhatt!). Despite that, there’s no chemistry between the lead pair. Bobby Deol looks either angry or bored, Lara Dutta is wooden except in the sequences when she’s supposed to scream. Milind Soman has a chunky role, and definitely performs better than the lead pair. Gul Panag looks good, emotes fine, but could do with a spot of training on dialogue delivery. Shakti Kapoor does the usual sleazy role. The scene between him and Gul Panag does nothing for the script and their respective careers. Milind Gunaji, sadly, has a very small role as a lawyer. Ashish Vidyarthi’s is the usual cop role, with no scope for innovation.  

Technically, the film is just above average and lacks the relative finesse of Bhatt’s Raaz. The editing (Kuldip Mehan) is a trifle erratic and the cinematography (Pravin Bhatt) picks up in the latter half, when the action moves to Malaysia. Music has never been the forte of a Vikram Bhatt film, and Jurm’s music (Anand Raj Anand and Anu Malik) follows on the same predictable lines despite or because of the presence of two music directors. Adnan Sami’s voice on Bobby Deol for the song, ‘dil deewana ho gaya– bad idea. 

Jurm is not worth forgoing one’s afternoon nap or a good night’s sleep over. If you’re a connoisseur of crime thrillers, this movie is definitely NOT for you.