Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Cinema! Cinema!

I remember my childhood visits to the cinema hall at a time when they ran a single movie for all four shows. The women in the group were pressed into service to wait their turn to buy the tickets in the Ladies Queue.

The cinema hall snack counter had greasy samosas, vegetable puffs, pop-corn and bottled soft drinks, that too, only two varieties. Most of these snack bars also had an ancient ice cream machine, which would swirl out milky ice cream, always vanilla flavour, into a cone that the attendant deftly moved to catch the swirl right. Towards the climax of the movie, we would exit the theatre so that we could leave in our car without getting caught in the rush of vehicles at the end of the show. So, invariably, we didn’t know what happened at the end of the movie.

Multiplexes have changed all that. Now, you have a bigger choice of movies to watch thanks to multiple screens and different movies showing on the same screen over a day. The experience begins even before you’ve set foot in the premises. You can book tickets on the internet, the phone, and even by messaging from your mobile. If you want the ultimate in luxurious movie watching, you can book seats that recline. If you visit the snack counter before the movie starts, you can place an order with your seat number as identity, and ask to be served at an appointed time during the movie. The snack counters now have chocolates, cookies, potato wafers, sandwiches, samosas, doughnuts, soft drinks from vending machines, pop corn in three sizes of portions, and of course, ice cream that still comes out of a machine, only more snazzy looking. No more missing the end of the movie – the parking is organized and sometimes, you pay extra for it. If you’re wondering who would watch the kids at home while you went for a movie, there’s a new service at some multiplexes where children are chaperoned while you catch up on the movie.

Needless to say, one pays a hefty rate per ticket, now touching an average of Rs. 200. The difference between earlier and now, is that then, we paid for products and now, we pay for service and convenience.

However, one of my greatest desires is to experience the ‘tent’ cinema theatres of yore, with the men and women sitting in segregated sections on the ground made comfortable with fine sand. I imagine that when the hero appears on the screen, there would be whistles aplenty and silver paper thrown on screen. Some members of the audience would dance energetically during songs only to be shushed by those whose view of the screen was blocked by the dancers. The Interval would see the audience rushing to get their share of oily ‘gold finger’ and ‘murukkus’, along with ‘colour’, a sherbet-like drink. There was also, I presume milk lollies and stick-ice creams we used to call ‘kucchi Ice’.

Ironically, what hasn’t changed between then and now, is the fact that the movie is incidentally only a small part of the entire cinema-going experience.

(Article appeared in The Friendly Post, Kodaikanal in February 2007)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

A Class Apart

The concept of the Mumbai Local (as the Suburban Train Network is called) is rather interesting, as I discovered when I had to take my first ride.

I was advised to buy a First Class ticket as that compartment would be relatively less crowded. Step one accomplished, I found the right platform number and made my way there. There was already a train waiting. I was suddenly in a quandary. There seemed to be no First Class compartment as far as I could see. Finally, not wanting to be late for my appointment, I boarded the nearest Second Class compartment, that gradually got so crowded that I began to worry about getting off at the right stop.
I noticed that there were more men than women here, and people had a peculiar way of folding the newspaper, that they read even as they were holding on for dear life. All of a sudden, the train stopped at a station and everybody trooped out. Turns out that I took a train that would go only half the distance I had to cover. I stepped out and on a different platform, found another train that was headed to the right destination this time. This time too, I couldn't find the First Class compartment. As the train was pulling out, I entered the compartment nearest to where I stood. A strange odour pervaded my nostrils and I discovered the concept of a special compartment for fishmongers. Luckily, in that compartment that day, there were no mongers, only the whiff of bygone fish.
I was advised to buy a First Class ticket as that compartment would be relatively less crowded. Step one accomplished, I found the right platform number and made my way there. There was already a train waiting. I was suddenly in a quandary. There seemed to be no First Class compartment as far as I could see. Finally, not wanting to be late for my appointment, I boarded the nearest Second Class compartment, that gradually got so crowded that I began to worry about getting off at the right stop. I noticed that there were more men than women here, and people had a peculiar way of folding the newspaper, that they read even as they were holding on for dear life.

All of a sudden, the train stopped at a station and everybody trooped out. Turns out that I took a train that would go only half the distance I had to cover. I stepped out and on a different platform, found another train that was headed to the right destination this time. This time too, I couldn't find the First Class compartment. As the train was pulling out, I entered the compartment nearest to where I stood. A strange odour pervaded my nostrils and I discovered the concept of a special compartment for fishmongers. Luckily, in that compartment that day, there were no mongers, only the whiff of bygone fish.
Finally arriving at my destination, I felt a great high as I had done my first train journey in big, bad Mumbai all by myself. The high lasted all day, and long after I returned. That was until someone I know gently pointed out that in addition to the Second Class and the First Class, which was predominantly male dominated, there is such a concept as a Ladies Compartment and a First Class Ladies to make the division even finer. No wonder the men in the compartment I rode looked hostile. I had erringly put it down to find-a-seat aggression.
I also discovered from my friend, that on the platform of any station, the pillars have differently coloured diagonal stripes to indicate First Class and Ladies Compartments. Now if only I had known that BEFORE my journey. It could have saved my riding a Second Class compartment clutching a First Class ticket. Some day, I hope to restore the balance by riding a First Class compartment with a Second Class ticket.

Finally arriving at my destination, I felt a great high as I had done my first train journey in big, bad Mumbai all by myself. The high lasted all day, and long after I returned. That was until someone I know gently pointed out that in addition to the Second Class and the First Class, which was predominantly male dominated, there is such a concept as a Ladies Compartment and a First Class Ladies to make the division even finer. No wonder the men in the compartment I rode looked hostile. I had erringly put it down to find-a-seat aggression.

I also discovered from my friend, that on the platform of any station, the pillars have differently coloured diagonal stripes to indicate First Class and Ladies Compartments. Now if only I had known that BEFORE my journey. It could have saved my riding a Second Class compartment clutching a First Class ticket. Some day, I hope to restore the balance by riding a First Class compartment with a Second Class ticket.
(Article appeared in The Friendly Post, Kodaikanal in January 2007)

Food For Thought

One day, between mouthfuls of brownie, a friend of ours visiting Kodai with us, said “India is the best place to holiday - the main reason being food. If you holiday in Europe for instance, you’ll be spending a lot of money, not to mention working up an already worked-up appetite searching for a place to eat.”

We heard this refrain, not to mention lavish praise for the sheer variety and flavour, at every mealtime on our three-day trip to Kodai. This, from an Indian who lived in India until a couple of years ago.

We didn’t know what he meant then, but these things have a strange way of turning up in one’s life.

The Better Half (henceforth referred to as BH) and I are just back from a three-week trip to Europe and believe our friend should sport a halo for the truths that he uttered between mouthfuls of brownie.

We had three main problems with food in Europe.
a. Vegetarianism
b. Affordability
c. Flavour

With vegetarianism, things are clear. Go or no go. Provided the person at the restaurant understands the concept. Or understands English. In any case, our consumption of yoghurt and fruit went up substantially.

While our vegetarianism did complicate things, the ordeal was in finding affordable food. Outside every restaurant, a menu is on display. We saw so many menus in an average day, that we’ve turned menu-scrutiny into a fine art. It’s a miracle we even managed to see the Eiffel Tower!

When it comes to flavour, the Indian palate is saturated. We love the pungency of garlic, the cloying sweetness of masala tea, and the ‘dunk-myself-in-the-lake’ spice of pickles. In Europe, the blandness is disconcerting, probably because we didn’t quite have the local fare that was mostly non-vegetarian.

Then comes the issue of museum food. Most museums in Europe are humongous and one can easily spend an entire day, thinking it’s just been a couple of hours. When the hunger hits home, there’s only one place that’s accessible – the museum cafetaria. Believe me, some of the food in there, should have been part of the permanent collection of the museum. A wedge of Spanish omelette, costed an awful lot, came stone cold and just as hard.

We did discover some Tandoori outlets where the food was not all that affordable but at least authentic. The owners were friendly and ensured the food was spiced a little more than what they’d serve otherwise. My most vivid memory was of a quiet meal where BH and I focused completely on the task at hand – wolfing down parathas and sabji in record time, all the while calculating how much the food would cost us if converted to Indian Rupees.

Maybe we were inexperienced. Maybe we didn’t hit the right outlets. Maybe we were na├»ve. The end result was that in all our photographs of the trip, we look hungry. Coming home, we gushed, not unlike our friend, about the sheer variety and flavour of food in India. Our value-add to the description was ‘inexpensive’.

As one owner of a Tandoori eatery in Paris said, “Indian food is like a drug. If someone tastes it once, it’s an addiction for life.”

Unlike with our friend at the beginning of this article, this time, we understood exactly what he meant.

Burp.
(Article appeared in The Friendly Post, Kodaikanal in December 2006)

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Shekar Dattatri - All Things Wild and Wonderful

Sitting under the charcoal sketch of the awe-inspiring visage of an Indian Tiger, Chennai-based wildlife filmmaker, Shekar Dattatri, talks about why he continues to attribute the epithet, 'struggling filmmaker', to himself. "The primary income in wildlife filmmaking is job satisfaction. There is no control over the subject, there are no guarantees and trends change constantly. If there is money, it's a bonus." I note the 'if' in favour of the 'when' and wonder, how someone who has won numerous national and international awards for his films, and was more recently, the recipient of an Associate Laureate Award under the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, can call himself a 'struggling filmmaker'!

However, this much is evident - meeting Shekar is like being swept away in a deluge of anecdotes and sound-bytes. He speaks of his early introduction to the wild when his sister gifted him a book by Gerald Durrell and his discovery that one doesn't have to go into the jungles to watch animals, the ones in the backyard were just as interesting. At age 13, he remembers cockily asking Rom Whitaker if he could join the Madras Snake Park as a volunteer as he already knew how to handle snakes. Rom agreed with the usual word of caution, and Shekar began to spend his weekends there, gradually progressing to accompanying snake-catching Irula tribals on trips. When he attended school during the week, he sat in the last bench, immersed in books on wildlife.

Shekar then began going further afield on surveys that helped him get attuned to the jungle and, along with the knowledge gleaned from extensive reading, he began the long process that led to becoming a wildlife filmmaker. This quest for knowledge of the natural world is evident in every anecdote that Shekar narrates, be it about crabs grinding sand pellets on the beach at Point Calimere or a tiger trailing a mother rhino and her calf at Kaziranga.
Shekar reminisces about the time he was making a film for National Geographic Channel, on the Indian Cobra. Along with a couple of colleagues, he waited 30 whole days and nights with 6 pregnant cobras, to film them laying eggs. In his bedroom. He recounts the experience, "One night, at 2 a.m., I happened to wake up, and found one of the cobras (finally!) in the process of laying eggs. My colleague, who was supposed to keep watch, had succumbed to fatigue and fallen asleep. So, I gently transferred the cobra to the simulated rat-burrow set, and started filming. The eggs were translucent when laid, and the embryo and blood vessels were visible. But within a minute, blobs of a white substance appeared on the egg-shell as though shot from within, and made it totally opaque! That's the joy of wildlife filmmaking – you get to see things that a lot of other people miss!"
Shekar remembers one incident when he was filming on the banks of the Kabini River. "We had been observing a blind female elephant and her baby elephant who always stayed separate from the herd. One day, we noticed a very dark adult female elephant, standing with them. As the new elephant was unaccustomed to our presence, we didn't get closer. For some reason, possibly to adjust the lens, I moved slightly. This action caught the eye of the new elephant, and she charged at us without warning! There was no time to turn the vehicle around, so we reversed for almost 100 metres, before she finally gave up and retreated."
Shekar's commitment to conservation and environmental awareness, is evident from the gamut of subjects he has chosen to make films on - from snakes and rats to tigers and olive ridley turtles. He believes that films can go beyond the purpose of sensitising the audience to environmental issues. In the right circumstances, they can draw the attention of policy makers and help bring about solutions.

One audience that Shekar would like to focus on, is children - "Children are like sponges – they soak up so much information and are yet to become cynical. Given the right information, they'll grow up to be a generation that's much more proactive and conscious of these issues. As part of the Rolex Award, one of my objectives is to build a body of work with short films on different issues which could help equip school libraries, and be played during environmental science classes.", he says.

Which brings us to the general impression of wildlife filmmaking being a very macho vocation, with images of striking cobras and attacking leopards coming to mind. "Yes, there's adventure around every corner, but if you ask me, I feel much safer amidst wildlife in a jungle – it's cities and people that I'm wary of!" he says.