Archive for February, 2006|Monthly archive page

Dinner and a movie? Skip the dinner.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

This week end, I found myself in the unenviable position of having to defend Texas to a couple of friends from out of town. The questions flew hard and fast – haven’t you heard of building vertically? How do you survive here without a car? Why are meals always prepared for families instead of for an individual? I didn’t have answers to those questions. I repeat what I told them. This is Texas. It took me a couple of years to get used to it, and I have. I am positive that when I make that trip back home and visit my favorite restaurants, I will ask waiters for the rest of my food / coffee / whatever. I will probably feel disconcerted to leave home and arrive at my destination in under 15 minutes. I may not feel motivated enough to drive without a Hummer honking away behind me. Yes, this is Texas, and I’ve gotten used to it.

I didn’t realize how much of a Texan I’ve unsuspectingly become until I watched The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. I felt completely at home in this movie – with the accent, the terrain, ever-present Spanish. I particularly loved the lonely old man who listens to listen to Spanish radio because he likes the way the language sounds. I love watching Telemundo myself for the same reason. And for the fact that someone gets slapped every seventh minute (Ekta Kapoor and Radhika – ladies, you can learn TONS of lessons from these Mexican soaps).

Alright, alright, I’ll get to the point. You’d think Three Burials is a western, about cowboys and Sheriffs and vigilantes delivering justice to one and all on horse back. You have all of this. But the cowboys of Three Burials also round up cows in the middle of nowhere, shoot coyotes, sometimes get shot themselves, speak Spanish, and are quite poor (as a one-time watcher of “Dallas” and sometime resident of Dallas, I have become disabused of the idea that everyone in Texas owns a ranch dotted with thousands of cattle and the occasional oil well). Far from finding true love (don’t even dream of “forbidden” love, all you Ang Lee fans), here, an evening out with the town slut passes for romance. No, the cowboys of Three Burials are not glamorous. Tommy Lee Jones plays the guy to whom you attribute all the “cowboy” qualities you’ve distilled from years of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne (loyalty, honor, an apparently unshakeable sense of justice), because you’ve been conditioned to do so. That he turns out to be all of that, and also mad as a hatter comes as a surprise.

You’d think Three Burials is a story of redemption and justice. If you harm someone, even accidentally, you must be prepared to face the consequences. Barry Pepper’s character reminded me of Matt Damon in Crash. You begin by hating him, but end up feeling sorry for him, even rooting for him as the movie unfolds. But when you start laughing at him just as he’s having hot coffee poured on his lap and his nose broken all within a minute, it comes as a surprise.

You’d think Three Burials is a commentary on illegal immigration and callous government officials. Mexican lives are not worth as much as American lives, or so appears to be the general philosophy of both the Sheriff and the Border Patrol. That the Sheriff suddenly feels the need to visit Six Flags or drive his truck off the road in order to delay his investigation comes as a surprise.

Three Burials is full of surprises. If you love your Zane Grey, Three Burials is not the movie for you. It features mad cowboys, Sheriffs who need Viagra, and embalming lessons you will not learn in Six Feet Under. The best thing about the movie is its sheer nonchalance. The violence, the humor, and some truly disgusting things they do to a dead body (Think of the scene in Pulp Fiction where Travolta blows off someone’s head in a car, and they clean the car of blood and brain. Multiply it by a factor of 10 – yes, it is that gross and that funny) – everything is treated with a casualness that takes your breath away again and again.

But for all that, the movie doesn’t quite come up to scratch. There’s no meaningful “so what” at the end of it. And there are too many things that feel completely out of place (Pete Perkins’s proposal to the waitress, the Sheriff’s suddenly sprouting a conscience, the whole mystery about Estrada’s family), and keep this movie from being a truly great movie.

Final verdict: it’s a decent movie, full of pleasant and unpleasant surprises. However, it is a bit disappointing, as all of these surprises don’t really add up to much. Watch the movie to get a taste of Texas and a few laughs that will leave you wondering about your own tastes. And do yourself a favor, please skip the pop-corn and coke.

Go here to read Falstaff’s more enthusiastic review.


Defense against demons

I felt utterly happy today, weak-kneed with relief,
Mellow with satisfaction, even hopeful about the future.
It wasn’t the sort of happiness that makes one
Shout out aloud from rooftops for all to hear,
Or grin like a fool for you to see.

I meant to savor the emotion in private,
As I do that Thurber cartoon you never quite get.
I called you anyway,
Because I felt utterly happy and wanted to hear your voice.
And because I thought my secret made me invincible.

Somewhere between talk of remorseful Shinagawa monkeys
And remorseless vice presidents, I forgot I had a secret.
Reality and my old demons steeped in,
Like color from a tea bag, turning my mood dark.
Even a tea cup typhoon has its share of heartbreak.

I lie on my bed, thinking about today.
Somewhere between thoughts of you,
Of Shinagawa monkeys and my demons,
I remember my secret, and my happniess returns,
As does my invincibility.

I fall asleep wondering what makes me invincible?
My secret, those monkeys or you?

No pain, no gain. Fine. But no guilt no pleasure?

In the last three months, I was technically not supposed to blog. By that, I mean there was a self-imposed moratorium on writing for pleasure. I had to complete a series of writing assignments, and I had told myself that I shouldn’t, er, dilute my creative energies by writing posts. But that resolution was treated with as much determination as a late night show host who vows not to make another Cheney joke.

Last week end, I finally completed my assignments. I’d looked forward to this day for the last 6 months, perhaps even longer. In my dreams, life stretched out, utterly beautiful and completely essay-free in every aspect. I’d made plans for a zillion different activities, whose only common trait was that none of them involved my sitting in front of a computer, forcing myself to be simultaneously creative and credible.

Early Sunday morning, I celebrated – by watching 15 Park Avenue at 3:30 AM (I’d just finished my last assignment, and wanted to celebrate right away!). Not a good choice. Make no mistake, it is a great movie. Konkana Sen gives a darn good performance as a schizophrenic, as does Shabana Azmi as her long-suffering step sister and care-giver. Just as Madhavan & Arvind Swamy blossom in Mani Ratnam movies, so did Rahul Bose with Aparna Sen (Rahul Bose is always good, you say? I submit as evidence ‘Mumbai Matinee’. And rest my case). Even Kanwaljeet Singh is nice, and I can’t remember the last time that that happened. But as you will find out if you watch the movie, it’s hardly the movie you want to watch if your goal is to celebrate anything.

During the last 12 weeks, life was full of illicit pleasures – several of them worth writing about. There were movies to be watched, books to lose sleep over and which once watched or read, begged to be written about. There were crazy incidents involving friends and colleagues. There were any numbers of items in the news I was itching to write about, any numbers of friends I have stead-fastly ignored… Now that I have all the time in the world for guilt-free hedonism, suddenly pleasure seems to be playing a tough game of hide and seek with me.

I tried calling up long-ignored friends. I called one friend well past midnight because she’d mentioned long ago that she’s usually up till 1:00 AM. After I woke her up and profusely apologized for it, we agreed to catch up later. I doubt that I’ll hear from her again. Another friend cried off because he said he had to wake up early the next day (which was a Sunday – can’t people come up with make decent excuses any more? Perhaps this ability wanes after 1:00 AM…). Determined to have a conversation, and beat the silly objections over lateness of the hour, I called up Mom & Dad, who being in a different time zone shouldn’t have objected. But, they’d just returned from a trip, and were too tired to make idle chit chat, even with their one and only, and even if they haven’t set eyes on this dearly beloved in almost 2 years. It was one of those “We’re OK. Tired, but OK. Are you OK? Good. Anything else?” conversations.

I’ve tried reading. I read the Sunday Times, caught up with old unread issues of the New Yorker & the Economist, Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, Colleen McCollough’s Julius Caesar1, Vikram Seth’s Two Lives, Annie Prloux’s Shipping News, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway – just lost interest after about 5 pages in each novel. I’ve tried watching movies, was even lucky enough to catch a couple of good ones (Aparna Sen’s movie, and Kanda Naal Mudhal). But you can only watch so many movies in a week end2

The problem lies not with the book or movie, but in me. Take guilt away, and apparently, you lose the pleasure, too. This wasn’t always the case. The problem is that with age, my ability to keep pleasure at bay has waned. When I was in 10th grade, for example, I didn’t read novels or watch movies when I had “exams” to study for. I admit that the presence of my mom might have had something to do with that. But since I moved out of home, I don’t let pressing matters like exams or deadlines keep me away from reading. If anything, I read more – convincing myself that my over-taxed brain needs a break… Sure, I feel guilty afterwards. But when I look at my pathetic attempts to “unwind” after 10+ weeks of some very hard work (OK, that’s not entirely true, but there most certainly were pockets of moderately hard work dispersed over 10+ weeks), I worry that guilt appears to have gotten all enmeshed with pleasure.

What lies ahead? A heedless hunt for deadlines, hated assignments, or any other gun to my head so that I can enjoy guilty pleasures again?

In the meantime, I was finally reduced to cleaning my room and doing the laundry. And I didn’t even get the halo I usually get after performing such selfless acts of courage. Today, I’ve been toying with the idea of writing long emails to friends in India I haven’t mailed since moving to the US, and calling up assorted aunts, uncles and cousins.

[1] This sudden loss of interest is particularly hurtful because I’m about a third into the novel, and had found it fascinating till this week end.
[2] Only so many movies in a week end? Egad! What alien force has taken over my body and mind?

From Denmark to Kolkata? Or Affair of the Danish Cartoons: Part Deux

A friend sent this link today. Possibly realizing that I might object to the source, he backed it up with another source. Yes, I realize that the information is still open to question, but still.

Initially, I was too disgusted to react. For, even if one ignores her, er, peccadilloes (takes Herculean effort, but it is possible), let us remember that this is the person Robert Redford doesn’t even want around a film festival. A few hours later, I am more tired than disgusted. I do not look forward to the reams of newsprint we will use up writing about this new controversy, if it does indeed turn out to be a controversy. Will there be protests? Will the same director offer to cast, oh I don’t know, Snoop Dogg as Vivekananda to prove the point that he isn’t out to target a specific religion, but that his craving for attention is secular?

This could start a whole trend, and given the number of religions, we could spend the better part of this century insulting them one at a time. By the time we’re done with all of them, it’ll be time to start again. Anything to keep us from thinking about real problems. Sounds like a plan.

Three for the price of one

I watched three Tamil movies this week. There were a number of reasons why I’d sworn off Tamil movies, but as any self-respecting addict, I’ve forgotten them and went on a binge. After watching Aadhi, Thavamai Thavamirundhu & Athu Oru Kana Kalam, I surprisingly am not yet close to swearing them off again. I think am waiting for one more movie – Paramasivam, which my roomie keeps threatening to watch. I can then safely go back to a three or four month hiatus.

Since I’ve been accused of, ahem, over-obsessing over inconsequential things, I’ll try not to.

Aadhi: Experimental cinema or Blame it on Rajinikanth
Precedent says punch dialogues are good for the hero, especially if the hero dreams of being the next Rajinikanth. So the makers of Aadhi figured why not have more of the good stuff, indeed why not have a movie composed entirely of punch dialogues? The hero, the comedian, the villain, the villain’s side-kicks, even walk-on characters, everyone in Aadhi communicates exclusively through punch-dialogues. Here’s a sample:

Main Dada to another dada: Perfecta plan pannu. Panna theriyalanna enakku phone pannu.

Comedian: Naan podra shoe thaan Reebok-u. Pannra velai porambokku.

Unakku kaila than kathi. Enakkau kaiyae kathi.
Thoda mattein. Thotta, vida mattein.
Neruppa thirippi pudichaalum, athu nimithuthaan eriyum. (This is my personal favorite.)

Note to readers:
1. I didn’t translate the lines into English, because they’d just lose their “punch”
2. The list above is only a tiny sample, there are tons more in the movie.

If you take away these dialogues, Aadhi is just another masala movie. It has all the ingredients – a tale of revenge, a little bit of suspense, gratuitous violence (heads and limbs chopped off, little girls molested), some comedy (this I admit was painful, and limited to Manivannan hitting on a Punju auntie. I forget what Vivek was doing in the movie), some utterly ridiculous stunts (hero rips door off a moving car in order to defend himself from the bad guys at one point), a pretty girl and of course, romance.

The reason I truly enjoyed the movie were the dialogues: the binding agent that brought all these elements together to make that perfect bad-good movie. This is a great movie to watch with friends. Just make sure you don’t have any squeamish girls around.

So, will this movie make Vijay the next Super star? Vijay may get the manager, and copy the dialogues. But Dhanush has the hot shot director / brother AND big daddy / daddy-in-law. Do the math yourself.

Thavamai Thavamirundhu: Long, but alright
Karthik already wrote about this movie. Just wanted to add my two cents’ worth. I quite liked the movie. If Aadhi was good because it was bad, Thavamai Thavamirundhu is good because it could have been so much worse. I have seen this plot lots of times before, mostly by Visu. I am grateful to Cheran because he doesn’t go over-board as Visu does. People are treated badly in this movie, but they don’t rave and rant like they usually do in Tamil movies. I agree with Karthik that we could have done without all the cycling they do in this movie, but am willing to forgive Cheran anything for putting together a simple story, and keeping it simple. And I think I liked the movie also because my parents, who don’t watch very many movies, did watch this one, and really liked it. Had I watched it with them, I might have felt obliged to protest against any number of things about this movie – the length, the crying, the cycling, the printing press, the omnipresent misery… but I didn’t watch the movie with them. Just thought of how it might be like to be back home again, and make silly arguments just to tick my parents off… And mostly for that, I liked Thavamai Thavamirundhu.

Athu Oru Kana Kalam – not for cynics.
Spoiler alert!

Athu Oru Kana Kalam isn’t your usual Tamil movie. It has all the elements of a perfectly decent tragedy / “realistic movie”- an ordinary looking hero, a pair of star-crossed lovers, well-meaning characters whose actions somehow wreak untold misery for all involved… and just when you’re all geared up for a “life sucks, and there’s isn’t a thing you can do about it” conclusion, Balu Mahendra ends the movie on a happy note. The lovers get to live happily ever after, after all. It felt like slap in the face. I got all huffed up, and made a series of speeches on justice and rule of the law and idiotic policemen who have respect for neither, and crazy directors who think the audience is gullible enough to buy stories about benevolent cops who let murderers get away and live happily ever after with their girlfriends… I guess the fault lies not in the Balu Mahendra, but in me. I’m too cynical for movies like this one. Just because seven eighths of the movie felt down to earth doesn’t mean that the last one eighth has to stay grounded too.

And am willing to watch many more movies like this one, so long as movies like this keep Dhanush away from disasters like Thiruda Thirudi or the other one where he drives around pretty girl in a yellow convertible in some South East country (Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong – take your pick).

Three very different movies and each was not bad for its own reasons. Paramasivam, hit with whatever you got, and let’s get this over with.

Karma – what’s in it for me?

Today, someone was extremely rude to me. Understandably, I am hurt and angry. I didn’t try to, er, return the compliment. But this post is not about my desire or ability to be rude. No, this post is about musing what might constitute fair restitution for all manner of hurts, particularly those cases where there is a clear distinction between the injured party and the party to blame. The way I see it, I have the following options:
– swear
– curse, or wish upon this person anything from a flat tire to a mosquito bite.
– do nothing, but take comfort from the belief that some mysterious accountant in the sky (or is it below ground? My Hindu mythology’s a little rusty) will update the karma accounts of all parties involved
– act noble

Option 1 may provide a temporary release, but really, it doesn’t do much else. So I won’t bother with it. The other three are worthy of deeper contemplation.

Option 2: Curse
While this offers a very tempting promise of quid pro quo, here’s why it is not a good enough option in the long run. Let’s say I wish this person had a flat tire, and some genie actually makes my wish come true. That still leaves too many questions unanswered. When will the flat tire happen? Today? Next week? Twenty years from now? And a mere flattening of a tire isn’t going to do anything for me. It has to be made clear to the rude person that the tire was flattened because he / she hurt someone (ok, moi). Otherwise, what’s the point? They’re going to think they’re the victim. OK, so that may be true, but they must realize why they’ve been singled out for victimization, right? In order for this to happen, retribution must be swift, and not take place a decade and a half after the initial act of rudeness.

There’s another aspect to the question of timing. Sure, I want rude person to be inconvenienced, but what if flat tire happens when he/she is rushing to the hospital to see / save a [dying] loved one? That would be terrible! Even I’m not such a monster… after all, only my ego was hurt – no damage to life or limbs occurred… So, maybe the curse idea isn’t such a good one. Moving on.

Option 3: do nothing, rely on Karma
This is my least favorite option. I am still not sure a 100% about the mechanics of Karma, possibly because I am a crass materialist. But being the crass materialist I am, this is my interpretation – Karma is like a bank account. Good karma dollars get put into your account if you behave well, and bad behavior takes your accumulated savings away. Of course, there is such a thing as a deal size, or in this case, a deed size – letting roomie watch game on superbowl weekend may be worth about 10 or so karma $. Actually sitting with said roomie and watching a game you neither understand nor like because you remember that the same football loving roomie watched Memoirs of a Geisha with you, that’s got to be worth at least a $ 1000, if not more.

But here’s what the problem is with having an account – money comes in, money goes out, and at some point you lose track of individual dollars, (unless one happens to be on some Interpol / FBI / SEC watch list for money laundering – and considering that I am neither Mother Theresa nor Saddam Hussein, my karma cash flows, whether positive or negative, are no where close to “laundering” status yet). So whether your boss suddenly goes on vacation or your car breaks down on the 635, you’re never sure what brought it on. So where’s the opportunity to learn? Sure, I could be “sensible” and try to only those things that I think will bring in the karma moolah, but really, let’s get real.

And the other thing about karma is that is too personalized. I only seem to have a direct say about what goes on with my own account. Causing minor emotional injury may cause rude person to lose a few dollars from his or her account, but what does that do for me? I can’t, for instance, say I want $9.99 taken from rude person’s account and put into mine. And even if we assume that I receive some form of compensation (that I got to write a post about it may be one for all I know), I’d really like to be able to choose my own compensation. Even if it’s a lousy choice, like the ones that Readers’ Digest gives you, I’d still like to be able to choose. If asked to choose between an idea for a new post, losing 0.2 pounds with no physical or mental exertion, and oh, something to day-dream about when am stuck watching that silly game on Sunday, I might want all three, but hey, at least I can grumble about life being unfair, pick one and move on. (and in case you’re wondering, I’d have picked losing 0.2 pounds. I watched “Aadhi” AND had the presence of mind to take notes AND I can survive a bunch of men in helmets chasing a ball with an identity crisis any day (it’s not a ball, for balls are round. It’s not an egg. What is it?) – but losing weight by doing nothing, now that’s an idea – ask any infomercial)

Conclusion: I don’t want to rely on an accounting system that seems to be almost as good as Enron’s.

Option 4: act noble
As you can see, through out this post I have taken great pains to raise the question “what’s in it for me?” in very many subtle and not so subtle ways. Acting noble (without the option of good karma) is clearly not an option to spend too much time thinking about. OK, I take that back. You can act noble, in cases when you’re confident it will drive the opposing party wild. In my case, and this particular rude person, I don’t think it’s going to work. As I know this person rather well, I know that the rude person is simply going to think I’m a prat and continue being rude.

One thousand words and counting. Still no answer to the original question “what constitutes fair restitution?” Now the question is what restitution would you want for having spent those precious minutes of your life reading this post? Think about it, and let me know. As soon as I receive mine, I’ll get by to thinking about yours.