Why Gdansk is my favourite non-Indian city to visit

Most people have their reasons for picking a favourite:

  • It’s the first place I visited
  • It’s scenic/has a lot of history/…
  • The people are wonderful

Mine is a combination of the above, but the precise moment when I fell in love with the place has to do with my love for the movies.

Gdansk was indeed the first place I visited outside of India. I went there for some project meetings nearly ten years ago and one of my Polish colleagues came to the airport to pick me up. I had heard that Polish was a slightly tough language to master, so I asked my colleague Karolina how the name of the city was pronounced. Her explanation can be summarized as follows: The G in the beginning is pronounced, the d is soft and there’s an implicit i before the n. Guh-dayinsk. More or less.

In the Polish alphabet, the n used in Gdansk has a tail attached to it (like so: ɲ), which is how you know to add the i in front when you pronounce it. She explained that this letter was called Ni.

And added, by way of clarification: “Like the Knights who say Ni.”

Game, set and match.


Sometimes, it’s easier to just talk about it

So my first spoken blog post is up, courtesy the wonderful folks who run Masala Zindabad. Thanks, Beth & Amrita for putting this up on your site!

This one’s about my experience of going to the movies. Specifically about watching B-movies in a ramshackle single-screen theatre in a little village in Rajasthan. You can listen to it here.


Balki’s Delorean

I spent a good bit of time trying to figure out how to write a coherent review Paa before I realized something. The entire publicity machine for Paa focuses on the fact that Amitabh Bachchan plays a twelve year-old with Progeria (a genetic disorder that makes him look like he’s pushing seventy) and Abhishek Bachchan plays his dad. Now, the easiest way to look at this is as a gimmick — considering how the only function Progeria really plays in the story is reducing the protagonist’s life expectancy, one could just as well have cast a young kid with Leukaemia or something and ended up with much the same movie.

Now, casting gimmicks aren’t bad per se. As long as they work well and don’t distract from the overall experience, there’s really no reason to complain.

Take Perazhagan, for instance. The hunchback Chinna would rank among the best Surya performances of all time. If I didn’t already know that it was Surya in that role, I might not have guessed it. Would the film have worked if someone else had actually played that role? Probably just as well. But his knockout performance doesn’t hurt at all.

Contrast this with Dasavatharam: Kamal’s performances as the priest, the chemist, the cop and the old woman were beyond awesome. The other six, I could’ve readily done without. If anything, they diminish the experience.

What I am trying to get at through this extended rant is that I could essentially write this review in two parts: one about Amitabh’s performance, and the other about Paa minus Amitabh. Makes my job simpler, doesn’t it? Therefore, without much more ado:

Amitabh’s performance

Paa begins with a prize distribution ceremony for an art contest in a school, presided over by a young, popular politician named Amol Ppte. The winner is a twelve year-old named Auro who suffers from Progeria. When he is announced as the winner, he is just about to enter the auditorium. His classmates notice him and start cheering. It makes him want to open the door and go back the way he came. And as he does that, you hear the opening notes of the theme tune. Just a few notes, as if to suggest that the music inside his head isn’t the cheering outside it. As everybody cheers him on, he gains confidence and lopes towards the podium and the theme music starts up again. He goes up, does a little monkey dance along with his classmates in the audience, receives his trophy and walks off.

Here’s the thing: Until that scene ended, I hadn’t even noticed that the boy was played by Amitabh Bachchan.

This isn’t just make-up, although the movie does well enough in that department. This is an actor becoming invisible.

And yet, there are moments where he sheds his adolescent skin ever so briefly and lets the seasoned performer with the amazing screen prescence take over. Consider the moment in the hospital where Amol Apte (Abhishek) finally realizes that Auro (Amitabh) is his son. Auro beckons him close, whispers: Tumhaare pichle se pichle se pichla mistake and points to himself. Not a twelve year-old gesture, but done so brilliantly that I’m disinclined to object.

Paa minus AB Sr.

Had Amitabh’s performance been stranded in the midst of a sub-par film, it would have been a huge disappointment. Thankfully, that isn’t the case.

The story itself isn’t new: a single woman raises a child she bore out of wedlock, and the child runs into the other parent in due course with neither of them being aware of their relationship. Shortening the life expectancy of the child simply puts a time frame to the proceedings.

The story isn’t helped by the fact that one the the subplots doesn’t work. The whole business about the do-gooder politico dealing with a corrupt environment doesn’t work too well and is at odds with the rest of the proceedings. I understand Balki’s intention — he wishes to flesh out Amol’s character and not just focus on his relevance to Auro’s life — but the writing leaves much to be desired. When the film turns its focus back to two parents, two grandparents and a child, it works much better. Much of the credit for that must go to the performances.

I’ll be honest with you: when I saw that Abhishek had a clean-shaven look in this movie, my hopes went down. I mean, the last time he shaved this carefully, he came up with Dhaai Akshar Prem Ke. But he acquits himself beautifully here.

Although the title refers to him, the movie is more about Auro and his mother. Vidya Balan gets one of the meatiest roles of her career and gives it a performance to match.

The grandparents deserve mention. Both characters are fiercely protective of their offspring, although the manner in which they demonstrate it differs. Paresh Rawal (playing Amol’s father) is his usual dependable self. But Arundhati Nag is the real standout here. Her conversation with her daughter when she finds out that the latter is pregnant is fantastic.

Much as I loved all these aspects, what I found most interesting was what the movie reminded me of.

Ilayaraja’s work on the background score, for instance, is the sort of stuff we grew up with in the eighties and early nineties. The sort of stuff that preserved our sanity in movies where Mohan died of cancer in the end. The sort of stuff that took a good Mani Rathnam or K Balachander or Kamalhassan movie and made it better.

In some ways, that is the key to my experience of Paa. There are scenes that feel like they came out of a Mani/KB-Kamal collaboration that got scripted and never got made. When I imagine them watching this movie, I see a lot of nods and smiles.

KB, for instance, might smile at the portrayal of strong, single women or way the music and visuals do a lot of the heavy lifting. There is a conversation between Amol and his father where it seems like each of them is lit up in a separate box. Beautifully done from an aesthetic standpoint, of course (PC Sreeram in top form here). But more importantly, notice the way it emphasizes their viewpoints in that conversation. KB would’ve been proud.

The way Amitabh handles the aforementioned “mistake” scene at the hospital is vintage Kamal. (The Moondram Piraiesque monkey dance doesn’t count except in a very superficial sense.)

Mani would probably find the economy of dialogue and the portrayal of strong, sassy women familiar. He would certainly chuckle at the Nayakan-inspired scene where Amol gives a bunch of reporters a taste of their own medicine by getting slum dwellers to take over their homes.

Much as I may have given you the impression that this is an eighties drama with cellphones and webcams, I do not mean any of these comparisons as a put-down. These people were the reason why I fell in love with the movies in the first place. If anything, Balki gave me a reason to fall in love with them all over again.


  1. Why do so many of Vidya Balan’s roles involve her dealing with men of the love-em-and-leave-em variety?
  2. The opening credits are spoken by Jaya Bachchan, a neat touch. Exactly how much temptation did Balki have to resist in not casting Ash in the Vidya Balan role?
  3. I looked up Baradwaj Rangan’s essay on Paa and found his entire review to be based on the thesis that Balki adores the Mani Rathnam of the eighties. It almost made me not post this one —  I mean, why bother when someone else says the same thing but does it better than you do?

A bigger boat

Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat has a brilliant section about the protagonists making a list of things to take with them on the boat trip. The first list they make turns out to have so many items that the boat would likely sink under the weight of it all. Then one of them suggests that they ought to make a new list, not of the things they could use, but only of the things they couldn’t do without.  This would’ve been the end of it, but Jerome elaborates on the wisdom contained in that line:

I call that downright wisdom, not merely as regards the present case, but with reference to our trip up the river of life, generally. How many people, on that voyage, load up the boat till it is ever in danger of swamping with a store of foolish things which they think essential to the pleasure and comfort of the trip, but which are really only useless lumber… It is lumber, man — all lumber! Throw it overboard… Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need — a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing (sic).

In some ways, that moldy old cauliflower we have sitting atop our necks is just another kind of boat. The difference is, every once in a while, we come across something that doesn’t make that boat heavier. It makes it bigger. And for having encountered more than a fair share of those moments in my life, I am truly thankful. I don’t know if I will ever get around to writing down the entire list of such things, but here are a few (in chronological order):

Opening notes (1985)

My dad has an almost maniacal love for old Hindi film music. Years ago, he bought a tape that contained a compilation of Lata Mangeshkar’s songs called Magic Moments. The first song I heard from that tape was Mera Dil Yeh Pukaare Aaaja from Nagin (Track 1, Side B). Much of my childhood seems like a blur to me now, but my memory of how that music affected me is crystal clear to this day. It still affects me the same way.

Learning to fly (1992)

Back in high school, my friend Swami lent me his copy of Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull with a strong recommendation that I read it right away. If I had to pick a word to describe how it felt after reading it for the first time, that word would be “sunrise”. It is, in some ways, the only truly religious experience I have ever had. It didn’t influence my thinking so much as it crystallized it. When  I thought about doing a doctorate and worried about the time it would take, the elder gull’s advice on seeking perfection and not worrying about speed came to mind. (My dissertation is far from perfect, but you get the idea.) Even my advisor was like that. He would say stuff like: If you have to go fast, you have to go slow. (I even asked him at one point if he learnt how to teach by watching kung-fu movies.) But he was my elder gull, and he changed my life.

A second playlist (1994)

Until I reached college, my exposure to Western music had been pretty limited. The usual diet of Michael Jackson, one song by Phil Collins (Another Day in Paradise), some Bon Jovi, that’s about it. It was nice enough, but it didn’t really draw me in. The music shows at BITS Pilani used to have two distinct parts — two-odd hours of Indian music, a half hour break, then some Western music. I’d usually leave at the halfway point. One night, sometime in the beginning of my third semester, I stayed for some reason. They started playing Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond to kick off the proceedings. At first, it seemed to me like they were just jamming. I remember thinking: This isn’t so bad after all. Then they launched into those four notes and it was all over. My list of musical favourites was crammed full with Madan Mohan, S. D. Burman and Ilayaraja at that point. After I heard those four notes, I knew I needed a new list.

What is math for “cauliflower”? (1999)

My friend Sridev, who was a few years senior to me in the doctoral programme, used to tell me that the honeymoon period in the programme comes just after one has finished the coursework and is looking for a problem to work on. You get to read books and papers on a wide variety of topics and try and find out what you’re interested in. I initially started off reading papers on neural networks and fuzzy systems when my advisor recommended that I try reading a book called Computational Learning Theory, by Martin Anthony and Norman Biggs. It was a slim little book, and I got started on the preface while I was walking back from the library. It began with the line: Computational learning theory is a tentative attempt to build a mathematical model of the human cognitive process. It was, as they say, love at first sight. At that point, I had no idea of the sort of mathematical hoops I’d have to jump through in order to work in this area. I still don’t understand a lot of it, come to that. Like Elvis sang, Wise men say/Only fools rush in. But it’s true, I couldn’t help falling in love with it. And I never fell out of love either.

Blinkers off (2000)

I’ve been in love with the movies for a long time, but it was when I watched Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon that it became more than just a medium of entertainment for me. It wasn’t just that it had a brilliant concept — it was the message it set out to convey. We get bombarded with so much information over the course of our lives that it becomes easier, at some point, to just take it for granted and believe what we see or hear. On top of which, we slowly, almost unconsciously, program ourselves to hear only what we want to and filter out the rest. But every once in a while, the memory of Rashomon tickles a corner of my brain and makes me stop and look around. That doesn’t make life any easier, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

One of the oldest cliches I’ve heard pertains to how life is such a great teacher. Sure it is, but you know what, it mostly doesn’t offer any compulsory courses. They’re all electives. These are the ones I chose, and the syllabus has been awesome so far.

ps: Thanks to Ratul, who pointed out that beautiful passage in TMiaB to me many years ago.

pps: Okay, most of you who read this blog already know it’s about the movies. So how many of you, after seeing the title, first thought it was a reference to Jaws?

ppps: This post is an entry to the Reel-Life Bloggers contest organized by wogma.com and reviewgang.com