The Good in 402

The end of the year is a time for reckonings. With just 4 days left before we close the calendar to the very bad year 402 ME, maybe you would not mind reading about some of the good things about this year.

Losing friends is never a good thing to happen to you, but it happened several times in the last two years. If I had to lose friends, it should be like this. All those I talked to just before their deaths were excited by the things they were doing right then, feeling on top of the world. Sudden death is shocking to us, until you realize that if you could choose, this might be how you would want to go. Unsuspecting, in the middle of something engrossing and exciting.

Diwali remains a warm memory of this year. Between the delta and the omicron there was a wonderful meeting with The Clan: a party lasting two days. For many of us cousins, it was a throwback to our childhood. It is such a commonplace joy that although the people keep changing through your lifetime, the pleasure that you get from partying with the family remains the same.

Although it was nice to finally get back to a movie theatre, some of the best films I saw were streamed. There’s such a huge library of movies available now, that it is not hard to find a movie that you always wanted to see. Even so, I think I should make a special mention of the movie Another Round by Thomas Vinterberg. Starting with a daft premise it builds an interesting story, but at the end the clearest memory I have of it is the acting by Mads Mikkelsen. I’m marking it down as something I’ll watch again.

As for my reading, I finally got over the barren patch of year 401, helped by generous doses of crime and P. G. Wodehouse. Your are spoilt for choice now, what with excellent books, wonderful reviews by fellow bloggers and the usual writers, and extensive catalogues on line. The most memorable read of the year? That has to be Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbagh.

But most of all, in spite of everything, we managed to make many trips around the country. Most of these were in places where we would meet few people. As a result, we saw really wonderful things. I got my first photos of a Malkoha. That’s the green-billed Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus tristis) which you see featured. I wonder why it has the sad species name. I certainly was not at all triste when I got the photo.

Two and a half stories

Many years ago, with a group of other theater enthusiasts, I worked through Jean Anouilh’s play Becket, meaning to put it on stage. We thought we could cast the story of the conflict between Henry II of England and Thomas Becket as a study of how people change, while they do not. Two stories which I streamed in the last year seem to have the same theme of discrepancies between the social perception of people and their internal reality.

I must be about the last person in the country to watch Amazon’s web series Made in Heaven. When it was released early in 2019, I watched about five minutes of it, and was put off by the initial shots of a wedding planner’s presentation. “Not another of those”, I muttered and flicked to the menu. Later, watching it over The Family’s shoulder, I realized that I should give it more time. It is a soap opera, each episode dedicated to one lavish wedding. But the stories behind the weddings are interesting enough that they would appear briefly in the news. Put it together with the continuing melodrama of the planners’ personal lives, and you get several hours of virtuous feelings of outrage. I loved it. It was the kind of thing that put me in a mood to exercise. Writers Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti tread a path well inside the line that separates Bollywood from art, but close enough to see the clear light of the other side through the glitter.

But the month before that, I watched the Georgian movie My Happy Family (2017), which lay on the other side of that ill-defined border. The second movie by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon GroƟ to win big on the festival circuits was an engrossing watch. I didn’t know anything about Georgia except that Stalin was born there. As a result, I had no expectations whatsoever. It seemed to me that this story of a fifty year old mother who lives in a multi-generation family could have been set in almost any country in the world. Her dissatisfaction with her life, and her attempt to make it different, her uncomprehending husband and brother, and her baffled grown children are part of every society. I liked the acting of Ia Shughliashvili, who does the role of the sleep-walking protagonist Manana.The cinematography by Tudor Panduru was very interesting: the contrasts between dim indoor lighting and the exteriors, the changes in colour tones, worked very well with changes of mood. This is one of the less-known gems on Netflix.

Dune

One week ago we saw Dune in a theatre. It turned out to be a private show; there was no one else in the screening. It was almost like watching a movie at home, except that the hall was actually dark, and you could not adjust the sound. The Family is not a great follower of science fiction, but she had been talking to my nieces about the movie. She said it was very well made. I could agree, but I thought it seemed to be going off the rail a bit.

Of course, when you start with a novel, you are going to find it hard to cram all that material into a single movie, even if it is three hours long. The most memorable of movies work with a short story: Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Ray’s Charulata, Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Villeneuve had to be ruthless with the material, and still present something like a coherent story. While he succeeds in doing this, the story comes across like an action drama. This is only the surface layer of the novel with which it shares the name Dune.

For example, it left out one of my favourite pieces. This is the chapter of the book about a “little” dinner party the Duke has for a select segment of the local society. The conversation at dinner, and the small things that happen outside, have held critics’ attention over decades for the way it adds texture to the world that Herbert builds. I always like to re-read this chapter for one of Herbert’s recurring themes: that the way we use language, our choice of words, for example, can reveal our underlying motivations even if we try to hide them. Herbert believes that careful attention to language reveals as much as body language. But I can understand Villeneuve’s decision to leave this out. In the hands of a different director, perhaps a new Bunuel, this chapter could have become a full-length movie.

I think the book’s major failure is to gloss over the point that the hero, a fifteen year old boy, realizes very early that he is not who his parents see him as. He is not the chosen one, as he tells his mother in a memorable scene in the book when they are lost in the desert. He says “I am something unexpected. I am a seed.” The movie leaves this out, and by doing that makes him just another chosen one. In the book he becomes neither the just ruler his father wanted him to be, nor the prophetic Kwisatz Haderach his mother hoped he would be. The events of the next books in the series follow inevitably from his own actions, not from prophecy or expectation. I hope Villeneuve does not completely lose this thread of the book in the next parts of the film.

A cosy dinner

Saturday night, we stayed at home for dinner again. A bottle of lager was chilling in our fridge; a new flavour, made from rice. I’d bought it on a whim on Friday. It had a crisp and light lager taste. Nice and bitter. We had a simple dinner planned out. Toasted sandwiches with cream cheese and roasted vegetables. I’d brushed a mixture of rice vinegar and sesame oil on the veggies. Then, before bunging them into the oven I’d sprinkled some sesame seeds over them. Now it was time to sit back with full glasses and plates, switch on the screen, and watch Yesterday. That’s Danny Boyle’s most recent movie, and definitely not a Trainspotting. It was a cosy Saturday night, with a monsoon storm blowing outside the windows. On a night like that it was good to see John Lennon live to be 78, and turn into the person you always wanted him to be.

Survivors

Downtown Mumbai is a mess of memories right now. Many of our favourite old restaurants are shut. Some lanes are completely shuttered. Walking aimlessly through them I noticed a restaurant in a lane I seldom pass. It is a survivor. It had created a pleasant space in the middle of a crowded street with a forest of potted plants. They are still green and watered. It had to give up an upper floor, apparently. An empty facade looks out on the street with open shutters on windows which are now a mere windbreak. But below that they still advertise tea and cakes. The Family inspected the menu and said “We have to come here.” She wants to support the businesses which are still open.

Bollywood has barely responded to the ongoing crisis. We streamed the anthology film Unpaused, which is perhaps the only take on the ongoing crisis till now. I liked all five stories in their own ways. None of the stories had any stars, but many fine actors. Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, Abhishek Banerjee, and Shardul Bhardwaj are among the newer actors whom I would like to see again. Vishaanu, written by Shubham, was the best of the segments: sensitive, and not a false moment. Avinash Arun Dhaware, known for the series Paatal Lok, directs this segment.

The anthology reminded me of how it is hard to break out of middle class solipsism in this epidemic. Only one of the five stories was about migrant labourers. Looking for books to read, I lingered over The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux (I’m afraid I never bothered to read it) but an algorithm directed me to 1232 km, The Long Journey Home by Vinod Kapri, converted from his documentary. That’s what I’m reading now, a book of reportage which follows a group of migrant labourers walking home during the first lockdown.

Call my agent

In Mumbai you have a choice. You can stay in, and between bouts of worrying about family and friends in Delhi, Ahmedabad, and other towns which are equally overwhelmed but less in the news, between talking to others about loved ones they have lost suddenly, you can try to drown yourself in a gushing stream of multi-season TV shows. “Binge watching is hazardous to your health,” as that famous mental-health consultant, Washington Post, told us. So we watch only one episode at a time. But we watch several shows during the day, and take the recommended time off between shows to make tea, and exercise the muscles of our core. We also do alertness exercises now and then. For example, right now, I have set myself the goal of choosing a favourite among Peaky Blinders, Shadow and Bone, Friends!, Ugly Delicious, and Call My Agent.

The first season of the French serial Dix pour cent (10%), searchable as Call My Agent on Netflix, turned out to be unexpectedly good. Each episode features a real-life film star, whose agent belongs to a fictional company called ASK. Each gets into an unbelievable situation, which the agents try to retrieve by putting together a complex and unworkable solution. In spite of all these hilarious rushings about to no end, things always work out in the end in an unforeseen way. After a few days of roflmao it struck me that the absurd stories reminded me of Wodehouse. There is no Jeeves working behind the scenes to set everything right, and there is no one Wooster, but the agency serves very well as a Drones Club. All the agents and their assistants are as barmy as a Fotheringay-Phipps. But set aside the background. The most Wodehousean (if there is such a word) part of the serial is the plot, with the slowly mounting absurdities which collapse like a failed souffle, out of the ashes of which (to wildly mix metaphors which no man has mixed before) rises a perfectly acceptable solution.

I understand that as the serial became more and more popular in France, bigger names began to express their willingness to be on it. Eventually there were episodes featuring Isabelle Adjani, Juliette Binoche, Monica Bellucci, Isabelle Huppert, and others. I will continue to watch the remaining seasons in the hope that the screenplay remains as fresh as it starts off.