Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Making A Mark


Rajeev Ravi's gritty and hard-hitting hit film, 'Kammattipaadam' marks the arrival of a major talent

Photos: A scene from the film, 'Kammattipaadam'; director Rajeev Ravi. Photo by Mithun Vinod 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Sound Designer Renganaath Ravee stepped out, after a morning show at the Inox Cinema, in Mumbai, recently, with a dazed look on his face. He had just watched the Mollywood hit, 'Kammattipaadam', directed by Rajeev Ravi.

The direction was absolutely fantastic,” says Renganaath, who works in Mollywood and Bollywood. “I also liked the sounds, camera angles and the music. Lots of people were fans of [Mollywood directors] Bharathan and Padmarajan in the 1980s and wanted to emulate them. But, in this generation, it is Rajeev Ravi who is in the forefront. He is the new creative force in Mollywood.”

Another fan is Rajeev's Bollywood colleague Anurag Kashyap. The director tweeted: “Don’t miss ‘Kammattipaadam’. One of the best gangster/brotherhood films from India. Rajeev Ravi – the boss.”

The film is a gritty and unsparing look at the transformation of Kochi, post-liberalisation, in the 1990s. In fact, there did exist a huge expanse of land, called 'Kammattipaadam', in central Kochi, which consisted of paddy fields and mud tracks. But unscrupulous businessmen, taking the help of the youngsters of the Dalit community, got people forcibly evicted from lands, or paid them meagre sums, so that multi-storeyed buildings could come up. “In the last thirty years, there has been a massive 'development' in Kochi,” says Rajeev.

The film features leading star Dulquer Salman, apart from Vinayakan, Vinay Forrt, Shine Tom Chacko, Manikandan R. Achari, and debut heroine, Shaun Romy. But it was Manikandan who has stolen the show with his dynamic performance as a Dalit hoodlum called Balan.

I did take a big risk by casting Manikandan,” says Rajeev. “But the theatre artists who brought him to me, Sujith Shanker and Vijay Kumar, said that he is a big talent. And he is.”

Asked why the film did well, Rajeev says, “The story of land-grabbing, for real-estate development, is something everybody is familiar with. So they felt an emotional connection
with the film.”

However, for Rajeev, the inspiration for the film happened when one day, a few years ago, an image came unbidden to his mind. As an eight-year-old, he had just arrived, with his family, at Ernakulam South railway station. The family lived in Pathankot, because Rajeev's father worked in the Air Force. “One of my uncles picked me up and all I could see was an endless expanse of paddy fields,” says Rajeev. “It was beautiful. Now all that is gone.”

He passed all these memories to veteran scriptwriter P. Balachandran who has produced a taut and fast-moving script. This is Rajeev's third film. The earlier two were also received well: 'Annayum Rasoolum' and 'Njan Steve Lopez'.

Apart from this, he is one of Bollywood's leading cinematographers. Some of the films he has worked on, include 'Chandni Bar', 'Dev-D', 'Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1 and 2', 'Bombay Velvet' and 'Udta Punjab'. In 2010, he won the Filmfare Award for Best Cinematography for 'Dev D', as well as the national award for his wife, Geetu Mohandas' film, 'Liar's Dice'.

But it is as a director that Rajeev is expected to continue hitting the bull's eye. One who thinks so is Vinay Forrt, who has acted in 'Kammattipaadam': “If you want to make a good film about politics or human relationships, you should have some content inside you,” he says. “And Rajeev has it.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Energetic And Vibrant


The one-day programme, on the Agrawal community, organised by 'Ethnicity--The Cochin Heritage Research Centre' of the English department of St. Albert's College, was a thumping success

Photos by Melton Antony 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Who is the most famous Agrawal in the world?” says compere Akshay Agrawal.

[Actor] Kajal Agrawal,” shout the students of St. Albert's College, Kochi.

Akshay burts out laughing and says, “No, it is Lakshmi Mittal [the London-based steel magnate].”

All of them had gathered in the college quadrangle to take part in 'Agrotsav', a one-day programme, which highlighted the culture, heritage, history and food of the Agrawal community.

The chief guest was Shabareesh Varma, the noted singer, who sent the youngsters into a frenzy of dancing, with his rendition of the hit song, 'Malare Ninne kanathirunal', from 'Premam'.

Soon, the lamp was lit in front of the photo of the community founder Maharaja Agrasen, who was born in 3125 BC. “This was during the Mahabarata period,” says Shyam Sundar Agarwal, chairman of the festival.

Thereafter, College Manager Fr. Antony Arackal inaugurated the snacks section at one side. The food included samosas, puris, kachori and different types of juices. Rajesh, the caterer, is from Rajashtan. “I have been living in Kochi for several years and provide food for all events of the Agrawal community,” he says.

The event was organised by 'Ethnicity--The Cochin Heritage Research Centre', of the Department of English. “Kochi is a melting pot,” says Nisha Thomji, the head of the department. “We felt it is necessary to study the various communities, who have settled in Kochi, like the Jews, the Gujaritis and the Konkanis. Last year, we had done programmes on the Goud Saraswat Brahmins as well as the Anglo-Indian community.” Incidentally, the centre was established in 2009 by Dr. Edward Edezhath, the former Associate Professor in English.

For this particular programme, it was noted writer KL Mohana Varma, who is also the chairman of the Centre, who came up with the idea. “I have been friends with Shyam Sundar for a long time,” he says. “It is a vibrant community and noted for its charitable works.”

The Agrawal community comprises only 150 families in Kochi, but they run around ten charitable institutions. “All of us are doing business,” says Rajkumar Agrawal. “But we also feel it important to give to society. Charity and donation are in our blood.”

Later, a seminar took place where speakers spoke about the history of the community as well as its culture and heritage. "This was arranged by the members of the Agrawal Yuva Mandal, especially office-bearers Akshay, Naren and Vinay Singhal," says Shyam Sundar.
There were also dances and a fashion show.

The younger Akshay, expectedly, belongs to the second generation. “I grew up in Kochi and can speak Malayalam well,” he says. “At home, I eat both North as well as South Indian food. I am also an alumni of St. Albert's. Many of our community members have passed out from this college.”

As for Shyam Sundar, a member of the first generation, he came to Kochi in 1987. “I grew up in Salem, which is a dry place,” he says. “So Kerala, with its rains, is like heaven for me.” Despite many warnings from community members, he set up a flour mill in Kochi, went through labour problems, which almost closed down his unit, but managed to survive. Later, he built a steel factory and is now a prosperous businessman.

Shyam Sundar's wife, Durga, says, “I love Kochi for its greenery, cleanliness, and peace. We have assimilated easily into the liberal Kerala culture and have many Malayali friends. They are kind and friendly.”

Famous Agrawals

Sunil Mittal - Airtel

Naresh Goyal - Jet Airways

Rahul Bajaj - Bajaj

Gautham Singhania - Raymond

Subhash Chandra - Zee TV

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Pushing A Rubber Piece Up The Nose


COLUMN: LOCATION DIARY
 
Director Jeethu Joseph talks about his experiences in the films, 'Papanasam', 'Drishyam', and 'My Boss'

Photos: Jeethu Joseph by Ratheesh Sundaram; poster of Kamal Haasan in 'Papanasam'
 
By Shevlin Sebastian
 
In the film, 'Papanasam' (The Tamil remake of 'Drishyam'), there is a scene where cops come to the house of businessman Suyambulingam (played by Kamal Haasan), to look for the dead body of a boy. To show that he had been beaten up earlier, Kamal's nose needed to swell up a bit. So, at the location shoot, at Thodupuzha, in August, 2014, Kamal pushed a piece of rubber up his nose.
 
After a while, director Jeethu Joseph observed that Kamal was fidgeting a bit. So he went up and said, “Sir, what has happened?”
 
Kamal said, “It seems the rubber piece has vanished.”
 
Jeethu looked up the nose but could not see anything. Kamal immediately told the director to carry on with the shoot. But Jeethu said, “Sir, that is not possible. We need to get it out.”
 
So they went to a nearby clinic. The doctor pleaded helpnessness.
 
Thereafter, they went to a private hospital near Thodupuzha. The doctors had been informed earlier. They immediately took Kamal inside the Intensive Care Unit. “It took them twenty minutes to pull the piece out,” says Jeethu. “They had to do something similar to endoscopy. Anyway, I was so relieved that everything had turned out to be okay.”

The next day, the shoot carried on, but it was related to the same scene.
As Jeethu was walking past, Kamal called out to him. When he came near, Kamal said, “Don't laugh, but I am going to tell you something.” Jeethu waited calmly. Then Kamal said, “It went up today also.”

Jeethu looked shocked. But Kamal smiled and said, “Don't worry. I had put a longer piece, so I managed to pull it out.” 

Then they both burst out laughing.
 
Jeethu got another shock at during the shoot of 'Drishyam' at Vaduthala, near Thodupuzha. There was a scene inside a house. While Mohanlal, who played cable service operator Georgekutty, waited there, an assistant had gone to call Meera, who played Georgekutty's wife, Rani. She was getting her make-up done in her trailer. Suddenly, Jeethu saw associate director Cylex creep out of the house and start running.
 
Jeethu shouted, “What's happening, Cylex?”
 
Cylex said, “Meena.”
 
But by the time, Jeethu reached the trailer, Meena had been put in a car which sped away. “It was a panic situation,” says the director.

At the hospital, Cylex called Jeethu and told the story. Apparently, when the assistant stepped in to give Meera a few pages of the script, she was immobile, with unblinking eyes. That was when he realised something was wrong.

Meanwhile, it took 15 minutes for Meera to regain consciousness. “The doctor said that it was a lack of sleep and mental strain that made her lose consciousness,” says Jeethu. “She has a three-year-old daughter, Nainikia, who would not sleep at night. She would keep playing. Hence, Meena could not get any rest at night and in the day she was busy working.”

It was also a hectic time during the shoot of 'My Boss' in Kuttanad, in April, 2012. This was for a shoot for the song, ‘Kuttanadan Punchaneele’, in which Mamta Mohandas plays football in a slushy paddy field. “The work went through fine and I said, 'Pack up',” says Jeethu.

Suddenly, there was a commotion. Just ten feet away, there was a cobra lying on the mud. “It had eaten something and could not move,” says Jeethu. “So, it lay heavy on the water. It was pure luck. If somebody had stamped on it, the cobra would have bit that person and there could have been fatal consequences.”
 
Finally, a crew member killed it. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Smoothly Gliding Along


The German architect Karl Damschen is Kerala's leading conservation architect. But he has another passion: he is spreading the joys of kayaking among the people of Kochi

Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram

By Shevlin Sebastian

From a distance, on the Vembanad lake, near Kochi, on a recent Sunday, German architect Karl Damschen saw that rain had begun to fall. He expected it to hit him at any moment. So, he stopped his kayak, quickly slid into his waterproof jacket, put on a hat with a wide brim, and zipped up the spray deck.

This is a flexible cover, which prevents water from entering the boat through the seating area. The ten kayaking members of the Global Sailing Club (GSC), at Panangad, Kochi, including Damschen's wife, Annelies, did the same.

The group began kayaking again. Soon, the rain hit them with force: thick, heavy drops, with streaks of lightning lighting up the dark sky. “It was so much fun,” says Damschen, 73. “Unlike in Europe, where the rain consists of cold water, this was warm and enjoyable.”

Thereafter, over a day, the team stroked their way to the town of Vaikom, 15 kms away, and returned to Kochi.

For the past two-and-a-half years, ever since the GSC was set up, Damschen has been propagating kayaking. “I have given a six-week training course to those who are interested,” he says. “As for the right technique, most beginners pull the paddle backwards, but in kayaking, you have to push forward, so that you can use the weight of your body. This is the method followed by the Eskimos.”

Thus far, there are 20 regulars. They include businessmen, industrialists, professionals and homemakers. And all of them go kayaking on the weekend. “It is only through kayaking that I could appreciate the beauty of Kerala,” says homemaker Anuja Asher. “We have gone to places where no car can go.”

Kayaking has a lot of benefits. “It is physically taxing, but enables you to keep fit,” says Annelies, 73. “And during a trip, you can observe nature at close quarters, especially when you move through the backwaters. It is also a smooth ride, unlike a car where you have to experience potholes, traffic jams and air pollution.”

The club, incidentally, has 11 kayaks. And they have all been imported, from the Prijon Kayak Company in Rosenheim, Germany, which is known the world over for making the best kayaks. The length of a single kayak is 16 feet, and its width is two feet. And it weighs only 24 kgs.

Damschen fell in love with kayaking as a child growing up in the town of Gelsenkirchen in North Germany. One day, when he was ten years old, while walking, with his grandfather, Johann, from a bridge he could see kayaks on a river. “I immediately became fascinated,” says Damschen. “But my grandfather told me that I had to be 16 years of age before I could learn it.”

So, when he reached that age, Damschen joined the Gelsenkirchen Kanu Club. Thereafter, for the next 12 years, he did kayaking in Europe, totalling a distance of 10,000 kms. “The kayaks, called Faltboot, could be folded up and taken around like a rucksack,” says Damschen.

However, in 1977, Damschen made a car trip, with Annelies, from Switzerland where he lived, to Kerala and Sri Lanka. They fell in love with Kerala. In 1981, the couple stayed in Thiruvananthapuram and spent six months there and six months in Switzerland. This went on for a few years. But, in 1996, Damschen settled in Kochi, where he has made a name as a restoration architect.

His future plans include teaching youngsters the joy of kayaking. “It is far more beneficial rather than spending time in malls, which is what most youths do these days,” he says, with a smile. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, June 20, 2016

A Kaleidoscopic View

Tushar Gandhi, the great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi talks about his childhood and the state of the country, while on a recent visit to Kochi 

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Tushar Gandhi steps into a hall at the Museum of Kerala History for a lecture on Gandhi, organised by the Friends of Tibet, at Kochi, on a recent Sunday, people swarm towards him.

That is the impact of being the great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. What surprises is his size and girth. And he touches upon this, in his speech, when he recounted an experience in a school at Chennai. “When the teacher introduced me, one Class 6 girl stood up and said, ‘Miss, he cannot be Gandhiji’s great-grandson. I think he is a wrestler’.”
The man himself has a touch of humility. “I consider myself a mediocre person,” he says. “I am here only because of the accident of my birth.”

Nevertheless, Tushar does not consider the Gandhi surname a burden. “In fact, it has always been a blessing,” he says. “But it comes with a responsibility. The people have expectations from us. They don’t understand that the greatness of the man [Gandhiji] was because of his individual achievements. It is not hereditary. Nevertheless, I feel privileged by the respect that I have received, even though it is undeserved.”

Even in school, at Mumbai, he was treated differently. “When the history of the freedom movement would be taught, the whole class looked at me, rather than the blackboard,” says Tushar. “It happened with my children, also.”

But there have been embarrassing moments too. During a debate competition, Tushar said, “India became independent on August 15, 1948.” There was a pin-drop silence in the hall. Then a teacher held him by the ear and took him to the Principal. “When the Principal was told about my mistake, he said, ‘Leave the school and don’t come back’,” says Tushar, with a smile.

At Kochi, he talked about many pressing subjects. “We fool ourselves if we think that as a nation we are united,” he says. “We are only united by the map of India. But, in our hearts, we have caste, religious, and gender-based  divisions. There is a huge rich-poor divide. The most shocking divide is between citizens who enjoy the rights of being one, and those who don’t.”

The disenfranchised have become an invisible population. “They don’t have water, electricity, food or education,” says Tushar. “We are patting ourselves on the back regarding the achievement of sending the Mangalyaan space probe to Mars, but these are pyrrhic achievements. India is No 1 in the world when it comes to malnutrition deaths. In the last few years there have been a record number of farmer-suicides. These things indicate that, as a nation, we are a failure. Our republic is crumbling.”

As for the rise of right-wing forces globally, Tushar says, “It is a cyclical phenomenon. Today, it seems that liberalism and tolerance are receding, while fanatical and chauvinistic forces are becoming rampant.”

But there is a reason for this. “In certain ways, the liberal ideology has failed its people,” says Tushar. “It has become a lip service, rather than an actual way of life. And that is why the extremist elements are able to impose their ideologies in the minds of the people. But I believe that there will be an ebb because people will get tired of the endemic violence which accompanies their campaigns.”

Finally, regarding his views about Tibet, Tushar says, “Tibet has been at the back of the mind of every freedom-loving person. Today, the message that Bapu sent out from Dandi, that he wanted ‘world sympathy, in the battle of right against might’, is represented by Tibet most emphatically. I believe that, one day, the Tibetan people will triumph against the Chinese and get their freedom.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

When Elephants Went Berserk

COLUMN: LOCATION DIARY
 
Cinematographer S. Kumar talks about his experiences in the films, Punnaaram Chollicholi', 'Kadathanaadan Ambaadi' and 'Nirnayam'

Photo of S. Kumar by Kaviyoor Santhosh 
 
By Shevlin Sebastian
 
During the shoot of 'Punnaaram Chollicholi', at the Ambalapuzha temple, director Priyadarshan told cinematographer S. Kumar to take shots of a caprisioned elephant for the song, ‘Arayarayo Kinginiyoarra’ which starred Rahman and Zarina Wahab. So, Kumar told the mahout, Mani (name changed) to make the elephant shake its head.
 
Something in the way he did it irritated the elephant,” says Kumar. “The elephant broke the chain, which tied him to the ground, and charged at Mani.” The mahout fled.
 
When this happened, the assistant mahout, a youngster named Ramesh, managed to get on top of the elephant by climbing from the back. “Mani was running around the perimeter of the temple pond in order to ensure that the attention of the elephant remained on him and not towards the devotees,” says Kumar.
 
Meanwhile, Ramesh tried his best to control the elephant but the mammal was in a violent state. A couple of hours went past.
 
During this time, Kumar and the crew looked on in shock. “The temple priest expressed confidence that when the temple opened at 6 p.m., and the bells rang, the elephant will be brought to a halt,” says Kumar.
 
Just near 6 p.m., the elephant was lured next to the broken chain that remained on the ground. “Somehow, they managed to link this chain with the one on the neck and the moment, they put the lock on it, the temple bells began ringing,” says Kumar. “But the elephant remained very violent. Ramesh could not get down.”
 
It was only at midnight that they could come up with a solution. They tied a rope above the elephant between two coconut trees. The mahout then grabbed it, with both hands and managed to make his way to the side, reached a tree and got down.
 
Thereafter, we left,” says Kumar. “But we heard that a week later, after the elephant had received treatment and had calmed down, Mani was taking him from Alleppey to Thrissur. However, on the way, the elephant gored Mani to death.”
 
There was another incident regarding an elephant during the shoot of the film, 'Kadathanaadan Ambaadi' (1990) at Mallampuzha in Palakkad district. “It was a fight sequence,” says Kumar. “And we wanted to involve a group of elephants.”
 
Anoop, a 20 year-old-boy was the second mahout. “Something he did angered the elephant,” says Kumar. “He lifted Anoop by the trunk and hurled him towards a Mercedes Benz car that belonged to the producer Sajan Varghese.”
 
Anoop crashed through the glass and fell inside. The elephant then gored the bonnet with its tusks and tried to lift the car. Only the rear side went up. Anoop managed to climb to the back seat, opened the door and ran away. “But the car was a total wreck,” says Kumar. “Sajan had to spend a lot of money to repair it.”
 
In the Telugu film, 'Nirnayam' (1991), a remake of Priyadarshan's film, 'Vandanam', Kumar had a different experience. Tamil actor Charlie was supposed to ride a cycle up the incline of a cart, and go flying through a Bata shoe hoarding.
 
Usually, to prepare for a shot like this, mattresses and cardboard boxes are placed on the ground, in case the rope, which is tied around the actor’s body, breaks. In this instance, veteran fight master Thyagarajan forgot to arrange it. But he assured Kumar that the rope was brand-new. Nevertheless, Kumar told Charlie that, in case the rope broke, he should be mentally prepared.
 
It was the right advice. When Charlie rose 15 feet in the air, the rope broke and he fell. But since he was prepared, he was able to roll over and remained unharmed. “There were only a few scratches,” says Kumar.
 
Thereafter, I have always told my crew that we should take precautions. Anything can happen at any time.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Travelling The Globe

Madhu S Nair has travelled to numerous countries over the years. He talks about his experiences and upcoming books on Cuba and Japan

Photo by Manu R Mavelil

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Madhu S Nair landed at Bogota, Columbia, in 2002, he felt unsure. He did not know Spanish, nor did the people know English. At a terminus, he wanted to take a bus to go to Bolivar Square and see a statue dedicated to South America's most famous revolutionary Simon Bolivar. But he did not know which bus to take.

A teenager, seeing his plight, spoke to him. Somehow, through sign language, and using the words, 'Simon Bolivar', he told her where he wanted to go. She pointed at a bus, at some distance away. So Madhu walked towards it. And got into the bus. Suddenly, he saw the girl running towards him.

Through her gestures, he realised that he had got into the wrong bus. So, he got down, the girl held his hand, and led him to the correct vehicle.

I was very moved by her concern,” says Madhu. Later, when he wrote a travelogue about his experiences in Colombia, he dedicated the book to this unknown girl.

The Thiruvananthapuram-based Madhu has been an avid traveller for long. In fact, he has gone to over 50 countries in different parts of Europe, America, Asia and Africa. “Travelling broadens the mind,” he says. “You learn to respect different food habits, cultures, creeds and religions. In short, I have learned to respect the human being.”

Asked to give tips for first-time travellers, Madhu says, “You have to be very alert, especially when you go to a country where you don't know the language. It is better to avoid travelling at night. Whereever you go, you should read up about it, so that you can have a sense of history of the place.”

You also have to be prepared for unexpected experiences. Once when Madhu arrived at the port town of Cartagena, in Colombia, there was not a single room available. In the end, he managed to get a room at a brothel. “You need to be fearless at times,” he says, with a laugh.

All these experiences have been grist to his writing. Thus far, he has written 15 books on his various travels, and a few more are in the pipeline. They include books on Cuba, Japan, Tanzania and Vietnam. He is also credited with having written the first book in Malayalam on computers.

Clearly, Madhu has been a man of many parts. After graduation in Metallurgical Engineering, from Kashmir University, in Srinagar, he went to the USA where he did his masters in Technology of Management from the American University at Washington. Thereafter, he worked as a computer specialist at the Goddard Space Flight Centre, belonging to the National Aeronautics Space Administration. Following that, he spent a few years at the Pentagon as a computer scientist.

His conclusions, from his work experience at the Pentagon, are interesting. “In the first few years, you can move upwards steadily,” says Madhu. “But after you reach a certain level, it becomes difficult. Then you will feel you are not a part of the system. You are always regarded as a foreigner.”

So, it was no surprise that Madhu returned to Thiruvananthapuram in 1990. He started the capital's first computer training institute called Krishna Computers. Today, he is the chairman of the India Hospital Trust as well as the Publisher of India Books.

His experiences at the workplace in the US and Kerala have given Madhu a unique perspective. “In the USA, work is like a religion,” says Madhu. “They are serious and dedicated. And they take their vacations seriously, too. Here, there is an apathy towards work. Kerala does not have a business-friendly environment. In America, they place a lot of emphasis on business, especially small firms. Nevertheless, despite its flaws, I have a deep love for my land.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A Touch Of Italy On The Kerala Coastline


The Aromi Di Italia, at Cherai Beach, with its authentic cuisine, is rapidly gaining in popularity

Photos: Soju Philip, Executive Chef-food production; a lobster dish. Snaps by Albin Mathew  

By Shevlin Sebastian

On an April night, IT professional Sarat Chandra, 39, decided to have his meal on the first-floor verandah, of the Aromi Di Italia restaurant, run by Club Mahindra, at Cherai beach [25 kms from Kochi]. “It was a full-moon night,” he says. “From where I was sitting I could see large waves hit the beach. There was a strong breeze blowing, and the sky was filled with stars. The ambience was so beautiful.”

While his children Nishita, 7, and four-year-old son Virat played nearby, Sarat and wife Bharti placed the order for a soup: Patate E Porri Zuppa Con Pollo Rosmarino – thick soup, with leek potato, and roasted rosemary chicken.

A few minutes later, when the soup arrived, Sarat noticed one telling difference. “Unlike, in most restaurants, they did not mix cream with the soup,” he says. “It was original stuff all the way and very tasty.”

Thereafter, he had the Penne Shrimp Alfredo – pasta, with shrimps and white cream sauce. “The shrimps were fresh, and, I was told, it was sourced locally,” he says. “Since we live in Hyderabad, we do not have the opportunity to have fresh sea food.” This was followed by fried chicken fillet served with sautéed zucchini, tomato, red peppers, and potato chips. “The beauty of authentic Italian food is that it is so light on the stomach,” says Sarat. “We enjoyed ourselves.” 

Soju Philip, Executive Chef-food production, is not surprised.

The Italian cuisine is known for its simplicity,” he says. “Every dish has, unlike Indian food, just four or five ingredients – tomatoes, onions, garlic, olives, cheese and herbs like basil and rosemary. But the cornerstone is olive oil. We have selected the cuisine of the southern part of Italy, like Capri, Sardinia, Sicily and Naples, which borders the Mediterranean Sea, because it is regarded as one of the healthiest diets in the world. Nowadays, people are looking for health options.”

One healthy dish is the Pesce Bianco Al Spinaci. This is a fish, roasted with extra virgin oil, along with vegetables, olives, lemon, spinach and topped with pesto – a basil and garlic sauce. It is spare and light, yet with a distinctive flavour.

However, interestingly, nowadays, many of the guests are opting for vegetarian fare. So the Aromi Di Italia offers pasta with vegetables and cheese, or pan-fried aubergine slices layered with Parmesan cheese and tomato sauce.

But the most popular item, among the veggies, is not pasta. Instead, it is a corn meal cake. “We cook powdered corn with butter and milk,” says Soju. “Salt and pepper are added. Then it is placed in a tray so that it can settle down. Later, we cut it into fancy shapes. Thereafter, it is grilled in butter, along with sauce.”

Guests come from Kochi and the nearby towns like Kodungallur. “We also get a lot of Westerners who are keen to try our seafood, like shrimps and prawns,” says manager Shinow Baby.

And they like what they eat. Danish tourist Foogen Oruteft says, “The food was very good. It is a very good idea to have an Italian restaurant at Cherai.” Dr. Jose Ukken from Kodungallur says, “Loved the fish.”

But even in an Italian eating-place, there is a demand for rice. So the staff provides the patrons with an Italian rice called arborio. “It is similar to our Basmati rice,” says Soju. “To the rice, we add chicken stock, cream, milk, and Parmesan cheese. Then it is cooked, till it becomes like a thick porridge. It can be a full meal if you add chicken, vegetables or seafood.”

Meanwhile, Soju, as well as the Chennai-based corporate chef, Dr. P Soundararajan, and his team, are planning to add new items. “We want to make a classy menu that will appeal to everybody,” says Soju, about the six-month old restaurant. 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

Monday, June 13, 2016

With Tushar Gandhi

Thanks to the Friends of Tibet, Tushar Gandhi, the great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, came to Kochi to give a speech on Gandhism. It was a one-hour speech and not a moment of boredom: scintillating and inspiring, to say the least, and a much-needed one during these divisive times. When we were looking for a place to pose, it was he who suggested that we stand on either side of a caricature of the Dalai Lama.

Unlike Gandhiji, he is big-built. In his speech, he recounted how when he went to a school in Ahmedabad, he was introduced to a group of Class 6 students. One girl stood up and said, "Miss, he cannot be Gandiji's great-grandson. I think he is a wrestler."

A big thanks to colleague Ratheesh Sundaram for the snap. 

Thursday, June 09, 2016

On The High Seas


Peter Cremers, the executive chairman of the Hongkong-based Anglo-Eastern group talks about shipping, and other matters, while on a recent visit to Kochi

Photos: Peter Cremers by Albin Mathew; an oil tanker 

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a Friday morning, the staff at the Anglo-Eastern Ship Management Company, at Kochi, are dusting the top of tables, adjusting chairs, and ensuring that everything is spick and span. This is moments before the impending arrival of the Belgian-born Peter Cremers, the executive chairman. He is on his first visit to Kerala.

The Hongkong-based group has 26,000 employees on its rolls and controls a fleet of 600 ships. “Our job is to manage a ship,” says Cremers. “We don't own it, nor the cargo. We provide the technical know-how, as well as the staff. In other words, we are the world's largest ship manager.”

The majority of the staff are Indians, followed by Filipinos, Chinese and Ukrainians. The company has training centres in Delhi and Mumbai, as well as Manila and Odessa. In India, a one-year training is given for engine, deck and electrical officers. Thereafter, they work as a cadet for two years, before they are absorbed into the company.

But Cremers admits it is not easy for people of different nationalities to work together. “It is important to understand and respect each other's cultural backgrounds,” he says. “If you think 20 individuals, on board a ship, with ten nationalities, are all the same, then you are wrong. Part of our business is to understand how a Filipino or an Indian or a Chinese works and thinks. We never forget that we are not employing robots, but human beings.”

And these human beings did go through several life-threatening situations, because of the threat of hijacking by Somali pirates a few years ago. But the threat has disappeared. “The moment we were allowed to put armed guards on board, it has proved to be a deterrent,” says Cremers.

Apart from the dangers from hijacking, accidents do take place on board. “A ship is a relatively hazardous environment,” says Cremers. “Everything is made of steel. You can trip and break a leg. There are heavy weights being moved around all the time. A major accident can also take place, But, having said that, we have the best safety record of any company, with less than 1 per cent of accidents in a year. We are always conducting safety programmes on board. It is one of our major drives.” 

Incidentally, some of the vessels which the company handles include oil tankers, container ships, dry bulk carriers, and pipe-laying barges.

Meanwhile, when asked to provide leaderships tips, Cremers says, “I have made sure that I have, around me, very competent people. You cannot do everything yourself. You should also be a good person, a fair boss, and ensure that the company has a singular vision, which has to be transmitted to every employee.”

Asked about his vision, Cremers says, “It is very simple: to be the best in the world. In our industry we want to be at the top. And I believe we are.”

Interestingly, the company has won several Compassionate Employer awards. “We always do right,” says India operations managing director Captain Vinay Singh. “We follow the book. We never cheat anybody. We try to help people. We run an NGO in Kochi, which is helping the local orphanages.”

Adds Maneesh Pradhan, senior general manager, “If any employee is in need, we go beyond the rules. And try to help them, especially, if they have a problem within their families. We provided relief during the Chennai floods by starting a food centre, 24/7.”

Asked about his 24/3 experience in Kerala, Cremers says, “I liked it. Kerala gave me an European feel, because of the churches and the greenery. It has its own character. At some places, I thought, 'Am I in India?'” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)