Tuesday, July 22, 2014

“I like to watch Navas on stage”

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Rehna talks about life with the mimicry artist Kalabhavan Navas

By Shevlin Sebastian 

One day, when comedian Suraj Vejaramoodu called up mimicry artist Kalabhavan Navas, his wife Rehna picked up the phone. She has a husky voice. Sooraj thought that Navas was impersonating a boy. Immediately, he took on the voice of a girl and said that he wanted to talk to Navas.

Rehna said, “I am Navas's wife.”

Sooraj said, “Son, please pass the phone to Navas. I need to talk to him urgently.”
This went on for a couple of minutes.

An exasperated Rehna said, “I am going to put the phone down.”

Suddenly, Sooraj asked, in his own voice, “Are you really Navas's wife?”

Yes,” she said.

I am so sorry,” said Sooraj. “I thought that Navas was teasing me by talking in a boy's voice.”

This has happened earlier, also. When she was active as an actress, producers would call the house. When Rehna picked up the phone, they would immediately say, “Son, please pass the phone to Rehna.”

At her home at Choondy, near Aluva, Rehna smiles and says, “I have got used to it.”

The house is set in sylvan surroundings. There are coconut trees and jackfruit and all types of plants. The walls are made of mud, so there is a cooling effect inside. A small gap in the roof in the middle of the house ensures that rainfall falls in, creating a beautiful and cascading effect.

Navas and his family first saw Rehna at a dance programme in Changaramkulam in December, 1999. Soon after, Navas' brother, Niyas, came to the house with a marriage proposal. But Rehna's father, Hassanar, the stage actor, was reluctant to say yes, because his elder daughter, Swapna, was not yet married.

In the end, Navas waited for three years, till Swapna got married, before he tied the knot with Rehna on October 27, 2002, at Vadakanacherry.

It was a hectic time for Rehna. She had just finished shooting for the hit television serial, 'Sthree', on a Friday and had to set out early in the morning on Sunday to go to Vadakanacherry for the wedding. When they returned to her home at Aluva, at 10 p.m., Rehna was so tired that she went to sleep straightaway.

That was how I spent the wedding night,” she says. But at 4 a.m., Navas woke her up saying that he had a sore throat and asked for a cup of tea. “I was so dazed, that it took me some time to realise that there is a man sleeping next to me and he is my husband,” says Rehna.

Over the years, Rehna has developed an admiration for Navas. “Nothing affects him,” says Rehna. “He is super cool. But I am a hyper person, especially when I have to deal with the children.”

They are Naharin, 10, and sons, Rihan, 6, and Ridwan 1 ½). “Navas is not strict with the children,” she says. “He is more like a friend.”

Perhaps the one negative is that like all artistes Navas spends a lot of time thinking. “When he is alone, he is busy writing a script, for his stage shows, or studying his roles,” says Rehna. “So when I tell Navas something important he will just stare at me and nod. I assume that he has understood what I have said, but the next day when I ask him about him, he will have no memory of it.”

But when he is not working, every now and then, the family goes to see films at the PVR Cinema in Lulu Mall or the Oberon Mall in Kochi. Sometimes, they go for short vacations. And end up having unusual experiences.

A couple of years ago, they went to Wayanad for a short vacation in their Tata Innova. When they reached Kottakal, Navas discovered that he had forgotten to take his purse which contained the money, as well as the ATM cards. Rehna also did not have any money. So she suggested that they return home.

It was about 7 p.m. But Navas had no mood to turn back. They sat for several minutes wondering what to do. Then suddenly, Rehna showed him the gold rings that she was wearing.

Navas then came up with a creative solution. He took a couple of rings, went to a jewellery shop, sold it, got the money and they carried on with their vacation. “It was so funny that I laughed till I cried,” she says. “Navas is crazy, but a loving person.”

Rehna also loves to watch her husband perform. “I have a great affection for stage artistes, since my own father was one. My father would say a lot of dialogues, had a good voice and looked nice on stage. So I feel very happy when I see Navas perform.”

But she does not feel the same excitement when she sees him in films.

There is far less freedom while acting in a movie,” she says. “The area which you can move around is fixed, and you have to listen to the director. But on the stage you have the freedom to move around, and can exploit your talent to the maximum.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Throw Of The Dice

Writer-Director Geetu Mohandas' indie film, 'Liar's Dice', has made a mark on the international film festival circuit

Photo by Mithun Vinod

By Shevlin Sebastian

On the first day of the shoot of the indie film, 'Liar's Dice', writer-director Geetu Mohandas took images of the heroine Kamala (Geetanjali Thapa), working as a sweeper at a homestay run by a Bengali in the remote village of Chitkul in Himachal Pradesh. After the shot was canned, angry villagers swarmed around Geetu and told her, “You cannot shoot this. Our women don't work for other people. They only work for themselves.”

Meanwhile, the production members told Geetu, “If you listen to them now, they will not allow you to complete the film on schedule. They will dictate terms all the time.”

Geetu had to take a split-second decision. She listened to her intuition, and said, I am going to take it off the script.” Then she told the villagers, “Tell me what this woman does. Write the first part for me.”

Thereafter, the excited villagers took Geetu and her crew to the most interesting spaces where the women worked. There was one particular spot, where they stacked hay, with leaves and sticks, before winter arrived, on a particular tree, high up on a mountain. “That became the opening shot of the film,” says Geetu.

'Liar's Dice' traces the journey of Kamala, along with her three-year-old daughter, Manya, as well as a goat, from Chitkul, via stops at Shimla and Chandigarh, in search of her missing husband at Delhi. Along the way, she is befriended by an Army deserter Nawazuddin (played ably by Nawazuddin Siddiqui), and the film highlights the tension and distrust between the two. “It is also a love story,” says Geetu.

But, at bottom, it is a political film. “I got the idea while reading a newspaper item, a few years ago, about migrant labourers and their displacement,” says Geetu. “It was about men from the interior parts of the country who were shown the big dreams of city life, and how they were recruited and the terrible conditions that they lived in. And if a calamity occurred, they became nameless faces or a statistic. They were never identified by name or the place they belonged to.”

The film has made a mark on the international film festival circuit. This year, it has won the Special Jury Award at the Sophia International Film Festival, as well as Best Film and Best Actress at the New York Indian Film Festival. Then it won the Bronce Alhambra award at the Granada Cines del Sur Film Festivaland National Awards for Best Actress and Best Cinematography for Rajeev Ravi, one of Bollywood's leading cinematographers, as well as the spouse of Geetu.

Not surprisingly, the film has also received positive reviews. “Geetu makes an assured debut,” writes Dennis Harvey in 'Variety'. “This Indian road drama is interesting to look at, and nicely observed.” Thus far, it has been screened in 22 festivals, with acceptances from another 30.

It's overwhelming when your film is well-received,” says Geetu. “When you make a movie, you don't have awards in your mind. You just want to produce it within the allotted budget and make a good film.” 

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

Saturday, July 19, 2014

All About A Nose

The Lokadharmi Theatre enacted a play, 'Viswavikhyathamaya mookku' (The World-Renowned Nose), based on a story by Vaikom Mohammed Basheer. The group has staged more than 40 plays till now

Photo of Director Chadradasan by Suresh Nampoothiri 

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the start of the play, 'Viswavikhyathamaya mookku' (The World-Renowned Nose), held recently at the JT Pac, Kochi, 14 men and women, dressed in black T-shirts and trousers glide on to the stage. The stage has very little props: a wooden door, a stool, and a few boxes.

The actors carry on making slow-motion movements. Then all of a sudden all of them wear masks which are placed on a low box on the stage. “The idea to wear the masks is to make the faces look exaggerated,” says director Chandradasan, of the Lokadharmi Theatre.

As for the reason behind all the actors wearing black costumes, he says, “To project the face, black is the best colour. That is why I avoided all the other colours. And I wanted to give the feeling that everybody is the same.”

Chandradasan also decided to do away with scenery, costumes, and music. “It was a challenge for the actors to sustain the interest of the audience, without such tools,” says Chandradasan. But they did succeed in holding the audience's attention with elaborate movements and gestures.

The script is based on Vaikom Mohammed Basheer's classic story, 'Viswavikhyathamaya mookku', which was published in 1954. In the play, it is about a chef who works in a hotel. On his 24th birthday, his nose starts to grow. And it only stops growing when it reaches the navel.

People flock to see him. The owner has no option but to sack him, since the commotion is hampering his business. Then for several days, the man and his mother are starving. Then slowly, the mother realises the value of the nose. She succumbs to the temptation of accepting money and allowing people to see her freak son. 

Meanwhile, political parties try to get him on their side. And the media has a field day covering all the brouhaha.

The story is relevant to our contemporary life,” says Chandradasan. “It reveals the manipulation of a person by politicians and the media. And how all this has an effect on the man.”

Three years later, the long-nosed man has become an important figure in society. “He becomes rich and famous,” says Chandradasan. “Then he acts in a film. At rock bottom the play is a social satire.”

Interestingly, it is a satire that uses a mix of Malayalam and gibberish. “Basheer has created a lot of gibberish in his work,” says Chandradasan. “It was an extension of what he has done.”

As for the cast, the highlight for them was the presence of superstar Mohanlal, who is the chairman of JT Pac. “Most of the cast members knew he was present, because he was sitting in the front row,” says Chandradasan. 

After the show, the actor came up on stage and publicly complimented the cast. “It was a well-choreographed play, and the actors gave a fine performance,” said Mohanlal. Some overwhelmed cast members went and touched Mohanlal's feet.

Chandradasan started the Lokadharmi Theatre in 1991, along with 25 other enthusiasts at Tripunithara. Today, there is a group of 150 actors and actresses, who come from all walks of life. So there are students, advocates, engineers, headload workers, painters and teachers.

Chandradasan, himself, is a teacher of chemistry at St. Albert's College, Kochi.

So far, Lokadharmi has staged more than 40 plays. They include 'Chattan Kattu' (an Indianised adaptation of 'The Tempest' by William Shakespeare), 'Poranadi' ('The Outcast' by KN Panicker), 'Medea' (the Indian adaptation of the Greek classic by Euripides), 'Macbeth' by Shakespeare and 'Karnabharam' (The Anguish of Karnna – a Sanskrit play by Bhasa).

In fact, 'Karnabharam' won best stage design, best costume design and best play in the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards, 2008. When it was staged in Delhi, one of India's most popular playwrights, Habib Tanvir told Chandradasan, “I enjoyed every inch of the play.” Says a moved Chandradasan, “It was the best compliment that I have received in my career.”

Lokadharmi also runs 'Mazhavillu', a children's theatre at Changampuzha Park, Kochi. Boys and girls between 10 and 17 do improvisations, games, play readings and other theatre activities.

However, the team faces an uphill struggle because of the poor status of theatre in Kerala. “The audience does not have the habit of buying a ticket,” says Chandradasan. “They want to watch a play for free. In our society, people pay for everything, except for theatre. The group is finding it difficult because there are no sponsors, and no help from the government.”

Another problem is the lack of space to perform. So Chandradasan has invested his own money, around Rs 1 crore, to start a theatre in the Vypeen Islands. “It will be a place where research, training and performances will take place,” he says. 

And he is going to ensure it is a successful venture. In March, 2015, Chandradasan, who has won a six-month Fulbright Fellowship for Professional and Academic Excellence, will be going to the USA to study how theatre is managed there. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Lifelong Crush

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Preethi talks about life with the actor Shiju

Photo by Mithun Vinod 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

One weekend, when Preethi was in Class 12, she saw a CD of the film, 'Ishtamaanu Nooru Vattam' at her home in Kuwait City. And she noticed a tall and handsome actor who acted in the film. “I developed a crush,” she says. “He was so good-looking.”

A few years later, Preethi got a job as an air-hostess in Kuwait Airways. She was assigned to the Kuwait-Chennai sector. At the Chennai airport, on February 28, 2008, she spotted Shiju. He wore a yellow T-shirt and black jeans. The Chennai-based Shiju had flown in from Hyderabad, where he did regular work in Telugu films.

She approached Shiju and said, “Hi, my name is Preethi. I am a Malayali, and have seen your movies.”

After a few pleasantries, they exchanged mobile numbers.

One day later, Shiju called Preethi and said, “I like you.” She got excited. “I was thrilled to get a call from a celebrity,” says Preethi. “Clearly, he was interested in me.” For the next few days, they spoke a lot on the phone, usually late at night.

A week later, Shiju proposed marriage to Preethi. It was at that time that she discovered that Shiju is a Muslim while she is a Christian. When Preethi confided in her younger sister, Priya, the latter was apprehensive. “Priya told me to be careful, because Shiju is an actor, and because the religions are different,” says Preethi. “But I fell for his looks. After talking to him so often, I also realised that he was a 'paavam' guy.”

Preethi asked for some time from Shiju to make a decision. But that turned out to be very short. In three days, without seeking permission from her mother, Mariamma, a widow, who lived in Kuwait, she said yes. Later, when she told her mother about her decision, Mariamma disagreed. She decided to fly out, on December 6, 2008, to their home town of Thiruvananthapuram to find out what was happening.

But on December 4, Preethi left her grandparents' home, without telling anybody, and met up with Shiju at Kochi. On December 8, they had a registered marriage.

A few days later, Shiju called up Mariamma and said, “Aunty, Preethi is safe with me.” Mariamma had no choice but to accept the situation.

Preethi is a lively person, who smiles and talks easily at her apartment in Kochi. After getting an English literature degree from Mar Ivanios College in Thiruvananthapuram, she did a two-year course in legal studies at the George Washington University, USA. She is also an accomplished Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancer. Today, she does business in polymer jewellery which she imports from the US, but her mind and heart are focused on her tall (6'2”) and handsome husband.

Shiju is enormously patient,” says Preethi. “I have a hot temper. I will shout and scream but he will listen calmly. He is a sweet and forgiving person.”

Other qualities: “He helps me a lot in the kitchen,” says Preethi. “Shiju is very good at cooking and can make a good fish curry as well as a chicken biriyani.”

As for his drawbacks, Preethi says, “Shiju is a forgetful person. I have to tell him to do one thing more than ten times. He is also a typical artist who lives in his own world most of the time. The other day, he returned from Hyderabad, and immediately put on a CD to watch a film, which will be re-made in Telugu. I was sitting next to him but he completely forgot my presence.”

The couple have a four-year-old daughter Muskan. “Father and daughter are very close,” says Preethi. “If he is not at home, every night Muskan will call and talk to her father. She misses him a lot. They will play games on the laptop and see animation films like 'How to train your dragon 2'.”

Incidentally, when Muskan was born on December 1, 2009, Preethi took a Muslim name. A nikaah took place at Shiju's home town of Kundara, 14 kms from Kollam. “It was a grand function where all the relatives were invited,” says Preethi. “So my daughter had a rare experience. She was able to attend her parents' wedding.”

During their free time, the family likes to see 'first day, night show' movies. The recent films they saw included 'Bangalore Days' and 'Angry Babies'. And when Preethi sees Shiju's films, she offers a critique. Her favourite is 'Polytechnic', in which Shiju acts as a villain. “There is a nice comic sequence in which he chases Bhavana,” she says.

Finally, when asked to give tips for a successful marriage, Preethi says, “There should be an understanding between the spouses. Try to know the pluses and minuses of your spouse. 
The husband should also do the same. These days marriages are 50/50 sharing.”

Preethi agrees that most problems in today's marriages arise because the wife is also working. “A girl should have a career, but she should also take care of the responsibilities at home,” says Preethi. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)     

Monday, July 14, 2014

Helping the cause of autism in Kerala

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Kiran Bedi (left) with Simmi Santha 

Simmi Santha was taken aback by the visible stress on Reena Mathew's face at an interaction in Kochi. But the reasons were not far to seek. “Reena was desperate to get the right treatment for her eight-year-old autistic son, Vinu,” says Simmi, a behavioural therapist from Toronto, Canada. “Apart from that, her personal life is in a shambles.”

Reena had fallen in love with Roy Mathew and got married. But when their child was born, both got a shock when it was revealed that Vinu was autistic. After two years, Roy divorced Reena. Now he is married again and has a child.

Reena has been left alone to fend for her son,” says Simmi. “She is devastated and does not know what to do. In fact, she seems to be heading towards a deep depression.”

But help is at hand. Simmi is starting a clinic for autism at her mother's home town of Mallapally in Pathanamthitta district. “This is a humble beginning,” says Simmi. “Later, I hope to set up more clinics through the length and breadth of Kerala. The state needs an advanced health care for autistic children, as it is there in the West.”

The inauguration ceremony will take place on Monday at Kochi, in the presence of former IAS officer Kiran Bedi. The clinic is called the 'Reeta Peshawaria Centre for Autism'.”

Simmi, who grew up in Rourkela, did her bachelor’s in mental retardation at the National Institute for the Mentally Handicapped at Secunderabad, where one of her teachers was Dr Reeta Peshawaria-Menon. Unfortunately, Reeta passed away, of breast cancer on July 14, 2012. Not many people know that Reeta is Kiran Bedi's sister.

Kiran Bedi will also be releasing Simmi's ‘Manual for parents and caregivers’, which has been brought out with the help of the Rs 1 lakh Reeta Peshawaria Fellowship Award which Simmi won in 2014.

I want to create an awareness among parents in Kerala that their child is differently abled,” says Simmi. “He is not ready to meet you on your terms, but on his. An autistic child understands things in a different way and has different abilities. The best example is Sukesh Kuttan [of Idea Star Singer fame].”

(Some names have been changed) 

 (The New Indian Express, Kerala Edition)

Friday, July 11, 2014

​“Pakistan is not ready for peace with India”

Prof. TV Paul, of McGill University, Canada, has explored the country in depth in his engaging book, 'The Warrior State – Pakistan In The Contemporary World'

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Suresh Nampoothiry

“One of the major grudges that Pakistanis hold against Indians is the loss of Eastern Pakistan, which became the new country of Bangladesh, in 1971, with the help of India,” says TV Paul, a Malayali, who is the James McGill Professor of International Relations at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. “They consider it as an act of perfidy that needs to be avenged.”

Paul says that there is a feeling of betrayal in Pakistan. “It is like two brothers dividing their ancestral property, and one not getting enough and feeling unhappy,” says Paul, while on a recent visit to Kochi. “Pakistanis feel that, during the 1947 Partition, they should have received more money, the whole of Kashmir, and more areas of Punjab and Bengal.”

Thanks to India's huge size, an insecure Pakistan wants to have strategic parity. “But that is difficult to achieve because they are economically unequal states,” says Paul. “So Pakistan has become friends with the USA and China to balance off India.”

The challenge for the Narendra Modi government will be to break down these barriers that have been created during the past 66 years. “It will take a lot of effort,” says Paul. “But I don't think Pakistan is ready for peace with India.”
And it does not help that Pakistan is one of the most violent and dangerous countries in the world now. That's because the security services have created a monster called the Taliban, which they are unable to control. 

The insurgents have created an uncertainty of life in Pakistan by their bold attacks, like the one at the Karachi airport on June 8th,” says Paul. “So people are not able to enjoy any degree of security as well as support from the state. Their daily lives are a challenge.”

And the Taliban could wreak havoc if they could get access to any one of the 110 nuclear warheads that Pakistan has. “This is a major concern for the international community,” says Paul. “However, there are two things that prevent this possibility.”

One is the 'Permissive Action Links' technology which the US has given to Pakistan. This prevents unauthorised arming or use of a nuclear weapon.

The second attribute is that the weapons are not mated. This means the components are kept separately. “So the Army will need a bit of time to assemble them,” says Paul. “However, the militants will try to capture some of these facilities, with the possible help from the jihadists within the army or the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) who have an interest to put the weapons in the wrong hands.”

All these and more have been elaborated on in Paul's lucidly-written book, 'The Warrior State – Pakistan In The Contemporary World', published recently by Random House India.

And his book makes it clear that the military continues to call the shots in Pakistan. “For any major initiative, with respect to India, Afghanistan, or the Taliban, the military takes the final decision,” says Paul. “The civilian government has been trying to get some autonomy, especially in foreign affairs and defence, but with limited success.”

However, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been able to appoint General Raheel Sharif, his choice, as chief of the army staff. But whether Sharif will be able to transform the administration is yet to be seen. “For that to happen, the military has to agree on many things,” says Paul.
Meanwhile, the silver lining has been the judiciary. “Earlier, the judiciary used to act as the third arm of the government, but now it has shown an activism, which has kindled hope,” says Paul.

But even even as it is trying to send [former President] Pervez Musharraf to jail, the likely possibility is that the government will send him into exile. “So, it is unclear whether the judiciary can bring about fundamental reforms,” says Paul. “The lawyers who were demanding Musharraf's ouster were the same ones who applauded Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of Punjab governor, Salman Taseer.”

Taseer had appealed for a pardon for a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who had been sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad. “So there is a divisive tendency among the people,” says Paul.

The country is not only divided, but poor. This, despite getting $73.1 billion in aid from several international sources, between 1960 and 2012.

Unfortunately, most of the aid went for military purposes. “Pakistan bought several weapons, and a lot of the cash went into the coffers of the military and the civilian elite,” says Paul. “The funds were not used for education, economic development or poverty reduction. In the end the country has remained poor.”

Even being a one-religion country has not helped. “The use of Islam has failed to pacify the class and ethnic divisions,” says Paul. “Economic development has been uneven. Some ethnic groups are less successful than the others. Overall, it is a grim situation.” 
(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Strokes of Love

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Reena talks about life with the artist Jitish Kallat, who is the curator of the Kochi-Muziris 
Biennale, 2014

By Shevlin Sebastian 

One day in February, 2005, artist Jitish Kallat went to the Khandelwal Nursing home in Bandra, Mumbai to see his wife, Reena. She was nine months pregnant.
When he entered the room, he saw that his wife was in deep pain. As he reached forward to console her, Jitish fainted and fell on the bed. It took a while for Jitish to be revived.

The pregnancy had been an overwhelming experience for him. “I remember how wonderstruck Jitish was when he saw the first sonography,” says Reena.

And despite the fainting fit, Jitish was present when Reena gave birth to a boy called Ahaan. “The birth of Ahaan was the high point of our lives,” says Reena.

Jitish and Reena had been classmates at the JJ School of Art in Mumbai. But it was not a typical romance. “It was about sharing our interests and spending time, more in libraries than anywhere else,” says Reena. “We would visit galleries, and meet friends from the theatre and art worlds. There was a lot of learning, growth and mutual understanding.”

But Reena did not agree with all that Jitish said or did. Inspired by the classic manifesto on art by American sculptor Claes Oldenburgh, Jitish and a fellow student did a performance in the class, where they mocked the JJ School and insinuated that it was 20 years behind, in terms of creativity and outlook.

I disagreed with Jitish about how it was carried out,” says Reena. It was during their intense arguments about this that they realised that they had deep feelings for each other. But it was not going to be easy. While Jitish is a Malayali, Reena is a Punjabi. “Luckily, our families did not oppose us when we decided to get married,” says Reena.

It took place on September 12, 1999, three years after they graduated from the JJ School. Because Jitish's father had passed away, a year earlier, it was a low-key wedding, which was held at the Kochu Guruvayur temple at Matunga, Mumbai. “But my family was worried about our economic prospects,” says Reena. “In the 1990s, the art market was very small. In fact, we began staying in a one-room flat, and expected to make a modest living for a long time.”

But things have worked out well, thanks to a booming art market. Today, the couple live in a 2000 sq. ft. apartment in upmarket Bandra. Both Jitish and Reena have thriving careers and have exhibited all over the world.

So, they have been to places like Havana, New York, Venice, Gothenburg in Sweden and the Laurentian mountains of Southern Quebec, Canada.

Those mountains were special,” says Reena. “Spending time in nature was wonderful, because it is a rare experience when you live in a city like Mumbai. We are very grateful for the opportunities life has given to us.”

But, as is well known, it is not easy for two artists to live together. “A lot of people ask me whether there is an intense competition between us,” says Reena. “Honestly, we have our share of disagreements, but the fact is that we have learned so much from each other, shared so much, and wished the best for the other. And that has helped us to preserve the relationship.”

Asked about her husband's plus points, Reena says, “Jitish is a sensitive person. He has been actively involved in the parenting of our child, Ahaan. For example, if our son is not eating, Jitish will invent a game and Ahaan will be so engrossed in playing it, that he is unaware that he is gobbling down the food. Jitish has the ability to make tasks very playful for Ahaan.”

Jitish has also been supportive of Reena. “In fact, he has been very respectful of my own career,” she says. “When I was focused on motherhood, Jitish would keep reminding me that I was far too talented, and that I should remain in touch with the art.”

Jitish, who is the curator of the 2014 Kochi-Muziris Biennale, is also a passionate man. “He invests his heart and soul in whatever he is doing,” says Reena. “What also helps is that Jitish has strong will power and determination. And that is why he has been successful.”

But Jitish is not very successful in keeping the house clean. “He is clumsy, and throws things about, but I have got used to it,” says Reena, with a smile.

Finally, when asked to give tips for a successful marriage, Reena says, “Do not have too many expectations before a marriage. What you sow in the marriage that you will reap. If your attitude is to only take from a relationship it will not work Lastly, you should enjoy all the challenges that life throws at you.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)     

Monday, July 07, 2014

'She' rules the Roads

The Kerala State Government's Gender Park has initiated She Taxis, a popular scheme where women own and drive their taxis. And the customers are women

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Suma K. Nair by Manu R. Mavelil

It is 10.30 p.m. An Ertiga car glides into the Info Park at Thiruvananthapuram and stops in front of the branch office of a US-based IT firm. Soon, a group of women, in their early twenties, get into the taxi which will take them to their homes after the evening shift.

Once inside the car, the women have a freewheeling conversation about office politics, love affairs, plans for the future, recipes and movies. Sometimes, the driver joins in. It would seem like an ordinary taxi ride back home, except for one important difference: the driver is a lady. Her name is Suma K. Nair. And the taxi, which she owns, is called a She Taxi.

This concept was initiated by the Gender Park, an institution which is promoted by the Department of Social Justice of the Kerala state government. The idea grew out of a murder of a 23-year-old girl, Sowmya, on February 1, 2011 by a man called Govindachamy, while she was travelling in an empty compartment of a train from Kochi to Shoranur. Not surprisingly, the killing rocked the state.

And provoked sombre reflection at the Gender Park. “We thought about how to provide safe transport for women at night,” says Dr. PTM Sunish, the CEO. “At night, even if a woman calls for a taxi in the hopes of enjoying a safe journey, she may not be able to do so, because the male driver is capable of violence.”

In She Taxis, as the name indicates, all the drivers are women. And they have been provided with adequate security. “The cab and the control room, which is run by a private firm, Rain Concert Technologies, are connected 24/7,” says Sunish. “The control room is also connected to the police and emergency services like the ambulance and fire force.”

An alarm has also been installed inside the car. In case of an attack, the driver can activate it, which will set off a siren, that will be relayed to the control room. “This will make clear that the driver is in danger,” says Sunish.

Ever since the scheme was unveiled in December, 2013, there have not been any untoward incidents. The 31-year-old MS Sari, a She Taxi driver, smiles when asked about the dangers of driving at night. “No, I have no fears whatsoever,” she says. “The security systems are good. I have travelled safely to Kottayam, Kochi and Alleppey.”

Thus far, 23 taxis are operating in Thiruvananthapuram and another eight in Kochi. “We get far too many calls than the number of cabs we have,” says MK Muneer, the Minister for Social Justice. “To fill the lacunae, we will need a lot more drivers.”

So how does one become a driver? “Advertisements are put in the newspapers,” says Muneer. “During the interviews what we look for is whether the woman has a passion for driving. Otherwise it is difficult to do the job.”

Suma loves driving and has been doing so for the past ten years. The wife of a lawyer and the mother of two teenage children, Suma, 44, took a loan from a bank, and bought the Ertiga for Rs 9.4 lakh. She began driving on February 18, and has been working 24/7 ever since.

I get five to six calls a day,” she says. “Most of the time, it is for trips in and around the city.” The charge is Rs 250 per hour for a maximum of 10 kms. Thereafter, it is Rs 14 per km.

As a woman, she bonds easily with her customers, who include doctors, engineers, advocates and housewives. Recently, an 80-year-old woman, Vijaylakshmi, arrived from Singapore, for Ayurvedic treatment. Suma took her all over the city, including temples and shops. “Vijaylakshmi was happy that I was there for her throughout her stay,” says Suma.

Meanwhile, the idea is catching on. In March, the Hyderabad Municipal Corporation, in consultation with the Gender Park, introduced five She taxis in the city. Other cities which have expressed interest include Bhopal, Bangalore and Delhi.

A confident Dr. KM Abraham, Additional Chief Secretary, of the Social Justice Department, says that She Taxis will engender a social transformation among women.

Suma agrees. “I feel a sense of freedom and empowerment whenever I am behind the wheel,” she says. 

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

Relieved Nurses return from Iraq

By Shevlin Sebastian 
Photo by Melton Antony 

The arrivals lounge at the Cochin International Airport was awash with two emotions: relief and happiness this morning. As cries of 'Oommen Chandy, zindabad' rent the air, 45 nurses, in their twenties and thirties, pushed their baggage carts, which had flower bouquets placed on top, through a crowd which consisted of relieved relatives, publicity-hungry politicians, curious onlookers, harried khaki-clad policemen, and TV reporters, who made desperate lunges with their mikes, looking for the inevitable byte. Most ignored them.

But, once outside, the nurses spoke freely and with relief, big smiles on their faces, surrounded by their families, happy to be alive, to be free, to be out of the maelstrom which is taking place in Iraq now between the ISIS militants and the Iraqi soldiers. Quite a few thanked the Indian government as well as Chief Minister Ooomen Chandy. There were hugs and kisses, even as tears rolled down from moist eyes.

It had, indeed, been a close shave with death.

And it was a relief to hear, from their first-person accounts, that they had not been physically harmed. There are far too many videos online, which shows the militants being trigger-happy, and killing people as if it were just a toy soldier's game.

Meanwhile, for some, there was a celebration, of sorts. Today is Nila Jose's 24th birthday and her family had thoughtfully brought along a birthday gift – a cream cake with red cherries. It was placed on a table. Then Nila was given a small knife. She cut a piece and quickly pressed it into her father's mouth. Her mother, as well as other relatives stood nearby and smiled.

I am so glad to be back,” said Nila, who was clad in a green salwar kameez. “I must thank the Indian Ambassador [to Iraq] who was so helpful and caring.”

And now, life will go on. In the midst of all the din, one question was not asked: why are Malayali nurses going to these dangerous places for work? And for that, the politician has to take the lion's share of the blame. They have not provided an economy that creates sustainable jobs within the state. So young women have to go out, to earn money, for themselves and their families, and, sometimes, unnervingly, they have to put their lives on the line.

(The Sunday Standard, New Delhi)

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

“Nivin is a family man”

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Rinna talks about life with the actor Nivin Pauly

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Nivin and Rinna were expecting to spend a quiet night at the former's home after their marriage on August 28, 2010, at the St. Dominic's Church at Aluva. But a group of relatives and friends, including actors like Wilson Joseph and Aju Varghese, and director Alphonse, had other plans. Firstly, the couple were told to look for the bedroom keys. And so, Nivin and Rinna searched all over the house, but to no avail. Finally, through various clues, Nivin was able to take it out from the trouser pocket of Wilson.

When they entered the bedroom, they found it filled with balloons, small pieces of glitter and crepe paper. After they had cleared the bed, and were beginning to relax, the clock tolled at midnight. Suddenly, there was a loud sound outside the door. When a nervous Nivin opened the door, his friends laughed out aloud. They had burst crackers.

It was an unforgettable experience,” says Rinna.

Rinna and Nivin met when they were B. Tech students at the Federal Institute of Science and Technology at Kochi. “We became friends very casually,” says Rinna. “We were part of a large group of friends who went for movies and outings together.”

After their studies, they worked together in Infosys, Bangalore. “There was a silent understanding that we liked each other,” says Rinna. “There was no formal 'I love you'.”

Soon, Nivin felt bored with his job, gave it up, and returned to Aluva. He had no idea what to do, although there was an underlying interest in acting. It was then that he got a break in Vineeth Srinivasan's 'Malarvadi Arts Club'. Thereafter, he began to get roles steadily and most of the films have become hits: 'Thattathin Marayathu', 'Neram', '1983' and 'Om Shanti Oshana'. 

As the wife of an actor, it is no surprise that Rinna is a sounding board for Nivin regarding future roles and scripts ideas. “I usually react with my intuition, although I don't know much about movies,” says Rinna. “But finally, it is Nivin who decides whether to take the role or not.”

When asked about his plus points, Rinna says, “Nivin is an understanding person and is a family man. He loves to spend time with me and our two-year-old son, Dhaveedh (Malayalam version of David).”

In fact, the birth of Dhaveedh was the highlight of Nivin's life. “Nivin looked so happy when he held the baby in his arms,” says Rinna. “He had not held a small baby before. In fact, he often tells me that Dhaveedh is his good-luck charm. After he was born, Nivin got many roles and did well. My son loves Nivin more than me.”

So enamoured is Dhaveedh of his father that when he awakens every morning, and realises that his father is not at home, he will immediately ask Rinna to play the CD of ‘Malarvadi Arts Club’. “Dhaveedh has seen the film so many times, he knows it by heart,” says Rinna. “He will say, 'Next scene Appa will be coming. Appa will do this. That uncle will do this'.”

For the 100th day celebrations of 'Om Shanti Oshana', Nivin and Rinna took Dhaveedh to a theatre at Thiruvananthapuram to see it. “He was thrilled,” says Rinna. “Dhaveedh was clapping, and saying, 'Appa, appa'.”

Thanks to several hits, Nivin has become a much-in-demand actor in Mollywood. So, he is busy shooting most of the time. But after fifteen days on a shoot, he begins to miss Dhaveedh. So Rinna takes their son to the sets. “We went to Indira Nagar, in Bangalore, to watch the shoot of 'Bangalore Days',” says Rinna.

And the shoot was a happy time for Rinna. “After a long time, I saw Nivin having a lot of fun, laughing and joking, like he used to do in college. All the actors and the crew were pulling each other's legs. There was a nice rapport, because everybody is more or less of the same age: Dulquer Salmaan, Fahadh Faasil, Nazriya Nazim, Isha Talwar, Parvathy and Anjali Menon.”

Meanwhile, for Rinna, the only thing that upsets her about Nivin is that even when he is at home, he gets calls all the time or is attending meetings. “The one-on-one time with the family is becoming less,” she says.

In fact, the only time Rinna had Nivin all to herself was when they went for a holiday to Singapore, a few months after the marriage. “We relaxed and loafed around,” she says. “We travelled on the Metro and saw many tourist sites.”

Thus far, the major change in their marriage is that Nivin has become famous. So, people recognise the couple when they go out. “They come up to talk and take photos,” says Rinna. “Some fans even come home.”

It is a large bungalow at Aluva built by Nivin’s late father Pauly Bonaventure, who spent many years in Switzerland. And to add a touch of glamour, there is a black Audi parked in the driveway. Incidentally, Nivin's mother stays with them.

Finally, Rinna has this to say about successful marriages. “A couple needs to spend time with each other, share their thoughts and feelings, and have a mutual respect,” she says. “It is also important to listen to your partner.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)