Thursday, September 18, 2014

An Intense One Hour

Upendra Namburi’s ‘60 Minutes’ is a racy corporate thriller based in the world of the fast-moving consumer goods industry

By Shevlin Sebastian

After the second bout of extreme passion had subsided, he pushed her away and walked up and down the room, running his fingers through his hair and shaking his head vigorously. He wasn’t sure if he was being disloyal to Nandita or Maithili or both? Or was he lying to himself? This wasn’t like him. This should have been a random meaningless act.

This is an excerpt from Upendra Namburi’s ‘60 Minutes’, a racy corporate thriller based in the world of the fast-moving consumer goods industry.

Agastya, the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) of BCL is living life in the fast lane. He makes crores of rupees on the stock exchange, is smart and astute, and wins numerous battles for the company, in the marketplace, while, at the same time, he is having an affair with Maithili, a hot and ambitious professional. Agastya is also married to Nandita, and has two children. So he is sailing on several boats at the same time.

BCL is about to launch a premium detergent by the name of Sparkle, but their rival, Spark, led by CMO Sailesh Rao, suddenly decides to launch Velvet, a cheaper detergent, at the same time. The viciousness of the fight between them is a reminder of the real-life battles that have taken place between Pepsi and Coke, Apple and Samsung, Hindustan Lever and Proctor & Gamble.

Globally, there are several such battles,” says Upendra. “Man has a deeply competitive spirit. The wars may no longer take place in Waterloo or Dunkirk. Instead, they occur in the boardrooms. And this competitiveness and rivalry cuts across societies all over the world.”

Upendra has highlighted this conflict through several characters. “These people cannot be restricted to places like Mumbai or Delhi,” says Upendra. “They are universal characters. People drink, take drugs, womanise and go for foreign trips. I think I have underplayed it.”
Among the more interesting characters is Maithili. The 30-something unmarried entrepreneur founded a company and sold it for Rs 30 crore. She has been successful, but is facing challenges on the emotional front.

Maithili is having an affair with Agastya, while she is also living with another man, who beats her up, even as she looks after that person's child. “So, there is a maternal instinct, a physical craving and a need for emotional support,” says Upendra. “If it had been done within matrimony, it would have been considered all right. But society is critical, because she is involved with two people, one of whom is a married man. I don't condone her behaviour. But we are bound by the traditional thinking that all of this should have happened under the umbrella of marriage.”

'60 Minutes’, as the title suggests, is, indeed, just one hour in this corporate battle, that is being portrayed, although alternating chapters have flashbacks going back a couple of years. 

This is Upendra’s second novel. It has been brought out by Westland Publishers and is doing well. His first, ‘31’, was a best-seller.

Upendra is the right person to chronicle the lives of corporate people, because he belongs to that world. For the past 20 years, he has been working in blue-chip companies like Parle Agro, International Best Foods, ICICI Bank and ABN Amro. Today, he is working for a leading financial services company in Gurgaon. But writing has always been close to his heart since childhood. “In fact, I have been a college magazine editor,” he says.

His turning point came when, six years ago, he got an offer to write on business subjects with a leading Mumbai newspaper. Thereafter, he wrote for magazines and blogs. One day, he embarked on ‘31’. Now he is writing a screenplay, based on '31', with the expectation that it will be made into a Hindi film in the future.

Incidentally, '60 Minutes' took a year to write. “There is no particular time to write,” says Upendra. “I go with the flow. I have written in airport lounges, taxis, and at home, as and when time permits.”

But he has a target audience in mind. “They include anyone who is working in corporates, be it small, medium or large companies,” says Upendra. “I feel they will be able to relate to the events in the novel.” 

Meanwhile, every now and then Upendra is invited to give talks to young people about corporate life. “I tell them that once in a while, they should press a refresh button and say, 'Hey, what is most important for me?'” he says. “You have to be careful that in the excitement of having a hot-shot career, you don't lose your integrity.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Scenes From a Marriage

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Bina Paul talks about life with the cinematographer/director Venu

Photo by Manu R. Mavelil 

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1978, when Bina Paul was a student at the Film and Television Institute at Pune, she accompanied a senior by the name of Venu on a documentary shoot in Thane district in Maharashtra. Bina’s role was that of an assistant cameraman.

On the set, Venu got angry with Bina and kept shouting, “Go back. Move forward.”

Bina’s mind was in turmoil. She was thinking, ‘This is the guy I am in love with, but look at the way he is behaving.’

It was not a match made in heaven. They came from different backgrounds: while Bina grew up in Delhi, Venu is a Nair from Kottayam. Nevertheless, there was a mutual love and attraction.

Their first date was at an Irani restaurant in Pune where they bonded over a cup of tea. “It was not a fancy place, like you find today,” says Bina, with a laugh.

When Bina informed her parents, they did not take it seriously. They thought it was an infatuation. “Later, they were worried about whether we would be able to survive in the uncertain world of films,” she says.  

Anyway, the marriage took place on August 26, 1983, at Bina’s home in New Delhi. And there were all sorts of rituals.

Since my mother is a Hindu, we had Hindu rituals,” says Bina. “Then there were Nair rituals. Later, the eminent Paulose Mar Gregorius, of the Orthodox Jacobite church, said prayers.”

The most striking thing for Bina was the informality. “Nowadays people are over-dressed, it is such a formal setting, and they are all standing on stages,” says Bina. “My wedding was so simple. Our friends were telling us what to do, what not to do and everybody was laughing and having a good time. At that time, marriage was not such a big event.”

In fact, Bina wore a cream Banaras brocade saree, with a red border, which her mother had worn at her own wedding.

A couple of days later, the couple boarded a third-class train compartment and went to Kottayam where a reception had been arranged by her in-laws. Thereafter, they settled down at Thiruvananthapuram, and both have had distinctive careers in Mollywood: Venu in cinematography and direction, while Bina is an editor. In June, after a 12-year stint, Bina quit as artistic director of the International Film Festival of Kerala.

Through all their independent activities, the couple remained in love. “Venu is one of the most solid persons I have known,” says Bina. “He is generous, caring and loving. He always puts things in perspective. But he is also critical. Venu is not the type of person who will say good things all the time. That helps you to look at yourself in an objective way. In the initial years, I would get upset, but I knew it was for my good. He is my best critic.”

Venu’s drawback is that he has a short temper. “He gets angry but will go to the next room and come back and would have forgotten what the issue was,” says Bina. “But I would be fuming.”

Another tendency of Venu is to look at the world in black or white. This caused a tempestuous relationship with their daughter, Malavika, who did not like to be imposed upon. “But my daughter understood Venu better when she grew up,” says Bina. “Now they are very close.”

Malavika, 28, who is married to an Englishman, is an Outreach Programme Manager at Cambridge University.

Both Venu and Bina also work together. In Venu’s latest directorial venture, the acclaimed ‘Munnariyippe’, which stars Mammooty and Aparna Gopinath, Bina did the editing.

When I was working on the film, I felt that it would do well,” she says. “Venu was right next to me during the editing. He keeps saying that the only advantage you have if your wife is also the editor of your film is that you can shout at her. And, indeed, there were a lot of shouting sessions. But it was a tightly-shot film. I was hoping people would give the film a chance and they have, and it has done well. And both of us are so happy.”

She did go to the sets a few times, and felt amazed watching Mammooty at work. “He acts with so much of ease,” says Bina. “Mammooty understood the character he was playing so well.

The most amazing aspect of ‘Munnariyippe’ was the stunning and unexpected climax. “Hints were given throughout the film, but you had to watch out for it,” says Bina, with a smile.

When asked for tips for a successful marriage, Bina says, “You must give each other space. At times, you should do things separately, and have your own interests. Only then can you develop as a person. A lot of people feel that the husband and wife should go together everywhere. But, sometimes, a woman likes to go out alone and spend time with her friends.”

But, above all, for a good marriage, you need love. “It is the most important emotion,” says Bina. “So whatever troubles you face, love will help you overcome it.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Charm of The Countryside

The IT Park at Cherthala, Kerala, attracts many people who are looking for a rural life, with cheap amenities, and no traffic jams or pollution 

Photo by Mithun Vinod

By Shevlin Sebastian

The 35-year-old woman was agitated. At the security office, at the Info Park, at Cherthala, she insisted she wanted to meet the bosses of the companies. But when she was asked for a specific name, she could not provide any. 

At that moment, Anoop Krishnan, the CEO of a Kuwait-based firm, was passing by. The security called him for help. “When I questioned her, she said she worked as a helper in a textile shop and was looking for a similar job at the park,” says Anoop. “I said that you don’t get those types of jobs. It is linked with computers.”

The woman said, “The government had said that we will all be getting jobs in the park.”

Anoop smiles as he recounts the incident at his air-conditioned office at the park. “Initially, many locals did not know what we were doing here,” he says. “But two years later, they are all supportive.”

Anoop was working in Kuwait when he was asked by his company, Webna Web Solutions, to start a development centre for software. “The directors went to the info parks at Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi, but they liked Cherthala the most. It is green, pollution-free, and seemed calm and quiet.”

Anoop also likes the Info Park. “The main advantage is the absence of traffic jams,” he says. “When I was working in Thiruvananthapuram and Bangalore, I would take anywhere between 45 minutes and two hours to get to work. But in Cherthala, I take 10 minutes to come to work, even though I live 10 kms away. The staff also comes on time.”

There are other advantages, too. At his home town of Pathanamthitta, 65 kms away, tomatoes cost Rs 47 per kilo, but at Cherthala they are selling at Rs 28. “Fish and vegetables are also cheaper,” he says.

Even the rents are affordable. You can get a three bedroom house for Rs 3500 per month. There are employees who have hired a two-storey building for Rs 7000. As for Anoop, he is living in a four-bedroom house, and paying a rent of Rs 5000.

The park, set in an area of 60 acres, is an expanse of green. There are all sorts of trees and flowering plants, as well as a lake. “Once you come here, you will feel happy,” says Anoop. “There is a rural charm. The pace is soothing and relaxing.”

The park has food courts, conference halls, discussion rooms and game zones. There is also a110 kV sub-station, a water treatment plant, storage tanks, internal roads and an effluent treatment plant.

The park has been designed for low-cost operations,” says Info Park CEO Hrishikesh Nair. “It has emerged as a sought-after destination for companies from the Middle East.”

One reason for being sought-after is the rural ambience. “Most of the employees have come from places like Dubai, Bangalore and Thiruvananthapuram so that they can live in a natural environment,” says Deepu Krishnan RK, the CEO and director of the Bahrain-based Voyager IT Solutions.

But there are disadvantages. There is no entertainment, to speak of, nor a nightlife. “We enjoy ourselves on the weekends,” says Jaison Kunjukutty, who has relocated from London, where he was working for a mobile company. “We go to Kochi, which is only 30 kms away, and spend a lot of time in the malls, watch films at the multiplexes and have fast food.”

For Rajesh Gowda (name changed), a Kannadiga from Bangalore, language is a problem. “The people don’t understand Hindi or English,” he says. “But since I know a little bit of Tamil, I am managing.”

Food is also a problem. “The Malayalis use coconut in every dish,” he says. “So I make my own food and use sunflower, instead of coconut oil. Nevertheless, I like it here.” 

Deepu is also happy. In the near future, he will be taking a 5,000 sq. ft. office area, from his present 1700 sq. ft. “Our Fakhro group in Bahrain has 47 companies, so we need a lot of backend staff,” he says. “This is just the beginning of good times.” 

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

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Kochi woman thanks Army and local people for rescue in Kashmir

By Shevlin Sebastian
Amisha Shah, 28, and her mother flew to Srinagar from Kochi on August 31, to enjoy a holiday with relatives from Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Initially, they stayed in a houseboat on Dal Lake and visited all the tourist spots. “All along, it was raining,” she says. “But it was a slight drizzle, and nothing compared to the monsoons in Kerala.”

A couple of days later, they moved to the New Mamta hotel. It was on the evening of September 6 that Srinagar began to get flooded. Soon, the hotel's kitchen, which was located in the basement, got flooded. “Thankfully, there was a CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) office nearby,” says Amisha. “They provided us with tea and coffee, lunch and dinner.”

Amisha and her mother were supposed to return on a 2 p.m. flight on September 8. However, in the morning itself, they were told that it would not be possible to reach the airport since the roads were flooded. But, soon, the news came that the Army was ferrying people to the airport on their helicopters. So, the 13-member group set out on foot for the helipad, which was 7 kms away.

When they reached the helipad, they saw that there were 3000 people waiting in long queues. There were four choppers in service. In one chopper, they could accommodate 25 people including luggage. 100 people were being ferried in one hour. Amisha and her relatives waited the entire day.

At 7 p.m., the service stopped. The Army then told the tourists to settle down in the helipad area, which was the size of two football fields, with forests at one side. “We did not get any food, only water,” says Amisha. “There were no washrooms. People were fainting, and children were crying. There was desperation everywhere. Since we were sleeping in the open, and had only sweaters and shawls, we shivered throughout the night.”

The next morning, the people went to the forest to do their ablutions. Then the Army decided to give preference to senior citizens, women and children. However, Amisha's chance to board the chopper came only in the evening. They were taken to an Air Force base at Srinagar. There, tents had been put up. People could rest and have food – bananas, biscuits, puri and gram. Medical assistance was available, apart from washroom facilities.

In less than an hour, Amisha and her mother got into a 55-seater Air Force aircraft, which took them to Delhi. “It was only when we returned to Kochi that we understood the calamity that has hit Kashmir,” says Amisha. “We are thankful to the Army and the local people for saving us.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala edition) 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Master of Many Forms

The low-key but multi-talented Delhi-based artist Gigi Scaria, has a growing international reputation. He is adept at paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos, and installations 

Photos: Gigi Scaria; the installation, 'Elevator from the subcontinent'

By Shevlin Sebastian

You press the button and the lift door opens. When you step in, the door closes by itself. And then you have a surreal experience. On three panels, you can see cars parked close to each other in an underground car park. The lift moves up. Along the way, you see projections of a wall, at some places it is smooth, at other places, there are cracks, holes, and streaks of black cement.

The elevator stops at a floor: you can see the inside of a house. It is a middle-class drawing room, with a sofa and chairs and a television set, placed against a window. It is a still scene, when, suddenly, a bamboo curtain rolls down. You go further up and you continue to see different spaces inside different houses. But mostly, they are living rooms. Some are posh, with flowing curtains and luxurious sofas, with the ubiquitous air conditioner high up on a wall.

This remarkable installation, ‘Elevator from the subcontinent’, was Malayali artist Gigi Scaria's contribution at the Indian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011. Gigi played the video of the installation during a recent 'Let's Talk' programme organised by the Kochi Muziris Biennale.

I wanted to show the different types of spaces that are there in a city like Delhi,” says Gigi. “There is also a class divide.”

And this divide provokes biased behaviour. Once, on a street, in the suburb of Rohini, Gigi saw a cycle rickshaw driver, inadvertently, obstruct a car coming from behind. The driver stopped his vehicle, stepped out, and slapped the driver. “The cycle driver had no idea why he had been slapped,” says Gigi. “All kinds of weird situations take place in Delhi. I am struggling to understand the city.”

Gigi, who is originally from Kothanalloor, in Kottayam district, went to Delhi in 1995, following his graduation at the College of Fine Arts, Thiruvananthapuram. Thereafter, he did a Masters of Arts at Jamia Millia Islamia. Following that, he embarked on his career as a professional artist. And all along Delhi has played a major role in the evolution of his art, which he has shown through paintings, photographs, sculptures, videos and installations.

The city has been evolving at a rapid pace,” he says. “When the Metro Rail services began, thanks to the elevation of the tracks, I got a view of the city from a different perspective.”

Once when he stepped out at Pul Bangash station and looked through a window, he saw a spire, with a weather vane. So he clicked a photo.

I realised that when you look at the spire, you cannot identify the location,” says Gigi. “This spire was made during the time of the British rule. And, today, it is part of a government school.”

Yes, indeed, the perspective of things and life changes when you look it from a different angle. 

Gigi has done installation work on the banks of the river Yamuna, shot photos of malls, construction sites, as well as crumbling cinema theatres.

And his videos are also striking. One video, 'No Parallel', has two screens next to each other. In the first screen, an archival photo of Mahatma Gandhi is shown. After a few seconds, on the second screen, there is an image of Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Soon, simultaneously, they are seen meeting people, giving speeches, going on marches ('Salt March' for Gandhi and ‘Long March’ for Mao), and interacting with children. In a way, Gigi was showing the similarities, as well as the differences of the two great leaders who had such a huge impact on their respective nations.

One major difference, of course, is that while Gandhi propagated non-violence, Mao used great violence to propel his country into the ill-fated Cultural Revolution (1966-76), which had a calamitous effect on Chinese society.

Imbued with a genuine creative talent, Gigi has attended prestigious residencies at Trinidad and Tobago, West Indies, Biella, Italy, and Seoul, Korea.

In Seoul, Gigi made a series of photographs of South Koreans looking at their mobile phones, while in public spaces, like railway stations. Some lean against walls to see their phone, or while sitting on platform seats. “People are engaged with their cell phones all the time,” says Gigi. “But unlike Indians who are chatting or sending SMSs, South Koreans are busy watching television channels. I wanted to show how the demarcation between the personal and public spaces is no longer there, like in the past. And now, with Facebook, the personal space has entered the public domain.”

Gigi’s paintings have been exhibited in Miami, Budapest, Stockholm, London, New York, Barcelona, Berlin, and Dubai, among other cities. In 2008, his work was shown at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the first time contemporary Indian art was shown to the Israeli public. 

He was a 2012 University of Melbourne MacGeorge Fellow, and presented an exhibition of video works at the Ian Potter Museum of Art as part of the Melbourne Festival. He has also participated in the Singapore Biennale.  

Not surprisingly, Gigi is expected to make a mark at the upcoming Kochi-Muziris Biennale. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

To Drink or Not to Drink

The liquor prohibition imposed in Kerala has sparked an animated debate across the state. Some Malayalis weigh in on the issue

By Shevlin Sebastian

Brigadier NV Nair (Retd.) went for his usual walk, at 6.30 a.m., along the service road near Hotel Wyte Fort at Kochi. All of a sudden it started raining. Nair took shelter in front of a toddy shop which was shut. There was a man standing there. After five minutes, the shop opened. Nair watched the man enter the shop. He was served with two bottles of toddy.

This is the state of alcoholism in Kerala,” he says. “Instead of morning tea, some people want liquor, although he appeared fine to me. But maybe his body demanded it.”

Senior airline professional Patrick Xavier has a relative who runs a bar. Every morning, workers will come and knock at the door. They want to drink before they go to work. Most of the workers drink after work, also. “So, they are unable to give much to their family,” says Patrick. “As a result, the women are forced to do menial work.”

However, the desire for a drink has been persistent, despite prohibitions in India during the past. A retired senior Naval officer recalled that when he was a young Lieutenant on the then aircraft carrier, Vikrant, there was a reception for the elite in Chennai. The time given was 19.30. “Believe me, between 19.27 and 19.32, nearly every one, of the 150 guests that were invited, came on board,” says the officer. “I turned to my captain, and said, ‘Sir, the people are punctual.’”

He said, “Young man, they are not punctual, just thirsty.”

Tamil Nadu, along with Bombay, had prohibition, in the 1950s and 60s. Unfortunately, whenever Prohibition has been imposed, it has not worked.  

Many nations have tried this, including the United States,” says IT professional Manoj Kumar. “But what happened was that a lot of people became millionaires because of bootlegging. Today, thanks to the liquor ban in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are laughing because they are going to make a killing. Earlier, Kerala and Pallakad made money because of the Prohibition in Tamil Nadu.”

Patrick Xavier feels that, despite the social problems caused by drinking, Prohibition is an infringement of personal rights. “I should be allowed to go to a bar,” he says. “A state cannot control that. If you are not able to serve liquor in hotels and restaurants, then you will not be able to get tourists to come to Kerala. There are many who like to have a good time and liquor is one of the ways.”

Senior professional Nirmala Lilly, who has more than two decades of experience in the hospitality industry, agrees. "The maximum revenue comes from banquets, where drinks are served, cocktail dinners, and conferences," she says. "For foreigners beer is like mineral water.On the one hand, the government is promoting the tourism industry and on the other, they are causing harm in terms of huge losses for private hotel owners, as well as loss of jobs.”

And she is worried about the negative impact among the 1500 national and international travel agents who will be coming to Kochi to attend the Kerala Travel Mart (September 18-20). 

The future looks grim. “Without the tourism industry, where is the revenue going to come from?” says Patrick. “Taxes will be levied on each and every item that you will buy, because the state needs money for governance. The government has to do a re-think. One suggestion is that liquor could be served from three-star hotels upwards. Only then can the state survive. If you go to places like Goa, you can see numerous small restaurants where liquor is served.”

In the absence of alcohol, people will look for alternatives. “In Mizoram, where alcohol was banned, people went for alternatives like having [cough syrup] Benadryl,” says the Kochi-based professional, Vinu Thomas, who grew up in a town on the border between Assam and Mizoram. “On the Bangladesh border, truck loads of Benadryl were unloaded, because liquor was banned in that area. Then there is Dendrite adhesive. The people burned it because the smell is an intoxicant. Most people remained drunk in Mizoram because of the ban.” 

Some women in Kerala are unhappy about the ban, but for different reasons. “A friend recounted a conversation between two women,” says senior lawyer George Tharakan. “One woman said, 'My husband, who was never at home before 10 p.m., was there at the doorstep at 7.30 p.m. Once he came in, he immediately took the remote and sat in front of the TV, watching the news. And I missed all those serials that would fill up my evenings. The next day I had to call Sushila and ask her about what happened on the shows.” 

Clearly, the ban has provoked animated discussions all over the state. But these are early days. Nobody knows about the long-impact of such a hasty decision. Tragically, the repercussions have begun. KK Lal, 45, an assistant manager at a non-functioning bar in Manjeri, has committed suicide because of financial worries.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, September 08, 2014

What Lies Beneath

Rajeev Ravi’s second film, 'Njan Steve Lopez’ (I am Steve Lopez), takes a hard look at the state of society today

Photos: Rajeev Ravi; young stars Farhaan Faasil and Ahaana Krishna

By Shevlin Sebastian

Up on a hill near Thiruvananthapuram, long past midnight, a group of men are having dinner at a roadside shack. The lighting is dim, and there is silence all around. One of the characters, Steve Lopez, who has been kidnapped by a gang, gets permission to go outside, to wash his hands, at an open tap. As he does so, suddenly, there is a bomb blast. Frantic young men, brandishing knives, rush into the shop. Soon, there is a full-fledged fight between rival gang members. Steve looks on in shock, as Hari, one of the gang leaders, is stabbed in the back.

The scenes have been shot so convincingly that the audience is on the edge of their seats. This is Bollywood cinematographer, Rajeev Ravi's second film in Malayalam.

'Njan Steve Lopez' (I am Steve Lopez) is a gritty, unsparing look at the nexus between the police and the criminals, as well as the corruption that has permeated Indian society.

Today, what we see on the surface of life is not the truth,” says Rajeev. “Underneath, more often than not, there is a link between the good and bad of society. This partnership has been taken for granted by the people.”

The storyline is simple. Steve Lopez is a college student, who has a girlfriend, and spends time with friends, chatting on his mobile, smoking and drinking, and having a good time. But, one day, inadvertently, he witnesses the hacking of a gang member on a busy street in Thiruvananthapuram. 

Steve rushes the critically wounded man to hospital, much to the consternation of his father, who is a police officer. Slowly, as events unfold, Steve realises that his father, along with other officers, are not interested in catching the culprits.

This is the premise of the film: what happens when the children of those who are corrupt begin to question their behavior?” says Rajeev. “I was curious to see how they will react. A father is keen to impart moral values to the child, yet at the same time, to survive in his career, he is unable to maintain the same principles. I wanted to tell the people in power that they are not on the right path, and nor is our society.”

The film stars newcomers Farhaan Faasil, (the son of veteran Mollywood director Fazil), and Ahaana Krishna (the daughter of Mollywood actor, Krishna Kumar). “I was looking for fresh faces,” says Rajeev. “They had to look like normal young people. I was lucky that both were good actors.”

Both have, indeed, acted well. Ahaana says it was all due to Rajeev's direction. “He gave us a lot of freedom,” she says. “Rajeev was open to improvisations. Sometimes, we made up dialogues on the spot. He also gave simple explanations for each scene. So, it was easy to follow them.” 

The film has received critical acclaim, but has not had as much of an impact at the box office, as Rajeev had hoped. But he is not disappointed. “I felt that somebody should try and make a film like this,” he says. “This is my 18th year in the profession. So I felt that this was the right time. If not now, then when? No point in being safe all the time. I wanted to take the risk.” 

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

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Seminarians assist Traffic Police

By Shevlin Sebastian

Those who pass through Aluva on certain days will see young men in white T-shirts (with an orange logo, 'Road Safety'), black trousers and blue caps directing the traffic. Most will assume they are traffic wardens. But these youngsters are students of the St. Joseph's Pontifical Seminary at Mangalapuzha. 

And twenty of them have been assisting the policemen during peak hours twice a week for the past several days: between 8 to 11 a.m. on Thursdays, and from 4 to 8 p.m. on Saturdays. They stand at the Paravur, Pulinchode, and Bypass junctions, apart from busy spots in Aluva town.

The idea occurred to Fr. Joyce Kaithakkottil more than a year ago when he had gone, along with the Janamaithri police, to give classes on alcohol and drugs in schools. Fr. Joyce felt that it would be an enriching experience if the seminary students mingled with the public.

But thereafter Fr. Joyce was transferred to the Pune Papal Seminary and it was Fr. Martin Kallungal who approached the Circle Inspector of Aluva Shiva Kumar. “Shiva Kumar Sir was very welcoming,” says Fr. Martin. “He said that he was happy to know that there are people who are willing to help the police.”

Later, Sub-Inspector CL Davis went to the seminary, and gave the selected students an orientation course on traffic behavior, rules and the functioning of the traffic lights.

One of the students on duty is Joyce Varghese. “My job is to assist the policemen at the junctions,” he says. “When there is a long line, the vehicles which are behind the lorries cannot see the signal. So I go closer and indicate to them that the signal has turned green and it is time to move on.”

Joyce has no doubts about the reasons behind the logjam at Aluva. “The bridge over the Periyar River has only two lanes,” he says. “Plus, there are a lot of potholes. This slows down the vehicular movement. We need a bigger bridge.”

Interestingly, Joyce says, the most rash drivers are youngsters on bikes. “I always advise them to be careful,” he says.

Not surprisingly, during the course of his work, Joyce has received sarcastic comments from drivers. 'Repair the roads, before telling us how to drive,” is the most common comment. “But many motorists also smile at us.”

Davis is also smiling. “These boys are doing a good job,” he says. “When they stand in front of schools, they help the children to cross the road safely.”

Now and then, the SI will take a few of them to a nearby shop and give them a cup of tea.​

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kerala edition) 

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

A Cross-Cultural Love

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Pony Verma talks about life with the actor Prakash Raj

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Telugu film director Puri Jagannadh gave a CD of his film, ‘Amma Nanna O Tamila Ammayi’, to Bollywood choreographer Pony Verma, so that she could have an idea of the films he had directed before. While watching it, Pony was much taken up by the acting of a 70-year-old man.  

When Pony asked Puri, who was having a chat with superstar Nagarjuna, about the old man, both of them started laughing.

Then Puri said, “He is not that old, but he plays old characters. He is the Shaan of South India. His name is Prakash Raj.”

Sometime later, for the Tamil film, 'Ponniyin Selvam', Pony was asked to do a song with Prakash. The producer told Pony that with great difficulty he had got the dates from Prakash, and that too for one night only.

But Pony did not take an entire night. Instead, she took only four hours and told Prakash, “Sir, it is pack-up time.”

Prakash said, “Are you sure?”

Pony said, “Yes, I have finished all your work.”

Prakash was obviously impressed because when the legendary director K. Balachander was looking for a new choreographer for his Tamil film, ‘Poi’, in which Prakash was the producer, he recommended Pony’s name.

Pony flew to Kandy in Sri Lanka to shoot the song's sequence with Uday Kiran the hero, and that was where Prakash and she grew close. They remained in touch after the shoot was over. “After a while the friendship turned to love,” says Pony.

During this time Prakash was going through his divorce from his wife Lalitha.

Soon, Prakash proposed to Pony. Thereafter, he flew to Mumbai and met Pony’s parents. “He said, ‘I have two daughters [Pooja, 18, and Meghana, 8] and can never leave them. They are my priority’,” says Pony. “My family liked his honesty. They knew our friendship had been going on for a while.”

The wedding, according to Arya Samaj rites, took place on August 24, 2010, at Mumbai. While Prakash is a Kannadiga from Bangalore, Pony is a Punjabi Hindu. At the reception in Mumbai, Pony’s high point was when Bollywood actress Sreedevi walked in with her husband, Boney Kapoor.

I am a big fan of Sreedevi,” says Pony. “So I was star-struck at my own wedding. I could never imagine that a star like Sreedevi would come. She shook my hand and said, ‘Congrats, and have a happy life’.”

Indeed, Pony has had a happy life. When asked about Prakash’s plus points, she says, “The most beautiful thing about Prakash is that he is a family man. When my father was admitted to the hospital, in Chennai, he made sure he was present, even though he is an extremely busy man.”

Prakash also likes to take holidays with the entire family. On July, 2013, he took his mother, daughters, Pony’s dad, brother, wife and two children, apart from Pony, to Pattaya in Thailand. There he hired an entire ship and the family went to the middle of the ocean. “The journey was so peaceful, with the family, listening to music, having good food and enjoying the scenery,” says Pony. “We were speechless by the wonder of it.”

Sometimes, Prakash will give holidays to his friends, also. “He will say, ‘Oh, you have not been to Bangkok, then you must go,’ and will pay for the ticket and accommodation,” says Pony.

He is also a romantic at heart. Once during the Valentine season, he whisked Pony off to Agatti, in the Lakshadweep Islands. “We did underwater snorkeling, and enjoyed going for cycle rides,” says Pony. “The beaches are beautiful. It was [actor] Prithviraj who had suggested the place.”

At home, like most artists, Prakash is moody by nature. “He has a short temper,” says Pony. “If he is with somebody with whom he is not comfortable, he will make it obvious and would want that person to leave. This straightforwardness can be a drawback.”

But Pony has adjusted quickly. “Since I am in the same profession, I understand the pressures he is going through,” she says. “So when he returns from a shoot, I always give him the time and the space to be alone, so that he can unwind. And when I feel that he has become relaxed, only then will I start a conversation with him.” 

Sometimes, to unwind, they will go for long drives. In fact, when Pooja was studying at the Kodaikanal International School, Prakash and Pony would drive from Hyderabad or Chennai to meet her. It was a smooth and enjoyable ride because Prakash has an Audi. 

Asked whether the 12 year age-gap is a hindrance, Pony says, “In every relationship, whether there is an age gap or not, there are positives as well as negatives. You cannot escape it. So even if I had married a man of my age, I am sure there would have been minor issues. But you learn to compromise. Love is the emotion that will bind a marriage. Nothing else matters.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, September 01, 2014

And Thereby Hangs a Tale

Malayalam writer KR Meera's best-seller, 'Aarachaar', about an executioner's family in Kolkata, has been brought out in an English translation, 'Hang Woman' (Everyone loves a good hanging)

Photo by Mithun Vinod 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

'A clicking sound will be all that you will hear when the noose tightens. That's the sound of the bones in the neck breaking. With this, the nerves that connect the body to the brain are cut, and the hanged man loses consciousness. If ever there is even a tiny flaw, for that single moment, his nails will grow longer. They will tear at the flesh. He will pass urine and stools'.

This is an excerpt from KR Meera's absorbing novel, 'Hang Woman' (Everyone loves a Good Hanging). Originally published in Malayalam as 'Aarachaar' in 2011, it has remained a best-seller ever since. Now Hamish Hamilton has brought out an English version, which has been ably translated by J. Devika.

It tells the story of the Grddha Mullick family of West Bengal who have been executioners for several generations. The present executioner, Phanibhushan, who has done more than 400 hangings, has become old. He successfully petitions the government to give the job to his daughter Chetna, 22. Now she is tasked to do an upcoming hanging.

What is remarkable about the novel is that it is set in Kolkata, a place the Kottayam-based Meeradoes not know at all, except through the translated works of Rabindranath Tagore, Tara Shankar Bandopadhyay and Bimal Mitra.

Asked why she decided to take the bold step of setting her novel in an alien environment, Meerasays, “I had always wanted to write a book on women empowerment in India, but I was not sure where to place my characters. It was at this time that I came to know about the hanging of Dhananjay Chatterjee [a killer of a teenage girl], at Kolkata, on August 14, 2004. So, I thought it may be a good idea to set the story there.”

Meera did research through books, newspapers, as well as the Internet and collected materials on the people, police, streets, prostitutes, local culture, as well as the last executioner of Bengal, Nata Mallick (1921-2009). Thereafter, she started to write and took one-and-a-half years to complete the novel.

And now the English version is getting good reviews. Meera smiles happily at the news, during a book promotion tour at Kochi. She comes across as a soft-spoken person with an understated intensity. Her arresting feature is her unblinking kohl-lined black eyes.

Today, Meera is regarded as a star among the younger writers working in Malayalam literature. A prominent and award-winning journalist for many years, she quit, in 2005, to be a full-time writer. She initially made her mark by publishing collections of short stories like 'Ormayude Njarambu', 'Moha Manja', and 'Ave Maria'. In fact, 'Ave Maria' won the prestigious Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 2009.

Meera is also a columnist as well as script writer. Incidentally, the script for 'Ore Kadal' (which won the National Award for Best Music Direction), which Meera co-wrote, has a Bengali connection. It is based on a novel, 'Hirak Deepthi', written by one of Bengal's premier writers, the late Sunil Gangopadhyay.

However, despite the success of 'Hang Woman', Meera's heart remains with the short story. “Every short story is a challenge,” says Meera. “The writing should be poetic and crisp. It requires a lot of editing and the careful selection of words. In a novel, things can be a bit loose, at times.” 

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