Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Pearl of the Orient

A little bit of excitement. A little bit of apprehension. A little bit of nervousness. A little bit of curiosity. And a whole lot of sense of adventure. It was with that mixture of emotions that I boarded the China Eastern Airlines flight from Delhi to Shanghai, embarking on a week long trip to the city called by many as The Pearl of the Orient.

Most of us have only heard about life in China. Very few have been lucky enough to see it firsthand. And the stories and the images that have emerged of this rather mysterious country, synonymous with communism and government atrocities such as Tianenmen Square massacre, have made it sound even more forbidding. But exotic. As exotic as the image of India is in the western eyes!

Looking out of the airplane window as we approached Shanghai, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Would I see green hills and mountains, with people climbing walls and fighting on the rooftops like in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Or would I see a roaring metropolis with concrete highways and tall buildings? Well, apparently neither! For that matter, nothing at all. Just a yellow haze of thick smog all around, through which I could barely discern the brown fields and yellow paddies of water. Hmmm.. perhaps we were still too high to be able to see the ground clearly. Or maybe not. Within minutes, the plane landed, and the haze diminished only slightly. Apparently, the sun never shines very bright in Shanghai, given the smog that envelops this city of millions.

Overall, my nervousness had only increased in the last few hours. Little did I know that I was in for a pleasant surprise.

Pu Dong airport was very clean and modern. Except for the presence of a foreign script on all the signs - it was my first time in a country where I did not speak the native tongue. However, Shanghai gets a lot of international visitors, so every sign was in English as well. Getting through immigration and customs was a breeze. We were out on the highway in no time and looking at the traffic, I thought, ’’Hey, this ain’t bad. I would have no problem driving here.’’ Of course, I had not yet seen the city traffic - this was just the highway connecting the airport to the city.

On that highway, however, I had my first encounter with Maglev. Running alongside the highway was this elevated structure which looked like a monorail track. But I saw no monorail. Until a few minutes later. Whooshhh!!! Something on that elevated track zipped past us and was gone in the blink of an eye! What was that???? Well, logic says that must have been a train. But all I saw was a blue-green blur. Unfortunately, the cab driver spoke only Chinese, so I had to wait until I met my colleagues in Shanghai to find out what it really was. But, more on Maglev later.

The hotel I stayed at, The Royal Crown Plaza, was very modern and comfortable, like any luxury hotel in any big city. Service with a smile was a motto they followed religiously. A continental breakfast (not included in the room price) was quite sumptuous. The waitresses in their slit grey skirts looked smart. And the bell boys loved to show off their knowledge of English! Really.

Later that day, my colleague in Shanghai took me out to show me the sights of the city. Cab service in Shanghai was very good and organized. But you better have the address that you want to go to written in Chinese. For the cab drivers did not speak English.

A short ride from the hotel brought us to the People’s Square. (China is a communist country, after all. Every thing is for the people, about the people, by the people! For example, their currency, Yuan, is commonly called Renmin Bi, which translates into People’s money!) By now, I had seen enough of Shanghai city traffic to conclude that I would have no chance of survival if I were to try and drive here myself.

Stepping out of the cab into People’s Square brought me to another realization. I was in the most populous country of the world. There were people everywhere. And I mean, everywhere. I felt like I was right back in India, walking down the busy Brigade Road in Bangalore on a Friday evening, jostling the crowd! Except that the people were not Indian. And they did not speak English. Most of them were rather young - teens and twenties. And not just in People’s Square, but almost all over Shanghai. I guess, the average age of the people in Shanghai must be somewhere in the twenties, owing to ample job opportunities springing up all over the city. Just like Bangalore.

People’s Square also had the Shanghai Museum, which could have been interesting to check out if I had enough time. I did not. So I gave it a skip, and instead took a walk down Nanjing Road - one of the primary shopping locations for tourists. Shops were modern and clean. But everything was up for haggling. Clothes, jewellery, trinkets, mementos. Everything. Rule of thumb: offer about a third of the asking price to begin with. Shopkeepers, in general, did not understand English. But they understood the numbers in English. And that’s all you really need, to haggle!

Nanjing Road, leads to perhaps the most breathtaking part of Shanghai - The Bund, the riverfront along the Huangpu river, a branch of the famous Yangtze, that flows right through the city. We climbed the paved walkway between the river and Zhongshan road and I got my first glimpse of the river. It was yellow. Just like the water paddies I had seen from the plane. Pollution, perhaps?

Young people hung out everywhere. Walking along. Hand in hand. Arm in arm. Some with cameras. Some without. Some in larger groups too. Across the river were a bunch of high rise buildings. All with big signs of big companies - Motorola, Intel, Sony, to name a few. The corporate Shanghai. And rising tall among those buildings was the famous Oriental Pearl TV tower - the most well known building of the Shanghai cityscape.

The way to get to those buildings was through the Tourist Tunnel under the river. A round trip train ride through it cost 40 RMB (approx 8 RMB to 1 US$). The glass cabin on rails slowly rolled through the tunnel decorated by various types of flashing lights making intricate patterns and creating cool stroboscopic effects on the walls and the roof. On the other side of the river, we walked among the high rise buildings, marveling at their architecture. Each one had a unique facade, some very captivating. And we walked up to the Oriental Pearl tower and stared open mouthed at it. Eiffel tower, you have competition.

The Bund at night was quite breathtaking as well. Each building was brightly lit, some very imaginatively such as the one with a large golden crown. And there was so much life at the Bund. Out on the river were cruise boats with lights and music. A fog rolled in from the east. And the top of most of the high rise buildings were soon lost. Would you expect to find a romantic spot right in the middle of a crowded city? Well, this sure was one.

Dinner time found us at a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant. Imagine my astonishment at finding chicken, beef, shrimp, and other assorted non-veg dishes on the menu. My host couldn’t suppress a chuckle as he explained to me that all dishes were made of vegetarian stuff such as mushrooms and tofu, just made to look smell and taste like a non-vegetarian entree. Hmmmm... Well, ok. If I wanted to eat something that tasted like meat, I would go eat meat. But, I guess for those people who drool over meat but can’t eat it for medical or religious reasons, this was a good compromise. Needless to say, I didn’t care much for the food. Other days, I tried different types of cuisine. Buddhist vegetarian. A little taste of authentic Chinese food, which was a bit too authentic for my non-Chinese palette. Authentic Chinese tea made from dried flowers. American food such as Pizza Hut and McDonalds. And even Indian! Yummy!! If you are adventurous, you can have a great time. If you are conservative and like to stick to tried and tested cuisine, you will face a substantial challenge. On the positive side, no tip is expected or recommended in any restaurant. Not just in restaurants but everywhere. The concept of a tip is non-existent in China.

Shanghai is an old city. So, naturally it had old city areas as well. One such area is the Yuyuan Garden. A walk through the old town was a beautiful experience. Traditional chinese architecture, exotic decorations, brightly colored lanterns hanging above the road. And not much of a crowd. If you want to buy chinese silk, this is the place to do so. But don’t forget to haggle!

The week flew on by and soon it was time to leave Shanghai. And time to try out the Maglev - the magnetic levitation train. First of its kind in the world, the Maglev in Shanghai had only recently been opened for general transportation. I was agog with excitement as the train slid out noiselessly and slowly began to gather speed. A display in each coach showed we were already up to 100 kmph and still accelerating. Soon, we were whizzing past the cars on the highway. 200 kmph. The cars had no hopes of keeping up with us. 300 kmph. We were just about ready for take off. 400 kmph. Cars going in the same direction seemed as if they were travelling in the opposite direction. Telephone poles were barely visible. And the buildings were flitting by like they were being chased by demons. The speed maxed out at 430 kmph that day before it began to decelerate. In a couple of minutes the airport terminal was visible and soon we pulled in and smoothly coasted to a stop. And I stepped out of the train, still a bit incredulous that I had actually travelled at a speed of 430 kmph in a train!

Back to reality. I lugged my bags to the check in counter. Signed a declaration that I was in perfect health with no symptoms of any SARS virus. Paid airport tax. And joined a long queue of people going through customs. Just like Indian international airports departures! But it wasn’t too bad - the queue moved fairly quickly.

Soon, I was airborne again, and staring down at the yellow waters of the Pacific ocean off the coast of Shanghai. Gosh, not only the field paddies and the river were yellow, but even the sea was. About half way to Japan the ocean turned to its expected blue color. And I suddenly remembered Geography lessons in high school. Yangtze river, along with Huang He - the yellow river - is known for its yellow waters. Its not pollution. Its the color of the soil in that area. All the silt the river was ferrying into the Pacific ocean gave it that color. Light bulb moment!

And I stared back in the direction of Shanghai for one last time, and softly hummed the classic Bollywood song:

Mera naam Chin Chin Chu,
Singapore ka yauvan mera, Shanghai ki angrai

Goodbye Shanghai. I hope to come visit you again one day.

(Originally posted on MS on July 24, 2004)

End of an era?

Disclaimer:This is not a review of the music album The Nutcracker, but of the ballet set to the music of The Nutcracker.

Boston Ballet is finally dropping the curtains on its production of the world famous The Nutcracker after a marathon run of 40 years. Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker has been an annual winter feature in Boston’s Wang Theater for many years. But all good things have to come to an end. And so has to this highly acclaimed classical ballet production by Boston Ballet.

Boston Ballet Company was founded in 1964 by E. Virginia Williams and it first performed The Nutcracker in 1965 in its second season. Over the last 39 years, the show evolved from a small insignificant production to a legendary show in the world of classical dance.

The story of The Nutcracker was inspired by an original fairy tale by E.T.A.Hoffman. However, the modern production of the ballet is much closer to the Alexandre Dumas’ version of the story. Of course, the two main names associated with this ballet are Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky for music and Len Ivanov for original choreography.

Divided into two acts, The Nutcracker is the story of a young girl, Clara, and her magical journey into a fairy land, full of snow and flowers and dancing fairies. The story begins with a Christmas Eve party at the Silberhaus home, where Clara’s uncle Dr. Drosselmeyer brings her a toy Nutcracker soldier. Clara is ecstatic with her gift and doesn’t want to part company with it. Dr. Drosselmeyer is a magician who regales the party guests with a number of tricks and a toy theater with dancing dolls. After the party is over and the household goes to bed, Clara steals downstairs to her new toy and soon falls asleep with it under the Christmas tree. Dr. Drosselmeyer’s magic kicks in again and in Clara’s dream, the toys take on a life of their own in the middle of the night. A battle between an army of mice and the nutcracker’s toy soldiers ensues. Clara’s bravery eventually enables the toy soldiers to beat the mice. Predictably, the nutcracker turns into a handsome prince and he and Clara commence a magical journey to the Palace of Sweets. The second act has no real story as such. Its just a vehicle for a variety of dances from faraway lands, thus justifying the title of The Nutcracker Suite. In the name of a story, the dances are a part of a ceremony to honor Clara for her bravery in the defeat of the mice army. The story ends with Clara and the prince returning home, and Clara’s dream coming to an end.

Even though Clara is the central character of the story, she doesn’t have much of dancing role in the ballet. Usually, a student of the ballet company and not some established ballerina plays that role. In fact, Clara is barely on the stage in the second act as she just sits in a corner watching the dances. The main role is of the Sugarplum Fairy, which was played nearly flawlessly by Larissa Ponomarenko in the final show of Boston Ballet’s The Nutcracker, except for a tiny stumble in a solo dance towards the end that drew an audible gasp from some of the members of the audience. Rest of the dancers did a great job too. However, my knowledge about ballet is limited enough that I cannot comment on whether the dancing was fluid enough or if it was stiff or what. The audience however, was ecstatic over the dancing, particularly applauding the Russian trio. To my untrained eye though, the dance of the flowers looked the most beautiful, with the formations and unison of the dancers adding to its beauty. The much acclaimed pas de deux of the Sugarplum fairy and her Cavalier, although may seem exquisite to real dance connoisseurs, looked quite bland to a layperson like me.

According to an article by Rachel King in the playbill of the show, Boston Ballet’s version of The Nutcracker wasn’t always what it is today. It went through a number of transitions, not only in terms of the choreography but also in costumes and sets. Apart from the founder of The Boston Ballet Company, Ms Williams, Bruce Marks, Bruce Wells, Daniel Pelzig, Anna-Marie Holmes, Sydney Leonard, Gianni Di Marco, and Mikko Nissinen have left their mark on the choreography. The sets by Helen Pond and Herbert Senn and costumes by David Walker are quite exquisite in today’s production. The sets especially take your breath away, transporting you into a dreamland made of stars and snow and gigantic Christmas trees. The snow flakes made from flame retardant confetti paper look quite genuine.

Lets now talk about the other most important aspect of a ballet - its music. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite is one of the most famous ballet scores of all time. However, comparison to his other equally famous ballet The Swan Lake is inevitable, even though such comparisons are considered sacrilege by most music puritans. Here, of course, personal preferences come into play. I have always found the music from The Swan Lake to be much more beautiful and memorable. With Swan Lake, you don’t need the ballet to carry the beauty of its music. The musical score could stand all on its own, ingraining itself into your memory so that you found yourself humming it softly every now and then. The Nutcracker Suite never held the same appeal to me. Without the accompanying dancing, the music kind of falls flat in my ears. Of course, it gels perfectly with the dance, so if you are watching the show, the music is completely satisfactory. However, I wouldn’t care to just listen to a CD with the Nutcracker’s music. Except, of course, the waltz of the flowers. Perhaps the most famous piece of the suite, it leaves an indelible mark on your musical psyche.

Another problem I have had with the music of The Nutcracker is that the music for the various national dances just doesn’t sound authentic enough. The Arabian dance music didn’t sound particularly arabian to me. Or the Chinese dance music did not have the characteristic chinese quality to it. Which is very different from the music of The Swan Lake where the Polish dance or the Neapolitan dance, for example, sound completely authentic.

Finally, a few words about the theater for Boston Ballet’s production of this timeless classic. The Wang Theater in the The Wang Center for the Performing Arts in the historical Chinatown district of Boston is located just blocks from the Boston Common. It is an historical landmark itself, having been a part of the Boston cultural scene for over 75 years. It has a capacity of over 3600 seats, a fact that is quite evident the moment you set foot into the auditorium. ’’Cramped’’ doesn’t quite describe it adequately. If you happen to get the cheapest seats in the back of the balcony, you better be carrying binoculars with you. And don’t ever take a small child with you unless you are sitting somewhere up front - I can quite guarantee the child won’t be able to see anything from back there.

All in all, The Nutcracker is a pleasure to watch. Even though Boston Ballet Company will not be performing this classic ballet anymore, if you ever get a chance to see the ballet elsewhere, do not miss it.

(Originally posted on MS on June 9, 2004)

Update June 10, 2004: The show did close in the Wang theater as announced. But next year Boston Ballet reopened it at a different venue - across the street in the Colonial theater.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Science fiction <-/-> Special Effects

Science Fiction and Special Effects. Two phrases that seem to have got inextricably linked together. You can’t have a science fiction movie without mind blowing special effects - that seems to be the popular belief. But why? Do you have to rely upon special effects to make a good science fiction movie? Is that what science fiction is all about? Just mind blowing special effects that leave you feeling like you just travelled through space? Sure, special effects do have a place of their own in movie making, but do they need to be the sole criteria to judge the quality of a science fiction movie?

Well, no, if Star Trek: Nemesis is any example to go by. Sure, the movie has its fair share of special effects to offer, but it does not completely rely upon them to carry itself, unlike some other recent sci-fi movies - Lost in Space and Matrix Reloaded come to mind. Real trekkies don’t care about special effects! Well, at least, not much.

So, what is a sci-fi movie supposed to be? How about a story set in a different time other than our past and present. Or a different world. Or perhaps in our time and world, but of a nature than does not fit in with our current understanding of the world and the laws of the universe. Something unexpected that cannot be explained by our current knowledge of science. And if such a sci-fi movie can stand on the basis of its story, its message, its performances, its entertainment value, then that is a movie with longevity.

On these lines, I am glad that the makers of ST Nemesis decided not to depend on special effects and instead paid more attention to the story and innovation in ideas. And that is what made ST Nemesis a good movie - a movie of substance. So many sequels these days are susceptible to being mediocre because they have no new idea to present - just an old idea of the original but embellished with plenty of icing to disguise the lack of innovativeness. Not so with ST Nemesis. Yes, cloning is not quite a completely new idea, but cloning was only a tool used in this fascinating story woven around Captain Picard and Commander Data. And the movie was not expected to provide a completely new idea - just a new twist to the existing idea of space travel in the 24th century.

The story is about a Romulan Shinzon’s plan to conquer the federation and rule the whole galaxy. Or is it? Is there perhaps a more personal reason for Shinzon to be after Enterprise and its captain Jean-Luc Picard? Early on in the movie, we find out that Shinzon is actually a clone of Picard, created by the Romulans to replace Picard so they could conquer the federation. But they abandoned the plan and sentenced Shinzon to the mines of Remus, a sister world of Romulus. Shinzon survived, and now he has plans of his own. And he is dying of a rare syndrome. Enough said.

In addition to a clone of Picard, there is also a clone of Data. And he is imaginatively named B4 - because he supposedly came into existence ’’before’’ Data. However, if you recall, earlier ST movies and the ST-TNG series featured an evil twin of Data. Given that, it was hard to understand why the discovery of B4 caused such concern - Enterprise crew reacted as if this was the first time a positronic android similar to Data had been discovered. So, whatever happened to Data’s original evil twin? B4 and Data have a major role to play in this movie - watch the movie to find out what! But at times, it looked like the creators of ST-TNG crew have got bored of Data - nothing much is left to develop in his character. So, they needed a new android who was not as advanced as Data so he can go through the same ’’growing pains’’ as Data did years ago.

Among the other characters, Riker and Troi get married in this movie. Phew! Hopefully, that will be the end of Riker’s womanizing - now he can stop copying Kirk’s favorite pastime. Worf has no role in this movie at all. Ah, but the big surprise in this movie was that our most lovable empath Deanna Troi actually does have a role in the story, other than just looking decorative and making dyspeptic faces while announcing dramatically ’’I feel pain!’’ In this story, her empathic powers are actually used to determine the location of a cloaked ship. Woohoo! Troi’s job is safe in case of layoffs and crew cutbacks on Enterprise.

At the end of the movie, Riker leaves the crew of Enterprise as he is assigned command of another ship. Does that mean an end of an era - will there be no Riker in the future movies around ST-TNG crew? Or will there even be any more ST-TNG crew movies at all? Perhaps its time to switch to other crews, such as the crew of ST Voyager led by Captain Janeway.

Incidently, Janeway makes a guest appearance as an admiral in the movie. Now I am confused about the relative timeline of Janeway and Picard. I thought Janeway and Voyager came chronologically later than Picard and Enterprise.

The movie is at time quite predictable. The revelation that Shinzon is really a clone of Picard did not utterly come as a surprise. However, the way Shinzon cuts his skin with a dagger to draw blood so Picard can test it and get to know the truth is so dramatic that it sure caught me by surprise. What was the need for such dramatization - as if a huge surprise was being revealed!

Another such predictable scene it the fight between Riker and the Romulan viceroy! How come every space ship in sci-fi movies has a deep shaft that seems to lead into infinity and which has a narrow bridge running across it. And the adversaries invariably make their way onto that bridge during the fight. No prizes for guessing who is going to fall down that shaft. Haven’t we had enough of it already?

Ok, finally, on the topic of special effects. The movie did not rely on special effects, but did have a fair sprinkling of them every now and then. The scene where the Enterprise bridge is taken out by the Romulans is simply breathtaking!

There’s nothing new to say about the acting. Almost all the actors in the movie have played their roles before, and they live up to their expectations. The only new face in a major role is Tom Hardy who plays the part of Shinzon - he delivers a good performance. He is being called one of Star Trek’s sexiest villains!

In summary, Star Trek Nemesis is a good and worthy member of the Star Trek movie series. It is not earth-shattering (pun unintended) as, say, The Matrix was, but certainly a decently entertaining and enjoyable movie. Worth a watch. So, if you are a trekkie, watch it. But if you have never seen a Star Trek movie before, this one will not blow you away.

(Originally posted on MS on Nov 2, 2003)

Inarticulate jumble of a myriad issues

I have usually been a bit wary of these off-the-beaten-path Indian movies, particularly movies that touch upon issues related to non-resident indians. It has become quite a fashion with many film makers to highlight how the NRIs and their foreign born (and/or raised) children don’t see eye to eye with each other about the importance of their own culture. However, some of the recent movies made by NRIs have been refreshingly entertaining, such as Bollywood Hollywood or Bend It Like Beckham. So, when a friend of mine asked me to watch Leela and tell her what I thought of it, I rented the DVD with slightly above average expectations. Boy, was I disappointed! Sorry, AKR. I don’t know what you thought of this movie, but here is what I thought.

First of all, lets see what this movie was about. Here is the possible set of themes, any of which could have inspired Somnath Sen to make this movie:
- relationship between a student and a teacher
- relationship between a younger boy and an older woman
- open marriages where husband and wife have the freedom to explore extra-marital relationships
- NRI children’s alienation from their native country and culture
- expectations of a stereo-typical Indian male from his wife
- a son’s alienation from his parents, particularly father
- a mother’s dishonesty with her son and her lack of respect for her children
- parents’ respect for their children’s privacy, especially grown up kids
- teenagers’ obsession and experimentation with sex

All of the above topics were touched upon in this movie, when any one of these could have carried the weight of a whole movie all by itself. With so much baggage to deal with, its no surprise that this movie could not to do justice to any, and just fell flat on its face as an incoherent mumbo-jumbo of all the currently fashionable topics of discussion in many a pseudo-intellectual gatherings.

Okay, a bit about some of the specifics. On the surface, the story is about a woman, Leela Dahlvi (Dimple Kapadia), who comes to United States from Bombay on a visiting professorship. In US, she meets another Indian woman professor, Chaitali (Deepti Naval) and her 18 year old son, Kris (Amol Mhatre). The two women initially develop a bond because of various reasons, but the bond breaks when Chaitali realizes that Leela is having an affair with Kris. Leela also re-evaluates her relationship with her husband, Hriday ’Nashaad’ Dahlvi (Vinod Khanna), with whom she has an open marriage. As far as I could tell, Nashaad is the only one taking advantage of the openness of their marriage. Clearly Leela is just a dutiful faithful wife who lets her philandering husband woo any woman he wishes to. For when it is Leela’s turn to have a relationship outside of her marriage, the director had to justify that by making her go through a traumatic emotional experience on hearing a woman’s voice on the phone when she calls her husband. Essentially, Leela sleeps with Kris not because she is attracted to him, but because of what her husband has done to her self-esteem as a woman. Well, she is a bhartiya nari after all.

Lets look at the other characters in the movie as well. Chaitali, in her turn, has plenty of baggage from her own life to deal with. Her marriage to Jai (Gulshan Grover) has been over for a long time, and each of them has a new beau presently. Jai’s girlfriend is known to all, but Chaitali hasn’t told her son about her boy friend, Summer. (Isn’t Summer a girl’s name though?). But the baggage doesn’t end there. Jai has a somewhat rocky relationship with his son, Chaitali goes snooping through Kris’s room to confirm her suspicions about his sex life. She is concerned not only about him having sex at only 18 years of age, but also that he is probably sleeping with an older woman and his teacher! Then there is Jai, her ex-husband who supposedly wanted a servant for a wife and that is why Chaitali kicked him out. Hey, how come then he is going out with a white girl - she is surely not going to be a servant to him!

Kris (actually Krishna) is a stereo-typical NRI child, who hates everything about India, prefers to play guitar over sarod, and thinks he is american despite being called Gandhi by his american friends. Of course, in the end he realizes the greatness of his culture, and begins to call himself Krishna instead of Kris. By the way, what’s with the name Krishna? How come all the NRI children in Indian movies are called Krishna alias Kris? Why not Sameer alias Sam or Siddhartha alias Sid, or.. the list goes on! There is also a smart intellectual girl Mira who seems to have a soft corner for Kris. And naturally, there is a geeky looking stereo-typical FOB Shantanu who does silly stupid things that only FOBs can do to get Mira’s attention. Are there any stereotypes left that this movie does not contain?

Deepti Naval puts up a good acting performance. The contrast between her and Dimple’s acting skills is so apparent in the first scene where the two of them meet. Deepti is animated and natural while Dimple stands stiff and rigid with barely a muscle moving in her face. Or perhaps, it isn’t the lack of acting talent - perhaps the director is subtly trying to tell us that women who live in India are stiff and oppressed, while Indian women living abroad are animated and liberated! Gulshan Grover and Vinod Khanna do a fairly good job in their roles - not bad, but no oscars for them either. Amol Mhatre is convincing in his role - being an NRI child, I suppose it was easy enough for him to portray what his character was all about. His boasting of sexual success with Leela at first, but denial of having done anything sexual with her later when in fact he has, was reminiscent of Little Darlings.

The music, composed by Jagjit Singh, was just about okay. The main songs in the movie sung by him and a couple sung by Shubha Mudgal and Jaspinder Narula were quite good, but the background score was average. And the music during the ending credits - what was that? Did Jagjit Singh really compose that too?? Oh, another thing related to music - I am no expert at guitar techniques, but didn’t the guitar in the final song sound like hawaiian/slide although Kris is shown playing it in spanish style? Of course, I could be completely wrong here.

There was only one scene in the movie that was even remotely funny - when Kris comes to Leela to apparently pay his guru dakshina. However, since the rest of the movie was pretty serious, the joke just seemed totally unexpected and misplaced.

To end, the overall impression of the movie is that of a mish-mash of a variety of hot topics. The flow is fairly incoherent and non sequitur from scene to scene. And the movie leaves you wondering about the following loose threads:
- If Leela was aware of her husband’s philandering ways and believed in open marriage, why was she so upset to hear a woman’s voice on phone when she called her husband?
- What was the relevance of the cremation scene at the beginning of the movie? I kept waiting for it to somehow tie in to the story.
- What was it really that made Leela sleep with Kris? Alienation from her husband? Then why did she want to go back with him?

In summary, Leela was one confused woman who didn’t know what she wanted, who had no direction in life, and who couldn’t decide what was good for her and what wasn’t. Not only at the beginning of the movie, but even in the end. She still had no direction.

Would I recommend this movie to other? No. Its just a waste of time, as it neither entertains nor gives you any food for thought - just a lot of tidbits.

(Originally posted on MS on July 6, 2003)

Watch it for the music if you are not a purist

Dil Vil Pyar Vyar revolves around three love stories - well, actually four, but the fourth is only mentioned in passing and not really developed. However, the movie is not really about the love stories. The movie is about R.D.Burman’s music. Strikingly similar in concept to (and perhaps inspired by) Mamma Mia, the show based on Abba’s music, DVPV is a tribute to R.D.Burman’s unforgettable music, the idea being to weave a story around his music. The love stories are just such instruments to provide situations to fit the songs in.

However, the failing of the movie is that it puts a bit too much emphasis on the stories. In Mamma Mia, the story was purely decorative, with no substance, except to provide a few laughs and situations for the songs. Not so with DVPV. It develops the stories to an extent where each story can be the plot of a movie by itself (well, somewhat), but not enough to really do justice to any of the stories. The stories detract from the music. And that leaves the movie hanging in mid air between being an outright musical and a serious plot-based film. Instead, if the makers of this movie had chosen to keep the stories light and add more music, the movie could have been more enjoyable. Just putting a variety of themes in a movie tends to make the movie lose its focus - instead just focusing on the main idea and do full justice to it. That can make the movie so much more powerful. But I suppose its a Bollywood movie - a one stop shop for all your movie needs - comedy, emotion, family drama, songs, dance, and what have you. No fights though (gasp!).

Another Bollywoodism in the movie is its male-centric attitude. The story is not about three couples, but about three males who find themselves in a singing competition. And the women in their lives are effectively just prizes to be won by succeeding in the competition.

First there is a spoilt rich brat Hrithik (Jimmy Shergil) in love with Jojo (Hrishitaa Bhatt), a simple sensible girl from a stereotypical Indian christian family. He needs to prove that he is capable of earning a livelihood for himself, without depending on his dad’s millions. Of course, he has no skills to do any such thing, but winning one singing competition (or even trying) will convince his ladylove of his worthiness.

Then, there is the story of Krish (Madhavan) and Raksha (Namrata Shirodkar), both singers aspiring to make it big in the showbiz. Their story is predictably reminiscent of the plot of an old Hindi movie, Abhimaan. The wife makes it big and the husband gets submerged in an ocean of self pity under the weight of his hurt male ego. His redemption lies in winning the same aforementioned singing competition, so he can convince the world that he is more than just the singing sensation Raksha’s husband but a great singer himself. And convince his wife that he is a not jerk but just a struggling man trying to make it big on his own merit and not on somebody’s pity.

And finally, there is the story of Dev (Sanjay Suri) and Gauri (Sonali Kulkarni) intertwined with the story of the Gauri’s handicapped brother Gaurav (Rakesh Bapat) and Dev’s sister Rachna (Bhavna Pani). Dev’s motives for competing in the same competition (move over Sa Re Ga Ma Pa) are at least more mundane. He needs the money so he can send Gaurav abroad for medical treatment. But apparently not because he wants to help Gaurav, but because his lady love refuses to marry him as long as she has to take care of her kid brother. They seemed to have forgotten the fact that Rachna is waiting hand and foot upon Gaurav.

Lets take a quick look at the actors and actresses. Madhavan does not look like a typical Bollywood hero - he looks more like a serious intellectual college student. And so his hero-type actions don’t look very convincing. But to his credit, his hand movements actually matched the music when he is sitting at the piano during the song Tere Bina Zindagi Se, which is more than what most film heroes seem to be capable of. Hats off to Madhavan. Jimmy Shergil, on the other hand, is as Bollywood as one can get. Sanjay Suri fit his role well. Rakesh Bapat is a good dancer. Namrata Shirodkar looked awesome - graceful and dignified. Somehow, age doesn’t seem to show on her. Sonali was her usual lovable self. Hrishitaa seemed a bit raw though. Her dancing was stiff as if she doesn’t have it in her and has to force herself to make those very mechanical looking movements. Riya Sen, who played Gaurav’s ex-girlfriend, seemed a lot more fluid in her movements and did a much better job dancing. By the way, what’s with Sonali’s eyeshadow? It was horribly purple! But then, what do I know about makeup! I am not a big fan of eye shadow anyways. However, Hrishitaa’s eyeshadow did make her look a bit more attractive.

Okay, finally the most important part of the movie - its music. I think Babloo Chakravorty has done a decent job of recreating Pancham da’s music. The bits that he has added here and there quite add to the beauty of the songs. Of course, if you are a purist, you will hate Babloo Chakravorty’s guts for even daring to sully RDB’s music with his dirty paws. (Urp.. sorry, I’ve been watching too many Hollywood movies, I suppose). But if you are open to some innovation and improvisation, you will be pleasantly surprised with the musical score.

Overall, I think the movie is reasonably entertaining, and surely worth watching once -- if for nothing else, at least for the music. But not a movie that you would want to add to your collection so you can watch it over and over and over again.

(Originally posted on MS on June 11, 2003)

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

If only the flight attendants would smile!

The official airline of Jordan, Royal Jordanian Airlines provides connections from Amman to a few cities in USA as well as to Delhi in India (the two countries of interest to me.)

They have a fairly new fleet of aircrafts, mostly (or perhaps all) Airbus. The aircrafts are clean, and the seats are quite comfortable. There is plenty of leg space, even in the economy class, unlike some of the bigger airlines which just cram passengers into the plane.

They had a decent choice of meals, and the food was quite good and tasty. I was pleasantly surprised that they even had Indian vegetarian and non-vegetarian choices. Their service representatives were quite helpful, on the phone as well as in the New Delhi office.

On the down side, their frequent flier programs is quite useless. For one, they do not partner with any other airline, so you have to fly only RJA to earn miles (or points). Secondly, the points expire fairly quickly. So, unless you are really a ’’frequent’’ flier, don’t even bother with their program.

For some inexplicable reason, they make the passengers go to two different check-in counters (at least in NY) to get the boarding pass - one for the NY-Amman flight, and a separate counter for the Amman-Delhi flight.

Regarding punctuality, well, three out of my four flights were late, two of which were because of weather conditions in Delhi. The third, however, was late for no apparent reason - at least they never told us the reason.

And finally, what would it take to get the flight attendants to smile! NONE of them wanted to smile. One of them was almost ready to fight with me when I requested her for a blanket and a pillow, because she claimed she had put a blanket and a pillow on every seat before the passenger boarding. And I had to ask three times before one of the flight attendants brought me some cold-compress towels for my sick daughter.

Would I fly RJA again? Rather unlikely, not so much because of the airline, but more because it means I will have to travel through the Queen Alia International airport in Amman. The thought makes me shudder (see my review about the airport to find out why).

(Originally posted on MS on May 27, 2003)

Pray to God that nothing goes wrong while at Amman

General: Queen Alia Intl airport, situated about 30 kms from the city of Amman, Jordan is a small and clean airport. Small enough that walking from any gate to any other gate at normal pace will not take you more than 5 minutes. And the airport is mostly kept squeaky clean, with plenty of cleaning staff available and doing their duty (well, almost - there was an evident lack of toilet paper in the men’s bathrooms). The building is also architected and decorated very well.

Facilities: Although the airport is divided into a south terminal and a north terminal, its all in one big building, with the airport duty free shop separating the two ’’logical’’ terminals. The terminals have 6 gates each. The duty free shop is pretty good with lots of the usual duty-free items available. And they accept both Jordanian Dinar as well as US Dollars, as do most other shops/restaurants in the terminal. There are a couple of fast food restaurants, such as Pizza Hut and Popeye’s, a deli, and a few proper dine-in restaurants as well.

There are not too many TV monitors around the airport providing flight information, but there are a few in strategic locations. Some display the information in Arabic and some in English. But all announcements are made in both Arabic and English, and are clear and easy to understand.

Security: Security at the entrance to the airport is incredibly strict. They not only made me take off my watch and ring, but even my glasses(!) before going through the metal detectors. In addition to security at the airport entrance, you also have to go through a metal detector before you go from the lounge into the gate area, even if you never exited the airport. I suppose, in the current tense atmosphere in the middle east, this is a good thing, even if its annoying. It did make me feel quite safe.

All right, so much for the good things. Now come the bad things!

Language: Most people in the airport do not seem to speak English. Yes, Jordan is an Arab country, so most people would speak Arabic. However, it has a lot of american influence and lot of people in the country speak English. So, you would expect the employees in an international airport, at least the high ranking employees, if not the janitors, to be able to converse with foreigners in English. No such luck.

Smoke-free: The airport claims to be a smoke-free facility. There are signs to that effect all over the airport, and frequent announcements are also made. However, exactly below one of these signs sat an airport official, smoking away to glory. And he was not the only one whom I saw doing that.

Long layovers?: If you have 3-4 hours to kill at the airport, you might not have any problems, but if your flight gets delayed or you have a long wait, God help you! For one, other than loitering in the duty-free shop, there is nothing else to do in the airport. And second, if the airline decides to provide you with food while you wait, they do so at Pizza Hut or Popeyes, and you are stuck in a queue of 300 odd people to go get your meal!

Staff: Now comes the clincher. The people at the airport. Getting a smile from they is like asking for water in a desert. They have got to be the most rude and arrogant set of people I have ever come across in an airport (umm, ok, except for New York airports, I guess!). Right from the airline officials to the immigration counter clerk to the security guards. If you don’t speak Arabic (and don’t have a white skin), you are basically scum. Here are a couple of examples - you make your own judgement:

1. I had to stay overnight in Amman while in transit. At the immigration counter, if you do not hold an american passport, they will keep your passport overnight and return it to you next day when you come back to board your connecting flight. Since, this was the first time I had to stay overnight during transit, I was not aware of this. But they never cared to explain this. The immigration official put my passport in his drawer and told me to ’’go’’!! No explanations. Fortunately, my fellow travellers had experience with this so they advised me on what was happening.

2. My 5 year old daughter was running high fever and could barely walk. I was carrying her in one arm and dragging my carry-on baggage with the other. At the security checkpoint, the guard curtly pointed at the women’s queue and indicated that my daughter has to go there! I tried to explain that she is sick and unable to walk. And she is only 5 years old, so does not really need to go into the secluded women’s checkpoint. Ha! I might have as well been talking to a stone. All I got was a finger pointing at the women’s checkpoint and a few harsh sounding words in Arabic. So, I took my daughter to the women’s checkpoint, where there was no other woman waiting to go through security. They could have easily let me carry my daughter through. But no, I was a man so I could not enter that checkpoint. They made my sick 5 year old bawling daughter walk through the security booth (closed from all sides) all alone, where she could not see any familiar face, only a cold strange woman frisking her curtly. Talk about inhuman treatment! What a contrast it was to arrive into US and have every airport employee pamper her as soon as they heard that she was sick - even in NY!!

Conclusion: Am I going to travel through Queen Alia international airport again? Only under extreme duress! And God forbid that anything goes wrong there which would require me to interact with an airport employee!

(Originally posted on MS on May 26, 2003)