Sunday, September 19, 2010

Plenty of bang for your buck

Think Jackie Chan on steroids. Imagine him speaking a mixture of Bhojpuri and Hindi. And picture him performing his trademark stunts in one of his many fight scenes.

And you have Salman Khan in Dabangg.

Jackie Chan never takes himself seriously in his movies. Also, we know he is having a great time up there pretending to act.

Ditto Salman Khan. In Dabangg, at least.

That, I think, is one of the reasons I enjoyed watching (most of) Dabbang yesterday.

Dabangg is not a "drama", although there's dramabaazi aplenty; it is not a "thriller", though the movie has its share of thrills (and spills); it is definitely not a "romance", notwithstanding Salman's hook-up with Sonakshi Sinha (pictured left). I see it as a "comedy", really, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments: Salman using a fireman's hosepipe as a weapon in the opening fight scenes, Salman doing a Keanu Reeves in those same fight scenes, Salman making one of his "Besharam se yaad aaya..." cracks, Salman... Salman... Salman....

Salman is such a towering presence in the film that every frame that does not feature him has you wishing he'd be back. Every Salman-less frame, in short, appears tedious by comparison.

Well, okay, not EVERY frame. Certainly not in the opening sequences of Munni badnaam hui, that exuberant, colourful, full-of-life item number by the oomphy Malaika Arora (pictured right) — though Salman sort of steals the scene when he makes his swaggering appearance towards the end of the dance.

To reiterate, I think we love Salman in Dabangg because he does not take himself seriously; in fact, no one in the movie takes themselves seriously (except Dimple Kapadia and Vinod Khanna — both are hopelessly miscast).

And I think both urban and rural audiences in India have given two thumbs up to Dabangg because, as my wife remarked, here's a film made for Indians in India, not for Indians in the West. (KJo and SRK, I wish there was a way to make you read this.)

Finally, people my age and older will be grateful to director Abhinav Singh Kashyap for making a movie that reminds us of the films we used to watch when we were kids, and for keeping in mind that we are not now able to sit in a cinema hall for three hours or more and so keeping the duration of Dabangg down to an acceptable two hours. Shukriya, janaab!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Why I admire Rajinikanth

I used to wonder: The Badshah of Bollywood and other stars of his ilk won't be caught dead without their toupee — they act in their movies bewigged and they come out in public bewigged. How come Rajinikanth is different?

Rajini is happy to play the glam hero in his films — but off-screen he seems to have no problem offering us his real persona, the wig be damned.

Again, my question: How come?

Baradwaj Rangan, the erudite film critic of The New Indian Express, provides the answer in an enlightening profile of the South's biggest star in a recent issue of Tehelka.

He agrees that Rajini’s off-screen appearances can be perplexing to the untrained eye, but he clarifies quickly: " untrained, I refer to the non-Tamil eye."

And he elaborates:

We Tamilians, after all, are used to the dichotomy of our heroes looking one way on screen and another in real life. Cinema is a manufactured medium, and it would stand to reason that the faces up there are manufactured too, made up with make-up. ... So we don’t really flinch when Rajinikanth comes to us bewigged on screen and bald off it. He is, after all, 60. Lesser men have been reduced to shiny domes at far younger ages. (Ask me. I should know.) So when, in an audio launch for Robot, Rajinikanth looks his age, looks like the grandfather that he is, it doesn’t frazzle us. He’s not acting now. He’s real. That’s all there is to it.

And then Baradwaj wonders if there is a lesson here for the aging heroes of Bollywood:

Perhaps Bollywood stars — especially the ones in their forties and upwards, some of whom apparently are staving off signs of aging with nips and tucks and hair weaves — can learn this lesson from Rajinikanth, that you can be yourself and your fans won’t stop loving you. On the contrary, they just may come to love you a little more.

And so I learnt two things here:

First, Rajini's attitude is worth emulating. Why should we pretend to be who or what we are not in real life?

Second, there is a difference in the mindsets of movie fans on either side of the Vindhyas.

Do you agree?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

If you don't read, you can't write

It's (almost) as simple as that.

Don't believe me?

Here's master storyteller Stephen King on the importance of reading:

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut."

And here's James Ellroy (pictured), the author of L.A. Confidential and many other crime novels, on the same subject in a Q&A published in a recent issue of Time magazine:

How did you acquire the knack for writing such colourful lingo?
I love scandal language. I love racial invective, language that is vulgar. I spent my early life reading, reading, reading, reading, reading and reading. I read crime books primarily, so I know cop jargon.

Are people born good writers?
No. You have to read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read and read. As you read, unconsciously you assimilate the rudiments of style and technique. And when it comes time for a person to begin to seriously write, they either have it, or they don't.

I have been saying something in similar vein to all my students, but Stephen King and James Ellroy have put it much better than I ever could. While both are referring, I think, to the writing of fiction, I believe what they say applies to all forms of writing, and that is what I emphasise at Commits.

Which brings me to the question that bothers me big-time: Why do so many young people give short shrift to reading?

Many youngsters today want a career in media. That really makes me happy. However, for the life of me I can't figure out how someone who doesn't like reading can be a good journalist.

Okay, so you don't want to be a journalist. I have no quarrel with that. Now, I also happen to believe that if you can write and think like a journalist, you can succeed in any media field. And this is what I tell every batch at Commits. But if you want to write and think like a journalist, close reading is vital. A devotion to words is essential. A love of books is fundamental. Reading should be like breathing. Then the writing will follow. And it will flow. Unhesitatingly. Copiously. Gracefully.

If I were a betting man, I would stake my entire library on it.
  • Shagorika Easwar, editor of Desi News and CanadaBound Immigrant, comments: I absolutely, totally, whole-heartedly agree — the only way to improve your craft if you are a writer is to read. Or read, read, read, as you say!

    It saddens me that so many don't read. That newspapers around the world are losing circulation because people get their news fix on television or while driving home from work. Even those who want a career in media dream of becoming television anchors and so think they don't need to read or write. That is why you have the literate illiterate. When they speak, they are fine, but you only have to get a written submission from them to see the flaws.

    This problem is not restricted to the young, though. We get press releases from various tourism departments in India — you'd think they'd hire the best of the best to do the selling — but one I got recently talks about a temple being "worldy known". I kid you not.
    Which is one of the reasons why I love the way you teach. Not just through course books but by throwing a vast variety of books their way. Something, somewhere will stick!
    A devotion to words is essential. A love of books is fundamental. Reading should be like breathing. Then the writing will follow. And it will flow. Unhesitatingly. Copiously. Gracefully.


    Sunday, September 12, 2010

    What was the Emergency like?

    The Emergency, which lasted 21 months beginning June 25, 1975, was a dark period for journalism in India. I had just finished school at the time but I remember my father, a journalist with PTI then, talking about how life had become difficult with government-appointed censors calling the shots at media organisations.

    So what was the Emergency really like for journalists?

    Ajay Bose had just become a reporter with the Patriot then. He later co-wrote a definitive book about the period. Last month, in the Independence Day issue of Mint Lounge, he was interviewed by Himanshu Bhagat. Here's an excerpt:


    Initially, you actually had to take your copy to the censor and show it to them. They would then ink the offensive stuff out. But the process was too cumbersome and it didn’t last too long. The babus had a typically mindless approach and would leave the “damaging” stuff intact while cutting out what was “innocuous”. So then the papers were asked to censor themselves and not publish anything “anti-national”. All the papers had to comply. The government could do anything, just like in a dictatorship. The courts were completely with them. And the police would never support you.

    Can you imagine working under such conditions?

    Read the full interview here: ‘The office was in absolute darkness’.

    And since this is the I-Day issue, Lounge has made a special effort to put together what I consider the best collection ever of articles and columns on free speech. Read the whole series here. I especially recommend "You are not free" and "A nation talking to itself".

    Friday, September 10, 2010

    "YouTube is a miracle for cricket fanatics"

    Rahul Bhattacharya, author of the cricket tour book Pundits From Pakistan, writes a monthly cricket column for Mint Lounge. He has a felicity with words that makes his articles a delight to read, even if you're not a cricket fan. On August 28, he wrote the cover story for Lounge, "Time travel cricket". The opening line says it all:

    Cricket in the age of YouTube... is cricket in another age. 

    Bhattacharya goes on from there to describe "the sheer athleticism of Garry Sobers, Majid Khan’s disdain for footwork, Bedi’s silken flight" and explains why YouTube is a miracle for cricket fanatics, "encouraging us to revisit the game’s greatest and often changing our idea of them".

    Cricket fans are already tweeting and blogging and emailing links to this article.


    I'm sure they are also going to YouTube and checking out the videos recommended in a sidebar in Lounge. For those keen on watching four "memorable encounters on YouTube from the time before live telecasts", here's the list:
    • West Indies in Australia, 1960-61
    Search for "Green and gold greats"
    • Lillee vs Sobers, 1971-72
    Search for "Lillee Sobers"
    • Holding vs Boycott, 1980-81
    Search for "Holding Boycott"
    • India vs Australia, Melbourne, 1981-82
    Search for "Aus Ind Melbourne 81"
    • Arpan Bhattacharyya (Class of 2010) tells me Rahul Bhattacharya's piece is available on Cricinfo, too: "Video thrills the history fan". Thanks, Arpan.

    Tuesday, September 7, 2010

    "If you love what you do, is it 'work'?"

    For a few years now I have been posing this question to all our new students: "If you love what you do, is it 'work'?" And I have been giving them my own example: I get to do what I love — at Commits, at home, even at the gym — because I love what I do. And I try to enthuse Commitscions into feeling the same way about their assignments, their projects, their "work".

    However, I guess I am not very articulate on the subject (my wife says I am the worst "communicator" she has met), so I think I have had mixed results trying to convince our students to think like I do. That is why I was so gratified when I read this feature by H.K. Shivdasani in the DNA of September 1 (Page 7): "Work-life balance is humbug".

    This is the gist of the article: "If your work is your passion then you won't find the need to strike a work-life balance because you'll enjoy every moment of it."

    You took the words out of my mouth, Mr Shivdasani, and I can't tell you how grateful I am.

    Here are some excerpts that will, I think, inspire others to believe in our credo:

    Melody queen Lata Mangeshkar would practise for hours as a teenager, and she has continued to enjoy her mammoth practice sessions every single day of her life. Sachin Tendulkar, even as a school kid, loved batting practice, hitting balls against a wall well past midnight.

    Think of Zakir Hussain, Bismillah Khan, Michael Jackson, or an Olympic winner of your choice. All of them have one thing in common: they never had 'working hours'. And that's because they enjoyed their work so much that no other activity was as much 'fun'. They never knew or needed to practise 'work-life balance'.

    And here are other relevant excerpts:

    I had said that I'd offer one formula to achieve all different life goals. We discussed success. But what about happiness?

    Well, success and happiness go together. Is happiness different from doing something that's fun, gives you joy, and satisfies your needs?

    What about someone who wants to give something back to society? You can only give what you have in abundance, and in the field in which you are a master — to give, you must first achieve a lot.

    Please read the full article and see how you can apply these principles to your life.
    • Shagorika Easwar, editor of Desi News and CanadaBound Immigrant, comments: I couldn't agree more. That is what we have also always told our children. To find a career in a field they are passionate about, not one that is 'in' or 'hot' or because it pays the most. That because we so love what we do, it's not like work at all.

      It's not a grind when you work long hours or without a break. Take today, for instance. I'd started out thinking I'd catch up on some reading (Arrival City by Doug Saunders) and watch Peepli Live and take an afternoon nap. Well, guess what. A man from Kolkata who is cycling around the world and was supposed to get into town next week got in a few days early — today. Since he is here only for a day-and-a-half, there went my lazy Saturday.

      But I had such fun talking to him that it didn't seem like work. 
    • Here's a telling quote from music composer Gurukiran in a chat with ad guru and film-maker R. Balki in the October 24 issue of DNA (After Hrs): "I love music and my work. So, in that sense, my work is my biggest time pass. If you are to ask me, if you're doing what you love, then there is no reason for you to look outside work for recreation."
    • And here's Vinita Bali, CEO and MD of Britannia Industries, echoing the sentiments expressed by H.K. Shivdasani in DNA. "Somehow people who talk of this [work-life] balance make work sound like something you have to do," Bali writes in the November 19 issue of Forbes India in an article headlined People make too much of work-life balance. "There are aspects of work I may not enjoy or like. But by and large I like what I do, I like working, I like the stuff we do. It also enables me to enjoy what people call 'not work'."
    • "Love what you do to stay motivated" is also the credo of Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group. Read his Mint column on motivation here.
    UPDATE (May 2, 2013): I have just discovered on LinkedIn this lovely post by Dharmesh Shah, founder and CTO at HubSpot, a marketing software company based in the U.S.: "14 Telling Signs You Love Your Job".

    Why writing should be about "you"

    As in, "you" the reader.

    If you're a journalist, you can do a good job only by putting yourself in the shoes of the readers (or viewers). What do readers want to know? How will this information help them? Why should they read this story? How can I write so that my readers are engaged, entertained, and enlightened?

    This principle, and these questions, apply even if you're not a journalist, but writing is part of what you do.

    In a recent column in Mint, V.R. Narayanaswami elaborated on this topic by asking similar questions:

    The writer has these questions in mind: Who are my readers? How did this transaction begin? What do they expect to gain from it? In other words, what’s in it for them? What questions will they want to raise? Audience awareness, as it is called, is one of the keys to successful communication.

    Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, calls his approach the "you-attitude in writing". He says the you-attitude recognises that communication takes place between real persons, not between robots.

    The language, therefore, is personal, simple and direct. It is free from highfalutin clich├ęs. It restricts the use of the passive voice which tends to distance the reader from the writer.

    The column also gives helpful advice on how to tailor the content of your message to your reader. Read the article in its entirety here: "The you-attitude in writing".

    Sunday, September 5, 2010

    The vexed issue of "private treaties"

    Should a media company disclose to readers of its newspapers its interest — in this case an ownership stake — in companies that are regularly featured on its news pages?

    Are media companies taking enough steps to insulate their news and opinion writing from growing business interests of the firm itself?

    And in a market where newspapers are significantly subsidised by advertisers, does it matter whether such conflicts of interests are divulged or not to readers who have been reluctant to pay for what it costs to produce a daily newspaper?

    Mint posed these questions earlier this year in an article on the issue of private treaties. And last month it carried a report on a move by Sebi, the capital market regulator, to make private treaty deals more transparent (Page 12: "Sebi seeks more transparency, orders media firms to declare stakes in other companies").

    Reading both these articles will give you a good idea of the stakes involved here for both journalists and the reading public.

    What do you intend to do if you are a journalist?

    And what do you have to say about the issue as a reader?

    The inviolable line between news and advertising at Mint

    In this era of paid news, and Medianet, and private treaties, how refreshing and comforting to read this note from the editor on the front page of Mint (Friday, September 3):

    Note to readers

    Dear Reader,

    From time to time, you will see a page or a feature in Mint clearly labelled as Media Marketing Initiative. Such content is entirely generated by an advertiser or Mint's marketing department on behalf of an advertiser, and does not involve any editorial staff.

    Such pages/features also have a different font and style to help you identify that they are not part of Mint's editorial content. As clearly stated in Mint's journalistic Code of Conduct, available on our website, there is an inviolable line between news and advertising at Mint. We thought it would be useful for us to reiterate this to you.

    As always, feel free to contact us at

    R. Sukumar

    Here are just a few of the many pertinent points in Mint's Code of Conduct:

    In the 21st century, ... news is transmitted in more ways than ever before in print, on the air and on the Web, with words, images, graphics, sounds and video. But always and in all media, we insist on the highest standards of integrity and ethical behavior when we gather and deliver the news.
    • That means we abhor inaccuracies, carelessness, bias or distortions. It means we will not knowingly introduce false information into material intended for publication or broadcast; nor will we alter photo or image content. Quotations must be accurate, and precise.
    • It means we always strive to identify all the sources of our information, shielding them with anonymity only when they insist upon it and when they provide vital information not opinion or speculation; when there is no other way to obtain that information; and when we know the source is knowledgeable and reliable.
    • It means we don't plagiarize.
    • It means we avoid behavior or activities that create a conflict of interest and compromise our ability to report the news fairly and accurately, uninfluenced by any person or action.
    • It means we don't misidentify or misrepresent ourselves to get a story. When we seek an interview, we identify ourselves as Mint journalists.
    • It means we don’t pay newsmakers for interviews, to take their photographs or to film or record them.
    • It means we must be fair. Whenever we portray someone in a negative light, we must make a real effort to obtain a response from that person. When mistakes are made, they must be corrected fully, quickly and ungrudgingly.
    • And ultimately, it means it is the responsibility of every one of us to ensure that these standards are upheld. Any time a question is raised about any aspect of our work, it should be taken seriously.
    There's so much here to admire and learn from.