Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Riding On The Beach

Actor Aparna Balamurali talks about her experiences in the films, 'Sunday Holiday', 'Thrissivaperoor Kliptham', and 'Maheshinte Prathikaaram'
By Shevlin Sebastian
Aparna Balamurali looked worried as she stood on the Muzhappilangad beach in Thalasserry. Director Jis Jose, of 'Sunday Holiday', had told her she would have sit to behind hero Asif Ali on a Yamaha RX 100 bike and ride through the waves. “I had never ridden on a bike before, let alone, through the waves,” she says. This was for the song, 'Mazha Paadum', which was sung by Aparna herself and Arvind Venugopal.
What increased her nervousness was when Asif told her it was risky. “We should be careful,” said a sombre-looking Asif. Anyway, Aparna got behind Asif and the latter began slowly. “But then Asif suddenly turned up the accelerator and I started screaming.” says Aparna. “I was so scared that I would fall off.”
Asif increased the scare quotient when he suddenly stood up, at high speed, and began laughing. “It was absolutely crazy,” says the 21-year-old. “But after a few minutes, I got over my fears and began to enjoy the thrill of it.”
On days when she did not have any shooting, Aparna would assist cinematographer Alex J Pulickal, by holding up an umbrella or the thermocole shades. In the film, Shruti Ramachandran also has a role.
Asif would say, “Shruti, be careful, Aparna is trying to make you look dark.
Tell the truth, Aparna, you want to make Shruti look less beautiful, is it not?”
Both Shruthi and Aparna would laugh out aloud. “Shruthi and I are very good friends,” says Aparna.
During the shoot, Asif came to know that Aparna was a foodie. “Soon, if there was paratha and curry for breakfast, he would say, 'It is all right if you don't give me, but please ensure that Aparna gets her fill'.”
Nevertheless, Asif would ply her with all types of food. “Because of Asif, I ate mutton ghee roast and neer dosa for the first time,” says Aparna. “At the end of the shoot I had put on a lot of weight.”
However, for the shoot of the upcoming film, 'Thrissivaperoor Kliptham', Aparna lost weight because she had to do a lot of running. In the film, Pradeep, a bus conductor, harassed a neighbour of Aparna. So, one day, Aparna took a hockey stick and gave chase.
The scene was being shot in a bus terminus at Thirssur. Soon, Pradeep ran into the gent’s toilet. Aparna followed. Inside, Pradeep accidentally pushed against a washbasin and lost his balance. The basin fell and landed on the edge of Aparna's feet. She started bleeding. The shoot was stopped. Her feet was bandaged.
Soon, the shooting resumed. When it was over, Aparna was taken to the hospital. “It was a deep wound,” says Aparna. “The doctor said I needed stitches. I got a shock.” Today, there is a small scar on the second toe of Aparna's right feet. “This is a film which has left a permanent mark on me,” she says, with a smile. “I hope it does for my career, too.”
But Aparna had already made her mark with her debut, 'Maheshinte Prathikaaram'.  But her initial shots caused nervous moments for her.
The cinematographer Shyju Khalid had placed a hen along a path to create an ambience. Aparna was supposed to jump from a height onto the road and land next to the hen.
In the first take, it was not clear there was a hen in the shot,” says Aparna. “In the next shot, when I jumped, the hen got scared and jumped towards me. I got really scared. So the shot had to be taken again. Thereafter, the hen did not move in the next few shots. So we took it with an unmoving hen. It was a bit disappointing.” 

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

Monday, July 17, 2017

A Big Town Author

Anees Salim's fifth novel, 'The Small-Town Sea', hits the mark with its intense descriptions and authentic emotions 

Photo by Albin Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian

One morning, at his third-floor apartment, at Kochi, author Anees Salim woke up feeling disturbed. He had just seen a dream of his son Omar being stranded at Anees' home-town of Varkala. “He was standing on the edge of a cliff and looked all alone,” says Anees. “I felt scared.”

The image remained in his mind. As he sipped a cup of tea, a thought cropped up, 'Maybe, I should write a novel. I could work my way backwards from this image'.

It was not an easy decision to make. Because he had already started work on a novel about a historical ruler. But the image of the boy proved to be compelling. Thus, he embarked on this story.

The end result is his fifth work of fiction called 'The Small Town Sea'. The 283-page work has just been published by Penguin Random House India.

The story is of a 13-year old boy, whose name is not revealed, who lives in a city, very similar to Kochi. But when his father, known as Vappa, is diagnosed with cancer, he takes the family back to the small town where he has a house on a cliff, so that he can die in peace. There, the boy becomes friends with an orphan Bilal and they explore the beach and the town together, even as Vappa edges closer to death.

Anees is an intense writer. The descriptions are so precise and accurate, that he ends up creating vivid images in the minds of the readers.

Here is an extract:

'Vappa had a chair dragged to the bathroom and placed it by a washbasin. Umma waited in a passage, thumbing through a magazine, while a tap ran in the bathroom, at first with a sharp metallic beat as the water hit the bottom of the empty aluminium bucket, then it smoothened out as the bucket filled up, and finally fell silent when the bucket started to brim over.'

With these type of descriptions, it is difficult to read the book quickly. The pace is slow but steady. But whether he can get a mass audience and be a popular best-selling writer are open to question.

Which is why he is called a writer's writer. But Anees is unfazed by all these descriptions. “I don't think of the audience when I write,” he says. “I write for myself. The reward of writing is writing itself. I don't need anything else.”

Nevertheless, his books have gone down very well with critics and discerning readers. So, it is no surprise that in 2013 he won the The Hindu Literary Prize for 'Vanity Bagh' as well as the Crossword Book Award for Indian Fiction (2015) for the 'Blind Lady's Descendants'. His other novels include 'The Vicks Mango Tree' and 'Tales from a Vending Machine'.

This is a growing and impressive oeuvre. “Without sounding pompous, I am proud of the work I have done so far,” says Anees. “When one book is finished, unlike most writers, I don't feel relieved. Instead, my immediate concern is what is going to be my next work. That's because I want to write all the time.” 

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

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Golden Sunset

P S John, one of the oldest athletes in Kerala, at 87, looks back at his career and talks about his future plans

Illustration by Amit Bandre

By Shevlin Sebastian

P S John strides confidently onto the track at the World Masters Athletic championships at Lyon, France. He is wearing a green singlet and shorts. The word, ‘India’ is emblazoned on the front and the back. Astonishingly, there is only one other competitor in the 80m hurdles. He is a bespectacled Japanese, who is wearing a white cap.

They stand on the starting line. The starter fires the pistol. John is off immediately. Soon, he secures an easy lead. While the Japanese is trotting, John is running, striding over the eight hurdles and then sprinting to the finish.

The crowd claps as John raises his hands in triumph. He embraces his rival. Both are clearly out of breath, as they stand together posing for the photographers. Later, John raises the Indian flag, a happy smile on his face.

Thereafter, John wins a gold in the 200m hurdles and a bronze in the long jump. Owing to his spectacular performance, John is adjudged the ‘Best Master Athlete 2015’ by the Asia Masters Athletics organisation.

What is astonishing about his achievements is that John was 85 years old then. And he has been winning medals consistently over the decades at national and international competitions. His total haul is 138 medals (91 gold, 33 silver and 14 bronze).

At his home in Kanjirapally, John, 87, breaks into a smile as he remembers his achievements. “It is hard work and dedication that enabled me to win,” he says.

On most days, he can be seen at the athletics track of the St. Dominic's College, Kanjirapally. “The facilities are good,” says John. “The youngsters help me set up the hurdles.”

He trains for a couple of hours. “When you do training, you feel joyful,” says John. “No matter how difficult life is, on the track I forget everything.”

Asked how he got interested in athletics, John says that it was his joining the National Cadet Corps (first batch of the Travancore Battalion) in 1948 that made all the difference. At Thiruvananthapuram, he saw a group of Army men doing the hurdles. “I was immediately attracted to the sport,” he says. “Slowly, I began training with them. They taught me the right techniques. I began to practise regularly. Soon, I began winning medals.”

Asked why Indians don't do well in international athletic competitions, John says, “Youngsters don't practice enough. Most sportsmen start training a few months before an international meet. That will not yield results. You have to practise throughout the year, over many years, before you can do well.”

In his daily life, John is a farmer. He grows rubber, cocoa, bananas, jackfruit and organic vegetables. “I get pure milk straight from the cow,” says John. “There is a peaceful feeling when you work in Nature. Walking around enables me to keep fit. My aim is not to be bedridden for a single day.”

Before farming, John had a 33-year-long career as a teacher of Malayalam at the Gracey Memorial High School in Parathode, Kottayam. “I actually studied Sanskrit, but ended up teaching Malayalam,” says this father of two. While son Roy, an electronics engineer, runs his own business in Kochi, daughter Sindhu is a French teacher at Salem.

Meanwhile, when asked about his future plans, John says, “My aim is to take part in the 90-year category at an international event. Such a category does not exist. But if God allows me to reach that age, in good health, I will be the first to compete in this category.” 

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

Thursday, July 13, 2017

When An Elephant Went Crazy


Actor Zarina Wahab talks about her experiences in the films, ‘Punnaram Cholli Cholli’,'Agar', 'Naayattu', 'Navarathinam' and 'Toofan'

By Shevlin Sebastian

The shoot of the ‘Areyarayo Kinginiyo’ song in ‘Punnaram Cholli Cholli’ (1985) was in front of a temple. Zarina Wahab was paired with Rahman. There were ten caparisoned elephants standing in the courtyard. The dance was being done in front of them.

The shoot was going along fine when suddenly, one man on the set irritated an elephant. The animal roared and began chasing the man, who fled, at high speed. The elephant then rushed to a nearby coconut grove and began ripping off the trees one by one. “Everybody was shocked,” says Zarina. “The cameraman, the director and all the actors moved away and watched the destruction from afar.” It took a mahout a long time to bring the elephant under control. Not surprisingly, the shoot was cancelled for the day.

Zarina had another encounter with an animal. In 'Agar', (1977), director Ismail Shroff told Zarina she had to ride a horse because she, along with the hero, played by Amal Palekar, were on their honeymoon in Kashmir. “I was very scared of horses,” says Zarina. “Ismail wanted the horse to go fast, so I put my foot down. Ismail was deeply upset.”

In the end, the scene was shot of the two horses ambling side by side. “When I saw it on the screen, I realized that the movement of the horses did not match the mood,” says Zarina. “I felt bad.”

But Zarina felt good on the sets of 'Naayattu' (1980), a remake of the Hindi film, 'Zanjeer', where she acted opposite Prem Nazir. “He was such a big star, but what impressed me was how warm, kind and down-to-earth he was,” says Zarina. “I would always sit behind him. Whenever the shot was ready he would go and act, without any fuss.”

Another great artist whom Zarina met was MG Ramachandran (MGR). This was for the 1977 film, 'Navarathinam' (Nine Gems). At that time, Zarina had a friend Vijaya who belonged to her hometown of Vishakapatnam. Vijaya had shifted to Chennai and was doing small roles.

One day Zarina introduced her friend to MGR at Gemini Studios in Chennai.

She said, “Sir, this is my friend Vijaya. If there are any roles, can you give her a chance?”

MGR remained silent and just stared at Zarina.

After a few moments, Zarina said, “Sorry Sir, did I say anything wrong?”

MGR shook his head and said, “In my entire career, I have worked with so many heroines. But you are the first woman who is suggesting another female for a role.”

On the sets of ‘Toofan’ (1989), it was Zarina’s turn to show appreciation. The main role was being played by Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan.

The shoot was in a jungle at Mysore. So, there were no make-up rooms. Instead, the crew made a small hut where everyone would do their make-up and change their clothes. One morning, at 7 a.m., Zarina went inside the hut and did her make-up. Since nobody called her, she remained inside for the next three hours.

But when she came out she got a shock: Amitabh was sitting under a tree and getting his make-up done. “I rushed up and said, ‘I am so sorry Sir, I did not know you were here. You should have sent someone to tell me. I would have come out’,” says Zarina.

Amitabh remained calm and said, “It's all right. Ladies need the make-up room more than gents.”

A smiling Zarina says, “Amitabh was a superstar, but he did not suffer from a superiority complex. In fact, he is a very nice man.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Turning The Tables On Bad Backs

Thanks to the Allen Table, spinal surgeries at a hospital in Kerala have become so much more easier

Photos:  Dr. C. Anu Thomas, senior consultant neuro-surgeon (extreme left) with his team; the Allen Advance Table 

By Shevlin Sebastian

K. Balan lies on a table in the operating theatre of the Indo-American Hospital at Chemmanakary (25 kms from Kochi). Dr. C. Anu Thomas, senior consultant neuro-surgeon, prepares to release a compressed nerve in the fifth vertebrae. For several weeks, the 38-year-old Balan had been bed-ridden, because of the pain. He had tried Allopathy as well as Ayurveda treatment, before he came to the hospital, in a state of desperation.

“This is a routine minimally invasive surgery,” says Thomas. But there is one difference. Balan is lying on the Allen Advance Table. This table has been imported from the USA at a cost of over Rs 1 crore.

The advantage of this table is that, at the press of a button, it can turn 360 degrees, with the patient strapped in. “Before we got this table, when we had to do a back surgery, six people had to physically lift the patient, move him to another bed, and turn him over,” says Thomas. “When a person has a fracture of the spine, any minor movement can be harmful. So, you have to be very careful. But, on the Allen Table, this problem does not arise at all. Patient safety is 100 per cent.”

There are other advantages, too. Since the equipment is made of carbon, when an image of the spine is taken, with the C-Arm, a radiological tool, only the image of the spine can be seen. “In the case of an ordinary table, because it is made of steel and other materials, it will appear as markings on the image,” says Dr. Jain George P, the chief of neurosurgery. “So the visuals lack clarity. Without clear visuals, it is difficult to operate accurately.”

Interestingly, the time taken for a surgery has been reduced. “In complex surgical cases, we save between 30 minutes and an hour, because we don't need to move the patient,” says Dr. Jaser Mohammed Iqbal, consultant anaesthesiologist. “Most surgeries take anywhere between three to nine hours.” These include operations for disc hernia, tumours, spinal deformity, and bone fractures on the spinal column – cranio-cervical, thoracic and lumbosacral.

Interestingly, the cost for patients have not been increased. “That is because most of our clientele come from middle and lower-middle class families,” says Dr. Thomas. “So we do not want to place an undue burden on them.”

Asked why the Allen Table is not yet being used in India, by other hospitals, Jain says that the prohibitive cost is the major deterrent. “Also, there is a lack of awareness about it among medical professionals,” he says. “I came to know about it only when I went to do fellowships in Detroit and Tampa, USA. Maybe, the company could do some aggressive marketing in India.”

Meanwhile, Balan, a truck driver, is recuperating steadily, following the surgery. “I don't feel any pain at all,” he says. But he has ensured that he takes the tablets daily, as prescribed by the doctor. For a long time, Balan had been extremely worried, because he is the sole bread-winner for his family, which consists of his wife, two children and parents. “In the end, everything has worked out well,” he says, with a smile. 

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

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

By The Banks Of The Chalakudy

At the Rasa Gurukal, in Chalakudy Kerala, Das Sreedharan focuses on the traditional ways of cooking and healing

Photo of Das Sreedharan by Albin Mathew; a foreign lady at the Gurukul

By Shevlin Sebastian

Just before sunrise, on most mornings, Das Sreedharan steps out of his bungalow at the Rasa Gurukul on the banks of the Chalakudy river (33 kms from Kochi). He is wearing a striped purple shirt and Kerala-style mundu. He steps on to the back of a bullock cart. There are several wooden seats. The driver then leads the oxen forward. And Das leans back and inhales the fresh air.

This is a daily ritual for Das. “On a bullock cart, you are moving at the pace of nature,” he says. “You can feel the rhythm of the animals. And I am reminded of my forefathers and the life they led.”

When the cart stops, Das steps down and gazes around: there are rabbits and hens running about, apart from insects and birds. But the big charm is the river flowing nearby. “When you sit on the bank, it is so silent, you can hear the gurgling of the waters,” he says. “It is very soothing.”

The Rasa Gurukul farm retreat is set in 25 acres. There are four cottages and 16 double rooms. But this is no ordinary resort.

It is a place where all kinds of vegetables are grown organically. These include traditional Kerala rice, tapioca, bitter gourd, beans, black pepper, turmeric, and sugarcane. “For cultivation, we use ancient methods like cow dung,” says Das. “We avoid chemicals and fertilisers. As a result, there is a good yield, it is healthy and cost-effective.”

When visitors arrive, from Kochi, other parts of India, Europe, and the USA, Das encourages them to immerse themselves in the local milieu. So, they learn yoga, make mats and bronze vessels from local artisans, get a massage at the Sri Subramania Ayurveda health clinic and learn a bit of Mohiniyattom and other traditional art forms.

Apart from that, there are cottage industries like blacksmiths, a pottery and weaving unit, a coconut oil mill, and a craft section where bags, from banana fibres are made,” says Das. “Again visitors are encouraged to participate in these activities.

But for Das, who runs three ‘Rasa’ restaurants in London, the primary focus is on food. “Indian food, which is 5000 years old, has one of the most unique cuisines in the world,” he says. “Nobody uses pure spices the way Indians do. And they are all so therapeutic.”

For example, turmeric is an antiseptic, which purifies the blood and fights cancer. “Ginger is soothing for a sore throat,” says Das. “Black pepper helps in combating colds and fevers, while mustard alleviates arthritic pain and stimulates hair growth. Our spices have always strengthened the immune system.”

So for Das, the main aim is to foster the power of long-established cooking. That’s because, modern cuisine, the world over, with its many artificial ingredients, has damaged the quality of food in a big way. “I want to develop a system whereby we can protect traditional food and culture,” he says.

One of the ways is through the annual Kerala Food Festival which Das holds every September in London. He also goes to schools to inspire children and teachers to keep their faith in home cooking.

And he has plans for the Rasa Gurukul, too. On September 9, this year, Das is planning a 24 hour non-stop harvest festival. There will be a demonstration of how rice is harvested from the seed to the grain. Apart from that, there will be games, folk music and dances of the harvest season. “It’s a mission,” says Das, with a smile. 

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

Monday, July 10, 2017

All The Write Stuff

Scriptwriter/actor Murali Gopy reflects on his writing career as his film, 'Tiyaan' gets released, which will be followed by ‘Kammara Sambhavam’

Photos: Murali Gopy taken by Albin Mathew; the poster of 'Tiyaan'

By Shevlin Sebastian

Scriptwriter/actor Murali Gopy stared out of the glass-paned window of his seventh floor hotel room in Kochi, and said, “Let me give you some perspective. The budget of 'Tiyaan' (which was released recently) is Rs 18 crore. This is half the cost of the climax of 'Bahubaali'. But yes, in Mollywood, this is regarded as a big-budget film.” 
Scripted by Murali, 'Tiyaan' is a socio-political drama. While star Prithviraj plays the lead role of Aslan Muhammad, his brother Indrajith plays a character called Pattabhi Raman. The shoot took place outside Kerala, in places like Leh, Mumbai, Nasik, Manali, Allahabad and the Ramoji Rao Film City in Hyderabad.
In 'Tiyaan', like my earlier films, 'Ee Adutha Kaalathu' and 'Left Right Left', I have looked at how a man reacts to contemporary politics and issues,” says Murali.
Even as he talks, the shoot for ‘Kammara Sambhavam’, which is penned by Murali, has begun. In this film, comic superstar Dileep has moved in a new direction: he plays a 94-year-old man. “Among our stars, Dileep's talent has not been explored much, except in comedy,” says Murali. “I always felt he could do grey shades.”

Following these two, Murali will be writing a script for a film called 'Lucifer', in which Mohanlal plays the hero.
Like most people in Kerala, Murali is a fan. “Mohanlal is the all-time great, in terms of crowd-pulling, charisma, and acting talent,” says Murali. “It is a God’s gift. So, when such a person acts in your film, it is like preparing your house to host an emperor.”

So, is he nervous that although the film's shoot is scheduled for May, 2018, he has to yet write the script? Murali smiles and says, “I only have to write. For that, I don’t need to shiver. The pen needs a steadiness of the hand and mind. Writing is a meditative exercise. You have to go within and come out with whatever is inside you.”

And it seems to have worked, because Murali is noted for his scripts. Asked the qualities of a good script, he says, “There should always be a take-home element for the viewer. That is what I aim for. Secondly, I will only write if I have something to say. This has always been a promise to myself. At the same time, I don’t want to compromise on the entertainment value, because I want people to come and see my films. I don’t want to write for award juries at film festivals.” 

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

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Highlighting A Social Stigma

Malayalee Priyanka Prakash, along with the team at L&K Saatchi & Saatchi, has just won the Cannes Lion (Gold) in the glass category for their campaign about menstruation

Photo by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Priyanka Prakash was feeling flustered. At a government school, in a village near Mumbai, 12-year-old Megha would give the dialogues perfectly. But the moment, she sat on a swing, and the cameras started to roll, she would freeze up. Take after take had to be aborted. Priyanka tried to calm down Megha. Several schoolgirls, who were watching the shoot, offered words of encouragement. Finally, it was decided they would try one last time.

And that was when Megha delivered. “Everyone went to the circus,” says Megha, in the one-minute advertisement. “Sanaa and Niyati saw elephants and lions and tigers. They had so much fun. But this time I had to miss the circus.” Several girls spoke about missing many interesting events. Then a voiceover says, “Over 40 million girls in India are house-bound for five days every month, because they have nowhere to go to change during their period. Finally, there is a sanitary solution that lasts 12 hours: Saafkins, to give her five of those days back. Just Rs 150 will ensure her a year of not missing out:”

The napkin, using Swiss technology, enables users to rewash it and it can be used safely for a year.

This campaign won one of the biggest awards in international advertising:  the Cannes Lion (Gold) in the glass category, which received more than 200 entries worldwide. The prize is given for any ground-breaking work which increases gender equality.

The leading light behind the campaign is the Mumbai-based Malayalee Priyanka, who is a creative director of Law & Kenneth Saatchi & Saatchi. “It was an overwhelming moment for me, my colleague Meghna Das, and [Chief Creative Officer] Delna Sethan,” says Priyanka, at the Kochi home of her parents, Prakash and Maya Madatilkat. “My very first entry, and I get a gold!”

It is a campaign that is close to Priyanka’s heart because of the subject. “Most girls in rural areas do not have any sort of sanitary protection and are using ash, sand, husk, and cloth,” she says. “It is very unhygienic. Society does not allow the girl to say that she is going through a menstrual period. This brings about a sense of shame. And so I am glad that I could do my bit to bring about a social awareness.”

This is not the first award that Priyanka has won. In 2016, she won the Laadli Media and Advertising Award (Jury Appreciation) for the Pampers ‘It Takes 2’ campaign.

This was a movement to motivate fathers to take equal responsibility towards baby care,” says Priyanka. “We came up with the finding that the involvement of both parents is much more advantageous for the baby when it comes to cognitive development, social and physical skills. In India, a dad gets involved only when the child learns to speak or play. So, we wanted to change the mindset.”

In fact, both these advertisements reflect the current trend in advertising now. “Most of the brands just don't go out there and say, ‘Here is our product, please buy it,’” says Priyanka, who did her Masters in Creative Advertising from Falmouth University (UK). “Instead, every brand wants to stand for a bigger cause.”

One reason for this is that it is getting far more difficult to engage an audience these days. “We are dealing with three screens: the TV, laptop and the mobile,” says Priyanka. “The moment there is an ad break, people move away. So, you need to tell a story and stand for something bigger.”

And, in her own way, Priyanka is also standing for something bigger.  

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