Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Naach Meri Jaan

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Tough, blunt and bold, judge Saroj Khan once again makes an impact on Nach Baliye 2

Shevlin Sebastian

“Sarojji was bleeding,” says Pinky Chinoi, a dancer cum choreographer. “She would then go back to the trailer, put a new bandage and come back again.”
Chinoi, who is on the sets of Nach Baliye 2 at Film City, is talking about the shooting of a dance sequence for Vinashak, which starred Suniel Shetty. A day earlier, Khan’s appendix had burst and she had been rushed to the hospital for an emergency operation. In the end, 24 stitches had to be put to stanch the blood. But despite her doctor’s misgivings, Khan appeared on the set the next day, as she did not want to delay the shooting. “I told the doctor not to worry,” says Khan, with a smile, as she sits on a diwan in an air-conditioned trailer. “I would go inside the trailer and change the bandage, as the blood kept oozing out. Thankfully, the stitches did not rupture.”

Today, Khan is in the spotlight for her ‘take no prisoners’ attitude as a judge on the dance show, Nach Baliye 2. Like in the earlier show, she has struck a chord with viewers for her honesty. Of course, some call her style ‘abrasive’. But Raja Chaudhary, who was voted out last week with his partner Shweta Tiwari, supports the judge. “Whatever faults she points out is always correct,” he says. “Her bluntness is her personality. If she becomes soft, she will sound artificial.”
Khan says she is blunt because “I want them to be good choreographers, not copycats. For example: I know all the movements in Ek Do Teen in Tezaab. Now, if they show the same movements, I will not accept it. I am looking for creativity.”

For the young choreographers, despite the tough words, most of them are in awe of her. There they are, sitting outside Stage 7 in Film City, and Chinoi, who does choreography with Rajeev Khinchi, 26, says, “We respect Sarojji so much. She has been completely dedicated to her profession.” Vitthal Patel, an upcoming choreographer, says simply, “I have worked with Sarojji and she is fabulous.”

Endless steps
Khan has had a fabulous career, having done choreography for hundreds of films, and is now regarded as one of India’s greatest choreographers. She is now in her 55th year in the industry. Incidentally, her age is 58.
The family came to India from Lahore during the Partition. Her father died immediately because of throat cancer and there were severe financial problems. But dance came to Khan unbidden. At the age of two, she would look at her shadow and dance. In her business-oriented family, they had no idea of art. So, it was no surprise that her mother took her to the doctor and told him her daughter was retarded. But the wise doctor told the mother that Khan just wants to dance. He had contacts with the film industry and encouraged Khan’s mother to send her for some assignments.
Khan’s first scene was of her sitting on a cardboard imitation of a moon and singing. She was supposed to be actress Shyama as a child. She acted in several movies and when she was 10 years old, she became a group dancer and remembers dancing with Madhubala in Howrah Bridge. At 13, she became an assistant to dance master Hiralal. At 14 she did her first choreography for Dil Hi To Hai, directed by P.L. Santoshi, the father of Rajkumar Santoshi. In 1974, she got her first picture Geeta Mera Naam. Thereafter, she choreographed numerous dances for years, till Ek Do Teen in Tezaab rocked India in 1988 and there was no looking back.

“I had no idea it would have such an impact,” says Khan. “It was the fastest composed dance in my life--25 minutes. But it took me 17 days to teach the steps to Madhuri Dixit. She was a Kathak dancer and did not have a lilt. She trained from 10 am to 10 pm.”
The French connection
Earlier, as I wait to talk to Khan, I meet Julian Bouissou, 28, a radio correspondent of Europe-1, who is doing a story on dance in Bollywood and had just spoken to Khan. “The Indian film dance is fascinating for us Frenchmen because there are so many different elements, slow, techno and Indian classical, in one dance, while we are only adept at doing only one style in one dance,” he says.
So the French are also mesmerised by a dance form, which has also held India in thrall for decades. And yet, there is clearly a technique behind the skilful moves. “Don’t make it only a dance number,” says Khan, the winner of seven Filmfare awards for best choreography. “The story should carry into the dance and lead out of it. So the dance should not look like a patch.” She says it is important to look at the hands and the feet of the artistes. “If it is a cabaret, the palms will be open,” she continues. “If it is an Indian dance, the palms will be closed, like when you do a mudra. I also concentrate on facial expressions, which is my forte.”
Till Nach Baliye resurrected her in the public eye, Khan was going through a rather barren patch. She admits the younger stars are avoiding her. “It is only the producers and directors who want me. But that’s okay. I am taking it easy for a while.”
She has been ringside as a choreographer for forty years, an encyclopaedia of filmic history. So I ask her how have things changed over the years?
“The sincerity and the love of work is gone,” says this mother of three children, whose husband is a businessman. “The only thing that matters now is money. And how fast you can pull down another person and take his place.”

High and mighty

The global Vipassana pagoda, rising magnificently in a verdant landscape, promises to be a haven of peace—and a tourist attraction

Shevlin Sebastian

The first sight of the hall of the global Vipassana pagoda is awe-inspiring. There is a spaciousness and expansiveness about it that offers an immediate sense of tranquility, especially for one who lives in a crowded city. And this, though the pagoda is still under construction.
At its completed height, the pagoda will soar 300 ft high and will be one of the world’s largest dome structures built of stone. And it is being built with the ancient technique of interlocking stones instead of concrete, cement or metal.
The pagoda has currently reached the 100 ft mark, forming the base on which three more domes will be constructed. A total of 55,200 stones have been used so far. Brought from Jodhpur, they weigh 500 kg each, says Rajesh Singh, the chief engineer of the project.
The massive meditation hall inside the first dome can seat 8000 people and as I stand under the great dome, I am struck both, by its sheer size and the determination of those who have set out to construct it.
When I climb my way up to the top of the dome, I can see trees all around and vast open spaces. On one side is the Gorai creek, on the other, Essel World. And in the distance, one can see the numerous buildings of the townships of Borivili, Marve, Bhayandar and Dahisar.
The land for the project, around 10 acres, has been donated by Subhash Chandra, chairman of the Essel group, and a Vipassana practitioner himself. The total cost of the project is estimated at Rs 80 crore. According to Madan Mutha, a trustee of the Global Vipassana Foundation, the project is funded entirely by donations. “We have received donations ranging from Rs 1 to Rs 10 crore,” he says.
“The original relic of the Buddha will be kept here,” he continues. These are the ashes of Gautama Buddha, which have been brought from the Mahabodhi Society in Bodh Gaya, Bihar. Emperor Ashoka (273-232 BC) would enshrine relics of the Buddha in pagodas or stupas as they were then called, because it was believed that they would emit positive vibrations. In the global pagoda, the idea is that the Buddha’s ashes will also emit positive vibrations for those who are meditating.
On Sunday, October 29, these relics will be enshrined in the centre of the dome in a special ceremony in the presence of State Home Minister R.R. Patil and other dignitaries.

Vipassana meditator Ajit Parekh says the pagoda has been built along the lines of the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon in Myanmar. “It was only in Myanmar that the teachings of the Buddha were preserved in their pristine form and they were brought to India by S.N. Goenka, (founder of the Vipassana Foundation), who was born and brought up in Myanmar,” he says. “So we are trying to say thank you to Myanmar with this pagoda.”
With the Foundation having 125 centres worldwide and a membership of 50 lakh, Vipassana practitioners from all over the world are expected to make their way here.
Inside the hall are a group of Sri Lankan visitors. One of them, V.R.K. D’Silva, the former CEO of the Lakehouse newspapers group, one of the largest in Sri Lanka, says: “This is a stupendous achievement. But I must make the point that the ancient Sinhalese kings used the same type of material 2000 years ago.”
But then, that is the precisely the charm of this modern-day dome – that it puts a modern face to an ancient technique.

What is a pagoda?
From Java to Mongolia to Japan, the pagoda or stupa was built as a memorial to a great leader. Pagodas have been built from ancient times. In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, it has been mentioned that ten stupas were built to house the remains of Gautama Buddha.
Emperor Ashoka, a staunch follower of Buddhism, built 84,000 stupas, each of which had a relic from the original ten. The best preserved is the one at Sanchi.

A cover-up job

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Indian books, from the 11th to the 19th century, had the most unusual cover designs, involving elaborate art work and jewellery

Shevlin Sebastian

Tushma Kothari, 22, a jewellery designer, carefully takes out the book cover from a brown envelope. In her air-conditioned room at her home in Sion, the only sound is of the rustling of paper. The cover is made of silver and there are delicate etchings of the sun, moon, horse, elephant and other animals. And she tells the story of how she obtained it.

“I was at a flea market in the city,” she says. “As I was walking around aimlessly, I saw something colourful and when I went in for a closer inspection, I realised it was a book cover.” The silk lining was torn but the frontal beadwork was exquisite. It looked like it belonged to the 16th century. “But the price quoted was Rs 10,000, which was too high for my budget,” she says. “I quoted Rs 1000 and in the end, got it for Rs 1,500.”

The story became interesting when Tushma returned home. When she showed it to her parents, her mother loved it, “but my father, being the jeweller that he is, scrutinised it with his eye-glass.” And she noticed a glow on his face, “like he had discovered a treasure. And he had! He said the beads were not just that, but real emeralds and rubies. I could not believe what I had heard; it was a pleasant surprise. The seller did not know what he had sold, and I did not know what I had bought: a priceless piece of art.”

Tushma’s eyes glows as she recounts the story. Soon, she is in the grip of excitement as she shows me an 11th century book cover, which she found in an antique shop when she was travelling in south India. Instead of paper, palm leaves were used. Another cover depicts the 14 dreams of Trishaladevi, Lord Mahavira’s mother and the eight Jain ashtamangalas, which are symbols that Trishaladevi saw in a dream before her son was born.

“All covers are checked by experts to verify the authenticity,” says Tushma’s father, Shekhar, 48. One of the experts was the late Pandit Amrut Lal, a Jain scholar based in Ahmedabad.

Incidentally, there was a historical reason for the profusion of these book covers. In 1299, when the Muslims had conquered Gujarat, writes Albert Skira in his book, Indian Paintings, “the Jains continued to control trade and banking, and since their undiminished wealth could not be used, when tolerance was uncertain for the building or embellishment of temples, they spent it on small objects which could be easily preserved and secreted away.”

Noted Ahmedabad-based art historian Prof. Prabhat Tandan says that wooden book covers and Palmyra strips were used for illustrating manuscripts from the 11th to the 14th century. Quoting from Indian Miniature Paintings by R.K. Tandan, he says, “Thereafter, paper was mainly used and the output was prolific. Later, cloth was occasionally used when the composition demanded a larger surface area. The use of gold or pearls or precious stones on covers was not uncommon.” And even skin.

Tushma points out one cover, made from the skin of a tortoise, which belongs to the Mughal period when Emperor Akbar was on the throne. “I found this in an Ahmedabad flea market,” says Tushma. “Apart from the cover, there was a Mughal manuscript. It seemed to be a romance, because there were romantic pictures.”

Tushma did not want the manuscript; she was only interested in the cover, but the seller wanted to sell it as a set. “To my good luck, a manuscript collector arrived at the same time and bought it instantly,” she says. “So, I got the cover, he got the manuscript and everybody was happy.”

So far, Tushma has collected 30 covers, bought from places like Kutch, Jaipur, Mumbai and Orissa. “One reason why Tushma found her book covers in several regions,” says Tandan, “is because affluent Jain traders commissioned artists to make these covers in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.”

She seems to be the only one in the city who collects books covers. So what attracted her to them? “The cover gives a lot of insight about the content,” she says. “What also attracted me was the rarity factor and the beautiful workmanship.”

The father and daughter are careful about preservation. They wrap the covers in plastic covers and put in cloves. “This prevents bacteria from attacking the paper,” says Shekhar. “Every six months, we just air it out and replace the cloves.”
So, in one corner of Mumbai, historical material is being preserved, thanks to the enthusiasm of a young woman.

Carter works non-stop; so do the volunteers

Permission to reproduce the article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Shevlin Sebastian

At precisely 8 am on October 30, former American President Jimmy Carter lifts a slice of cement with a trowel and places it on a concrete brick to start building a wall for House No 73. With that, he inaugurates the Jimmy Carter Work Project (JCWP) for Habitat forHumanity's project of building 100 homes in Pathan, near Lonavla.Carter, wearing jeans and a cap, and accompanied by his wife, Rosalynn, and son, Chip, is concentration personified as he goes about his work with a skill and confidence that comes from doing this for 23 years in several countries. And since he is no ordinary mason, a phalanx of photographers record his every move.

Standing right behind him, with a persistent smile on her face, and in a bright orange saree, is house owner Sadhiya Aziz Sheikh, 30, of Varsuli Village. Her husband is a driver in a car rental company and they have two children. Her in-laws live with them. She helps Carter in providing the cement in a tray and tries to be helpful.

During the lunch break, she says, "We were introduced to Carter Saab before the work began. I wanted to take his autograph but because he is so busy I will do it later."

All around volunteers, both foreigners and Indians, are busy slapping cement on bricks. One of them is government servant Priscilla Deegan, 25, of Ireland. "I just want to make a difference in the lives of these people. That is why I have come."

The burly Dave Kirk of the US spends six months of the year working on projects like this. "It is a great feeling to see the joy of the families when they receive the house keys on the last day." Cobb says he gets no money to do this volunteer work but has no regrets. "I just go back home and work harder to pay the bills."

Sumit Mehdiratta, of Whirpool company, says, "We Indians should get out of middle class bubble and help other people."

Our Indian celebrities are also at hand. There is Pooja Bedi, in sunglasses and black dungarees, who says she want to build with her hands. "Habitat makes charity fun," she says. "There is good food, good music and the ambience is great." Dolly Thakore says Bedi encouraged her to participate in her first project. When a crowd of people chase former Australian cricketer Steve Waugh,an American says, "Who's he?"
"He is a cricketer," says somebody.
"Oh," he says, looking completely puzzled.
Brad Pitt suddenly appears suddenly from Pune and there is a frenzy, but he studiously avoids looking at the grizzled bears of the media.And goes about quietly helping in his own way. In the end, Carter evokes the admiration of all present. Apart from ahalf an hour interval when he interacts with the media, he works non-stop from 8 am to 12.30 pm. Bear in mind he is 82. People half his age are panting in the noon-day sun.

The 100 houses will be completed on Friday, November 3.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

President Carter comes to lend a helping hand

100 houses to be built in Lonavala in a week

Shevlin Sebastian

Former American President Jimmy Carter, 82, and his wife Rosalyn is coming to town. Through the Habitat for Humanity’s Jimmy Carter Work Project (JCWP) 2006, he, along with 2000 volunteers, will be building 100 houses in Patan, a village near Lonavala, from October 30 to November 3. Incidentally, Carter’s mother, the late Ms Lillian was based in Lonavala when she was working as a nurse in the Peace Corps. Carter and his wife have earlier built houses in the USA, Mexico, South Africa, South Korea and the Philippines.
Habitat for Humanity has tied up with a local NGO, the Abhinav Cooperative Credit Society, which has selected the beneficiaries. The aim: to provide for a future where every man, woman and child has a decent place to live.
For foreign volunteers, the participation fee is $800. Says Lani Leigh, a professional modern dancer from New York: “Building a home for a needy person in a JCWP brings out the best in us volunteers: the energy, the intensity, passion and teamwork in a blitz build for me is akin to the focus in my dance performances.” She adds that it is a more enriching way of travel in terms of getting to know the local people.
“We want to help the national programme through this project, so that Habitat can build more houses for people in need in India,” says Ernesto Castro, project director, JCWP 2006.
The main sponsors are Citigroup, Dow India, Vedanta, Whirlpool, Aditya Birla, HDFC and Posco of India. Says Rakesh Chitkara, Director, Public Affairs, Dow: “We want to play an integral goal in Habitat’s goal to eliminate sub-standard housing in India and around the world.”
One interesting thing is that corporates are being encouraged to roll up their sleeves and actually build houses, instead of just donating. Chitkara says it has been part of Dow culture for employees to volunteer on the builds.
A newly built house will have a living room, a kitchen, a toilet and a bathroom, comfortable for a family of four. Habitat for Humanity wants to build 50,000 houses in the next five years under the IndiaBuilds programme. At present, 350 million people lack basic housing in India.

Close encounters of the unexpected kind

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

A meeting with a film director leads to an enriching experience

Shevlin Sebastian

As a journalist, sometimes, you go to cover one event, stumble on to another one and have an interesting experience in the end. One day, I had gone to see a particular documentary on the flamingos of Sewri. When the documentary ends, and as I get up to leave, Niranjan Prakash, General Manager, Communications, of E-City Ventures, which runs Fun Republic, announces the screening of the much-acclaimed Shwas, as part of the ‘First Films’ by directors festival.
This Marathi film, as is well known, was India’s entry for the Foreign Language competition at the Oscars this year. Prakash also mentions that director Sanjay Sawant, 40, is present and will take questions after the screening.
The movie, of course, is powerful: it is about the relationship between a man and his grandson, who is suffering from ocular cancer. They come to Mumbai for treatment and the film delineates the effect the illness has on the duo and the family, which lives in a beautiful village in the Konkan. Made with honesty and passion, there are moments when I could not breathe, such is the intensity of emotion that is generated. So, when the movie concludes, I decide to meet the director.
But, by the time I come out, a small group of people already surrounds Sawant, who is wearing an untucked shirt, with long sleeves. “Sir,” says a young man, “if you make a Hindi film, please consider me. I have been working in television serials.” Another man, with an intense, pleading look in his eyes, says, “Please read my script and tell me what you think about it.” A muscular young man clicks open his phone book on his mobile and asks for Sawant’s number. He punches in the number and says, “I’ll call you.” To all of them, Sawant nods and smiles. Then, a middle-aged couple offer congratulations and walk away. Finally, I get a chance to introduce myself and Sawant agrees immediately to have a chat.
We sit in the outdoor quadrangle and order tea, although it is 10 pm. Naturally, my first question is about the young people who had surrounded him. “Because, I have made some sort of a name, a lot of people approach me,” he says. “To be honest, I never get irritated since I am deeply aware of the frustrations and difficulties of being in a creative profession. This is a struggle I have experienced first-hand.”
He goes on to say why he selected the story and decided to make it in Marathi, and not Hindi, “because the condition of the industry was bad. Of course, I never expected it would have such an impact.”
He smokes often, sips his tea rarely and is intently focused on the conversation. He talks about how he trained the child actor in the film: “four months of rehearsals”; the reaction of the audience in different countries to the movie: “People had a sense of peace when they came out after a show”; his future plans: a Hindi film is in the works and, lastly, I ask him his artistic philosophy.
“Whether you are a painter or singer or director, it is very important to surrender to the muse,” he says, as his eyes bulge out in intensity. “Basically, you have to give your heart out to what you are doing. Then your art becomes powerful.”
I tell him that a couple of days earlier, I had read something similar by American writer Joyce Carol Oates: “To write well, you have to write your heart out.” He nods quickly and says, “I agree.”
It is 11 pm and time to say goodbye. A cool breeze is blowing and as I set out towards Andheri station, I feel a sense of elation that I had the opportunity to talk to somebody like Sawant. In the past one year or so, thanks to my job in HT, I have had the privilege of talking with a sexologist, a photographer, a publisher, a temple priest, a former cricketer, a diplomat, a judge, a lesbian, a belly dancer and a jail warden, among numerous other interesting people. So, it is no surprise for me that an evening, which began with the flamingos, ends with a conversation about the muse with an artist whose stunning debut film suggests a brilliant oeuvre of work ahead of him.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Getting the script right

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Scriptwriter Jaideep Sahni is basking in the unexpected success of Khosla Ka Ghosla

Shevlin Sebastian

One day, a few years ago, scriptwriter Jaideep Sahni, 35, went on a reconnaissance trip to Australia with director Ram Gopal Varma. They were looking for foreign locations for the underworld film, Company and landed at the Queensland branch of the Australian Film Commission. When the duo mentioned they were looking for locations for a Hindi film, the lady there got very excited. She said she knew of a bridge, where hundreds of the dancers could stand. For fights, she had another location. She promised she would get all the extras that would be needed and rattled off the names of A, B, C and D grade hotels for the unit. “We told her we make those movies, too, but this is not that type of movie,” says Sahni. “She kept saying ‘Bollywood, Bollywood’ and I kept saying, ‘Hindi films, Hindi films.’ She thought we were some jokers who did not know what we were doing. In the end, she was so disappointed with us.”
Sahni laughs when he recalls this incident, as he munches on a burger at a fast-food outlet in Bandra at 9.30 pm. A bespectacled man, with an intense way of speaking, he has a glow on his face, thanks to the unexpected success of Khosla Ka Ghosla. Sahni has written the story, screenplay, dialogues, the lyrics, and has been the creative producer.

The Khosla success story
It is the story of a middle class family in Delhi. The head of the household invests in a plot of land, which is taken away by a land shark. The family tries desperately to get it back and when that fails, they concoct a plan to outwit the hoodlum.
It has, Sahni admits, some autobiographical overtones. When he was in Class ten, his uncle and aunt had invested in a plot of land in Delhi with their life’s savings, but a member of the Mafia captured the land. “After that, for the next few months, they tried everything to get the land back,” says Sahni. Like in the movie, they went to the local politician, the courts and the police, but nothing happened. In the end, after months of harassment, they were forced to sell it to the Mafia at a pittance.
Interestingly, his uncle and aunt went to see the movie and Sahni was nervous about their reaction. Would they get upset or disturbed or, maybe, end up crying? “Instead, they felt poignant and laughed a lot,” he says.
The movie clearly has struck a chord among viewers and trade circles are now calling it a runaway hit. “The movie has entered the fifth week and the number of shows have gone up,” says a delighted Savitaraj Hiremath, the CEO of Tandav Films Entertainment, which produced the movie. Says director Madhur Bhandarkar: “The screenplay was very tight, with one scene flowing into another and it engaged the audience easily. The performance of Anupam Kher and Boman Irani was flawless”
Director Govind Nihalani expressed his admiration for Sahni’s sensibility and “his talent to combine a realistic situation with black humour. He has a bright future.” And David Dhawan feels the only way a small budget film like Khosla could do well is because the script is good.

And this is not the first success for this talented scriptwriter. After a so-so success with Jungle, he wrote the well-received Company and Bunty aur Babli, which was a huge hit. It is unusual to find somebody who is good at different types of cinema: from a film about the underworld, to two small-town crooks to a middle class milieu in Delhi. “I love working in different genres,” says Sahni, who latest screenplay, Chak De India, is set in the world of sports. “For me, characters are everything. The characters determine the form, the look and the feel. As a writer, I create a world and populate them with people who fascinate me and then one day, directors and cinematographers and actors come in and add their magic, and soon, it is up there on a 70mm screen. It is a great thrill.”
It is a thrill he never imagined would happen to him.

Unusual life
Like the Khoslas, he has had a middle class upbringing in Delhi. His father was a civil servant and his mother a teacher. As a child, he was torn between arts and science. Since he could not do both, he studied computer engineering: ‘It seemed as close to an art form as I could think of’. Later, he worked as an IT consultant, spent a few years in advertising and as a communication consultant, before he drifted off to ad film-making.
One day, he bought several books and one of them was a screenplay of Gandhi by John Briley. He read it and felt that he could do it. At that time, through a friend, he met Ramgopal Varma, who was looking for a new writer. “I told him I have never done a screenplay before but I think I knew how to do one,” says Sahni. “He replied, ‘That’s okay with me.’ The advantage was that Varma is never scared of working with new people. So, I started writing Jungle.”
Apart from screenplays, he has another gift: that of writing lyrics. He has written the songs for Bluffmaster, Company and Salaam Namaste. The lead song for Salaam Namaste was written in a day, in between surfing the Internet and reading the writings of Po Bronson. He has also written a song, Maaeri, for rock group Euphoria, and for Shobha Mudgal. But it is scriptwriting that is currently occupying all his attention.

Writing is R & D
On the oft-repeated charge by producers and directors that there are no good original scripts, Sahni says, “In the film industry, writing is the R&D. Yet, except for some exceptions, do these people allocate time, money and resources to a writer? Is writing important for them? Will they give a writer six or eight months to write a script? In Hollywood, they are given a year or more to write a script. It is not fair to expect writers to be great revolutionaries and go hungry while everybody else is partying at the Marriott.”
The burgers are over and it is near midnight when we step out. As we go past Barista, we see a group of young people sitting around a long table and just for a lark decide to ask them whether they have seen Khosla Ka Ghosla. They have all heard of the film but only one has seen it: Kaushik Shah, 24. “It is a very good movie,” he says, as he shakes Sahni’s hand. Sahni is on a roll and audiences will be hoping Chak De India will be as true to life as Khosla Ka Ghosla.

The power of pink

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

The flamingos of Sewri are captured in a stirring documentary by a sister duo

Shevlin Sebastian

Ashima Narain, 31, is shooting a courting sequence of flamingos at Sewri. The problem is that the flamingos, around 20,000 of them, are walking on the sludge, which is created by the waste coming from the nearby factories. But this sludge is dangerous: if you are a hefty person and step on it, you will sink. It is like quicksand. “But I wanted to take a shot of them courting and I needed to get close,” says Ashima, who is slim and of light build. “So, just before the tide came in, I went out.” Soon, she is so engrossed in the filming she forgets that the water has started to come in. “Then I realise my feet is wet and I start to walk back quickly,” she says. “But, when I am about 15m away from the edge, I start sinking. I am holding my camera and tripod above my head and I am in sludge, which is thigh deep and I could not get out.” There are 15 men watching Ashima and they are unable to do anything, because if they step on the sludge, they will also sink.
Suddenly, one of the men has a brainwave. He goes to a nearby home and calls out to his six-year-old son. “He walks easily on the sludge and takes my camera and tripod and it is only then I could use my hands and am able to come out,” says Ashima.
Work of love
For the first-time director, this is indeed a close shave. But she smiles when she says this, because in the end, it is worth it. A commercial photographer, the idea to do a documentary on flamingos came rather accidentally, when she read in a magazine of how every year, thousands of flamingos would fly from the Rann of Kutch and, possibly, Iran to the mud flats of Sewri for several months. They came because of the prevalence of algae, which they love to eat. Ironically, the effluents and sewage that is spewed into Sewri bay accelerates this algal growth.
“When I went to see them for the first time, I was appalled,” says Ashima. “There were all these factories all around and a shipyard and beyond them was this huge mud sludge. But then you saw this sea of pink…” Ashima’s voice trails off and there is a look of bliss on her face.
“I took a year to shoot the documentary,” she continues. “Because, unlike in feature films, where you can plan the shoot because human beings are acting, we cannot tell the flamingos that, even though it is not the mating season, ‘please do the mating dance for us.’”
And she discovered one interesting phenomenon during the shooting. Whenever she wore pink, she could get much closer to them. “So I would always wear the colour pink,” she says.
Asked why she made the film, her sister Ruchi, a Bollywood director and scriptwriter, who acted as producer of the documentary, says, “Ashima felt that we had this amazing phenomenon in the city and nobody knew about it, let alone, the rest of the world. In other countries, they will just have three pelicans or tortoises and they will make a park and people will come from other countries to see them.” Interestingly, the film has been funded by the sisters themselves; Ashima saved money from the fees she got as a commercial photographer.

Desolate and silent
One hot afternoon, I do go across to see the mud flats. Of course, at this time of the year, there are no flamingos, (they come in November and return in May) but there is an Afghan moneylender, Abdul Hamid Khan, 32, who is here to collect money from the workers of the nearby Colgate factory. It is silent and a stiff breeze is blowing. There is the Sewri fort at one side and a grove of mangroves on the other and the mud flats in front of me. “The sight of the flamingos is lovely,” says Khan, 32. “I come here often to see them.”
I go down to the edge and press my feet on the sludge. It is hard and when I mention this to Khan, he laughs and says I need to go about 10 feet further and then I would sink like a stone.

Soaring sight
On another evening, I go across to Fun Republic to see Ashima’s documentary, ‘In the Pink’. It is being aired during the ‘First Films’ feature film festival. It is a moving documentary, with an excellent script by Jerry Pinto, with touches of humour and pathos, and stunning cinematography by Sunjoy Monga. The sight of flamingos in full flight makes the heart soar. It is also funny, the way they bend their knees while walking. (see box). Out of 40 hours of footage, only 24 minutes were used. However, the documentary highlighted a bit of bad news. Studies have shown that there are alarming levels of heavy metals in water and sediment, which, in turn is affecting the algae. So the question is: how long will it be before it starts manifesting in the flamingos?
After the screening, teacher Shilpa Megharaj, 27, tell me she likes the documentary. “They have covered various aspects and presented the facts well. The photography and the commentary are good.” Another enthusiast is Laxmikant Deshpande, of the Center for Environment Education: “This is one of the best education movies I have seen in a long time. It is short and to the point and easy to understand.”
So what next for Ashima? Well, she has got a fellowship from the UK government and Discovery Channel to do another documentary on the dancing bears of north India. So, after flamingos, it’s bears and it looks like, for a while, commercial photography will be taking a backrest.

Flamingo Fast Facts
There are six species of flamingos found worldwide. Out of them, two come to Mumbai: the greater and the lesser.
The former is the tallest of all the flamingos, while the latter is the smallest.

The staple diet of flamingos is algae, which contains a carotenoid pigment that turns their feathers pink.

The greater flamingo has a more varied diet of crutaceans, insects, small fish and algae.
The lesser flamingos eat more algae, and therefore they have stronger coloration.

Flamingos are born gray. It takes 3-5 years for a flamingo to acquire its pink adult colouration.

All flamingos are filter feeders. To feed, it holds its beak upside down in the water, then uses its tongue as a piston to pump water through a fine grid of interlocking hair-like structures, which trap food.

The lesser flamingo can sift through 32 litres of water an hour looking for food, although it only requires 60g of algae a day.

Flamingos are naturally gregarious birds. They indulge in flamboyant and infectious group courtship displays.

Life expectancy is about 50 years

Monday, October 09, 2006

'Vanity publishing is the real problem'

Reproduction of this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Veteran poet Keki Daruwalla speaks out

Shevlin Sebastian

Keki Daruwalla, 69, has beads of perspiration on his forehead and is taking rapid breaths. It is clear he is unwell. In Mumbai, for a reading of his latest book, Collected Poems-1970-2005, he manages to read two poems and then feels faint. After a while, he apologises and leaves the Theosophy Hall. But the show goes on. On behalf of Daruwalla, fellow poets, Adil Jussawalla, Gieve Patel, Anju Makhija and Arundhati Subramaniam read from the book…
A couple of days later, I meet Daruwalla at his brother’s house and he looks far better. “It was a viral fever,” he explains.

Daruwalla is sturdily built and does not look like a poet at all. When I tell him this, he laughs and says, “In An Area of Darkness, V.S. Naipaul says Indians like to play their designated roles. So, the poet has to look dishevelled and be drunk all the time. But that is not how it happens.”

He says he knows of poets who work in insurance, banking and publishing. “And, of course, there is the famous case of T.S. Eliot who worked as a director of [publishing house] Faber & Faber.” Daruwalla, himself, has retired from the Indian Police Service; he was once Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

So what are the themes he has written about? “History, myth, travel, dreams, violence, the Emergency, the inner life and landscapes,” says Daruwalla. Says poet Anju Makhija: “He is extremely prolific. The poems have strong imagery, and you can read them over and over and gain something new each time.”

Eunice D’Souza, the retired English professor of St. Xavier’s College, says Daruwalla is versatile. “He has written on a wide range of subjects, many of which no one else has dealt with,” she says.
However, one of the criticisms the Indo-Anglian poet has faced is that he is emotionally distant in his poems. “Yes, I agree,” he says. “But that is part of the culture of Western poetry. You write according to the culture that permeates you. In Indian and Asian poetry, the tendency is to write with your heart on the sleeve.”

Emotional or not, in the modern-day money-obsessed publishing scenario, poetry is way down the list, in terms of importance. But Daruwalla says this has nothing to do with the calibre of the poetry. “We have some good younger poets like Jit Thayil, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Ranjit Hoskote and Arundhati Subramaniam. Unlike our generation of poets, they can make a line sing.”

When I convey this praise to Subramaniam on the phone, she sounds surprised. After a few moments of silence, she says, “Daruwalla is being generous about us. It is rare to see this kind of generosity shown by one generation to another.”

The biggest problem for poetry, says Daruwalla, is vanity publishing. “Any rich housewife who can scribble a few words thinks she should come out with a book,” he says. “That destroys the credibility of poetry. If a reader goes into a bookstore and picks up one of these books, he will think, ‘Oh God, is this what Indian poetry has come to?’”

By now, Daruwalla begins to tire, so I pop in one last question: what role does religion play in his life? “Not much,” says this father of two daughters, whose wife died in 2000. “I am a rational man. I am reminded of the joke when [French philosopher] Voltaire was dying. A priest came to him and said, ‘You must denounce the devil.’ And Voltaire replied, ‘This is no time to make new enemies.’”

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

‘The book is interpreting the world in these confusing times’

Permission to reprint this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

John Makinson/Chairman and Chief Executive, Penguin Group

John Makinson, 51, was in Mumbai recently for the launch of Portfolio, Penguin’s new business imprint with the release of The High-Performance Entrepreneur (Golden Rules of Success in Today’s World) by Subroto Bagchi.
Excerpts from an interview:

Shevlin Sebastian

The Economist has foretold the death of the newspaper in a couple of decades because of the spread of the Internet. What does that mean for book publishing?
I don’t think the pressures that apply to the newspaper industry apply in the same way in the book market. The book is a very different kind of product, whether it is a book read for entertainment or information.

What about children these days who go straight to the computer and avoid the book? What happens when they reach a book-buying age?
The challenge for book publishers is to make the product attractive to children who are used to working in a screen-based environment. So, that means, the use of design, illustrations and graphics in books. Of course, there is more competition in the form of play stations and televisions. But Harry Potter has shown one thing: the right book can appeal to young people in enormous numbers.

How big is the audio book market?
The audio book market is starting to show a lot of growth. And that is partly because of the format change from cassette to CD. The application of audio that is really starting to grow is the downloadable audio. So, audio books that can be listened on MP3 players and Ipods have become a big growth market. However, the numbers are small. Our sales are around a million dollars, in a business worth more than a billion dollars. So, it has to grow a lot.

Does that mean, there is no market for it?
No, it will grow at different speeds in different areas of the market. For example, the downloadable audio for travel publishing is doing well. If one is visiting Mumbai, it will be very attractive to walk around with an audio product, telling you where you are, and where you need to go. However, it is a complement, rather than a substitute for the travel guide. A lot of the applications of audio will supplement books.
What are the global trends in publishing?
There is a big demand globally, and certainly in this country, for intelligent non-fiction. Books like The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen have become bestsellers in India and globally. We live in a confusing and fast-moving world and these books help to interpret that world to people who are, at some level, confused.
Another trend is the hold that one generation of American airport best-selling writers had on a global audience, authors like Stephen King, John Grisham and Danielle Steele, is dipping; because readers are becoming more experimental. Rather than read the fourth book of a particular author, they might try a new one.
Word of mouth is very powerful in propelling a book to bestsellerdom. And that is a significant trend.
There is an increasing focus by publishers on a limited number of best-selling authors, in terms of how they allocate the marketing support. If you take the new Vikram Chandra book, globally, this is huge and every publisher of that book around the world is putting in a lot of marketing investment behind that book in order to make it a success.

Is it true that self-help books are one of the biggest sellers?
Self help books have always been an important category. People have always looked at these books as a way of improving themselves. Whether it is in their personal lives or business performance or in how they raise their children, books are a good guide on how to lead a better life. If you look at the market in China, self-help books are a tremendously important category. The Chinese have a huge appetite for self-improvement.

Is there any particular reason?
They are very ambitious for their children. So, there is a big market for books that tell them how to educate their children, how to equip them with skills, whether it be the English language or technology or business information that will enable them to live more prosperous or fulfilled lives.

Which is the hottest market for Penguin worldwide now?
India is hot. Penguin is, by a long way, the leading English language trade publisher in the country. This year, we have had a 27 per cent growth, as compared to last year, and this is the highest percentage of growth in the world for us. What is helping is the rising prosperity, the growth of the middle class and the increasing use of English.

Yet, if a book of fiction sells 5,000 copies, it is regarded as a best seller.
Traditionally, 5,000 copies is regarded a bestseller. As a rough mean, that stays the case. What has happened now is the big brands have become much bigger. Which means, Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games has already sold 20,000 copies. Earlier, this would sell a total of 10,000 copies.

Portfolio: this new business imprint. Do you feel there is a market for business books in India?
There is a huge market. We are aiming it at business people and those who have an interest in business. There is an interest in India, in what makes businesses successful in the enterprise economy and what that means for India. Outside India, there is an enormous interest in the Indian economic success story. What we are hoping with Portfolio here is not just that we will bring some of the books that Portfolio in the US has published successfully to India but there will almost certainly be a worldwide audience for some of the books that we originate in India.