Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Grand Old Man

A.K. Hangal, one of Bollywood’s enduring character actors, who died recently, had an interesting life and career 

By Shevlin Sebastian  

In May 2006, while working in Mumbai I had the opportunity to meet the veteran actor A.K. Hangal. He lived in a small apartment in the suburb of Santa Cruz. The most striking aspect was that he looked and spoke exactly like the characters in his films. At that time he was 89 but Hangal was mentally sharp and smiled all the time. A legendary character actor in Bollywood, Hangal, who acted in over 200 films, died on Sunday in Mumbai.

Hangal was in the news then because he had just been awarded the Padma Bhushan. But he found it difficult to believe that he had won it. “Unlike most people, I had not lobbied for the award,” he said. “In fact, I never expected to get it. What made me really happy was when I heard that it was a unanimous decision of the jury.”

Hangal was born in Peshawar, spent time in Karachi, where he was a freedom fighter, and moved to Mumbai after the 1947 Partition riots with only Rs 20 in his pocket. Years of struggle ensued. A Leftist, he was a member of the Indian People’s Theatre Association, and did stage plays for several years. But in 1966, Hangal became an actor in Bollywood and embarked on a 46-year career in the industry.

Asked the secret of good acting, Hangal said, “If you want to be an excellent actor, you have to be a person with good qualities. I also worked hard to look natural on screen. I did an in-depth analysis of the character I was portraying. I studied the person's background, economic position, and the community to which he belonged. Another way to have a deeper understanding of human beings is to move around in society.”

Not surprisingly, he was disappointed about the direction Bollywood was taking. “Society changes, and that is reflected in the films,” he said. “Now, there is a different kind of acting.”
And he elaborated on this. “When I acted, I talked from the soul of the character,” said Hangal. “Today, many actors speak with their muscles (he breaks out into laughter). It is more about physique than heart. Society has become superficial. People only want money. It is the world of consumerism. Very few people read or discuss philosophy or ponder about the deeper aspects of life.”

During the period of the interview, the media was focusing on Amitabh Bachchan who had been hospitalised due to an intestinal surgery at Lilavati Hospital. A stream of prominent Bollywood personalities came to meet the acting icon. However, at the same time, the legendary music director O.P. Nayyar was being treated in the same hospital, but nobody went to see him.

Asked why this happened, Hangal said, “Nayyar has become irrelevant. So nobody is interested. It happens in every profession, so why single out the film industry? This is human nature.”

Unfortunately, Hangal suffered the same fate as Nayyar, because no well-known Bollywood personality attended his funeral.

Hangal led an eventful life, but encountered painful obstacles. He fell foul of the Shiv Sena when he attended the Independence day celebrations of Pakistan in Mumbai in 1993. “Bal Thackeray [Shiv Sena supremo] gave the order to boycott my films,” said Hangal. “He said that I should not be given any assignments and the theatres where my films were shown came under attack by the Sena goons. At midnight, I would get threatening calls on the phone. I remained jobless for two years. My wife died, my son’s wife died. I was in hospital. I was having financial problems and went through a difficult time. Thackeray forgot that I once worked alongside his father in Samyuktha Maharashtra Samiti [an organisation that demanded a separate Marathi-speaking state in the 1950s]. I was a freedom fighter before he was born. I am not against anybody. So, why should he be against me?”

And, typically, Bollywood refused to come out in Hangal’s defence.  But the veteran did not get upset about it. “People were afraid of Thackeray,” said Hangal. “That's life.”

The thespian broke out into a broad grin when asked about the meaning of the word, 'Hangal'. “Hangal means stag (a deer),” he said. “I belong to a Kashmiri Pandit family.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)  

A school romance

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Anoop and Anila Jacob fell in love when they were students. Anila talks about her life with the Food & Civil Supplies Minister

Photo by Kaviyoor Santhosh 

By Shevlin Sebastian

At Nanthancode, in Thiruvananthapuram, in the 1990s, Anoop and Anila Jacob would go to school together with their friends. While he studied in Christ Nagar, she was in Nirmala Bhavan. She remembers the uniform he wore. “It was a white shirt, navy blue pants, maroon tie, and black shoes,” she says. One day, when they were in Class 9, Anoop took Anila aside and told her that he loved her. “I also liked him, but I kept quiet,” she says.

They were family friends. While Anila's father was a superintendent engineer in the irrigation department, Anoop's father, T.M. Jacob, was the irrigation and water supply minister. “There was a close relationship between the two families,” says Anila. “Soon, our parents came to know that we had feelings for each other, but there was no negative signal. One reason could be that we belonged to the same church.”

Because of his father's position, Anoop and Anila could not go out for dates. “But we met often at family functions,” she says. Like all ‘in love’ couples, they exchanged gifts often. “In the beginning it was cards,” says Anila. “But during the pre-degree course, Anoop gave me a Titan gold watch on my birthday. It was a precious gift for me.”

After their graduation, they tied the knot on May 23, 2002 at the St. Peter's Orthodox Jacobite church. And after ten years of marriage, Anila likes her husband's simple and loving nature. “There is no show but I know that Anoop cares for me,” she says. “He has also given me a lot of freedom.”

Anoop is also very religious. “Every night before he goes to sleep he will say his prayers, and read the Bible,” says Anila. “He will never miss this, even if he is travelling. He places a lot of importance on this. I am not so devout, as compared to him.”

As for his drawbacks, Anoop was an introvert for many years. “He used to have a small circle of friends,” says Anila. But all this changed when T.M. Jacob died of liver failure on October 30, 2011, at the age of 61. “Anoop had to take the plunge immediately and step into his father's shoes,” says Anila. “He had to learn to be outgoing and friendly with all types of people. It was during the campaigning for the Piravom seat [which was held by his father] that he began to change.” Incidentally, Anoop (UDF) won the March 2012 election by defeating M.J. Jacob of the LDF.

But Anoop has paid a price, following this win. “He told me that he has been so busy, he has not been able to grieve over his father's death,” says Anila. Today, apart from being the MLA from Piravom, Anoop is also the Food & Civil Supplies Minister.

As a result of the twin responsibilities, Anoop is hardly ever at home. “He will leave at 8.30 a.m. and return only by 11 p.m.,” says Anila “There is no time for the family now. I have adjusted to this because I have seen how busy my father-in-law was. But I worry about the impact on our children, T.M. Jacob, 5 ½, and Lyrah, 3 ½. I always tell him that whenever he is travelling, he should try and talk to the kids on the phone. They are seeing him very rarely now. On the weekends, he has to go to the constituency at Piravom.” As a result, Anoop and Anila rarely have any time together.

But, recently, on Ramzan, when Anoop had some free time, they went and saw a film, ‘Ustad Hotel’. “Can you believe that we saw a film after six months?” she says. “We no longer have a normal life.”

In fact, she says, the first seven years were the most wonderful when Anoop was practicing in the High Court and they lived in Vytilla, Kochi, far away from the glare of the public spotlight.

Anila has found it difficult to adjust to the limelight. “Whenever we go out, people stare at us and I do feel uncomfortable,” she says. But when times are tough, Anila remembers some of the good moments of their marriage.

On their second wedding anniversary, the couple flew to Mauritius. “We went para-gliding,” says Anila. “We were up in the sky, floating like a bird, and holding hands. It was a moment of togetherness that I will always cherish.”

Asked what is needed to make a marriage successful, Anila says, “Adjustment is very important. But I also feel that we should take advice from our parents. My father-in-law was deeply involved in our lives and it had a positive impact on us. I would urge newly-married couples to see the help of their parents whenever they face any problems.”    

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)  

Monday, August 27, 2012

All in the right 'Spirit'

Director Ranjith reflects on the success of his movie on alcoholism, ‘Spirit’, and why all his recent films have done well at the box office

Photo: Director Ranjith (sitting) with actor Tiny Tom 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Joseph Mathew, a cine fan, watched the scene in the film, ‘Spirit’, when Mani, the drunken plumber, was beating his wife, with violent thumps to the head, he shielded his face and looked downwards. “The scene was far too intense and powerful,” he says. “I could not bear to look.”

A few days after the movie was released, another ‘Spirit’ viewer called Ranjith. “He vowed that he would never beat his wife again,” says the director. A woman said that if the film had been made five years ago, her husband, who died of alcoholism, would have been alive. One young man called to say that just like Mani suspected that his eldest son was the product of an extramarital relationship of his wife, he was also in the same boat. It was no surprise to Ranjith when he was told that the boy’s father was a drunkard. “You cannot think straight when you are an alcoholic,” says Ranjith.

'Spirit' is about a former bank employee, Raghunandan (played by Mohanlal), who becomes a famous TV anchor. He is an alcoholic who is divorced by his wife, because of his addiction. And as he slowly becomes entrapped in the disease, Mani's case brings about a transformation in Raghunandan. Not surprisingly, in Kerala, which has one of the highest per capita consumption of liquor in India, the film struck a chord among the audience. “The movie showcases the dangers of drinking too much,” says Joseph.

This is Ranjith's third film in a row which has become a hit. The earlier two were 'Pranchiyettan & the Saint' and 'Indian Rupee'. While 'Indian Rupee' was about a real estate agent trying to make a fast buck, in 'Pranchiyettan', a merchant displays a golden heart and has lengthy one-sided conversations about life with a saint.

Asked why the movies did well Ranjith says, “I have addressed social issues, which have been troubling society for a while. Apart from that, I have been honest. In all the three films, there were no ingredients to make it a hit; like colourful songs, action sequences, fights, and peppy cinematography. The content is what made them do well. In short, the script is king. Without a good script, no matter what technical skills you possess, the film can never do well.”

But Ranjith takes a while to find a subject. “I always ask myself, ‘why am I doing this theme?’” he says. “If there is a convincing answer within me, then everything will shape up beautifully.”

Even though he writes the basic script, within weeks, he keeps changing the dialogues till the last minute. “As the shooting unfolds, I might get new ideas,” he says. “There is a constant creative work going on in my mind. There should be an answer to questions like, 'What is the reason for this particular scene?', 'Should I film it?'”

Of course, it helped that superstar Mohanlal came up with a superlative performance in ‘Spirit’. “He is the best actor in the Malayalam film industry,” says Ranjith. “Writers and directors have not been able to use the full range of his talent. In short, he is not being challenged.”

But in 'Spirit' Mohanlal rose to the challenge. All thanks to Ranjith who is in a creative bloom in the second-half of his career.

(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Off the beaten track

The Delhi-based Ranbir Kaleka’s work is unusual, imaginative, and food for thought  

Photos: A collage of the haveli in which artist Ranbir Kaleka lived as a child; Ranbir Kaleka

By Shevlin Sebastian

The first sight of artist Ranbir Kaleka was a little disconcerting. He was wearing a hat, inside the Children's Park auditorium, apart from a coat. It was his signature dress throughout his Kochi visit.

Right next to him, on a large screen, there was a picture of a haveli in a village in Patiala. It was run-down, and of exposed red brick. At the background a tower could be seen. “I lived in this house for the first five years,” he says. “It was a very sheltered life. I did not know how people lived outside. I spent a lot of time alone. In fact, I did not know the passage of time. Because of the slowness, every little event was a moment of significance.”

So Ranbir would watch how the shadow moved from one end of the courtyard to the other. “Although I could not actually see it moving,” he says. “There were older parts of the house which were closed and shuttered off. My family moved away and I entered these rooms only when I was 12 or 13 during school vacations.”

Once, on one such visit, he used a ladder and went up to the attic and found a little box. “It looked very dirty,” he says. “But inside it was pristine and there was a red velvet background. There were little pockets and instruments for making cartridges. This led to a lifelong fascination with objects and shapes.”

Ranbir was giving a lecture at the 'Let's Talk' event set up by the organisers of the Kochi Muziris Biennale. The Delhi-based artist had come to check out the sites selected for the Biennale.

Meanwhile, his reminiscences continued. “I would draw with charcoal on the walls as a child,” he says. “Sometimes, my mother would say, it is time for lunch. I would tell her I have to finish the drawing. But once my uncle told me that the Italian masters would take years to finish a painting. That had a big impact on me. I slowed down tremendously. Later, in my career as an artist, I would sometimes take three years to finish a painting.”

Ranbir went on to show paintings from his college days. One called 'I am Homesick' is of a pushcart in a railway station. “There was a strong smell of pickle, which reminded me of home,” he says. “I painted this pushcart and put a pickle jar on top with a granny-like figure inside. On the right, there is a figure from the haveli. There were some dark rooms and I imagined all kind of beings existing there.” 

In a mixed media work, a nude man is on his knees and keenly observing a spinning top, while two women stand at the door and are looking outside. It seems extremely real and with its size, 73 x 55 inches, it is a very large painting. If one were to see it in actuality, it would have a stunning impact. 

In a work titled, ‘Lion and the milk bowl’, the animal stands near the door of a room, looking incongruous in that setting. A woman, with an exposed breast is holding a bowl of milk, while in the upper floor, there are several nude men wrestling. The image is so unusual and odd, that you tend to keep staring at it.

Most of Ranbir’s images look strange and unreal with unusual titles like, ‘Ochre Dust in a delusional paradise’ and ‘Man with beard or the itinerant librarian’s dilemma of choice and refusal’. How did he imagine some of the scenes? The art aficionados in the hall were “oohing” and “aahing’. But clearly he will not win any popularity contest with the philistines.  

At the end of the show, there was a video presentation which brought some of the paintings alive. In summing-up, Ranbir is an exceptional artist with a unique imagination and mind-set.  

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Friday, August 24, 2012

“Do not hurt any living being”

Says preacher Narendra Ramji Nandu at the at the annual festival of Paryushan Parv at the Jain temple in Mattancherry

By Shevlin Sebastian

If you treat somebody badly, you are treating God badly,” says Narendra Ramji Nandu during the annual festival of Paryushan Parv at the Jain temple in Mattancherry. “Suppose you have a friend, who is fair-skinned. If he were to go into a coal mine and then come out he will look black. But you know that he is white inside. Whatever a man looks on the outside, inside he is God. Remember that all human beings are white underneath. No doubt many do wrong actions, yet there is something good in everybody.”

The Mumbai-based Narendra is a preacher who, unlike a Jain monk, is married and has a son. For the past forty years, he has been traveling all over India preaching to people. But since 1998, he has been spending long stretches of time giving talks to Jains living in the USA and Europe.

In his talks, he enunciates on the principles of Jainism. “The most important concept is that of ahimsa or non-violence,” he says. “Do not hurt a living being, be it a man, animal or insect.”

He urges his fellow Jains to be truthful. “Be honest and do not steal from anybody,” says Narendra. “Lead a simple life. And do not forget the powerful impact of karma. Whatever incident takes place in your life, it is because of actions done in the previous life. If you do wrong in this life, you will suffer in your next life. If you do good things there will be positive results.” 

One of the most remarkable aspects about Narendra is that he eats one meal every second day. The rest of the time he survives on drinking warm water between sunrise and sunset. 13 months of this tapasya is called Varsithap. “For the past 16 years I am on Varsithap,” says Narendra. “As a result, I have no health problems whatsoever.”  

If you eat less food, paradoxically, you get more energy, especially if you learn to meditate at the same time. “When you meditate, the energy is conserved,” says Narendra. When asked about the right method, the preacher says, “Close your eyes and observe whatever thoughts come to the mind. Do not get attached to them. Just remain an observer. Over a period of time, you will notice that your mind has become silent. Another way is to concentrate on the breath going in and out. This will also help to silence the mind.”

It is clear that this combination of very little food and meditation has resulted in a tremendous energy radiating from Narendra. As businessman Malay R. Chandaria says, “At 9 p.m. after a long day of pujas and talks, he is as fresh as ever. In fact, Narendra Guru goes to sleep only at 2 a.m. and is awake at 5 a.m.”

For Dilip D Khona, the secretary of the Sri Cochin Swetamber Jain Sangh (SCSJS), it is Narendra’s humility that impresses him the most. “Apart from that, he is a spell-binding speaker,” says Dilip.   

In his travels all over the world, Narendra has noticed that the Jains, like people of all faiths, suffer from two major problems. One is poor health, caused by the stresses of daily life. And the other is money. “The lack of money is a problem,” says Narendra. “But when a person has too much wealth, he has no peace of mind.”

For the rich, he advocates sharing of the wealth. “This will create an inner happiness and will enable them to lead a simple life,” he says.

And, of course, Narendra advocates the constant chanting of the Navkar Mantra, the most powerful hymn in the Jain religion. It goes like this:

Namō arihantānam: I bow to the people who have gone before us
Namō siddhānam: I bow to the fully liberated souls
Namō āyariyānam: I bow to the spiritual leaders
Namō uvajjhāyānam: I bow to the teachers
Namō lōē savva sāhūnam: I bow to the monks

Says Nitin J Javeri, the treasurer of the SCSJS: “When Narendra Guru chants the Navkar mantra, there is a special energy in the hall. All of us experience inner peace and tranquility.”

In a world of endless conflicts and bloodshed, Narendra’s emphasis on love and spirituality is a much needed balm. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

In love with a 24x7 politician

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Anna Linda talks about her life with Hibi Eden, one of the youngest MLAs

By Shevlin Sebastian

The first time Anna Linda met the politician Hibi Eden, it was to interview him about his memories of Onam for a television channel in 2008. This was held at the Hill Palace in Tripunithara. There were other politicians present. “Hibi was in a hurry,” says Anna. “I asked a few questions. He was quiet and silent, as compared to the others.”

Six months later, Anna was walking through Kaloor, Kochi, with her brother, Aristo, when she came across Hibi at the bus stand. The Kochi-based politician was on his way to Chalakudy. “Hi Hibi,” said Anna. It took some time for Hibi to recognise her. At the taping of the interview, she was wearing a saree, but now she was in jeans and a T-shirt. They talked a bit. Later, Hibi invited her to be her friend on the Orkut web site. “Soon, we were checking each other's profile and having online chats,” says Anna.

Over a period of time, that graduated to telephone calls. “It would be mostly about politics,” says Anna. It was just before the April, 2009 Parliamentary elections and there was talk that Hibi would be nominated by the Congress for the Ernakulam seat. However, in the end, Prof. K.V. Thomas got the nod.

Meanwhile, it was difficult for both of them to go out on dates. “Hibi was a known figure and if we did that tongues would wag,” says Anna. “So our romance was conducted mostly on the phone.”

A few months later, Hibi proposed. Anna asked for some time to think over it. After a week, she said yes. “I knew he was the guy for me,” she says. Anna could tell her parents, but Hibi had nobody. “He lost his mother when he was young and his father died when he was in college,” says Anna. “Hibi is the one responsible for his family. At that time, his younger sister was not yet married.”

Anyway, on January 30, 2012, they got married at the St Francis Church at Kaloor, followed by a grand reception at a star hotel which was attended by more than a thousand people.

Regarding his qualities, Anna says, “He is a transparent person. Hibi tells me all about all his experiences during the day. If he meets any of my former colleagues he will text me immediately. And I will message them saying, 'You met Hibi!' And they will tell me they are amazed by how well we are communicating with each other.”

Asked whether Hibi is a different person at home, Anna says, “Of course he is. That is the case with anybody. Hibi, at home, is very relaxed and jovial. He is like a normal 29 -year-old. But, in my eyes, he is a phenomenal man.”

The big advantage for Anna is that they both have the same likes. “I love films and he is a movie buff,” she says. “Whenever we get any free time we rush off to see films, be it Malayalam, Hindi, or  English.”

Hibi is also a foodie, like Anna. “We eat out two to three times a week,” she says.

But there are drawbacks. Anna had to get used to the loss of privacy. “The house is always crowded from 6 a.m. till 9 p.m.,” she says. “In the first few months, it took me time to adjust to the constant presence of visitors. That is the politician's life. The people show the same love and affection to me which they extend to Hibi. I have now got used to it.”

And she has also got used to the fact that a politician's life is very busy. “If Hibi is having a fever and wants to take rest, he might not be able to do so if there is an important programme coming up,” says Anna. “He cannot take leave from this public job. It is 24 hours and seven days a week. The maximum number of functions takes place on Saturday and Sunday.”

Even their honeymoon to Dubai was also affected. “We went for seven days, but had to return earlier because there was an emergency in Kerala,” says Anna.

But there are moments which Anna will always cherish. Once she had fallen sick and went to spend time with her parents in Guruvayur. She missed Hibi very much but because it was the weekend, she knew he would not be able to come and see her. However, at midnight, there was a knock. When her mother opened the door, it was Hibi.

“I was touched,” says Anna. “He had come all the way from Kochi just to spend two hours with me. Then he returned because people would be waiting to meet him from 6 a.m. onwards. Hibi surprises me like this all the time.”

About Hibi Eden    
Hibi Eden is a member of the Indian National Congress. He was elected from Ernakulam district in 2011 as a member of the Legislative Assembly of Kerala. Since 2009, Hibi has been the president of the National Students Union of India.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, August 20, 2012

A load of laughs!

With potent one-liners and personal anecdotes, four stand-up comedians – Praveen Kumar, Kunal Rao, Brij Bhakta and Aditi Mittal – allow a Kochi audience to enjoy non-stop fun

Photos: Praveen Kumar; Aditi Mittal

By Shevlin Sebastian  

How many of you think life sucks?” asks Praveen Kumar at the start of 'Laff Lines', a two-hour stand-up comedy show at the JT Performing Arts Centre, Kochi. The crowd is silent. Then Praveen says, “Let me rephrase the question: how many of you are married?”

As the crowd erupts in laughter, Praveen gives a shy smile. “I am so happy to be in the second city where you find the most Malayalis,” he says. “The first, of course, is Dubai.”

The jokes continue: Rajnikant is Tamil Nadu's top superstar. And a superstar can do anything. One day, a girl rushes up to him and says, “Sir, I have lost my virginity.” Rajnikant immediately replies, “Don't worry, I will find and return it to you.”

The audience is in splits, but Praveen is getting warmed up. “I went to Thailand for a honeymoon,” he says. “Only a fool will do that. And I saw such inviting posters: 'Take two girls and get one HIV free!'”

All this is a far cry from the day Praveen performed for the first time in front of a young corporate crowd in Bengaluru on November 26, 2009. “I did five minutes of material and the people started booing me,” he says. “They burst balloons and interrupted me in the middle of my jokes. They wanted me to get down from the stage.” Finally the Master of Ceremonies intervened.

Praveen ran out of the hall. “I went home and cried my heart out,” he says. “It was one of the worst days of my life.” But he learnt a few lessons. “There is a difference between spoken and written humour,” he says. “Most of the time what is written might not work on stage. You have to perform in front of a live audience to know what will work.”

And he kept performing till he became better. “In 2009, I did five shows a year,” he says. “Now I do five shows a week.” But it is still not a full-time job. During the week, he works as a senior marketing specialist for a US-based financial solutions company.

But the Mumbai-based Kunal Rao, at 32, has already retired as a chartered accountant. “I was looking for something creative to do,” he says. And he stumbled upon stand-up comedy when his college friend, Sorabh Pant, was performing comedy shows. “I became his opening act for the one-hour show,” he says. So far, Kunal has done 150 shows in places like Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Alibagh, Nasik, and Kochi.

A lot of the material is personal,” he says. “So I talk about being single and vegetarian, and of my life as a former chartered accountant. I have a standard routine, but I do a couple of lines about the city I am performing in.”

Like all the other stand-up comedians, he has performed in pubs, restaurants, auditoriums, hotels, and numerous corporate functions all over the country.

But unlike Kunal, Brij Bhakta has performed, not only in India, but in the United States of America. “I grew up in America,” he says. “Two of the greatest stand-up comics – Bill Cosby and George Carlin – served as an inspiration for me.” Brij did a five-year course at the ImprovOlympic at Chicago. “I studied acting, directing, writing scripts and stand-up comedy,” he says.

And his sets, obviously, has an American angle. When Brij was 14 years old, he was waiting outside his school in St. Louis, Missouri, for his father, Madhukar Bhakta. Suddenly a classmate, Rebecca, came and hugged him. “I hugged her tightly back,” says Brij. “When I turned around I saw that my father had come.”

He got in and Madhukar sported a long face. “Throughout the car ride, my father remained silent,” says Brij. “He did turns of the steering wheel, without shifting his body. Like as if he was driving straight ahead all the time.”

They reached home and Madhukar parked the car in the garage. “See this,” he told Brij, as he took out the latch of the seat-belt and put it back in the socket. “Do this only after your marriage,” he said.

Asked about the qualities needed to be a good stand-up, Brij says, “You have to believe in what you say. You should not tell jokes for the sake of telling them. You have to put yourself in the joke. Honesty is also important. The stuff that I say really happened to me. Yes, I may be bending the truth little, but it is still true. Lastly, your material should be funny.”

Aditi Mittal looks funny. She makes all sorts of body movements: bulging out eyes, legs locked together, pushing her bum out, and expressive hand gestures. And, not surprisingly, her jokes are from a woman’s viewpoint. “I talk about my interactions with sanitary napkins, ghosts, animals,  eve-teasers and Bollywood,” she says. “Everybody loves to hate Bollywood.” 

In 2004, Aditi had gone to New Jersey to do a bachelor’s degree in mass communication and theatre at the Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey . On weekends, she would go to New York and watch a lot of stand-up comedy. When she returned to Mumbai in 2009, she took part in ‘Open Mic Nights’ for aspiring stand-up comedians. On January 16, 2010, she did her first show and has now done several performances in Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Hyderabad , Chennai, and Kochi.

Indians are maturing as a people,” says Aditi. “Earlier, when you made fun of somebody, people took it as a slight. Now, they are ready to laugh at themselves.” And stand-up comedy is rapidly becoming a popular form of entertainment. “Everybody likes the fact that under the jokes there is an underlying truth,” she says. “As the saying goes, ‘Truth is comedy; comedy is truth.’”

Aditi’s happiest moment occurred during a performance in Bengaluru, when a woman shouted, “Oh my God my mascara is coming off!” The reason: she was laughing so much the tears caused her make-up to flow.

In Kochi, Aditi also reduces the audience to tears with her routine. Once she makes a clever allusion to the American invasion of Iraq in 1991. “They will make deodorants out of anything,” she says. “However they will not make anything out of the two smells that we like: wet mud and petrol. If you use petrol deodorant, then America will invade your armpits. And that would be reason enough for Bush to be in there also.” 

And last, but not the least, Aditi takes a potshot at the Mallus: "Dude, with that moustache, every coffee you drink will be a filtered one."

(A shorter version appeared in The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

A magical evening of songs

Music composer Jerry Amaldev and his choir mesmerised an audience during a performance on Independence Day

Photos: The 'Sing, India Chorus'; Composer Jerry Amaldev

By Shevlin Sebastian  

It is fitting that when Jerry Amaldev and his 'Sing, India chorus' begins the ‘Choral Eve’ programme on Independence Day, August 15, he begins with a rendition of ‘Vande Mataram’. It is the traditional song, and not the version as sung by Oscar winner AR Rahman.

There are 20 male and female singers wearing white and black and holding thick songbooks in their hands. As for the instruments, there are acoustics and bass guitars, a piano, keyboard and a rhythm composer. It is interesting to observe the age range: from a youngster with a mop of curly black hair to a grey-haired bespectacled man.

The choir begins with a couple of Malayalam songs: ‘Aana aana jana’, which was used in the Malayalam film, ‘Attappoovum nulli’, and a Christmas carol, ‘Shantham Prasantham’. This was followed by ‘Bum Bada Bum’. “It is a percussion sound made vocal by the singers and is an overture from the opera, ‘William Tell’,” says band member Joe Gabriel. “It is the sound of a man riding a horse and aiming an arrow at an apple placed on the head of his son.”

Meanwhile, Jerry takes the mike, and says, “I must congratulate this audience for their attentiveness. During many concerts, in my experience, the usual Kerala crowd talks about prawns and vegetables. Respect is not given to the people performing on the stage. Please understand that unknown songs are more difficult to enjoy, than known songs. But do listen with an open mind.”

And, indeed, one of the unknown compositions is a Filipino children’s song, ‘Bahay Kubo’, which is about vegetables. And this is confirmed by the English translation: ‘Palm hut, even though it is small,
The plants it houses are varied,
Turnip and eggplant, winged bean and peanut,
String bean, hyacinth bean, and lima bean.’  

But it is not so unknown because in the audience a young girl tells her father, “Our Music Sir taught this in school.”

A striking song is the Negro spiritual: ‘Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world’. “Black people used to sing this song in church,” says Jerry. “Since they were treated worse than animals for centuries, when a person died it was a moment of celebration, because it meant the end of suffering any more injustices.”
The song was made world-famous by the great Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. But the chorus sings it with equal fervor and the audience is enraptured easily.

They are also entranced when the group sings one of the most famous Jewish songs: 'Hava Nagila' (‘Let us rejoice’). The choir sings it loudly, with verve and energy, accompanied by a pulsating tempo. Of course, many singers have rendered this Hebrew song, including Bob Dylan, Glen Campbell and our very own Usha Uthup, but the most well-known was by Harry Belafonte, regarded as ‘The King of Calypso’. And he sang it slowly, without any music accompaniment, except for the soft sound of a tambourine.

Thereafter, Jerry lives up to the audience’s silent wish when, for his final song, he launches into one of his timeless hits, ‘Aayiram Kannumayi’, sung by Yesudas in the 1984 hit, ‘Noketha Doorath Kannum Natt’.

Jerry sings it, with felicity, and when he asks the audience to participate, a foreign girl in the front row gives a sheepish grin. But the crowd does sing along, a song that sounds as fresh as when it was released more than two decades ago.  

Throughout the 17-song concert, Jerry is a master conductor at work. He guides the singers and the musicians with deft movements of his hands and nods of his head, breaking into an occasional smile. It is fascinating to watch how the singers are all focused on him and sing accordingly. The result is a flawless performance, made dazzling by the remarkable unison of all the voices.

As Fr. Raju Chakkanattu, the director of the Don Bosco Musical Academy, which organised the programme, says, “Thanks to Jerry Master and his team, we enjoyed a magical evening.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Kerala in its multifarious moods

At the Varsha Chitra exhibition, artists portray the 12 months of the Malayalam calendar

Photos: An acrylic on canvas by Rajan Kadalundi; a watercolour by Seemon Joseph. 
Credit: Mithin Vinod

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, in October, 2010, Sasi K. Warier, owner of the Indian Art Gallery, Kochi, got an idea: 'Why not form a group of like-minded people?' And thus was born Panthirukulam. There are 12 artists of varying backgrounds: two are cartoonists, one is a Customs Superintendent, while another is a professor of paediatric nursing at the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences. “There are also web designers, interior decorators, businessmen, and full-time artists,” says Sasi. Incidentally, the name 'Panthirukulam' is a reference to the legend of a woman having 12 babies all growing up in different backgrounds.

One year ago, Sasi came up with an idea of meeting twice a month where they would do paintings on the 12 months of the Malayalam calendar. “The reasoning behind it was that it would enable us to meet, work, and bond with each other,” says artist Sunil Moothedath. So, in the past one year, they did so, and the result is 'Varsha Chitra', an exhibition in which there are 144 paintings, done by the 12 of them to represent every month.

For Medam (Aries, April-May), Rajan Kadalundi has done an acrylic on canvas which shows a vibrant sun beating down and two women who are holding sheaves of wheat, but are perspiring profusely. One of them is also carrying a water utensil on her hip. “I wanted to indicate that there is a water shortage,” says Rajan. A boy is yelling as he holds up firecrackers in one hand and a sparkler in the other. “During Medam, there are several festivals and I wanted to show the celebrations,” he says. The painting has been done in red to indicate the intensity of the heat. The presence of a lighted lamp suggests the beginning of Vishu, the new year.

Seemon Joseph has adopted a signature image for all the twelve months. Every one is of Nature. And they are all soothing sights: thick black clouds hovering over an expanse of land, wet paddy fields in a shimmering green, and for the month of Meenam (Pisces, March- April), he has painted two ponds bifurcated by a mud path with coconut trees on the fringe. “I decided to do portraits of nature because, in watercolour, it looks the best,” he says.

Senior artist T.N. Raju has shown a black crow sitting on a rock. Next to it is a river with flower petals on it. Against the backdrop of clouds, a lighted door can be seen in the sky. “This is the entrance which leads to the other world, after we die,” says Raju. “That is why it is brightly-lit.” When Raju was a child he was deeply affected by the way the ashes were immersed in the water and flower petals were strewn about and they flowed slowly down the river, indicating the inevitable ebbing of life. The sight of a crow is always auspicious during the month of Karkidakam (Cancer, July- August).

James P.J. has drawn an image of two cows with long horns racing down a slushy field guided by two bare-chested farmers holding stick in their hands. The splashes of water are shown in thin straight lines at the bottom indicating the speed at which the animals are moving. Behind them, are shadowy figures of men and women looking at the action. “During the Medam season, such races take place regularly in Kerala and Tamil Nadu,” says James. “There is a festival-like mood and prizes are given to the winners.” 

As for Sunil Moothedath, he has done a simple work of several colourful umbrellas placed in a bucket, just outside a shop, to indicate the month of Edavam (Taurus, May-June). Just beside the bucket is shown the legs of a jean-clad man who is standing on the edge of a step. “He has no umbrella, so he is waiting for the rains to stop,” says Sunil. “This work shows that the monsoon season has arrived.”

A.A. Ajithkumar has drawn two grasshoppers sitting on top of each other on a silvery leaf and copulating. There are flowers all around. In the distance there are a hint of clouds and oncoming rain. “Usually the grasshoppers get intimate at night, hence the presence of the dark clouds,” says Ajithkumar. “And a pair is the symbol of the month of Midhunam (Gemini, June- July).”

R. Shyju has done something similar: a woman's face, painted in green, half super-imposed on another, done in brown. “Since Midhunam is Gemini in the English calendar, I wanted to portray the sun sign, which has the twin symbol. So I showed the two faces of a woman.”

The other artists who took part include T.N. Subodh Kumar, Balakrishnan Kadirur, Joby Ravindran, and Manoj Mathasseril.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A palette of rich colours

COLUMN: Spouse’s Turn

Radhika talks about life with Bose Krishnamachari, one of India’s leading artists

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Radhika was studying at the K.J. Somaiya College of Commerce in Mumbai, one day, her younger brother Hemant came home with a few friends, including a senior, Bose Krishnamachari, from the Sir JJ School of Arts. Radhika glanced from her room and saw a man with very long hair.  “He wore an orange batik kind of kurta,” she says. “He was talking non-stop in Malayalam with my mother. I wondered who he was.” But they did not meet.

Later, Radhika went to Panjim, Goa, on an appointment with the Income Tax Department. She returned to Mumbai after three-and-a-half years. Then her mother Sumathi placed an advertisement in a marriage bureau. By coincidence Bose also placed an ad there. He saw Radhika’s details and called up Sumathi. (Incidentally, Radhika’s father died when she was only 12 years old.)

A meeting was fixed on a Saturday – Radhika’s off day. “Bose was wearing an olive-green shirt,” she says. “He was very quiet. His hair was much shorter. There was a look of worry on his face.”

Since Bose’s family was in Kerala, he had come along with a few painter friends like Riyas Komu, T.V. Santhosh, Kiran Kelkar and Justin Ponmani.

Bose told Radhika, “I have zero balance in my bank account, but I still think I will be able to look after you.”

Even though Radhika liked his sincerity and transparency, she felt that they were like chalk and cheese, since she was in a different profession. “So I suggested that he would be more comfortable getting married to another artist,” says Radhika.

Bose said, “That would be a disaster. I want somebody unlike me.”

It seemed like love at first sight, because both said yes to each other immediately after the meeting.

The marriage took place at the Guruvayur temple on April 22, 2001. And what Radhika likes the most about her husband is that he is a cool-headed person. “On the other hand, I can be hot-tempered,” she says. “I also like that he is never overbearing. Bose has given me all the freedom to live the way I want to live.”

Bose is also a loving and caring person. “When he goes abroad, he is always buying me gifts,” says Radhika. So, she has ruby and diamond necklaces, as well as one of the most unusual ones: a necklace made of cooled lava, with inlaid silver. “He bought it from the Design Shop at the Museum of Modern Art in New York,” says Radhika. “Thanks to his creative gifts, I am the envy of all my friends.”

As for the drawbacks, Bose is a workaholic. “He gets so involved in his work that at certain times he forgets his family,” says Radhika. “Sometimes, in the middle of the night, he will get up and roam around the house, all sorts of ideas in his head.”

Like most wives of artistes, Radhika has discovered a truth which can be painful to any spouse. “Art comes first, and I am second,” she says. “It is not an issue for me, because I am happy he is doing what he loves. Not many people are able to do that.”

But the biggest drawback for Radhika and their children, Aaryan, 9, and Kannaki, 6, is that Bose is hardly ever at home. “I miss him a lot,” she says. “It is the only subject on which we fight. Bose travels a lot. And because he is the Artistic Director of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, he is in Kerala for long periods. I am worried because he is not able to give time for the children. This is the time you must be with them. Once they are 15 or 16, they will have their own activities and will be out with their friends. He is missing out on their growing-up years.”

Radhika also yearns for the simple things in life: for all four of them to go out on a family outing, and to have a morning cup of tea or breakfast. “Those moments have become rare for us,” she says. “And when he is with us he gets calls on his mobile all the time. That can be very upsetting.”

But in the end, Radhika loves Bose as intensely as the first time they talked to each other. “The secret of a good marriage is mutual trust,” she says. “And both spouses should give space to each other. Thereafter, everything else will fall into place.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Music is the food of life

Retired engineer George Mampilly has a collection more than 18,000 songs in MP3 files. All of them are original versions 

Photos: Sebastian Kunjukunju Bhagavathar, a noted stage performer, actor, singer, and author in the 1940s and 50s in Kerala; collector George Mampilly

By Shevlin Sebastian

The other day George Mampilly received a packet by courier. It was sent by a friend B. Vijaykumar who lives near Mattancherry. It contained a cassette of seven songs from the 1962 film, 'Swargarajam'. “I had been looking for this for a long while,” says George.

George has an unusual hobby: he collects original versions of Malayalam songs and converts it into MP3 files. “By original, I mean that the first time a song has been sung, I take that copy,” he says. George gives an example: the song 'Alliyambal kadavil' from the 1965 film, 'Rosy', has been first sung by Yesudas. “Thereafter, there have been numerous versions by other singers,” he says. “But I avoid that.”

At this moment, he has 18,503 songs stored on his laptop, using the 'I Tunes' software. This is not bad when you consider that since 1938, the total number of Malayalam songs is 19,200, spread over 4700 films. George's collection begins in 1941 and carries on till 2012.

Not surprisingly, in his archive, Yesudas leads the way with more than 5000 songs, while on the distaff side, it is Chitra, with 1200 songs, with S. Janaki coming second with 800 songs. “They are legends, and the fact that they sang so many songs prove it,” he says.

Ten days ago, George got another packet. This contained cassettes of 17 songs from Sunil Elias, the grandson of Sebastian Kunjukunju Bhagavathar, a noted stage performer, actor, singer, and author in the 1940s and 50s. “These were old songs from the 1950s,” says George. “There was no hope of getting these items.”

There was also no hope of getting songs from earlier films. The first talkie film in Malayalam was 'Balan', released in 1938 and directed by S. Nottani. “Unfortunately, not a single song or film frame exists,” says George. 'Gnanambika' is the second film. The singers include CK Rajam, Mavelikara Ponnamma and Sebastian Kunjunnu Bhagavathar. “I have songs from that,” George says, with a smile.

Since his friends know about his hobby, they also provide information. One friend, Tinny gave George a tip. There was a shop in Alleppey, which used to sell cassettes. Now they were into CDs. When the Kochi-based George went to the shop, at the corner there were two sacks filled with cassettes. He rummaged through them and got many old songs. 

Another contact was Eldo, who has many long playing records with speeds of 33 1/3 and 78 rpm. “The collection was begun by his father,” says George. “I went there and recorded many songs.” He has also befriended collectors in Pala and Thiruvananthapuram.

But George is careful that he avoids using revival music. “In this type of music, they keep the singer’s voice but add the sound of new instruments and change the background music and put it in the market,” says George. “I ensure that I don't copy these.”

So far George has not made any commercial use of his collection. “I am willing to share it with others provided I am convinced that the person will not sell them,” he says.

George, 63, an equipment maintenance engineer, worked for 20 years in the automobile section of the Saud Bahwan group in Oman. But three years ago he decided to quit. “When the managing director asked why I was leaving I told him that for thirty-five years I followed somebody else's timetable,” says George. “Now I want to set my own timetable.”

And that timetable has been focused exclusively on his music collection. “It has become a passion for me,” he says. “Times passes in a state of bliss. Those who are music lovers will understand what I mean.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)  

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

A college love story

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Sreelatha talks about life with singer Biju Narayanan

By Shevlin Sebastian

Sreelatha met singer Biju Narayanan during her pre-degree class at Maharaja's College, Kochi. “We had feelings for each other in the first year itself,” says Sreelatha. “But we were too young to understand what we felt. But once we reached the degree class, things began to get serious.” At that time, her most memorable moment was on a Valentine's Day, when Biju presented her with a card on which he had inscribed, 'To My Wife'.

Biju impressed her on another occasion. One day, a classmate, Asha told Biju that there was a beautiful, fair, and slim girl in the science group, who was also a singer. Asha said, “This girl will be a good match for you.” But Biju replied, “I would like to get friendly only if I want to get married. I am not interested in a romance.” Says Sreelatha: “Biju’s reply made me very happy. I realised he was not the flirty type.”

In the final year, Biju proposed marriage. But they were both only twenty years old. “How would we live?” says Sreelatha. “We had no income.” So, she decided to do her law degree and secured admission in the Law College at Thiruvananthapuram.

One day, she left for the state capital, accompanied by her father, Narayanan Nair. During the journey he gave her a Malayalam magazine in which there was an article on upcoming singers. “There was a photo and an article about Biju,” she says. “Since my father knew that Biju was a classmate, he had given me the magazine. I read through it with joy but I also felt guilty because my parents did not know that I was in love with Biju.”

Following the law degree, both Biju and Sreelatha enrolled for their MA in Maharaja's College. And it was only on January 23, 1998, a full ten years after they first met, that they got married. During those years, Biju established himself as a devotional and playback singer (see box).

For Sreelatha, what she likes about her husband is his straight-forwardness. “He will not talk ill of anybody behind their back,” she says. “Biju is a loving and loyal person, although he does not express it. He has the same friends that he had in college.”

Since Biju is on tours often, Sreelatha has to handle the day-to-day running of the household and to look after their children, Sidharth, 13, and Suryanarayan, 8, both of whom study at Bhavan's Kendriya Vidyalaya school in Giri Nagar. “The children and I are used to his absences,” says Sreelatha. “But they look forward to his return because he always brings them gifts.”

As a father Biju is close to his sons. “But there are times when he gets distracted and goes into a different world of his own,” says Sreelatha. “I don't know what he is thinking.”

For Sreelatha, the one drawback of Biju is that he can lose his temper. “It can be over the most trivial of matters,” she says. “It cannot be predicted. I do get hurt at times. But I know this happens because he is a sensitive person.”

Sreelatha is also sensitive when it comes to being in the spotlight. “I am a private person,” she says. “There are people who enjoy being known. That is not the case with me. I don't like to go for public functions. This hesitation puts Biju into a problem. Because he has to go alone, while the others are accompanied by their wives.”

On the rare occasions that she goes to witness a concert by her husband, she feels nervous. “Biju is also like that,” she says. “On the day of a performance, he is tense from the morning. He hardly eats anything, but once the show begins, after two or three songs, he begins to relax. That is the time I enjoy his singing.”

Her favourite is the first film song Biju had sung: ‘Pathu Veluppinu’ from ‘Venkalam’. “Thanks to that, his career took off,” she says. “So, naturally, I like that song the most.”  

Asked about advice she would give to youngsters who are about to get married, Sreelatha says, “Marriage is all about adjustments. If both are adamant, it will not work. Earlier, people would say the wife should be accommodating. But nowadays, when husband and wife are working, there should be compromises from both sides.”

She says that there should be a sense of sharing and affection between the spouses. “We should also love our in-laws in the same way we love our own parents,” says Sreelatha. “The children are watching how you treat your elders. Then they will treat you in the same way.”

About Biju Narayanan

Biju Narayanan has sung more than 400 film songs and brought out 2500 Hindu, Muslim, and Christian devotional albums. 

Some of his popular songs include 'Keli Vipinam', 'Mazhavilkodiyil', 'Maarivillin' and 'Sooryanai Thazhuki '.Recently, he sang for 'Ordinary' and 'Mayamohini'. From his youth, he has trained in Carnatic music. His turning point came when won the in the light music category at the MG University youth festival. He travels all over the world doing concerts.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)