Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Russian love story

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Evgeniya Liuban talks about life with actor Babu Antony

Photo by Mithun Vinod 

By Shevlin Sebastian

At a Christmas party in San Francisco, in 1997, Evgeniya Liuban, who has a masters degree in classical music, was playing the piano and singing hit songs of singers like Stevie Wonder, John Lennon, Boney M, and Barbra Streisand. Sometimes, she would play the classical tunes of greats like Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt and Ludwig Van Beethoven. Suddenly, a man walked in, wearing a T-shirt and jeans. “I felt an immediate attraction,” says Evgeniya. “His appearance was different. He was tall and looked powerful. And there was something mysterious about him.”

After her performance they started talking. Evgeniya was accompanied by her aunt, Maria, who knew the relatives of actor Babu Antony. At the end of the party, Babu asked her out for a date. Two days later, they went to a Chinese restaurant. Thereafter they went for regular outings, walking along the San Francisco Bay area, and spending time on beaches. “I had seen Indians before, but it was the first time I was talking to one,” says Evgeniya.

In the next few weeks, Babu began to drops hints of marriage. “Once he showed me a family photograph and pointed at himself in the photo, and said, 'This is your future husband,'” says Evgeniya, with a laugh. Finally, he proposed. They applied for a licence to get married in California. A wedding gown was selected. But suddenly Evgeniya felt unsure. It was all going too fast.

She flew back to Moscow to talk to her father, Gregory. Her mother had died, years ago, of blood cancer at age 42. “I told my father that an Indian wanted to marry me,” says Evgeniya. “He was shocked. He said it is such a different culture. The people are different.”

Meanwhile, Babu was calling Evgeniya three times a day. Finally, Babu landed up at Moscow, met Gregory, his second wife, Natalia, Evgeniya's brother, Vladislav and their grandmother, Sofia. “My dad liked Babu,” says Evgeniya. “My family said he was a good man but they were not sure whether I should get married to him so soon. They told me to wait for a while.”

The registered marriage, in Moscow, took place on January 14, 2004. Initially, they stayed in America, then in Babu's family home in Ponkunnam in Kottayam district, and now they live in a 16th floor apartment in Panampilly Nagar at Kochi.

Asked about the qualities she likes about Babu, Evgeniya says, “He is sincere and honest and it is easy to be with him. Babu rarely pretends. He never shows off even though he is in movies and is well known in Kerala. He is kind and always supports me.”

But sometimes, Evgeniya does get irritated when Babu gets involved with his work. “His mind is full of his projects,” she says. “He walks around in the house, and does not notice me. He should be more attentive.”

On most days, Babu gets up at 6 a.m. His first job is to keep an eye on their two-year- old son Alex, while Evegniya gets their elder son, Arthur, 7, ready to go to school. After that, the couple has breakfast. “Babu usually has oats and fruits,” says Evgeniya. In the morning, Babu does errands for the house, and works on the computer on his plans for his first directorial venture, 'Piano'. 
Interestingly, Evgeniya has sung an English song, 'Bud of Love', for the film.

For lunch, the couple eats Kerala and Russian food. Regular Russian items include the Kartoshka, which is made of mashed potato, butter, milk, and salt, and the Golubzi, a cabbage leaf preparation, with meat, rice, and onions. “We Russians usually have coffee after our meals, but Babu smiles and says no,” says Evgeniya.

In the afternoon, Babu takes a nap, and later, he goes to the gym, which is located in the apartment building in which they live in. Sometimes, the family goes swimming in the building pool, or they go jogging at the Rajiv Gandhi Indoor Stadium. At night, Babu goes out to meet people from the film industry. 

And, slowly, over the years, Evgeniya has gotten used to life in Kerala. “In the early years, because of homesickness, I would go every six months to Moscow,” she says. “Now it is once in two years.” Incidentally, Babu does not know Russian, Evgeniya does not know Malayalam, so they communicate in English. But the children speak Russian, English and Malayalam fluently.

Asked for tips for a successful marriage, Evgeniya says, “There should be constant communication between the spouses. If there are problems, it should be solved by talking, instead of fighting. There should be trust between husband and wife. Without trust the marriage will be ruined. When things get boring, you can go for vacations, to renew the marriage.”

My career

By Babu Antony

Bharatan, a well-known director, introduced me to movies. I have done over 175 movies in five major Indian languages (Malayalam, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada) playing a wide range of roles including as hero and supporting actor. I have just finished filming for 'Buddy' in Malayalam. Will start shooting for 'Moonnam naal Jnayar' (3rd day is Sunday). Some of the hits in recent times in which I have acted in include Gautam Menon's 'Vinnai Thandi Varuvaya in Tamil, remade in Hindi as 'Ek Deewana Tha', and 'Kanchana' by Lawrence Master in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada. My last Malayalam super-hit was 'Grandmaster'.
(From www.babuantony.com

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, February 25, 2013

The portrait of the artist as a teacher

Best-selling novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is also a professor of creative writing

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1998, best-selling novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni was teaching a course in literature at Foothill College in California, USA. “I was reading from a [1899] novel called 'The Awakening' by Kate Chopan,” she says. “The students would ask questions and clarify their doubts.” But Chitra noticed that one young woman, Susan James (name changed) was very quiet. “I could never figure out whether Susan was absorbing anything,” she says. Anyway, the course concluded and the students moved on.

However, one day, during the next semester, Susan dropped in to see Chitra. “She told me she had been going through a bad time and was contemplating suicide,” says Chitra. But in ‘The Awakening’, where the main character, Edna Pontellier, commits suicide it made Susan realise the impact it had on the people who were closest to Edna. “Susan said, ‘What a waste of a life suicide is, when Edna had talent, and lots of things going for her,’” says Chitra. “Susan said she decided she would not give up on her life.”

Chitra was stunned by what she had heard. “It made me realise how powerful literature is, and how it can change lives,” she says. “I became more sensitive to my students' needs.”

Today, Chitra is a teacher of creative writing at the University of Houston. It is a top-ranked national programme, where, out of hundreds of applications that the university receives, only 10 of the most talented writers are selected for the graduate fiction programme.

These students are determined to become writers,” she says. “While they are studying with us, they are also working on their first books. Some of them have already published one. But they want to learn and get better.”

Chitra teaches three-hour classes twice a week. She also spends a lot of time in her office where she has one-on-one interactions with the students. “A lot of the time I am working on their manuscripts, but, sometimes, I give them reading lists,” she says. “Or I help them prepare for their exams.”

As to the oft-repeated doubt about whether writing can be taught, Chitra says, “What a writing programme does is to sharpen the talent. We can teach the students to look for their strengths and weaknesses. Some may be good at creating characters, but not at writing plots. I can also point out when the story becomes uninteresting.”

Some of the topics that Chitra teaches include ways to structure a story, how to make the setting come alive, and create powerful characters.

Asked about the method to create a powerful character, Chitra says, “Picture the character in a setting doing something, so that you can get a sense of a person moving and speaking. Then you have to think about what makes the character a complex person. The most powerful people have many dimensions to them. They are not all good or bad. They have surprising traits. It will come out as you write the story.”

A strong character always needs something. “When we look at the great literature down the ages, from the Ramayana onwards, the heroes and heroines wanted something very strongly,” says Chitra. “Additionally, the character should face conflict or tension.”

But to do all this, you need to practice. “I have come across a lot of students who are very talented. The ones who go on to become established writers are the ones who put aside enough time to write, no matter how busy they are,” says Chitra, the author of 17 books. “Writing is very much like practising music. You can be a very talented musician, but if you don't practise, you will not go beyond a certain level.”  

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


Charming and meaningful

David and Goliath’ highlights the simplicity within people, the lure of greed, and the impact of tragedy

Photo: Jayasuriya in 'David and Goliath' 

By Shevlin Sebastian

The film, ‘David and Goliath’, begins with the wailing of an abandoned baby near the St. Thomas church, set in a tea estate, in the hilly regions of Vagamon. It is rescued by Fr. Gerald (P. Balachandran). He grows up to be David (Jayasuriya), a devout, God-fearing boy, who has the strange habit of getting a nose bleed whenever he feels tense. But nevertheless, David has a kind of genius when it comes to inventions. So he makes a heater, using the water from the well to generate electricity, as Fr. Gerald is worried about paying high electricity bills.

Director T. Rajeevnath takes his time to unfold a well-written script by Anoop Menon. Soon, other characters emerge: Jaynamma (Lena Abhilash), who loses her faith in God, after her children are run over by a lorry, and becomes an alcoholic. Lena appears, with no make-up at all, in sharp contrast to her normally glamorous roles, but she shines with a suppressed intensity. Indrans, as the priest’s helper, also makes a mark. David tries to help Sharon (Soumya), a young village girl, who is being harassed by a tea estate worker, Shravanan. Like David, in the Bible, he uses a catapult-like contraption to knock the assailant over.

Things start gathering pace when Fr. Gerald dies of a snake bite. One of David’s inventions, a bulb which works without electricity, is spotted by failed businessman Sunny Kaimattom (Anoop Menon), the Goliath in the film. And he markets it successfully, takes the credit, as well as the money.  

There are a couple of minor blemishes. A nail enters David’s feet while he is running to save Sharon. But thereafter, he does not limp at all and there is no scene showing that it is being treated. At a meet, to announce a new product, at the Ernakulam Press Club, there are several microphones placed on the table, including one of the BBC News. In real life, the presence of the British broadcaster would have been unlikely.   

The movie moves at a slow pace, especially in the first half. Nevertheless, it is a charming film, with some excellent camera work by Jithu Damodar, and will definitely appeal to an older audience. Not sure whether Generation Next will take to it. And the confrontation between David and Goliath is not as earth-shattering, as the original version in the Bible.

However, there are underlying lessons to be learnt: how simple people are always taken for a ride by the shrewd. How a tragedy can shatter a woman and make her bitter. How a single death can wrought significant changes in people’s lives.

Jayasuriya impresses with his subtle changes of mood, his understated style, and a sweet boyishness. And, unlike in many Malayalam movies, ‘David and Goliath’ has a low-key ending, that one was not sure whether the film had ended, till the lights came on in the hall.
It will, most likely, be a sleeper hit, depending on ‘word of mouth’ recommendations.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

A whole lot of INK

A fascinating array of speakers, from different walks of life, will be participating at the INK (Innovation and Knowledge) Conference, to be staged from October 25-27, at Kochi. A preview of the event was staged recently

Photo: Dr. Nitin Ron 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When little Bruce was born at 26 weeks, he weighed only 600 grams,” says Nitin Ron, neonatologist and associate professor of paediatrics at New York Methodist Hospital. “He did quite well after he was born and we were able to take off his breathing tube within a week. One month later it looked as if he was going to recover.”
But then Bruce developed a condition called necrotising enterocolitis. That means, in a premature baby, the blood supply to the intestines abruptly stops, and large parts of it becomes black with gangrene and die. “This condition could be fatal,” says Nitin. “We took Bruce to the operating room, opened him up and saw that almost all of the baby’s intestines were gone. We were dismayed because there was nothing we could do.”
The baby was stitched up, and taken back to the intensive care unit. “At this moment his breathing and all other organs were supported by machines and medication,” says Nitin. “I told Mummy Bruce that the baby may not survive. She said, ‘Doctor Ron please do your best and I will make sure that my love, compassion and kindness for my baby will heal him.’”
For the next four weeks, this mother sat next to her baby reading, caressing and speaking to him. She slept for only one hour in the afternoon and two hours at night.
And one morning, the baby smiled. “Unlike adults, little babies cannot fake a smile,” says Nitin. “I thought there may be something right happening in the baby’s abdomen. We re-opened his stomach and, wonder of wonders, large parts of the baby’s intestines had healed and rejoined. We have never ever seen anything like this before.”
Three weeks later, Bruce came off the respirator and after another period of convalescence, he was discharged. Today, Bruce is four years old and doing well. “I do know that Bruce was saved because of the advances in science and technology,” says Nitin. “But I also understand that it was the mother’s love, compassion and kindness for her little baby which made the child heal. So, Bruce is my hero and role model.”
Nitin was speaking at the Ink (Innovation and Knowledge) Conference, 2012, at Pune, where some of the world's accomplished people, like film director James Cameron and author Deepak Chopra, as well as unknown genuises came together for three days of talks.

So, there were people like Subhendu Sharma, who gave up a well-paying job in Toyota in Japan and has been planting urban forests in India and different parts of the world. Then there was D'bi Young Anitafrika, a Jamaican born, Canadian dub poet and monodramatist, whose one-woman show, shown on video, during a preview show by INK, at the Casino Hotel, recently, stunned a Kochi audience, with her powerful stories of rape, incest and being afflicted with HIV. And who can forget the charming Arunachalam Muruganatham who has made a low-cost sanitary napkin.

The first conference was held in 2009 under the auspices of TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design), the world's leading platform for ideas and innovations. “Around 1200 people from 40 countries converged in Mysore,” says Anson Ben, director of Programmes at INK. Now INK is coming to Kochi with a three-day conference from October 25-27 at the Le Meridien hotel.

There will be 50 speakers in total,” says Anson. “We search for people who are doing fascinating work, from Kuala Lumpur, to the Congo, from the jungles of the Amazon to the island of Japan.” Each speaker is given a time between 3 to 18 minutes, with the average being 12 minutes. “We know the attention span is not very high these days,” says Anson.

The only note of dissonance to this fascinating event is the Rs 1 lakh entry fee. “The fees are high,” says tech entrepreneur NR Joseph. “Not many ordinary people will be able to take part. This is more so for creative people who usually do not belong to this affluent bracket.”

Says Anson: “We are committed to conducting top-quality events rarely seen in India. We fly down over 50 speakers from around the world - some in first class and some with their entourages. Our production teams come from the UK and India to put this together. All this costs a lot of money and ups the price. But we have an offer of a 50% discount for a few days. And for young people, for a nominal amount, there will be a live telecast of the event close to the main venue, which includes interactions with the speaker.”
To know more, check out www.inktalks.com

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Frame by frame

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Deepa Ravindran talks about her life with cinematographer Santosh Sivan

By Shevlin Sebastian

In June, 1993, Deepa Ravindran was walking back home after attending a computer class in Thiruvananthapuram. Suddenly, a family friend, Santosh Ravindran came up on a motorbike, and offered a lift. On the way, Ravindran stopped at a photography studio. There, Deepa met Santosh Sivan, the cinematographer. They started chatting. “I told him I had seen his film 'Perumthachan' and liked it,” says Deepa. Santosh spoke about his career. On the table, there was a photograph of Santosh, his hair looking unkempt.

You look wild,” said Deepa.

I am wild,” said a smiling Santosh.

After a while, Deepa returned home. Later, that evening, Ravindran told the truth to Deepa. It had been an 'arranged meeting' for a marriage. Earlier, both the families had exchanged horoscopes, and it turned out to be suitable. But nobody had informed Deepa because she had specifically told her parents she wanted to work after she completed her master's in housing at the School of Planning, Ahmedabad.

Deepa asked for some time. Then she returned to Ahmedabad, and realised she could not get Santosh out of her mind. Eventually, she said yes. The couple tied the knot on November 8, 1993. And, today, Deepa is a fan of her husband. “Santosh is a wonderful and mature person,” says Deepa. “He has always corrected my petty attitudes. I used to complain about the quality of food all the time. But from day one of our marriage, any food that came in front of him, Santosh will make a positive comment, like 'Fantastic, or 'Excellent', before we eat it.”

But what has been most amazing for Deepa was to encounter Santosh's highly-developed sense of intuition. In their house, at Chennai, there was a chandelier in the living room. The maid would sleep under that. One day, after dinner, at midnight, Santosh was sitting at one corner of the living room. Suddenly, he said, “Deepa, is the chandelier fixed properly?”

Two days earlier, Deepa had called the electrician, who checked all the fans and the lights, including the chandelier. The couple went to sleep. But at 3.30 a.m., the chandelier fell to the floor.

For a few seconds, I stopped breathing,” says Deepa. But thankfully, luck was on Deepa's side. For some reason, the maid slept in another part of the living room.

When asked about his negative qualities, Deepa says, frankly, “Santosh is unpredictable, in his moods. When he is going through the scripting and the creative phase of a film, he can become tense and short-tempered.”

But, most of the time, Santosh is relaxed and spends a lot of time with their five-and-a-half-year-old son, Sarvajith. “Santosh is a loving father and tells our son lots of stories,” she says.

When Santosh is at home, he gets up at the unearthly hour of 4 a.m. Then he will have a cup of black coffee. Thereafter, Santosh will work on the computer or read something. “He does a lot of thinking at this time,” says Deepa. At 5 a.m. he goes for a morning walk.

Following breakfast, he will drop Sarvajith to school. When he returns, Santosh will read, or watch a film, write something or play games on the computer. Or if he has a meeting, he will go for that, or somebody will come to meet him. Sometimes, he does a painting. “It is usually an acrylic on canvas,” says Deepa. “The subjects include birds, animals, and human figures.

After lunch, Santosh will sleep for three hours. “In the evening, he will go out to meet somebody, or read a book,” says Deepa. “He is a voracious reader of fiction as well as non-fiction.” The books Santosh is reading now include 'The Immortals of Meluha' by Amish Tripathi, Vikas Swarup's 'The Accidental Apprentice', and 'The Seven Secrets of Shiva' by Devdutt Pattnaik. “His favourite is ‘Gift in Green’ by Sarah Joseph,” says Deepa.

Meanwhile, asked about the tips for a happy married life, Deepa says, “The difference between earlier marriages and now is a lack of commitment. In those days, as a bread-winner, the husband would take responsibility for the family. The wife would look after the children and bring them up. Our traditional system had a value and I believe in that.”

But Deepa, who works as a freelance for interior projects, is all for women to be financially independent. “But these days everybody is in a hurry,” she says. “There is no time to pause or look back. I feel it is a mistake on the part of girls to think only about their careers. That is why marriages are breaking up. Spouses should learn to show love and compassion to each other.”

About Santosh Sivan

The Thiruvananthapuram-born Santosh Sivan is a well-known cinematographer, director, actor and producer. He has made 45 films and 41 documentaries. He is a founding member of the Indian Society of Cinematographers and is its most decorated Director of Photography. 

Santosh is also the first cinematographer in the Asia-Pacific region to be bestowed with membership of the American Society of Cinematographers. He was awarded the National Award for Best Cinematography for Perumthachan (1991), Kaalapani(1996), Iruvar (1997), and Dil Se. (1998). Overall, he has won 13 national and 21 international awards. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, February 18, 2013

A Nostalgic Look at the Past

KP Reji’s work evokes childhood memories and the long relationship with the British

Photo by Mithun Vinod

By Shevlin Sebastian

In September, 2012, the Baroda-based Malayali artist K.P. Reji set up base at a lodge near Fort Kochi. And every day, at 8.30 a.m., he would set out towards Pepper House, a venue of the Kochi Muziris Biennale. There, on the first floor, inside a large hall, with its windows
facing the sea, Reji would sit and ponder about his life, while a blank canvas remained, silent and mute, against one wall.

Slowly, images from his childhood in the village of Allapuzha, the Venice of the East, would come up. “I remembered the time when, during Gandhi Jayanti day, [on October 2], a lot of schoolchildren, carrying knives and brooms, would clean the school premises and cut the overgrowing grass lining the roads and highways,” he says. “Although it was done in the name of the apostle of peace, we were using a bit of violence, by using the knives.”

At other moments, he remembered trips to Kochi where he saw large ships sailing towards the Arabian Sea. He also recalled the paddy fields, which were aplenty, when he was growing up. “But our family lost the land because a new railway line was coming up,” says Reji. “As for the others, some of the fields were converted into the more lucrative fish farms.”

Soon, Reji started painting. And, at the end of three months, of 12 hour work days, Reji has produced a remarkable triptych, a 15’ x 10’ oil painting. On the banks of a river, are a group of boys, with knives, but with a playful look on their faces. Next to them are a flock of ducks. There is also a snow-white goat nearby. 

But what is eye-catching is the sight of a naked man, probably belonging to a low caste, who lies across a broken bund, to prevent flood waters from flowing into a paddy field. Right behind them all, and with a towering presence, is the aircraft carrier, the INS Viraat, painted in gray, which is gliding past peacefully.

Asked about the presence of the carrier, in a sylvan setting, Reji says, “We brought this from Britain. It gives an indication of our long relationship with the British because of their 200 hundred year rule of India.”

Reji says that the overwhelming experience for viewers is a sense of loss. “The work has enabled them to go back to the past,” he says. “There are evocative images: a carrier, small children, ducks, and a paddy field. My aim was to take cliche images and present them in a
fresh manner.”

Indeed, an earlier painting, of a mother with a baby, also gives a fresh perspective. Reji drew her, holding the child, but under the bed. Above, on the asbestos roof, there are all sorts of rocks and implements. This was part of a solo exhibition called ‘Just Above My Head’, held in Mumbai, a few years ago. “We are always under pressure,” he says. “A mother is protecting her child, but there is a load of responsibilities above her.”

Reji’s paintings are easily accessible and evocative but he is reluctant to use the word, ‘simple’. “I prefer to say that I avoid complications in my work,” he says, with a smile. 

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

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

In tune with each other

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Reshmi talks about life with noted playback singer G. Venugopal 

Photo by Kaviyoor Santosh 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When singer G. Venugopal decided to get married, he gave out a few horoscopes. One was given to classical vocalist Mannur Rajakumaran Unni. Venugopal, a programme executive at All India Radio at Thrissur, met Unni through his job. Meanwhile, Unni was a family friend of Reshmi. So he gave them the horoscope. Reshmi’s and Venugopal’s horoscopes matched. So, a meeting was set up at Unni’s house. At that time, Reshmi had just completed her BA in English literature at Little Flower College at Guruvayur.

“My first impression of Venu was that he seemed to be an okay guy,” says Reshmi. “During our conversation he asked me about how many marks I had scored in my degree exams. So, it was all very unromantic.”

Anyway, the families agreed to the marriage, and the couple tied the knot on April 8, 1990. And it seemed to be the right match because they got along well from the beginning.

“Venu is patient and ever willing to listen,” says Reshmi. “He is positive-minded, sensitive, and understanding. If I am in a low mood, he is able to sense it immediately.”

Like all artists, Venugopal believes in freedom. “He never forces me to do anything,” says Reshmi. “For example, I am a camera-shy person, especially when it comes to TV. So he never forces me to appear on

If Reshmi has a complaint about her spouse, it is his too-trusting nature. “As a result, he has been cheated a few times,” she says. “On the other hand, I am careful. When I see people who are not trustworthy, I will tell Venu immediately. Sometimes, he listens to me, sometimes he does not.”

Venugopal has a busy career, so it was not surprising that one of Reshmi’s happy moments occurred when they went for a holiday to the Maasai Mara National Reserve (a safari park) in Kenya in October, 2012. “Usually when you go to a foreign country you go to see the tourist sites,” says Reshmi. “But this time we saw a lot of animals and came in close contact with the members of the Maasai tribe.”

They spent a week together accompanied by their daughter, Anu Pallavi, 13. “Unfortunately, our son Arvind, 21, [who is doing his post-graduation in communication from Christ College in Bangalore] could not make it,” she says.

So what sort of a father is Venugopal? “He is very friendly with them,” says Reshmi. “He never scolds the children or asks them to study.  When my son was a child, Venu was travelling a lot. So he was not able to spend much time with him. But with my daughter, he is there much more.”

Whenever he is at home, at Thiruvananthapuram, Venu gets up at 6 a.m. Then he does yoga and works on a treadmill. Otherwise, he might go for a morning walk. “This takes about 45 minutes,” says Reshmi. Thereafter, he will read the newspaper, along with a cup of tea. It is only after that Venugopal will switch on the mobile phone. “Then depending on the calls he has got, the rest of the day will be decided,” says Reshmi.

Sometimes, there may be a recording in the morning. Then he will have his breakfast and leave. If the work is in the afternoon or the evening, he will go to the bedroom and start practising using an electronic tampura. “Venu is doing Carnatic lessons,” says Reshmi. “If there is a recording in the evening, he will not strain his voice a lot.”

During their free moments, the family goes for movies, social visits, or to Venu’s parents’ house nearby. “Otherwise, he will sit and read,” says Reshmi. “He is a voracious reader of fiction and non fiction, both in Malayalam and English.” Incidentally, the book Venugopal is reading now is ‘Marxism in India: From Decline to Debacle’ by Kiran Maitra.

Asked for tips for a successful marriage, Reshmi says, “Nowadays, youngsters don’t want too much of an age gap between the spouses. Maybe, one or two years. But I feel that an age gap is good. Because then the man will be more mature. The gap between Venu and me is eight years.”

She urges girls not to nag their husbands. “I know of many wives who do this too much,” says Reshmi. “Men don’t like to be nagged. Don’t compare them to another person. A lot of times I disagree with what Venu is saying, but I keep quiet, and react later when we are both calm.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Indian Dracula

The 6’ tall Sudhir is playing the vampire in Vinayan’s ‘Dracula-2012’. 

By Shevlin Sebastian

One night, in 2009, a shoot was taking place at an old bungalow in Kuttalam for director Vinayan’s ‘Yakshiyum Njanum’. The villain, Sudhir, who was wearing a long white kurta and trousers, was asked to jump over a wall. To increase the impact of the jump, there were several backlights.

When Sudhir leapt over the wall and came forward, Vinayan experienced a feeling of horror.

“He felt it was as if Dracula had jumped over,” says Sudhir.

Vinayan said, “Did anybody tell you that you look like Christopher Lee in Dracula?”

Sudhir shook his head.

Vinayan said, “When you go back home [to Kochi], have a look on the Internet,” said the director.

When Sudhir did so, he felt that Vinayan was right. “My nose and the forehead looked similar to Christopher Lee’s,” says Sudhir. Meanwhile, Vinayan got the germ of an idea: to do an Indian version of Dracula, made world famous, by the best-selling novel of Bram Stoker and by the films in which Christopher Lee played the vampire.

After a while, Vinayan told Sudhir about the story of his Dracula film and concluded with a question: “Do you know who is going to play Dracula?”

Sudhir shook his head.

“It is you,” said Vinayan.

Sudhir started shivering. He had joined the Malayalam film industry in 2003, and had played a villain in the blockbuster hit, ‘CID Moosa’. Thereafter, he acted in several films and in television serials, but this was his first opportunity to play a hero.

To look like a tough Dracula, Sudhir embarked on a vigorous exercise programme, which included weightlifting and treadmill walking, went on a controlled diet, and lost 20 kgs in one year. He was now a fit and trim 80 kgs and at 6’, he gave off energy and determination.
The shoot took place in Alleppey, Chennai, Hyderabad and Romania.

On a cold April morning, last year, in the town of Bran, near the Castle of Dracula, Sudhir was relaxing inside a caravan. He had two jutting-out teeth, shoulder-length brownish hair, a blood-spattered white shirt, a black cloak and thick leather boots. Suddenly, somebody
peeped inside and the word spread like wildfire – ‘Dracula is inside.’

Soon, all the shopkeepers, customers, and local people rushed to the caravan. “They wanted to get the blessings of Dracula,” said Vinayan. “Everybody took photos of Sudhir.” They also showered him with money. After six hours, Sudhir was richer by 1500 leu (Romanian currency) or Rs 45,000. Said one townsman: “We earn our livelihood only because of the castle. Dracula is our God and not a ghost.”

But as the shoot progressed, in the castle, Sudhir got the distinctive feeling that the ghost of Dracula was watching him. “There came a time when I felt afraid to go inside,” he says.
Sudhir might have been afraid, but that did not prevent him from sucking the blood of six nubile women, including the heroine Monal Gajjar. And in trademark Vinayan style, a trailer confirmed that the film is steeped in sensuality. This effect is going to be heightened
because it is a 3D film.

The movie is being released in four languages: Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and English. “But what is most exciting for me is that the worldwide distribution of the English version is being done by Universal Pictures,” says Sudhir. “It is the first time that a major
Hollywood studio has dubbed a Malayalam film into English. And I am
hoping the film will do well everywhere.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Making a mark….steadily

Nishan K.P. Nanaiah, a Coorgi, has established his presence in the Malayalam industry. His new film is ‘10.30 a.m. Local Call’

Photo: Nishant with Shritha in '10.30 a.m. Local Call' 

By Shevlin Sebastian

During the shoot of the song, ‘Pularumo’ in ‘Ritu’, director Shyamaprasad told the actors, Nishan K.P. Nanaiah and Reema Kallingal, as they sat on the backseat of a Swift car at Techno Park, Thiruvananthapuram, that they should share a kiss to indicate the closeness of the couple.

But Reema felt inhibited. It was her first film and she was wondering the effect it would have on her parents and relatives. A joking Shyamaprasad told Nishan, “Pull up your socks. Women don’t want to kiss you.”

Finally, it was decided that Nishan would hug Reema, and kiss her on the side of the neck. But somehow, no matter how much he tried, the scene looked awkward.  

Shyamaprasad said, “It is not wrestling, Nishan, but love-making.”

Nishan laughs at the memory. “Shooting for 'Ritu' was one of my best experiences,” he says. “And Shyamaprasad Sir is such a wonderful director, always joking and relaxed on the set.”

And Nishan is much impressed by the director’s talent. “There were times when he would end the scene in one shot, while I would be waiting for the close-up,” he says. “But Shyamaprasad Sir would say he did not need one. He is a director who goes with the flow of the script. That is why his films are like poetry. There is a different feel to it.”

Nishan, a Coorgi, grew up in Kolkata, and is the son of a retired Deputy Commissioner of Customs. After his graduation he passed an acting course in the Film and Television Institute of India at Pune. And through luck and fortuitous circumstances, he has managed to make a mark in Malayalam films, even though he does not speak the language. Nishan has acted in Sibi Malayali’s ‘Apoorvaraagam’ and received positive reviews for playing Rustam in ‘Ee Adathu Kaalathu’. He also had a role in ‘Note Out’, and now has acted in ‘10.30 a.m. Local Call’, directed by Mannu Sudhakar, which will be released soon.

It is a romantic thriller,” says Nishan. “The name of my character is Alby, and I work in a Nissan showroom at Kochi. I have a wife, Anne, enacted by Mrudhula, and there is this other girl, my friend, who is played by Shritha. A man is not supposed to have two women in his life and the film is about what happens after that.” The other stars include Lal and Kailas.

Nishan decided to act in this film because when he listened to the script narration, for over three hours, he was gripped by it. “What will happen next was the thought in my mind,” he says. “I could visually see the movie. And I had a gut feeling it would work. And, touch wood, the songs [by Gopi Sundar] have become hits. I have to follow my gut instinct, because I don’t have anybody in the industry to guide me. Some films work, some don’t.”

Of course, till now nobody has been able to predict a hit. “Sometimes, when I hear the narration it is very good,” says Nishan. “But when it is transferred onto the screen, it does not work. So how can you anticipate that? The only thing under my control is my acting and I try to do the best I can.”

Nishan is hoping the mega-budget film, ‘David’, directed by Bijoy Nambiar, which was released a few days ago, will do well. It has actors like Neil Nitin Mukesh, Tabu, Lara Dutta, and Vikram, “I play Vikam’s best friend, Peter, and my segment is based in Goa ,” says Nishan.

But, thus far, Nishan has done reasonably well. “In the last four years every year has got better for me,” he says. “I won’t say producers are queuing up outside my house, but, at least, they know who I am. Initially, the struggle is to get roles. Once you get a role, the struggle is to maintain that. And once you become a star, the struggle is to remain one.”

And then Nishan, a likable young man with a keen intelligence, breaks out into a winning smile. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Hitting the Right Notes

attachment (3300×2848)
COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Sashila Sugathan talks about life with noted playback singer Unni Menon 

By Shevlin Sebastian

In March 1982, Sashila Sugathan, who was doing her first-year English literature course at St. Teresa’s College, Kochi, went to Chennai for a study leave at her uncle, K.M. Vengilat’s home. While there, the singer, Unni Menon, who was Vengilat’s neighbour, dropped in. 
When Sashila saw Unni for the first, she drew her breath. “Unni was so handsome, in his white kurta and mundu,” she says. “There was a serene look on his face. I liked him immediately.” 

They started chatting, and, over the next three weeks, Unni would drop in, as and when he had the time. “I had heard of him earlier,” says Sashila. “In fact, I would listen to his songs on the radio. I thought Unni would be a senior person like K.J. Yesudas, so I got a shock when I realised he was so young.” 

Anyway, Sashila returned to Kochi and they stayed in touch through letters. Once Unni wrote that after Sashila’s education was complete, they could get married. “Somehow, my father got hold of this letter,” says Sashila. “There was a showdown at home. My parents restricted me from going to my dance classes. They ensured that I returned home immediately after college.” 

Sashila told Unni about this. “I was scared about how to go ahead,” she says. “We did not have the freedom and liberty that the children of the current generation have. There were so many limitations.” But, luckily, she had her dance teacher, Shyamala Surendran, who offered moral support and encouragement. “Shyamala was in touch with Unni and told him it would be difficult to get family approval,” says Sashila. “The only way out was a registered marriage.” 

During her second year, Unni wrote a letter in which he clearly stated the day he would be arriving, and the time the registered marriage would take place. Somehow, the letter was read by Sashila’s parents. “They told me I could no longer go to college,” says Sashila. “But Shyamala and Unni planned a way to get me out of the house.” 

On October 13, 1983, Sashila managed to step out. Soon, her parents came to know that the couple was going to register their marriage. They gave chase, but it was too late: the registration had already taken place. “So, it was like a runaway wedding,” says Sashila. “But within a day my parents cooled down and conducted a marriage with all the proper rituals.” Later, a reception was held at the Bharat Tourist Hotel. 

Today, the couple, the parents of two sons - Ankur, 25, and Akash, 18 - live in Chennai. 

And Sashila continues to be enamoured of her husband. “He is a very lovable person, not only towards the family, but to all,” says Sashila. “And that is also his biggest problem: he trusts everybody. As a result, he has been taken for a ride by a few people. Unni has lots of friends in every nook and corner of the world.” 

If there is one drawback, it is that Unni is reticent when it comes to canvassing for assignments. “To get good songs you have to meet all the important people, but he has never done that,” she says. 

On a normal day, when Unni is at home, he gets up at 6.30 a.m. and reads the newspaper, along with a cup of tea. Thereafter, he will do an hour of yoga. Following a bath and breakfast, he will sit in the bedroom with a harmonium and start singing. “He will do so till lunch-time but will take breaks in between to check his e-mail,” says Sashila. “After lunch at 1 p.m., Unni will watch TV till 3 p.m. Thereafter, he will take a nap.” 

In the evening guests will come including programme organisers to book Unni for concerts. “From 6.30 to 8 p.m., he walks on our terrace,” says Sashila. “Then he will sit on a chair and practice his singing once again.” 

Asked about tips of having a happy marriage, Sashila, who has a master’s in English literature, says, “A woman should always be 10 per cent lower than a man in all aspects. This talk about equality is creating so much of problems in a marriage.” 

Another issue is the ‘party’ lifestyle. “Young girls and boys are drinking and smoking,” she says. “They move around freely with others which lead to jealousies and conflicts in a marriage. They are all working and these late hours make it difficult to lead a normal life. There is too much of an influence of Western culture on our youngsters. Trying to prove that girls are better than the men is counter-productive. A woman should be soft and lady-like.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, February 04, 2013

Highlighting India’s glorious past

Architect Inesh V. Achary has been on a decade-long mission to publicise heritage sites which have fallen off the map. A recent exhibition at Kochi highlights this aspect

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few years ago, Kochi-based architect Inesh V. Achary reached Bundi village in Rajasthan at 11 p.m. The village was dark and deserted. There were no guest-houses. Inesh found his way to the local Devi temple. “I was loaded with photographic equipment, worth Rs 1.5 lakh, and had quite a bit of money on me,” he says.

Suddenly, a person appeared from the darkness. “Mahesh took me to his home,” says Inesh. The next day, Mahesh showed Inesh all the sights in the village, including a 14th century fort, which, astonishingly, had vertical plumbing.

It was then that the other villagers came up and whispered to Inesh that Mahesh was the local thief. “They told me to stay away from him,” says Inesh. “But for three days Mahesh took good care of me. His wife made all the meals for me.” At the end of the trip when Inesh was leaving, he offered money, but Mahesh refused to take it.

Inesh has been on a decade-long mission to highlight places of heritage that have fallen off the map. “When I went to many places, it was painful to see that most of these beautiful monuments remained ignored and uncared for,” he says. “That was when I decided to do something.”

So, once a year, he takes a month off and has gone to places like Nepal, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttaranchal, Maharashtra and Kerala. “I use paintings, photos and videos to document the sites that I visit,” he says.

Inesh has a fixed modus operandi. “When I approach a site, I sit down and do a painting on the spot,” he says. “This will take between one and six hours. After a while, the local people will gather around me. Later, they will invite me to their houses. And I begin my explorations of the place with the help of the inhabitants. Indians are kind and hospitable by nature.”

In Nepal, the only Hindu kingdom in the world, he documented the Pashupathinath temple. “It is one of the largest and most sacred Shiva temples in the world,” he says. “There are 1000 lingams and 492 small temples.”

He also went to the Bhaktapur Village. The 800-year-old village was once the capital of Nepal, during the rule of the Mallas, between the 12th and the 16th century. “When the capital was shifted to Kathmandu, Bhaktapur fell into decline,” says Inesh. An earthquake in 1934 inflicted further damage. But the Bhaktapur Development project, funded by Germany as well as Nepal, has restored many of the buildings.

Another old village is Khudi, near Jaisalmer, which is 600 years old. “It has a remarkable mud architecture,” says Inesh. “Over the centuries, the village was hit by four earthquakes, but there was no damage to any of the houses. This is something worth emulating.” 

Other impressive monuments included the Sun Temple at Modhera, Gujarat, which was built by King Bhimdev of the Solanki dynasty in 1026 AD, an open-air auditorium of the Harappan civilisation, Rudabai Stepwell and the Dwaraka Temple.

Asked about the attitude of the local people to the heritage sites in their midst, Inesh says, “It varies from place to place. Some have pride because, usually, it is their ancestors who have built the statues, or etched the stone carvings. The Sun Temple has been preserved and is doing well. But in other places, especially in Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal, the local people have allowed the monuments to get spoiled. Even the governments have shown no interest.”

In order to generate interest, Inesh held an exhibition of his paintings and photos, called 'Heritage India', at the Durbar Hall of the Lalitkala Academy in Kochi. He also screened the travel videos he had taken over the years. “I will be taking this exhibition to different parts of India, like Gujarat, Rajasthan and Nepal, so that the people can appreciate their own culture and also enjoy what is there in the other states,” he says.

Inesh has also set up the India International Heritage Research Academy. “The first aim is to uplift skilled artisans and preserve heritage sites in Kerala,” he says. “Even in God's Own Country many sites have fallen into a state of disrepair. We need to restore and renew our cultural heritage. Otherwise, it will be lost forever.” 

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

The impact of crowds

PS Jalaja’s art work focuses on large numbers of people and how violence among adults leaves a lasting damage on children

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the Kochi Muziris-Biennale, there is one painting which immediately catches the eye, because of its length. Titled, ‘Daily Violence’, the work is 30’ long and 4’ wide. Done in watercolour, it shows a group of 50 people, 25 on opposite sides, pulling at a rope, in an obvious tug of war. But these are people from different countries: so there is an Afghan girl, a muscular Spanish man, an Arab woman in a black burqa, and a jean-clad American woman, among many others. Behind these people are the faces of 12 babies. And studded all across the painting, like small balls, are the flags of 220 countries.

In most societies, there is a tug of war between people,” says young Kochi-based artist PS Jalaja. “Children suffer the most because of the violence between adults. I wanted to show that.”

She has painted the children, with scratches, and in a golden colour to give an indication of gunfire and bursting bombs.

And Jalaja had a particular reason for the largeness of the painting. “I wanted to honour the traditional mural art of Kerala,” says Jalaja. “At the same time, I wanted to make it look contemporary and like a wall painting.”

Jalaja was also inspired by the work of the great Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886-1957), whose large frescoes established the mural art form in Mexico.  

As she talks, in front of her exhibit, a French woman steps in close. She moves from one end of the work to the other and suddenly exclaims, “France!” and points at the flag of her country: blue, white and red bands.

Jalaja smiles, and says, “I remember a man came one day and pointed at a flag and said, ‘This is my country Uganda.’”

In the past four years, Jalaja has been obsessed with the concept of crowds. “I found it interesting how a crowd can form because of an accident, a procession, a war, or a death, and how it can get violent all of a sudden,” she says.

In another work, a 10’ by 5’ watercolour, which was selected for the 2011 Prague Biennale, Jalaja drew 1500 stern-looking policemen from 40 countries who are pointing guns at six helpless people. “I just wanted to show how ordinary innocent people are harassed by the police,” she says. “This happens in so many countries.”

The artist, a daughter of a carpenter, grew up in a small village, called Keezhillam. It was her father who encouraged her to take up painting. “He was very interested in the arts,” she says. Subsequently, she ended up doing her Master’s in painting from the RLV College of Fine Arts in Tripunithara, a suburb of Kochi.   

Unlike most people, Jalaja has become a full-time artist. She has set up a studio in Udayamperoor, around 12 kms from Kochi. “I know it is a hard life, to live solely by art. Not all the paintings you do, sell. But this was my father’s dream and it is my dream to dedicate myself wholly to art.” 

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