Monday, September 30, 2013

It’s Raining Cats and Dogs

Muhammed Anaz is the only cat and dog supplier in Mollywood. He talks about the ways to look after them, as well as their nature

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, in April, Muhammed Anaz received a call on his mobile. It was from production controller Sidhu Panakkal of the Malayalam film, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’.

We need a cat,” said Sidhu.

How did you get my number?” said Anaz.

Mohanlal gave it to me,” said Sidhu.

Which Mohanlal?” said Anaz.

The superstar,” said Sidhu.

Anaz wanted to burst out laughing, thinking that it was a prank call. Suddenly, the director Siddique came on the line and said, “Anaz, we need a cat.”

So Anaz took a mix of Persian and Siamese cats and went to the location, a bungalow, in Kochi. As soon as he stepped into the courtyard, from a distance, Mohanlal shouted, “I am the one who gave your number to Sidhu.”

Anaz then remembered that once, a couple of years ago, he had been introduced to Mohanlal by a photographer, Jayaprakash Payannur. “Amazingly, Mohanlal had not only remembered me, but also saved my number,” says Anaz, looking amazed. “That’s Mohanlal for you: a simple and humble man.”

Anaz is the only cat and dog supplier to Mollywood (earlier, the animals were got from Chennai). His break came when he was asked to supply a Persian cat for the 2011 film, ‘Teja Bhai and Family’. 

There is a shot when the hero, Prithviraj, who is a don based in Malaysia, enters an office, and to show casualness, he holds a cat on his arm. This is Mittu, a white Persian cat, which belongs to Anaz. The shoot lasted five days. Thereafter, Anaz, who has ambitions to become an actor, received several opportunities where his pets were given roles.

His latest film is 'Pattam Pole', in which Mammooty’s son, Dulquer Salman, plays the hero. “I have provided a miniature pinscher called Jill,” says Anaz. “The heroine (Malavika Mohanan) has a pet dog. Jill will sit on Malavika's lap and is fed ice cream. When the heroine goes on a journey she says goodbye to Jill.”

Anaz said hello to cats and dogs right from his childhood. And it happened because of a tragedy: his father, a doctor, died in a road accident when Anaz was only three-and-a-half years old. Thereafter, the family went to stay with Anaz's grandmother at North Paravaur, 33 kms from Kochi. “My grandmother used to have around 30 cats,” he says. “I developed my love for cats, dogs and hens at that time.”

Not surprisingly, when he grew up, he began to keep cats and dogs, apart from lovebirds, at his own home. These include dogs, like miniature pinschers, toy dogs and Pomeranians, apart from Siamese, Persian, Himalayan, Balinese and the British Short Hair cats. Owing to his close association, he has a good idea of their character.

A cat cares only for the house and food,” he says. “They don't care for the people. Food and comfort are most important for them. They will not go anywhere, if they are happy.”

On the other hand dogs become emotionally close to the owners.
Hence, men are happier with dogs rather than cats,” says Anaz. “Those who raise dogs want love in return, while those who raise cats do not expect love. That is why women have cats as pets, because they are used to giving love.”

Meanwhile, Anaz keeps his cats healthy and contended by providing a good diet. He will buy fresh sardines from fishermen off the island of Vypeen, near Kochi. Then Anaz will remove the head and the tail and the kidneys. He will then cook it, along with rice, white onions, and turmeric powder in a pressure cooker.

It will become like a biryani,” he says. Normally cat owners place the fish inside the rice. But the cat only eats the fish and avoids the rice. This way, the animal will eat the fish and rice. Twice a month, in order for the cat to get iron, Anaz provides the liver of hens.

Amazingly, cats don't like cow's milk. “It harms their health,” says Anaz. “They will have worms.” Instead, to strengthen their bones, he buys artificial milk made by western canine companies. It is similar to milk powder and costs Rs 1000.

At the backyard of his Kochi home, he has cages of cats and dogs. When they see him, the dogs bark loudly. “That is because I am accompanied by a stranger,” he says. “If I shout and say it is okay, they will keep quiet.” Which is exactly what happened.

Anaz smiles happily in the sudden silence. So, it is no surprise when he says, “I loves animals more than people. I get happiness and a sense of peace when I am with them.” 

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

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Heart-Warming Sight

India’s blind football team, which had two Malayalis, performed creditably, on their maiden outing, at the five-a-side tournament held in Bangkok recently

Photos: Indian team officials Sunil Mathew (left) and MC Roy; an Indian player in action

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was a tense moment for India during the penalty shootout against Hongkong during the visually challenged five-a-side football tournament held at Bangkok recently. The Malayali, Naufal Thandanaparambil Nazar, was about to take a penalty. However, the Hongkong goalkeeper was not visually challenged. Instead, he could see clearly. So, the odds were high that Naufal would not be able to score. But he did not lose hope.

Naufal hit the ball so hard, that it ricocheted off the goalkeeper and went into the net,” says Sunil J Mathew, the secretary of the Kochi-based Society for the Rehabilitation of the Visually Challenged (SRVC). Thanks to that shot, India went to the semi-finals, where they lost to ultimate champions, Iran. 

Eventually, India finished fourth, on their maiden outing. The other countries which took part included Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Russia.

This was a B1 tournament. In the B1 category all the players are visually challenged. However, according to five-a-side rules, four players should be B1, while the goalkeeper can be B3, which means he can have partial sight, or be fully sighted. Not surprisingly, all the teams had fully-sighted goalkeepers, except for India. “We wanted to be a sporting team,” says MC Roy, Project Head, SRVC.

The area of play is 40 x 20 metres. There are cushioned boards placed on all sides so that the ball does not go out. It also prevents players from hurting themselves. Before the match, the referee places three layers of bandage on all the players to prevent them from seeing. A game lasts 50 minutes, with a break of 10 minutes. During a match, players can be substituted any number of times.

As for the ball, it is smaller than a football. “It does not bounce as much,” says Sunil. “In fact, it is slightly heavier because there are ball bearings inside it. The sound is audible to the people who are playing.” Before the start, the coaches stand behind the goalpost of the opposing teams and shout instructions to the players as the match progresses.

However, the lack of knowledge about international visually challenged football rules hampered India. “During a game, if a player is approaching the opposing attacker, who is moving with the ball, he has to shout ‘Voie’, so that the player can know who is charging towards him,” says Roy. “That is the only way an attacker can dribble and tackle the other players. And this is the best method to avoid collisions.”

Unfortunately, India received a penalty for making five fouls in succession, because the players would forget to say ‘Voie’. “If the player does not say ‘Voie’, the person who is running with the ball will ram into the defender, and both will get hurt,” says Sunil.

Ranjith Manapparam Sasi from Kerala received an ankle injury during the first match against Hongkong. There was also a collision between the Indian goalkeeper, Vineet Kumar, defender, Gautam Dey, and a Thai attacker with the post. 

“Unfortunately, the posts were not padded,” says Roy. “So they were injured. Gautam suffered a sprain on the arm. He had his hand bandaged, but kept playing till the end. Another player, Muhammad Salim, nearly lost his teeth because of a collision.”

Incidentally, the team consisted of five players from Delhi, three from Bengal, and two from Kerala. The officials included coach David Absalom, with Roy as the ‘blind escort’ and Sunil as the ‘guide’ behind the goal. The SRVC worked in close coordination with the Delhi-based Indian Blind Sports Association.

To develop an understanding between the players, a 10-day camp was held in August in Delhi. “That was the first time the players played against each other,” says Sunil.

Interestingly, the idea to take part came when Sunil was researching on the Internet and came across an astonishing statistic. “A country like Brazil [population: 198 million] has 660 visually challenged football teams, while India, with a population of 1.2 billion, has never put up five people for a tournament,” he says. “That was the impetus to form a team.”

Now, the SRVC has plans to hold more coaching camps in Kochi, and expand the reach of the game by going to North-East India. “I heard that there are a lot of good players there,” says Sunil. “So we will do a road show and pick up the best talent.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

First-time Hartal in Kadmat Island

By Shevlin Sebastian

Kerala's strike culture is having its impact, 400 kms away, across the seas.
For the first time, in its history, the people on the tiny island of Kadmat, in the Lakshadweep archipelago, are planning a hartal today (September 24). 

Their complaint: for three weeks, fruits, vegetables, wheat, flour, table rice, salt and many other items has not arrived at the island from Kochi. Rahmath Begum, the port assistant at Kadmat, confirmed it. 

Apparently, the hydraulic pump on the crane which is used by the ship – the MV Lakshadweep Sea – belonging to the Lakshadweep Development Corporation Limited (LDCL) is not working.

Vivek Agarwal, the general manager, of the LDCL, said that the pump has been handed over to the Cochin Shipyard for repairs. “But because of the Onam holidays, there has been a delay in repairing it,” he said.

Now the islanders are running out of food. “We are very angry,” said schoolteacher Abdul Gafoor. “We are wholly dependent on Kochi for our food.”

So the traders are planning a hartal tomorrow. P. Haris, the Vice President of the Kadmat Island Merchants' Welfare Association said that they will hold a dharna in front of the additional sub-divisional office as well as the port assistant's office.

KN Kasmikoya, the sub-divisional officer, affirmed that the merchants had complained to him regarding the shortage. “I am working closely with the LDCL to resolve the issue,” he says. “You must understand that all the items are brought by sea. Sometimes, there are problems.”

Meanwhile, the enterprising Haris suggests an immediate solution. “The LDCL has another ship, the MV Arabian Sea, which operates on the Kavaratti route,” he said. “This ship can alternate with the MV Lakshadweep Sea so that we can get all the foodstuffs.”

The island, which consists wholly of members of the scheduled tribes, has a population of 6500. And it is only 10.5 kms long and 600 metres in width. During the tourist season people come from all over the world. “It is one of the most beautiful spots on earth,” says Kasmikoya. But without proper food, it might not be an exciting place for visitors. 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala edition)

CID Johny

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Shyni talks about life with the director Johny Antony, whose debut film, ‘CID Moosa’ (2003), has been a perennial favourite among TV viewers

Photo by Mithun Vinod 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Shyni was very excited. The shoot of the Malayalam film, ‘British Market’ by director Nizar was taking place in a house just three doors away from hers at Changanacherry. “There was a scene where the hero [Vijayaraghavan] and heroine [Ranjitha] are talking to each other,” says Shyni. Among the crew members milling about, there was Associate Director Johny Antony, but she did not notice him. But he did.

Sometime later, a broker came to Shyni's father with a proposal from Johny’s family, who lived at Mamood, 10 kms away. “Initially we said no, as my father did not want me to marry somebody from the film industry,” says Shyni. But Johny’s mother called Shyni's mother and persuaded her to agree.

The marriage took place, on April 15, 2002, at the Lourdes Matha church at Mamood. And within a year, Johny made his directorial mark with the blockbuster hit, 'CID Moosa', starring superstar Dileep.

A lot of people were shocked to know that my husband had directed the film,” says Shyni. “My friends called me up from Dubai and said, ‘Did your husband actually make the film?’ Many of them did not know that I had married a director, because I had gone out of touch.”

CID Moosa’ has had an enduring impact. Sometimes, when the children – Luduveena, 10, and Anna, 7 – go to school, their classmates will tell them that the film is being shown on television that evening. “My children will smile and say, ‘See it, this is our father’s film,’” says Shyni. “All the youngsters love Moosa, but I think it appeals to adults also. Our family has seen it so many times on TV that we know the scenes by heart.”  

In the initial years Shyni would never go to the sets. But when the children grew up, they insisted they wanted to see their father. So they went to the set of ‘Masters’ at the Windsor Castle at Kottayam.

It was a scene set in a godown. The actors included Biju Menon and Prithviraj. “The children enjoyed watching the shooting,” says Shyni. “Johny was very different on the set. He looked very tense. But during the break he became relaxed and smiled often.”

For Shyni, there is no doubt that cinema is Johny's passion. “I don't have any problems with that,” she says. “It is our bread and butter. Sometimes, he is away for three months at a stretch and only returns home after the film is released on a Friday. But Johny will call the day before and ask me to pray for its success.”

Shyni is also aware that as a creative person, Johny has an unusual nature. “My husband is different from most people,” says Shyni. “But I don’t think much about it. He looks after us well and I am happy about that. I am not very involved with the creative side, but I like all his films.” These include Kochi Rajavu, Thuruppu Gulan, Inspector Garud, Cycle, Ee Pattanathil Bhootham and Thappana.

And she has been able to see the impact of Johny's success first-hand. “Youngsters keep coming to the house asking for roles or to talk about the scripts they have written,” says Shyni. “My husband listens to them patiently, because Johny has never forgotten his own struggle of many years to establish himself in the industry.”  

Meanwhile, during their decade-long marriage, Shyni has noticed a facet that not many people know of. Johny helps people who are in financial trouble, especially his friends. “If he does not have any money, Johny will take a loan,” says Shyni. “He has a knack for friendship and likes to mingle with everybody. It does not matter whether the person is young or old.”

But for Shyni what she likes the most about Johny is the freedom he has given her. “Johny never interferes with me,” she says. “If I want to go shopping, I can. If I want to go out, he will never say no. Sadly, my friends do not have the same freedom. Most of the time, they have to get permission, or their husbands will insist on accompanying them.”

Johny’s only drawback is that he can lose his temper quickly. “He can get irritated over the smallest of matters,” says Shyni. “It is unpredictable. I don’t react when he gets angry. All I do is to leave the room. Then he cools down quickly.”

As for tips on marriage, Shyni says, “Whatever problems you face, you have to be patient and tolerant. You must give the necessary space to your husband. If he has a passion you should support that whole-heartedly. That will make him happy.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Grand, as well as the Preppy

TV personality Poornima Indrajith launches her new fashion lounge, Pranaah, with a show at Kochi

Photo: Poornima Indrajith (second from left) with her daughters, show-stopper, Amala Paul, and other models

By Shevlin Sebastian

Pranaah is my third baby,” says actor, TV personality and now fashion designer, Poornima Indrajith, while on stage at a five-star hotel at Kochi, just before the launch of her fashion lounge logo. Standing next to Poornima are her two daughters, Praarthana, 9, and Nakshatra, 4. “It has been a dream come true,” she says. “I have invited my family and close friends to witness this exciting moment.”

The close friends, sitting on one side of the ramp, are a constellation of stars. They include actor Kunjan, along with his wife, Shobha, Meghana Raj, Bhavana, Shwetha Menon, Geetu Mohandas, Ananya, Ranjini Haridas, Lena, and – gasp! – Manju Warrier. Of course, Manju, who looks pretty and slim, is gradually working her way back into the limelight, after a 14-year hiatus.

Meanwhile, Poornima’s husband, the unassuming star, Indrajith, dressed in a black waistcoat, shirt and trousers, and see-through sunglasses, steps on stage, and says, “I wish Poornima all the best. I am sure she will be successful.” Then he launches into the Mohammed Rafi song, ‘Teri aankhon ke siwa/duniya mein rakha kya hai’. He sings it well enough to receive a heartfelt applause from the audience, especially his mother, Mallika Sukumaran.

In the ensuing fashion show, there are ethnic Indian bridal and semi-bridal clothes, a mix of digital prints along with brocade. There are zip sarees and sarees with belts. Other clothes include skirt-saris, and full sleeved blouses, with bright colours, like gold, black, white, fuchsia and neon. There are short skirts and trousers, salwar kameezes, and chiffon sarees, with fine embroidery work.  

During a break, the singer Sam Shiva, dressed in a leather coat, black jeans and boots, sings the Lionel Richie classic, ‘Hello, is it me you are looking for?’ Most of the stars, especially Ranjini, Swetha and Lena, are mouthing the lyrics.

Overall, the audience is impressed with the designs on show. “Poornima has a signature style,” says Lena. “It is a mix of the grand as well as the preppy. Many youngsters will like it.” 

As for Shwetha, she feels that there is a lot of the designer in her designs. “Poornima, you are going to do my next event,” she says. 

And Kunjan says, wittily, “We can’t live without Pranaah.” As for Manju, she says, “I am proud of Poornima. We wish her all the best.” Mother-in-law 
Mallika gives the final vote of confidence: “Poornima is hard-working and has a passion for fashion. I am sure people will like her designs.” Indeed, the object of all this praise, Poornima does have a talent to design clothes.    

The show-stopper is Amala Paul, who is wearing a floor-length gold dress, with lace fabric and stone embellishments. But there are two other show stoppers too: Praarthana and Nakshatra who walk in the swaying style of models at the conclusion with Amala and makes the audience smile. And so, it is a successful launch for the lively, intense and friendly Poornima. Her clothes are available at Pranaah, 4th Cross Road, Panampilly Nagar, Kochi. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)   

The Queen of the Chess Board

Jennitha Anto has surmounted her disabilities to become a world chess champion

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by A. Raja Chidambaram

In June, India 's Jennitha Anto was playing the eighth round match against Viktor Strekalovski of Russia during the 13th World Individual Chess Championships, held at Velke Losiny, in the Czech Republic.
Pondering over her strategy, Jennitha went into a time pressure. She had to make her remaining moves within two minutes while Viktor had seven minutes (The rule is 40 moves in two hours). Jennitha felt a desperation within her. She wanted to win badly, because that would ensure that she would lift the individual women's title. But the pressure got to her. And she made a mistake. As a result, she lost.

I felt depressed,” she says. “I had come so near. I kept thinking, 'I lost, I lost.' My heart was beating very fast.”

Jennitha's father, and mentor, G. Kanickai Irudayaraj told her to be optimistic. “If you win the last game, you will be world champion,” he said. Her mother, Jayarani, and sister, Mercy Jacqueline, called from their home in Trichy and spoke words of hope.

Jennitha felt encouraged. Quickly, she logged on to the Internet and downloaded the games of her final round opponent, Marc Tillman of Switzerland and began preparing for the match. However, the next day, a nervous Jennitha drew the match and went into a three-way tie with two Russian players, Galina Malnik and Marina Kaydanovich, in the women's section.

The organisers – the International Physically Disabled Chess Association – then had to use the Buchholz Tiebreaker system. And luck was in Jennitha's favour. She squeezed past the Russian women and was declared the winner. (Incidentally, in these championships, men and women played against each other.)

Understandably, the Russians were not happy. “They are so used to winning all the time,” says Jennitha. “So they did not take the defeat well. The Russian team captain did not smile or shake hands with me.”

Thanks to this win, Jennitha received a cash prize of 250 Euros (Rs 21,000), and was also bestowed the title of Woman International Master by the World Chess Federation.
This victory was a culmination of a long journey for Jennitha. She was afflicted by polio at the age of three, and lost the use of her legs and her right hand. In fact, she moves the chess pieces with her left hand. At the age of nine, her father, a retired school headmaster, introduced her to chess. And within three months, she played her first tournament, for students, at Trichy, and won the first prize. “I felt inspired,” she says. Thereafter, there was no looking back. She won district, state, and national tournaments.

Her turning point came when the won the silver medal at the World Individual Chess Championship in Wisla, Poland, in 2007. “It was a big confidence-booster and I knew that I would win the title one day,” says Jennitha. “There is not much of a gap between Indian and international players.”

This is true, in the case of Jennitha, and it is all thanks to her hard work. “Jennitha puts in a lot of time and effort, for chess,” says her coach International Master Raja Ravi Sekhar. “She is always well-prepared. Apart from that, she plays very aggressively. She carries the fight to the opponent’s corner.”

But she has drawbacks, too. “Sometimes, she tries too hard to win,” says Raja. “As a result, she gets into time pressure, makes errors, and loses matches.” Nevertheless, before her World Championship win, Jennitha was already in the top ten among disabled players in the world.

Jennitha has been lucky that in participating in international tournaments, like the Chess Olympiad and the European Championships, she has received financial support from the Tamil Nadu state government, the Sports Authority of India and the All India Chess Federation.

Today, while basking in the accolades, for her win, Jennitha, a B. Com graduate, is beginning her studies to be a chartered accountant. But chess is her No. 1 priority. Her hero is the late world champion Bobby Fischer. “He was an attacking player and had tremendous self-confidence,” says Jennitha. “I also like [world champion] Vishwanathan Anand, because he is calm and plays in a relaxed way.” Jennitha aims to absorb the qualities of both Fischer and Anand to remain at the top. 

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

Rock and Vedas Go Hand in Hand

The progressive fusion band, Rock Veda, is making waves in India

By Shevlin Sebastian

It should have been a moment of joy for Kabul Rishi. He had completed his Airbus pilot training at the CAE school in Madrid, Spain. It was a tough course, and he was glad that he had passed. But, in the midst of his happiness, Kabul also felt empty. His heart was not in it. Instead, it was palpitating for music. He returned to Delhi and felt unsure about what to do.

But his life changed on August 26, 2010. That was when he attended a show by Pakistani singer Shafqat Amanat Ali at the Siri Fort auditorium. “I am a huge fan of Shafqat,” says Kabul. “I love his voice. And the moment I saw him perform, I knew that I wanted to do the same thing.”

Following the concert, Kabul told his parents, Dr. Prakash Chandra Rishi, a cardiologist, and Meeta, a PR professional that he wanted to become a full-time musician. And they agreed. “My father had a natural gift as a singer, and had sung in college festivals during his youth,” says Kabul. “So he has always encouraged me to become a singer. In fact, I had received training when I was a child.”   

So, Kabul began his tutelage under Ustad Ghulam Sabir Khan Saheb, who belongs to the Moradabad Gharana. While doing that, Kabul got close to Sabir Khan’s son, Fateh Ali Khan, an accomplished sitar player, who has performed with American singer Lady Gaga. Kabul and Fateh decided that they would start a band. But they had a different idea.

There are so many beautiful compositions, which are hundreds of years old,” says Kabul. “Youngsters have not heard about them, while people of the older generation were no longer hearing them. That is how the idea of a fusion band came up.”

Rock Veda was formed in 2011. It is a mix of the East and the West. At the Jose Thomas Performing Arts Centre, Kochi, the musicians looked different from each other. While lead guitarist Shubhanshu Singh and keyboard player Kamal Kharera wore torn jeans and T-shirts, and had goatee beards, the clean-shaven sitarist, Fateh, and his brother, tabla player Amaan Ali, were wearing white sherwanis, while Kabul had a black waistcoat and pointed shoes. The other band members included Vishal Mehta on the drums, Jayant Manchanda on the bass guitar, and back-up vocalist Zohaib Hassan.

They began with 'Gaiye Ganpati Jagvandan' in Raag Hamsadhwani. It was, indeed, fusion music, with the drums, sitar, tabla, and guitar all talking to each other. “This is called progressive fusion,” says Kabul. “We are experimenting with different genres. So, we do fusion, Sufi songs, and Hindustani classical.”

Some of the ragas, which were given a new treatment, included the Yaman, Mishra, Khamaj and the Sindhu Bhairavi.

The Kochi audience took some time to respond to sounds that they were hearing for the first time. But halfway into the programme, the people started clapping, and there were cries of 'Wah, wah'. Kabul impressed with his vocal range, while the chemistry between the band members was plainly evident. And the excitement reached a crescendo when Kabul launched into the popular Qawwali song, ‘Dama Dam Mast Kalandar’.

Malayalam film music composer PJ Berny was listening avidly. “I enjoyed the mix of Sufi and Western music,” he says. “It was done very well. This fusion will enable the band to reach out to a global audience. All of them are talented, and accomplished. Most importantly, today is the age of experimentation. So, they are on the right path.”

Rock Veda has played in some good places including the Jaipur Literature Festival in January, 2013, where they performed in front of celebrities like Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi, and Prasoon Joshi. “They told me later that they had enjoyed our show,” says Kabul. Rock Veda also did a concert at the World Sufi Spirit Festival in Jodhpur, as well as the Amarrass Desert Music Festival and the Spring Fever Festival, both at Delhi. And everywhere, the response has been positive. “By God's grace, people like our music,” says Kabul.  

Indeed, Rock Veda's future looks promising. 

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

Friday, September 13, 2013

An Inside Look at the Bureaucracy

Vipul Mittra, Principal Secretary (Tourism) of Gujarat, talks about his experiences of working with superstar Amitabh Bachchan and writing books, while on a recent visit to  Kerala
By Shevlin Sebastian
On August 16, 2010, when Vipul Mittra, the Principal Secretary (Tourism) of the Gujarat government went to pick up superstar Amitabh Bachchan from a five-star hotel in Ahmedabad, he was taken aback. Amitabh, who was wearing a khadi kurta pyjama as well as a white shawl, walked barefoot to the car. When Vipul asked why, Amitabh says, “I am going to a temple.”
However, it was not to a temple that they went, but the Sabarmati Ashram, where Mahatma Gandhi lived for several years. “He was in a meditative mood throughout,” says Vipul. The superstar had gone to the ashram to act in one part of a series of films he was shooting, at the request of Chief Minister Narendra Modi, to highlight Gujarat tourism. Not surprisingly, once the ads were aired on national television, the impact on tourism was soon felt.
In 2009, there were 1.7 crore visitors to the state. This has now gone up to 2.5 crore in 2013. “When Amitabh’s advertisement comes on the TV, people don’t switch channels,” says Vipul. “Plus, the films have been made differently. 
There are many advertisements where they showcase the entire state in one minute. But we decided to base each film on one destination. People who see our advertisements will not say, 'I will go to Gujarat'. Instead, they will say, 'I will go to Dwaraka, Somnath or Lothal'.”
Vipul is a multi-layered personality. In the early part of his career, he had been the Collector of Ahmedabad and Surender Nagar, as well as the Principal Secretary (Rural development). And in his spare time, he writes novels. “It is important to be creative, since I am working in a disciplined system,” he says.
His first novel, published by Rupa, in 2011, is called 'Pyramid of Virgin Dreams'. It is a story of a man who becomes a member of the bureaucracy, travels through it like an outsider, and views his job in a humourous manner.
One smile-inducing anecdote is when the protagonist, a collector by the name of Kartikeya Kukreja, is transferred from a place called Dhansa to an unimportant posting. At the time of the transfer, everybody starts ignoring Kartikeya because he is no longer powerful. However, a faithful tehsildar, Joshi, offers to help with the packing. But after he does so, Joshi refuses to take any money. Nevertheless, when the goods are being sent by lorry, Joshi ensures that the television set is stolen, so that he could recover the cost of the packing.
Not surprisingly, Vipul has had many interesting experiences during the course of his career. “As a bureaucrat I see all types of people,” he says. “And I have stayed in so many different places.” One day, he felt the urge to put down what he had seen. So, he started writing. Thereafter, whenever he would get some spare time, Vipul would write. Eventually, he took seven years to finish the novel and another three years to get a publisher.
And now the bureaucrat has written his second novel, 'Dream Chasers'. This will be published by reputed publishers, Random House and released by Amitabh in Mumbai on September 26. “The youth these days believe that they have to follow their dreams,” he says. “Chasing a girl is a dream. Doing drugs is a dream. Going to cabarets is a dream. But the youngsters lack focus. And I wanted to highlight this in my novel.”
Interestingly, like the characters in his novel, when he was a young man, the 6’ 1” tall Vipul had a dream of being a film star. However, once he got selected into the Indian Administrative Service at 22, Vipul decided to embark on the bureaucrat's path.

And his background left him unprepared initially. “I grew up in a modern city like Chandigarh, and suddenly I was posted to Kutch,” he says. “In 1987, my telephone number was two digits: 30. And the so-called ‘lightning call’ to Delhi would take 12 hours to go through.”

Another hassle which he encountered was the endless sycophancy. “People were always trying to please you because you are the man in power,” he says.
Nevertheless, Vipul has no regrets. “I enjoy my work a lot,” he says.

But Vipul has not given up on his dream of becoming an actor, because his chances have brightened. Thanks to his sister’s marriage, he is an uncle to the superstar Hrithik Roshan, while Vipul’s brother, Rahul Mittra, is a producer of films like 'Sahib Biwi aur Gangster'. “Most probably, after my retirement, I will go into acting,” he says, with a smile.

One remembers what Diana Nyad, 64, the first person to swim from Cuba to the USA said, moments after she stepped on shore at Florida, “The first lesson is that we should never, ever give up. Secondly, you are never too old to chase your dreams.”

Incidentally, Vipul had come to Kochi to give a presentation on Gujarat tourism, at the convention of the Indian Association of Tour Operators. Asked whether he was worried about the shuddering national economy, he says, “I doubt whether it will affect the travel industry. Because of the depreciation of the rupee, it becomes easier for foreigners and NRIs to come to India. And because of the rise in cost of the dollar, less Indians will travel abroad. Instead, they will do more domestic travel.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Singing The Same Song

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Athulya talks about life with the musician Jassie Gift

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Athulya Jayakumar received the marriage proposal from Jassie Gift’s family, in July, 2012, she was unsure. She had seen the musician in television interviews and he seemed like a man of few words. “I preferred a person who spoke a lot,” she says. Nevertheless, she was intrigued enough and decided to meet Jassie.

But in their first meeting, at her house in Thiruvananthapuram, Jassie spoke non-stop. “In fact he talked much more than me,” says Athulya. The subjects included his music career and her doctoral studies in information technology at Kannur University. Interestingly, Jassie was also doing his doctoral studies in Indian philosophy at the same university, but they had not seen each other.

I liked him at that first meeting,” says Athulya. Soon after, she said yes and the marriage, according to Hindu rites, took place on September 11, 2012, at the Kottecattu Convention Hall at Nalanchira, Thiruvananthapuram.  

While Athulya’s father is a Hindu, her mother is a Christian, just like Jassie. “In fact, the proposal came from my mother's side of the family,” says Athulya.

It has been an unusual marriage, in the sense that the couple have spent more time away from each other, than together. The main reason is that Jassie is based in Bangalore where his songs are in big demand in the Kannada film industry, while Athulya remains at Kannur for her doctoral studies. “But we are constantly in touch,” says Athulya.

After every two months, both of them will come to Perumbavur, where Jassie has a villa, near his parents’ house. They will stay a week, before they go their separate ways once again. “We are still in the honeymoon phase,” says Athulya, with a smile. “When we meet, we are always sweet to each other.”

But Jassie has a sweet character, according to Atulya. “He is an understanding and cool person,” she says. “I have not seen Jassie get angry. Even when there is a lot of stress in his career he will not show it. He will simply say he has to finish some work.”

At home, Jassie goes into a music room, which has a keyboard, as well as a synthesizer. “He prefers to be alone, because that helps his creativity,” says Athulya. “When he is working he is in full concentration. I don’t think he is aware of my presence then.”

But once Jassie finishes his work, unlike most artists, he does not carry on pondering over it. “Instead, Jassie forgets about the music,” says Athulya. “For him, the family is as important as his career.”

Nevertheless, Jassie is doing well in the Kannada film industry. The songs, 
which he composed for the blockbuster hit, ‘Myna’ were well received. The singers included Sonu Nigam, Shreya Ghoshal and Nithya Menon, “An earlier song, ‘Gaganave Baagi’ sung by Shreya for the film, 'Sanju weds Geeta', became a hit,” says Athulya. Later, Jassie re-recorded that song in Malayalam for 'Chinatown', and called it 'Arikil Ninnalum'. “Jassie is happy in Bangalore,” says Athulya.

He is also happy to play video games during his spare time. “Jassie is a child at heart,” says Athulya. “He spends a lot of time in the Games Zones of most malls.”

On the other hand, when he is at home in Perumbavur, Jassie reads a lot. At present, he is going through 'The Great Indian Novel' by Shashi Tharoor. “Another book he read and liked recently was 'Francis Ittycora' by TD Ramakrishnan,” says Athulya.

A favourite pastime is when they go to Athulya's home in Thiruvananthapuram. “Most nights, after 10 p.m., we go to the Shankumugham beach and watch the waves,” says Athulya. “That is the time when Jassie talks about his school and college days, and the struggle to make a mark as a musician. 

At the same time, Jassie says he was lucky that his first film song, 'Lajjavathiye' [for the 2004 film, '4 The People'], became such a big hit. In fact, once when he had gone to Malappuram for a stage show, there was such a crush of young people that he needed police escort to reach the stage.” 
In Bangalore, too, the Malayalis recognise him, even now, for 'Lajjavathiye'. “People congratulate him for that number,” says Athulya. “Nowadays, the fans no longer ask for autographs. Instead, they want to take photos with Jassie on their mobile phones. And, always, he will introduce me to all his fans.”

When asked about the lessons that she has learnt in her brief marriage, Athulya says, “Each person has their own individuality. We should respect that. Give freedom to your husband. Don’t nag him too much. Then they will become happy and treat us well.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, September 09, 2013

Capturing Kathakali in all its Glory

A. Somakumaran, a policeman in Fort Kochi, has spent the past four years photographing Kathakali artists

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photos: Kalamandalam Gopi playing Nala and Margi Vijaykumar (Damayanti) in the drama, ‘Nalacharitham’ (‘The Story of Nala’); A Somakumaram

Rajeev Soman, 40, an advertising professional, is going past the Durbar Hall grounds when he decides to check out the Lalithakala Akademi art gallery. On the first floor, there is a photography exhibition called, ‘The Kathakali and The Unknown Scenes’ by A. Somakumaran. Apart from scenes like a sunset on a river, a man who is body-painted in the form of a tiger, and dewdrops on a purple flower, the dominant and eye-catching photographs are those of Kathakali artists.

So, there is a fearsome photo of Kottakkal Devadas playing Bhadrakali in the play, ‘Dakshayaagam’. His jutting-out eyes are bloodshot, there are two fangs sticking out, the face is green, and he emanates menace. Then there is a beautifully taken portrait of a smiling Kalamandalam Sreekumar with all the head gear and the colourful costume of a Kathakali artist performing a move. Another striking portrait is a loving scene between Padma Shri Kalamandalam Gopi playing Nala and Margi Vijaykumar (Damayanti) in the drama, ‘Nalacharitham’ (‘The Story of Nala’), written by playwright Unnayi Warrier. 

As Rajeev wanders about, relishing the various images, he asks a gallery staff member about the identity of the photographer and is told that he is a policeman.

 “A policeman,” says Rajeev, looking incredulous. “How could that be?” Rajeev’s reaction is an indication of the poor image of the police in society. “They are least respected, socially ostracised, and side with the rich, powerful, and criminal elements of society,” he says.  

But when he sees Somakumaran, a mild mannered, silver-haired man in his fifties, he is disarmed. “I am happy to know that there are policemen who are pursuing the finer things of life,” says Rajeev. Says former Kochi City Police Commissioner and the present Inspector General of Police (Homicide), MR Ajith Kumar, “There are many policemen like Somakumaran who have an interest in the arts. But due to work pressures, they are unable to develop their talents.”

Somakumaran has been a policeman for the past 28 years and is now posted at  the Coastal Police Station of Fort Kochi. He had been interested in Kathakali from his childhood in Idukki. “I would go to various temples to watch the programmes,” he says. During this time Somakumaran got interested in photography. The first camera he used was the Agfa Click 3 camera. Thereafter, it was the Minolta, Olympus and a Yashica SLR. But today, Somakumaran is using a Canon EOS 7D.

Around four years ago, Somakumaran began taking photographs of Kathakali artists. Usually, a programme starts at 10 p.m., so he was able to go after his duty hours to attend it. “Kathakali is one of Kerala’s greatest art forms,” he says. “When you attend a show, you experience joy, pleasure and satisfaction.”

Apart from stage shots, Somakumaran also went backstage to photograph the artists. Those who posed for him included Nelliyodu Vasudevan Namboodiri, Kalamandalam Champakara Vijayan, and Chandrasekharan Unnithan.

On and off stage, there is a marked difference,” says Somakumaran. “On stage, these artistes look magnificent and are capable of so many expressions. But off stage, when the make-up is removed, they are down-to-earth people. Vasudevan Namboodiri, in the role of Veerubhadran, looks terrifying with his various facial expressions. In fact, I shook with fear at the ferocity of his moods that I was unable to take photographs. But when I met him after the programme, he came across as a simple, genuine and humble person.”

And, of course, all of the artistes are amazed when Somakumaran introduces himself as a policeman. “Most of them say they have never met a policeman who is interested in the arts,” he says. In fact, Vasudevan Namboodiri said, “Oh, a policeman at a Kathakali play. That is unusual.”

At the exhibition, Somakumaran received a lot of kudos. Renjini Suresh, a Kathakali artist herself and the former chairperson of the Tripunithura municipal corporation immediately called Kottakkal Devadas from the gallery and told him the photo of him was good. “Many lovers of Kathakali came and expressed their appreciation,” says Somakumaran.

Meanwhile, Somakumaran is honest enough to say that Kathakali is declining in popularity. “In Ernakulam, and the surrounding areas, there will be about 100 people when a concert begins,” says Somakumaran. “However, at the end, there will be 25 people present. I guess, nowadays, people are rushed for time.”
 However, the good news is that in places like Malappuram and Palakkad, Kathakali continues to remain popular. 

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

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Bal on the Ball

Designer Rohit Bal's first fashion show at Kochi, to celebrate the launch of Ambika Pillai's hair styling salon, was greeted with applause and appreciation 

Photos (Top): Ambika Pillai (centre) celebrating with designer Rohit Bal and the entire team of models at the fashion show held at the Le Meridien, Kochi

Rohit Bal with film star Sushmita Sen. 

Pics by TP Sooraj   

By Shevlin Sebastian

The elite came out in strength to attend the first show in Kochi by one of India’s leading designers, Rohit Bal. Not surprisingly, the Kochi women pulled out all the stops: while a few wore the traditional sari and salwar kameez, there were several black and white gowns, skirts, mini skirts, as well as hot pants. The jewellery on display: flashing diamonds, gold and silver pendants, earrings and necklaces. As for the hair, it was coiffed, in high buns and plaits, apart from open hair.

The ‘Dream’ show, done in partnership with L'Oreal Professional and other sponsors, was held at the Le Meridien on Monday evening to celebrate the launch of the Kollam-born Ambika Pillai’s new hair and make-up salon at

And the ramp was awash in lotuses, made of cloth, hanging from the ceiling, embedded in the large backdrop, and pasted on the several make-shift pillars.
The mood was set by the evergreen Usha Uthup, dressed in a shimmering Kanjeevaram saree, her voice as husky and supple as ever, as she belted out a medley of English and Hindi songs. 

In the ‘Diamonds are Forever’ song by Shirley Bassey she even inserted changes in the lyrics: “They are diamonds – Rohit Bal and Ambika Pillai.”

The show began with industry veteran Nayonika Chatterjee walking down in a floor length gown. Soon, the other models followed: Sapna Kumar, Tina Chatwal and Carole Gracias (of Big Boss fame). 

There were excited local girls – Bonny Mary Mathew, Reeba Monica John, Reenu Ann Reji, Cukoo Susan, and Aileena Catherine Amon – who got an enthusiastic round of applause. And the male models, handsome, tall and fair men, with strong jawlines, and piercing eyes, modeling sherwanis and gowns, caused some breathlessness among the women. 

There were full-sleeved blouses and sarees, gowns, as well as lehengas, in maroon, red and cream shades. The theme clearly was bridal wear. And, after all this, former Miss World Sushmita Sen stepped on the ramp, sashaying, with style and grace, in a maroon lehenga, smiling brilliantly, waving at the audience, looking them in the eye, an undoubted star with a charismatic presence.

And, finally, the man himself came out, veteran designer Rohit Bal, resplendent in a black Jodhpuri, and gleaming black shoes. He’s famous, he’s rich, he’s handsome and the creative fire is still burning brightly within him. And the crowd stood up and applauded him.

All in all, it was a fun evening, with Chivas Regal providing some heady moments of pleasure for the men. At the sumptuous dinner afterward, bank professional Imtiaz Aziz, sipping a glass of white wine, says, “I liked the men’s bridal wear a lot. It was new and eye-catching. But I felt that the show was a little short, at less than half an hour.”

Tara Thomas, who runs a clothing store in Kochi, says that fashion shows are usually not very long. “Overall, it was a good event. The clothes were simple and elegant. I liked the light colours, especially the whites.”  

And so Ambika Pillai managed to make a splash! As for Kochiites, there is a new place to go now to get quality make-up and hair styling. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)