Friday, January 31, 2014

Gripping and Meaningful

A recent short film festival, organised by film club, Shamiana, had the audience clamouring for more 

A scene from the film, 'The Kinematograph'

By Shevlin Sebastian

The animated film, 'The Kinematograph', begins with the camera panning down from the clouds all the way to the streets of a 19th century village, with large houses on either side, with cobbled streets, and people running about. It then focuses on a particular bungalow. The viewer then gets a glimpse of the attic, on the top floor, where a man is sitting on a chair and looking at an image of a woman on a screen. This is the inventor Thomas, who switches off the machine and has a despondent look on his face.

Meanwhile, down below in the kitchen a woman, wearing a white apron, is cleaning a plate carefully. The man comes in, sits on a stool, and lights a pipe. Then he says, “I am running dry. I simply cannot figure it out.” His wife says, “You will. If not today, tomorrow. I know it.” Thomas says, with a touch of irritation, “You and your sweet optimism.”

The back story: Thomas is trying to invent a film camera, which nobody has done before. But he is frustrated. Thomas wants to add colour to the image on the screen, but does not know how.

Meanwhile, his wife urges him to patent the invention by saying, “Why not take my advice? You can always add colour later on.”

Finally Thomas agrees. Meanwhile, over lunch, his wife suggests an inventive way of solving the impasse. An excited Thomas stops having his soup, and dashes off to his laboratory. And it is the right suggestion. Thomas is able to add colour to the image.

However, despite this cheery news, an oblivious Thomas does not realise that his wife is gravely ill. There is a scene in the bathroom where she is having a coughing fit and suddenly she spits blood on a handkerchief. Later, Thomas stands outside and asks how long she will take. “Five minutes,” says the wife. But sometime later, he sees her lying unconscious on the floor, the white handkerchief with several splotches of blood, lying next to her body. Very quickly, she dies of tuberculosis. And Thomas is stunned.

It is a moving film and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Directed by Tomasz Baginski, the film shows the dangers of obsession and how a man is unaware that his wife is dying, because he concentrates solely on his work. In the end, Thomas is left feeling guilty, sad and alone.

'The Kinematograph', was shown as part of a short-film festival conducted by the Shamiana film club, at the JT Pac, Kochi, on Sunday. The other films which were screened included 'Curfew', 'Time Freak' and 'Henry'. All of these films were nominated for the Oscars, but it was 'Curfew' which won in 2013.

'Curfew', by director Shawn Christensen, begins with a New Yorker, Richie, who is lying in a bath tub, and has slit his wrist. The water is slowly becoming red, when he receives a call. It is from his estranged sister, Maggie, asking him to look after his nine-year-old niece, Sophia, for the night. Richie decides to abandon the suicide attempt by bandaging his wrist. He then heads out to meet Sophia. And, thereafter, the film focuses on them spending time in different places of New York. Slowly, they develop a warmth and get to know each other.

Thanks to his interaction with Sophia, played with aplomb by Fatima Ptacek, Richie is able to get over the deep depression he is in. Incidentally, ‘Curfew’ has won 47 awards at international festivals all over the world.

Both 'Curfew' and 'Henry' by Yan England focuses on the bleakness of life. In 'Henry', an old pianist loses his memory and does not realise that the woman who befriends him at the nursing home is his own daughter, Nathalie. As for 'Time Freak' by Andrew Bowler, it is about a man who travels to the past on a time machine.

But perhaps the surprise package was the 19 minute Malayalam film, For Hire, made by young director Vishnu Raghav, about a woman (Kavitha Nair) who stands seductively at a bus stop, at Thiruvananthapuram, late at night. She persuades a man, also waiting beside her, to share an autorickshaw, whose driver is known to her.

Halfway into the journey, she pretends to fall ill, steps out of the vehicle, the man follows her, and the auto speeds away with the luggage. Later, the driver admits that the woman and he split the money from the sale of the luggage. A few men are tricked in this way.

Says Kavita, a well-known TV anchor: “One day, four youngsters were sitting around and throwing out ideas. It was how this film, which is based on a true story, was born. These young people did not have the finance and some of us put up the money to make this film. It has been put up on You Tube and we have been getting a lot of appreciation. We have also taken part in festivals.”

At the Festellen Short film fest held at Bangalore, where more than 60 short films from all over India were screened, Kavitha received the Best Actress Award.

In fact, all the films, shown by the Shamiana club, were gripping and worthy of appreciation. And the festival was a success, judging from the audience reaction. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Man Who Bends Spoons

In his show, ‘The Sixth Sense’, the Dubai-based Malayali CA Praveen reads minds and changes the shape of spoons through his will power  

Photo by Mithun Vinod

By Shevlin Sebastian

I want you to think of a city anywhere in the world,” says the mentalist CA Praveen. The participant, Ramesh Menon, closes his eyes and nods. “Now write it on a piece of paper,” says Praveen. Ramesh does so. “Now fold it and keep it in your pocket,” says the mentalist. With his back to Ramesh, Praveen writes something in black letters on a white board. Then he turns and shows the words, ' New York ', to Ramesh, whose eyes widen in surprise.

In his show, 'The Sixth Sense', held at Kochi, Praveen amazes the audience by being able to predict, with unerring accuracy, whatever people have drawn or thought. In one segment, Praveen asks a volunteer to come on stage. He then gives him five editions of ‘The New Indian Express’. “Select any edition,” he says. The man does so. Then one page is pulled out by the man and torn into four, and finally eight parts. Then the volunteer mentally selects a word from one of the torn pieces, and writes it on a piece of paper.

Meanwhile, sometime earlier, Praveen had given an envelope to a girl sitting on the front row. He now asks her to open the envelope, and read out the word. It is the same as the one on the piece of paper held by the volunteer.

That is why I love mentalism,” says Praveen. “The difference between magic and mentalism is that when I do a magic item, I know how it is going to start, the course, as well as the ending. But in mind reading, I have no idea of what is going to happen next.”

But the cherry on the cake was when Praveen bends spoons, in the manner of the famed Israeli psychic Uri Geller, by using his will power. To Praveen’s credit, before the show begins, he categorically states that he has no supernatural powers nor is he a psychic who can read a person’s mind.

My method is to observe body language, use scientific techniques, and put subliminal suggestions into the sub-conscious mind,” he says. However, that does not explain how he bends spoons or predicts accurately the words that a person is thinking.

Praveen, a Malayali, graduated in engineering from the Thangal Kunju Musaliar College of Engineering, Kollam, and joined the Indian Navy. A passion for magic ensured that he performed regularly during Naval functions. Over a period of time, he realised that his inner calling was to be an entertainer. So, on August 16, 2000, much against the wishes of the seniors and colleagues in the Navy, as well as his parents and relatives, he quit the Navy after 13 years. His advantage was that his London-based wife had a regular job as a psychiatrist. “So there was a back-up,” he says.

In retrospect, the gamble was well worth it. Today, the Dubai-based Praveen does regular shows in Britain, Japan, South Africa, Kenya, Seychelles, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and India.

Asked the secret of his skill, Praveen says, “There are three golden rules: practise, practice and practise. Once you learn a method you should be able to do it blindfolded. To reach that stage, you have to work at it hundreds of times.” So, it is no surprise that Praveen has become very good at it and received international kudos. In 2012, he won The Merlin Award for the Best Corporate Mentalist and Magician and was also inducted into the Hall Of Fame of the International Magicians Society. Consequently, his love for magic remains undiminished. “When I am on stage, I am the happiest person,” he says. 

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

The World of Writers

John Freeman's book, 'How To read a Novelist' (Conversations with Writers), are profiles of world-class authors like Toni Morrison, Gunter Grass and Orhan Pamuk, among many others

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1977 Kenyan leader Daniel Arap Moi got the novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong’o arrested for co-writing a play which was critical of the government. After a year in a maximum security prison, Ngugi was released. Later, he fled to the USA. In 2004, after Moi had stepped
down as president, Ngugi returned to Nairobi and received a hero’s welcome.

But things went horribly wrong. One night, intruders broke into his apartment. Ngugi’s wife, Njeeri, was stabbed and raped in front of him. When Ngugi tried to intervene he was burned with cigarettes on his forehead and arms. Finally the couple managed to escape. Later, when he came out of hospital, a combative Ngugi said, “We have to keep rising up. The Kenyans who attacked us do not represent the spirit of the new Kenya.”

This story is recounted in the remarkable book, ‘How To Read A Novelist’ (Conversations with Writers), by John Freeman, the former editor-in-chief of Granta, one of the world’s leading literary magazines.

This book is a collection of his profiles of some of the top writers of today. They include Noble Laureates Toni Morrison, Gunter Grass, Nadine Gordimer, Orhan Pamuk, Doris Lessing, and Margaret Atwood, along with notables like Richard Ford, Philip Roth, EL Doctorow and Tom Wolfe. India is represented by Booker Prize winners Salman Rushdie
and Kiran Desai, along with Vikram Chandra. In total, 54 authors have been featured.

Freeman has a fixed format. First there is an introduction of the author, which is laid out in an italics font. Then there is a description of the environment in which the interview is taking place, along with the writer's thoughts about his career, as well as anecdotes from the books or from life. Most of the pieces are only a few pages long. Since Freeman has an engaging and lucid style, it is an easy read.

And all along, Freeman recounts interesting tidbits. Japanese best-selling author Haruki Murakami explains how he writes his brilliantly imaginative novels, like ‘Kafka on The Shore’. “I have a theory,” he says. “If you lead a repetitious life, your imagination works very well. It is very active. So I get up early in the morning, sit down at my desk, and I am ready to write.”

Tom Wolfe talks about the need for a Hippocratic Oath for writers. The first line of the doctor's Hippocratic Oath is, 'First, do no harm',” he says. “For writers, it should be, 'First, entertain'. All writing should entertain. It is only recently that there is an emphasis on making writing so difficult that only a charmed aristocracy is capable to understanding it.”

As for Vikram Chandra he talks about the killers he met while researching for 'Sacred Games', his novel on the Mumbai underworld. One night I went for a beer with some shooters,” he says. “And I thought, 'Gosh, I could almost be friends with these guys. They are really nice fellows'. Then I realised that they probably would go out later that night and kill someone.” 

Mohsin Hamid, the author of 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist', has been trying to kill off the stereotypical image of Pakistan as a place of rampant terrorism, feudalism, and a country in flames. “Our No. 1 television show host is a transvestite,” he says. “We have a large
indie-rock band scene. There are huge Ecstasy-fuelled raves and fashion models who wear next to nothing on the catwalks. But you don't see that on American TV. Instead, we get the guys hiding out in the caves.”

All in all, for bibliophiles and aspiring writers, this book is a valuable addition to their home libraries. 

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

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Music Is His Life

Branko Stark, the Croatia-based director of the 'Rock of Ages' choral group, is a multi-faceted personality

Photo by Suresh Nampoothiry

By Shevlin Sebastian

The singers are wonderful,” says Branko Stark, the director of the Kochi-based 'Rock of Ages' choral group, which comprises 25 participants. “There is a nice mix of young and old, but their spirit is young.”

However, by nature, Malayalis are reserved and conservative in their singing. “The Germans are also reserved, while the British sound so upper-class,” says the Zagreb-based Branko. “On the other hand, the Italians, as well as those who live in the Slavic countries, like Croatia and Serbia, sing with a lot of passion.”

The presence of a voice is unique among homo-sapiens. Sounds are created by using the larynx, vocal chords, the abdominal and respiratory muscles. “The instrument is under the skin,” says Branko. “You cannot see it. It is the only organ in the world which has a soul and a spirit. The instrument is at the same time the instrumentalist.”

The voice has bio-mechanical attributes. “You can shout very loud, upto 130 decibels, which is the equivalent of the sound of a jet,” says Branko. “If a child shouts very close to the ear, you can become deaf. However, in singing, there is a physical limit. You only have 12 different notes in music. And each person uses these notes in his own unique way, just as we use the 26 alphabets of the English language in our own style.”

Incidentally, in a choir there are only four voices: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.

The best singers are those who infuse emotion in their voices. “We have to colour our songs with emotion,” says Branko. “In other words, you have to sing in a way that reflects happiness, joy, despair or sadness.”

Branko teaches all types of Western classical songs, from the Renaissance era, in the 15th and 16 centuries, to contemporary music. “I like to perform the works of composers who have been creative and inventive, like Beethoven, Bach, Chopin and Mozart,” says Branko. “All these genius composers were inspired. The word, 'inspired' comes from ‘Inspirare’ (inhale). In the olden times, people said that gifted composers had inhaled something from God and then they gave it to us.”

To put it another way, musicians like Bach and Beethoven are the medium. “It is God who writes through them,” says Branko. “Of course, they have to be craftsmen. But they had a direct link to God, with millions of bytes coming into them from above.”

Not surprisingly, for Branko, music is spiritual. “If you listen with concentration, you can feel the presence of God in a piece of music,” says Branko. “I always tell my students to search for the truth in a song.”

Branko has been searching for the truth since his childhood. His life changed, when his mother, a professional singer, presented him with a piano when he was 12 years old. “I immediately felt a deep passion for music,” says Branko. He wanted to write a composition as a child but it took him years to get the knowledge. Today, he has over 200 compositions under his name.

And composing is only one aspect of this multi-faceted personality. A teacher at the Arts Academy, (University of Split-Croatia), Branko also imparts lessons to singers, actors, choral directors, speech therapists, phoneticians and speakers. He holds seminars and workshops on vocal art, pedagogy and musical aesthetics. Branko has published scientific papers on voice theory and been the adjudicator for international choral competitions in China, Japan, Korea, Germany, Austria, Indonesia, Malaysia and Italy. Branko has also won numerous awards for composing, conducting and music.

Finally, he is the President of the Croatian Choral Directors Association, as well as the head of the Vocal Academy. Asked how he manages to cram in so many activities, Branko smiles and says, “Anything is possible with the help of God.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Duryodhana is the Hero

Anand Neelakantan's gripping novel, 'Ajaya' (Epic of the Kaurava Clan, Part 1), gives the Kauravas version of the Mahabharata. It is already No. 1 on the best-seller lists

By Shevlin Sebastian

Around ten years ago, author Anand Neelakantan came across a procession which was witnessed by thousands of people. They were waiting to pay homage to the idol at the Malanada Temple in a village in Kerala’s Kollam district. And the deity turned out to be a surprise. “It was none other than Duryodhana, the most reviled villain in Indian mythology,” says Anand.

In fact, according to legend, Duryodhana had come to Kerala in search of the Pandava princes. Feeling thirsty, he asks an old woman for water. Impulsively, she gives the toddy she is carrying. It was only then that the woman realises that Duryodhana is a Kshatriya and could lose his caste by drinking toddy from an Untouchable. When she tells him this, Duryodhana says, “Mother, there is no caste for hunger and thirst. Blessed are you for putting the interests of a thirsty man before your own safety.”

Ever since then Anand had been fascinated with Duryodhana. So it was no surprise that when he became a writer, he decided to write a book about the anti-hero. Called 'Ajaya (Epic of the Kaurava Clan, Part 1)', and published by Platinum Press, it has already soared to No 1 on the Crossword Bestseller List. This is his second book. His first, 'Asura-Tale of the Vanquished', about Ravana, was also a best-seller.

In 'Ajaya', Duryodhana is the hero, while the Pandavas are the villains,” says Anand. On the throne in Hastinapura, is Dhritarashtra, a blind man, who does not have any influence. His foreign-born wife, Gandhari, and her co-sister Kunti are engaged in a protracted cold war to make their sons the next heir to the empire.

Duryodhana, the Crown Prince of Hastinapura, is himself desperate for the throne. But his cousin Yudhisthira, and his brothers along with their mother will do anything to stop Duryodhana from becoming king. They are helped by the orthodox elements of society, which include the conservative Brahmin, Drona, ace politician, Krishna, and Kunti’s chief adviser, the priest Dhaumya.

As the cold war progresses, and as the helpless Patriarch, Bhishma, and his prime minister Vidura looks on, a revolution is brewing in the jungles of India. Takshaka, a Naga leader, wants to overthrow the establishment and bring about a people's revolution. Ekalavya, an untouchable, wants to become the best warrior in the country. “It is a modern take of an ancient story,” says Anand. “I have tried to draw parallels with present-day India.” 

The scenes are vivid and dramatic. You can feel as if you are in the kingdom of Hastinapura, so powerful are the images created in the mind. Anand says that the entire structure of the novel was planned beforehand. “It underwent changes as I wrote, but the blueprint remained the same,” he says.

Anand, who is Manager (Retail Sales) in Indian Oil Corporation, Belgaum, will be writing a second part. It is called the 'Rise of Kali', and will be published in August, 2014.

When asked why he decided to write about the Kauravas, Anand says, “All the stories are about victorious people. There should be someone to write about the vanquished too. From 'Asura' to 'Ajaya' was a natural progression.” 

(The Sunday Standard Magazine, New Delhi, and The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Running on the Same Track

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Dr. Deepak Gopinath talks about life with champion athlete Preeja Sreedharan

By Shevlin Sebastian

Dr. Deepak Gopinath saw Preeja Sreedharan at a felicitation function at Palakkad following her performance at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games, where she won the 10,000m gold and a silver in the 5000m.

Much later, he came across her profile on a matrimonial website and sent a query. Following an exchange of mails, it was found that their horoscopes matched. On September 27, 2012, Deepak, along with his mother and a few relatives went and met Preeja’s family. “In fact her house in the Railway Colony is behind the Kendriya Vidyalaya school in Olavakkode where I studied,” says Deepak.

The marriage took place on November 11, 2012 at Palakkad. For their honeymoon, they went to Indore where Deepak had to appear for an exam. Thereafter, they visited a few tourist sights, did the same in Delhi and Bangalore. After they returned to Kerala, they went for a holiday to Munnar and Thekkady.

Today, they are in two different locations. While Deepak is doing his specialisation in Radiation Oncology at Kozhikode Medical College, Preeja is training at the high-altitude centre at Munnar with colleague Sinimol Paulose and her husband Ajith Markose.

Every day she runs 20 kms in the morning and 10 kms in the evening,” says Deepak. “To develop endurance, Preeja runs in the hilly areas. Then she does speed work on the track. The schedule changes from day to day. Ajith is overseeing the training. Usually, Preeja runs 300 kms every week.”

Till a few months ago, they had been living together, so Deepak has a good idea of Preeja’s character.

At home, she does not behave like a star at all,” says Deepak. “Preeja does the cooking, sweeps the floors, washes the dishes as well as the clothes. In fact, once, a visitor who came to our house saw Preeja doing the housework, and assumed that she was a helper. So he said, ‘Can you call Dr. Deepak’s wife?’”

Unlike a modern girl, she is very obedient. “If I tell Preeja not to do something, she will not do it,” says Deepak. “She has a tendency to follow the patriarchal system. Whatever she wants to do, she will take my permission. If she goes to a shop and wants to buy a salwar kameez, Preeja will call and ask for my permission. She must be the only girl in these times to do this. And if I say no, she will not buy it.”

Deepak gives an example of Preeja’s down-to-earth nature. When Preeja went to take part in this month’s Kolkata Marathon, where she won the gold medal, Deepak organised a flight ticket for her return. But then the couple had a tiff. So Preeja decided she would return by train using her own money. She got a reservation, but a junior athlete who was travelling with Preeja did not get a seat. “This girl was running a fever and had body pains,” says Deepak. “So Preeja gave her berth to her, and spent the entire journey near the toilet. She put newspapers on the floor and slept there. Preeja never complained about it, but I did get upset when I came to know.”

Deepak is frank about Preeja’s negative traits. “Since she has concentrated so much on her athletics career, Preeja is a bit behind when it comes to academic qualifications, letter-writing and communications skills,” he says. “She will have to develop these attributes to be an effective chief officer superintendent [her current designation in the Railways].”

But on the athletic track, it is a different ball game. Deepak saw Preeja run for the first time, during the 5000m and 10,000m at the senior Nationals at Chennai in July, 2013. “Preeja had a look of determination,” he says. “It was nice to see how bold and confident she was.” Not surprisingly, she won gold medals in both events. But her rivals, like Kavita Raut and L. Surya, are her friends, and they go shopping together. “During the race, they will discuss on how to set the pace, in order to clock good timings,” says Deepak.  

Preeja’s immediate goal is to take part in the Asian Indoor Championships in February at Hangzhou, China. Thereafter, she will concentrate on the Commonwealth Games at Glasgow, Scotland in June.

Meanwhile, when asked for tips for a successful marriage, Deepak says, “Most young people think only about themselves. When there is some problem, the attitude is how will deal with it, instead of we. When there is a fight, spouses do not know how to compromise and resolve the issue. That is why there are so many problems in new marriages.”

Deepak has more tips. “Treat the parents and relatives of your wife's family as your own. There should be mutual respect. Appreciate the plus points of your spouse. As for the minus points, the best way is to accept and adapt to it.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)   

Monday, January 20, 2014

Letting the Strings Loose

The play, 'Romeo and Juliet: no strings attached', is all about the freedom to make choices, and the repercussions of that

Photo by Suresh Nampoothiri

By Shevlin Sebastian

The play, 'Romeo and Juliet: no strings attached' begins with four actors, masquerading as puppets, as they hop around on the stage. One of them says, “Day after day, I do the same things. I make the same moves. I say the same story like clockwork. I make the same mistakes.”
But, on one particular night, they realise that if they pull hard the strings will come loose, and they can run away and do anything they want, instead of acting in William Shakespeare’s play, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, night after night.

But before they flee, they decide to act one last time in front of an empty auditorium. “With freedom they realise that they can do ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in a different way,” says director Prashant Nair of the Bangalore-based Tahatto Theatre. The group had come to Kochi to take part in the 'Museum Fest', organised by the Museum of Art and Kerala History.

While the puppets are giving Shakespearean dialogues, in between, they veer off to contemporary times in India. So there is talk about matrimonial advertisements, hunger strikes, the misdeeds of politicians and a mocking reference to television anchor Arnab Goswami and his thunderous line, ‘The Nation Wants to Know’.

Sometimes, the dialogues, in English as well as Hindi, are tongue-in cheek: 'Ladies and gentlemen, it is time to bring forth our hero Romeo. Now if it was a Karan Johar movie, there would be a Shiamak Davar dance song. If it was a Ramgopal Varma film, there will be a woman running with nothing on.”

Prashant also made some ingenious changes. When he came across a stuffy speech by Benvolio, Romeo's cousin, in which he asks the latter to get out of the sulk that he was in, because a woman named Rosaline has ditched him, and to start meeting other ladies, Prashant cuts it down to some witty lines, in the style of a rap song:

Yo Yo,
My main man Romeo,
You aware of this whole scenario,
Downtown Verona,
Beckons us.
Don't tell me you don't feel no buzz.
There are chicks there waiting to mingle,
So get off your ass and change your Facebook status to single.

Prashant got the idea to do this play out of a casual conversation between friends one day. “We were discussing about how all of us have a compulsion to keep saying that if we did not have certain responsibilities, we would have done this or that,” he says. “To do or not to do is a choice, especially in a democracy. There is nobody holding us back.” By coincidence he happened to read ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at that time and realised that every character had to make decisions and deal with the consequences.

Like in the original version, Prashant's play has the recurrent theme of fate and choice. “I wanted to show that our destiny is not defined by our stars, but by our decisions,” says Prashant.

The cast consisted of Rijul Roy, Kalyani Nair, Anshul Pathak, Shashank Purushotham and Christopher Avinash.

In the end, 'No Strings Attached' is a soaring, funny and sometimes poignant look at the way people make choices and the impact it has on them. 

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

On a Hot streak!

Director Jeethu Joseph’s blockbuster hit, ‘Drishyam’, is the talking point in Kerala now. This is his third success in a row

Photo by Melton Antony 

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the conclusion of the Malayalam film, ‘Drishyam’ (Visuals), during a night show at Kochi, the audience breaks out into a spontaneous applause. A few draw their breaths in, clearly stunned by the Hitchcockian ending. Through word of mouth and updates on Facebook and Twitter, the film has become a blockbuster hit.

The story is simple: a boy tries to blackmail a girl to have sex and that event leads to a series of spectacular twists and turns, which deeply affects two families. Both the stars, Mohanlal and Meena, have put in understated but riveting performances. Others who impressed were Kalabhavan Shajohn, who plays a brutal cop, and the children Ansiba Hassan and Esther.

At his Kochi home, the director Jeethu Joseph is constantly getting calls and messages on his mobile phone. As he talks, actress Praveena sends a message: ‘Amazing, brilliant, superlative. My husband leapt out of his seat, and clapped on seeing the climax. Congrats Jeethu, this is one of the outstanding scripts in our industry for a long time.’ Not surprisingly, the Hindu, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada rights have been sold for a whopping amount.

Jeethu is on a roll. His previous films, ‘Mummy and Me’, ‘My Boss’ and ‘Memories’ have all become hits. However, he is the most unlikely candidate to become one of Mollywood’s hot-shot young directors.

The son of the late politician, VV Joseph, Jeethu was busy looking after the rubber estates of the family. Life was comfortable, but boring. Secretly, Jeethu had nursed a wish to join films, having become fascinated with the medium during his college days. Fate intervened when he went to stay, along with his wife, Linta, at his cousin, Geetha Joy’s house in Thiruvananthapuram for a few days.

On a table in the living room he saw a brochure for the film, ‘Karunam’, directed by Jairaj. When he asked Geetha about this, she told him that Jairaj was a tenant at their house in Thrissur. Later, Linta told Geetha that Jeethu was interested in films. So Geetha asked Jairaj whether Jeethu could join him as an assistant, and the latter agreed.

Jeethu worked with Jairaj on a Hindi film, ‘Bhibatsa’ (2002) which starred Atul Kulkarni and Seema Biswas. “What I learnt from Jayaraj was that a director should always be bold,” says Jeethu. To learn the craft, Jeethu watched a lot of films. “I would observe the editing patterns,” he says. “I learnt everything from seeing movies. I am self-taught and still learning.”

His first film, ‘Detective’ did not do so well. But, thereafter, things have moved forward smoothly.  

Asked the reasons for his success, Jeethu says, “The key is a good script. If you do not have one, whatever gimmicks you do, the film will be a failure.”

Actress Meena concurs. “In ‘Drishyam’, the script was the hero,” she says. “It had everything: a family-oriented story, suspense, comedy, and sentiments. We actors just enhanced an already brilliant script.”

Meena also liked Jeethu’s direction. “Jeethu will give an outline of the scene and would ask us what we wanted to do in this particular situation,” she says. “When we do it, he will suggest some improvisations. He is a gentle person, and I felt comfortable working with him.”  

Meanwhile, when asked about his future plans, Jeethu says, “First I need to take a break and calm down. Thereafter, I have to choose among the many options in front of me.” 

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

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Major Campaign

Three veterans have formed a band, ‘Major Triad’. Their aim: to revive ‘live’ performances in an era where singers are all using recorded music

Photo: (From left) Aisten, Stelsie Jose, Biju James and Sesil George 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Bass guitarist Biju James cannot forget the sight of a young Tamilian boy playing the keyboard at a performance given by a singer. “He had no idea what he was playing,” says Biju. “In fact, he was just moving his fingers over the keys. They were hoodwinking the public.”

Essentially, the songs had been downloaded to the keyboard and it was being played. “The idea is to save up on the cost of having a full band,” says Biju. “This is the trend all over Kerala. Whereever there is a public concert, the music that is played is downloaded songs. So what is the point of coming for a programme? You might as well stay at home and listen to the music on your stereo player.”

Drummer Sesil George says that during earlier times, like when 13AD and Crest were playing, the music was live. “We want to perform authentic music,” says Sesil. “We want to be sincere during a performance. Using recorded tracks is to trick the audience.”

So Biju, Sesil, as well as electrical guitarist Stelsie Jose and vocalist Aisten have formed a band called Major Triad. “Except for Aisten, we are veterans in the field,” says Sesil. “That is why we have put the word Major. And Triad is a music notation.”

The group is clear about the audience they are playing for: it is from the mid-thirties upwards. “All of them have a nostalgia for classical rock, which is our focus,” says Sesil. “We don't play rap or disco.”

At a recent performance at the Elephant Court hotel in Thekkady, where there were a large number of foreigners and North Indians present, they played songs by John Denver, Eagles, Eric Clapton, Deep Purple, Cliff Richards, Simon & Garfunkel, Elvis Presley, Doobie Brothers, Santana, Pink Floyd, Bob Marley, among many others.

We got a good response,” says Biju. “It was 'live' music all the way through.” 
This was confirmed by the manager of Elephant Court, Manoj Thomas. “They played very well,” he says. “The big difference was because it was live music. Through their energy and passion for playing, they were able to draw the audience in. The people could feel as if they are participating in the show. It is very different from playing recorded music. Later, the feedback from the guests confirmed this. In all probability, we will be inviting Major Triad again.”

The senior trio joined together after a break of several years. While Biju was a marketing professional, Sesil was busy providing sound equipment for various institutions, while Stelsie has a music shop near the North Railway station. “One day we realised that our passion for music was still intact, and we wanted to return to it, before it is too late,” says Biju.

Adds Sesil: “We are not playing for money. We are playing for the love of music. All of us have arranged for alternate means of income.”

While Sesil is getting rent from a few flats that he owns, Stelsie has his music shop, while Biju is a teacher of music at home. “I teach school and college students, as well as IT professionals,” he says. “I am also the music teacher at the Teresa Spinelli Public School at Kaloor. The rest of the time we are busy playing music.” 

Their reasons are clear: “We want to create a space where people can come and enjoy this type of classical music. The hotels should take the initiative, spend a little bit of money and hire full bands, instead of going for the cheaper option of one or two musicians and using recorded music.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)   

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Man Who Went To Space

Bernard Harris is the first African-American to go to space. The astronaut talks about his experiences

By Shevlin Sebastian

Bernard Harris opens the hatch of the space shuttle, Discovery, and steps out. He is wearing a white Extra Vehicular Activity suit, which weighs 159 kgs on earth, but is weightless in space. He gets onto a robotic arm which lifts him up. “So now I am 35 feet above the shuttle,” he says. “I can see the earth, which is blue and white, and looks beautiful. And behind the planet is a sea of stars of the Milky Way. It is the most incredible view I have ever seen.”

One of the primary experiences for Bernard is the lack of gravity. “When there is no gravity, physically you feel free,” says Bernard, who had come to Kochi to be a featured speaker for the TiE Con Kerala event. “You are not confined to operating in a two-dimensional space. Inside the shuttle, if I wanted to go from one side to the other, all I had to do was to press my fingers against the wall and soon I was gliding across. It was a novel experience.”

Eating was easy, but sleeping difficult. “We are used to sleeping on a bed, which is anchored by gravity,” says Bernard. “But in space, the sleeping bags are tethered to the wall or the ceiling. Breathing is easy, but there is a nagging headache for the first two days.”

That is because one-fifth of the blood, in the legs, which is usually held down by gravity, moves up and reaches the tissues of the face and makes it look puffy. The fluid also fills the nasal passages and most astronauts have a head cold. “We don't think as clearly,” says Bernard.

Astronauts also grow an inch or two in space. “One reason is that we do not have the weight of the body,” says Bernard. “The extra water goes into the tissues in the discs in the spinal cord and stretches the spine.”

The mission, which began on February 9, 1995, included a rendezvous with Mir, the Russian Space Station, the retrieval of a damaged satellite, as well as an investigation into the long-term effects on the human body while being in space.

Not surprisingly, as Bernard beheld majesty of space, he had a spiritual elevation. “I have always believed in a higher being,” he says. “In space, everything is perfect. The planets, the solar system and the galaxies – all this did not happen by accident. There has to be some higher power which orchestrated all this. My faith in God deepened.”

Not many people know that going to space was the fulfillment of a childhood dream for Bernard. It started in 1969 when he was 13 years old. On a black and white television set, he saw astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin [Buzz] Aldrin land on the moon. It was a tremendous moment for Bernard when Armstrong said, 'This is one small step for man, and a giant leap for mankind'. He decided that he would follow in the footsteps of these great men. “It was a leap of faith which I took,” he says. And unlike most people, Bernard was able to fulfill this childhood dream of travelling in a space shuttle.

The shuttle is a fascinating vehicle,” he says. “It takes about seven million pounds of thrust out of five engines to get off the ground. As the force hits the ground, we are going so fast in the opposite direction that by the time we clear the launch tower we are going faster than the speed of sound.”

In two minutes they reach an altitude of 1 lakh feet. That is about three times higher than what most aircraft fly. “We are now above most of the atmosphere,” he says. “We are going from 2500, to 5000, 15,000 to 17,000 miles an hour till we reach zero gravity. At this moment it is so wonderful to get out of the seat, look out of the window, and see the Earth.”

Bernard is only one of 538 people who have been in outer space. In fact, he is the first African-American to do a spacewalk. In a career spanning 19 years, Bernard logged 438 hours and travelled 72 lakh miles in space.

Asked the qualities needed to be a good astronaut, he says, “He or she should have the ability to learn new things. When I became an astronaut I had to learn how to fly jets, to survive in different environments, and to parachute from an aeroplane towards land as well as water. You also have to be a stable person. In other words, you have to learn to keep your emotions under control.”

Apart from being an astronaut, Bernard is a qualified doctor, a former associate Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Texas, as well as an author of several scientific publications. Bernard is now the Chief Executive Officer of Vesalius Ventures, Inc., a venture capital firm.

Bernard also has his heart in the right place. He has set up the Harris Foundation, which helps economically disadvantaged students, the majority of whom are African-American, Latino and Hispanic students. “It is not about skin colour,” he says. “We also reach out to white students in rural areas. Unfortunately, the majority of the poor are African Americans.”

Bernard has also won numerous awards, including honorary doctorates from several American universities. A fellow of the American College of Physicians, he has received the NASA Space Flight Medal, a NASA Award of Merit, and the 2000 Horatio Alger Award.

All of us have talents and abilities,” he says. “Every individual was born to do something special. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

On the Same Wavelength

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Indu talks about life with the Carnatic singer Sreevalsan J Menon

Photo by Suresh Nampoothiri

By Shevlin Sebastian

Indu met the musician Sreevalsan J Menon when they were both first-year B. Sc. students at the College of Agriculture, Thiruvananthapuram. “Right from the beginning, we had a similar wavelength,” she says. “I would share a lot of my thoughts with him. I felt he was calm and pure-minded.”

During the first year, one of the teachers, C. Bhaskaran said, “Today, I am a very proud teacher. Yesterday evening, during the Onam Week celebrations, one of our students had performed well. It was an introduction to [Carnatic vocalist] Neyyattinkara Vasudevan's programme.” That was when Indu realised that Sreevalsan was good in singing.

Things got serious during a month-long South India study tour by the first-year batch in 1990. One day, Sreevalsan went to Indu’s room which she was sharing with the other girls, took her to one side, and said, “I want to marry you.”

It was not a surprise for Indu. But she remained silent. “My father was a disciplinarian,” says Indu. “I thought, ‘Will he get upset?’”

Nevertheless, a couple of days later she said yes to Sreevalsan.

When she returned to Kochi, where her father worked in the Cochin Shipyard, she told her younger sister Sindhu about it. “Do you think it is an infatuation on Sreevalsan's part?” said Sindhu. But Indu had no doubt about Sreevalsan’s love. So once when her father and Indu went to the Sree Poornathrayeesa temple at Tripunithara she told him about the proposal. “Initially, he was shocked,” says Indu. “It took him some time to accept it. Finally, he asked whether Sreevalsan's family would accept me. I said that they would.”

Sreevalsan's mother said that they had no problems as long as the horoscopes matched. And it did.

In the meanwhile, Sreevalsan and Indu sat for exams conducted by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Delhi. Both of them passed, and secured fellowships. While Indu went to do her masters at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University at Coimbatore Sreevalsan did his at the College of Agriculture at Vellayani.

He would go to Coimbatore every now and then with his friends to meet Indu. “We would all go out to have lunch,” says Indu. “Sreevalsan would also write letters to me. There was nothing romantic in them. He would give a list of new English words and tell me to study it. So, I bought a Thesaurus to improve my English.”

Eventually, the marriage took place on September 8, 1996. Asked about her husband’s plus points, Indu says, “Sreevalsan is very calm. I get tensed up over the smallest of matters. And he will always say, 'Don't worry, everything will work out.' That always turns out to be true. Both of us are God-fearing. He is a man of positive thinking. He never makes a negative statement. Sreevalsan is very loving. He buys me sarees often. He likes me to wear Bengal cotton.”

Indu continues, “I feel very secure with him. I know that he is always there for me. When he is not at home, I feel that I am missing something. But when he is there, I feel complete. The love is still strong.”

As for his negative points, Indu says, “Sreevalsan does not look at the practical aspects of running the house. He has entrusted that to me. When there are a lot of tasks to do, sometimes, I wish he would help me or show some appreciation.”

Meanwhile, as an artist’s wife, Indu has no problems that music is his first love. “He has compartmentalised it in his mind,” she says. “When Sreevalsan is singing, he is fully immersed in it. But when he is with the family, he is all attention.”

Today, Sreevalsan works as an Associate Professor at the Kerala Agricultural University in Thrissur while Indu is an Agricultural Officer of the Krishi Bhavan at Chottanikkara. The Tripunithara-based  couple have two children, Subhadra, 16, and Narayanan, 12.

With the children, he is like a friend. “But Sreevalsan insists on the importance of behaving properly with relatives, strangers, teachers and friends,” says Indu. “My daughter is a teenager. She will come home and tell her father about certain issues between her and her friends, like how they make fun of the teachers. Sreevalsan listens carefully and gives advice.”

When the family has free time, they watch movies. “The last film we saw was 'Dhoom 3',” says Indu. “Sreevalsan likes Hindi, English, Malayalam and Tamil films. He watches English films a lot to listen to the music score.”  

Meanwhile, when asked about tips for a successful marriage, Indu says, “Husband and wife should give space to each other. There is no need to be possessive about each other. You also have to give and receive respect. That is very important. Think positively all the time. Then, all your troubles will be resolved. 

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