Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Into the Darkness

The award-winning Marathi film, ‘The Silence’, which was shown in Kochi recently, focuses on the damage wrought by child sex abuse 

Photos: Ashwini Sidwani; a scene from the film

By Shevlin Sebastian
12-year-old Chini lives an idyllic life at a village in the Konkan region of Maharashtra. She plays with pebbles under a tree, amidst the ceaseless twitter of birds. There is a river nearby. She sits on the bank and watches her father trying to catch fish. Sometimes, she goes with a neighbourhood boy to catch cuckoos in the forest. There is a constant smile on her face. Her father, a candy seller, loves her, as well as her elder sister, Manda, unconditionally.

Manda lives in Mumbai and works as an extra in Hindi films. Their mother had died at Chini’s birth. When Chini has her first periods, her father does not know what to do. He secures the help of his brother-in-law who agrees to take Chini to live with his wife in a nearby town. Sadly, the unexpected happens. The uncle, a grain merchant, as well as a womaniser, rapes Chini.

Thereafter, things go out of control, scarring the lives of several people.

The Silence’ is a deeply moving Marathi film, with an enormous intensity and sincerity invested in each scene. Made by award-winning director Gajendra Ahire, it stars Raghubir Yadav as Chini’s dad and Nagraj Manjule as the uncle. The story is told in flashback, with the voice-over belonging to Chini’s aunt.

The 92-minute feature film was screened in mid-November at the All Lights India International Film Festival at Kochi. Just before that, 'The Silence' became the first-ever Indian film to be shown at the Brasilia International Film Festival. In July, Ahire had won the 'German Star of India 2015, Director’s Vision' award at the Indian Film Festival in Stuttgart, Germany.

At Kochi, sitting on a low sofa at the VIP Lounge of the Cinepolis, and sipping a cup of tea, is Ashwini Sidwani, the writer of the story. She belongs to SMR Productions, which makes television serials for Doordarshan. “There was a project I was researching, with a NGO called Majlis, which is run by [activist] Flavia Agnes,” says Ashwini. “We wanted to do one-hour stories of domestic violence. It was while doing this that I came across a true story of child abuse.”

So she wrote the screenplay. But when she narrated it in the office, her colleagues suggested that it would be better to make a film, rather than a television serial, which comes and goes. So she told the story to Gajendra who said yes immediately.

In the actual story, the child, who lives in Kolhapur, mentioned the abuse to her elder sister when she came on a visit from Mumbai two months later. They filed a police complaint. “But since it was done so late, the police were unable to gather any evidence,” says Ashwini. “The uncle vanished. Whenever anything happens, you have to lodge a complaint within 24 hours or before the victim has had a bath.”

To ensure that happens, parents should keep a sharp eye on their children. “If they sense something is wrong, they should question the child,” says Ashwini. “Often, they are too young to understand what is happening.”

The film is now doing the festival circuit. Many good Marathi films are being made now, including the unforgettable ‘Court’, which was India’s entry for the Foreign Language Oscar. And Ashwini puts it down to the encouragement by the state government. “If your film is selected for any festival, they give you a subsidy of Rs 30 lakh,” says Ashwini. “It is a big boost. So many talented filmmakers are venturing to make meaningful films.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)  

Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Christmas Story

By Shevlin Sebastian

A couple of days ago, while standing near the St. Francis Church in Kakkanad, Kochi, at 7 p.m., while my daughter had gone for singing practice, I noticed a group of men milling around in front of the church. It was clear from their looks that they were from North India. They began talking among themselves. Then they looked at the church again. Finally, they walked towards three men standing around in a semi-circle and talking. They asked them something. The men nodded their heads, in typical Kerala style.

Then they took off their sandals, slippers and shoes and walked towards the entrance.

Suddenly, one man came back and took off his socks.

Then they entered the church.

I also followed them silently and stood at the entrance.

They went and sat on one of the benches.

The church was in darkness except for the light over the altar.

Like in all places of worship, where people come and say chants or prayers over a long period of time, there exists a certain spirituality.

I feel this deeply when I go to any place of worship, be it church, mosque or temple.

You will feel this when you go to the heart of the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai.

I am sure everybody feels it.

I then stepped away and stood outside.

After a while, the men came out and put on their footwear.

I resisted the urge to talk to them.

Why be a journalist all the time?

But curiosity dies hard.

The need to know gripped me.

I approached them.

I asked where they were from?

“From Meerut,” said Sachin.

So, it is the heart of Uttar Pradesh.

They had come for three months to do some repair on the main Doordarshan tower.

They had never been inside a church.

So they were curious.

So what was the experience like?

“It was nice,” said Sachin. “Can we come again?”

“Indeed, you can. Any time and all the time,” I said. “God is the same everywhere.”

They smiled.

We shook hands.

And once again, a small brick was added to the centuries-old edifice of syncretism in Kerala, and hopefully, for India also.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Banishing Away the Bad Omens


Make-up artist Pattanam Rasheed talks about his experiences in Mollywood

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photos: Pattnam Rasheed applying make-up on Mohanlal for the film, 'Paradesi'; In his studio  

At 4 a.m., on a cold winter's day, in 2007, superstar Mohanlal knocked on make-up artist Pattanam Rasheed's door in a hotel at Jodhpur and said, “Are you awake?”

Yes Sir,” said Rasheed, as he opened the door.

They both had tea. Then the elaborate make-up for Mohanlal began. In PT Kunju Mohammed's film, 'Paradesi', Mohanlal plays Valiyakaththu Moosa, a Muslim who went to Pakistan, before Partition, but returns soon after, but he possesses a Pakistani passport. So he is not accepted as an Indian.

In the film, Mohanlal's ages from 35 to 80,” says Rasheed. “For this particular shot, Mohanlal was playing an old man.” Rasheed used a prosthetic cap to make Monahlal look bald. Thereafter, he used a white beard as well as an old age stipple lotion, to indicate wrinkled skin.

At the shoot commenced, in the Thar desert, the villagers gathered around. A group of men asked Rasheed, “Who is the star?”

Rasheed pointed at Mohanlal and said, “He is.”

With a mocking look, one of them said, “How can this old man be the star?” Another man said, “You are fooling us.” They abused Rasheed and walked away.

But Rasheed felt happy. “In fact, I felt thrilled that they did not realise that it was all make-up,” he says. “The triumph of a make-up artist happens when viewers look at an actor and cannot figure out whether make-up has been used or not.”

The shoot progressed smoothly. However, the next morning, when Rasheed placed the bald cap, on Mohanlal's head, a large indentation appeared at one side. “Somehow, I could not solve the problem even after one-and-a-half hours,” he says. So Rasheed told the director if he could do a scene with Mohanlal as a middle-aged man. He promised to finish the make-up in half an hour. Kunju Mohammed agreed.

That night, when they were relaxing in the hotel, Rasheed told veteran actor Thangal, who had a small role, about the events regarding the bald cap. Thangal, who has some knowledge of healing, asked Rasheed to get a few eggs.

Then Thangal wrote something in Arabic on the shell of two eggs.

Thereafter, they went into Mohanlal's room. Thangal made the star lie down on the bed. “Then Thangal said some mantras in Arabic while moving the eggs over Mohan Lal's body,” says Rasheed. “Afterward, he threw the eggs out of the window. He did the same for me.”

Following this, there were no problems whatsoever on the film. “Thangal told me that a crew member may have given out negative vibrations,” says Rasheed. “He removed it with his mantras.”

It seemed to have worked. The film won several awards including Best Actor for Mohanlal at the Kerala State Film Awards as well as the National Award for Best Make-up Artist for Rasheed, the first time a make-up person from Mollywood has won it. 

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

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Places of Beauty and Charm

The projects of the architecture firm, 'Stapati', headed by Tony Joseph, have received international appreciation 
Photos: Tony Joseph (centre, middle row) with members of the Stapati team; Alila Diwa in Goa; the Vythiri Resort in Wayanad, Kerala   

By Shevlin Sebastian

Sometime ago, architect Tony Joseph, founder of the firm, Stapati, had gone to Singapore. While having a meeting with one of the island’s top architects, he was introduced to a group of people. When he told them that he is from Kerala, they said that they had stayed at the Kumarakom Lake Resort. “I designed it,” said Joseph. There was an instant elation among the group members who congratulated him on designing such a beautiful property. “It feels great when your work is appreciated,” says Joseph.

The Lake resort is one of 11 projects of Stapati that has been featured in a classy coffee table book called 'Timeless Resorts'. The others include the Alila Diwa in Goa, Vythiri Resort at Wayanad, Madhuban Resort and Spa in Anand, Gujarat and the Enchanted Island Resort in the Seychelles.  

The photographs are stunning and jaw-dropping. For each project, there is an explanation of the reasons behind the design, as well as a map of the location, apart from the photos.

The book, priced at Rs 2600, has been published by the San Francisco-based Oro Editions. While leading architect Christopher C. Benninger has penned the foreword, the text has been written by Stapati architect Sujith GS. It was released at a function at the Crowne Plaza, Kochi, on December 21, by Alex Kuruvila, the Chief Executive of Conde Nast India, in the presence of Kochi Biennale founder Bose Krishnamachari.

It is always an honour when a monograph is published on your works,” says Joseph. “Oro Editions are the leading publishers of international architecture books. People will get a feel of the type of work that is being done in India. Also, a lot of the projects are from Kerala, so it is a great mileage for the state.”

Indeed, when you look at this engrossing book, one is taken aback at the seamless way that the buildings have been merged into the environment.

Our team does an extensive study of the local architecture as well as the site,” says Joseph. “In Vythiri, the project was located in an abandoned coffee estate. We did a detailed survey where every rock and tree was inspected. We made sure we did not cut a single tree. And every rock was preserved. We did the same thing at the Alila Diwa in Goa. There were a lot of old trees. We made sure the design revolved around the trees, so that there is a natural landscape.”

It seems to be the right way because all the projects are doing very well. “In Seychelles, most government functions take place at our resort,” says Joseph. “The people like it because we have retained the local character.”

Asked his philosophy, Joseph says, “When you are sincere to a project, you will make sure that the site is not disturbed. This will ensure that the end-user is happy. It is also important to keep the costs low, so that the owner is also happy. So, for me, the prime attitude is one of sincerity.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)   

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Meeting of Sheela and Sheela

Businesswoman Sheela Kochuouseph and actor Sheela will be holding a joint painting exhibition at the Le Meridien, Kochi

Photo: Sheela Kochuouseph (left) with actor Sheela. By Ratheesh Sundaram

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was Asif Ali Komu, of the Aluva-based Komusons Art Gallery, who got the idea to hold a joint exhibition of two women achievers: businesswoman Sheela Kochuouseph and actor Sheela.

I came to know that both were painters in their spare time, so I felt that I should hold an exhibition featuring the two,” he says. “In fact when I told some people about it, they were skeptical and said, ‘Can they paint?’ This exhibition is to show that they are talented artistes.”

Asif was speaking at the press meet to announce the exhibition which will begin on December 23. A host of prominent personalities, from all sections of society, including Mollywood, are expected to participate.

And the duo got together recently when they met at the Kochi home of Sheela Kochuouseph. While there, the actor asked the spelling of the businesswoman's name. “It is the same as yours,” said Sheela Kochuouseph.

Then the actor asked the full name. “Sheela Grace is my name,” said Sheela Kochuouseph. 

The astonished actor said, “That is also my name. My mother was called Grace.”

A total of 100 paintings will be on display: 60 of actor Sheela and 40 of Sheela Kochuouseph. There is a mix of abstract and realistic paintings. While actor Sheela paints in the early morning, at her home in Chennai, Sheela Kochuouseph paints in the afternoon, when she comes home from office during the lunch hour. “Instead of going to sleep, I prefer to paint for one or two hours,” she says. “I feel fresh after doing this.”

As Sheela Kocuouseph is speaking, an art lover comes up and says, “I would like to buy this painting.”

The particular oil painting is called ‘Combustion’. Painted in a deep shade of red, it shows dried leaves, suffering men and women and a blazing sun above them. “In the future, there will be no trees, only sunlight,” says Sheela Kochuouseph. “All the people are sad. They want to be cool, but they cannot be. The theme is about global warming.”

Both the women say that they will use the money for charity works. However, Sheela Kochuouseph has a specific plan: “I want to use it to clean up the garbage alongside Marine Drive. I will be asking permission from the Mayor [Saumini Jain] to do it.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala State Editions)

Monday, December 21, 2015

An European Sojourn

Italian director Simone Mariani has made an Italian documentary on the little-known but phenomenal tabla player Sanjay Kansa Banik, who plays in Europe. He grew up in a small town in West Bengal

Photos: Simone Mariani. Photo by Ratheesh SundaramSanjay Kansa Banik and wife Rupa

By Shevlin Sebastian

Musician Sanjay Kansa Banik sits on his haunches in a small music shop in the town of Habra (49 kms from Kolkata). A man is tuning his tabla. After a while, he asks Banik to test it out. Banik hits the surface of the instrument with his fingers and starts playing. After a while, he closes his eyes. Then he says, “It's choking a bit. Can you loosen the bolts some more?”

Meanwhile, somebody places an earthen cup of tea on the floor. Banik sips it in evident relish. 

Soon, the scene shifts to the banks of the river Hooghly, on a pleasant winter morning. Banik is playing the tabla, while being accompanied by a local musician on the harmonium. And as they play the mellifluous Hindustani classical music, two fishermen go past on a boat.

These are the opening moments of the 50-minute Italian documentary, 'A Journey on the Tabla' by director Simone Mariani. He was present in Kochi for the world premiere at the All Lights India International Film Festival in mid-November.

I was very keen that the premiere should take place in India,” he says. “The response has been very good.”

Mariani came across Banik in Rome, when he attended a performance by the multi-ethnic Orchestra Di Piazza Vittorio. Apart from Banik, there were musicians from Senegal, Argentina, Hungary, Cuba, Ecuador, Brazil and Tunisia.

Out of all these musicians, Mariani was entranced by Banik's playing. Later, they met, and became friends. Then, one day, it occurred to Mariani that he could make a film on Banik's journey: from a small town in India, to playing all over Europe.

I wanted to reveal the soul of Sanjay,” says Mariani. “His passion for the tabla began when he was only four years old. I felt it would be an inspiring story to tell. How the music connects with Europeans without using words. Over the years, Sanjay has collaborated with many orchestras, as well as jazz, fusion and classical musicians.”

But the documentary took three years in the making. One reason is that Mariani is a busy television and film actor. He has worked in the upcoming Hollywood film, 'Inferno', which stars Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones.

Nevertheless, Mariani travelled to Kolkata several times. All of Banik's family gave their views: his younger sister, parents, and fellow musicians, with whom he played with, before he left for Italy. In Rome, the director of the orchestra, Mario Tronco, as well as his colleagues spoke about his phenomenal talent.

Indeed, when Banik plays, he is mesmerising. As he himself says, “When I am on stage, after a certain point, I don't know where I am. The stage becomes a temple for me.”

But it is not all smooth sailing. Banik, who speaks fluent Italian, spoke about the difficulty of getting a work permit. “This suffering sometimes drives me crazy,” says Banik, who moved to Italy in 2006.

But the documentary also shows incidents of great joy, like his marriage to classical singer Rupa at Habra, in 2011. Later, when Rupa joined Banik in Rome in April, 2012, the couple gave a performance to an Italian audience at the invitation of the Alain Danielou Foundation. “They played the Raga Malkauns,” says Foundation Director Jacques Cloarec. “Both were fantastic.”

All in all, it is a documentary which reveals a diminutive man's tall ambition to make a mark abroad through hard work and determination. It helps that Banik has a great talent. 

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

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Story of a Market

Artist Orijit Sen spoke about one of the most popular shopping areas in Goa - the decades-old Mapusa Market

Photos: Orijit Sen (left) with Australian artist Alistair Rowe; bread in Mapusa Market 

By Shevlin Sebastian

A first glance of graphic artist Orijit Sen can cause a surprise. He has long hair, parted in the middle, that goes way beyond his shoulders. While the hair is black, the moustache and goatee are a mix of grey and black. Sen was in Kochi to give a 'Let's Talk' outreach programme, titled 'Mapping Mapusa Market', organised by the Kochi Biennale Foundation, and moderated by Australian artist Alistair Rowe.

Mapusa Market is one of Goa's most famous old-style markets, set in the town of Mapusa in Northern Goa. In the late 1990s, Sen lived in a village near Mapusa for a few years. He was fascinated by this market and spent a lot of time there. “The market has multiple layers of products, activities, and people,” says Sen.

The mapping of the market was facilitated by Goa University under its Mario Miranda Chair Visiting Professor Programme.

Incidentally, the first object that catches the visitor's eye is a statue of Shakuntala sitting on a crop of rocks, surrounded by a couple of deer. The statue came up just as the Portuguese were leaving India in 1961.

Initially, there was a plan to put up a statue of a Portuguese hero like Vasco Da Gama,” says Sen. “But that was shelved. The market comprised mostly of Hindu and Catholic traders. The latter were not keen for a Hindu god to come up. Somebody suggested Shakuntala. Everybody agreed that it was a good idea.”

Like most markets in India, the variety is mind-boggling. “There are numerous bakeries, which offer different types of traditional bread, like pao and poee,” says Sen. “You can get all types of fish, chicken, foodgrains, vegetables, clay pots, plastic buckets, watches, apart from computer parts and Chinese items.”

There are also many small outlets where men do elementary repair work of old stoves, mixers, fans, and umbrellas. And there are restaurants and bars - 'Market Cafe Bar & Rest' - to name one, to quench the shoppers' hunger and thirst.

Using pertinent visuals, Sen presented an absorbing show of life in the market.

Thereafter, he spoke about his comic book, 'River of Stories', which is regarded today as the first graphic novel in India, about the agitation against the Narmada Dam.

Here are some thought-provoking lines:

'Here is the story of a river
But stories themselves are rivers
Rivers that well up from the underground
Of Consciousness.'

Sen also showed a visual of the 246-feet long mural, 'From Punjab, With Love', which he had done at the Virasat-e-Khalsa Museum in Anandpur Sahib, Punjab. It shows an immense variety of life in Punjab - farmers in the fields, women washing clothes, children flying kites, and buffaloes wading into a pond. It is a mind-boggling work by a top quality artist.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Friday, December 18, 2015

Hot and Chilly

Chilean poet, Raul Zurita, the first artist of the Kochi Biennale 2016, gave a reading of his poems

Photos: Raul Zurita; Translator Anna Deeny and Raul Zurita during the reading

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Malayalam poet Balachandran Chullikkadu placed a ponnada across the shoulders of the Chilean poet Raul Zurita at the 'Sky Below' event at the Town Hall, Kochi, on Tuesday, the latter had a puzzled look on his face.

gSir, this is our way of showing honour to you,” said Chullikkadu, as Zurita broke out into a warm smile. Later, Chullikkadu said, “A great poet defines his country in its historical context. Poetry is the political resistance of the human soul.”

Zurita, 65, is dressed elegantly: a pastel overcoat and trousers and brown canvas shoes. The first artist to be selected for the Kochi Biennale of 2016 walks with a shuffling gait. But when he begins to recite his poems, in Spanish, his voice gains in power and strength.

Here are a few lines from 'Dream 36/To Kurosawa', read out by his translator Anna Deeny, who works at the Center for Latin Studies in Georgetown University, USA:

'I’m tied up at the back of a military
truck that jolts each time it hits a pothole
in the road. We’re facedown, crisscrossed
one on top of the other like those board
fences stacked up around barracks and I
feel the weight of the ones who ended up
on top of me.
At each pothole our bodies jolt too...

The heel of my shoe is rammed up against
the face of someone who ended up below
me and the weight of the ones on top ends
up ramming it in even further.'

This poem refers to Zurita's life-changing moment: on September 11, 1973, he was arrested by security forces on the day that Auguste Pinochet took power in Chile through a military coup. Subsequently, Pinochet ruled Chile for the next 17 years.

This poem became part of the book, 'Purgatorio', which became a best-seller in Chile.

Later, Zurita, along with writers and artists Fernando Balcells, Diamela Eltit, Lotty Rosenfeld and Juan Castillo, set up the 'Colectivo De Acciones de Arte', a group that did provocative public-art performances against the Pinochet government.

Like the one at New York, in 1982. Five aeroplanes drew letters in the form of white smoke against the blue sky. These were the words from Zurita's poem, 'La Vida Neuva ' (The New Life). Thereafter, ten years later, on the sands of the Atacama Desert, Zurita wrote the words, 'Ni Pena Ni Miedo' (Neither pain nor fear). These four words are more than three kilometres long. This sentence can still be seen from the air because the locals have maintained it against the elements.

Thus far, Zurita has published more than 20 books of poetry. And among the many honours he has won are the Pable Neruda Prize in 1998, the Chilean National Literature Prize in 2000, and the Casa De Las Americas Prize for Poetry in 2006.

At Kochi, as he grips the mike firmly, Zurita says, “Without poetry, humanity disappears.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuiram) 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Nun Faces the End

Photo: The nuns of Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration

By Shevlin Sebastian

When my mother sees Sr. Mary Gertrude she could not help but widen her eyes in shock. The 85-year-old nun is lying immobile, on a bed, in a room at the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration monastry in Chelcombu, Kerala.

It is a serene setting: rubber trees and plants growing all around. The only sounds are the rustle of the leaves and the cawing of crows.

Gertrude has been suffering from Parkinson’s disease and spondylitis for the past few years,” says Sr. Mary Tancy. “She is being fed by a tube. She is not able to speak. But she can hear very well and understand everything that we say.”

My mother leans forward and kisses Sr. Gertrude's face. There is a trace of recognition in the nun's eyes. “Do you remember how much fun we used to have during the summer vacations?” my mother says.

One of the fondest memories of my mother was the fun-filled times she had with her cousins at their grandmother's home in Varapuzha. Sr. Gertrude, my mother's cousin, was a few years older. “Gertrude had a lot of energy,” my mother later said. “She was always running about.”

In the ancestral home, there were a couple of ponds. The children would catch fish or go for a swim. Sometimes, the girls played hop-scotch, or chased each other. There were many guava, coconut and mango trees. But Sr. Gertrude's father had explicitly warned that no mango could be plucked before it was ripe.

One evening, Sr. Gertrude dared her cousins that she would pluck an unripe mango, and disobey her father. The cousins challenged her. A cool Sr. Gertrude plucked a mango. But it was a clever choice. “It was a diseased one, so nobody could scold her,” says my mum.

Sr. Gertrude's mother had died when she was a child. So, she was brought up by a widowed aunt, as well as her grandmother. When Gertrude reached school-going age, she was placed in a boarding which was run by nuns. “Maybe that was why she decided to become a nun,” my mother said.

But, unlike others, the nuns of the Poor Clares lead an unusual life. They have all taken a Vow of Enclosure. This means that a nun will never leave the convent, except for medical emergencies or for voting. She can never spend time with her family or visit new places. But they pray fervently to God throughout the day and the night. “We have dedicated our lives to God,” says Sr. Tancy. There have been many instances when, thanks to their prayers, good things have happened.

So, it is no surprise that the monastery is a magnet for the troubled. The faithful from all over Kerala come to meet the nuns. “Husbands and wives who don’t get along, parents and children who have trouble understanding each other, those with financial and physical setbacks, and siblings who are involved in property disputes,” says Sr. Tancy. The nuns also receive letters from the distressed in Europe and America. Some call up from West Asia and request for prayers.

But, for Sr. Gertrude, all these activities have come to an end. Instead, she lives in a deep silence. Neither my mother nor Sr. Gertrude could have imagined, when they ran around, having the time of their lives, during their childhood, that way off, into the future, there would come a day when Gertrude would become sick, immobile, and silent.

I stare at Sr. Gertrude. She has soft eyes and an unlined face. This is surely the last lap for Sr. Gertrude before the finishing tape comes in sight. For others, in a similar situation, but far less spiritual, it is a time of suffering, turmoil and unhappiness.

Who knows how our last stage is going to be like? Once the body breaks down, you have to depend on others to look after you. But will they treat you with kindness and sympathy? Or does helplessness provoke indifference or cruelty in people? Will one's children be around, offering solace and companionship? Or will we have to face the exit on our own?
All these questions filled my mind, as I watched my mother caress her cousin's face. 

(Published as a middle in The New Indian Express, South India)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

An Endless Love of Unniappams


Veteran actress Sheela talks about her experiences in Mollywood 

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1982, Sheela decided that she would stop acting, after working in more than 450 films. “I did not tell anybody, except the people close to me,” she says. At that time, she was acting in the Malayalam film, ‘Madrasile Mon’.

In her last scene, at a bungalow in Chennai, she was supposed to eat unniappams. These unniappams were brought from an Ayyappan temple, because they were known to be very tasty. “Unniappams have been my big weakness since childhood,” says Sheela. “I love eating them. My mother Gracy would make it so tastefully.”

For the shot, she needed to eat only one. “But I purposely made some mistakes, so that the shot had to be taken again and again, and I could carry on eating the unniappams,” says Sheela, with a laugh.

Two decades later, Sheela made a comeback. She was acting in Sathyan Anthikad’s film,'Manassinakkare'. Sheela played a rich landlady by the name of Kochu Thresia, who remained in touch with her childhood friend, Kunju Maria, played by KPAC Lalitha.

And in the first scene, which was shot, at a bungalow in Shoranur, which was supposed to be Kunju Maria's house, Sheela was served unniappams. “The coincidence was too much,” says Sheela. “It would seem as if I never went away. I also realised that God was giving His blessings on my comeback.”

It would seem so, because 'Manassinakkare' became a hit. And Sheela began her second innings with aplomb.

Sheela also remembers her interaction with Nayantara [original name: Diana] who was making her debut in this film. Somehow, during the course of the filming, Sathyan, Jayaram and Sheela felt that Diana needed a new screen name. So they sat together and went through numerous names before they selected 'Nayantara'.

When we told Diana this name, she accepted it at once,” says Sheela. The veteran actress teased the youngster by saying, “This name will make you a very big star. You will be staying in a big house. And Sathyan, Jayaram and I will come one day and say, 'Nayantara, we had acted together in 'Manassinakkare'. Do you remember us?'”

But now Sheela's words have come true. “Nayantara has, indeed, become a big star,” she says.

On the set Sheela also passed some tips to Nayantara. “At that time, her dance movements were not upto the mark,” says Sheela. “She looked tense, as she tried hard to remember the steps. I told her, 'There is only one thing you must never forget to do. Whatever steps you take, just do it with a bright smile. The audience will only be looking at your face and will not notice the mistakes you are making'. And Nayantara has followed that advice.”

Recently when Sheela met Nayantara, the latter hold her, “Sheela Maam I am still following the tips you gave me that day. And it works!” 

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

'Tata Trusts Wants to Give Opportunities'

Says Deepika Sorabjee, Senior Programme Officer, Media, Arts and Culture

Photograph by Ratheesh Sundaram

By Shevlin Sebastian

The National Curriculum (NC) of 2005 observes that the awareness of the arts is ebbing steadily among students, guardians, teachers and among policy-makers and educationists,” said Deepika Sorabjee, Senior Programme Officer, Media, Arts and Culture, Tata Trusts. “That’s practically the entire community involved in pedagogy. The NC sums up the mindset of society and the art community itself. So where does one go from there?”

Ten years later, it is a despondent situation in a country where only one per cent of the GDP is spent on health and a minuscule amount on art. “But then we have [Krishnamachari] Bose and Riyas [Komu], who, in this milieu of immense sadness, decided to set up the biggest democratic public art event against all odds,” said Deepika, while speaking at the recently-held conference on art education conducted by the Foundation of Indian Art and Education and Kochi Biennale Foundation. “They did what others - governments, policy makers, educationists, gallerists, collectors or investors - could not do. They filled a gap that was glaring. They did it for the sake of art, with no expectation of personal return.”

And the Tata Trusts are also trying to do their bit. “Philanthropic institutions are not the government,” said Deepika. “But they do make substantial contributions, by supporting projects and initiating programmes to fulfill the lacunae that exists. Education in the arts is one such gap that the government and art institutions have failed to fill, not only due to economic reasons, but because of a dearth of mentors, maestros, gurus, teachers and facilitators.”

So, Tata Trust is supporting the upcoming Students' Biennale. “We want to give opportunities for those who fall outside the radar of contemporary art,” says Deepika. “The Kochi Biennale Foundation's continued dialogue with the Students' Biennale will, perhaps, throw up the artists of the future.”

Deepika also spoke about the need for artistic freedom. “At the seminar, Prof. (Dr.) J. Letha, Vice Chancellor [Cochin University of Science and Technology], spoke about the need for art education to be given complete freedom as regards their curriculum, since it cannot be taught like the sciences. Maybe people like her, at the helm, could speak to administrators so that the policy can be influenced.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Heat and Lust

Dear Friends,
My e-book journey continues.
This time, it is a collection of adult short stories.
Here is the link:
And here is the preface: 

Most of the stories in this collection were written by a younger self. This self grew up in Kolkata and came of age in the 1980s. At that time, India was conservative and sexually repressed. Intermingling between the sexes was not easy. There were no Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Whatsapp and Google hangouts. Or mobile phones. And yet, we managed somehow. We all had a few affairs… only the memories remain. 

Some of the stories are based on gossip that I heard of people I hardly knew anything about. But I tried to flesh them out in my imagination. So, there are tales of the rage caused by impotence, the sexual frustration of fat people and how they try to solve it, and the metaphorical stabbing of one spouse on the other when an extra-marital affair comes to light. 

The themes are ancient but I hope the treatment is different. 

Human beings have behaved the same throughout history. This was confirmed to me by Dr. Irving Finkel, of the British Museum, who spent 30 years studying cuneiform tablets, belonging to the Mesopotamian society of 3000 years ago. And, at that time also, there were leaders who promised a lot, cheating businessmen and husbands and wives opting for divorce because they could not live with each other. 

In this collection, only two stories have been published. ‘The Ageing Lion’ was published in the now-defunct Debonair magazine, while ‘The Inner Drama’ appeared in the Telegraph Colour Magazine in the ‘Fiction Selected by Khushwant Singh’ column. 

Grateful thanks to ABP Private Limited, Kolkata, for giving permission to publish it. 

I am surprised at the raunchiness and the liberal use of four-letter words by this younger self. But then we all go through this youthful phase.  

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Smashed By A Whale

The Hollywood film, ‘In The Heart of The Sea’, highlights the sinking of the ‘Essex’, one of the most noted marine disasters of the 19th century

Photos: Chris Helmsworth in a scene from 'In The Heart Of The Sea'; the book cover

By Shevlin Sebastian

The Hollywood film, ‘In The Heart of The Sea’, has a quiet start. In 1821, the great American writer Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) knocks on a boarding house door in Nantucket. He is allowed to enter after he shows a copy of a letter which he had sent earlier. It stated that Melville wanted to write about the ‘Essex’, a whaling ship that was destroyed by a massive sperm whale, in the Pacific Ocean.

The boarding house owner Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) was a 14-year-old cabin boy on the ill-fated ship and one of the few survivors.

After initially refusing, Thomas is persuaded by his wife (Michelle Fairley) to tell the tale. So, the story is told in flashback.

It starts with tension at a ship owners’ meeting where First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) had been promised the captain’s position on the ‘Essex’, but it has been given to George Pollard Jr. (Benjamin Walker), who belongs to a famous sea-faring family.

Once they start sailing, these tensions persist. Pollard makes errors like going full-sail into a squall. They barely survive that. The Essex travels long distances but is able to kill a few whales only.

The aim is to boil down the blubber, of the dead whales, and the oil is taken back and used for various industrial purposes. In one stunning scene, a small hole is made on the head of one such whale, and Thomas is pushed down, so that he can collect some blubber from the inside.

At Ecuador, a Spanish ship captain tells Pollard and Owen about a large number of whales, 3000 nautical miles away, but warns about the presence of a 100 ft sperm whale that caused six crew members to lose their lives.

But carried away by greed and ego, Pollard and Chase decide to give chase. And the inevitable happens: the whale destroys the ship. And those scenes have been shown in vivid and dramatic style, thanks to the now-supreme power of 3D special effects. Thus far, the film moves at a fairly gripping pace, but it begins to lose a bit of steam when the sailors make their way back in three boats.

For 90 days they drift in the ocean. The action slows down, as they have no food or water, and in the end, they indulge in cannibalism, when a crew member dies, although it is not shown.

Nevertheless, the film, by top director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Da Vinci Code) is worth a watch.

Riveting History

The film is based on a book by writer Nathaniel Philbrick called ‘In The Heart Of The Sea: The Tragedy Of The Whaleship Essex’. A New York Times bestseller, Philbrick won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction in 2000 for this book. In real life, Nickerson, at the age of 71, wrote an account, while Chase wrote a 128 page book immediately after his rescue. Philbrick used both accounts.

Here are extracts from Philbrick’s book: ‘The hot July sun beat down on the old, oil-soaked timbers [of the Essex] until the temperature below was infernal, but Thomas Nickerson explored every cranny, from the brick altar of the tryworks being assembled on deck to the lightless depths of the empty hold. In between was a creaking, compartmentalized world, a living thing of oak and pine that reeked of oil, blood, tobacco juice, food, salt, mildew, tar, and smoke. “Black and ugly as she was,” Nickerson wrote, “I would not have exchanged her for a palace.”

In July of 1819 the Essex was one of a fleet of more than seventy Nantucket whaleships in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. With whale-oil prices steadily climbing and the rest of the world’s economy sunk in depression, the village of Nantucket was on its way to becoming one of the richest towns in America.’

But Philbrick’s description of cannibalism, as seen through the eyes of the sailors of the rescue ship, 'Dauphin', off the coast of Chile, is unforgettable:
First they saw bones – human bones – littering the thwarts and floorboards, as if the whaleboat were the seagoing lair of a ferocious, man-eating beast. Then they saw the two men. They were curled up in opposite ends of the boat, their skin covered with sores, their eyes bulging from the hollows of their skulls, their beards caked with salt and blood. They were sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead shipmates.

Instead of greeting their rescuers with smiles of relief, the survivors – too delirious with thirst and hunger to speak – were disturbed, even frightened. They jealously clutched the splintered and gnawed-over bones with a desperate, almost feral intensity, refusing to give them up, like two starving dogs found trapped in a pit.

Even though it is little remembered today, the sinking of the whaleship ‘Essex’ by an enraged sperm whale was one of the most well-known marine disasters of the nineteenth century. Nearly every child in America read about it in school. It was the event that inspired the climactic scene of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

But the point at which Melville’s novel ends – the sinking of the ship – was merely the starting point for the story of the real-life ‘Essex’ disaster.’ 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Friday, December 11, 2015

“We have to Find a New Planet to Live On”

Says Dr. Hameed Khan, of the National Institutes of Health, USA, while on a visit to Kochi 

Photos: Dr Hameed Khan by Ratheesh Sundaram. The universe

By Shevlin Sebastian

At a private interaction at the Kochi International Book Festival, Dr. Hameed Khan drops a bombshell.

We are trapped in a dying solar system,” he says. “Our sun is collapsing. It has used up half of its energy. 500 million tonnes of hydrogen are used every second. This middle-aged star will run out of energy. We have to find a new home, and a new planet to live on. We cannot stay on this earth forever.”

Khan gives an example. “In 1987, there was a supernova explosion,” he says. “This was exactly the same as our planet: one earth, eight planets, and more than 140 moons. It exploded, because it kept on burning hydrogen, in the same manner as our sun.”

But where do we go?

There are millions of solar systems in the Milky Way galaxy, as well as 100 billion galaxies,” says Khan. “The universe is so vast. It must be teeming with life. And there may be thousands of earth-sized planets all over the universe.”

But are they habitable?

How do we know unless we do an intense search?” says Khan.

Dr. Khan is a Senior Scientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in USA. He discovered the Aziridinyl Quinone that shuts off the gene that causes breast cancer. For this he received the 2004 NIH Scientific Achievement Award. His other interests include working on the Personal Genome Project.

Each human cell carries 24,000 genes,” he says, while on a visit to Kochi to speak about the Genome Project to students. “In that, there are 16,000 good, 2000 non-functional, and 6000 bad genes. These bad genes could become mutated. Genes become bad for four reasons: radiation, chemical or viral infections or genetic inheritance. And you can get any one of the 6000 diseases which have a genetic basis.”

But through the genetic sequencing of the DNA, at one glance we can find out which genes are bad. “Ideally, to ensure that there are no tragedies like mental and physical disabilities or autism, the egg and sperm has to be tested before marriage,” says Khan. “And then one will be able to say whether you will have a healthy baby or not. This is one of the great advantages of sequencing.”

Not everyone agrees to these methods. In fact, the US government has banned research into stem cells. Because scientists will be able to manipulate, for example, the type of babies that can be born or extend human life upto 200 years.

This ban is a great loss,” says Khan. “There should be freedom to do research.”

Incidentally, stem cells are got through the mix of the egg and the sperm. “The fertilised egg is full of stem cells,” says Khan. “It has the ability to make anything. We siphon it out through a tube, before it attaches itself to the womb and harvest it.”

Around one lakh cells can be grown in a petri dish. “You take some spinal fluid and put it into a cup of stem cells,” says Khan. “Soon, they will become neurons. You can inject it back. This will replace the damaged neurons. You can take fluid from the liver. It contains enzymes. Mix it with the stem cells and they will turn into liver cells. Put it back and your liver becomes healthy again.”

As to why all sorts of discoveries take place in the US and virtually nothing in India, the Hyderabad-born Khan says, “The USA is the richest country in the world. It is difficult to compare the two countries. On the first day I walked into the National Institute of Health, in December, 1971, in my job as a chemist, I asked, ‘Where can I get my chemicals’.”

Immediately, his boss took Khan to a basement of a building. What Khan saw amazed him. “Every chemical known to man was placed on numerous tables in an alphabetical order,” he says. “That day I realised that I am not going anywhere else. The NIH has a massive annual budget of $30 billion. This is just one institute. And there are so many others, like this.”

There are other advantages, too. “As a scientist, I have absolute freedom,” says Khan. “I don't have to ask permission from anybody to do my research.”

Government officials did two things that took the worry away from Khan. They provided him with a five-star accommodation and gave Khan a government credit card. “I could use it in any way I wanted,” he says. “So, the worry for money was over. I could give my attention to my work, without any distractions.”

Interestingly, the discoveries that are made can be highly lucrative. For example, Noble Laureates Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen discovered gene splicing, which allows scientists to manipulate the DNA of an organism. Their technique was the precursor of today's massive genetic engineering industry. Last year, Boyer's company Genentech made several billion dollars in profits.

Finally, asked to visualise the world one hundred years from now, Khan says, “Man will easily live to a hundred years, because of good food and medicine. We will all have our personal genome done. This will be our medical record. It will be stored in a genetic chip. In case of emergency, we can get instant and accurate treatment. Lastly, there will be lots of space travel.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)