Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Kingdom Of Heaven

Director Vineeth Sreenivasan talks about his super-duper hit, 'Jacobinte Swargarajyam'

Photo: Vineeth Sreenivasan (right) with cinematographer Jomon T John 

By Shevlin Sebastian

In December 2013, scriptwriter-director Vineeth Sreenivasan, 30, received a WhatsApp photo from his friend Gregory Jacob. It was an image of a family get-together and the caption read: ‘Finally’.

The Jacob Zachariah family—husband, wife, three boys and a girl—lived in Dubai. A financial swindle by a business partner made Zachariah lose millions and the family went into a crisis. He went to Liberia to explore work opportunities, while his eldest son, Gregory, along with his mother, tried to clear the debts by running businesses of his own. It took five years for the family to re-unite in Kerala.

When I looked at the photo I realised how much Gregory had wanted this meeting,” says the director, who knew the back-story. “Because of our busy lives,  many of us may not find the time to call or go home. This forgetfulness happens unknowingly. I felt that it would make a good film.”

Released last month, Jacobinte Swargarajyam has become a superhit, with a box office collection of `22 crore and rising. It stars Nivin Pauly, Renji Panicker, Lakshmy Ramakrishnan, Sai Kumar and Sreenath Bhasi. It is a film that a smiling 12 year-old Subin liked, just outside the PVR Cinemas, at the Lulu Mall, Kochi, as well as his 90-year-old grandfather.

Asked how he could make a film that appealed to youngsters and the elderly alike, Vineeth says, “Each character has a unique behaviour. Take Abin Jacob (Bhasi). He is a rebellious 19-year-old, who likes to have a drink and move around with friends. Many teenagers, who saw the film, told me they could relate to Abin.”

Nevertheless, during the shooting in Dubai, Sharjah and Kerala, Vineeth had doubts. “When I am making a film, there is always a battle within myself,” he says. “One part of me says, ‘This is a good film and I have to do it’. But another part says, ‘This may not be entertaining, and not the type of film that people will expect from me’. These doubts persist till the end of the first show when I am able to get the audience reaction.”

So far, the audience response has been mostly positive. His films like Malarvadi Arts Club and Thattathin Marayathu have done well. He also wrote the script for the hit, Oru Vadakkan Selfie.

Meanwhile, during the shoot of Jacobinte Swargarajyam, there were moments of serendipity too. There is a scene where the mother tells Gregory that she had a dream where angels rested on his shoulders.  “Both Jomon (T John, cinematographer) and I felt there has to be a magic in the scene, but we not could not find a solution,” says Vineeth.

As they were conversing on the 15th floor of a building in Sharjah, the sun began setting. “Through a gap between two buildings, the sunlight lit up our faces,” he says. “We instantly realised how the scene had to be shot: Sherly facing the camera and Gregory behind her, with the sunlight at the back. And we played ‘Latika’s Theme’ from Slumdog Millionaire, in the background.”

But, rather than Latika, it is Vineeth’s theme, in the film, that is a talking point among the cinema-goers of Kerala. 

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

Monday, May 30, 2016

Wilting Grass, Leaves and Trees

Paris Mohankumar's exhibition, 'Reverberations', focuses on the widespread environmental degradation in the world

Photo by K. Shijith

By Shevlin Sebastian

Sometime ago, artist Paris Mohankumar entered a house in a tribal area at Wayanad in north Kerala. There, on a bed, he saw a girl with a broken leg. The bone, in fact, was sticking out. When asked why she had not been taken to hospital, he was told that the family had no money. A shocked Mohankumar stepped out of the house.

Later, when he into another house, he saw a wooden piece that was part of an old door. It had scratches, long embedded lines and a couple of holes. He took it home, and painted the figure of a woman on it, in a pastel shade, with the face turned sideways, and the hair held up in a bob. It was titled 'Rebirth'.

This piece is on display at the 'Reverberations – The Unheard Whispers' exhibition, by Mohankumar, at the David Hall gallery, Fort Kochi.

I want to sell 'Rebirth' and use the money to provide treatment for the girl,” says Mohankumar, 70, who looks like a prophet, with his long and flowing white hair, as well as beard. “Then she will experience a re-birth.”

There are a total of 100 paintings, a mix of acrylic, oils, and watercolours. It comprises his work of the past ten years.

What appears in almost all the paintings are two themes: the presence of women, along with environmental degradation. In the painting, 'Gingee Fort', he has placed a single woman against the backdrop of the Parthenon in Greece, Gingee Fort in Tamil Nadu, the Sacred Heart Basilica in Paris and the Colosseum in Rome. But in front is a large tree, with several bare branches, that goes right across the canvas.

In many other paintings, he has shown wilting grass, leaves and trees. “In Wayanad, where I stay, factories are coming up and spoiling the landscape,” he says. “Most of the politicians are only interesting in making profits.”

Another endangered area is the Niligiri Biosphere Reserve. “I am told that more than 5000 acres are up for sale,” he says. “I am trying to highlight all this through my work.”

As for the presence of women in all the works, Mohankumar says, simply, “I worship them.” And there is a reason for it. His father, Kunjiraman, a Communist, was killed at the French enclave of Mahe in Kerala, when Mohankumar was only two years old. The artist was brought up by his mother and grandmother. “My mother avoided marriage so that she could bring me up, even though she was beautiful and had many suitors,” he says.

The gifted Mohankumar made a mark when he was a teenager through his paintings and sculptures. When a well-known monk, Swami Dayananda Saraswati asked him to do a scultpture of a Hindu god, Mohankumar was flummoxed. Because of his father's Communist leanings, there was no religion in the house. So, he consulted an encylopaedia which belonged to his father and did a bust of Socrates.

But when he displayed it to the monk, his followers were flummoxed.

Everybody asked the guru, 'Who is this?',” says Mohankumar. “Swamiji replied that this is a 'God of Gods'.”

The impressed Saraswati invited Mohankumar to spend time at his ashram, which was just eight kilometres from his house at Mahe. Mohankumar went there and learnt meditation and yoga. Thereafter, he spent five years as a member of the Aghoris cult at Rishikesh. But all along, he was obsessed with art. And with the Swamiji's help, he went to Paris in 1974, and launched a successful career as an artist.

My work has been shown in 40 countries,” says Mohankumar, who spent two decades in Europe. His high point was when he was honoured by UNESCO in 1988 as one of the 40 greatest artists in the world. Today, he is on a mission to encourage organic farming among the tribals in Wayanad.

Mankind should realise it cannot survive, unless we nurture the environment,” says Mohankumar. 

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

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Horse That Would Not Move Forward

Actor Shine Tom Chacko talks about his experiences in the films, ‘Itihasa’, 'Annayum Rasoolum', and ‘Chapters’

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the film, 'Itihasa' (2014), actor Shine Tom Chacko, who plays pickpocket Alvy, robs a person, takes the money, and is walking away. Suddenly, the police come up behind him and say, “Hey Alvy.” Immediately Alvy starts running towards a beach. In the distance, he can see a brown-black horse. He runs towards it, climbs up, and kicks the sides, but the horse does not move.

No matter how much I tried, the horse would not move,” says Shine. “So, the shooting came to a stop.”

Vishnu, the trainer, said that the horse, Lancer, should have a confidence that a person can ride him. “You need to have a proper balance while sitting on a horse,” said Vishnu. “Like the way you keep a balance when you ride a bike.”

So, Vishnu told Shine to bond with the horse. During breaks in the shoot, Shine fed Lancer some food. He also took the horse to the water's edge so that it could feel cool. “A horse communicates with humans through his eyes,” says Shine. “So, I looked at the horse, and said, silently, 'This is a good role for me. Please help me. We need to shoot this scene.'”

At the end of the day, Shine decided to make another attempt. This time, when he sat on the saddle, he kicked hard with both his legs. The horse slowly started moving forward. “That was when I realised that I had been kicking the wrong way earlier,” says Shine. Then Shine kicked again and it began to pick up speed. “But when I kicked a third time, Lancer began to go fast,” says Shine. “I began to feel confident. I realised that the kings of the past felt this same confidence when they rode a horse.”

In the end, director Binu S got a good shot.

Good shots were what cinematographer Rajeev Ravi thought he would get when he selected Shine to play the ruffian Abu in his debut directorial film, 'Annayum Rasoolum' (2013). “I had thick long hair,” says Shine. So the shoot was proceeding smoothly at Kochi. But Shine was finding it difficult to handle this mass of hair, because of the heat.

So, one evening, after the day's shoot was over, he entered an air-conditioned shop and told the barber to trim the hair at the edges. The barber agreed as he gave Shine a head massage. It was so good, that Shine went off the sleep. After a while, when he awoke the actor got a shock. “He had cut all my hair and made it short,” says Shine. “I cannot blame him since he did not know that I was acting in a film, and that it would affect the continuity of the sequences.”

Rajeev got a shock to see Shine the next day. But the director solved the problem by making Shine tie a handkerchief over his head. “Sometimes, gangsters have worn this, as a style statement,” says Shine. “Then, in a couple of scenes, he made me wear a cap. Sometimes, he placed my head at the edge of the frame, so there was no need to show my hair.”

But there was further tension. During one sequence, where Shine is running with a group of ruffians, near a church at Vypeen, he hit his hand on the church wall and broke two of his fingers. Following treatment, his hand was placed in a cast. Thereafter, whenever Shine was in front of the camera, Rajeev instructed him to put his fractured hand behind him, and vice versa when the camera was trained on his back.

From the shoot of 'Annayum Rasoolum', Shine went to the location of ‘Chapters’ at Vagamon where he was playing a ruffian by the name of Choonda. “Director Sunil Ibrahim solved the problem by making another character say that Choonda broke his hand in the bathroom,” says Shine. “Such are the adjustments that take place when shooting goes on.” 

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

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Third Gender Express Themselves

Harikrishnan G has put the spotlight on transgenders in his exhibition, ‘Trans – A Transition for life’

Photos: Hariskrishnan G; Sheetal. Pics by Ratheesh Sundaram

By Shevlin Sebastian

Three years ago, magazine photographer Harikrishnan G had gone to Chennai to take photos of a wheelchair-bound doctor by the name of Aishwarya Rao who had done a lot of work to rescue sex workers. One day, Aishwarya took Harikrishnan to a locality where sex workers and transgenders lived. “That was the first time I had been to a place like that,” he says. “The memory stayed with me.”

Recently, while Harikrishnan was recuperating at home, following a surgery, the images of the transgender colony came up in his mind. That was when he got the idea to do an exhibition on them.

Through his media contacts, he got in touch with Sheetal in Thrissur. And after long discussions on the phone and a hour-long meeting, Sheetal and her friends Deepthi and Sonu agreed to do a photo shoot.

The fruit of that work can be seen in the exhibition, ‘Trans – A Transition for life’ at the Durbar Hall, Kochi. Eight photos, 6' x 4' each, have been put up. Printed on archive paper, each costs Rs 75,000. “It is a labour of love,” he says. “I have spent my own money.”

The photos are striking. In one Sheetal (a man who has become a woman) stands, her face turned sideways to the camera, and eyes closed, because coloured powder has been thrown at her. “This is the powder that is used during the Holi festival,” says Harikrishnan. “And it signifies a celebration of transgenders.”

In the next photo, Sheetal is wearing a white frock, with long black hair cascading towards her shoulders, kaajal-rimmed eyes and red lipstick. She is standing behind an open bird cage while paper birds hang in thin strings from the ceiling. Many birds are outside the cage. Is freedom coming for transgenders is the silent question.

The third photo is stunning. This is Deepthi who has posed half-nude, her breasts covered by her two hands. There is a tattoo of a heart being pierced by an arrow over her left breast, a shining gold necklace around her neck and plastic flowers in her hair. But the striking feature is her eyes: it has a mix of defiance and excitement in them. This is Deepthi's first opportunity to express herself as a transgender in a society that has all but made them invisible.

In another heart-warming picture, a male, Sonu, and Deepthi, sit next to each other and hold hands.

Harikrishnan has also taken a photo of Sonu, as a nude man, but, at his hips, he has placed a triangular mirror. When you stand in front of the photo, you end up seeing your own face. “What I wanted to tell the visitors was that we have both male and feminine traits within us,” he says. “So we should learn to accept those who are different from the normal.”

Unfortunately, in Kerala society, there has been a marked lack of acceptance. As a result, transgenders have a difficult time. “They find it hard to rent a house or get a job,” says Harikrishnan. “They get no support from their families. When they walk on the streets, people make pass cruel comments. Because of the difficulties of living here, many have left the state.”

Harikrishnan is hoping that his exhibition will cause a change in the mind-set. “I want to make people aware that transgenders are normal people, just like you and me,” he says. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Grace And Naturalness

Dr. Madhavi Namboodiri talks about the charms of Kuchipudi, while on a recent visit to Kochi

Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram

By Shevlin Sebastian

An Indian dance form has an emotional catharsis, as compared to western art,” says Kuchipudi dancer Dr. Madhavi Namboodiri. “You can purge your emotions. In real life, I cannot go out on the streets and show love, anger, hate or irritation. Society has taught us to suppress these emotions. About 70 per cent of our ailments occur because of the bottling up of our feelings.”

But dance can counter that. In fact, it has healing attributes. “I have noticed that women look and feel younger once they start practising dance,” says Madhavi. “The body language becomes confident. It influences the way you carry yourself. Your sensuality come to the surface. And there is an upsurge of energy.”

As for Madhavi, to rejuvenate herself, every summer, she, along with her daughters, Chinmayee, 13, and Sreekaree, six-and-a-half, come to Tripunithara, Kochi, to spend a few weeks with her in-laws.

An Andhra Brahmin, and the daughter of famed Telugu actor Chandra Mohan, Madhavi fell in love with a Malayali, Dr. Nambi Namboodiri, when they were classmates at the Venkataramana Ayurveda College at Chennai. They got married in 2000. Both post-graduates, Dr. Nambi and Dr. Madhavi are directors of the Nagarjuna Ayurveda Centre, Kalady.

Madhavi is also a professor at the Sri Sairam Ayurveda Medical College in Tambaram. “But dance is my first love,” says Madhavi. “You might be riding high in your profession, but in your heart, you will miss your art.”

So, after an eight-year hiatus, Madhavi returned to dance under the able guidance of her Guru, Sathyapriya Ramana, one of the foremost pupils of Padmabhushan Sri Vempati Chinna Sathyam. “Those years away honed my appetite,” she says. “You have to find out what your dreams and passions are, and what occupies your mind and heart.

Today, she has performed in dance festivals in Chidambaram, Thanjavur, Mamallapuram, Khajuraho, and almost all the Sabhas of Chennai. In end April, she gave a performance at Kochi, during a performance organised by the Sathyanjali Academy of Kuchipudi dance, and was also conferred the 'Natya Pragnya' award. She has also won the Kala Ratna, Rose of Ridwan and Kalamrithavarshini awards from the Baha'i, as well as the Best Performer of theYear, (2014) award conferred by the Parthasarathy Swamy Sabha. 

Asked the charms of Kuchipudi, Madhavi says, “There is a lot of grace and naturalness in the facial expressions. In Kuchipudi, we use a lot of lokadharmi (life-oriented gestures) which are used by ordinary people. So, you can connect easily with the audience.”

And she is doing her bit to spread the reach of Kuchipudi. In July, 2010, she set up the Madhura Kala Niketan. There are around 45 students, of which, there are a few males. “Kuchipudi is not part of the devadasi culture,” says Madhavi, a graded artiste of Doordarshan. “In fact, it is a male Brahmin dance. Only four families were taught by [founder] Siddhendra Yogi, five hundred years ago, when he converted a street story-telling art into a classical form and named it after his village of Kuchelapuram. But women became a part of it in the past 50 years.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, May 23, 2016

A Look At Bullying And Class Hypocrisy

Author Ratna Vira returns with her second novel, 'It's not about you', after the first, 'Daughter By Court Order', became a national best-seller
By Shevlin Sebastian
A couple of years ago, Ratna Vira came across a newspaper article about a young American who tried to help a black who was being bullied. Subsequently, the former received a beating and ended up in a coma. “Soon after that I met the head of an Indian educational institution who told me about the rampant bullying in his school,” says Ratna.”
This proved to be the inspiration for Ratna's second novel, 'It's not about you', which is being released in end-May. The novel starts with a brutal beating of single mother Samaira's 16-year-old son Aksh in school and he has to be hospitalised. It prompts Samaira to investigate, and, despite a lack of co-operation from the school, she discovers that bullying does exist, teenagers have a secret life, and, most of the time parents do not know their children at all.
Samaira gets some inkling about her son's inner life when she comes across Aksh's posts on social media, as well as his Instagram account,” saysRatna.
Even as she agonises over the slow recovery of her son, tuition teacher Mrs. Khanna attacks Samaira. “Aksh did not complete his assignments, covering it up with lame excuses” she says. “He says you want him to follow in his sister's footsteps. That you will not hear of his ambition to play football professionally, and to study in the UWC [United World Colleges] because you want him near you. That you do not see his misery because you are so determined that your children get the right qualifications.”
And just because Samaira is a single working mother, Mrs. Khanna continues to be hostile: “The problem with all you working women is that you have no time for your husband, family, in-laws or even your children. Tell me, when did you last see your own mother and father?”
It is a well-written novel, with a deep emotional resonance, especially for women, because it is written from Samaira's perspective. Ratna has also touched upon life in high-society Delhi, with its volatile mix of politics and money, as well as the bias that women face in a patriarchal society. “And, most of the time, it is other women who inflict the suffering,” the author says.
Ratna had focused on these subjects in her first book, 'Daughter By Court Order'. It became a national bestseller and described a daughter's fight to get her rights, even as she confronts the abuse within families.
Interestingly, in both 'Daughter By Court Order' and 'It's Not about you', Ratna has begun each chapter with a quotation. So, one of the chapters in the second book starts with a quote by the late actor Robin Williams: 'I used to think the worst thing in life is to end up all alone. It's not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel all alone'.
What is surprising is that Ratna came to writing only in her early forties. “It was only at that age that I felt that I had a story to tell,” says Ratna, who studied at St. Stephen's College, New Delhi, and the London School of Economics. “I still have more stories in me, because I have experienced life, good and bad, with my five senses.”
Finally, on asked to give tips for aspiring authors, the full-time writer says, “Writing is a lonely occupation. So, you have to keep yourself motivated. Reward yourself when you reach a certain word count. Don’t give up. [Best-selling author] JK Rowling got 21 rejections. I often listen to her 2011 Harvard commencement speech to get inspired.” 

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

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Unsung Revolutionary

Director Ricky Mishra is making a Hindi film on Bihar's little-known freedom fighter, Kristo Singh

Photos: The film poster; Director Ricky Mishra 

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, a few years ago, music director Ricky Mishra went to the Sinha library in Patna. There he came across a biography of an unknown revolutionary by the name of Kristo (Krishna) Singh. Ricky was amazed to know that Kristo had robbed a train, at Kiul, in South Bihar, in 1940, to get money for the Independence movement. This was similar to the famed Kakori Train Robbery by freedom fighter Chandrasekhar Azad. “Kristo also burnt down seven police stations,” says Ricky. “He became a revolutionary, like Bhagat Singh and Azad.”

An enraged British government summoned the Baluchi regiment in Afghanistan, led by Capt. Khodadad Khan, to help in his capture and announced a cash reward of Rs 25,000 for any information. “Captain Khodadad was a cruel man and tortured Kristo's wife, brother and mother, in order to extract information about his whereabouts,” says Ricky. Kristo was eventually captured and spent 18 months in Munger jail.

While there, he befriended political leaders like Jaya Prakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia, and Subhash Chandra Bose. “He was very much influenced by them,” says Ricky.

When asked how he got the name Kristo, Ricky says, “It was the British who shortened Krishna to Kristo. In fact, in all the FIRs (First Information Reports) in the police stations, he was identified as Kristo. That was how the name stuck.”

Meanwhile, Ricky continued to do extensive research. He went to Kristo's native village of Jamui. “The villagers talking glowingly about Kristo [who died, in 1986, at Patna],” says Ricky. He also read newspapers and books, from the Vidhan Sabha library, the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library, and Gandhi Sangrahalaya. “After doing all this research, I realised that nobody knows about his exploits,” says Ricky.

So, Ricky decided to make a Hindi feature film. He approached producer Amit Kumar, of X Eye Entertainment, who agreed to come on board. The Rs 8 crore film will be shot in locations at Jharkhand, Bihar, Rajasthan and Mumbai. “The cast is being selected,” says Ricky, from Mumbai. “There will be a few Bollywood stars. Shooting will begin very soon.”

Ricky is also busy getting the songs composed. One song is called 'Vande Mataram'. It has been sung by Krishna Beura who became famous for his hit song, 'Maula Mere', from 'Chak De India'. “I feel 'Vande Mataram' will have the same impact as 'Maula Mere',” says Ricky.

Krishna agrees. “This is a special song,” he says. “But it will be played in the background. For me, every song is a new experience. This historical film will be a stand-out.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Sleeping Below Water

The Aquatic Resort is Kerala's first and only underwater floating resort

Photo of S.K. Hari Arumugam, Managing Director of the Tirupur-based Poppys Group. Photo by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Linda B, 66, an American artist, has a confession to make. “Whenever I come to India, I cannot sleep properly,” she says. “Somehow, the beds have always been so uncomfortable.”

But, recently, she had spent time in Kerala's one and only underwater 'Aquatic Resort', and had the most peaceful night ever. “I went into a deep sleep,” she says. “The bed was so good. The ambience was peaceful and quiet.”

Linda was accompanied by her son-in-law Jose Joseph, who is a singer, wife Sarah and their four children – two boys and two girls – ranging in age from 8 to 16. “My kids had a great time, going fishing, swimming and cycling,” says Joseph. “And we had plenty of tasty seafood.”

The Aquatic is located in the backwater lagoon of Kumblanghi, a mere 7 kms from Kochi. “There are 10 cottages spread over 30 acres,” says S.K. Hari Arumugam, Managing Director of the Tirupur-based Poppys Group, which runs the resort.

Each cottage has a thatched roof and bamboo railings on the balcony. Inside, on three levels, there is a sitting room, with sofas, and a wall-mounted TV, a balcony and a bedroom, with an attached bathroom, all in an area of 700 sq. ft. But, amazingly, the bedroom is 4 feet below sea level. To reach it, you have to go down several steps. And when you look through the window, you can see the water's surface. “Because of safety regulations, we have not been able to install wall-length windows, as yet,” says Arumugam.

Nevertheless, the guests are happy. “The rooms are amazing,” says the Bangalore-based Dominique Francon. “Every one of them faces the sunset! And there are such beautiful sunsets!”

Each cottage is placed on a square ferro-cement block, with air pockets, which allows it to float on the water. “The cottages go up and down depending on the high and low tide, but, because of the cement base, you will not know it,” says Resort Director Tommy Joseph. “They can also be towed away to different locations. We also have a swimming pool which can also be moved about.”

Not surprisingly, most of the customers are from USA, Australia, South Africa, Russia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka. “We also get many Arabs who come to enjoy the rainy season,” says Arumugam. “For them, the rain is a joyous experience.”

The peak season is from October to March. Most people stay anywhere between one and four days. The tariff ranges from Rs 9,000 to Rs 15,000.

At the resort, guests are encouraged to go fishing. “Most of them catch a lot of fish,” says Rajesh Ravi Nair, resort manager. “And we make dishes like prawn masala and fried pearlspot fish for them.”

Other activities include a one-hour boat ride to see nearby villages. You can explore the countryside on cycles or scooters. “We also take guests to the Chellanam Harbour [10 kms away], where they can go on a boat to see dolphins swimming about,” says Nair. Other places to see include Fort Kochi [of Kochi Biennale fame] and Mattancherry.

The resort also has a one-day package, usually for locals. “If you come in the morning, you can do boating, and swimming, and we provide breakfast, lunch [an exclusive seafood menu], evening tea, and snacks at Rs 2500 per person,” says Nair.

And in order not to harm the environment, the resort has set up a sewage treatment plant. “Nothing is spoiled,” says Arumugam. “The recycled water is used to water the flowers and the lawns.”

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

Monday, May 16, 2016

Standing Up and Delivering

Stand-up comedian Kunal Rao entertained a crowd at a performance in Kochi

Photos by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Moments before he stepped on stage at the JT Pac, Kochi, on April 24, stand-up comedian Kunal Rao, 36, could feel a hollowness in the pit of his stomach. “This happens to me all the time,” he says. “I have met comedians abroad, with more than 25 years of experience, who have the same feeling.”

The stage, after all, is intimidating. There is only a mike and, on a low box, a few 500ml plastic bottles of water. In front are several hundred people staring at you. And you have to keep them entertained with your jokes, energy and stage presence. The chance to get booed, if you fail, is high.

Nevertheless, Kunal bounds in, dressed casually, in a white shirt and black jeans, and says, “Hi, how are you guys doing? How many of you have travelled all the way from Kochi?” This is in reference to the location of JT Pac, which is in the suburb of Tripunithara. Many hands go up. “You are such a posh crowd,” he says. “Give me a cheer if you have seen a stand-up comedy show earlier.”

Obligingly, the audience claps and lets out a shout. And then Kunal sets out on a one-hour rollicking ride, through a variety of topics: the behavior of rich people at a stand-up show, food habits, the experience of call-centre executives, watching 3D digital films, the right way to smoke a cigar (“Don't inhale”) and the difficulty of being a Brahmin.

We Brahmins have so many rules, traditions and rituals,” he says. “On Maha Shivaratri, most people enjoy a long weekend. But we have to wake up at 5 a.m., have a cold-water bath and do an eight-hour long puja. Eight hours long! That's longer than two IPL matches and half an Ashutosh Gowarikar film.”

It was a performance that evoked regular exclamations of delight. On his third visit, to Kochi, Kunal has a keen idea of the Kerala audience. “You have to approach taboo topics in a delicate way,” he says. “I am not saying people in the south are prudes, but they enjoy a certain subtlety.”

They are also a keen audience. “Because they have not seen too much comedy I can see that they are hungry for it,” he says. “The laughter is so happy and joyous. On stage, we get such an amazing pleasure to listen to it.”

Kunal has heard this laughter all over India – Delhi, Kolkata, Guwahati, Shillong, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Chennai and Nagpur. He has also performed in Dubai, Holland, Paris, Barcelona, Boston, Washington DC, and Atlanta.

“People react differently from place to place,” he says. “In the north they may not enjoy a particular joke as much as the people in the south or abroad. Many people have felt offended by the four-letter words I use. Sometimes, when I pick on members of the audience, and make fun, they get angry. But I don't get upset. I have learnt to be thick-skinned and move on.”

Kunal is an unlikely person to be a stand-up comedian. Brought up in a traditional Andhra family in Mumbai, Kunal began with a risk-proof career of a Chartered Accountant (CA). “It took me a long time to understand that I am not cut out for something like CA,” he says. “The moment I realised that I am a creative person, I moved forward in a cautious way. In the sense I would do stand-up on the weekends. But once I got a sufficient income, I started doing stand-up full time [since 2011].”

Asked to describe a day in a full-time stand-up comedian’s life, Kunal says, with a straight face, “Definitely, during the first half of the day I am cleaning my house. Thereafter, I read the newspaper.” 

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

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Running Out Of Water


Director/Cinematographer Sujith Vaassudev talks about his experiences in the films, 'City of God', 'Punyalan Agarbattis' and 'Anarkali'

Photos: Sujith Vaassudev; the poster of 'Anarkali'

By Shevlin Sebastian

Director Lijo Jose Pellissery and cinematographer Sujith Vaassudev were under pressure. During the shoot of ‘City of God’, at Kochi, in January, 2011, they needed to finish a three-day schedule on time so that Mollywood’s leading star Prithviraj could go off for his next assignment.

It was a fight sequence. Prithviraj was supposed to hold off a group of ruffians during a rainy night. “The first two shoots went off fine,” says Sujith. “We shot till 3 a.m.”

On the last night, things were proceeding well. “There were only about 15 shots remaining,” says Sujith. “We knew that if we worked non-stop, till 5.30 a.m., we would be able to complete it.”

However, during one sequence, Prithviraj pushed against the chest of one villain, and then lifted up his right leg, to kick another, when the rain stopped suddenly. His leg, frozen in mid-air, Prithviraj said, “What happened?”

The reason was not hard to find. The water in the tanker lorry had finished. “This happened at 3 a.m.,” says Sujith. “The managers of the shoot had goofed up. They felt that the water would last till the morning. Now we had a dilemma: where to get water at 3 a.m.? We realised there was nothing we could do. Because of that one mistake, the shooting had to be stopped. And we had to wait one month before we could get time again with Prithviraj. This showed the importance of proper planning.”

During the shoot of 'Punyalan Agarbattis', in mid-2013, art director Nathan Mannur did show some good planning, He was told to find an old police station, and he managed to locate one, next to a new police station, in Thrissur district. “There were some rusted cars in the courtyard,” says Sujith. “In one room, there were confiscated knives, cycle tubes, chains, tyres, as well as tables and chairs.”

It was decided to move this paraphernalia to another room, so that shooting can take place. While this was been done, there was a blast. “At that time, we were shooting at another location,” says Sujith.

Soon, the local television news channels, as well as the evening newspapers, mentioned that a shooting crew had burst a bomb. “We got scared,” says Sujith. “If we are accused of a bomb blast, that would be alarming. Three workers had got injured and had been rushed to hospital.”

Investigations finally revealed the answer. In the room, there was a Yamaha tractor engine, which had some petrol in it. “The moment it was lifted, there was a spark and it exploded,” says Sujith. “Thankfully, in due course, all the workers recovered completely.”

Eventually, the shooting took place at another location. Despite these troubles, ‘Punyalan Agarbattis’ did well at the box office.

Meanwhile, Sujith did not feel so well when he was told that the shooting for 'Anarkali' (2015) would take place at the Lakshadweep islands. That was because he did not know swimming at all. But help was at hand. The diving instructors, at the Sandy Beach resort, at Kavaratti, led by Aman, encouraged Sujith to try underwater scuba diving.

So, one day, Sujith wore the suit, flippers, oxygen tank and goggles. And although he initially panicked, when he went down, it ended up becoming one of the most wondrous experiences of his life. “The beauty of the ocean was breath-taking,” he says. “There were so many types of fishes, plants and shells. I never felt so peaceful in my life.”

Later, thanks to this confidence, Sujith was able to shoot the underwater sequences of Prithviraj with ease and comfort. “This is one of the perks of being in the industry,” says Sujith, whose debut film as director, 'James & Alice' has just been released. “You have so many unique experiences.” 

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

Saturday, May 07, 2016

In The Right Lane

The handsome and charming Amol Parashar is hoping to make an impact in 'Traffic', the Hindi-remake of the Malayalam hit

Photos: Amol Parashar, with the late director Rajesh Pillai  

By Shevlin Sebastian

A helmet-less Amol Parashar sets out on his motorbike down a busy Mumbai street. In the distance, he can see a police constable booking riders who are not wearing helmets. Suddenly, Amol sees a boy eating a slice of watermelon. Next to him is a cart filled with watermelons. Soon, Amol gets an idea. The next scene shows him wearing a scooped-out watermelon as a helmet. The cop looks shocked, as Amol drives away, with a smile on his face. This is a 30-second advertisment for Mentos Watermelon flavour gum, which was shown in 2011.

It was this advertisement that the Mollywood director Rajesh Pillai saw and was impressed. So, when he came to select actors for the Hindi remake of his Malayalam hit, 'Traffic' (2011), he asked specifically for Amol.

And that is how I got the role of Rajeev,” says Amol. “In the film, I am helping a group of people to transport the heart of my dead friend, Rehaan (played by Vishal Singh) to a dying girl who is waiting for the transplant.”

The film, expectedly, is a bit different from the original. “Firstly, the scale is much bigger, because this is a Bollywood film and has a pan-India audience,” he says. “Secondly, there are subtle changes [by Suresh Nair] in the script as well. However, the core essence remains the same.”

The stellar cast includes Manoj Bajpayee, Jimmy Shergil, Divya Dutta, Kitu Gidwani and Prosenjit Chatterjee.

And already Amol is getting a buzz for his performance. None other than Bajpayee, a great actor himself, says, “Amol is a very fine young actor. He could well be the surprise package for the audience. Surely, he will get his due when the film is released [on May 6].”

He might, but at the moment, Amol is trying to get over the shock he felt over Rajesh's untimely death, of cirrhosis of the liver, at age 41, on February 27 at Kochi. “Rajesh was a different director,” says Amol. “He always struck a personal chord with the actors. It took me some time to get used to that. He invited me to Kerala and I visited his family. It became a personal bond, which was beyond work. I used to call him my elder brother.”

In fact, Rajesh gave Amol the role of a glamourous and women-chasing photographer, Arun Iyyer, in the film, 'Mili' (2015). This was Amol's first foray in Mollywood. The film, which starred Nivin Pauly and Amala Paul, did well at the box office.

Asked to list the qualities of Rajesh as a director, Amol says, “He believed in real emotions and stories. He told us he did not want us to ‘act’. Instead, he wanted us to be real and natural and react as we would in real life. What Rajesh wanted was to tell good stories. That was the sign of a good film-maker.”

Amol has also shown signs of being a good actor. Some of the films he has acted in are 'Rocket Singh: Salesman of The year', 'Babbloo Happy Hai' and the upcoming 'Dombivili Return'.

A mechanical engineer, Amol had a deep love for theatre for many years. In 2011, despite having a corporate job, Amol decided to move to Mumbai to try his luck. “Suddenly I got a lot of work – plays, advertisements and films,” he says.

Asked whether it is easy to get roles in Bollywood, Amol says, “You need a lot of luck and patience to get the right part. Sometimes, when the wait gets long, people feel frustrated. So, I have learnt to keep my expectations in check. And I ensure that I do my best in every project.” 

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