Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Spicy Delights

On her first visit to Kochi, Egyptian chef Mariem Magdy talks about her experiences

Photo of Mariem Magdy by Ratheesh Sundaram; the koshary dish

By Shevlin Sebastian

Mariem Magdy always had a soft corner for India. That's because the Egyptian studied in an Indian school, while growing up in Kuwait. “All my teachers were Indian and they will always have a special place in my heart,” says Mariem. Mariem got an opportunity to come to Kerala recently when she took part in the Spice Route Culinary Festival.

And Kerala is just as I imagined it,” she says. “It is like heaven. The people are so sweet. India is very simple and, yet, at the same time, it has many layers.”

As a chef, Mariem is very familiar with Indian cuisine. “In the Gulf countries, there are lots of Indian restaurants,” she says. “But Kerala has a different cuisine. The aroma of the food is completely different. It is much lighter and healthier than the rest of the cuisine in India.”

At the festival, Mariem enjoyed eating the Karimeen Pollichathu (fried pearl spot fish). “This fillet fish, infused with spices, and wrapped in a banana leaf was very good,” she says. “These are items which I have never tasted before, especially the spices. Most of the spices in India have a completely different smell and taste. In Egypt, we mostly use cumin and coriander.”

And she got some valuable tips on her trip. “I understood that if you dissolve the spices in water, before adding it to the food, then each ingredient balances against each other, with no one particular spice overpowering the other,” she says. “I will be trying this when I return to Cairo.”

Meanwhile, it is interesting to know that one of the most popular dishes in Egypt, the koshary, has an Indian origin. “During the second World War, when Indians soldiers were stationed in Egypt, they would make this food,” says Mariem. “Soon, the Egyptians loved the food so much that they forgot their original food. Today, at every street corner, there is a koshary shop.”

A koshary consists of black lentils cooked with rice mixed with a spicy tomato sauce, infused with vinegar. “You can also add chick peas, fried onions and pasta,” she says. “It is a meal by itself and has become part of our street food culture.”

Other dishes include a foul – a form of beans which is cooked slowly and is placed inside sandwiches. Then there is the ful medames, which is a dish of cooked fava beans served with vegetable oil, cumin, parsley, garlic, onion, and lemon juice. Then there is the Marouk, which is a form of chappati. “We use flour, water and oil and cook it on a flat pan,” says Mariem. “We then stuff different types of beans inside it.”

Interestingly, the Egyptians don't eat meat all that much. And when they do, it is usually at official functions like weddings, festivals and feasts. “We like beef, lamb, camel and goat, but we are not dependent on animal protein,” says Mariem.

In Cairo, Mariem works as the Culinary Director for Food Tracks, which has been established by a top Swiss chef Markus Iten. “The company is focused on training and educating chefs,” says Mariem. “We also provide consultancy for food and beverage establishments. As for those investors who want to set up something, we provide the expertise.”

Meanwhile, Mariem is looking forward to coming back to Kochi in the future. “I love the place,” she says. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, November 28, 2016

Setting Up An Artistic Space

After initial hiccups, Helga Peeters, of Belgium, is establishing an art centre in Jew Town, Kerala

Photos of Helga Peeters by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Helga Peeters stood in the middle of a 200-year-old warehouse on Bazaar Road in Mattancherry, near Kochi. There were broken bricks all over the floor. When you looked upwards, there were gaps in the tiled roof. But what was making her look worried, on a day in mid-October, was that the workers had played truant. “It will be difficult to meet the deadline of starting this art centre in time for the opening of the Kochi Biennale on December 12,” she says.

Helga breaks into a smile. “That's India for you,” she says. “Everything can go smoothly, one day, but on the next, work can come to a standstill. It's a challenging time for me.”

But, in early November, luck turned for Helga. Following discussions with the owner of a 100-year-old house, at the nearby Jew Town, Helga was able to lease out a 3000 sq. ft. space. About 2250 sq. ft. will be given, temporarily, for three months, for use by the Students' Biennale, while the remaining area will be an art centre.

She got the idea of starting an arts centre when she attended the second edition of the Biennale in 2015. “I felt inspired by the energy and excitement of the art festival,” she says. “It seemed to me that a new wind was blowing through Fort Kochi. And I wanted my guests to experience it first-hand.”

The Antwerp-based Helga runs the travel firm, ‘Anubhuti’ (This is a Sanskrit word which means, 'to feel something that you would like to treasure'). Over the past decade or so, she has brought groups of tourists to different parts of India: Ladakh, Kolkata, Darjeeling, Jaipur, Mumbai and Kochi.

I am not just taking them from one place to another, but I make them immerse themselves in the local milieu,” says Helga. “To travel through this colourful, complex, beautiful and spiritual country is magical as well as inspiring.”

In Kerala, and especially Fort Kochi, tourists enjoy the European heritage – Portuguese, Dutch and British – as well as the strong tradition of Ayurveda and yoga. “The nature in Kerala is unique,” says Helga. “It is green in Belgium, too, but not so tropical. And our people love the sea.”

The trip is also a moment of self-reflection. “During the visit, my compatriots are able to compare their own lives to what they see in India,” says Helga. “It make them aware that things can be done differently.”

Usually, at the end of the trip, they say they are ready for their next trip to India. And they end up coming five to six times. “And they always tell me it is a real anubhuti,” says Helga, with a smile.

As soon as her art centre gets established, Helga is planning to bring talented and upcoming artistes from Belgium. “It will be such a different experience for them,” says Helga. “But it will be an exciting one, too. Because they will realise that India is like an onion. There are layers upon layers. It is so fascinating. And this is the reason why I also keep coming back. On every trip I learn something new.” 

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

True To Life


Production Designer Sabu Cyril talks about his experiences in the films, ‘Adwaytham’, ‘Pavithram’ and 'Anniyan'

Photos: Sabu Cyril; the poster of 'Pavithram' 

By Shevlin Sebastian

During the shoot of the film, ‘Adwaytham’ (1991), at Kozhikode, by director Priyadarshan, art designer Sabu Cyril had to construct a temple similar to the Lord Krishna temple at Guruyayur. When the set was ready, an Assistant Director (AD) led Srividya to the set. The moment she stood outside, she immediately took off her slippers. “The AD told Srividya that it is a set and there was no need to remove the footwear,” says art designer Sabu Cyril. “Srividya could not believe it. She said, 'It looks like a real temple'.”

Inside the temple there was a collection box, which was used as a prop. When the shoot was going, many onlookers would come to watch. “They also thought that it was a real temple and would put money in the box,” says Sabu. “At the end of the day, the crew would open the box, take the money out and share it among themselves.”

During the shoot of TK Rajeev Kumar’s ‘Pavithram’ (1994), Mohanlal, who played the hero, Unni, was feeling anxious. The next day, he had to shoot an emotional scene. Mohanlal's mother in the film, Devikyamma (played by Srividya) became pregnant at an older age and is about to give birth. However, during childbirth Devikyamma dies and Unni takes responsibility of the baby girl.

When Mohanlal came to know that the hospital was being set up in an area in Tripunithara where weddings took place, he told Rajeev, “I have shot there. It is not an ideal place for a hospital. It is an important scene. Unless the set is authentic, it will lose its impact. Tell Sabu he should look for another place.”

But Rajeev reposed his faith on Sabu. The next day, after the hospital was set up, Sabu moved towards the next location. He only returned in the evening. When Mohanlal saw him, there was a wide smile on his face. “Sabu, it looks so much like a hospital,” said Mohanlal. “So what did you do?”

Sabu said, “This is fourth-degree art direction.”

Mohanlal said, “What does it mean?”

I just sprinkled Phenyl and Dettol all over the place and that gave the impression it is a hospital,” said Sabu. “We have been going to hospitals since our childhood and know these smells well. So I decided to trigger that feeling.”

Mohanlal smiled in appreciation.

In the Tamil film, 'Anniyan' (2005), directed by S. Shankar, with Vikram as the hero, Ramanujam, and Sadha as heroine, Nandini, Sabu was told to recreate the famous Tyagaraja Aradhana music festival which is held every year at Thiruvaiyaru in Tamil Nadu.

In the film, Ramanujam proposes marriage to Nandini during the festival.

Sabu found a location near Mahabalipuram, on Chennai’s East Coast road. Along with his team, he worked through several days and nights to put up the structure.

On the morning of the shoot, Sabu went back to his Chennai home to have a bath. “When I returned in the afternoon, one of the assistant directors told me that Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan [a renowned classical violinist] was looking for me,” says Sabu.

So Sabu rushed to his room. There, Kunnakudi placed his palm on Sabu’s head and said, “Brahma [The God of creation] is with you. It is a magnificent work.”

But when he asked Sabu whether he could do a puja in front of Thyagaraja's statue, Sabu said, “Sir, we will be dismantling it very soon. There is no need.” 

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Pillars Of The Body

Dr Rajesh Simon, the newly-appointed secretary of the Indian Foot and Ankle Society, talks about problems, as well as solutions for the feet 

Photo of Dr Rajesh Simon by Albin Mathew; a cross-section of the foot

By Shevlin Sebastian

For one year, home-maker Valsa Kumari, 54, endured a pain in her toes. She went to several doctors but, despite many investigations and medicines, the pain persisted. The normally gregarious Valsa began to feel low. Soon, she began taking antidepressant and sleeping pills. 

It was in this situation that she came to Dr Rajesh Simon, Sr. Consultant – Orthopaedics (Foot and Ankle and Trauma) of VPS Lakeshore Hospital, Kochi. After a careful examination, a surgical repair was done to a small ligament at the base of her second toe. “Today, Valsa is back to her laughing self,” says Dr. Simon. “I don't blame the other doctors, but you need specialised knowledge to solve this problem.”

Dr. Simon is, probably, the only Foot and Ankle expert in Kochi. Recently, he was selected as the National Secretary of the Indian Foot and Ankle Society. “For a long time, foot and ankle had been a part of orthopaedics,” says Dr. Simon. “But a sub-speciality has developed in the West during the past 15 years. This is happening very slowly in India. As for me, I got special training from the University of Birmingham, USA, as well as in Munich, Germany.”

Asked about the commonest problems faced by people, Dr. Simon says, “Heel pain or plantar fasciitis. This happens more to women, because they wear heels. It leads to a bony projection in the heel called a spur, which is painful. When you wear footwear, with a narrow base, the toes, bones and ligaments are tightly pressed against each other. There is a likelihood of them being damaged. This results in bunions [a swelling on the first joint of the big toe].”

The other problems include Achilles tendinosis, flat feet and corns (thickening of skin near the toe).

As for ankle sprains, it usually happens to sportsmen, like basketball and football players, when their ligaments get torn. But the good news is that it can be healed through rehabilitation. “Only 20 per cent of the cases require surgery,” he says.

Meanwhile, two years ago, Dr Simon held a foot and ankle symposium at Kochi. Two foot and ankle doctors came from the US. So, on a free evening, they went to a mall. And, as they roamed around, they also looked at the feet of the people. One of them said, “My God, Rajesh, you have so many patients.” Says Dr. Simon: “Too many people have deformed feet.”

Dr. Simon says that, to avoid problems in the foot, it is important to wear the right footwear. “The footwear should have a broad toe-box,” he says. “The toes should be allowed to spread out. Sandals are relatively fine if you have a back strap. However, stiletto heels does damage in the long run.”

Chappals, for long walks, are a no-no. “You grip the chappal between the first and second toes, like a claw,” says Dr. Simon. “The problems start as you grow older, when you have muscular imbalance, arthritis, and diabetics.”

Diabetic patients have insensate feet. So, a chappal can slip off and the wearer will not know about it. You can then hit a small stone or a thorn, and will only realise it when a passer-by sees blood. “So, the best solution is to use jogging or covered shoes,” says Dr. Simon.

Meanwhile, treatment is divided into four methods: physical rehabilitation, footwear modifications, medicines, and surgery. “Many problems can be solved through simple stretching exercises,” he says. “For me, surgery is always the last option.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Close Look At An Icon

Joshy Joseph’s documentary, ‘Mahasweta Devi – Close Up’ focuses on one of West Bengal’s great writers and tribal activists 

Photos: Joshy Joseph with Mahasweta Devi; the writer

By Shevlin Sebastian

When the documentary 'Mahasweta Devi – Close up' opens, at the recent Signs Film Festival in Kochi, there is an image of an elderly woman, with round-rimmed spectacles, combing her grey hair. Behind her there are book shelves and a calendar hanging on a wall. Then the camera focuses on her face. She seems to be staring intently at something off-camera.

Mahasweta is watching the film, 'Five', by one of Iran's master film-makers, Abbas Kiarostami [who died on July 4 this year],” says film-maker Joshy Joseph.

The reason Joshy used this method was because of the lack of visual possibilities. “A writer finds it difficult to write in front of the camera,” he says. “So there are no variations in the visuals, unlike if you do a documentary on a dancer or musician.”

Nevertheless, the 40-minute film is an affectionate and intimate look at one of the great writers as well as tribal activists of West Bengal. Mahasweta, who wrote over 100 novels, won the Jnanpith Award, the Magsaysay Award, and the Padma Vibhushan.

Not surprisingly, in the film, Mahasweta talks about one of her favourite stories:

It was titled ‘Akla’ (Alone). There is a little boy whose parents have gone out and he is alone at home. He has nothing to do. He has finished his homework and is watching TV. Suddenly, next to him, comes and sits a little boy. The boy asks, ‘Who are you?’ The little boy answers, ‘I’m Akla. I came because you’re alone.’”

Joshy also travels with Mahasweta to Nandigram, which became infamous, because of the shooting of 14 people, on March 14, 2007, by the police when the ruling Left Front tried to set up a Special Economic Zone. There, she meets farmers and activists.

On her return journey, by car, there is an amusing moment when she connects with the State PWD minister Kshiti Goswami on the phone and complains about the sorry state of the roads. The minister, like most ministers, says he has no money for developmental works. “Ask one of the multinational companies,” says Communist sympathiser Mahasweta, tongue-in-cheek.

This film is a tribute to one of Joshy's close friends. “I would meet her every evening, because my office is just five minutes from her home,” says Joshy, who is Deputy Director-General in charge of the Films Division, Government of India.

Asked about the character of Mahasweta, Joshy says, “She was my friend, sister, mother and grandmother. All those roles, which different people play in your life, it was combined into one person. I miss her every single day.”  

Mahasweta died on July 28, at the age of 90. 

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

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Behind Prison Walls, A Soaring Imagination

Lissy Sasi, who is serving a 25-year jail term, at Kannur Women’s Prison, is on a month’s parole, which will end on November 19. She talks about her upcoming book of short stories and poems

Photos: Lissy Sasi at Marine Drive, Kochi. Pic by K. Shijith; Lissy with Subin Mananthavady

By Shevlin Sebastian

On October 19, when Lissy Sasi, 43, stepped outside the gate of the Women's Prison, at Kannur, on a one-month parole, she felt strange. “For six years whenever I stepped out, I was accompanied by two police escorts,” she says. “Now there was nobody.”

But her younger sister, Sherly, nephew, Dinu, and her sister Rani's husband, Joseph, were there to welcome her. Lissy’s family felt worried that if people recognised her, when she travelled on a bus they would physically attack her or make cruel comments. (Lissy is serving a 25 year jail term for transporting drugs).

So they hired an Omni Maruti car. Before they set out, to Wayanad, they brought chicken biriyani as well as oranges and grapes from the prison outlet. “They were scared to take me inside a restaurant,” says Lissy. “So we ate the food along the way.”

Lissy was granted parole because her 84-year-old mother, Rosakutty, is unwell. “She is asthmatic and has high blood pressure,” says Lissy. “There is nobody to look after her. My brother and sister live elsewhere. Recently, my mother almost died because of breathing difficulties, but I could not help, because I was in jail.”

In fact, what helped her get parole is her increasingly high profile in the media. She has written a book, which consists of eight short stories and fifteen poems. The book also includes a biography written by former journalist Subin Mananthavady, who is now the managing director of the Thiruvananthapuram-based Kokkopelli Public Relations.

The book, titled ‘Kuttavaliyil Ninnu Ezhuthukariyileykku’ (From Convict to Writer), by Poorna Publications, will be released soon. “I am a huge fan of Mohanlal, so Subin is trying to get the superstar to release it,” says Lissy.

When Subin was a journalist, he did a magazine series on the changing face of Kerala prisons. That was when he met Lissy.

She told me that she had a desire to be a writer,” says Subin. “In fact, she had written a few poems.” And when Subin read one of them, he was impressed. “She had a nice style,” he says, of the author who had studied only upto Class 10. Thereafter, he got her white sheets of paper and pens and asked her to write.

Lissy went at it in right earnest. She would write in the evenings and in the mornings, when she had to keep an eye on the cows. “The jail superintendent, Sakuntala P, and welfare officer Sobhana K.N., encouraged me a lot,” says Lissy, while on a recent visit to Kochi.

For the prisoner, there is a clear motive behind the writing. “Since I have a negative image in society, I want to change this through my writing,” she says.

And while doing this, Lissy is also waging a battle in the Kerala High Court, to reduce the prison term. “It is too harsh,” she says. “Others who have done similar offences have got between five to ten-year terms.”

Meanwhile, Lissy is trying to enjoy her last few days of freedom, before she re-enters prison on November 19. But what proved to be a moment of joy was the reaction of her neighbours when she arrived. “They came swarming towards me, with smiles on their faces,” she says. 
“A few cried and asked how I ended up in such a mess.”

Indeed, Lissy has had some bad experiences, including the death of her husband, at age 36, due to alcoholism. “I have faced many difficulties in life,” she says. “But I will fight on.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Snaky Encounters


Scriptwriter M. Sindhuraj talks about his experiences in the films, 'Pattanathil Sundaram', 'Pullippulikalum Aattinkuttiyum', and the upcoming 'Munthirivallikal Thalirkkumpol'.

Photos: M. Sindhuraj by Melton Antony; the poster of the 'Pullippulikalum Aattinkuttiyum'

By Shevlin Sebastian

During a location search for 'Pattanathil Sundaram' (2003), director Vipin Mohan and scriptwriter M. Sindhuraj arrived at a house, in Ottapallam, where the hero, Kizhakkethil Sundaresan (Dileep), a grocery store owner, was supposed to stay.

There was a high gate and it looked locked,” says Sindhuraj. “So, we decided to climb over it. After much effort, we reached the top, but, suddenly, the gate swung open. That was when we realised it had been unlocked all along.”

Both Vipin and Sindhuraj had a good laugh.

Sindhuraj also had a good laugh during the shoot of the film, 'Pullippulikalum Aattinkuttiyum' (2013). Set in Kuttanad, a boatman, played by an actor called Sabu, was trying to get close to a widow, Kainagiri Revamma (Bindu Panicker). So, one day he stepped into the house, but as soon as Revamma saw him, she chased him away by swinging a sickle.

Sabu jumped into the water,” says Sindhuraj. “But when he surfaced, we got a shock. He was bald. That was because his wig had come undone.”

The crew members made a frantic search but could not locate it. So, Sindhuraj quickly inserted a line in the script and Revamma says, contemptuously, “He set out with a wig on his head.”

A few years earlier, Sindhuraj decided to stay at the Peermade Government Guest House to write the script of what later became 'Jalolsavam' (2004). But the moment, he entered the room, he felt uneasy.
I did not know the reason why,” he says. “So I asked a staffer, Mani (named changed), to spend the night in the same room as me. The next day, after breakfast, I left.”

Three months later, Sindhuraj met Mani by accident at Alleppey. “Mani told me that soon after I had left, they discovered a huge snake just above the bathroom door in my room,” says Sindhuraj. “In the end, the employees killed it.”

But, during the shoot, of the 2013 film, 'Pullippulikalum Aattinkuttiyume', at Alleppey's Punnamada, a snake was left undisturbed. There was a scene when Kunchako Boban and Namitha Pramod arrived in a speedboat, jumped into the water, waded ashore and lay on the bank.

However, when the shot was being taken, on the bank, the crew noticed a snake on a branch right above the duo. “Everybody kept quiet, because they did not want to frighten Kunchako and Namitha,” says Sindhuraj. “But we kept a sharp eye on the snake through the monitor. Thankfully, it did not move at all. It was only when everything was over that we told them about the snake.”

Meanwhile, at this moment, the shooting is going on for Sindhuraj's latest script, 'Munthirivallikal Thalirkkumpol'. Directed by Jibu Jacob, and slated for a Christmas release, it stars Mohanlal and Meena.

Recently, a scene was set at a bus terminus in Kozhikode. But when Mohanlal arrived, hundreds of people gathered around, there was a traffic jam, and it became difficult to shoot the scene. “So the location was shifted to Thamarassery,” says Sindhuraj. “The cameras were kept hidden. Then Mohanlal was brought in a car. He got out and started walking. Before the people could realise that it was indeed the superstar, the shot was canned, Mohanlal got into the car and vanished.”

However, at an outdoor shoot, at Narkhanda, near Shimla, Mohanlal did not do the vanishing act. Again, there was a large crowd present. “I was surprised to note that they were all non-Malayali fans from North India and abroad, waiting patiently for a photo with the star,” he says. “That was when I understood the extent of Mohanlal's popularity.” 

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

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

A Burnt Arm


Nadia Moidu talks about her experiences in the films, 'Nokketha Doorathu Kannum Nattu', 'Poo Mazhai Pozhiyudhu' and ‘M. Kumaran/Son of Mahalakshmi

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was her first film. And Nadia Moidu was all eager and excited. The shoot for the Mohanlal starrer, 'Nokketha Doorathu Kannum Nattu' (1984), was taking place at Udaya Studios, Alleppey. In the movie, Nadia, as Girly, plays Mohanlal's love interest.

There was a Christmas scene. And a cinematic dance was taking place. A group of dancers, along with Nadia in the lead, held sparklers in the hand and moved across the stage, to the song, 'Lathiri Poothiri Punthiri Cheppo', composed by Jerry Amaldev.

Just behind me there was another dancer,” says Nadia. “Suddenly, her sparkler touched my arm. I did not feel anything initially. After the shot was over, when I looked at my arm, I realised that it had been burnt a bit.”

She was rushed to a nearby hospital. After a close inspection, the doctor concluded that the burns were not very serious. So, she returned to the set the next day and resumed shooting. But today, there is an inch-long scar on the inside of her arm. “However, if I keep my arm close to my body, you cannot see it,” she says. “But the mark is a memorable reminder of my debut film.”

There is a superstition in Mollywood that if an actor suffers an injury, the film tends to become successful. “I don't know whether this is true, because I am not a superstitious person,” she says. “Nevertheless, it is a fact that 'Nokketha Doorathu Kannum Nattu' became a super-duper hit.”

In 1987, with rising excitement, Nadia prepared to go for her first trip abroad. This was for the Tamil film, 'Poo Mazhai Pozhiyudhu', which starred Suresh and Vijayakanth. In the storyline, both of them are wooing Nadia. But, for one scene, at the Kowloon Bay, at Hongkong, Nadia was supposed to step onto a speedboat and go in search of Suresh.

Because I enjoy speed a lot, I began driving very fast,” says Nadia. But, for this scene, there was no need to do so, because the director could easily speed up the film, to create an illusion of speed. But Nadia did not care. However, there was one person who got very nervous. That was her own father, NK Moidu, who always accompanied Nadia for her shoots.

He was extremely protective of me,” says Nadia. “The moment he saw me go off so fast, he immediately hired another boat and followed me, with an anxious look on his face. Thankfully, nothing happened, but I enjoyed it so much. It was an unforgettable experience.”

Nadia also had an unforgettable experience in the film, ‘M. Kumaran/Son of Mahalakshmi (2004). At the shoot, in Chennai, there was a song during which, the son, Kumaran, played by Jayam Ravi, is taking his mother, Mahalakshmi (Nadia), to the hospital where she has to get an injection. But the junior artiste, who was tasked to do the job, instead of pretending to give one, actually inserted the needle into Nadia’s upper left arm.

“Even though I was shocked, because the needle had not been sterilised, I just kept quiet and swallowed the pain,” she says. “But then, M. Raja, the director, got very nervous over what had happened. He immediately rushed me to the hospital, where a nurse gave me a tetanus injection, and ensured that I faced no problems in future.” 

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

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

The Roar Of The Tiger

Director Vysakh talks about his film, 'Pulimurugan', the first Mollywood film, to earn Rs 100 crore at the box office

Photos: Mohanlal with Vysakh; a scene from the film 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Nowadays, strangers, both men and women, call up director Vysakh and say, “I want to kiss you. Thank you for giving us such a varied fare of Mohanlal.”

In the man vs. tiger film, 'Pulimurugan', Mohanlal, as a tiger hunter, displays his histrionics in fun sequences, as a hero, and family man. “He is emotional and loving, he cries and fights courageously,” says Vysakh.

At his villa in Kochi, Vysakh is in a happy mood. And there is a reason for it: 'Pulimurugan' has just crossed Rs 100 crore, which is a first in Mollywood history.

“'Pulimurugan' is a turning point in the Malayalam film industry, in terms of box office receipts,” says senior director B. Unnikrishnan. “It is clear that the market has expanded: to other states in India, the USA and Europe.” 

Asked the reasons for its success, Vysakh says, “A good script [by Udayakrishna], Mohanlal Sir's acting genius, smart marketing, and the never-before-seen action sequences.”

Indeed, it is the action sequences, apart from the animation graphics, which are the USP of the film. Initially, when Vysakh did research on man vs tiger fights, he could not find one in world cinema. “There are many tiger movies, like 'The Taking Of Tiger Mountain', 'Two Brothers', 'Life of Pi' and 'Jungle Book', but there is no direct fight between man and tiger. We had to work hard to make it a believable action sequence. We did drawings, and created story boards.”

Vysakh also roped in the Puducherry-born action-choreographer Peter Hein who has done memorable work on blockbusters like 'Sivaji', 'Enthiran', 'Ghajini' and 'Baahubali'.

To get a better idea, Peter, along with Vysakh and a few members of the crew spent three weeks in Vietnam. “We saw 140 tigers on a farm, which belonged to a Member of Parliament,” says Vysakh. “They were wild animals, all in cages. Even Lal Sir spent some time with us. It was hard work.”

But that is Vysakh for you. He has always been a painstaking director. And, thanks to 'Pulimurugan', he has further embellished his resume. Right from the beginning, 'Pokkiri Raja' (2010), nearly all his films – 'Seniors', 'Mallu Singh' and 'Sound Thoma' – have done well at the box office.

But now, he feels a burden and an unexpected pressure. “Yes, I am thinking about this question these days, 'How do I top 'Pulimurugan'?” he says. Thankfully, relief is at hand. Vysakh's six-year-old daughter Isabella comes up and says, “Appa, do you know where my school bag is?” 

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

Monday, November 07, 2016

Preserving Christian Music

On a recent visit to Kochi, the New-York based Fr. Joseph Palackal talks about his mission to preserve the traditional Syro-Malabar music in Kerala through recordings and research articles

Photos: Fr. Joseph Palackal. Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram. Arnos Pathiri; The Syro-Malabar church

By Shevlin Sebastian  

At his brother’s home, in Kochi, recently, Fr. Joseph Palackal sits behind the tamburu and plays the alap in rag Asavari from the Hindustani tradition. Later he launches into the Christian epic song, ‘Puthen Pana’. His voice is soaring and melodious.

The ‘Puthen Pana’ was written by a Jesuit priest, Johann Ernst Hanxleden, from Germany, in 1721. “He was known as Arnos Pathiri,” says Fr. Joseph. “He came to Kerala as a 19-year-old, became a priest, and learnt Malayalam. The Pana is a narration of Biblical events.”

It became part of the Christian experience, because, at that time, they did not have the Bible in the local language. “It was in Syriac and only the priest knew how to read them,” says Fr. Joseph. “So, the people learned the poem by heart. My mother could narrate the entire pana in one sitting, but it would take more than two hours.”

Incidentally, Syriac is a dialect of the Aramaic language, the mother tongue of Jesus. The music came from West Asia hundreds of years ago and got mingled with the local culture.

Based at the St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, at Maspeth, New York, Fr. Joseph has been doing research, for years, on the rich Christian musical legacy in India, especially in the Syro-Malabar church of Kerala.

The music in Indian Christianity is multi-faceted,” he says. “So, the versions in the North-East are different from what we hear in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Goa, which has the Portuguese influence. With the Christians in Kerala, there are two major systems: the one with the Syro Malabar Church, to which I belong, and the other with the Syrian Orthodox-Jacobite churches.”

Until the 16th century, it was songs without instruments. “But it was the Portuguese who introduced the violin, harmonium, bass drum and the bugle,” says Fr. Joseph.

But everything changed in 1962, when permission was given by the church authorities for the songs to be sung in the vernacular languages. “It was a watershed,” says Fr. Joseph. “Syriac literacy diminished, even among the priests. But the Jacobite churches retained most of the Syriac language.”

However, in the Syro Malabar church, the people resorted to film-style music. “Modern musical instruments, like the keyboard, have been added,” says Fr. Joseph. “It has lost its essence.”

So, Fr. Joseph is trying his best to preserve the memories and the melodies. Every year he comes to Kerala to meet up with people who are able to capture the melodies of the Syriac songs. “But time is running out,” he says. “Most of the stalwarts are losing their memory or passing away.”

Nevertheless, Fr. Joseph has recorded a large number of songs and put it on You Tube with notes. This is part of the Aramaic ProjectRecently, he started working on a digital Encyclopedia of the Syriac Chants of the Syro Malabar Church, as well as a Directory of Christian songs in India. The priest has also written an article on the subject in the just-published Oxford Handbook of Music and World Christianities.

I am trying to do my bit to preserve the history,” says Fr. Joseph. 

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

Saturday, November 05, 2016

“I am Happy Families Are Watching”

The Kannadiga, Siddhi Mahajankatti, who grew up in Kochi, makes a mark in the Mollywood film, 'Aanandam' 

Photos: Siddhi Majankatti; the Mahajankatti family 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Siddhi Mahajankatti, 17, became the master of ceremonies at the mehendi party for the daughter of Rema Nair, her drama teacher at Vidyodaya school, Kochi, little did she realise that it would change her life.

Because when Rema posted the photo of Siddhi on Facebook, debutant director and former Vidyodaya student, Ganesh Raj, liked it.

He got in touch with Siddhi, and, after narrating the script, she agreed to play the lead role of Diya in Ganesh's film, 'Aanandam', which has now become a hit.

Today, when Siddhi goes to the mall, with her parents and younger brother, she is recognised instantly; people congratulate her, and selfies are taken.

When I went out for dinner recently, a small girl came up and said, 'Chechi, 'Aanandam', Diya',” she says. “I felt so happy. I thought we would connect only with the school and college-going crowd, but many families are also seeing the movie.”

The film is a sweet and heart-warming look at a group of engineering students going on a four-day ‘industrial visit' to places like Hampi and Goa. Along the way, the students have fun, experience heartbreak, romantic moments and deepening friendships.

Asked whether she felt nervous going in front of the camera for the first time, Siddhi says, “I had done theatre, so I was used to acting in front of everybody.”

Siddhi represented her school at the Soorya Theatre Festival at Thiruvananthapuram, where she played the lead role in Habib Tanvir's Hindi play, 'Charandas Chor', which was translated into English.

Nevertheless, just before the first shot, at the Amal Jyothi College of Engineering, at Kanjirapally, in May, she stood in front of the camera and prayed. “The cinematographer [Anend C. Chandran] was sitting on top,” says Siddhi. “So I said, 'This is my first scene, so you better make me look good'.”

Not only did she look good, but she acted well also. Both producer Vineeth Sreenivasan and senior director Lal Jose praised her performance. Asked whether she enjoying the shooting process, Siddhi says, “I like everything about acting: the sets, costumes, and the shout of 'Roll, Camera, Action'. It can be a tiring experience. There were many sleepless nights. And you could be shooting for 48 hours at a stretch. But I enjoyed it.”

And her parents Dherendra [who acts as a head of the department in one scene] and Lakshmi are also enjoying this unexpected foray into Mollywood by their elder child.

They came to Kochi from Bangalore fifteen years ago and fell in love with the city. “Apart from Kerala's physical beauty, I like the people,” says Dherendra. “Malayalis are gentle, polite and do not have a vulgar way of talking, as it is there in other states.”

As for Lakshmi, she can read, write and speak in Malayalam. “I can also sing Malayalam songs,and my friends proudly show me off to their relatives,” she says. “They are thrilled I have become a Malayali.”

Siddhi is also a Malayali at heart. “My favourite food is red rice and avial,” she says. On holidays, she likes to go to the Marine Drive and watch the boats. As for her brother, Shrikar, 13, he says simply, “I like the big houses in Kochi.”

Meanwhile, when asked about her future plans, Siddhi says, “My priority now is to complete my BBA [Bachelor of Business Administration at the St. Joseph's College of Commerce, Bangalore]. However, if I get a good role, I might take it up.” 

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