Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Real Or Fake?


Art Director Joseph Nellickal talks about his experiences in the films, ‘Runway’, ‘Robin Hood’, ‘Anwar’, ‘Lion’ and ‘Naran’

By Shevlin Sebastian

In Joshiy's film, ‘Runway’ (2003), the hero Dileep smuggles spirits through the Walayar check-post. Since the crew did not get permission to shoot at the check-post, art director Joseph Nellickal replicated the original near the railway station at Kalamassery.

We felt the space was similar to the area around Walayar and made the set,” he says.

But one day, when Joseph reached the set at 6 a.m., he noticed a lorry with a Tamil Nadu registration number which was parked there. “Suddenly, I saw the driver give a slap to the helper,” says Joseph. “So, I enquired about what had happened.”

The driver said that he had crossed the Walayar check post by 3 a.m. Thereafter, he told the helper to drive the vehicle while he had a nap. But when the driver woke up, he saw that they were still at the check-post. So he thought that his assistant had gone around in circles and returned to the check-post. That was why he was slapping the driver.

So I told the driver that this was a film set,” says Joseph. “He just could not believe it. He went around and inspected everything and noticed that there were some sacks in the area where the office was supposed to be. That was when he finally became convinced. This was a case of where the set was so realistic that people could not distinguish the real from the fake.”

Something similar happened in the film, ‘Robin Hood’ (2009). There was a scene in which Prithviraj had to enter an ATM and draw some money. “In those times, the ATMs had not become popular,” says Joseph. “So I made one.”

However, as they were busy setting up the set, unknown to them, a well-to-do man entered the booth. “He thought it was an actual ATM and put his card inside the holder,” says Joseph “But it got stuck.”

So, firstly the man had to be told that it was a fake ATM counter. Secondly, the entire structure had to be dismantled so that the card could be returned to the man and the recorder could be fixed again. “The shoot was delayed by several hours before we could get the ATM ready again,” says Joseph.

There was a crisis of a different kind on the sets of the film ‘Anwar’ (2010). The location was at the Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT). A set was built in front of the main university building. Prithviraj entered a corridor, placed a bomb and left. “This was a powder bomb and not one that caused a fire,” says Joseph. “Just behind the set, there was a window of the main building. But under the impact of the blast, the window burst open. All the powder entered the room.”

It was valuation room where all the answer sheets were kept. The tables were covered with black powder, including the computers and the answer sheets. The Registrar came running. When he saw the scene, he began perspiring. “He felt that he would lose his job,” says Joseph. “I assured him that we would clean the entire room.”

Joseph’s team which consisted of ten people along with a couple of CUSAT employees cleaned every paper, computer and table. The shattered glass was replaced. “We worked through the night and finished by 6 a.m.,” says Joseph. “We had to ensure that nobody came to know about it, otherwise, it would have become a major issue.”

During the shoot of the film, ‘Lion’ (2006), an issue of a different kind cropped up. In the storyline, there was a shootout between some policemen and goondas on the Venduruthy Bridge at Kochi. A couple of policemen shot at the miscreants. Two of them were supposed to fall from the bridge into the water. “We made dummy figures, with them wearing shirts and mundus,” says Joseph. “They were thrown from the bridge and floated away.”

However, on the same day, at 2 p.m., a man jumped from the Kumbalam bridge and drowned. The police could not locate the dead body. “Suddenly somebody noticed one of the film's dead bodies floating past,” says Joseph. “So they informed the police. They got some divers to bring the body to the shore. The parents were called to identify their son. But when the body was inspected, it was realised that it was a fake, leading to much embarrassment for the police.”

Joseph came to know about this when an item appeared in the next day's newspaper: 'Fake body proves to be a problem for the police'.

Then in ‘Naran’ (2005), it was the case of a fake tree made of fibre. It was being transported from Hogenakkal, Karnataka, where one schedule was over, to Thiruvananthapuram.

At the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border, the lorry was allowed to go through since it belonged to a film crew. But as the vehicle went past, inspectors saw a tree sticking out from the back. So they gave chase.

The driver was abused and asked to get down,” says Joseph. “The Forest Department officers said that he was smuggling wood into the state. But the driver stated that this was not an actual tree. They did not believe it. Then an officer climbed into the truck and it was only when he knocked on the tree that he realised it was not made of wood, but fibre. So they were allowed to leave."

Not surprisingly, the driver smiled silently at his helper. 

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

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Fruits, Fruits And More Fruits

Entrepreneur KP Musthafa talks about the benefits of imported fruits 

Photos: K. Musthafa by Manu R Maveli; the new store 

By Shevlin Sebastian

One morning KP Musthafa was standing outside his newly-opened store 'Frootree' in Kozhikode having a chat with his friend. Suddenly a middle-aged woman came up and stood near the entrance for a few moments. She was hesitating to enter.

Finally, Musthafa said, “Madam, is there any problem?”

The woman said, “I was wondering whether the fruits are okay, and don't have pesticides.”

Musthafa said, “Madam, all these fruits have been imported, after stringent checking. There is nothing to worry.”

The woman smiled as a few tears rolled down her face.

As Musthafa looked shocked, the woman said, “My son is in Stage 4 cancer. I wanted to buy some good fruits for him.” Musthafa nodded and held her hands.

Yes, indeed, Musthafa's shop deals in imported fruits only. He gives a break-up: green leaves are from Holland; passion fruit from Thailand; lemons and oranges from Spain; plums and avocados from New Zealand. “We buy a lot of fennels, baby marrow, baby carrot and asparagus from South Africa,” says Musthafa. “The grapes are from the USA, while mushrooms are from Holland.”

As for the most popular fruits, he says it is oranges and apples. But there are accusations that some apples, especially with the brand name of Washington have been waxed so that it can shine and last longer. “This waxing is safe,” says Musthafa. “The produce goes through stringent tests in the USA before it is allowed to be exported.”

Asked why imported fruits are so costly, Musthafa says, “Sometimes, there is 100 per cent duty. For apples, it is 50 per cent. Hence, the retail price of a Washington apple starts at Rs 200 per kilo and goes up to Rs 250.”

The most expensive are raspberries, cranberries and strawberries. Sometimes, these are being sold at Rs 2000 per kg and are imported from Mexico, Morocco, and the USA.

But importing to Kozhikode has not been an easy affair. Last year Musthafa imported dates from Saudi Arabia. It remained in the Kozhikode airport for 18 days because of various Customs and other difficulties. Overall. Rs 2.5 lakh was the extra expense for the entrepreneur. This included Rs 1.3 lakh for the refrigerated storage fees, while Rs 38,000 was the test charges to find out whether the product is good. Then there was customs duty and other charges.

So Musthafa has stopped importing into Kerala. Instead, he imports to Bangalore or Hyderabad and brings it by road to Kozhikode. “But if the material is from Mumbai I can bring it by domestic flight and there is no problem because it has gone through one checking,” he says. “But the expenses go up.”

As for his customers, most belong to the upper middle classes and are thus able to afford the steep prices. Plus, there is the charm of fruits. “I have yet to meet a person who sees a fruit and does not have the desire to eat it,” says Musthafa. “They are buying for their children and for them also. In every fruit or leaf, there are health benefits.”

Take the basil leaf. “This is good for cough, throat and chest congestion,” says Musthafa. “The leaves can be made into a gravy. You can also eat it directly. Also, many cardiologists recommend cranberries as it is good for the blood.”

But for Musthafa personally, what he likes the most is the juice of wheatgrass. “It has a lot of protein,” he says. “And it helps reduce sugar. There are wheatgrass tablets in the US. It is that good.”

Meanwhile, Musthafa is working hard to set up numerous ‘Frootree’ filling stations. These will be set up at various places on the National Highway.

“When you are travelling on the highway you don't need to get down,” says Musthafa. “You drive to the filling station and buy juice, snacks, tea, sandwiches or burgers. It is like going to a petrol station. Buy the food and carry on in your journey.”

Soon, there will be an app which can be downloaded. “Say, you are travelling from Ernakulam to Kozhikode, you can identify an outlet, place the order from the menu in advance, and come at the right time and collect it,” says Musthafa. “There is no time-wasting. These will be one every 50 kms. It will start soon.” 

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

Wednesday, June 20, 2018


Scriptwriter Sethu talks about his experiences on the sets of 'Mallu Singh', 'Salaam Kashmier' and his upcoming maiden directorial venture, 'Oru Kuttanadan Blog'

Photos: Scriptwriter Sethu by A Sanesh; Unni Mukundan in 'Mallu Singh' 

By Shevlin Sebastian

During the shoot of 'Mallu Singh' (2012), scriptwriter Sethu noticed a beautiful Punjabi girl always standing on the sets and staring at Unni Mukundan, who plays a turbaned Punjabi in the film. Soon the parents arrived on the set. Then they befriended Unni. After a while, they began to bring breakfast and lunch for Unni. He was invited to their home.

Because he grew up in Gujarat, Unni speaks good Hindi,” says Sethu. “So he was able to have good conversations with them.”

Finally, one day, the girl's parents proposed marriage to Unni for their daughter. “Their daughter had been smitten with Unni from the first day she saw him,” says Sethu. “The parents also felt that Unni would be a perfect son-in-law.”

It was then that Unni took off his red turban, and said that he is a Malayali. “The family took their disappointment in a sporting spirit,” says Sethu.

The Punjabis are a sporting lot. One day, art director Joseph Nellickal wanted to convert an ordinary area into 'Mallu street', where only Malayalis stayed. “Initially, we thought we would do it in Film City, Hyderabad since we needed a school and several shops,” says Sethu.
But while they were wandering about in Punjab looking for locations they went to a village called Nabha where Joseph saw an arch on a street. “We did not know for what it was made,” says Sethu. “Behind it, there was a large cowshed and a few shops.”

Joseph suggested that on the arch a board called 'Mallu Street' could be put up. “And then we could put Malayalam and Hindi signboards on all the shops,” says Sethu. “When we asked the local people, they agreed.”

The shoot on the street lasted for 22 days. But what was amazing for Sethu was when the producer of the film, Mahaa Subair told him recently that the area is still called Mallu Street. 

“The board on the arch has still not been removed,” says Sethu. “They have retained all the signboards on the shops. And in Nabha Mallu Street is a permanent part of the locals' vocabulary. This was very exciting to know.”

Apart from exciting moments, Sethu has experienced tense situations. During the shoot of 'Salaam Kashmier' (2014), one morning, director Joshiy and the crew were having breakfast in the Valley. “Suddenly, several Army jeeps arrived,” says Sethu. “Many soldiers jumped out. They were pointing their AK47 guns at the huts lining the slopes of the hills.”

An officer said that there was a threat. “He said that this was one of the most dangerous spots,” says Sethu. “Just eight hours earlier, there had been an encounter between two terrorists and the security forces. So, they had come to rescue us. We took our food and ran to the vehicles. I have enormous respect for the Army. They are very vigilant in Kashmir.”

So vigilant that they tested Joshiy's patience once. One day after the shoot was over the crew went to stay at various Army camps. The time was 7 p.m. As for Joshiy he was staying at a very high-security camp. But after two hours, there was a call from Joshiy to the producer Mahaa Subair. In an angry voice, Joshiy said, “I can't wait for dogs.”

Subair was puzzled and so were the crew. “Then we thought that maybe Joshiy Sir did not get dinner,” says Sethu. “So Subair checked with the canteen and they said they had supplied the food at 7 p.m.”

Later, the crew came to know what happened. When Joshiy arrived at the gate of his camp, a sniffer dog had to inspect him before he could enter. “No one, no matter how senior, was allowed inside before being sniffed,” says Sethu. “But the dog was asleep. So Joshiy had to wait for two hours outside. The Army staff did not want to awaken the dog suddenly because the animal would not do the job properly. So they waited for the dog to come awake. In the end, Joshiy lost his cool.”

There was a need to stay cool in Sethu's upcoming maiden directorial venture, 'Oru Kuttanadan Blog'. In one scene Mammooty travels on a Bullet on a road between paddy fields. Behind him were three bikes with actors Gregory, Shahin Siddique, Vivek Gopan and Nandan Unni on them. “It was a long shot,” says Sethu. As they were riding, suddenly Shahin lost his balance and the bike skidded and fell to one side. “Gregory's leg was twisted to one side,” says Sethu. “Shahin had bruises on his arms.”

So, Gregory and Shahin were rushed to the hospital. And Sethu was thinking that he would lose a day of shooting. That was when Mammootty called him and said, “The show has to go on, no matter what happens. The only way you can do that is to change the script.”

Sethu nodded and immediately sat down to work. Within an hour, he rewrote the scene in such a way that there was only one bike behind Mammooty. “Thanks to Mammooty Sir's calmness and vast experience, we saved the day's shooting and was able to  move forward,” says Sethu.

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

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Garrulous And Articulate Indian

Derek Wong, International Director of Toastmasters International, on a recent visit to Kochi talks about the qualities of Indians as speakers and as a people

Photos: Derek Wong; with the participants of the District 92 Toastmasters Annual Conference 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Derek Wong, International Director of Toastmasters International, arrived at midnight in Kochi from Hongkong following a 15-hour flight. He was feeling jet-lagged. At the hotel, he was given an entry card and Derek went to the room and slept.

“In the morning, when I went to the restaurant to have breakfast, they asked for my room number,” he says. “I said I had no idea. But the restaurant-in-charge asked for my surname, which was not difficult to remember, then he checked my room number for you. He said, 'Sir, your room number is 914'.”

And the next morning, when Derek went for breakfast, the same person remembered his name as well as his room number. “This was very impressive,” he says. “It was good hospitality. In many countries of the world, the people would not have behaved with this sort of magnanimity.”

Derek had come to Kochi to attend the District 92 Toastmasters Annual Conference. As an International Director, he oversees the activities of India, China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. And he was very impressed when he attended a meeting of one of the clubs at Kochi.

“All the speakers were so well prepared,” says Derek. “They knew exactly how to convey the message in an effective manner. Even an engineer spoke very well. Normally I fall asleep when engineers speak.”

A strength of the speakers in India is their dynamism when it comes to delivery. “They use a lot of hand gestures.,” says Derek “Indians know how to express a point in a concise manner and attract the audience.”

Another striking aspect is the fluency in English. “Indians are very good speakers of English,” says Derek. “They have a good vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. That's because they receive a good training at the school level. So that is the great advantage they have.”

After attending regular meetings in India Derek has observed that leaders have a way to handle conflicts. “People want to express their opinions, not only in India but all over the world,” he says. “But in India, they allow all the people to express what is on their minds. And once they hear all the opinions, the district officers try to find a way to handle it. They do it in a way that ensures the people don't get angry or irritated.”

In some countries, only one or two people will air their grievances. “They prefer to do things according to what the chairman says,” says Derek. “South Korea and Japan have a free society, but they are a little bit more obedient. They tend to voice their complaints in private.”

Derek is fascinated at the different types of behaviour across countries. For example, he has a hard time understanding accents. “When I visit Japan the English spoken is completely different,” says Derek, who works as a Chief Financial Officer for a private company in Hongkong. “I find it difficult to understand what they are trying to say. They use the Japanese accent a lot when they speak English. I have to listen patiently. But they also told me they find it difficult to understand my Chinese accent. So, it is all very complicated.”

But Derek is a fan of the Japanese. “Nobody can match them when it comes to punctuality,” he says. “So, if a programme is supposed to start at 10 a.m., it will not start at 9.59 or 10.01. Instead, it will start at exactly 10 a.m. When it is 30 seconds from 10 a.m., all of a sudden the hall will fall silent. Then they will watch the second hand. Then on the dot of 10 a.m., the meeting starts. That is the precision with which they live their daily lives.”

As for China, the people who join Toastmasters are mostly the young. “They are doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants, and entrepreneurs who want to improve their communication skills. That is why Toastmasters in China is quite popular,” says Derek. “It also gives them an opportunity to learn to speak English well especially when they are dealing with international visitors.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Lost In The Himalayas


Director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan talks about his experiences in the films, 'Oraalppokkam' and 'Sexy Durga' 

Photos: Sanal Kumar Sasidharan; the poster of 'Oraalppokkam' 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

For the film, 'Oraalppokkam' (2014), director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan wanted to shoot a scene in a place where it was snowing. “So we decided to do a schedule in the Himalayas,” he says. “It was a time when it was raining. We knew that when it rained it usually snowed at the same time.”

They were shooting in Delhi but two crew members Sudhish (assistant director) and Anil (production crew) went in advance in order to locate an ideal location. However, there was no news for the next two days from them. 

After the Delhi shoot, Sanal, actor Prakash Bare and the crew left for Uttarkashi. “I was a bit worried that there was no information from Sudhish and Anil,” says Sanal. 

Soon, it started raining and there were flakes of snow. On the road, high up in the Himalayas, they saw a solider who asked for a lift. “We stopped the jeep and he got in,” says Sanal. “We told him two of our friends were stuck somewhere. He said there was a snowbound area around 20 kms ahead. So they might be there.” 

They travelled a few more kilometres before they had to come to a stop. A big boulder had fallen on the road. “So we could not move forward,” says Sanal. The soldier said he would walk as his camp was nearby. 

While crew members tried to remove the boulder, Sanal and Pradeep also walked towards the Army camp. The snow began to fall like feathers. “It looked beautiful,” says Sanal. “So I told Prakash that this would make a wonderful visual and we should stop for a shoot.” 

Prakash replied, “Are you mad? We are in a dangerous situation. It is 4 p.m. Within two hours, it will be completely dark. We will not be able to move anywhere. And we have to find a place to stay.” 

Sanal said, “We will not get this type of visual ever again.” 

By this time, cameraman Indrajith had already begun filming. “We took many visuals, even as Prakash got very angry with me and the crew,” says Sanal. “I again requested him to do the scene which I had imagined when I wrote the script.” 

Finally, Prakash agreed. And the shot was taken. “By this time a few inches of snow had fallen,” says Sanal. 

The crew broke up into two groups. While one team found shelter in a very small hotel nearby, Sanal and Prakash walked eight kilometres, bypassing numerous ice blocks, before they found another hotel where, coincidentally, Sudhish and Anil were staying. "That was a big relief," says Sanal.  

Meanwhile, crew members, who were staying in the first hotel, tried to call Sanal, but there was no range. After a day they panicked. They called a Malayalam newspaper in Kerala and told them that Sanal and Prakash had gone missing. 

The newspaper got in touch with AK Antony who was Defence Minister at that time. He immediately sent out a rescue team.

But, a day later, Sanal was able to able to contact the crew in the first hotel through his mobile phone and they came to his hotel. Soon, they discussed a plan to shoot the remaining scenes.  

The next morning when we were getting ready to take some outdoor shots, we saw a couple of helicopters hovering overhead,” says Sanal. “Then a few soldiers came in search of us. One of them asked me whether we are from Kerala. I said yes. We did not know what was happening. We thought we had broken some law. Or maybe we did not take permission to shoot in that area. But it was only later we can to realise that this was all part of a rescue mission.” 

The police also did a sort of rescue mission on the sets of 'Sexy Durga' (2017). A schedule was taking place at 1 a.m. at the Kovalam Bypass. The story went like this: Durga (played by Rajshri Deshpande), a north Indian migrant and a Malayali Kabeer (Kannan Nayar) were running away. So, they were waiting on a deserted road for any vehicle to take them to the nearest railway station. 

So Rajshri and Kabeer were waiting on the bypass for the car, along with an assistant, Bipin Joseph, when a group of men came up and asked them what they were doing. “Bipin said a shoot was taking place,” says Sanal. “But the men began talking very aggressively. Bipin and the actors felt panicky, as they feared some sort of violence would take place.”

However, thanks to night patrolling, the police soon arrived. “Earlier, we had informed the local station that we were doing a shoot and had got the necessary permission,” says Sanal. “So the police sent the men packing. And shooting was able to resume peacefully.”

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

#SanalKumarSasidharan #Oraalppokkam #SexyDurga #PrakashBare #KovalamBypass

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Cuffed By A Cop

Hi Friends,

Juggernaut Books publishes my third short story in the erotica series.
You can download on your mobile or the laptop

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Making It As Real As Possible

Production designer Santhosh Raman, who won the National Award for the Mollywood film, 'Take Off', talks about his work

Photos: Santhosh Raman; the unused godown; the recreated Tikrit Hospital

By Shevlin Sebastian

When production designer Santhosh Raman stepped into an unused godown at Kochi, he felt depressed. The floor was littered with small pieces of paper and leaves, apart from a layer of dust. The paint was peeling from the walls. Below the asbestos roof, on a bar, hung two sheets of canvas.

But time was running out. For the Malayalam film, 'Take Off', the initial designer had moved away. So producer Anto Joseph approached Santhosh. The latter had to read the script quickly and was given only 20 days for pre-production work.

Since a major portion of the film was located at the Tikrit Hospital in Iraq, he needed to recreate it. The many unused hospitals in the state that he had visited turned out to be unsuitable. “I decided to go ahead in transforming the godown,” he says. It helped that in his many travels in West Asia, Santhosh had seen many hospitals. So, he knew what they looked like. Also, director Mahesh Narayanan had shared his research material.

In the end, when 'Take Off' was released, all the viewers assumed that the hospital scenes were shot in an actual building in Iraq because it looked so realistic. It was only when Santhosh released photos of the godown along with the hospital images on social media that people realised that he had done a remarkable transformation.

Many people were impressed including the jury of the National Film Awards, which was headed by noted filmmaker Shekhar Kapur. Santhosh won the Best Production Design award for 'Take Off', along with a cash prize of Rs 50,000. “The last time Mollywood won in the same category was 22 years ago when Sabu Cyril took the award for 'Kaalapani',” says Santhosh. “So I am happy to be the first in the 21st century.”

Director Mahesh is not surprised. “Santhosh has a good sense of aesthetics and worked very well with cinematographer Sanu John Varghese,” he says. “He also knows how to work within a limited budget.”

Thus far, Santhosh has worked in 40 films. In fact, he has just completed the Lucknow schedule for an untitled film starring the current heartthrob Tovino Thomas and veteran actress Urvashi. Two other films on which he has worked on are about to be released in June. They include Balachandran Menon's 'Ennalum Sarath', as well as Mammootty's 'Abrahaminte Santhathikal'.

Santhosh grew up in Thalassery, and did his bachelor's degree from the College of Fine Arts, Thrissur, before he drifted into films. “For me, the focus has always been art,” says the Kozhikode-based technician. “I was influenced by the films of Bharathan (1946-98). The National Award is an inspiration to push the bar even higher.” 

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

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

It's Never Too Late

At the age of 54, GM Antony, who runs a small roadside tea shop, at Kochi, has won his first national weightlifting gold medal

Photos: GM Antony--photos by Albin Mathew; the tea shop 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When GM Antony enters the Ernakulam gym at Kochi, on a summer evening, a young man greets him by saying, “Hi, old man, how are you?”

The 54-year-old, with silver hair and moustache, smiles, as he moves to one side and changes into his gear: a T-shirt and shorts.

He steps on a mat and stands still. Then he turns his head clockwise as well as anti-clockwise. Thereafter, he stretches his arms and legs. Finally, he lies down on a bench. A fellow weightlifter put some weights on a rod. Antony takes a deep breath and lifts it. The weight: 120 kgs.

I come every evening at 4 p.m., and train for two hours,” he says. And the hard work has borne results.

In early April, Antony won a gold medal in the 50 plus age group (105 kgs category) in the National Masters Games held at Chandigarh. This win was achieved through the guidance of M. Raveendranathan, a former Sports Authority of India coach. “Antony has a nice mix of natural talent and correct technique,” says Raveendranathan.

But the road to participation was paved with jagged stones. Since he earns a living by running a tea shop the father-of-two did not have enough money. “I got a contribution of Rs 2000 from the gym,” says Anthony. “Friends also contributed. One friend said, 'Antony, this is for your one-day's food bill,' and gave me Rs 300.”

This was Antony's first visit to North India. At the event, his inexperience became evident. He wore a shirt and lungi, as he stood near the weights. A Punjabi weightlifter asked sarcastically, “Are you a weightlifter?”

Antony became upset. “I knew he was being sarcastic,” he says.

However, this comment was overheard by members of the Tamil Nadu team. “One of them gave me a track pant,” says Antony. Then Raveendranathan suggested that they should buy a T-shirt. So they bought a green one and had the word 'Kerala' printed in white letters across it.

Through his win, Antony has now been selected to take part in the Asian Masters' championships which will be held at Kuala Lumpur in September. “But the cost will be Rs 60,000,” says Antony. “I cannot participate without sponsorship.”

So far, he has not had any luck. But Antony is not discouraged. “I have had a hard life,” he says, and elaborates. “When I was six years old, I got the shock of my life when my father abandoned our family and got married to another woman. Because there was no money in the house, I started working as a helper in a hotel at Kochi.”

One day, when was 15 years old, as he was walking past the Ernakulam Gym he glanced inside and became fascinated by the weightlifters. With the help of a senior waiter, Ayyappan, he was able to become a member. “Coach Ramanathan gave me the right training,” he says.

Soon, Antony began to win district and state awards. Life went on until he got married on September 10, 1995. “To make ends meet, I opened a roadside tea shop and discovered that I had no time,” he says. “I started work at 6 a.m. and closed the shop at 8 p.m. So I stopped weightlifting.” But within a few years, he developed a paunch and began to suffer from varicose veins on his legs. But when the doctor told Antony that he could get cured if he started exercising, he began doing weightlifting again.

So, once again, Antony began to win veterans’ events in the state. While the future does not look financially rosy, in terms of his sports career, Antony does not mind. “I have realised that I am the happiest when I am in the gym,” he says, with a smile.

The Tea Shop

What is interesting about Antony's tea-shop is the front of the shop is lined with several English and Malayalam magazines as well as newspapers. “You will be interested to know that the Sunday Magazine of The New Indian Express is very popular,” he says.

His customers include staff from the nearby Kerala High Court, policemen from a nearby station as well as office-goers and auto rickshaw drivers. Antony sells tea, coffee, bananas, samosas and idlis.

His Children

Even though weightlifter GM Antony could not have an education, he has ensured that his children have all the opportunities. Son Ebin is in Class 11, while daughter Ann Mary has just completed her Plus Two. Wife Mallika is a home-maker. 

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

Monday, June 11, 2018

Fort Kochi Native Recalls His Participation In Anthony Bourdain's Food Show

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photos: Anthony Bourdain; Adrian 'Jackie' D'Cruz

When the news began to filter online that famed chef Anthony Bourdain had committed suicide at the age of 61, on June 8, one man who was profoundly shocked was Fort Kochi native Adrian 'Jackie' D'Cruz. That's because Jackie took part in Anthony's food show, 'No Reservations' at Kochi in 2010. 

The people at Travel and Living Channel, which used to run Anthony's show got in touch with me through a New York family connection,” says Jackie. Somebody had given them the idea of doing a show regarding dosas. But when Jackie spoke to the production manager he told him that it won't be too exciting sitting down and eating a dosa. “So I suggested a meal at a thattukada,” says Jackie. 

The producer agreed. Soon the crew flew down to Kochi. And Jackie met Anthony just before the shoot. “I have been watching Anthony's show for many years,” says Jackie. “So I felt a bit nervous. But within a minute we became the best of friends.” 

They sauntered down and sat on plastic chairs at a thattukada just opposite the Medical Trust Hospital. Soon, Anthony tasted everything: parathas, peas curry, beef fry, sardines, quails and mackerels. 

The highlight, for Jackie, was when Anthony ate the mackerel and said, “Crisp on the outside and soft on the inside and that's how fish should be done.” 

Then Anthony inquired about Jackie's Portuguese origin. Jackie then explained how the Portuguese curry sauce and tapioca had now become a permanent part of Kerala's cuisine. 

Asked about his personality, Jackie says, “At 6'5” he was larger than life. He was a down-to-earth person despite his fame. Anthony had a natural charm, and simplicity. He was also very outgoing and positive-minded.” 

So, for Jackie, Anthony was the last person in the world who would have committed suicide. “But then we never know what happens in the psyche of a human being.”

Jackie paused and said, “Rest in Peace Anthony.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)

Saturday, June 09, 2018

The Man Who Still Casts A Spell

Having just completed 35 years, Magician Samraj looks back at his life and career

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the Pangode military camp, in Thiruvananthapuram, the audience watched with bated breath as Magician Samraj said that he would blow up a box which contained a girl, Revathi (name changed) by using a time bomb.

But unknown to him, when the time came to use the bomb, because of a miscommunication, Revathi had not left the box. ‘So, when the bomb burst, there was a scream,” says Samraj, who has just completed 35 years as a magician. “We dropped the stage curtain. And when we opened the box, we saw that Revathi was soaked with blood. She was immediately rushed to the hospital.”

But Samraj could not stop the show. Instead, after a few minutes, he appeared on stage and said, “Okay where are we now? The next item is Standing Lady Illusion.”

Thankfully, the girl survived. “Today, she is happily married with two children,” says Samraj.

In a two-and-a-half-hour programme, there will be many mistakes. “But I have to make sure that the audience is not aware of these mistakes,” says Samraj. “This comes from experience.”

Once, during a show at Changanacherry, Samraj was moving towards the stage when his face hit something and he began bleeding. “But I went to the stage and the people thought that this was all part of the item regarding a ghost,” he says, with a smile.

Thus far, Samraj has done over 8000 performances, with the help of a 30 member troupe which includes his wife and two sons. 

Asked the qualities needed to be a good magician, he says, “A magician should be a very good actor. We produce and are able to disappear many items. To do this successfully, you have to be confident and have the ability to distract the audience with our actions. Secondly, you must never be nervous, no matter what happens.”

Asked his strong point, Samraj says simply, “I am a story-teller. And most magicians aren't.”

And he gives an example. One show is called the Tragic End of The Titanic. Very early in the act, an actual ship enters the stage. There is a magician called Robert Samraj from Athens who is performing for the guests on the Titanic. Soon, through visuals, the ship hits an iceberg and sinks. “The magician also dies,” says Samraj. “But his soul is wandering about. Wherever a magic show is taking place, his soul is present.”

Suddenly a coffin appears on the stage. It contains Robert's body. But when the coffin is opened, it is a skeleton. Then the coffin is put up in a standing position. The coffin is closed. Then slowly, a shadow appears, the coffin shatters and the real Samraj comes out of the coffin.

“All this is done, accompanied by high-decibel music,” says Samraj.

An early fascination

When Samraj was seven years old, a street magician came to the Govt. L.P. School, at Mullikulangara where he studied. “He showed an empty Bournvita can, put some sand in it, closed the can, then opened it and pulled out green grapes,” says the 62-year-old Samraj. “I ate it. I thought it would be plastic. I was stunned. How did he do it?”

He could not sleep at night trying to figure out how it was done. On the third day, Samraj got the answer. “I made a tin and did the same magic,” he says. “That was how I came to be regarded as Junior Mandrake.”

When he told his parents that he wanted to be a magician, his mother gave him a slap and told him to concentrate on his studies. So he forgot about magic. But when he went to Mumbai, for a job, years later, at Malad station, he saw a street-side magician doing a show.

After it was over, Samraj asked the magician, “Can you teach me?”

He said, “No.”

Samraj said, “Please.”

He asked Samraj whether he had any money.

Samraj replied, “Rs 25.”

So he took it and told Samraj to come the next evening at Platform No. 2 at Mahim station. “I felt very happy,” says Samraj. “However, the next day when I went to Mahim station, he did not come. So, in the end, he cheated me. But now I appreciate him.”

Because after every programme today, there will be at least 25 children and parents who approach Samraj to teach them magic. “So I could have easily told them, 'Give me Rs 250 or Rs 500 or Rs 1000',” he says. “And they would be ready to pay me. But would they learn the art? They can learn but they cannot perform it.  So, what the street magician did to me was absolutely right.”

Anyway, in 1982, Samraj got a job as a civil engineer in a company at Muscat. Soon he heard that there was a plumber by the name of Kutty who was also a magician.

“He had learnt his tricks from Vazhakunnam Neelakanthan Namboothiri or Prof. Vazhakkunnam (1903–1983) who is known as the Grandfather of Kerala Magic,” he says. Samraj learnt the tricks from Kutty and set out on his magic carpet journey which continues to this day...  

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

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Rolling Down A Slope


Actor Parvitii Nair talks about her experiences in the films, ‘Overtake’, 'Neerali', 'Yennai Arindhaal' and 'Vascodigama'

By Shevlin Sebastian

For a scene in the film, ‘Overtake’ (2017), actor Parvatii Nair was sitting inside a Mercedes Benz in Bellary, Karnataka. The car was being driven by Vijay Babu. Suddenly, Parvatii discovered that her seat belt was stuck. She told Vijay. He stopped the vehicle and got out to get some help.

Unfortunately, he forgot to put the car in first gear. It was on top of a slope on a narrow road. The car began to roll backwards. Since it was supposed to be a long shot, the crew was at some distance away.

When I looked back, I saw a lorry coming up the road,” says Parvatii. “There were forests on both sides. I began to panic. Because of the stuck seat-belt, I could not move from my seat and use my legs to press the brakes. I just had a couple of seconds to do something.”

The car was gathering speed. The lorry driver stopped and watched the scene, as if in slow motion. A desperate Parvathii reached out and grabbed the steering wheel and turned it hard to one side. The car veered off the road and went bumping up the grassy verge and came to a stop. “I was breathing so fast, but thankfully, nothing bad happened,” she says. Soon, the lorry driver went up the slope and waved his appreciation to Parvathii.

Later, Vijay apologised to me profusely,” says a smiling Parvatii.

Parvathii had a lot to smile about on the sets of 'Neerali'. 

That was because she was working with Mohanlal. “Sir is somebody who is always cracking jokes,” she says. “That keeps the set in a relaxed mood and we are able to do our best work.”

One day, she was pressing the numbers on her mobile phone, when Mohanlal said, “Who are you calling?”

My mother,” said Parvathii.

Okay, pass the phone to me, after you have talked a bit,” said Mohanlal.

Parvathii nodded. After a while, she told her mother, “Amma, somebody wants to talk to you.”

Mohanlal took the phone and said, “Hello Madam, how are you? Your daughter is doing very well.”

But it took a while before Parvathii’s mother figured out that it was Mohanlal.
“Mohanlal Sir’s accent is so distinctive and everybody has heard it so some many times,” says Parvathii. “My mother, who is a fan, was thrilled.”

Once Parvathii herself got a call, out of the blue, when she was shooting for an ad film for Mollywood director VK Prakash at a bungalow in Bangalore. “The caller said that I had been cast in Kamal Hasan’s film ‘Uttama Villain’ (2015). The caller said I would be paired with the person who would be playing Kamal Hasan's son in the film.” 

Parvathii could not believe it. She thought it was a prank call. So she said, “Rubbish,” and cut the call.

But then she began to have doubts. “So I asked Prakash Sir,” says Parvathii. “He confirmed that Kamal Hasan was doing a film by that name. The surprising aspect was that when Prakash Sir told me the film was going to be shot in the same house where I was doing the ad.”

So Parvathii immediately called back and came to know that it was Kamal Hasan’s manager who had called her. She apologised and got the role. “I was thrilled,” she says. 

Parvathii was also thrilled on the sets of 'Yennai Arindhaal' (2015). Tamil star Ajith played the hero but even before Parvathii could be introduced, the first scene was shot inside a car. Parvathii sat next to Ajith while Arun Vijay sat at the back. “To show that all three of us were grooving with each other, Ajith did a 360 degree turn in a car,” says Parvathii. “That made me laugh with nervousness.”

Soon, after the shot was okayed, the star shook Parvathii's hand and said, “Hi, I am Ajith.” 
Parvatii laughed again. 

Just as there are good, there have been sad moments, too, on the set. The Kannada film 'Vascodigama' (2015) was a college film, so many extras acted as students and lecturers. The shoot was at the KVJ College, Kurunjibhag, Sullia. Parvathii saw some crew members being rude to the extras.

I always smile at the extras,” she says. “Sometimes I have a chat with them.”
There was a scene in the rain. While the actors got umbrellas the extras stood in the rain getting wet. There were many boys and one solitary girl, Renu (name changed). So Parvathii called out to her to come and take shelter under her umbrella. The girl was reluctant but eventually, she came.

Then Renu started talking about her life. “Her father was ill and the family had no money,” says Paravthii. “She was getting paid Rs 300 per day. Sometimes, she told me, they don’t even get paid. The agency takes away all the money. In contrast, I remember, when we were shooting a film in Goa, there were a few foreigners who were taken as extras. They were paid Rs 4000 per day. So I felt bad for Renu.” 

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

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Getting Mentally And Physically Healed

Many Yazidi women who had been sexually assaulted by ISIS (the Islamic State and The Levant) fighters have been coming to the Art of Living centre in Bengaluru to attend meditation programmes

Photos: Bhanumathi Narasimhan. Photo by V. Pushkar; Placards in support of the Yazidi women

By Shevlin Sebastian

Basra woke up with a start. She was breathing heavily. The room was in darkness even though it was 5 a.m. at Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Art of Living headquarters in Bengaluru. An image passed through her mind: a bearded man slapping her repeatedly across her face. Quickly, Basra shook her head and got up.

At 6 a.m., she, along with a group of Yazidi women, from the Sinjar mountains in Iraq made their way to a hall. Teacher Puravi Hegde greeted them with a smile. They sat cross-legged on the floor and closed their eyes. Puravi says, “Gurudev Sri Sri says, 'Our breath is linked to our emotions. For every emotion, there is a particular rhythm in the breath. With the help of one's breath, you can harness your emotions.”

Thanks to the initiative taken by Bhanumathi Narasimhan, the younger sister of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who oversees the organisation's Women's Empowerment and Child Welfare projects, Basra and Parveen and a few others had come to attend a ten-day healing programme. This consisted of yoga, meditation and the Sudarshan Kriya, a rhythmic breathing technique that harmonises the mind and body.

“These sessions had a big impact on them,” says Bhanumathi. “Many said they began to experience an inner healing. They were able to sleep for the first time after a long interval.”

In February, a group of Yazidi women had come to attend the International Women's Conference which was held at the Art of Living headquarters in Bengaluru.

A victim Parveen recounted her experience. “The ISIS came at midnight to our village,” she says. “There were 44 members of my family. Many of the men were shot dead. The women and children were taken to a hall. But the pretty girls among us were given to the fighters in different places as sex slaves. We were raped and raped, as much as fifty times.” Today, her entire family has been wiped out except for a cousin.

“When Parveen recounted her suffering, there was not a single dry eye among the audience,” says Bhanumathi. Incidentally, the Twitter tagline for the conference was #BringBackOurGirls #YazidiGirlsMatter.

As Bhanumathi talks her eyes become pools of sadness. “Think of this,” she says. “In the 14th century, there were 23 million Yazidis. But after centuries of persecution, they have been reduced to one million. And now, the Yazidi women have gone through unspeakably horrible experiences.”

The ISIS fighters massacred the community to destroy all anti-Islamic influences. The community follows a religion which is a syncretism of various religions like Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

It was in 2014 that Bhanumathi first came across the Yazidi women when a team had gone to meet Sri Sri Ravi Shankar at Chicago. “The community had heard that the Art of Living had been doing meditation and trauma-healing programmes in Iraq,” says Bhanumathi. “They asked Gurudev to help the Yazidi girls, and he said yes immediately.”

At the Chicago centre, there was a big lamp with a peacock symbol. “They told us that they also worship the fire and the peacock,” says Bhanumathi. In fact, the Yazidis believe that God had placed the world in the care of seven holy beings or angels, the chief of whom is Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar instructed many teachers in Iraq to provide help to the Yazidi girls. Thereafter, in 2016, 27 Yazidi women, between the ages of 22 and 40, came to Bengaluru to receive training. “They promised that they would go back and help the others,” says Bhanumathi. Ever since a steady stream of Yazidi women have been coming to the Centre for training.

“We will carry on doing as much as possible to bring healing to the community,” says Bhanumathi. “Gurudev has repeatedly said we should strive for peace and happiness in every nook and corner of the world.” 

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