High School

The issue of the NPS student being suspended and subsequently committing suicide has caused some discussion about how high school was back in our day.

When I think back to my high school days, I hardly remember much about it. I find this strange because I used to be the sort who remembered a lot of random details about things no one else cared about.

But yeah, I did like my 8th 9th and 10th better than PU. I went to a CBSE school and there’s a kind of snobbery that comes with it. Switching to PU was a wholly different world.

For starters, my class in school had been pretty diverse. Muslims, Christians, people from various other states, people who’d just moved back from the Gulf. PU on the other hand was remarkably unicultural. Everyone was from the same neighborhoods. Nearly everyone was Kannadiga and those who weren’t spoke Telugu. Everyone was remarkably fluent in Kannada. Including the teachers. English as a medium of instruction was seen as a mere suggestion. Teachers freely lapsed into Kannada to explain their points better. It didn’t do a jot of good for me.

And the teachers were more pally with students after class in PU. I wasn’t used to that. I somehow can never get used to that. Especially when teachers tease you about being romantically involved with your classmates when you’re not. And they often said a lot of insensitive things in the guise of ‘teasing’. It wasn’t out of place for them to comment on your clothes or hair or manner of speaking. They tried so hard to be ‘cool’ and ‘with it’ and ‘understanding’, thinking back now, it feels kind of pathetic.

In school however, there was that respectable distance between the teacher and you. My teachers in school told us about safe sex, counseled us when they felt we were going astray, were often the first responders when any of us had lady issues. And they regularly teased us, played favorites, said insensitive things….. but there was always that healthy distance. Like if someone was facing issues, like being bullied, or in a seemingly inappropriate relationship, they wouldn’t make it apparent to the whole class they were talking to you about your issues. They had a nice subtle way of helping you, such that no one else would be aware what was going on. So, no, it’s not like your teachers being pally was better for you or anything.

And this distance mattered. We respected the teachers. We weren’t openly disruptive in class. In PU, being openly disruptive seemed like the norm. No one listened to the teacher, because everyone was going to tuitions anyway. And the teachers themselves weren’t paragons of diligence. Some were. But the majority just read out from the textbook. You can’t do that in CBSE schools. Literally no one would understand the subject if you did that. There was no dearth of trouble makers in school. I too was rude, arrogant, and all that for a period, but there were lines you didn’t cross.

And in PU you were still subject to being treated like you didn’t know anything and were disruptive, but no one cared about your well-being. I think the only ones who did care were the librarian (because I spent a lot of time reading fiction) and my English teacher. And my Hindi teacher as well, but she lived near my house and we were more informal with each other.

What cements this for me is an External examiner in the lab exams of PU openly extorted bribes from my classmates (some of whom were freaked out enough to pay it), before a teacher was informed and she called the cops on him. That was a fun day, except I was stuck in a different lab with a different examiner and missed out on the fun.

Overall, it seems like my days there were inconsequential in terms of career choices. My teachers from back then write blogs with spelling mistakes now, and send me Candy Crush invites. That makes them all so much more human, I guess. Feels like they were learning to deal with people and life as much as we were. And it feels like they don’t realize just how much influence they wield on impressionable children.

I mean, if I went to a different school, I might not even be writing this blog for nearly ten years now.

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KB, TV, women and character-driven screenplay.

I know K Balachander more by his TV series than his movies. That’s mainly because when I was in my preteens and teens, KB sir had all but stopped making movies, and instead concentrated on the small screen. K Balachandar-in Chinna thirai as it was called.

To appreciate the full impact of his making TV series, you need to understand the context where they came about. Cable TV wasn’t really a thing until the ’90s, I suppose. Heck, TV wasn’t quite a thing until the late ’80s either.

Tamil television was very sparse. I only got cable in 1995 or thereabouts. There were a lot of western channels, including Cartoon Network which ran only until 5pm after which it switched to another channel called TCM or something. Zee TV was a thing. And I think once or twice a week, they would show Tamil programs.

And then there was Sun TV. I watched a lot of TV back then. The shows on Sun TV were, as I recall, mostly cringeworthy. They weren’t yet in saas-bahu zone, at least not the prime time shows, but the sort of drama they portrayed were unrealistic, moralistic, and mostly bad quality.

I think KB got in the game early on. He started with Raghuvamsam, which I don’t remember watching all that much. It was a family drama if I remember right.

What got me hooked was his Kai-alavu Manassu. It was a very poignant story of a young widow (Geetha) with three children, who faces a heart condition, and ends up giving her children up for adoption. And years later, she’s become reasonably successful and all, and tries to hunt down her children, but they don’t remember her. This series was notable for introducing Prakash Raj to us. He played a businessman from Bangalore, and his catchphrase was ‘chindi chitranna’ (said while rubbing his hands). He would go on to be the villain in KB sir’s Duet, which was also, I suppose, another Kannada star Ramesh Arvind’s big Tamil hit. Ramesh Arvind later played a guest role in Kai-alavu Manassu as Geetha’s son who’s become a successful actor.

The difference between this soap and all the others on TV at that particular time, was this had story, this had direction. It had engaging characters. It had strong actors giving performances of a lifetime. And since it was a mega-serial, it could go in any direction, and you were treated to a lot of interesting sub-plots even if they didn’t really have anything much with the main plot.

One scene that sticks in the mind is with Kavignar Vaali. Vaali has a wife who suffers from a delicate heart condition. They have a very loving relationship, and she makes a sweet, and he composes a very funny poem about it. Then he gets the news that their son has just died. He can’t tell her that. And people keep dropping by to offer their condolences. And she keeps laughing and asking him to repeat his funny poem, and offering everyone sweets. He complies, with pain in his eyes, and pain in his heart. I haven’t quite seen anything like that in a long time.

The other notable thing was how KB portrayed women in his serials. Serials with a female protagonist didn’t start with him, of course. TV’s main demographic is women and they always cater to women by having women-centric serials. While others liked to go the woman-against-the-rest-of-the-world trope, KB introduced some depth into this.

This was seen very prominently in his serial Premi, with Renuka in the lead. Renuka always played the comic relief in anything before that, as the talkative, nosy neighbor. But in this, she came alive as a serious woman who was taking charge of her family which was pretty much out of control, and how she navigated across the many men who desired her (rewatching this a year ago made me wonder how and why every single man in the show wanted to marry her).

You’d see this in his movies as well. You don’t need to go as far as AvargaL. Even in Azhagan, the three leading women are all so different, have different motivations for fancying Mammooty, and each is so well-defined that you would understand them and identify with them. Or Parthale Paravasam, which was really cheesy in its execution, but it was actually trying to make a movie with Simran and Madhavan as complex characters.

One tool I notice KB sir reuses over and over again is to put his lead characters in a scene where they are expected to speak impromptu on stage. He’s done this in Azhagan, Premi, Parthale Paravasam, and so many others. Usually this is how a love interest gets introduced to the lead character, so when they meet later, it isn’t quite love-at-first-sight.

I can’t help but marvel at how KB sir deals with conjugal relationships in his movies and serials. He’d made two series, Ramany vs Ramany parts and 2. The first one dealt with a modern (for the ’90s) newlywed couple, and the second one with a couple who’ve been married awhile and have a young child. When  I watched it as a child, it was because it was slapstick. I took to watching this series again a few months ago, and I was struck by how on the mark it is.

Most dramas about newlyweds all deal with the big stuff, case in point, Alaipayuthey. This one was about the mundane, the everyday stuff. The easily mollified insecurities. The annoyance at your spouse’s flirty colleague. Discovering your spouse’s fanmail to Juhi Chawla. How annoying your husband gets when he’s sick. Pointless arguments about whose turn it is to make dinner. Or, in the case of the second series, the little reminders that your marriage has lost its sense of romance. Maintaining your me-time. Getting annoyed with how your mother messes your kitchen up when she comes by to help. Learning your spouse is actually cooler than you thought.

And then there was Jannal, with two parts again, where he explored the dynamics of an older couple’s friendship, and in the second part, how a boy tries to reconcile his parents’ divorce.

It’s amazing how he brings out these little nuances in a family, the small things that make you identify with the characters that much more. A serious drama, or a film doesn’t really give you much time to explore these things. I think it would be fascinating if you had a long running serial where you got top directors to work on six or seven episodes at a time.

What makes KB sir’s work be so memorable is that his screenplays are character-driven. Not necessarily plot driven. He gives you fascinating true-to-life characters. You don’t remember what the ending of Azhagan is, you remember Madhoo’s antics and dialogues. The ending of Duet doesn’t give you sleepless nights, you only remember how Prabhu’s character is for the most part selfless, and how Meenakshi Seshadri disdainfully makes jokes about Prakash Raj’s moves on her.

It doesn’t matter if Kamal Haasan and Revathi die at the end of Punnagai Mannan. What matters is Chaplin Chellappa, how Srividya stays the voice of reason, and how intense Kamal Haasan gets. And I only vaguely remember how AvargaL ends, but the sadism of Rajinikanth in that one movie is enough to shock the living daylights out of you. KB Sir pretty much takes a bunch of interesting, well-etched-out characters and puts them in fascinating situations, and watches them react.

When I contrast this with Mani Ratnam’s style of making a movie, he starts off with an idea for a plot, say, ‘three men get into an accident, it changes all their lives’. and in the process ends up creating fascinating characters, but then he’s thinking about advancing the plot, so he ignores exploring them fully, and then realizes it’s time to end the movie, but he can’t resolve the interestingness of the characters with the interestingness of the plot, so he ends things abruptly. That is also why in movies like Raavan or Kadal, his characters are walking metaphors or otherwise one-dimensional characters.

As someone fresh on ideas of how women aren’t represented accurately in TV and film, it has been refreshing to go back to Balachandar-in Chinnathirai as an adult, and pleasantly discover my formative years were all full of well-etched characters in the media and it is a lack of imagination and freedom, more than any sinister plot, that there aren’t that many fascinating women in TV and film today.

Everyone knows without KB sir we wouldn’t have Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan or Prakash Raj, apart from innumerable others now-famous actors and writers, but it also bears mention that so many stars of TV, like Renuka, Devadarshini, Chetan, Deepa Venkat, Mohan Ram, Ramji, Venu Arvind, owe their fame to Balachander.

And you totally wouldn’t have this gem from Revathi Sankaran either 🙂

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Feeling is Easy

I have said it over and over. And I’ll say it again. Properly this time. I love the music of Norah Jones.

I don’t know what about it appeals to me (and a few million others worldwide). It’s the sheer quality, for sure. And the quantity – she is pretty prolific.

Maybe it is how she really works on channeling her feelings into writing her songs.

Maybe it’s how simple she keeps the tune and the lyrics. Just easy enough to think I can sing it, or write similar lyrics, but actually not that easy, because if it were, everyone would be doing it.

Maybe it’s how she channels all the jazz she’s learnt and country she’s grown up hearing into simple, accessible music.

Maybe she’s just a nice sweet fun person and that shows in her music.

All I can say is what Wordsworth said

Whate’er the theme the maiden sang

As if her song could have no ending

I saw her singing at her work

And o’er the sickle bending

I listened motionless and still.

And, as I mounted up the hill,

The music in my heart I bore

Long after it was heard no more.

Sigh. She’s brilliant.

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Talent and Bad Behaviour

Growing up, I was subjected to Carnatic music classes, like most children in my neighborhood. I grew up resenting it all.

I don’t as such hate the music part of it. I love what I’ve got from Carnatic music… the ability to keep a tune, to not be tone-deaf and to be able to understand and appreciate all genres of music. But when it came to the teachers, most if not all of them weren’t very nice people. And I noticed that the more qualified they were, the more crazy they got.

After years with this neighbor of mine, who was just a nice lady who taught music for extra income, and didn’t push us much, the time came to shop for a new teacher when this nice lady found love and happiness and moved to the other end of town. The proper music school in my neighborhood had an intimidating man who took my interview, made me sing and said to my doting grandmother ‘She is very weak, but I’ll see what I can do’. In hindsight, I likely was, but that’s kind of not what you say to an eleven-year-old. And I was a sensitive child. A few years ago, my nice-neighbor’s music teacher sat in on the class. He was this sixty year old man. And he lectured me on how terrible I was or something, and I left in tears. No one understood why a crotchety old man got to me so much. I don’t know, you tell me why an obedient eight year old might react adversely to a sharp rebuke by a sixty year old.

Anyway, so we found another lady, who sang in Kannada films. She cheerfully accepted me as a student. She never made it on time to teach us. I found myself running away because I was getting late for maths tuitions or swimming. She wasn’t very nice either. She would get irritated to no end if her students made mistakes. Besides, the teacher’s pets were all crotchety little girls who wore flowers in their hair and considered Bollywood music with the regard and coolness I reserved for hard rock. I didn’t stand a chance. Besides, being a Tamilian who went to a CBSE school, my Kannada wasn’t that great and for some reason, that irritated her a lot more.

I had enough. I began playing hooky. It’s another fun story when my mother ran into the teacher and they talked.

So… what am I saying… these people were mentally ill? No, not exactly. It’s just that this eccentric behaviour that would be shut down in no time in other circumstances was considered okay because they were ‘artists’. And ‘teachers’. You could literally throw dark looks at a student because she didn’t speak your language, and no one would bat an eyelid. Your meekness was directly proportional to how much your snotty behaviour was indulged. Being any kind of ‘different’ was license enough to be given step-motherly treatment. And oh, it was totally fine to hit a student for making mistakes in singing.

Also, you didn’t have to have any level of competence to exhibit such behaviour. In fact, if you threw your weight around, people would assume somehow that you must be talented.

This is more South Bangalore ’90s things than Music Teacher things, but the point is, none of them made their art any more appealing or fun to me. And I guarantee it, 90% of the responses I get will be of the nature of ‘Oh, you’re too sensitive’, or ‘They didn’t mean it like that’, or ‘You generalize, and incorrectly’, or ‘My teacher slapped me and I am the better for it’. My problem is, such behaviour is considered acceptable.

When I began considering comedy for a hobby, I faced similar issues. Standup was such a hostile, painful environment of one-upmanship and shockjockery. It especially isn’t easy on women and non-whites. Most standup comedians seemed like people with serious issues. Which would be fine, but it showed a lot in their social interactions and general lack of regard.

Thankfully, I found improv.

What I like about improv is, it is an ideal hobby. No one is giving you a hard time for not practicing. No one is telling you you’re wrong. You just watch and learn and get better. The whole teaching culture seems to be geared towards making people comfortable on stage and offering a lot of positive reinforcement. If you mess up, which is hard in improv because ‘there are no mistakes in improv’, people usually show you a better, easier, more comfortable choice instead of telling you you’re wrong. Besides, you never know who you’ll be improvising with next, so you’d better be nice to everyone you play with.

It might also have to do with the fact that I learnt improv at Magnet. It is such a friendly, welcoming, accepting environment with so little room for negativity, that I fell in love with it the first time I watched a show there. It isn’t full of snooty competitive people, but with regular folk who like doing comedy. The ‘great’ people immediately distinguished themselves from the ‘good’ people with the sort of comedic choices they made while performing. Not by being smartass in class.

It was a huge thing for me to accept as well. Often I found people making such terrible comedic choices. Like subverting the point of a scene for momentary giggles (Like you point your finger and say ‘stop or I’ll shoot’, and your scene partner responds with ‘that’s not a gun, that’s your finger’. It throws you off your game, and after that little laugh, you have to start fresh again). Or when they got too serious. Or said something abnormal and dark. Or stuck to the same, comfortable choices over and over….. there was one guy who would keep lapsing into a faux posh old lady accent; I found it unfunny after the second or third time.

My improv teachers didn’t question or correct those choices. They stuck to their plan and kept it going, while making sure everyone got a fair chance to try. And by the fourth week of classes, people began falling in line no matter how they were before. They felt empowered enough to try new things and challenge themselves.

So why does this come up?

I’ve been trying to teach improv in Seattle. I found very few avenues for long form improv in this city, and instead of cursing the darkness, I decided to light a candle. I haven’t been doing most of the teaching until now. And I notice how different teaching styles can get.

I’m a leader-by-consensus. I don’t believe I know everything, so I leave wiggle room for feedback and others stepping in to share what they know. I can’t stand cutting someone’s creativity off. I can never think of admonishing someone’s comedic choices. I won’t ever tell someone how exactly to do a scene. At best, I’ll establish the rules of an activity before I start, and then stick to those rules, not micromanage the scene. I like to be sensitive to my students and don’t mind flexing the class around to benefit everyone, because everyone must and should feel comfortable enough to contribute and never once think their idea is nonsense. And anytime I’m in doubt, I hark back to all the people who taught me at Magnet, and do as they would have done. Not once do I remember anyone outright dissing someone’s choices on stage.

Turns out, there are other styles. There exist people who take improv so seriously that they actually believe there are wrong choices and go out of their way to point that out. People actually say ‘should’ and ‘should not’ instead of ‘try to’ and ‘try not to’. There are others who are so very dogmatic about the Harold as a form that they forget about what makes it fun, and will go to any extent to cut any deviations off.

And that just because they are fastidious about these self-made rules, people will think they know more, and are better.

Seriously, improv is an art form and all that, but I don’t find that much of a difference between someone who’s finished Improv 201 and someone who’s finished Improv 401. You can see vast levels of skill differences between someone who does improv more regularly and someone who doesn’t, but that doesn’t give anyone the license to shoot someone else down. This is true for all forms of art and science, but it is quite stark in improv because here, you explicitly state that there are ‘no mistakes’.

I understand a lot of people develop terrible improv routines and crutches, but when you’re in a position to do something about it, approach with love and understanding and work with them, not tearing down everything they stand for.

I find a lot of people revelling in abuse they get from those they consider pros and maestros. A senior programmer roasting your design on a public forum is met with admiration, never mind that under different circumstances, they might have praised the same design. An experienced standup taking nasty digs at a younger standup and it gets brushed off as ‘ribbing’ and ‘more publicity’. A famous guitar teacher hitting the knuckles of his students when they make mistakes is something they talk about proudly in interviews. Why, there was this famous ICSE tuition teacher in Basavanagudi who was famous for his abuse and thrashing, and someone everyone just went with it as a feature and not a bug. There are famous quizzers on the Indian quizzing circuits who are more famous and admired for their insults than for their breadth and depth of knowledge.

It somehow feels okay to give talented people leeway to be nasty, because they are talented.

That’s how you get a Roman Polanski and a Woody Allen.

The point is, talent doesn’t usually make you any nastier, unless you have others enabling that behaviour. Talent doesn’t suddenly give you a license for eccentric behaviour either. Eccentric behaviour usually doesn’t help with talent. I watched Michale Fassbender’s Frank recently, and there’s a line where the lead character’s parents say ‘He was always musical, the mental illness didn’t make it any better… if anything, it’s slowed him down’. That’s how it usually is. You can’t and shouldn’t conclude from Robin Williams’ suicide that all comedy comes from a sad, dark place.

Perpetuating those stereotypes usually just serves to keep people out. It also reinforces and enables bad behaviour and a cycle of abuse. And the thing is, you don’t have to tolerate that.

Everyone has the right to be respected and treated like a human being. If someone is being nasty to you, it’s just that, they are being nasty to you. Their talent has little to do with it. If anything, the most talented people are also the nicest and more humble, because they recognize that they got to where they are not just by ability and effort, but also with a lot of luck and mentoring.

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How we remember things – A few thoughts on Boyhood

I watched the much-hyped Boyhood a few weeks ago. It’s a brilliant, brilliant experiment.

Boyhood is made by Richard Linklater of Before Sunrise fame. The fun bit is, it’s shot over a period of twelve years, from 2002 to 2014. The main reason Mr. Linklater says he did this was because he wanted to shoot a movie about childhood, but realized nothing good could be done over a span of a year or so… it was always incidents over a period of time, and obviously, if you have a child actor, you can’t cast multiple people to play him at different ages and also keep the coentinuity in the mind of the viewer.

So he took this kid, Ellar Coltrane, aged six then, and shot about ten-fifteen minutes every year for twelve years. Ellar plays the main character, Mason. There are other characters, most notably Mason’s older sister Samantha, played by Lorelai Linklater, his mother, Ethan Hawke playing his biological father. There are men his mother marries and divorces over the years, a ‘parade of drunks’ as he calls them toward the end, friends, a girlfriend, a teacher or two, and his grandmother. It’s wonderful watching everyone grow older together.

Given no one else might be releasing stuff with this level of time-commitment in the near future, this is pretty much all we have for a while to learn what happens when you shoot stuff over a long period of time. The stuff we can draw from this is notable, mainly because the sort of script and scenes and stuff are different from what you’ve seen otherwise.

The movie starts in first grade and ends when Mason goes off to UT Austin to study photography. Mr. Linklater’s approach throughout was to think of it all as a series of memories, not as a story to tell. The approach itself is not the brilliant bit. It’s easy to go wrong with this, have something that’s all totally disconnected and completely pointless, or have an agenda no matter how much you try not to. Mr. Linklater succeeds in not falling into either trap.

Some of the important events in his life are shown, like the time his biological father reenters his life, when he first notices his mother’s interest in her subsequent husbands, his fifteenth birthday, winning a medal, going off to college.

But you also see a lot of stuff you don’t know the point of – like when his mother’s student checks out his room, or when his girlfriend and wake up in his sister’s roommate’s bed and see that the roommate’s back earlier than expected, going camping with his father, his job washing dishes at a restaurant…

And a lot of the big things are missed. You never see any of his mother’s weddings. Not his first kiss, not his first time having sex. You do see references he comes across to sex and porn through his childhood, but you never see any of that having a real point…. like you do see his father educating his sister and him about condoms, but you don’t see him experimenting subsequently. Not even when his girlfriend cheats on him… you only get to see the conversation they have later, and even that is pretty drama-free.

Nothing really leads into something else, you don’t revisit things that much, the threads don’t necessarily connect. And that’s kind of how you remember some things in life. Some things, not everything. I have a few big loud memories, but also a lot of random moments where I remember irrelevant things everyone else has forgotten.

Which is why that conversation he has after school with a girl inviting him to a party stuck with me. The girl is talkative, and really deep in the way only fourteen-year-olds can be (she doesn’t like Twilight), and really interested in him, while he is standoffish and not saying much, though he is quite obviously enjoying the conversation and likes her… it sounded way too familiar, way too close to home.

You also get to see the ugly manifestations of alcoholism and abuse in ways you haven’t seen before. You see his stepfather getting more and more controlling. You see him lose it, but not in the dramatic way you’ve seen a million times before. The kids are scared, but not scared that they are going to die. You feel the confusion, the faux-normalcy, until his mother takes the children and goes away. You see his other stepfather seeming like an idealistic veteran and father figure, before he begins drinking more and more, growing in despair and anger. I haven’t quite seen anything like that.

The other thing that happens when you shoot over a period of time is the throwbacks to a past era are more subtle. It is the polar opposite of the opening sequence of The To Do List, which is insanely ’90s. You see an old Apple computer in the library, the videogames the children play, and you see him making a video call on his IPhone… some people found that in-your-face, but I found that a little more subtle than other references.

Boyhood makes me think of a larger point. The way we remember things doesn’t have to be coherent, neat sequences of events. But, at least in my head, the way I remember things is like a story ready to be narrated to someone else. So there’s this beginning and middle and end and I make them tie together. It might be because I blog and write a diary, it might be because that’s the only sort of narrative I come across. It makes me wonder how much of how we think is shaped by how we see others narrate stories. It is oddly freeing, after watching this movie, to know that patterns of my thoughts don’t have to have a point or a narrative.

That said, it takes a lot of talent to do this sort of an experiment and have the result be even half-coherent. It takes a lot of vision to even decide to do something like this. It takes an infinite amount of patience, self-awareness and commitment to decide to have it look like a series of memories and not a complete story by any means. As an improviser, I find it very interesting to see how just natural conversation and reacting to each other can be so powerful.

I wonder what my Girlhood would look like. Off the top of my head, there would be the time I argued with my mother to wear this white dress at age twelve and she wouldn’t let me. The FRIENDS marathon that was on TV the day I was joining NITK. Suffering from typhoid in a hospital, and the nurses smiling at my colouring books. Going off the rails in third standard when the teachers put me in the back row with the rest of the troublemakers. A week of headache after the first time I dove into the pool from the springboards. Missing catches in throwball because I couldn’t stop catching with my fingertips instead of my palm. Visiting five different relatives in one day and my mother having the exact same bitch session with each of them. A whole crowd of distant nieces of my uncle’s new bride visiting us, and their playing havoc with the toys I carefully arranged in the living room and never played with because I considered myself too grown up to do so. Shivering by a campfire and falling asleep at age 10, and waking up wrapped in the jacket of this twelve year old boy who seemed like such a grown man back then that I looked up to him for weeks after that. Running into the same boy eight years later, and he was such a snob that though I recognized him, I decided I wouldn’t bring it up. Guess the last scene would be waiting desperately for the crowd gathered in my room at 2am on my first week at NITK to leave, and after they left, tucking myself in my serene blue blanket and reading English, August. 

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School For Girls

Everything I read or write these days seems to be Heavy. It’s almost like everyone’s lost the ability to just muse about small things. Everything has to be about ebola or Hamas or ISIS or something. So here’s a lightweight ‘It Happened To Me’.

One of the things appealing about Seattle to me was that I have family here. Among the clan is my little cousin, who just turned thirteen. She’s been born and raised in Seattle. She’s incredibly social and can talk to anyone on their level, be they nerdy like me or chatty like my mother or with her very young cousins or her old grandparents.

While walking around, I came across this small one-storey building, with bright yellow walls and ‘Wexley School For Girls’ on it in ornate calligraphy. There was also a whole bunch of graffiti on one of the yellow walls. It seemed like a cool school, and I assumed in this city that was home to grunge, this school was supposed to exemplify it or something. I was intrigued, and snapped a picture on my tablet.

Later that day, I was with my cousin, and she was telling me about school. “I saw this school today”, I interrupted. “It’s called Wexley School For Girls. What kind of a school is it?”. She said she didn’t know, and had never heard of it. She didn’t even know there was a school in downtown Seattle. “It seemed like a cool kinda school, the one where you didn’t have rules or something”. “What kind of a school doesn’t have rules?” she asked. I put it down to her going to a strict Catholic school. Besides, American kids don’t know freedom like we did or something.

I pulled my tablet out and showed her the picture I’d taken of it. “Oh. Looks cool…”, she said, looking at the graffiti. Then suddenly “Hey, why is there a naked woman there?”.

I got shocked and pulled the tablet away. Given how sheltered American kids in my experience were, I freaked out. And sure there was graffiti of the naked woman there, among all the other scrawls and drawings.

“What sort of a school for girls is this place?”. I was angry by now, waiting for my tablet to connect to the WiFi. “How is this place even allowed to exist?”. I was pissed not only at the school, but also myself for subjecting the little girl to this.

And then I googled for Wexley School For Girls.

Turns out, it’s an ad agency.

Not a school.

Ugh.

Posted in Attempts at Humour, Priya's Travails, Seattle, travel | Leave a comment

Bombay to Bangalore – A comparative study of the writings of Hussain Zaidi and Agni Sridhar

The movie Aa Dinagalu  came highly recommended. Saw it on a list on Reddit, and it had been coming up in conversation every now and then.

I watched it, and loved it.

The title, literally Those Days, seems like one of a mellow tale of student days. Instead, you’re treated to the film version of two of the most landmark events in the history of Bangalore crime. The best part? None of it was even made up. Not the industrialist who hires rowdies to keep his son off of a girl of another caste, not the rich kid who takes it as a personal affront and decides to off the city’s biggest don.

I couldn’t get enough.

I watched the ‘sequel’, Edegarike. It has the same people. But a different story. More intense on the mindblerg.

I decided to read the book it was all based on. Agni Sridhar’s My Days in the Underworld – Rise of the Bangalore Mafia. I devoured all six hundred pages of it in a day and a half. I had never, ever read such a juicy, fast-paced, erudite book before.

The closest anyone’s come to to writing about organized crime in India other than this has to be Hussain Zaidi, who has written extensively on the Mumbai underworld. Those books are infinitely more famous than Agni Sridhar’s, given they have been the basis for movies like D, Company and Shootout at Lokhandwala and its sequel, Shootout at Wadala. I devoured those books too. But it felt like there was something missing, something not quite up my street.

And Agni Sridhar hit that spot.

Think about the Bollywood depiction of the Underworld, and Dons. Gangmembers are always introduced in a cloud of smoke. They are always nuzzling the muzzle of a gun. Cussing. There are cool camera angles, and music. Oh and some vamps, who almost always dress like fisherwomen and have paan-reddened lips. And they call each other Bhai all the time. And even the songs aren’t complete without bhai dialogue in them.

That’s the gangmembers. Then there’s the policemen. Poverty-stricken, with families, and corrupt. The one honest cop is either as evil as the gangs or he is off’d in the first thirty minutes.

And the Don. They are all based off of someone’s impression of Dawood. The Don is usually Quiet. Not quiet, but Quiet. All you see of him is one look, one nod, one wave of the hand. And maybe a nasal voice. They mess this up with Don Corleone sometimes, and you get Sarkaar. In that, the Don does everything silently. He manages to communicate everything from an execution order to intense desire in one look. It was fascinating when Brando did it, but when Amitabh Bachchan does it, it is plain overdone.

When bad guys were the protagonists in Satya, it was new and refreshing. Now it’s the same old grind, same old glorification of gore and violence. It feels fake after the third or fourth time. The roles get written as chores, not as a genuine feeling in someone’s heart.

The books are insightful. You’ve never heard of half the crazy things that happened. The stories are exciting. They touch on politics, history, social dynamics, and are just plain fun. But it’s obvious they aren’t Hussain Zaidi’s own perspective. They are dramatized versions of stories someone tells him, and they seem to tell him the Bollywood masala versions of those stories. And you kind of empathize with him putting those stories out there – he’ll be bumped off if he doesn’t, it feels like. After all, in Mafia Queens of Mumbai, he very conveniently skips Dawood’s sister Haseena Parkar who died only recently.

Contrast with the Kannada versions. The movies are based each on one incident in the book. And they get as de-glam as they get. No convenient camera angles, minimal swearing, no women showing tons of skin. No flashy gangsters. And best of all,  the most it goes to ‘silent don’ is Atul Kulkarni gently telling the hotheaded male protagonist, ‘Anger must always be a positive emotion’.

And yet, at something as benign as ‘I’m Sridhar Murthy, Advocate’, you find your hair stand on end.

The book…. the book is something else. I don’t have enough words for it, but I’ll try. First of all, hardly anyone gets into crime solely because of poverty. Rowdyism is not glorified, but at the same time not vilified either. The tone is very matter-of-fact. You hear shady stuff about everyone in Karnataka public life and politics. Most of the rowdies even have day jobs. And cult nicknames as well.

Various con schemes are elaborated on. Violence is not the first resort, and killing is certainly more plotted than actually carried out. And, heck, the police even keep their integrity and power for the most part.

And that, everybody, is the difference between a crime novel written by the fanboys of a Don, and one written by the Don himself.

Agni Sridhar survived the rule of two dons of Bangalore, Kotwal Ramachandra and Jayaraj, and was second-in-command to Muthappa Rai, before couping him out of town and pretty much being the Don. Until finally he decides he has enough and reforms. And starts the tabloid Agni.

The other difference between Agni Sridhar and Hussain Zaidi? Sridhar studied Law. His bag on stakeouts had two ‘long’ swords and two books. He read extensively. He moved in the same circles as Lankesh (one of his first arrests was for beating up Gowri Lankesh’s stalker) and counted among his friends professors at Bangalore University. Hussain Zaidi… in a talk he gave once, he said reportage is not about the writing ability, and that he didn’t know to write in English when he first came to Mumbai. As much as we like to think that doesn’t make a difference, it does.

It’s not about the language. Agni Sridhar’s book was translated from Kannada. But he is a born raconteur. The tales are told matter-of-factly. Each bit is narrated with so much insight and understanding. Though it is a first-person account, it has a third-person detachment to it, none of the dramatization or strong emotion.

It’s a good read, a fun read. More so if you are from South Bangalore. The nooks and corners I grew up around, they were used for shady meetings upon shady meetings. A restaurant a stone’s throw from where I lived was planned by Muthappa Rai to be the scene of Sridhar’s murder.

He speaks out against Kannada tabloids glamorizing rowdyism when in reality it wasn’t anything like that. And how it led to him eventually starting his own. There’s tidbits on famous journalists like Tejsaswini Gowda and HR Ranganath. And pages about Ravi Belagere. And about how he tried convincing BC Patil to stick to policing and not do movies. A ‘senior’ Swamiji at Siddaganga Mutt paying him to ‘off’ the ‘junior’ Swamiji.

Preying on and extorting homosexuals in Krishna Rao park in the ’80s. Roughing up couples around Bugle Rock and robbing them. Using a fake currency racket as a front and conning people.

And the best ever twist? Sridhar gets into a life of crime because Kotwal’s men broke his brother’s leg for no reason. The brother on the other hand studies well and becomes a cop. Such a successful cop that even in 2012, there were issues about posting him to Kumaraswamy Layout police station as his ex-don brother was living in the same area and was involved in several land deals.

The movies are made by Sumana Kittur, who seems an out and out bold village girl, the sort that Sridhar seems to respect a lot (He says that glowingly about Tejaswini Gowda). Given her background and how quickly she got taken under Sridhar’s wing when she gets to Bangalore, it feels like he’s been ghost-directing the movies anyway. And doing a better job than RGV and Mahesh Bhatt put together.

True crime fiction’s got a long way to go in India. For now, the ones that are going to be popular as hell are going to be Hussain Zaidi’s, because they are so influential, and about Mumbai. But Agni Sridhar’s account is better than any I’ve ever come across, a true first-hand account. Zaidi says he’s the first one to put together an account of the Mumbai underworld, and I still wish there had been someone as sharp as Sridhar to write about it than Zaidi who simply compiles accounts.

Read them all. But start with Zaidi and move on to Sridhar. Start with the movies and move on to the books. You’ll appreciate them all well that way.

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