Sunday, September 28, 2014

Finding my Inner Fanboy


Think about the next paragraph as a series of increasingly smaller concentric circles. It's not essential to do so, in fact it's entirely unnecessary, but it might be fun.

I have a father (as do we all). He's a voracious reader. He bought as many books as he could as a school and college student and managed to hold on to them through moves between multiple addresses, preserving them in (fairly) good condition. As an adult, he then had the incredibly good fortune of being able to buy a house which afforded him storage space for these books. Which he used to its full measure, stacking them high and snug, lining bookshelf after bookshelf and paying for stone shelves to be fitted in where it looked like the wooden ones might just give way.

Which is how I, decades later, in a small study with sloping ceilings and round windows and an always debilitated table-top fan, was able to discover the books of his boyhood. I encountered illustrated editions of Homer's Odyssey, books chronicling the World Wars, monthly magazines on science and mechanics, the Phantom, Mandrake, Biggles, the Hardy Boys, the gritty, grizzled cowboys of Louis L' Amour's  Wild West, Perry Mason (who I was too young and entirely too sensible to find attractive) and the man from U.N.C.L.E (whom I did not like). I read Alistair Maclean and even a little pioneering science fiction, although I didn't warm to the genre as my father had.

I wasn't the archetypal tousled tomboy with scraped knees and elbows. But as an indiscriminate reader who had the good fortune of never being schooled in 'girliness,' I genuinely enjoyed these books written for boys. They were filled with adventures and almost-disasters and acts of rough-and-tumble heroism which perfectly complemented the lessons in boarding school social justice and the slightly compliant cleverness that characterized writing for girls. At least, the writing I was reading until I discovered the more complex charms of Roald Dahl and E. Nesbit and many, many others.

I was a girl with a little bit of boy mixed in. Boys were boys with a little bit of girl mixed in. We were too young for gender consciousness. It didn't feel like a choice needed to be made between playing house and watching Blossom and reading about fighter pilots, all in a day. Our lives were gendered, I know that. Whose aren't? But we were the country's last generation of pre-lib children and we were blissfully unaware.  

I was thinking about all of this when I was wondering, on loop, what it was that I liked quite so much about Sons of Anarchy, my new favourite TV show. Which is saying something for someone who is incredibly ambivalent about television and has worked through a short-lived Mindy Project phase less than six months back.

I've tried to diagnose my affection for the show and its characters by reading critics' reviews, by looking at blog posts which are as likely to describe the show as misogynistic, as they are to examine the machinations of its strong and stronger women characters, by perusing deconstructions of the show's authentic constructions of modern-but-mythic biker subculture.

I really shouldn't enjoy the episodes as much as I do. The body count is healthy, the profanities flow on tap and some of its moral 'dilemmas' can be easily resolved by anyone with a functioning moral compass. Practically everyone on the show, even doctors doubling up as girlfriends, are bona fide killers. And I would have given anything for Charlie Hunnam to get his golden locks out of the way and invest in a proper shave and haircut. Which he eventually did get, for free, in jail.

But there's a part of me that enjoys the performances (most of them absolutely spot on), the all day drinking, the eccentricities, the quips, the noisy bikes, the improbability of wanton mayhem that's allowed to unfold as long as the debris collect outside Charming. I can acknowledge that these might in fact be good guys gone bad. Sons of Anarchy is entirely unrelatable, is removed from everyone and everything I know. But it's fun and it speaks to my long-forgotten, now grown up, smidgen of boyishness.

Dude? Man? Boy.   

And I realize that that's as good a reason to watch as any. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Evenings Less Ordinary

Through some mysterious alchemy of light and humidity, Bombay's skies immediately before and after the monsoons come alive in a psychedelic palette of orange, pink, yellow and purple. They are a sight to behold, a spectacle equal parts cloud and color, forming a backdrop that dignifies and dramatizes the drudgery and dross of this creaking, chaotic city. Life is, for twenty minutes or so, back-lit as in the most indulgent movies. 

But no one seems to notice.

Last week, an ordinary ride home from work was enlivened by precisely such a sight - monumental clouds changing shape and shade every moment, set against a fierce sun and blue-grey-gold skies. Something shifts within most people when they look up at the sky. But clouds, those ponderous, slow moving cathedrals of vapor have their own weighty magnificence. Looking at them on that weekday evening, watching as they let shafts of burnished September light break through, I wondered whether clouds didn't, in fact, lend the sun something of its power. After all, the sun without clouds is just a bald, shining statement of fact. Concealed, softened, its edges rubbed out and outlines blurred, it acquires its beautiful, even transcendent quality. 

And so, looking, I let myself experience a moment of rare - and actual - luminosity. But then we rolled to a stop at a traffic light, and the passengers in the car next to me looked back at me, looking at them. The spell was broken, but it was enough. 

Do yourself a favor. Look at the sky. But equally, look at the clouds. 


Sunday, September 7, 2014

What I Really Think About When I Think About Ryan Seacrest

I have moments when I wonder, in the loosest and most unstructured way possible, what it would be like to be Ryan Seacrest. 

These moments are fleeting and come by once every couple of years, if at all. They're usually prompted by equally fleeting, media-mediated encounters (or brushes, rather), with the Seacrest persona - a quick evening listen-in on radio's weekly American Top 40 show, a split second glimpse of E!'s logo as I surf through channels, contact with a long-repressed memory of American Idol, of which I have, admittedly, watched a handful of episodes.

I don't really think about Ryan Seacrest. But whenever I do, I think of him as embodying a quintessential kind of Americanness - bleached blond, pearly toothed, successful, easily familiar with the bold and the beautiful, flip and glib while mining a vein of caustic charm. Ryan Seacrest has built a media empire, is definitely driven, evidently ageless and probably very clever. He does it all in style and on very little sleep. A quick Google search indicates that he has recently launched his own clothing line. 

Ryan Seacrest sits at the intersection of celebrity, entertainment and voyeurism, pulling strings as a producer, immersed in the absurd world of showbiz, but not so much that he doesn't recognize the enormous value attached to packaging its absurdity for consumption. He seems to come equipped with an innate Teflon gloss which defies time and introspection and inquiry from the outside in. And in this, he is not unique - successful image managers, celebrity handlers and PR people probably possess it in some measure as well. 

I suppose it is the ability to capitalize on what's happening in culture without questioning its quality, the ability to participate in and accelerate the Tabloidization of Everything. An ability (and cultural current) that's symptomatic of our times, not necessarily exported to the rest of the world by the USA, but most easily associated with the LA of the rest of the world's imagination. 

Ryan Seacrest as a symbol? Imagine that.  

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Petitioning Parents

Confined as I’ve been to my home over the last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to strike up an unexpected acquaintance. With M______ and S______, ages 1 and a quarter and seven respectively, neighbours and frequent visitors who pound on our door (they cannot reach our doorbell) in the pursuit of chocolate biscuits and fruit shaped candy. Their mother indulges these transgressions.

These kids are essentially the definition of adorable.

M lunges for things she likes the look of, including objects many times her size, hurtles around our house like a pint-sized cannonball, is by turns peremptory and charming, and knows her mind.

S is bright, capable of simultaneously holding conversations and keeping an eye on her sibling, well-behaved and interested in clay dough. She attends an expensive and allegedly excellent school, affiliated to the international IGCSE and IB boards.

As far as these children's lives are concerned, I’m nothing but a benign bystander. But as I encounter their personalities and enthusiasms in the course of our everyday interactions, I find myself hoping that both manage to escape the fate of being Socialized by School, their quirks and kinks ironed away in the pursuit of grades and scholastic success, with just the prescribed dosage of extracurricular activities thrown in.

I have less than a handful of friends who are parents, with their daughters yet to reach a year. Already, they worry about how to protect their children from an educational system that emphasizes only one kind of achievement, while also ensuring that the girls get a sound foundation and developmental head-start for their later lives.  

What I, non-parent and disinterested observer of (almost all) children am yet to grasp is why this ‘start’ needs to begin at months ten and twelve and eighteen. I hear about projects being assigned to two year olds, of toddlers being asked to learn that A stands for astronaut and auto-rickshaw and not just apple, of pre-school admissions testing and coaching for these self-same tests. And I wonder why we, as a generation and a society (or both) feel so compelled to 'instruct' and 'improve' our most curious and malleable minds. I understand that there’s a line that connects high school to college, but do we really need to stretch that line all the way back to pre-school and play-school? Why infect our children with our anxieties? Why can’t we trust in their resilience and native intelligence and ability to make their own way through the world, at least till ages three and four and five?

As a child, I thought of my infant cousins as life-size sources of amusement. As an adult, I appreciate children as people-in-the-making. And I’d love for the making to break the mould. Parents, please. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Looking for Loops

I first heard of Roger Ebert during an undergraduate class on film appreciation. I'd signed up for the extra credits, for the chance to watch good, even great movies, to use my afternoons differently than I normally did. I remember being bemused by 'Alien' and 'West Side Story' and enchanted by 'Cinema Paradiso' and 'Red' - all reliable film class staples. At the end of the course, the instructors handed out a list of must-watch classics as a parting gift of sorts. For a short time, I dutifully referred back to this list and scratched movies off it, one at a time. I signed up with a local DVD library.

I lost that list. I retain and renew my library membership. 

I don't love the movies. Never have, and probably never will. But that class made a vital difference in that it made it difficult for me to watch a movie mindlessly. I began to want time spent with a movie to be time well spent. And Ebert's online archive became my port of call in making movie-viewing choices. 

I don't know about regional language publications in India, but intelligent and reliable critique of cinema in the mainstream English papers is hard to find, and has been, for a while. Our critics - and here I use the term very loosely indeed - are content to summarize plots and sub-plots, chalk up marks for acting, and share a wink-wink-nudge-nudge quip or two with their readers. Apart from Nandini Ramnath at the Mint Lounge (and occasionally, the Mint), there is no one who seems to write about cinema with authority and a keen eye. There are a few writers of books about our actors and our movies, but many of our critics are essentially glorified trade analysts.

Ebert's insightful reviews weren't exactly revelatory, but his was criticism of popular cinema unlike any I'd previously encountered - considered, full of depth, but also unexpectedly warm. Those reviews read like conversations, and I trusted Ebert's judgment. I began to read what he had to say about movies I had already seen or had decided to see, and I trawled through his 'Two Thumbs Up' reviews to figure out what to see next. Reading what Ebert had to say felt like a worthwhile way to open (or close) the loop on a movie. Reading about him in Esquire's acclaimed feature and following him on Twitter only helped cement my admiration of a writer who seemed to be clever and kind and who seemed to be writing about movies while hinting at everything else. 

Even so, why write about Ebert, for no particular reason, roughly 16 months after he has passed away? Because I've spent the last two days greedily paging through his memoir, 'Life Itself,' and I have a renewed appreciation for his skills as a writer, for the range of his experiences, for the catholicity of his tastes. Ebert's book is peopled with characters, newspapermen, actors and eccentrics like they were meant to be - one-of-kind, funny, handsome, odd, twinkling, irascible. He starts the book by saying that his life felt like a movie, and just even reading his memories, twice removed, I get the feeling that I have wandered onto the set of an indie movie old friends are making just for fun. No one expects much from it except for the joy of making it, but it's destined to strike a chord and make millions nonetheless.  

And in the way my mind always seems to work, I begin to wonder - where are our eccentrics, now? The flamboyant, the odd, the discerning, the discriminating, the colorful and carefully colorless, the dispensers of bon mots, charming compliments and devastating put downs? Looking around me, browsing our papers and magazines, visiting restaurants and cafes and pubs that are perennially crowded, why does it feel like everyone is Beautiful People but no one is genuinely cool? We have celebrities, page three doyennes, wannabes, hipsters, creased and idealistic jhola-wallahs but who is it that's playing against type? We have all the affectations and props but who has the personality? The impractical ideas? The out of date wardrobe? Surely we do not count among our eccentrics members of the fashionable set that preen for style-spotting blogs at the Hyatt during Fashion Week?  

I worry sometimes that in doing what we are supposed to do, taking one step after another, connecting the dots, we're becoming linear and flat. Losing our texture and a-tonalities. I don't mean to say this is a generation without bright and brilliant minds and wonderful people, of course not. But somewhere among the entrepreneurs, TEDx conveners, juvenile wonders, elfin women with pixie cuts, glamour dolls of both sexes, the annoyingly earnest and absolutely certain, the reliably tepid or tempestuous, I would love, love, love to encounter someone authentically intriguing, someone who throws me for a loop. Oscar Wilde. Beau Brummell. Dorothy Parker. Circa 2014.

It's a long way to travel from film appreciation class. I guess. 
 
Creative Commons License
This work by ToruJ is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.