& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Shashi Kapoor

Shashi Kapoor in Utsav

Shashi Kapoor was one of the most underrated actors of his time. He was always restrained and preferred to underplay rather than go over the top in his performances, as most of his contemporaries did.

I want to talk about just two scenes where he held his own when pitted against actors who were considered superior.

The first is, of course, from Deewar (1975, director: Yash Chopra). In the scene which has become one of the five most memorable scenes in the history of Hindi cinema (Mera paas Ma hai),  Shashi Kapoor is subdued and calm as opposed to Amitabh Bachchan’s fire and brimstone persona.  In the 1970s, when Amitabh Bachchan was a colossus, Shashi Kapoor held his own in the scene and in the film.

The scene in Deewar was written for Vijay, the character Amitabh Bachchan enacts, and it showcased his versatility – the tall, imposing personality, his swanky, foreign car, his black shirt and grey suit, his hands in the jacket’s pockets, and the rich baritone with which he berates his younger brother Ravi for his obduracy and obstinacy in persisting with a principled way of life even though it has only ensured penury.

The audience loved the scene more because of the muted but emphatic manner in which Shashi Kapoor conveys his disappointment with his brother’s criminality through his expressive eyes, and modulating his soft voice. 

The other one is from Junoon (1979, director: Shyam Benegal). The film has Shashi Kapoor playing the character of Javed, a Pathan, who is an esteemed member of the local Muslim aristocracy in a small town in the then United Provinces, during the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857.

His younger brother Sarfaraz, played by Naseeruddin Shah, is the firebrand revolutionary who is part of the mutinous cavalry battling the English soldiers across the Indo-Gangetic plains.

Javed is besotted with a young English girl (Nafisa Ali, in her first film), and holds her family captive in his haveli, much to the annoyance of the younger brother, who berates him to join the armed struggle to overthrow the English forces. Shabana Azmi plays the neglected wife.

Shashi Kapoor and Naseeruddin Shah have two memorable scenes together. The first is at the beginning when Sarfaraz urges Javed to join him in the armed struggle, and Javed displays utter cynicism towards the cause as well as the people leading the rebellion.

(watch from 2.42)

The second scene is when Sarfaraz returns from the battle, wounded and bruised, and angrily pounces upon Javed’s pet pigeons and flinging them out from their pigeonholes. Javed just pulls him away wordlessly.

Shashi Kapoor shows the shocked disbelief and the despondency of the rebellion’s defeat in Delhi with his eyes, without uttering a word.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Charles Pachter Canada's Artist

The first time I heard of Charles Pachter was in the Walrus magazine when I saw his famous painting of the Canadian flag. It was a simple and yet a magnetic image of the red maple leaf in a red and white background.

The painting compelled me to do a Google search on Pachter and I discovered a Canadian institution who enjoys a global reputation for his iconic work on the British royalty and the Canadian moose, the Toronto Streetcar. 

He was also a friend of my friend Ali Adil Khan, the art connoisseur, who is a pillar of Canada’s new art establishment.  

In 2016, when Mawenzi House Publishers and I were looking for a cover for my debut novel, we approached Ali to help us. Among the suggestions that we got from him was a self-portrait of Charles Pachter called Decoy, painted in 1968.

I immediately selected it to be the cover of my novel because the boy-man in the sketch had a somewhat perplexed and anguished look on his face and uncertainty and hesitancy in his gaze. To me, it was as near a representation of Rafiq, the lead protagonist of my novel.

Thanks to Ali’s influence, Pachter gave us the permission to use the sketch for free and it became the cover of my novel. Through Ali, we were also able to invite Pachter to the launch program at the Gladstone last November, and surprisingly, he came and stayed till the end.

As a person with some understanding of marketing, I believe that one of the reasons Belief has done well is because of the unique cover that we were able to manage, thanks to Pachter.

Earlier this year, on the occasion of the launch of his biography Charles Pachter Canada’s Artist by Leonard Wise (Dundurn), I went to his famous studio-home behind AGO in the Grange. The place is an art gallery that utilises limited space effectively and efficiently with postmodern minimalism.  

Leonard Wise’s biography is a lush coffee table book with many illustrations of Pachter’s works and an endearing Appreciation by Margaret Atwood.

From the book, I learnt the story behind the Painted Flag. Wise notes:

“One of the Atwood poems, “eath of a Young Son by Drowning,” ends with the line, “I planted him in this country like a flag.” Charles has often surmised that this may have led him to a new phase of his painting. In any case, one summer night in 1980, at his farm in Oro-Medonite, he constructed a flimsy, homemade flagpole – out of two-by-fours, hastily nailed together – to which he attached a small rayon Canadian flag that he had purchased at a Canadian Tire store in Orillia. He manoeuvred the unwieldy mast into a fence-post hole,  lay down in a hammock to survey his handiwork as the sun set, and watched the flag unfurl, undulating slowly in the breeze, rocking back and forth like a primitive mobile at the top of its slender stem. The effect of wind, light, and motion struck him immediately…

In March 1981, Charles began painting variations of the flag at his Grange Place studio, one after the other. Swept along by the possibilities of different compositions based on the effects of wind and light, he could have continued ad infinitum. But eventually he became “flagged out,” and after completing thirty paintings, he began preparing for an exhibition of these new works.

The Painted Flag exhibition opened on November 7, 1981, the day after Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had coincidentally announced that the constitution was being patriated to Canada…In her November 14, 1981, Toronto Star review of the show, Lisa Bowen stated, “there is humour and excitement, colour and texture in this astonishing show.” John Bentley Mays in the Globe and Mail had a different view, labelling it “over-the-couch art for the walls of patriotic dentists.”

The book also has innumerable anecdotes from Pachter’s memorable life, such as his 30-second encounter with        Queen Elizabeth.

“Your Majesty,” he said, “this is such an honour. Forty-three years ago I painted you as the queen of Canada riding a moose, and it became one of my best-known images. Thanks to you I’ve made a living all these years.”  

She smiled radiantly, and said, “How amusing!”

The exchange lasted only thirty seconds but that was long enough for a Reuters photographer to take their picture. The next morning the byline “Artist who painted Queen on Moose meets queen” was in the Daily Telegraph. Charles emailed the photo to John Hondreich, the publisher of the Toronto Star, who published the 1973 picture of Charles with Queen on the Moose next to the 2015 picture of him meeting the queen in London.”

Let me conclude this post with a paragraph from Margaret Atwood’s Appreciation.

“…in a career that has now lasted three decades, Pachter has continued vigorously to explore his several media, to diversify his imagery, and to structure and restructure his visual world. In doing so he has restructured the world around him, and has changed profoundly the way we look at our own familiar iconography, even our own banalities. His output has been immense, his wit and versatility have remained constant, and his range continues to broaden. His is a sophisticated art which draws upon many techniques and evokes many echoes, yet it remains strongly individual, and firmly rooted in a ground which Pachter has both excavated and cultivated himself.”

Masala chai

That tea’s origins are in South China and not in India is really not all that material because  Indian tea – chai – is uniquely Indian.

No tea in the world is like chai.

And a true connoisseur knows that chai has innumerable variations in the Indian subcontinent – right from the Kashmiri kahwa to the chiliya ki chai of restaurants in Bombay’s Muslim bastis (chiliya is a Gujarati Muslim community). 

Moreover, every region has many minor and major differences in the making of the concoction that affects its taste.

The amazing thing about chai is the various memories that get associated with the process that is nothing more than consuming tea.

My earliest memories of having chai are with my grandmother in the narrow kitchen and living room of our two-room tenement (chawl). I was to have milk and she’d have tea, and every day I’d argue that I wanted tea, too. And she’d promise that I’d have it when I was a grownup. I’d insist and she’d then pour a bit into my milk glass.

I also remember the tea I had at my aunt’s home. It’d green tea, mint, ginger, and just a few drops of milk in the tea. It was potent and invigorating.  

Everyone who’s lived in Bombay knows the pleasures of having a cutting chai in a small glass especially during the monsoon, and if you also managed to get a vada pao with it, that was the nearest you could get to heaven without dying.

During my years in college, I hung around a teashop nearby owned by a senior citizen known to the world only by his surname – Dubey – who made tea that nobody else in the world could. His popularity and fame were such that it was impossible on occasions to find a place in the teashop that was at best unhygienic. A young lad came and periodically wiped the tables with a wet cloth and every time he did that more flies hovered around the sticky tabletop.

I remember going to buy the tea leaves, my grandmother instructed me to always buy mamri cha (black tea prepared by the traditional crush tear curl – CTC – process).  Yes, there was branded tea those days, as now, but we were sort of poor then to afford branded tea.

During my years in journalism, tea became an addiction, and like many of my colleagues, it was normal to consume more than a dozen cups (glass) of tea all day and Old Monk rum with Coke in evening every day.  And, of course, smoke a pack of 20 cigarettes daily. Remember this little personal factoid when you wonder why I died at a relatively young age.

The first time I had Earl Grey tea was appropriately in England and since then, I’ve been hooked to it. Another memory of tea is when I interviewed the Chinese consul in Bombay for a report in Business India. Apparently, it is customary to keep serving tea to a guest if the guest empties the small porcelain teacup. I was unaware of that and must’ve easily consumed a few litres of tea before I left the consulate at Worli.

One of the most surprising discoveries I made about the shared heritage between China and India was on the streets of Shanghai when I along with my former colleague and friend Tushar Pania, who’s now a bigshot in India’s Reliance Industries.

It was rather late in the night, but the streets of the city were still fairly busy. We came across a man selling all sorts of drinks (non-alcoholic). We decided to buy something to drink and picked a bottle. The man didn’t know a word of English and we didn’t know a word of Mandarin. By frantic hand gestures, we managed to ask him what the drink was, and he shouted “cha”. 

We took that to mean something in Mandarin, paid him and took a swig from the bottle. It turned out exactly what he said it was – “cha” (tea). Apparently, tea is called cha in Mandarin, too (please confirm Mandarin speakers), as it is in Gujarati.

The last time I met Tushar earlier this year, we had cutting chai on the street outside his office building in Bombay’s Nariman Point – again made in the most unhygienic conditions imaginable, but unbeatable in flavour and aroma.

In Canada, I’ve been exposed to teas from across the world. I’d no idea that there were so many different tea producing regions in the world. Tea is big business, and there are many branded tea franchises in the business who offer a wide variety of tea. 

Continued in the post below

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Marco Hülser's Masala Chai

Continued from the post above

It was with such a heavy baggage of the past (and all of the aforementioned is but a mere glimpse) that I bought tickets to see the documentary Masala Chai at the recently-concluded Reel Asian Film Festival in Toronto’s Innis Townhall. Marco Hülser is a German filmmaker who’d been fascinated by India’s intoxication with tea for several years, compelling him to document it fascination on film.

Masala Chai is a multilayered documentary that explores the lives of five individuals involved in selling chai to customers. The documentary follows the lives of five different tea makers: Yogesh, a US-educated business owner of a posh teahouse in Pune; Mohammad, an elderly tea-maker who has worked in film production for 40 years; Gouri, an outspoken teen assisting with her family tea stall in Kolkata; and Sushanta and Subodh, who run small tea stalls in Darjeeling and Delhi, respectively.

Each of the tea sellers has a story to tell, and while they narrate their stories, we learn of the multifaceted, nuanced, multilayered society that is India. All of them except Yogesh are living on the margins and in extreme poverty.

The filmmaker shows India as it is, without embellishments, and without trying to create false hopes in the audience’s hearts and minds that somehow the conditions of the tea sellers will miraculously and dramatically improve.

These people belong to those strata of the society that gets adversely affected by the minutest calamity – whether personal or because of an official policy change such as demonetisation. Hülser succeeds in extracting personal stories from each of these people, without ever seeming to be intruding. And all of them have strong narratives.

Yogesh is ambitious and wants to emulate the big American-style barista coffee shops. But he doesn’t have the deep pockets to compete with the Starbucks of the world. He tries hard to give his customers an experience of having a hot beverage in cool environs but knows and understands that it isn’t going to be easy to survive and make money in a tough market.

Khan, who makes tea for filmmaking unit, is looking forward to retiring. He came to Bombay to find a life in the movies but ended up making tea for people who make movies. He believes his children will continue the business. Gouri is enthusiastic young entrepreneur assisting her dad in the business of making and serving tea from a roadside stall in Kolkata. She believes in being perfect in making tea and believes in satisfying her customers; unlike her dad, who she says, only wants to make money.

Subodh has also experienced the hard knocks of life and branched out on his own, with his own roadside tea business in old Delhi. He has taken a few apprentices, who are immigrant labourers (just as he was many years ago) from Bihar and who will eventually start their own ventures somewhere in Delhi.

The perkiest and precocious protagonist of the documentary is, of course,  Sushanta, who has married to a man from a lower caste and is the subject of scorn and ridicule by her family. Yet, she gamely continues to assist her husband in his tea business and rears her daughter be cajoling her to focus on education because it’s only through education, she believes, that her daughter can change her life.

Hülser is able to not only show these petty self-employed folks in the midst of their poverty and squalor but is also able to successfully portray their aspirations and through them the aspirations of the millions of Indians such as them.