Udaan: Flights of fantasy

The long weekend over Christmas brought a much needed respite for me. I've been working very hard and am totally worn out. So I decided that I would spend Christmas relaxing and taking it easy. And being an inveterate TV buff, what better way to do that than to watch some telly. (I use the word telly a little loosely since I watch movies and shows on YouTube also.) 

I surfed through various channels but nothing caught my fancy. Imagine my delight then when I chanced upon an episode of Udaan. For those of you who might not remember, this was a series that was telecast on #Doordarshan between 1989-1991. It tells the story of Kalyani Singh, a woman IPS officer and her trials and tribulations. It was written and directed by Kavita Choudhary (remember Lalithaji of the old Surf ad? "Surf ki kharidari mein hi samajhdari hai"). All thirty episodes are available on YouTube. Although the quality is not good in places. 

As I watched those long forgotten episodes, I recalled how much I  loved this serial and how eagerly I looked forward to each episode. It was telecast at a time when I was growing up, forming my own aspirations and longing to fly towards my own future. I even briefly entertained the idea of joining the civil services, much to my father's delight. Of course that idea came to naught pretty soon. 

Udaan is special for many reasons. It tells the story of a woman struggling against the odds to make her mark in what is generally considered a male domain. The narrative is strong and evocative without being jingoistic. Kalyani is  not the vengeance seeking Rekha of Khoon Bhari Maang (a film that released around the same time that the serial was aired). She is your everyday woman, strong and vulnerable at the same time. Facing challenges just like we did - trying, failing, succeeding - learning about herself a little more along the way - just like we did. 

And of course when love touched her life, what joy it brought us all. Shekhar Kapoor as Harish Menon, the DM of Sitapur is absolutely fantastic-bringing  his own brand of charisma and sexiness to the role. His chemistry with Kalyani worked very well. The sparks fly between them, nuanced by the fact that within the government system he was her superior and hence proprieties had to be strictly maintained. He calls her ‘Ms. Singh’ and does not hesitate to reprimand her when she makes a mistake. At the same time, he seeks out her company and leaves the viewer in no doubt of his interest in her. And when he asks her to marry him, of course there was nothing else to do but melt into a puddle and beg her to just say yes! 

They don’t make serials like these anymore. The tsunami of crap that Ekta Kapoor has unleashed on the Hindi serial viewing audience is outrageous. Kalyani has been ousted by the Tulsis and Parvatis of large joint families. And Harish Menon has been toppled by the Mr. Walias and Mr. Bajajs of recent times. There are no women IPS officers anymore. Just housewives scheming against one another. And IAS is no longer a good career choice for leading men, who prefer to go by the grand title of business tycoon. 

Perhaps it is just as well because then one would not get the chance to delight in watching these serials of yore and wallow in the nostalgia of how much happiness they gave us. 

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Random Acts of Kindness

Its been over  three years since I posted anything on my blog. But this seemed to be a fitting way to return to blogging. Perhaps the bright lights of Diwali had something to do with it.

Last week my mother was admitted in hospital due to low electrolyte levels. Doctors put her in the acute care unit for observation. My father called and asked me to come over to Hyderabad to help him.  He tried to sound calm and collected. But I knew that he was finding it stressful to handle things all by himself in Hyderabad.

I wanted to fly to him immediately. But he asked me to come the next day. I arrived home the next afternoon and by early evening, my father and I went to the hospital. Although visiting hours were from 5pm to 7pm, it was not applicable for the ACU. There visitors were permitted - one at a time - to see their loved ones only for an hour in the morning.

A fierce looking security guard barricaded the entrance to the ACU while anxious family members surrounded her with requests to be permitted to see their loved ones. She sternly refused every single one of them.

With a lot of trepidation I approached her and asked if I could be allowed to see my mother. She gave me a stare then asked my mother's name.

"Wait here. I'll ask if they will let you in" she snapped.

My father and I paced the floor outside the ACU for the next ten minutes while she continued swatting away  relatives much as she would have done flies.

A while later, she beckoned me "Block B, Bed No. 3. You can stay only for five minutes.Since you haven't seen your mother at all, I requested the duty doctor to permit you to meet her" was all she said.

"Thank you!" I said, very moved.

She need not have done that. Her job was only to see that relatives did not heckle the medical staff with their anxiety. And dealing with this, all day, everyday, can make a person snappy and irritable.

Yet, amidst all that, she noted the people who came to the ACU, as people with individual stories. And also had the humanity to see that exceptions could be made once in a while.

May her tribe increase!

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It’s Not About The Movie, Silly

This one is for the ladies. How many times have you been stuck, not doing anything, simply because you had nobody to do it with? Now now! Don't get funny ideas. I'm talking about all those times, when you wanted to travel to some far off place for a vacation, eat at the new restaurant serving Moroccan food, or simply go for a movie...but couldn't because your friend or significant other couldn't or didnt want to join you. And you simply didn't have the guts or gumption to go it yourself. 'Log kya kahenge' was perhaps uppermost in your mind. 

I faced a similar situation during my days as a single woman in Ahmedabad. I love watching movies. But lack of a friends circle kept me from the movie halls. Till I decided 'what the hell. I'm living alone. What's the big deal about watching a movie alone?' People thought I was weird and crazy. Single woman going alone to watch a movie! But it was a wonderfully liberating experience. To do something one liked to do without being dependent on anyone.  

It looks like I'm not alone anymore. There are more free thinking women like me. I'd like to introduce you to one such. My good friend Ipsita. A superwoman who juggles many roles successfully - professional par excellence, full time mom and of course a shoulder to cry on when the need arises. Among her many talents are those of writing. She has amazing clarity of thought, superb articulation and impressive command over the English language. 

So here's my first guest post by Ipsita. 

It’s not about the movie, silly

To be fair, Deepak, my husband takes me to a movie about ninety percent of the times that I want to. He peacefully works on his blackberry whether it is Kahani or Barfi, occasionally quipping gems like Agent Vinod should have been titled Travel Agent Vinod! I sometimes suspect that he enjoys two interrupted hours with the love of his life, blackberry.

Yet, my decision to go and watch English Vinglish alone elicited strange responses from within me that questioned the basic foundation of marriage and the idea of companionship.

Jaadoo, my seven year old son, had told me in no uncertain terms that movies gave him headaches. Deepak was in some strange part of the world, that I thought only Herge’ would be interested in as a nice setting for a Tintin adventure. I do not have too many friends and my best friend was preoccupied. So, I decided to go for the movie alone. I don’t know if that was the only option or the most obvious one.

I got ready and went to the theatre for the 10 a.m. show, timing it in a way that Jaadoo’s routine was not disturbed. As I drove through Road no 2, Banjara Hills, I caught a glimpse of fellow carwalas- serious, business like, no nonsense. Many appeared to be deeply engaged in serious conversation in their empty cars - bluetooth of course ! Unlike me, they all had a sense, well ok, a look of purpose in their demeanour.  I felt a little, (borrowing from Punjabi) ‘wela’ - one who has nothing to do. Whatever the statistics have to say about unemployment rates in India, not too many people are so jobless as to watch a morning show on a weekday.…but I felt happy and free and I how loved that feeling.

At the theatre, it was a smooth run, first in the short queue, easily available tickets. No surprise there. Lazily picked up a cup of cappuccino.  My fellow movie watchers could be broadly classified into three categories - college types making the most of their new found independence of bunking classes and giving a damn; lovers who sought two hours of privacy and comfort; housewives, kitty party types who kept gushing over Sridevi’s saree  and commenting on her botox.  In this crowd, I was neither here nor there. But it did not matter, really.

This feeling- that ‘it really does not matter’ was so liberating. When I first thought about it, this innocuous idea was met with resistance from strings in my own head that got pulled in various directions. I had grown up ‘knowing’ that eating fuchkas (golgapps, panipuri) and watching movies –cannot be done alone. Given this, does this state of ‘having to watch a movie alone’ have deeper implications?  Does it symbolise an assertion of independence. Or does it mean that I have given up on the idea of finding companionship? Does it mean that I am lonely, forlorn? Something inside me tells me, Easy, Madam,  Easy, remember the ad from the 80s?

Well, the answer is a both Yes and No. Finally and fundamentally, we are all on our own. Depending on others, however close, for happiness is an invitation to disappointment. Making others responsible or rather accountable for our happiness is just not fair. Why weigh them down with our expectations? In this particular case, why hold on to reluctant companionship by dragging a tired and an unwilling family to a theatre.  

Finally, ‘movie alone’ was an experience in guilt-free self-indulging. Not having to think - is the child getting tired? Is the husband getting bored?  And it was quite liberating - glances trying to ascertain if it was a case of ‘boyfriend not turning up’ - notwithstanding.

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Who Is The Fairest Of Them All?

Over lunch with friends this afternoon, we got to talking about our favourite books. Naturally, I stated mine as Pride and Prejudice, that enduring classic by Jane Austen. 

The first time I read Pride and Prejudice, I was just 8 or 9  years old. It was an abridged, illustrated version which helped me form mental images of the protagonists. A few years on, I discovered the original book in my father's bookshelf. There was no looking back after that. To say that I've read the novel a thousand times is an understatement. Each time I read it, I like it a bit more - if that is possible. 

Television and film has time and again given shape to this classic. Today I got to thinking that I should really do a post listing these and putting my personal take on it. 

Tarun Dhanrajgir
The very first time I saw a screen version of it was on Doordarshan, many years ago. Back when I was in the sixth standard. So that would be around 1986-87. Anybody remember a serial by the name Trishna? It was a 13 episode serial based on Pride and Prejudice that aired on Sundays. I was totally enthralled by this desi retelling of the classic. In the lead as Darcy was one Tarun Dhanrajgir. To my 12 year old self he was gorgeous! That he was a native of Hyderabad, my home town was a bonus. Near where I lived, there was this old mansion which was owned by 'Rai Bahadur Dhanrajgir' or something along those lines. Someone told me that Tarun Dhanrajgir lived there. I used to pass by the gate frequently in the hope that I would catch a glimpse of my heart throb. 

Sangeeta Handa
My present research indicates that the Dhanrajgirs were indeed an illustrious merchant family of Hyderabad who had risen to prominence under the patronage of the Nizam. A famous member of this family is Zubeida Begum who starred in Alam Ara. Also from this family is Rhea Pillai, known for her marriages to Sanjay Dutt and Leander Paes. 

The actress who played Elizabeth Bennett was Sangeeta Handa who later went on to act in A Mouthful of Sky (claiming to be India's only English soap opera) and a few other serials. 

Both these actors have faded away from the limelight. The only enduring name from this serial is that of Kittu Gidwani who played the role of Lydia Bennett and if I recall, did a fairly good job of it. 

The first English version of Pride and Prejudice I saw was on the erstwhile TNT channel. Made in 1940, it starred Lawrence Olivier as Darcy and Greer Garson as Elizabeth. Although Olivier fits the image of Darcy very well, somehow I it doesn't sit fine with me. Greer Garson as Elizabeth was unremarkable. 

In 1995 the BBC version aired an adaptation of the classic in a 6 part mini series. The series starred Colin Firth as Darcy - a role that won him world wide recognition and critical acclaim. The series itself received positive response and a whole host of awards, notably the BAFTA Television Award for "Best Drama Serial", "Best Costume Design", and "Best Make Up/Hair" in 1996. Jennifer Ehle was honoured with a BAFTA for "Best Actress", while Colin Firth and Benjamin Whitrow lost their BAFTA nominations for "Best Actor" to Robbie Coltrane of Cracker Firth won the 1996 Broadcasting Press Guild Award for "Best Actor", complemented by the same award for "Best Drama Series/Serial". The serial was recognised in the United States with an Emmy for "Outstanding Individual Achievement in Costume Design for a Miniseries or a Special", and was Emmy-nominated for its achievements as an "Outstanding Miniseries" as well as for choreography and writing. Among other awards and nominations, Pride and Prejudice received a Peabody Award,Television Critics Association Award,and a Golden Satellite Award nomination for outstanding achievements as a serial. There is also a 1979-80 BBC version which I have not seen. 

The 2005 version with Kiera Knightley was disappointing. The cast assembled for the movie was great. Knightley was a good choice for Elizabeth. Donal Sutherland as Mr. Bennett was good and Dame Judy Dench as Lady Catherine de Burgh was outstanding. But somehow, even this wonderful ensemble of actors were not able to save the movie. Mathew Something for Darcy was disappointing. I do not know who this actor is although this is probably my own ignorance. And for some strange reason the film was poorly lit and everyone looked very grubby - as if they never had a bath! 

Gurinder Chadda's 'Bride and Prejudice' was AWFUL. The choice of Aishwarya Rai as Elizabeth was blasphemous. Playing Elizabeth Bennett would be a career high for any actress worth her salt. And to give it to this ice cube, this plastic doll was too much for me to take in. And secondly, why on earth was Darcy a gora?! Where is the clash of social strata that the story is known for? It just did not make any sense. Totally killed the story they did. 

As you can see, there have been varied versions and interpretations of Jane Austen's classic. My favourite version is the 1995 BBC version with Colin Firth. Doordarshan's Trishna was also good - not because the production values were great, or the acting was great. But because it was the first time my favourite story was played out by real people and for the most part, the lead pair kind of came close to my mental images of Darcy and Elizabeth. 

Which version is your favourite? 

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BBC Period Dramas: My Latest Obsession - Part II

I watched Downton Abbey on the recommendation of my best friend. She knows EXACTLY what I like and recommended this series very highly. So I bugged the spouse until he downloaded season 1 and 2 for me. I started watching it with a lot of excitement and a bit of trepidation. What if the series did not live upto my expectations?

I need not have worried. The series was stupendous! And I absolutely loved it.

A bit synopsis. Set in a fictional estate called Downton Abbey somewhere in Yorkshire, the series traces the trials and tribulations of the aristocratic Crawleys and their entourage of servants. It is set in the early part of the 20th century. In fact, the very first episode begins with the sinking of the Titanic, after which moves on to the First World War. There is of course love and intrigue very cleverly woven into the story and makes for very interesting viewing.

I found the series engaging for a variety of reasons. The first is of course the stratification in English society - the aristocrats and the commoners. The way the former treats the latter. With kindness and benevolence - but never as equals. At the same time, the series also depicts the changing social equations and building aspirations among the commoners who want a better life. Being 'servants' is starting to chafe. This is clearly seen in the episode where one of the housemaids reveals to her friend, another housemaid, that she is taking typing and short hand classes because she wants to be a secretary-something that is unheard of among servants. With the help of Lady Sybil, the youngest Crawley daughter, she manages to realise her dream.

What I found most striking in the series was the status of women in England at the time. Women in the aristocratic families of course had cushy lives filled with dinner engagements and balls. But it is as if they live in gilded cages, because attending social events is pretty much all they do. Reminiscent of Jane Austen, there is pressure to find good husbands because of the practice of entailing property. An entail was a legal device used to prevent a landed property from being broken up, and/or from descending in a female line. Lord Crawley has three daughters and no sons. So his eldest daughter, Lady Mary is engaged to be married to her cousin and heir to the estate - and she does not love him. Said heir however, is on the ill fated Titanic and dies. The new heir is now Mathew Crawley, a second cousin of some sort (and very dishy!). And everyone expects that Mary should 'do the right thing' and marry him.

Then there is how the issue of women's 'virtue' and 'chastity' is perceived. Lady Mary is enamoured by a Turkish gentleman called Pamouk. He, returning her sentiment, finds a way to enter her bedroom one night. Mary is held back by her upbringing, but wants to give in to him all the same. He uses this to his advantage, while promising not to 'violate her virginity' (you get the picture right?). Unfortunately for poor Mary, Pamouk dies while making out with her. Although the matter is hushed up, rumours do leak out and Mary's reputation is tarnished, making it difficult for her to make a good match. Not so different from Indian society don't you think? 

While the women downstairs, ie, the servants and housemaids, did not have to deal with this kind of expectation, they also had their fair share of challenges as women. Primary was their vulnerability to being preyed upon by their employers, their families and social circle. One of the housemaids has stars in her eyes about her future. She becomes pregnant through one of the males visiting Downton and is dismissed from her job. She struggles to make ends meet and is stigmatised for being stupid and a slut. When the man who fathered her child dies in the war (after refusing to acknowledge his child or even help her), his parents attempt to take her child away from her telling her that they, being affluent, can give the child a better life. To her credit, she refuses and says that as his mother, she is best qualified to give her son a good life.

Then again, the winds of change begin to blow. Lady Sybil is shown as a women's rights crusader who joins the suffrage movement. She refuses to the live the life of an aristocratic female. Instead she trains as a nurse and joins the war effort by tending to injured soldiers. She also defies her family and blurs the line between master and servant by falling in love with the chauffeur (who incidentally is an Irish revolutionary). Lady Edith (another daughter) on the other hand, learns to drive and helps the farmers on her father's property by driving a tractor.

There is much, much more that can be written about Downton Abbey.

The cast is superb. Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess is magnificent. Her sense of timing and dialogue delivery is impeccable. The actor who plays Mathew Crawley, Dan Stevens is yummy! Mary is pretty, if a bit emaciated. There is really very little that I can fault the series about. Apparently those who hand out awards agree, because the series has swept almost all the telly awards this year.

I watched both the seasons at a go over the course of 5 days. Yes! Thats how much I liked it. Since then, I've given the series to a few friends to watch and they've loved it as well. My teenaged niece liked it too and was a regular visitor over 2-3 weekends to watch it.

I now eagerly await Season 3 which I'm told goes into production from January 2013. Hope it will live up to the expectations!!

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BBC Period Dramas: My Latest Obession - Part I

An inveterate TV watcher, period dramas are my favourite. Be they Indian or western, I simply love watching movies, serials, dramas that are set in ancient, medieval or even early modern times. Watching period dramas (the good ones, not the Ramanand Sagar variety) is like being in a time machine. They allow you a glimpse into a world that exists only in books and the imagination. Within this genre, I think period dramas produced by the BBC are par excellence. In the last few months, I've watched at least four period dramas which I enjoyed immensely. I'm going to write about two- North and South and Downton Abbey.

The first is a four part mini series called North and South. It is based on a novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, a British novelist and short story writer during the Victorian era. I'm ashamed to admit that though I call myself 'well read', this was the first time I had heard of the good lady. North and South, written in 1854-1855, is set in the fictional town of Milton in the North of England, where the Industrial Revolution is changing the city, the economy and its social fabric. Into this town comes Margaret Hale, the daughter of a priest, from the South of England, generally considered to be more cultured and advanced than the North. Hence the title North and South - to indicate a divide. 

Margaret soon meets John Thornton, a rich and handsome cotton manufacturer who has risen out of poverty through sheer hard work. Thornton seems rough and harsh to the more genteel and soft Miss Hale. Their differences in upbringing, culture and social status often brings them into conflict with each other. Despite, or maybe because of this, they are attracted towards each other. The rest of the story is about how they fall in love and unite in the end.

What I liked about this series is how they have woven what is essentially a love story, into the socio economic conditions of the time: child labour, urbanisation, working conditions, organisation of labour and the rise of trade unions form the backdrop against which the story unfolds. There is a touching scene inside the cotton mill, where a mother and her little daughter are taking a break from work. When Mrs. Thornton - the hero's dragon mother - reprimands them for falling behind, the mother pleads that her child is sick. To which, slightly moved, Mrs. Thornton asks if there is another child at home who can take the sick child's place. When the mother answers in the affirmative, she instructs her to get the child into the mill and working within the hour or 'loose the place' as there were many more to take her place. In today's world, this would have been heresy. But during those times, child labour in mills and sweat shops was common and has been dealt by other authors like Dickens also. 

But of course what I liked best was the chemistry between the lead pair and the scenes where I felt like I was watching a Hindi movie! There is the scene where Miss Hale rushes
out in front of an angry mob to save Mr. Thornton, getting hit by a stone on the head for her troubles. Then there is the scene where she's leaving the town, and Mr. Thornton, watching her drive away says 'Look back. Look back at me'. Very intense yes? And very SRK in DDLJ saying 'Palat! Palat'!!!

And the last and true-to-bollywood-tradition scene - the railway station scene where they declare their love for each other. On a more serious note, I could also see similarities with my all time favourite novel Pride and Prejudice. The basic plots are almost the same - of first impressions, dictated by the social attitudes of the time, then the shift in perception and finally uniting for love. Watch this 'proposal scene' and tell me if you also see any similarities.

If you're the sort that likes romantic period dramas, I highly recommend the series. The casting is good. Richard Armitage is superb as John Thornton. Handsome, with dark brooding looks. Yummylicious! Could also play Mr. Darcy and Heathcliffe - gentlemen of the same league as John Thornton. Look out for him in the upcoming movie The Hobbit. Daniela DanbyAshe as Margaret Hale is equally good. Pretty and a little chubby. Reminds me of Kate Winslet in Titanic before she became a stick insect. You'll like her. Other actors have also done a good job.

So go ahead and watch this mini series. You won't regret it. I promise!

Update: I've recently learned how to do podcasts. My first podcast is a reading of this very post. Let me know what you think.

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Days And Nights Of Nightie

About ten days ago, I had put the following update as my FB status: "I find a most peculiar practice in Chennai - women wearing their nighties all over the place - from strolling around the apartment complex to supermarkets. I understand it maybe on grounds of comfort clothing - but nightie? really?!!"

The numerous comments that followed that update made me realise that not only is this a pan Indian phenomenon, it has crossed Indian borders into Bangladesh and even gone as far as the U.S.of A! Women across Mumbai, Bangalore, Bhopal, Ahmedabad, Lucknow, Kanpur...all seem to favour the nightie as their preferred item of clothing.

Need to pop downstairs quickly to buy veggies from the the bhajiwala? No sweat! Just throw on some lipstick to brighten your face and run down in your nightie. Surprised? Don't be! I'm told that women in Bhopal do it all the time.

In Bangalore? Not sure if you're nightie shows you up in good light? Set your mind at rest. Just grab your bath towel and drape it over your shoulder and you're all set for a visit to the local super market.

Expecting guests for lunch and don't know what to wear? Relax. Throw on your nightie - a casual and welcoming look if any. Draw the line at appearing in front of guests in the clothes you wore last night? There is a remedy. Bathe and exchange that nightie for a fresh one. You would be emulating our sisters in Bangladesh and Kerala.

Want to step out for an evening stroll with your better half? No problem, put on your nightie and set off. If its good enough for the women of Sunnyvale, USA, its good enough for us desis!

So you see, the nightie is really a versatile item of clothing.There is no need to turn up your nose or point the finger of scorn at women who wear this wonderful garment, even in the most unexpected of places. In fact, let us join them and make it a movement. Let us demand that nightie be included as part of the dress code in offices. Team a well washed nightie with hawaii chappals, and watch your confidence soar. I'm sure you can 'climb every mountain and cross every stream' - but be sure to hitch up that nightie to your ankle lest it get wet or trip you up!!

PS: This post is written in jest. No disrespect is meant to those who wear nighties. I believe and advocate that women should wear what they like and feel comfortable in. I'm an inveterate nightie wearer myself - although I have not yet found the courage to wear them in the public domain.

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