Friday, July 29, 2011

Farewell, Harry Potter!

Goodbyes are never easy. It’s been a decade since we were introduced to the magic of Hogwarts and the enchanting world of witches and wizards. How little we knew about them before author J.K. Rowling took us on a fantasy trip! Yes, it’s escapist, perfect for those moments when you just want to crawl into a hole and die or for those blue days when all you want is something to make you feel good. Anything.

Enter Harry Potter. The boy who lived captured our imagination with his adventures and his best friends, Ronald Weasley and Hermoine Granger. When the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was launched, it was a passport to a world so magical that it would require seven installments to make the most of it. But, what makes Harry Potter a wildly successful franchise?

First of all, Harry is like just another kid dealing with real problems like any of us, before he realizes that he’s a wizard. Especially during the dark days in the later books, Potter has enough to deal with – expectations, challenges, loss and experience dilemmas which all of us are privy to. Next, it’s the characters which are etched out with such intricate details that you instantly feel a connection, either good or bad. And, the good vs. evil battle has always been one of our classic favourites, almost to the point of obsession. Add witty dialogues and sarcastic humour to the equation and what emerges is a mighty powerful concoction called Harry Potter.

The best part was that the cinematic translation was equally smooth. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, aided by some of the finest British actors brought the series alive. Yes, the books are always better but this is one of those very few series where the films are equally good. The consistency has been amazing, which justifies the craze which at times, seems almost unreal, like the Nargles.

In many ways, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 2 was a fitting tribute. A closure for those who writhed with anticipation, wondering what happened next or how. It was a cathartic moment, watching a much grown up Harry and his friends save their world. And, bring back a time where the biggest fear was over the sorting hat and its decision. Director Yates isn’t interested in spelling it out. If you haven’t read or watch the earlier versions, chances are that you wouldn’t have a clue as to what’s going on. Don’t even bother.

However, Harry Potter isn’t complete without its villains. They may not be the epitome of goodness but they certainly added spice to what could have otherwise been a boringly drab tale. Harry Potter lives on because of its bad guys – the Dark Lord Voldemort and his death eaters, scheming Malfoys, insane Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and of course, Severus Snape, the Potions master. Little has been written about them, which is very unfair. They are as important to the series, as much as Harry, Ron or Hermoine. Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is a mighty wizard, a man who built his destiny and went on to destroy it. The Malfoys, a wizard pedigree are a proof of the fact that prejudices are a fixture in our existence, real or fictitious.

Finally, it’s Snape (Alan Rickman) who deserves a special credit. He’s the man who kept a watch over Harry, keeping him safe. His evil exterior had us fooled until the moment, in the final edition, where we discovered that Lily (Potter’s mother) was special to him. Special enough to die for. And, Snape’s sordid façade and his subsequent anguish are really touching, to say the least.

Coincidentally, when Harry Potter surfaced, taking the literati by storm, leaving them pleasantly and sufficiently surprised, it was a whole bunch of children who grew up with the series. I was one among them. For us, Harry Potter is a very real presence in our childish imaginations. We believed that there was magic (and, we still do) and magical creatures. We gasped when Harry rode Buckbeak or cried when he lost his Godfather Sirius Black after their short tryst. We watched them battle dilemmas of the heart (we went through that too) and took solace over the fact that we were not alone.

But, what Harry Potter means to us is a totally new brand of fantasy, an imagination so vast that the very depth of it is staggering. It is the stories we grew up reading and one that will form an integral part of our culture when we, as parents, would read them to our children, bonding over the magic. Harry Potter has revolutionized our perception, taking a really special place in our bookshelf, DVD racks and most importantly, our hearts.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A whiff of Malabar magic

In a moment of epiphany, I realized that every time I dined at Ente Keralam, a Kerala specialty restaurant, it always rained. Or, maybe I always went there during the monsoons. But, in the midst of an extremely hot and humid summer, the sun was blinding as I made my way into the cosy interiors of this restaurant.

The aroma of the sea was unmistakable, tinged with hints of coconut oil, as we entered Ente Keralam’s newest branch in Anna Nagar. The creamy walls adorned by antique artifacts transported us into God’s own country. Each table had a miniature Chinese fishing net, a symbol of traditional Kerala. Chef Babu Abdullah joined us as we admired the décor and regaled us with tales from the magical coasts of Malabar.

The welcome drink, tender coconut water with a liberal dose of mint was refreshing and as we waited for our orders, we munched on the chips, both sweet and salted, as conversation flowed seamlessly. The starters arrived in style, with the traditional vazhaipoo cutlet, steaming hot, crispy and spicy, leading the pack. Shaped as hearts, it was a perfect start to our meal, with its unique combination of spices and a hint of fennel. The Trivandrum chicken, deep brown and crunchy, bears the unmistakable traces of coconut oil which makes its presence felt on the palate with the subtle spices leaving a pleasant after taste. However, it was the karimeen pollichathu, where (as the pamphlet informed us) the fish is cooked in a shallow earthen pot rather than conventional cooking utensils to give an authentic taste, which captured our imagination. The sweet and sour tempering tickled the taste buds while the subtle flavor of the fish was still preserved. If there was ever a question of the best fish in the city, this would be it.

Chef Babu makes an occasional stop at our table, expending interesting trivia about the different preparations. We were enthralled when he explained that most of the recipes used in the restaurant were traditional household secrets, passed over from one generation to another over hundreds of years. It was a legacy and the unique flavors bore testimony to the fact. A special feature, indeed.

Kerala cuisine is incomplete without the quintessential appam, a specialty of the region. Fluffy in the center and crispy at the edges, it was perfection on a plate. Tucking into the heavenly vegetable stew, with coconut milk as the central ingredient with a mélange of vegetables and yet surprisingly light, we listened in polite attention as Chef Babu enumerated the myriad difficulties of sourcing authentic and fresh ingredients. The naadan chicken curry, a Syrian Christian special, was a typical affair with pieces of chicken and chunks of potato in delicious gravy. However, the traditional ullitheeyal, a tangy preparation with tamarind and mustard is a different experience altogether, taking our culinary expedition to the next level.

A vital element of any Indian cuisine, the omnipresent biryani has been tweaked according to the geography, with a hint of the region’s special touch. Be it the Hyderabadi dum biryani or the more peppery Dindigul biryani, it has managed to be unique yet absorb diverse flavors of each region. The Thalassery biryani is a representation of Kerala’s Moplah population. Mildly tempered and beautifully layered, this version of biryani uses a special type of rice called Kayama rice, which Chef Babu ensures us, is imported from Calicut. The Thalassery chicken biryani was subtle with the ginger and garlic flavors predominant, a far cry from its spicy counterparts. The biryani is served with sweet and sour date pickle and coconut chutney with vinegar to sharpen the palate and experience the mild flavors.

The dessert spread was a lavish affair with palada payasam, a rice preparation with milk and sugar enveloping us in a sugary high while the adapradhaman goes the quiet route with jaggery and coconut providing a distinct experience. But, the highlight of the meal was the tender coconut ice cream which was simply out of this world. No sweet attack or quirky frills – just good ol’ tender coconut and simply ethereal.

Chef Babu paints a vivid picture of Kerala and its culture, both gastronomic and otherwise. He enquired if we had ever been to God’s own country. When I shook my head in the negative, he just said, “You should!” And, for the moment, it was a (culinary) trip to Kerala and back, in all authenticity.

After such an elaborate meal, the Suleiman Tea is just what the doctor ordered. A black tea with a bevy of spices like cardamom, cinnamon, dried ginger, peppercorn, cloves, sugar syrup, mint leaf and lime juice, it left us with a warm glow. Purring contentedly, we stared out of the window. And lo, the sky was overcast, with clouds of deep gray enveloping the horizon. As we stepped out, we felt the first drops of a gentle summer drizzle.

And, it rained again.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Roar of the Kings

They are the champions.
And, each time they get on the turf, a deafening roar resonates as a city cheers its heroes. In an impromptu conversation with Tuba Raqshan, Scott Styris and Albie Morkel of the Chennai Super Kings speak about the yellow fever which grips the city each time they play.

It’s not every day that one gets a chance to meet their favourite cricket players, those who are the reigning champions having won the last season of the Indian Premier League and subsequently, the Champions League. So, it was a glassy eyed, dumbstruck journalist who made her way to the Puma Store at the newest mall in the city, where a few players of the Chennai Super Kings were being geared up (with shoes, of course) for the next day’s match.

The throng outside the store, some carrying cricket bats to be autographed while others waiting for a wee glimpse of the men in yellow, announced that they had arrived (and how!). For a country obsessed with cricket, the Indian Premier League is a proud tournament,
a chance for each city to wear their colours and cheer the teams. Chennai, being the good sport it always is, comes alive each time the Super Kings played (at home or away), with splashes of vivid yellow flashing prominently across the streets while whistles (remember the famous ‘whistle podu’ slogan?) kept up with the tempo in their shrilly tunes.

Roaring yellow

Snapping out of the daze and getting down to brass tacks, cricket was undoubtedly the topic of discussion, subtly erasing away all the barriers and the ‘anti-media’ sentiment. Supporting the same team helps, obviously. Scott Styris, the newest addition to the Chennai Super Kings (also the friendliest among the lot) flashed his signature smile before admitting his elation at being a part of the team. “It’s been very good. I had been with the Deccan Chargers for a couple of IPLs before this and it was a team full of youngsters, very different from this team which is well established. I would just be fitting into a team which has been doing the right things, obviously winning the IPL and Champions League. I’m lucky to be a part of the team and love every moment of it,” smiles this Kiwi all rounder.

Echoing a similar sentiment, South African Albie Morkel nods in agreement. Being a part of the Chennai Super Kings right from the debut of the IPL, it is evident that he loves being a part of the yellow brigade. “It’s my fourth year with CSK. We’ve played fantastic. We’ve been a successful side, winning the IPL and Champions League also. This year, we have the same squad going. Most of the guys who played in the previous years are also involved now. Not too many new faces in the side and we know what it’s about,” explains Morkel.

Smells like team spirit

A veteran, Styris feels that the Chennai Super Kings is a powerhouse of talent. “It’s a very good team with a lot of outstanding talent at hand. And, I am not even talking about the international players here. The local Indian players are very skilled and they are fun loving guys. I didn’t see much of Ani (Aniruddha) Srikanth before this tournament but apparently,
he played well in the Champions League and matched it up here. It is fantastic. Apart from that, there are a couple of very talented young bowlers like Tyagi, for instance. It would be interesting to see how they develop. I’m enjoying interaction with the young players on the field and off it too,” adds Styris, cheerfully.

Talking about his tryst with the city, Morkel admits, “I still haven’t seen much of the city,
not as much as I wanted to. Basically, we go to the games, travel a lot and then, go back to the hotel and train. So, there’s not a lot of time to go out. But, when we do get time, we go to some of the malls. This is the first time I have been to the New Express Avenue Mall. Last time, I went to the Spencer’s Plaza and what’s the other shopping mall?” he queries, perplexed. “Citi Center?” We prompt helpfully. “Yes!” he replies relieved, adding, “That’s basically what we do when we have the time otherwise, we just watch DVDs in our rooms or swim or hit the gym.”

Beyond the boundaries

Cricket apart, Styris enjoys golf immensely. “I’m a sportsperson and I enjoy all the sports. Mainly I love playing golf and watching it too. I don’t get too much time for many hobbies,” he states the obvious. And, Styris off the field, we wonder? He laughs, “I’m a very chilled out person. I am not someone who is always on the go, all the time. I’m pretty easy going.”

An integral part of the Chennai Super Kings, Morkel is enthralled by the fan support. “For me, it’s a special moment every time I get on the field. It is wonderful to have so many people behind us each time we play. CSK has a fantastic fan base here. Each time I do well,
it is a nice feeling to know that I am contributing towards a successful side. But, the most memorable moment from the team point of view, is obviously winning the IPL and the Champions League,” he adds proudly. Apart from a love for wearing polo shirts and denims, Morkel confesses about his Indian fetish. “I love tikka masala with roti,” beams Morkel,
in conclusion.

(This article was published in the May 2011 Edition of Club Class magazine)

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Black Swan is breathtakingly beautiful

I was introduced to Aronofsky rather late in life but then, it was one of the most vivid glimpses of his brilliance. Just like his protagonist Nina (Natalie Portman), the obsessed ballerina in seek of perfection; this ace director had managed to achieve a state of flawlessness so effortlessly. An hour after watching Black Swan, the heady rush and goose bumps are still rather fresh, just like the instance where Nina Sayers transforms into the evil albeit beautiful black swan.

Nina, a passionate ballerina has been practicing perfection until Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the director of the ballet production Swan Lake, decides that the white and the black swan should be played by the same ballerina, which in this case happens to be Nina. Swan Lake tells the story of Princess Odette, stuck in the body of a white swan in love with the Prince. But, the prince is seduced by Princess Odile, the black swan and trapped in her spell. Broken and destroyed, the white swan dies and finds solace. While Nina is the perfect white swan, Princess Odette, virginal and pure, the impulsive black swan who seduces the prince is nowhere in sight. Nina is a little too perfect to be Princess Odile, the reckless, evil twin of the white swan.

Nina’s transgression as she sets out to discover her evil side is heart wrenching and at the same time, frightening. An overbearing mother (played to eerie perfection by Barbara Hershey) attempting to preserve the sweet innocence of her daughter, Nina, is an added disadvantage. Nina’s room is a plethora of pastel pinks with stuffed toys and childish drawings, preserved rather immaculately. Nina has no life other than ballet, no boys, no parties, no friends and certainly, no sex – just the disciplined routine.

Director Aronofsky’s subtle symbolism leaves a lot to imagination and rightly so! As we journey through Nina’s contorted mind, there’s violence where you least expect it, and an all pervading madness, raging fiercely. Under the porcelain perfection, is a flawed being, waiting to get out. The process doesn’t just initiate Nina to her evil persona but also takes her on a trip to a discovery of her latent sensuality. The scene in the bathtub where she’s immersed in pleasure as she gets a glimpse of her alter ego is chilling, to say the least.

Vincent Cassel as Thomas, the suave director, the man of the masses and brutally honest taskmaster is fantastic. The impulsiveness with which he seduces Nina and brings out her hidden side is scintillating. Winona Ryder as Beth, the famous ballerina now replaced by Nina in the lead role does justice, with the right amount of brash and raw emotions at being shown the door. And, Mila Kunis as Lily, the extrovert, impulsive and highly addicted (to cocaine, sex, alcohol and cigarettes) ballerina plays perfect foil to the porcelain Nina, with her vivacity and spark. Spunky Lily matches Nina’s impassivity with nonchalance, with her mischievous eyes and ready smile. Her impetuous sexual innuendos evoke a spontaneous grin.

Black Swan belongs entirely to Natalie Portman, who is magical as mama’s girl, obsessed ballerina as well as the ruthless black swan. The tussle ensues and it is a sordidly striking moment as the black swan emerges out of Nina’s matchless perfection. And, the dance of the black swan is breathtakingly beautiful, evil, seductive and dangerous, for the prince, for Nina, for the white swan and for us, as we are trapped in its dark enchantment.

The background score matches with the mood, mostly haunting while at times, simply alarming. At the final performance, Nina tugs at our heart strings as the white swan only to transform into the disturbingly beautiful black swan. As she dies, in the ballet and in reality, she has not just found solace but also what she was in search for, perfection. As Nina slowly loses her mind in a bid to become Princess Odile, the black swan, so do we, in Aronofsky’s lyrical cinema.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sri Lanka smothers England

No contest really. Last evening’s quarterfinal encounter between England and Sri Lanka at Colombo in the ICC World Cup 2011 was a decidedly one-sided affair. After a spell of brilliant bowling by Muralitharan and Malinga, amply aided by the others, the English side had put up a score of 229 for 6. The English batting was nothing spectacular to speak of, with Trott scoring 86, the highest in the innings.

When Taranga and Dilshan came to the crease in Sri Lanka’s second innings, it was a calculated effort between the openers. As they hit their respective tons, English bowlers were slammed all over the ballpark with sublime sixes and numerous boundaries. Dilshan scored his century first and with Sri Lanka requiring 3 runs to win the match and Taranga requiring 2 to score his ton, Dilshan idly pushed the ball till Taraga got his chance which he used it to perfection. A blistering boundary and Sri Lanka had won the match, displaying a strong domination right from the first ball. In the process, Dilshan and Taranga set the record for the highest opening partnership in the world cup. It was a clear and concise effort as Sri Lanka had their game plan in place which sent England back, winning by a whopping 10 wickets.

Sri Lanka would face New Zealand, the underdogs who upset South Africa’s world cup dreams, in the semifinal encounter.

The King's Speech is simply sublime

Director: Tim Hooper

Cast: Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, Geoffrey Rush, Michael Gambon

The King’s Speech is one of those rare movies which can be ranked as greatest for making the most of simplicity. No complex plots, no mind blowing action sequences, no overdramatic histrionics. It’s a simple plot, going beyond the pretentious, focusing on real problems of real people, even if they are monarchs.

Prince Albert (Colin Firth) is the Duke of York, known as Bertie to his family, who doesn’t really have the gift of the gab. Far from it, the Duke has a problem with his enunciation with his constant stammer. The opening shot where the Duke has to give a speech through a microphone to vast crowds at the empire exhibition at Wembley Stadium, to be broadcast through the radio to the rest of the country, is poignant. Bertie is a picture of misery, top hat and all, as he struggles to get the words out which emerge with great difficulty. Standing beside the struggling prince is his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) who shares her husband’s anguish.

After meeting a bevy of speech therapists, some who even advise him to smoke as it relaxes the lungs, Prince Albert is introduced to Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) by his enterprising wife. The extrovert therapist draws the introverted monarch from his shell with his calm yet witty demeanor. When King George V (played flawlessly by Michael Gambon), the mighty king who acknowledges the power of the broadcast media to his son declines into a weak, ailing man, it eventually falls in the hands of Bertie to set things right. With an elder brother who refuses to take the responsibility of leading the nation and the threat of Herr Hitler marching his army amidst threats of war, Bertie has to pull himself together and make a speech to the nation. In the process, Logue not just restores his speech but makes him realize that he has it in him to be a king, and a mighty good one at that.

Colin Firth as Bertie is marvelous. His anguish paints his patrician features while he struggles to maintain a studied arrogance, with a cigarette between his fingers. It’s not just the stammer which troubles him but also the fears of his ability to become the King. Firth’s witty retorts interspersed with short tempered outbursts are magnificent, especially the scene where he breaks down crying, feeling that he is incapable of being a King. Firth’s sublime portrayal of the struggling king deserves the Academy Award for the Best Actor and some more.

Helena Bonham Carter is a powerhouse of talent, as she isn’t your typical queen. Gutsy and incredibly honest, she’s the pillar of strength and a source of ingenuity as she effortlessly goes from the strong woman to the supportive wife with an unmatched feminine grace. However, Geoffrey Rush as the unconventional Australian therapist is mind blowing with his nonchalance and witty retorts, fighting aristocratic fire with uncharacteristic brilliance. The background score adds magic to the impeccable screenplay by David Seidler with subtle humour and slapstick dialogues.

Gone are the days where all a King had to do, according to his majesty King George V, was to look good in uniform and not fall off his horse. The King’s Speech portrays the pre-war England, where monarchs had to cross the thresholds of the people’s homes through radio broadcasts. While the winds of change blow, Bertie has to not just find his voice but also himself in the process. And while he does so, we watch in awe as it touches us somewhere deep within leaving behind, a contented sigh.