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The Annus Horribilis

The thing about years is that we tend to make a big deal out of their starting and ending. When those markers are actually just conventions. So we’re really celebrating conventions. This time around, we’re actually cursing an almost arbitrarily demarcated time period because a lot of bad things happened in that period. Like Brexit. Trump. Parting of David Bowie and many more singers, artists. We all know the list,  and there are a lot of things that don’t make it to the list, depending upon where you are, who you are. In areas of the world, every year for last few years has been a annus horribilis. Countries are losing battles with internal strife, religious orthodoxy, even secular statist ideologies, economic crisis and so on. If you’re celebrating on the eve of a beckoning  new year, you’re probably already luckier than a lot of people in the world.

So let’s just let 2016 breath its final breaths, and lets also acknowledge all good that  the year may have given us,  too. I’m sure there will be a list of that too, if we just think a little.

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The Last Sunset of 2016

Personally, this year has been not significantly different than last few years. And it’s a good thing. I was able to read a few good books. Discovered a few new authors worth following. Ta-Nehisi Coates, for instance. Or Ursula K. Le Guin (unbelievable that I waited all these years), Claire King, Eli Shafak, N. S. Madhavan, Thomas Mann (again, all these years!). I had a conservative goodreads reading challenge of 18 books for the year. I did 24. This year, the good thing is I actually read a few more than last year when I mostly heard them as audiobooks. I got back into reading long-form articles, and non-fiction. I reviewed a decent number of books, movies on my blog.

Which brings me to this blog of mine, which definitely did better this year, although the most important category for me remains a concern — not a single fiction piece. But reviews, poems, and a few rambling pieces on random subjects. Still a good year. I’m still floating after all these years. That’s not at all bad, is it?

I discovered (in the sense that I finally started getting them) a ton of Jazz artists (still, mostly, those from the classic era — like Jaki Byard, Joe Henderson,  Horace Silver, Roy Brooks, Nat Adderley). It was a good musical year, especially with Apple Music coming to India at a very affordable rate. Also, rediscovered the penchant for old hindi songs of the golden era, as my six year old got interested in them. Memories of generations now passed on the second time – a testimony to the timeless quality of the era. Also, a bridge across generations, as my father and my son have a common musical memory.

In all fairness, I’m going to think of 2016 as another year that gave some, and took some. Like any year really. See you in the next arbitrary time slice. With more fiction, hopefully. For what we make of an year, is partly up to us.

 

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The Problems with Dangal

It’s probably useless to attempt to review Dangal. Everyone knows what it’s about. It’s doing well. It’s a movie that I enjoyed watching. It’s a good movie. But I’d like to add — and this might be necessary, because the momentum like that sometimes makes people believe that a movie is lot more that it is — it’s not great, or near perfect, as some reviewers may like you to believe. Not that it has to be. Not that it was even intended to be. Which is fine, really. Neither were Lagaan, or Titanic, or Three Idiots, or umpteen other celebrated movies in Bollywood/Hollywood.

Dangal has a few things going for it, yes. Good acting (nope, not great, good). Decent story-line. Excellent pace. A dose of desh-prem. A somewhat progressive take on gender equality (although not, if you look closely, and we will). Decent music. Shot well, especially the wrestling training and matches — it all looks very real.

But once the euphoria is over, a few hours after the credits roll up, one starts to ruminate (can there be a better word to describe it — because it’s exactly what bovine species does with food, eat first, chew later) over the film, and those things that jarred when you were watching it, but you couldn’t put your finger on (or even wanted to, then), start raising their not-so-pretty heads.

So here are some problems with Dangal:

The generic biopic problem of Bollywood

Bollywood is terrible when it comes to biopics. It trades nuances for punches, and uncomfortable facts for pulp. Unfortunately, Dangal doesn’t buck that trend (I have not seen Mary Kom, so not sure if it does). While it makes for an overall interesting viewing, I think a more nuanced portrayal might have made it a more honest, and generally a better movie.

Weak Characterization

Except for Mahavir Singh Phogat’s character, most other characters are placeholders to bend against his will as required. Even the two girls, who end up winning International Golds are basically puppets at the hands of Mahavir, all through the movie. Its only two times that Geeta is seen showing some agency. Out of this, when she chooses to  reject her father’s authority on life and coaching, she is a spectacular failure. Predictably, it’s when she chooses to take advice from her father in the crowd as opposed to her coach, does she do well. The father is always right. The international level (caricature of an) coach is always wrong. There is no scope for nuances or gray shades.

Gender equality without agency

Yes, the movie has an  explicit message of treating your daughters no less than sons, and Mahavir seems to mouth the same near the end, mansplaining it to the girls. But even that is almost accidental. One is supposed to feel for Mahavir early on when he is cursed with a daughter after daughter. It’s only when he realizes that they can fulfill his dream, that Mahavir actually starts looking at them as, well, to put it mildly surrogates for boys. In fact no women in the film has any agency (and when they seem to have it, they’re wrong — like Geeta’s friend at the institute who spoils her). The girls have to do what Mahavir tells them. The mother has zero say in the business.

Melodrama

Another obsession of Bollywood that Dangal doesn’t manage to free itself from is the ubiquitous melodrama. Some of the scenes are absolutely ridiculous. Like Mahavir showing the album of the girl’s prize money and pleading with the officials at National Institute of Sports when they are about to expel the girls. What the coach does near the end is so atrociously melodramatic. Or the scene where Geeta calls her father on insistence of Babita, after realizing that it’s not working out for her. Nowhere is there a visible effort to make it subtle, more nuanced. Nowhere is the conflict genuine, and answers complicated.

Implications on Parenting

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We live in crazy times where as it is parents are pushing their kids to the limits — for their own good, obviously, if you ask them. What the film seems to be glorifying Mahavir’s bullheaded pursuit of vicarious excellence (a friend of the girls says she’d rather have a father like Mahavir, when the girls are complaining of their plight, because at least he treats them as someone who could be something, but it’s a very specific something that he wants — more for himself — and it’s not negotiable, and in that sense the girls are as much instruments in the hands of a single person, as the friend is in the hands of a patriarchal system). There are no seeds of doubt sown anywhere. Excellence comes at a cost, and the cost has to be paid by the children, because a parent knows the best. I’m so worried that a lot of Indian parents will just take the movie as a validation of their, sometimes excessive, pushing of children towards a statistically unlikely glory in real life.

So yes, Dangal has its moments. It’s fun. It’s even temporarily uplifting. But as the hangover recedes, I could not help but feel sad at an opportunity lost, of a honest, nuanced biopic. Then again, 100s Cr club membership requires you to abandon nuances. Not even Amir Khan will that price (no don’t tell me Taare Zameen Par was nuanced).

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The Good Within

At the end of the yoga session today, my instructor, an elderly lady, had this to say, as we were getting up from the shavasan.

“आपल्या आतल्या परमेश्वराला नमस्कार करा, दुसऱ्यांच्या आतल्या परमेश्वराचा आदर करा”

(Pray to the god in you, and respect the god in others)

Let’s keep aside for a moment the duality (unwittingly?) implied here — for the God in each one of us is supposed to be the same — because that wasn’t the point, just a convenience. After all it’s easier to see a God in ourselves, but so much harder to see one in others. So let’s just gloss over that for a moment. Let’s also gloss over the, almost radical (as Douglas Adams first put it), atheism of yours truly, and the irony of someone like that quoting this. But this simple advise carries such a deep wisdom.

So let’s peel away the religious layer, because however it may make it easy for most (religious) people to grasp/follow, they are not needed to make sense of this (and may even distract from groking [1] the underlying thought). For what exactly is a God within us? Isn’t it that innate frame of reference with which we judge our actions? Our moral compass — something as unprovable as God? Or to put it very simply, with an extra ‘o’, the good within us?

What better way than to remind oneself of the good within us and other, every now and then, and see beyond the petty vices? If I could just ask myself, “If you do this, would you think better of yourself, or worse?”, every time before I did something, and only did that (with obvious exceptions where mortal danger forbids it, or in general, one is not courageous enough to risk something) which made me think better of myself, I know I’d be a lot happier, lot saner, lot calmer person. And yet, I don’t. Not even half as frequently as I’d like.

Similarly, if we just kept the “best within the other” in our mind as we interact with them (again, there are trade-offs I agree, especially with a lot of zero-sum games and dove strategies not being optimal in iterated prisoner’s dilemmas [2] that life throws at us in heaps), we’d be all that, and more (happier, saner, calmer, …). And yet I don’t. I let the petty distract me, take me over, enrage me, blind me, make me just a reflexive automaton.

We don’t need Gods within to make us better people. We need to trust the good within us.


[1] Grok: A word coined by Robert A. Heinlein for his 1961 science-fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land. (from Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grok)

[2] Highly recommend Richard Dawkin’s Selfish Gene for a detailed discussion of Prisoner’s Dilemma and Hawk/Dove strategies.

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La La Land: The Glorious Mess We Make

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land begins on a freeway, in the middle of a massive traffic jam, and suddenly people are out on the road dancing. A few minutes later, the song over, everyone’s back into their cars, frustrated/honking, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is in a car behind Mia’s (Emma Stone), honking at her as the jam opens up, but she’s busy reading her audition script, and they give each other middle fingers, as they go there own way.

For the next two hours or so, La La Land takes us back and forth into those two worlds — of dreams and reality, effortlessly moving from one to the other, blurring the borders. It’s been described as a musical, and it is, in a way, but not in the traditional sense. Chazelle who gave us a extremely tightly woven Whiplash has taken all sort of liberties here. Songs linger a bit longer than one is used to. Closeups last longer than is strictly necessary, but richly paid off, thanks to the two lead performers. Side cast is side cast, with no effort made to develop any other character, and it really doesn’t matter (just like Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost In Translation needed no one around them, really).

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The story is simple love story between two struggling artists — Mia an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop (yes, very cliched but works), and Sebastian, an aspiring Jazz pianist — both trying to find out if they have it in them. As they inevitably fall in love, it all merges, professional dreams and life. They change each other, grow with each other, just to find that all of that comes with a bill (or a check, as the Americans would say).

Dialogues are absorbing, so are the lyrics. The colors are terrific. You savor frame after frame, assuming this can’t be bettered, but just as the two characters keep on saying about view of a lovely valley, “I have seen better”, another frame comes and proves it possible. Cinematography is exquisite, continuing with the recent Hollywood trend of using movies as a way to express love of a city (like Begin Again’s love affair with New York). And the chemistry is intoxicating.

Mia: It’s pretty strange that we keep running into each other.
Sebastian: Maybe it means something.
Mia: I doubt it.
Sebastian: Yeah, I don’t think so.

In a scene early on Mia tells Sebastian, “I hate Jazz”, hoping to get that out of the door, because she knows what it means to Sebastian, a Jazz purist of sorts (she doesn’t know it, but earlier on, when his sister suggests him to meet a girl, he asks if she like Jazz, and when the answer is negative, he goes: “but what will we talk about”?)

“What do you mean you hate Jazz?”, he wants to know, and proceeds to initiate her (and the audience, in case they share the feeling) into it. He doesn’t, as she is expecting, fly off the handle, but just wouldn’t accept the it’s true (how could she?) But as he tells her about it, he also tells her regretfully that his beloved Jazz is dying, “but not on my watch”, he boasts. What Jazz is to Sebastian, the musical seems to be for Chazelle – a dying art form that he wouldn’t let die on his watch (even Sebastian’s words for to Mia when she wonders if it’s just a pipe dream she’s chasing – “It’s conflict, and it’s compromise,  and it’s very exciting”, seem to be said to himself, as much as to Mia) .

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La La Land is about Jazz, about magic of films, about arts, drama, and such dreams of the ones stepped in in performance arts, but what it is really about is underlined by Mia, in one of her auditions, when given a free hand, as she breaks into a song, that goes:

Here’s to the ones who dream,
foolish as they may seem.
Here’s to the hearts that ache.
Here’s to the mess we make.

That in nutshell, is La La Land — a story of dreams, and costs we pay to achieve them.

“Where are we”, Mia asks Sebastian,  later on.

The emphasis is on we, not where. There are  no easy answers here. Even as La La Land keeps on giving us glimpses of dreams, it stays rooted to reality. And in that sense, it isn’t a musical of 40s or 50s. Just like Whiplash, where excellence is never detached from the price of achieving it, there are no easy resolutions here either. But by the time the end credits roll, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the glorious mess we make, those of us who dream.


PS: A note on the lead actors. Emma Stone, who impressed in Birdman is  fabulous here. Mia is meant for her. Ryan Gosling is more than competent — given the meatier role. And the music is fabulous, Jazz and all – what lovely theme that by Justin Hurwitz, something right up there with the best. What more can one ask of a movie? I watched it in a theater with 15 odd people, mostly bored, and disappointed. Maybe for those of us who have grown up on the Bollywood flavor of magic, this is underwhelming. But if you’re ready to step out of your comfort zone, do watch this love affair with dreams. Maybe, it’ll rekindle some lost one of yours too.

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Pulp Poetry: In the Fifth …

[Only for Pulp Fiction fans, the rest may OD on it]

In the fifth your ass goes down

In the fifth, your ass goes down
the fifth is just ’round the corner
sometimes, you open the door
and life stands there
with a barrel of a gun
pointed at you
and if you surprise her
she shoots you

In the fifth, your ass goes down
yes, I know you want to choose
mainly because
you want to believe
you can

that’s pride, fucking with you
fuck pride
for, pride — He will tell you —
only hurts
it never helps;
especially not
in the fifth
when your ass
goes down

but then He lies…
what He means
is this:
pride is only for those
who decide
who’s ass
goes down
in the fifth

and if it’s your ass
that’s supposed to go down,
you swallow your pride
or be prepared
to run
to survive,
you’ve to run with your pride

yes, Zed is dead, babe
Zed did not realize
that you don’t
mess with those
who decide
who’s ass
goes down
in the fifth

Zed was a character
but that doesn’t mean
he had character
in fact
he was
a filthy animal

What you don’t like this?
English, motherfucker
do you speak it?
say what again?
I dare ya
I double dare ya

Anyways,
I don’t even have
an opinion;
I’m sorry
did I break your concentration?
But you see
we have a Bonnie situation
and the fifth,
it’s just round the corner

In the fifth,
your ass goes down.

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The Importance of Zadie Smith

I fell in love with Zadie Smith, the writer, with her very first book that I read. It was On Beauty. A book which in all fairness wasn’t an original story, as it was loosely based on E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End. I didn’t know it back then. And when I finally read that one, I still loved On Beauty more. Since then she’s one of the few writers I have been stalking [1], literally, I mean. I mean, not literally. Literarily. But there is no such word. Long story short, I was eagerly waiting to lay my hands on Smith’s latest book, as soon as it was announced, having already consumed all her previous novels, and an excellent essay collection “Changing My Mind”.

The novel Swing Time takes its title from an eponymous 1936 musical. At the heart of the novel though, are, like any Zadie Smith novel, relationships. This time, between two girls growing up in the London’s housing project, the unnamed narrator, and her friend Tracey; and then as their paths diverge, between the narrator and Aimee, an older singer/celebrity.

The two girls, who have come together thanks to their love for dancing, aren’t really rivals in that department because while Tracey has natural talent for dancing, and looks like is destined for big things, the narrator has doesn’t have any gift, rather is born with a flat foot, and at the very start, the dance teacher has gently but unequivocally made it clear what she cannot achieve with it. But while the friendship flourishes based on this common love, it’s not a relationship between equals, and the narrator is under the spell of a confident and willful Tracey.

In fact this power equation doesn’t change even with Aimee, for whom the narrator starts working for as an assistant, after  a rather disastrous first  meeting. Ironically she is chosen to work for Aimee for speaking her own mind, not caring for her celebrity status.

The story moves from London, to US, to Africa and is structurally Smith’s most complex plot till date, as we move between different timelines, and different geographies, having to hop on and off different trains, rather suddenly, yet smoothly. In terms of characterization, Aimee comes up as a bit of caricature, or a collage of different contemporary artists, and their eccentricities. And the novel suffers in terms of Smith’s primary competency of sketching the characters through their interactions with each other, one on one, mostly, in those parts with Aimee in the picture. But then again, large part of this timeline is with Aimee only as a ghost figure, as the narrator explores life in a small African village while setting up and monitoring a school for young girls, a pet project of Aimee for a brief time.

Arguably, Smith has achieved so much with two of her first three novels — a brilliant debut in White Teeth, and a rich and complex On Beauty — that she is always going to be judged for what she didn’t write. And somewhere, she seems conscious of it in both NW, and Swing Time, trying to do more than the kind of storytelling that her first three books do so well. But I for one am not complaining. Because to an extent this started at On Beauty itself. Only it does the tightrope walking between story telling and philosophizing/cultural-dissection so well that it seems easy enough to repeat, especially for some like her. But of course, it’s enormously difficult. Especially with weight of expectations on a relatively young shoulders. And yet Zadie Smith does it well, again and again.

On the backdrop of the not-so-linear stories of Swing Time, are nuanced explorations into various tricky human subjects – racism, identity, privilege, ambition, friendship, philanthropy and cultural appropriation, dysfunctional homes and virtual homelessness, hurt and shame … To even conceive of an edifice that could hold all this together is a itself a challenge beyond many. That Zadie Smith does take that challenge, again and again, is why she is such an important writer to have among us.


[1] The term “stalking” in this context is not mine, but a friend on twitter used it to denote my excessive obsession with David Foster Wallace. When I complimented him for that term, he said it was used by his friend who happened to be a self-confessed DFW stalker. Incidentally the other writers (apart from Zadie Smith and DFW) I’ve been stalking are: Orhan Pamuk, Amitav Ghosh, Alexander McCall Smith, Hermann Hesse, and Umberto Eco.

 

 

 

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Unbearable Lightness of Silence

I

These awkward silences
don’t feel sorry about them
they’re just a reminder
that we need to tune better;
that awkwardness
is just a discordant note
a note misplaced.

if at all
we should be awkward
about forced conversations
something
we’ve been trained
to feel natural,
comfortable about

the two of us
we need to practise
our timing
of silence,
that is all

II

Who are these people
who leave a thank you note
on your doorstep?

are they “your people”?
are they us or them?
do we even know?

they’re not trying
to be kind
because why would they?
it’s not like they know you
or you them
they just stopped
at your closed door
and left a bunch of flowers
because they cared
about something
you said, or did, or made
something that touched them

not because you are
their brother, sister,
friend, teacher,
whatever;
so I ask again,
are they,
“your people”?

III

The unbearable lightness
of silence
of power failures
of no network access
of a book forgotten at home,
it weighs on us
because in that moment
when it happens,
we’re there,
in the moment

but
what really is weighing
us down —
the information noise
the constant agitation
petty debates
allegiances to party lines
substance free addictions
warning sounds of distractions
need to belong
need to be seen liberated
the dogmas and the isms
tyrannies of loves and hates —
isn’t unbearable
because we’re never
in the moment
to feel it

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Stardust Memories

Yes we’re all made
of stardust
but it’s the stardust
that is tired
after traveling forbidding
cosmic distances;
stardust
that’s long since cooled off,
robbed on the way
of the last bit of energy

stardust
that’s a forgotten legacy
of an exploding sun;
the residue of a failure
glorious in death,
but glory does not survive
the cold inter-space travels
on dull, semi-dead comets
and uninhabited planets
a game of pass the parcel,
changing form
without will
without ambition
without a plan

Instinctively,
we aspire to be stars
but we’re afraid to burn
the stardust that made us
only remembers
that a star is as ephemeral
as a flower
when one looks back
with hindsight
of a cosmic scale;
that star-ity
is a humble reminder
of near-permanence
of failure

Yes we’re all
made of stardust
but we’re not stars
we’re cold, calculating,
and immensely lucky
arrangements of stardust
on improbable islands
of cold starstuff,
who need someone else
to burn
to shine
to explode spectacularly
just for us to be born

 


Title is lift-off of Woody Allen film that I’ve yet to watch, strangely.

Photo Credits: Atul Sabnis.

 

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Review: Dear Zindagi

When I watched Gauri Shinde’s debut movie, English Vinglish, I had zero expectations from it. To be fair, I was in fact afraid I’d be bored. But I was rather charmed in the end. It had its moments. And I could keep my cynicism aside for those two and something hours. With Dear Zindagi, I was already sold, because I do like Alia. Especially after Highway (and that forgettable Two States, in which she managed to shine through the unadulterated crap somehow).  And Gauri Shinde had done enough in her earlier movie to merit a watch.

Did I like it? Yes. Was it a great film, no. I don’t think I was expecting great. But what works here, are a couple of very good performances. Alia just seems effortless as Kaira, totally owning the character, to use a contemporary phrase. SRK as Dr. Khan is closer to Kabir Khan of Chak De than his usual over-the-top character portrayals. Yes, he cannot entirely let go some of the exaggerated head nods and the likes, but I’d rather see SRK like this than when he is running that stupid rat race with Sallu and co.

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The story is quite straightforward. Kaira, a cinematographer, is living the coveted modern life, unmarried, with career aspirations, affairs, and partying. Her relationship status, in Facebook style, would be “it’s complicated”, as she’s involved with her co-worker Raghuvendra (Kunal Kapoor), even as she is dating someone else — the relationship does not survive, and as she doesn’t want to take the other affair to a more serious track, Rahuvendra decides to move on (in a rather strange, unconvincing manner, for the convenience of the plot), just after she has to move back to her parent’s house in Goa for a month thanks to her landlord evicting her on short notice. It’s there, post the breakup (that really wasn’t, because there was no real relationship, just a possibility), that she has to confront the demons in her past/mind, as she , something the hatke psychologist Jug — Jahangir Khan — helps  her identifying, and coming to terms with.

Shot beautifully, with teasing glimpses of South Bombay and quite an eyeful of Goa, the story unfolds at a nice languid pace. Alia is as perfect casting choice for Kaira as could be. Significant part of the movie is in the counseling sessions (indoor and outdoor) with Jug, and those are its better moments (yes it’s a significant violation of “show don’t tell”, but still). The biggest success of Dear Zindagi for me is that it even attempted to chew into this territory, and did a decent enough job with it. Besides, the drama genre in Bollywood is typically filled with melodrama, and there is no space for a more nuanced dialog, which is abundant here. Kaira’s character seems very real and very contemporary. And there is no KJo style gloss to smooth out every hint of texture. Okay, not a lot, just some.

Of course Gauri Shinde is no Anurag Kashyap/Tigmanshu Dhulia. The script is rather weak. Last 20 mins or so really adds nothing, even undoes an otherwise mostly-relate-able/believable narrative. The side characters are quite of the cardboard variety, serving a purpose, or just about it. For those used to better “serious” (not necessarily in content, but intent) cinema, even from Indian directors (Kashyap/Bharadwaj/…) it does seem a little hollow or scratching the surface, while those used to Sallu style instant gratification (I’m assuming, because I frankly don’t understand that shit at all) will find it a little of a drab drag. But between the two ends lies a not-so-narrow niche where some directors seem to be making a play (Zoya Akhtar, Farhan Akhtar, Imtiaz Ali, to name a few), with varied results. And Gauri Shinde surely has the eye on that niche, with two of her films, and deservedly, I’d say.

The thing is, this could have been something really really good with some tight editing, some more depth, a little less pulp. But as it stands, it’s still quite good — worth a watch with all its shortcomings.

What works: lead performances (specifically Alia), cinematography, feel-good, flow, little touches here and there, subject.

What doesn’t: over-closure (I’d say just stop 25 minutes to the stop line and you’ve got a much better movie), weak supporting characters (and hence performances),  a bit shallow (the side effect of feel-good at all costs), the script could have been tighter, a bit preachy. Music is utilitarian, nothing I’d listen to again.

Overall: 3.5/5.


PS: The featured image is a still from the film, and not my own photograph as usually is (with the exception when I borrow one from Atul Sabnis).

Save Me!

sos

I want to send an SOS
just to see
who comes to rescue me;
but the childhood stories
of the boy who cried wolf
hold me back

What if I used up
the one shout
that I had earned
to break the trust?

But I’d be lying
if I said, that is what
stops me,
for these stories
with their obvious morals
always hide something,
the sub-text, if you will
a covert message for those
who really want to see

For what we worry
is not, wasting our
one real chance
but finding out
that no one will come,
that you we never
had a chance