Monday, November 26, 2012

Life of Pi - a Movie That Disappoints and Delights

Generally newspaper reviews are my guide to which movie is watchable and which not. And I generally don’t find newspaper reviews misguiding. But this time I refused to agree with them. I watched Life of Pi on Saturday with high expectations and was left a little disappointed.

Pi Patel is growing up in Pondicherry where his father owns a zoo. When Pi is 16, his father decides to migrate to Canada with his family for better business prospects. The zoo animals will be sold there. On their voyage to Canada, their ship, a Japanese liner, finds itself in a storm and sinks leaving Pi’s parents dead and Pi floating on the Pacific on a lifeboat with four animals, a Royal Bengal tiger, hyena, an orangutan and a zebra. The hyena kills the orangutan and zebra and the Bengal tiger slays the hyena becoming the only animal on the boat sharing it with Pi. The story is being narrated, in flashback, years later, by a grown-up Pi to a writer.

The movie is around one-and-half-hours long and what I outlined occupies just 40 to 45 minutes of the movie.

The rest of the movie is about Pi and the tiger negotiating different challenges on the sea in what seems like ceaseless sea wandering. That’s my problem with the movie. Since the time the ship meets with a shipwreck till the time Pi and the tiger make it to an island, there is no story, only some adventures which make for excellent visual experience but fail to prevent you from feeling – great, but where is the story headed. Actually the problem is not with the story; the problem is with how it has been structured. I don’t know how the story pans out in the book and how much of it has been changed for the movie. But the movie doesn’t work beyond the shipwreck until they reach the island.

I think, instead of telling the story in a linear form, starting where it starts and ending where it ends, if the movie had started from the point where the Patel family boards the liner, and then moved the narrative back and forth in time showing their present with brief visits to their past to substantiate their present - then the empty space from the shipwreck to island wouldn’t have stared at you for 45 minutes. And because of the background narration by the grown-up Pi, the back-and-forth style would have worked just fine.

However, to dismiss the entire movie only for those 45 minutes would be cruel. The movie has many delightful moments created with the aid of technology. When Pi is in a caste-away mode floating aimlessly on the ocean, there are some breathtaking scenes – and they leap (thanks to 3D) at you to break the monotony. The scene that particularly stands out is when after a while on the sea, after facing a few hurdles and having overcome them, when Pi seemed set for a hassle-free journey, a huge whale loops up sending Pi’s coracle up in the air on its way up, tossing his stock of tinned food up and then down into the water. The screen blacks out only showing the whale while it's under water and then lights up as the giant leaps out of the surface.

For children, these scenes are breathtaking; they will surely delight adults, but they may want a little more than them out of the film.

The movie is worth a watch and a repeat only for the visual effects and nothing else.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson

There are books that come and sink without a trace and there are books that figure in literary discussions even centuries after they were written. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson is one of them.

I had read a book on the day-to-day account of Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the Indies and had developed interest in stories about people from the Western world travelling to obscure lands in search of treasure. Treasure Island for me is part of the family of such adventure books written in 18th and 19th centuries.

However, Treasure Island is conventionally considered as a book for children, like Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Dafoe. As a kid I had read Robinson Crusoe as part of my school syllabus and remembered the story vaguely and used to confuse it with Treasure Island. Reading Treasure Island helped me separate the two.

Treasure Island is written in first person and the hero, Jim Hawking, narrates the story. Jim comes to know of a treasure trove tucked away in an unknown island. He together with others goes to the island in search of it. They meet with lot of challenges on their voyage, wading through rebellions, fights, switching of loyalties etc., they finally get to the treasure.

The characters have no grown-up complexities. Their simplicity, however, is their strength – it endears and immortalizes them to the reader. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Homes is one such character. A reviewer had written that had Arthur Conan Doyle been a better writer and sketched Sherlock Homes more skillfully, the detective would be forgotten by now.

The fact that Sherlock Homes is nothing but the sum up of some styles (how he lights up his pipe, how he delivers his repartees, how he dresses etc – not personality traits but style statements) has made him easily interpretable to successive generations and adaptable to movies. Similarly, if you read Treasure Island, characters like Long John the ship cook and Captain Flint will remain with you. They become lovable whether they are good or bad.

The book I read is a Penguin Classic and it contains an author’s note at the end where Stevenson shares his experience of writing Treasure Island. He admits he hadn’t bothered about fine writing and characterization as it was going to be a children’s book. Treasure Island was Stevenson’s first published book but certainly not his first attempt at writing a novel. He had tried writing novels before but had not been able to take anything to a satisfactory end.

The idea of Treasure Island had come to him from a map of an island he had made sitting in painter friend’s room. He started writing the chapters and the book started taking shape. Stevenson also confesses to having been inspired by several books that had been written before. From them he generously borrowed ideas, characters, changing their names and details to masquerade them. My Penguin edition produces a chapter from a book to which the character Captain Flint owes its origin.

Ever since I finished Treasure Island, I have been looking to read the book I had read as a kid and have almost forgotten - Robinson Crusoe.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

How Calcutta Durga puja has changed

This time I saw Durga puja in Calutta for the first time since I left Calcutta eight years back. Durga puja has remained the same in spirit but a lot else has changed. Earlier pandals (make shift structures hosting the idol) resembled hastily put together relief camps; now they look like grand arty affairs. In fact, most attention of puja organizers now seems to center around aesthetics of pandals and idols, which, unlike in the past, are built based on various themes. Some of the puja pandals I visited were built based on lotus, universe and so on.

Except a very few pujas, organizing pujas has become an extremely costly affair. Earlier, puja organizers used to visit families residing within the sphere of a puja (almost all areas have their own pujas) and collect donation, anything from Rs. 10, 100 to 1000 and above. Your donation amount depended on your social standing and affordability and if you were too stingy the collectors would put soft pressure on you to part with a decent amount but nothing abnormally high.

Collecting donations from households has become a thing of yore. Pujas have become so big that minor household dole outs can’t accommodate their costs. Now pujas subsist on advertisement revenues collected from corporations. It’s not that corporations weren’t part of Durga puja earlier. But now their presence has become much bigger and they are the biggest funders of most pujas. So you have big banners and buntings surrounding all puja pandals (much more than before).

All these have increased the number of people going pandal hopping, unlike in the past when people coming from main Calcutta mostly used to stick to their area pujas with very minimal venture outs.

Street food is a significant part of puja and it has got substantially corporatized. For every five vendors who come from the unorganized sector, there are at least two to three who represent brands.

I think corporatization has happened for good reasons – because, if anything, it has injected a longer life and vigor into Durga puja by ensuring a stable stream of fund for it, without essentially changing the character of how Durga puja is celebrated or displacing anyone from the economic ecosystem of the puja (organized brands and individual vendors exist side by side). And as for emphasis on aesthetics and grandeur, any person familiar with Durga puja will tell you that it was always more about revelry and celebration of a culture and less about religiosity.

I arrived in Calcutta on Sashti and read the Telegraph, but a little towards the afternoon on Saptami, the next day, I realized I hadn’t read any paper at all. I asked my mother and came to know of another change – that there would be no paper during the four days of the puja.

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