Macbeth

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth, 5.5

My fascination with Macbeth, and indeed with Shakespeare probably began in 9th grade when we were taught the above soliloquy as part of our curriculum. Further it was enhanced when I watched what I feel, even today, as the greatest adaptation of the play – Akira Kurasawa’s Throne of Blood.

A mind boggling rendition of the Bard’s classic, Throne of Blood was a film that left a huge mark on me. Indeed if I end up as a director one day, I’m sure that on my list of inspirations, Throne of Blood would occupy prime real estate. Needless to say, any and all adaptions of the play I tend to compare to this film. Justin Kurzel‘s version did not disappoint.

What strikes you first and foremost about Kurzel’s Macbeth is the breathtaking visuals. Cinematographer Adam Arkpaw (True Detective) is a real master of his craft. Capturing the essence of the play and Macbeth’s character itself, juxtaposing it with the darkness and ambiguity of the fog really plays on the audience’s mind. Remakes, I believe, should be judged on the basis of what they add to the story and mythology surrounding the original work. In this case I think it adds to the lore by giving us a backdrop to forever imagine Macbeth playing out in.

Performances have been stand out as well. Fassbended is once again seen in his comfort zone – brooding and deeply conflicted hero, one he is increasingly becoming the master of. The stand out, as always, was Marion Cotillard. I don’t have enough words in my vocabulary to praise Cotillard. She is an astounding actress capable of delivering serious depth in her performances, which she does brilliantly here as well.

All in all a film that is not perfect but a good enough rendition of Macbeth, not for those who don’t enjoy the beauty of classic literature, however.

Independence Day

For the most part of my life I have been away from my country. Born in 1993 in scenic Thrissur, Kerala, I was taken to Dubai at the age of two to be part of large and subsequently atomic family. Most of the important events in my life, my first day of school, my first pair of shiny shoes, the birth of my dear sibling, etc. all happened in Dubai. For all intents and purposes, for all its perceivable faults, Dubai is home for me. It’s hard to explain then why I never really felt like I belonged to that city, or the city to me. I’ve never, for a single second, felt like anything other than an Indian. I’ve never felt like I’ve belonged to any other country. This blog post today is probably my way of making sense of that.

India is a nation like no other. In many ways we should not work. With more than a billion people, speaking more than a hundred languages, practicing numerous religions and differing socio-economic backgrounds to boot, there’s no conceivable way in which we should work. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments in time when we don’t work, the Gujrat riots is a pretty good example. For the most part however, the nation does seem to function without any hindrances. What forged our national identity then? For the Germans you can imagine it was probably that they all spoke German, as it probably is for most other nations.

I think what forged our national identity is a common enemy. The enemy that came into our land hundreds of years ago and systematically oppressed us for their own gain. The United States, I believe, forged an identity based on the same plight with the same oppressor. There are fundamental differences to the means in which we fought and achieved freedom from the common oppressor, however. How we achieved it fundamentally changed the destinies of our nations as well.

I’ve heard commentators in the US call their culture an inherently violent one because of the nature in which they achieved their independence. Does that mean India is an inherently non-violent one? I have always thought our inability to react strongly in the foreign sphere was largely due to the fact that we espoused ideals of non-violence and peaceful protests creating this country, so taking a militaristic stand would be hypocritical. This is not to say we haven’t fought wars, of course we have and with mixed results. We have to admit though that foreign policy wise India has been something of a pushover, it recently even backed down from taking a hard line against Israel for its treatment of Palestine and no one batted an eye. I digress.

My theory on how we forged our national identity, and I think many would agree, is the fight for Independence. Independence, in creating a nation, also created something for us to cherish – the Indian. The importance of this day lies in the fact that we’re not only celebrating the British leaving, but also the birth of the culmination of effort that went into creating this shared idea of being Indian. Oppression doesn’t just take the physical form, it is largely in fact mental. Fellow Indians, if you do anything today, let it not just be singing the national anthem or looking on proudly as the Tricolour flies; pledge that you’ll identify with not your state or language or religion or anything that is that arbitrary. Identify instead with the idea that hundreds, thousands, even millions gave their lives to achieve. Identify with being Indian first and foremost.

My love letter to Orwell’s love letter to language – 1984

Plot is important, grammatical accuracy is important, providing a metaphor for life on this planet is important. Above all those things, to me what makes a genuinely good book great is its ability to inspire emotions. The emotion a piece of literature evokes does not necessarily have to be sadness or existentialism, it can be happiness or carpe diem. The Lowlands by Jhumpa Lahiri, for example, was a fascinating book that was oh so well written. Her command on the English language is commendable to say the least but what it failed to do, at least in my view, was inspire some sort of empathy in the reader. I didn’t connect with a single character in the book as they went through tumultuous lives. What lies ahead from this point is wrought with spoilers, I must warn you. For I cannot express my absolute love for this book without telling you details about it. They may not be spoilers of a plot variety but of an emotional variety, something that I think is equally deplorable. So if you haven’t read 1984,  look away, pick it up, read it and then read this piece. If you’re never going to, maybe my post will inspire you to do so. I’ll be buoyant if that is the case.

I’ve wanted to cry through the course of many books. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini is a fine example: the plights of the two women and the intricate nature in which Hosseini was able to craft the tale still chokes me up. 1984 though is a different sort of ride. No book has made so hopeful, so sanguine about humanity, only to be plunged into the deepest depths of despair in the end. The mark that it has left on my life and thinking is unquantifiable and deep-seated. 1984 has shaped my opinion on many issues that range from totalitarianism to freedom of expression and the importance of individuality. Politics was not something I was inherently interested in, I therefore credit 1984 for waking me up from my ignorant slumber to discover that the horrors of Winston Smith’s world were slowly coming to fruition.

For the uninitiated, 1984 is a book about one man, Winston Smith, coming to grips with the reality that The Party that rules a third of the world, that he has been serving since birth almost is not a force of protection but of oppression. He slowly starts conducting what is in his mind rebellions against The Party. The plot in itself is almost unimportant to me. The concepts discussed in the book, the theories that Orwell puts forward are fascinating and still widely applicable. I even read somewhere that the regime in the book was used as a blueprint for communist China and North Korea.

Discussions of 1984 have always centered around the totalitarian regime detailed in the book and how collectivization of culture probably slowly brought it to being. Something that I had in turn largely ignored was the means in which the totalitarian government of 1984 was imposing its will and maintaining its status of omnipotence and persistence. One of the primary methods The Party used to stay in power was the systematic oppression of individual thought. How? It invented and cultivated a new language called Newspeak that stripped English of all its beauty, leaving behind the barest of bare necessities.

Language is our only means of expressing individual thought. Language is the cornerstone to freedom in many ways, because as someone on the internet pointed out, if there was no language to express your disdain for something, it is as if the disdain never existed. True freedom comes from knowing that you have the ability to criticize something without facing backlash from the authorities. The problem with totalitarian governments, whether fictional like in 1984, or real like North Korea, is that they have to impose a strict crackdown of freedom of speech for fear of being exposed of their wrong doings. Within the many many concepts of 1984 lies a tribute to the one aspect of life we completely fail to appreciate – our ability to comprehend what it is that someone else is trying to say. Within the depths of 1984 Orwell is telling us the importance of language. Language is why I am able to type today and you are able to understand. Language was invented for wooing women, as Robin Williams famously says in Dead Poet’s Society. Language is the most important catalyst to free thought and it’s time we celebrated it.

Ex Machina, an analysis.

I’ve always had an innate love for good writing. I also have an admiration for psychological manipulation. And additionally, I have deep respect for writers who can catch me off guard. This film fulfills all the above criteria, and how. Allow me to elaborate.

Ex Machina is, of course, the story of an AI, a concept that predates computing. I believe human beings have been obsessed with intelligence of any kind ever since we recognized our own. A philosopher may attribute this to a God complex of some sort but I’m no philosopher. Frankenstein fear is the normal route for AI’s in films, something recently explored in Age of Ultron (I’ll go there in a second). However, there have been those few films and books where the presence of an AI doesn’t go directly to the Frankenstein complex and Ex Machina thankfully is one of those. Here’s a film that isn’t outwardly afraid of the AI and that’s a really refreshing change of pace.

2015 saw a bigger and badder AI than Ava (the AI of Ex Machina) – Ultron. Full disclosure, I’m a MCU-ite, any and all forms of it. Ultron is also my favourite baddie in the comic book universe. How good was James Spader as Ultron though? I knew he would do a good job since they announced it, of course. There really was, as Joss Whedon puts it, no one else who could do justice to that role. But I’m getting side tracked. The point of this essay/blogpost is to act as a comparison between the two films that are obviously poles apart but do have one thing in common – philosophical questions about the AI. The difference however lies in the fact that while Ex Machina is almost like a tribute to the philosophy of the AI, the AI is almost secondary to Age of Ultron, a means to an end. Ultron is fan-boy-wet-dream-Whedon’s interpretation of the NSA spying that came as a direct result of the 9/11 interpretation that was the Chitauri invasion of New York (even the same city). The film therefore is largely allegorical and the existence of the AI is merely incidental.

Ex Machina on the other hand is all about that AI. Ava is the star. She is being put to the infamous Turing test, to see if she is really thinking or acting like she is thinking. Sound complex? Well it’s a complex film. Many films deliver a surprise twist. Generally the twist is a physical one, Ex Machina’s big twist is quite emotional. It plays with your head, makes you believe you are seeing something when in reality something else is going on. It’s really a fantastic film that I hope at least gets a nod for Best Original Screenplay next year.

Ex Machina is very much an essay to the AI concept and it is for those who like a film that respects their intelligence and emotional capabilities. Watch it, now.

Rosewater

Comedic genius. Satirical god. These are just some of the phrases anyone would happily attach to Jon Stewart. Journalist, however, is the one I would associate him with most. Jon has shaped the comedic voice of Television satire, reinvigorating it and provided it with a purpose. Jon is also the embodiment of why Freedom of Speech is the most important aspect of a free and democratic society.

Rosewater has its flaws. There were moments where, millennial that I am, I paused and checked my Twitter feed. However it does deliver its message fantastically, as Jon has become synonymous with doing. It reminds us of that freedom that we take for granted every day, that proper journalists strive and take great risks to practice. Jon, as anyone who watches the Daily Show regularly will tell you, is an admirer of journalism. Just watch his berating of Judith Miller from a couple of weeks ago, it will tell you how much it pains him when the profession is taken advantage of. His staunch respect for the field is well reflected in Rosewater. He shows a deep understanding of the journalistic mind, something that is arguably obligatory for a satirist. He tells us, in the classic Jon way of acting merely as an observer, of the plight of a man wrongly imprisoned for doing his job.

In retrospect what was brilliant was his delivery of the message that oppressors are really the ones tortured even when they commit torture. Kim Bodnia is my favourite actor from Scandinavia, someone I’ve admired ever since Bron/Broen. His performance as the eponymous Rosewater stands out as the means of this message’s delivery. The number of layers he is able to portray, that Jon is able to make him portray, in the film is astounding. While the acting on the whole in the film is good, Kim Bodnia especially does a memorable job.

The film serves as a reminder to us all to not take the freedoms afforded to us by our governments for granted. Use it, and use it wisely. Do not use it to propagate a message that you do not believe in, or one that is borne out of greed. Use it to propagate love, peace and most importantly the truth.

War is an industry.

War is an industry
One big machine churning away
She yearns for eternal devastation
Death, blood, bullets and famine

War is an industry
Of not steel, nor iron, nor oil, nor man
Of steel, of iron, of oil, against man
Profit against loss, man against man

War is an industry
The machine runs on the fuel fear
A machine maintained with utmost care
Repairmen with microphones not spanners

War is an industry
Spectacular is her incredible reach
Influence she buys not free, free
Ever expanding, terrorizing, fortifying, terrifying

War is nothing but a profitable industry.

Nightcrawler – a film review

It’s been a long week of catching up. I’ve watched most of the films that were nominated (or deserved to be nominated) for Best Picture at the hugely politicized but utterly unmissable Academy Awards. Nightcrawler was my last one and the only one where I thought I could add anything new to the critique that it has generated.

On the face of it Nightcrawler is unoriginal in its concept, that of taking a profession that isn’t heavily sought after and isn’t entirely moral in every connotation of the word and then putting it on display. What makes it original though is that Nightcrawler isn’t a study on morality. Nightcrawler is a film that is completely unbiased and though there are characters that question the ethical consequences of actions principal characters in this film take, it isn’t fairly important. The characters are thoroughly devoid of morality in some cases, especially Jake Gyllenhaal’s, and you would expect that from the career path they’ve taken.

Structurally this is a film that’s well written and well executed and most of all thoroughly well acted. Was Jake better than Micheal Keaton in Birdman? Questionable. What Nightcraweler is though, is as career defining as Birdman for Keaton. This maybe the performance we will judge him against from now on. No pressure.

4 stars.

The Job Seeker – an original story

This story is dedicated to Madhuri Maitra, my creative writing teacher who taught me how to rewrite.

Rafeeq graduated on the same day as the Delhi 2012 bombing; the rest of the world may think it was a coincidence but he knew it to be divine cruelty. The value of an MBA takes a steep dive when the entire country is forced into war. The only commodities worth manufacturing now were food grains and medical supplies. Even then there heavy price restrictions. But one still needed money to buy food. Hunger had become an omnipresent entity and jobs were scarce.

That past week he had already attended 11 job interviews. He had called up many companies for the umpteenth time, and they all gave him the same “I’m sorry, but you are just not right for us right now” line. He would have given up years ago if he had the luxury, but he knew he couldn’t. And that drove him to the next one, and the next one, and so on.

Back at home, his ailing-father’s-ammunition-factory-job was what was keeping the entire family alive. He had been a successful paan wholesaler but had taken this job once his business went bust at the beginning of The War. Just last week a notice had come from the factory stating that the sole bread winner of the family was no longer needed to serve at his grand post of a safaiiwala. They had started noticing that Ali, that was his name, was creating more messes than he was cleaning them.

Ali’s dismissal sent shockwaves through the entire family. Mariya, his wife, now forced herself to live on only a single meal a day, quietly giving the rest of the family her portion. Nasreen, Rafeeq’s sister, had left her college long ago, and now had taken to a small job cleaning people’s houses; though this job didn’t really pay well since other people, even the richest, themselves didn’t have much disposable money. All this while Rafeeq still hunted for that one opportunity he had been denied for the past 3 years.

Rafeeq had already borrowed from every viable source. The loan sharks were closing in and had already taken Ali’s old Scooter. One by one all of Mariya’s and Nasreen’s jewelry had also been taken. They had already started camping out in front of their house. Rafeeq and family were on the verge of committing group suicide.
All this had changed when The Large Man had offered him a job. He had rescued his family from their depths of their gapping chasms of lives. That was two months ago. Now Rafeeq wore expensive new clothes and drank very expensive cups of coffee, a habit he had picked up over the past few weeks of prosperity.

He looked at his quite expensive watch. There was still an hour left for his project to start. He hailed an autorickshaw. His mind drifted back to his first meeting with him. He still remembered the large man’s visit like it was just yesterday. To the untrained eye he was a regular passer-by. Nothing stood out about him except his muscular frame, which could be compared to yesteryear’s comic book hero Superman. He wore a plain checked shirt and denims to match. It was almost as if he was trying to blend in. He made his approach when he was sure that Rafeeq was alone.

‘Hello, Rafeeq Ali I presume?’ the large man had asked, almost rhetorically in his deep voice. He had been researching Rafeeq for days. A detail like a name would be the last thing to slip his mind. Conversations had to start from somewhere though.

‘Yes? Can I help you?’ Rafeeq had been taken a little by surprise.

‘We’ll see,’ the man had said suspiciously. ‘We hear you have been looking for a job?’

‘We?’ Rafeeq had queried, not in the mood to dilly-dally.

‘All in good time, Rafeeq. Right now, how about you answer my question?’

‘Okay then, yes, I’ve been looking for a job for a while now.’ His annoyance had started to show in his voice. ‘What’s it to you?’

‘Well I’m here to offer you a job, Rafeeq.’

‘What kind of job?’

‘Patience, Rafeeq, is a very important virtue. I will tell you everything in good time. Shall we go sit and talk? It’s not easy to carry on a conversation on the streets.’

‘I cannot afford to just come, sit and waste away my time on some random stranger. I have to go now, sorry.’

Rafeeq was about to walk away when the large man produced a 1000 rupee note. He stared at it with astonishment. He hadn’t seen one in years and was relishing the sight of it now.

‘I’ll make it worth your while,’ the large man had said temptingly.

‘Okay.’ Rafeeq had no idea that he had just signed a deal with the devil.

The two of them went to a nearby café, King’s, and the large man ordered two coffees. Coffee was a luxury Rafeeq had forgotten and he happily took huge gulps, burning his tongue in his excitement. He was in the process of wailing for the burned tongue when the large man cleared his throat.

‘My name is Rashid, Rashid Mohammed Khan.’ The large man began. ‘I have a job. But first I just need to confirm a few details with you.’ He said brusquely.

‘Go ahead,’ Rafeeq said in between sips. He had forgotten all about his burned tongue.

‘Your family needs money, am I right?’

‘How do you know?’ inquired Rafeeq. This whole scene was getting more suspicious by the second, Rafeeq thought.

‘I told you, we’ve been looking in to you. I’ll take that as a yes. You tried to join the army a few months back, am I right?’ Rafeeq had nodded in agreement. ‘But they rejected you because you didn’t meet their height requirement, yes?’

‘Yes. I’ve been looking for a job since 3 years, sir,’ he whined, ‘I’m a qualified MBA degree holder and everyone refuses to hire me.’ The indignation he bottled up had started to pour out. All it took to change his tone was a cup of coffee and a little kindness.

‘I know, Rafeeq. So I guess you trying to join the army were not an act of patriotism from your part?’

‘Not at all, sir.’

‘I see. The war has been tough on you, hasn’t it?’ Rashid had asked in the most considerate of tones his deep voice could muster up.

‘My family is suffering, sir. And with my father out of a job, things have really taken a turn for the worse.’ Tears had started to appear in Rafeeq’s big brown eyes.

‘I can imagine, Rafeeq. It must be worse to see your sweet sister clean her way through other people’s houses for just basic wages.’

‘You sure know a lot, sir,’ he had managed through his tears.

‘My company takes research very seriously.’ Rashid had produced a tissue from his pocket and offered it to Rafeeq. Rafeeq had promptly accepted it and wiped away his tears. ‘I think it’s time I told you a little about my organization, Rafeeq. We are a multi-national corporation that deals in mostly arms and ammunitions, especially on special projects.’

‘Arms and ammunitions and special projects? I thought Arms and Ammunitions weren’t allowed to be traded in India?’ Rafeeq had asked apprehensively.

‘That’s really none of your business. How much do you know about this war?’

‘I know that it was started by the Pakistanis with the 2012 bombing of the Indian parliament and that we retaliated soon, bombing Islamabad. Since then the war has been taking its toll on both countries for years.’
‘Good. My organization is actually based in Pakistan and we desperately need this war to keep on going. It has shown some signs of slowing down recently and that is really bad for business.’

‘What!’ Rafeeq had been appalled, ‘you want to keep a war that takes millions of lives every month going?!’

‘It’s nothing personal, Rafeeq, just business.’ Rashid had said in his calm deep voice.

‘What sort of business do you run, man!’

‘A successful one. First of all stop shouting, this is a café and people will start looking.’ Rashid had a quick look around and said, ‘Okay listen, we have come to the conclusion that another bombing of Delhi would spark of an entirely new wave of emotion in the people. The war would rekindle and our business would be throw profits like a machine gun.’

‘Another bombing of Delhi?’ Rafeeq had said in distress. ‘Do you know how many innocent lives were lost in the first one?’

The man had a glitter in his eye when he said ‘Who do you think caused the first one.’

‘What! I’m going to call the police right now!’ he jumped up.

‘There’s no point, Rafeeq.’ Rashid had said coolly. ‘No one would believe you.’

‘Why are you telling me all this anyway?’ Rafeeq had slowly eased in to his chair again.

‘Good question. We realized that using a Jihadist last time was a mistake. Those people don’t leave any impact. The real impact comes when you use a countryman to blow up his fellow brothers and sisters. This would show the extent of your enemy’s reach. And that’s where you come in.’

His thoughts were interrupted by his auto coming to a halt. The crowd at India Gate was as loud as usual. He promptly paid the driver his fare and walked up to the centre of the large ground that surrounded the monument. The vest he was wearing underneath was itchy but that was the last thing on his mind right now. His entire life was flashing in front of his eyes. He could imagine the smiles on his parents’ faces when they got the money. And he could imagine the disappointment and sorrow in his mother’s eyes when she found out what he had done to earn it.

He slowly took out the remote they had supplied him with. A big red button marked the trigger for the bomb. He got himself into the most crowded portion of the ground he could find and put his fingers on the remote.
The bomb would take a few seconds to detonate, Rashid had told him. An innocent passerby heard the sudden beeps that were emanating from Rafeeq’s person. ‘Sir, you seem to be beeping,’ he curiously pointed out to Rafeeq.

‘I’m sorry,’ was all Rafeeq could manage to say.

Poverty – an angle I hadn’t yet considered

For me films have always held a high value. They’ve helped me get through hard times, they’ve been my gateway to the world and they’ve helped me understand life. I’ve never been a big fan of documentaries. Sure, Micheal Moore is fantastic and there are some great ones out there but not until watching Poverty, Inc at the Leeds International Film Festival did I really think there was something to this genre.

Poverty, Inc is an eye-opening documentary. It redefines the whole notion of aid given to the so called ‘poorer’ countries. It shows us how by giving support to those countries, of which my home India is one of, they are being robbed of an opportunity to stand on their own two feet.

Documentaries are great, I guess. What I dislike though is how many of them present the problem and don’t give us any solutions. What Poverty, Inc does is it shows us how to address the problem, not just diagnose it. It shows us live examples of how people have solved the problem adopting their methods.

Poverty, Inc is a well made film and I urge you all to watch it if it comes around to a festival near you.

Haider – a film review

Haider was the first proper movie I watched in Leeds. I say proper because I’ve watched three others as part of my membership of the Leeds university Film Society (newspeak – FilmSoc) which screens its films in a big in house theatre complete with a state of the art sound system. Yeah, I love my uni. But I digress.

Haider is not the easiest of movies to watch. It’s long, quite boring in bits for a person who doesn’t enjoy cinema in its full splendour. It’s an adaption of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which by characterization makes it difficult to watch. Power your way through though because what lies ahead is probably one of Vishal Bharadwaj’s finest.

Kashmir is a tricky topic to handle. To make the argument from what seemed to be the militant side is an even trickier topic. To say he did justice to Kashmir (the cinematography was breathtaking, even in the most gruesome scenes; I would go as far as saying it was quite close to Roja in terms of camera work) and to the original play would be an understatement. Bharadwaj has always had an ear for music that goes with his films and this was no different in that aspect. Dark and twisted at times, he uses the film to explore a lot of psychological feelings that we have buried deep inside.

Shahid Kapoor was one of my disappointments of the first half of the film but he kind of redeems himself in the final third. In what little of a role she had, Shraddha Kapoor did a fine job too. The standout performance is however quite predictably delivered from Tabu. Kay Kay Menon I thought did justice to his role too, though he could’ve done a little better perhaps.

I have to give a special mention to the writing of the film which I thought was beyond creditworthy. There moments in the movie where I would just reflexively go ‘waah’. To get that beauty in bleak surroundings has to be some special kind of talent.

Haider is an emotional whirlwind that takes you for quite a ride and then leaves you stranded in a land where you can’t help but feel overwhelmed with what just happened.

4.5 stars out of 5.