Brace for impact : ‘Sully’

I like chatty pilots, especially those with a fine turn of phrase. But the one time that I could have done without a compulsive talker for a pilot was in September 2010, when I was returning from Spain & Portugal. Our take-off was delayed as some passengers arrived late (their connecting flight was late) and there was congestion at the airport. The Lufthansa captain wasn’t too happy and kept up a running commentary.

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The details are a little hazy now but I remember she said that she was asking permission to fly at a lower altitude than scheduled as we were running low on fuel. When we landed, perhaps at Frankfurt, she announced that the plane was being refuelled with all us on board, and told us to unfasten our seat belts and be prepared for a quick exit if required. I am not a nervous flier, but I confess my heart did a quick flip and I breathed easy only when we were safely up and away once more.

Thankfully, that was the most frightening flight experience I have had. I can’t begin to imagine what I would feel on hearing “This is your Captain. Brace for impact”. This is what Capt. Sully, who was in command of US Airways flight 1549, announced to the 155 passengers and crew on January 15, 2009. With both engines disabled by bird hit, he chose to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River.

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‘Sully’, the movie is directed and co-produced by Clint Eastwood, with Tom Hanks playing the lead with impressive understatement. A finely crafted movie, it is a tribute to the pilot who chose his ‘human’ ability (instinct backed by solid experience). It is also as much a tribute to the rapid response of rescue teams who had all the passengers on board the Airbus 320 safe in less than half hour after the landing.

The heart soars up when one sees such a fortunate coming together of people; as Sully – astonished at finding himself become a hero- said at the end of the hearing that proved that he had taken the right call, it was all of them together who made the miracle on the Hudson happen.

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The irony when most of the world hails Sully as a saviour while his company wants to pin the blame on him, the worries of a career in jeopardy, the family’s pressing need for money – the tumult of emotions are delicately portrayed. As biopics go, this ranks amongst the best; the very simplicity of its narrative makes it a compelling watch. It might just make you go out to the nearest pub and stand everyone a round of beer.

Guru -a Hijra family

This is a photo of two hijras (eunuchs) who appeared during a puja in our family recently.

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I have travelled a long while since the time that I was in a cab in Bombay. At a traffic signal, a hijra leaned in through the window and much to my chagrin, grabbed my dark glasses and demanded money. When I gave her some, she pressed my head with her hands in blessing. I was a bit upset and angered.

Over the years, I have begun to sympathise with them. I am neither put off or frightened by them. Eunuchs typically land up in groups at weddings, housewarmings and such happy occasions and demand money. When people around me express their irritation, I ask them to think if any of them would employ a hijra. They beg because they have no choice – think of how tough it is for them to get out and face life every day, knowing they are alien.

Today as I watched ‘Guru’ a film about a hijra family by Laurie Colson & Axelle Le Dauphin, I felt that it could have only been made by eyes that could see the raw pain and yes, beauty in the life of the mocked and reviled hijras (eunuchs) in India.

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The 1.15 hour documentary travels with Guru, a eunuch in Coimbatore and the 10 women under her care.

Within the closed doors of their home, life seems the same routine of any large Indian family. But out of this cocoon, they traverse a varied path.

From begging for alms to working as sex workers, they lead a hard life. There is a rare acceptability and honour in Lakshmi Amma, the hijras’ Guru’s achievement as a sought after cook at weddings and temple events.

The camera is unobtrusive and all pervasive, as it captures the dreams and the laughter, the yearning and the travails of this community.

Two things in particular struck me: the eunuchs call the castration they embrace ‘nirvanam’ (nirvana).

The second thing that forcibly struck me were the words of one of the eunuchs who says that she ‘longs to be free’ but that isn’t to be; eunuchs are taught from a young age to listen to their elders, to tread the safe path that the family has drawn and to always travel in a group. Substitute hijra with woman, and isn’t it the same that we were told and that we repeat?

Neerja – the bravery of youth

Had she lived, she would have been just a year older than me. At 22, I don’t think I absorbed the tragedy of the Pan Am hijack, but watching the film last night was an immensely moving experience that brought home the play of destiny in our lives.

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Perhaps it was director Ram Madhvani’s deft professionalism, honed over years in the ad business that makes this film move at a slick though unforced pace. In making a film where everyone knows how it ends, the challenge is in showing how it happens. The action is perfectly executed, leaving the viewer on-the-edge of the chair for what happens next.

Hijack is a violent crime, but Madhvani’s film does not have gratuitous physical violence. There’s just enough to build up fear, and it relies much on the psychological build up.

Sonam Kapoor is a perfect match for the 23 year old Neerja, a brave and intelligent underside to the bubbly yet fragile girl. Destiny hands out strange cards, and it was Neerja’s destiny to overcome a personal setback and relaunch her life as a Purser on Pan Am, only to have it cut short. The short life was not lived in vain; she died saving hundreds of fellow passengers, as the several testimonials and awards proclaim. Thanks to her astonishing  efforts, most of the passengers survived the attempted hijack of the Pan Am flight at Karachi on September 5 1986 by the Palestinians of the Abu Nidal Organisation .

Shabana Azmi has essayed a heartbreaking performance as Rama, Neerja’s mother, and it broke my heart. For a couple of minutes, I had to close my eyes, it hurt so bad to see the pain, evoking memories of aching loss. Harish, the father (Yogendra Tiku), raising his daughter to be fearless, was too close to home.

Rama says,”I didn’t raise my daughter brave- I raised to lower her eyes, to watch out for her personal safety.  We turn to men for protection, not women. How did this girl become so brave and help others?” At the end of the movie, tears will flow, but so will a sense of warmth and renewed hope in humanity. There could be many Neerjas out there.

It will also make you less restless about the numerous security checks while flying, and well, just about everywhere.

Smokin’ it up

Friday evening found us at the brand new Smokehouse Deli on 100ft road, Indiranagar. I had called ahead for a reservation; the restaurant called back to apologetically offer a table outdoors. Hello, who in their right minds would choose to sit indoors in Bangalore if there is an option?

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When I went there though, there was not a table free on the miniscule lawn and none that showed signs of emptying any time soon.

My friends were yet to arrive so I stepped down and indoors into the brightly lit restaurant. It seemed blindingly white and I secretly hoped they would not palm us off there. A few minutes looking at the deli section and I was back again on the pavement; where one of the bustling staff (I learnt the next day that he was Riyaaz Amlani, the owner) offered me a drink. “I can hardly drink standing here, can I ?” I quizzed him and was told, “Oh no”, someone would escort me to the bar upstairs. (When I had called to reserve, I was told it was not yet open.)

By friends joined me by then and once again we were invited to go up and have a drink while we waited for a table. “I hope the drink’s on the house”, I said cheekily as we trooped up.

Upstairs was nice, though one my friends had to be hauled up on to the tall chair (ha ha – that was a sight). We decided we didn’t want to move and the same gent instructed our waiter that the first round of drinks would be on the house.  The cocktails were potent, and I don’t say that only because they were free. I did order another that I paid for.

Some of the dishes on the menu were not available that evening but we were not disappointed by the taste of what we had. My tortellini was melt in the mouth delicious; my friends had steaks that they found equally good. The only grouse we had was that portions were a little small – if we had not eaten a starter or devoured the bread sticks, we would have been ravenous after dinner. And at nearly Rs.500 bucks a dish (if you add taxes), that would not have been value for money. Since we were pleasantly full by then, it didn’t bother us as much.

As we left, the owner came by to ask us if we had liked the place. We dutifully informed him of the above, and he didn’t smirk or whine, he took it as constructive criticism. Pat on the back to him and the staff. It was only the third day that they had been open and they delivered very well, considering the pressure of people.

Smoke House Deli is @ No. 1209, Hal IInd Stage, 100ft Road Indiranagar.Tel: 08025200898/ 99

Shashi Deshpande’s whodunit -Ships that pass

 

‘Ships that pass’, Shashi Deshpande’s latest novel took me back in time, with its mood, the characters and the situation to the summers when I perched on the stairs of my grandparents’ house and devoured magazines after my aunts finished reading them.

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Shashi is pleased when I tell her this; “The story was first published in Eve’s Weekly and yes, it is set in the 80s.” Reconstructing the story from fragments of carbon copies that she had typed on her Olivetti, she chose to keep it true to its time and not contemporise it, though she has changed the ending slightly.

Having published over 10 novels, four books of children’s stories, two collections of short stories, two translations and a book of essays, she has another crime story coming out in August, ‘If I die today’ and a novel next April.

“I started off writing short stories and have written about 80 of them. There are some that stayed with me and ‘Ships that pass’ and ‘If I die today’ are a couple of them that I wanted to publish as novels. When writers get old and have nothing new to say, they bring out rubbish from the past. I wanted to publish these before I get older and while I am still active as a writer.”

As we chat, I am moving around picking through my bookshelf for her books and find her first crime novel was ‘Come up & be dead’. It is a find indeed – published in 1983 and sold for Rs 15, it is out of print and much in demand among students writing about her for their PhD theses.

Shashi says she has always been interested in mystery novels as crime happens when human nature is pushed to the extreme. She gave up writing crime fiction as the plotting was getting entangled. “I bump them off (the victims) quite easily but I never know how to end the stories,” she says laughingly.

Crime fiction was an enjoyable experiment for her, inspired over time by Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, PD James, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky. “I love their books because they are specific to where the authors live. I don’t like people who write for the world market,” she says, dismissing the Dan Browns of the world and sadly, my own favourite Alexander Mccall Smith.

She regrets that writers like Sayers have not got their due for their writing ability; having been slotted as crime writers, while the works could easily fit into literary fiction, she says.

One of the reasons that she felt compelled to rework her crime stories into novels is the claim that language does not matter anymore. “Young writers are hailed for dumbing down their writing for their readers. This upset me very much. As a writer your first loyalty is to the language that has developed over centuries. Why should someone centre a book around words like crap, shit and fuck?”

 

Shashi was determined to answer this claim by bringing out a book that is easy to read and has good language. She has.

 

Grilled pink on a Himalayan salt stone

When it comes to cooking, a simple stove will no longer do. While on the higher end of technology, convection cooking is making inroads into home kitchens; a chef at a five-star hotel has gone back to the stone ages.

Chef Arzooman Irani has managed to get a humungous hunk of Pink Himalayan salt all the way from the Potwar plateau of the Punjab region of northern Pakistan to Whitefield in Bangalore. This enterprising young chef at Vivanta By Taj, Whitefield was intrigued by a reference to this stone in his culinary research and determinedly pursued ways to get a section of a boulder of Himalayan salt that now lies snug in the industrial-sized cold storage deep in the innards of this trendy hotel in the campus of a technology park.

About 600 million years ago, in the Pre-Cambrian era, a great inland sea apparently evaporated leading to the formation of the Pink Himalayan salt. Some of the salt boulders weigh over 225 kilos and are hand cut by local masons into a variety of shapes. While the stone slabs are used to cook, they are also made into bowls and plates.

In the luxurious outdoor section of the stylish restaurant Latitude, the pink salt grill sits sweating slightly and self-consciously under the attention being bestowed upon its glistening self.

Our experiential dining started off with sashimi of watermelon and arugula, with feta ginger sheet and balsamic pearls served on tablet of pink salt. Next came Oriental Vegetable skewers with wasabi froth and Thai chicken skewers with coconut and cilantro relish. There was also cherrywood-smoked tuna Carpaccio with radish, fennel and gremolata foam. The dishes were so beautiful that we sat in delighted contemplation for a while before tucking into them.

Grilled to perfection on the pink salt stone, along came a choice of polenta with morels & asparagus and black garlic cream, lobster medallions with citrus basil, sesame crusted yellow fin tuna with teriyaki balsamic and tenderloin with a bloody mary glaze. In for a penny, in for several pounds, we thought and recklessly dipped into the grilled and flambéed chocolate brownie steak and frozen mascarpone.

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The Chef has not tried to cook Indian cuisine on the salt stone, as these dishes need more oil and masalas that might affect the stone.

One of the unique features of the pink Himalayan salt is that it lacks porosity or moisture, thus enabling the salt plates to be safely heated or chilled to extreme temperatures. The salt slabs are frozen to 0° C to serve cold or chilled foods such as sashimi of watermelon or a Carpaccio. They are also slow heated to around 300°C to grill meats or fish.

The salt’s crystal lattice has a fairly high specific energy; once it is heated, it will hold onto the temperature for quite some time. Voila, it becomes an innovative stir-fry counter.

A dining experience of The Pink Salt Stone Grills will tickle your fancy with red roses and wine, and a personal butler and chef to get the sizzle going in a romantic lounge. Now who will fish out the expense account card?

Evam’s happy company

We couldn’t say that we weren’t warned; bold letters told us ‘do not come expecting a play!’ Sure enough, Chennai based entertainment company Evam’s ‘Chasing my Mamet Duck’ was nothing like a conventional theatre production.

First off, we were ushered into Zone A which had a carnival-like atmosphere– cheerful voices hailed out from different sections, urging us to step up and experience. If one corner asked you to pick something from a carpet and leave something of equal value behind, another held velvet cushions with a treasure waiting to be discovered. Yet another wanted your voice, another wanted you to dip you hand in mysterious bags while pinwheels whirled to unheard music.

Zone B was the auditorium and we never knew what to expect next; starting off with a short film, it moved to the central theme of the duck (inspired by David Mamet’s the Duck Variations). Weaving through the dialogue of the two actors whose talk of the duck and its habits seemed to mirror human experiences, were live music, more films and audience interactions which ranged from humorous to poignant.

Evam calls this experiential production ‘transtheatre’ as it transcends different media. Sensitive, bold, cheeky and high on energy, it is symbolic of this enterprise which has struck a new path in India.

Started by two young graduates of the Mudra Institute of Communications, Sunil Vishnu K and Karthik Kumar, Evam is going to be 10 years old next year. Along the way, it has gained plaudits for its theatrical productions and also for having become a successful business enterprise. CNBC cited it as one of its ‘Young Turks’ in 2007, it was among the top 25 Pepsi MTV ‘Youth Icons’ 2008 and made it to the Top 30 finalists of Tata-NEN Hottest Start ups, 2008. Sunil was the India finalist for the Young Performing Arts Entrepreneur Award given by the British Council in 2009.

Its success has inspired two case studies by IIM students. “We learnt as we went along, there is no formula and the learning will differ from market to market”, Sunil tells me when we catch up for a chat. I must confess a partiality to him as he did a very engaging reading at the launch of our Best of Chennai book a couple of years ago.

Its grand plan is to get more performance opportunities for other live art and create an audience that would react enthusiastically as much to theatre as it would to music. “We need to create a robust ecosystem for live performing art”. It’s a challenge to make it viable for the producers and artists while making it affordable to all; especially underprivileged kids who would not get access to such art.

This year it is starting a regular season of plays in Chennai and Bangalore, stand up comedies and theatre workshops alongside its corporate training programmes. With a play being debuted in Prithvi this week, it looks like 2012 is already packed with action. What drives them undoubtedly is the way they describe themselves, “Happiness is our core offering and theatre is our core medium”. More power to Evam!