Villain on screen & a gentle soul off it

 

SRID9586He may be a villain on screen, but in real life, he is an erudite polyglot who wears his fame very lightly and is sensitive to social imbalances. Prakash Rai aka Prakash Raj has adopted a village that he hopes would become a model.

This Bengaluru huduga has shot to national fame, but when he spoke to us at the Rotary Club of Bangalore last Monday, there were no starry airs. He preferred to answer questions from the audience. Three key points have stayed with me:

Persistent demands for him to quote dialogues from his film were met with the stoic and dignified reply, “I get paid to say my dialogue”. When someone asked him yet again, he cited the example of veteran Hindi actor Raaj Kumar who when asked to say dialogues at a party by an army officer, retorted, ‘Why don’t you do a march past?’.

Prakash is an avid reader, and can speak and read all the languages of the films in which he acts. “I would just be a parrot if I said the dialogue without understanding the context of the culture.” He added, “ Learning to speak a language shows that you respect the people of the land.” (Will all those who crib about learning Kannada or the language of any region that they live in, learn from this great person?)

What would he have been had he not been an actor? “Even had I been a mechanic, I would have been an award-winning mechanic”, he said without sounding the least bit boastful. This is my motto too, and as you can see, I acted like a complete fangirl.

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There is a little backstory that I want to share too. When I published Allen’s novel a few months after he passed away in 2009, I relied on our friend and old colleague Prakash Belawadi to help me with the launch. He wanted Prakash Rai/Raj to be present, as Allen Mendonca who was also a film critic had apparently shared a rapport with the actor. But Prakash Raj was away at a shoot, and couldn’t be at the launch. Yesterday, six and half years later, the President of the Rotary Club presented him with a memento and without knowing what it was, Prakash opened the gift wrap and smiled when he saw the cover of Sentinel House.

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President of Rotary Club o Bangalore Ranga Rao hands over a memento to the speaker of the day, award-winning actor Prakash Raj.
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Aditya Mendonca is thrilled when Prakash Raj holds up the book authored by Allen Mendonca.
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The ‘green’ man of theatre

In 36 years of theatre, Bimal Desai has been around the park several times. I refer to Cubbon Park, to save which Desai has battled over the years. “I have achieved very little and lost quite a bit”, he says. But it is thanks to him that gates came up, entry banned for traffic in the mornings, shooting of films stopped, political and other sundry public rallys were banned totally inside the park.

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In one of life’s coincidences, I was at Cubbon Park one Sunday morning to watch a young colleague and her friends perform ‘A midsummer night’s dream’. The same night I went to Lavina and Bimal Desai’s utterly gorgeous home to celebrate the 36 fun years he has spent in theatre. Just a few days earlier, he had directed ‘Twice around the park’ at a theatre festival.

The characteristic that strikes you most about Desai is his down-to-earth attitude. For him theatre is entertainment, and he lays it out there, plain and simple. Not for him the exploration of angst or complexities of interpretations.

His theatre company Theatre Lab has done 40 plays so far, notable among them being ‘God’ by Woody Allen, ‘Plaza Suite’ by Neil Simon, ‘Catch me if you can’, an adaptation of Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert’s work and ‘Rough Crossing’ by Tom Stoppard.

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Ashok Mandanna heads the list of his favourite actors, who include Judith Roby, Tuffy (Darius) Taraporevala, Coco, Brian Nobbay and Prakash Belawadi. “My most memorable moment was acting for the first time opposite Ashok Mandanna. It was a dream come true”, he confesses in fanboy candour.

“It was during college in MES that my interest in theatre came alive. I was the pioneer in starting inter class English plays in college. I was a member of BLT in 1980’s. It was very difficult to get a break as an actor. Both Mahesh Dattani and I used to do production work. The frustration of not getting a break motivated me to ask Mahesh to direct his first play for Theatre Lab. That’s how it was born.”

From acting, Desai moved on to set design and direction, taking a course in this specialisation at North Western University of Chicago. “It has always been my aim to make an audience laugh, have a good time and send them home happy! Entertainment, entertainment, entertainment is what I believe in!”

His forte might be laugh a minute but he is a very successful businessperson. Apart from a variety of  other family businesses, he and his brother run Mothers Recipe, an ethnic food company whose range of popular pickles and preserves are present in 40 countries. He also owns the Four Points by Sheraton, a hotel in Whitefield. “During the day I spend my time by working and I dedicate my evenings to theatre”, he says.

Apart from the laughs, Bengaluru owes him big for saving what is left of an important lung space in the city centre. Desai is the original green crusader, who hired a lawyer and filed public interest litigations which found favour with Justice Michael Saldanha who passed bold orders to protect the Cubbon Park from further decimation. From 300 acres, the park has been whittled down to 190 acres with several chunks parcelled out to various buildings. Some heartening moves such as stopping traffic movement through the park on weekends have been long in the coming, and Desai feels that some of the people in the vanguard of ‘developing’ the park could have different agendas.

Do read Allen Mendonca’s lyrical prose here about the man who put on war paint to save Cubbon Park: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bengaluru/Possessed-by-the-spirit-of-Beantown/articleshow/70444840.cms

Desai’s green battle is also detailed here: http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/mp/2003/01/20/stories/2003012001410200.htm

The sunny Sunday morning that began with a Shakespeare play in Cubbon Park ended fittingly over dinner with the theatreperson who saved the park. Wonder what the Bard would have made of this.

 

A joy ride in Bangalore

 It cost us 500 rupees and some prayers, caused some apprehension amongst by-standers, gave our friends something new to talk about and left us a bit light-headed. Fair returns for an evening out, I would say.

It all started with a full sized ad in the morning paper about a flat 50 percent sale in Phoenix mall out there in Whitefield. The brands kept whispering to me as I got ready, until I sent texts and made calls to check who else was keen on going. It was a working day too.

I heard that O planned to go as well. “She wants to go there by Volvo, it seems”, exclaimed the friend who passed on the message. I was game I said, as I had no wish to drive out so far in the mad traffic. Though the friend tried to convince us to get a driver for the day instead, O and I planned to meet outside Bangalore Club after lunch and take the bus.

She was late, and I was even more late; a young man at the bus stop had told her that the Volvo did not stop here. It can’t be, I said. My son had just taken it a couple of weeks ago from further up the road, so perhaps we should go to Mayo Hall and check? The young man said the same bus would have gone past Bangalore Club but instead of answering us clearly about why it was not running that day, he got up and walked away.

I had almost persuaded O that we change the plan and go to 1 MG road, when we spied a Volvo bus that was going to Marathahalli bridge. On the spur of the moment, we decided to get into and take another bus from Marathahalli. Waving frantically, we stopped the bus and jumped into it. O rushed to the rear, saying the seats on the higher level were great fun.

I learnt then that her new-found zeal for bus travel stemmed from a recent Volvo ride home from the airport. Having taken that bus several times, I was blasé about the whole thing, even as O kept up a running commentary about being able to see tree-tops and into army compounds from our perch.volvo bus

Getting off the bus at its last stop, we spurned the auto drivers and got into a bus going to ITPL. It seemed that we had to change yet another bus. I had the route in my head and I tried explaining it to the conductor. He seemed to have wandering eyes, and O kept jabbing me to hitch my neckline up. The bus had its own route, and since I wasn’t driving, we had to go where the bus did.

At one point, the driver decided to race against another bus, and as they reached a curve, our driver took it fast and sharp. With the other driver coming within a hair’s breadth of ramming us, we yowled, experiencing the first of the evening’s unexpected adrenaline rush.

After the bus meandered around ITPL, we got off and even the doughty O was ready to take a rick to the mall. But it was not destined to be. There was a bus waiting, all set to go past our destination. In we got, and 2 hours after we had sent off and having spent more than Rs.400/ ( a driver would have cost us a bit less), we got to the mall.

She wanted Bebe jeans – they cost about Rs.7-8000/- and they were not on sale; a couple of other stores had paltry pickings too. I did end up with a pair of M & S trousers (and I forgot to use the card that would have given an extra 5 percent off), a top from AND, and a dress from Avirate, all of which we could have bought in town itself.

I was wilting and wanted to call a cab to go home. O agreed, and then remembered that someone had suggested the Metro as a better option instead of the bus. We decided to take a rick to the station and ride the metro home.

autorick Before that we stopped at Madhuloka to boost ourselves with a bottle of water. There, the miniatures looked so tempting that we succumbed and got one each to fortify us for the journey back. We needed it for what ensued. The auto drivers were tossing crazy numbers at us for a ride to the station, and the minute one of them mentioned a lower figure, O said yes and we jumped in.

The traffic was barely moving, and a few minutes later, our guy veered right and drove at top speed on the highway into the oncoming traffic. Then, he told us to keep holding on while he cut left and got back to the right side of the road (on the left). We kept praying to be delivered in one piece, and when we tumbled out at the station, told the driver off for being reckless and greedy, and stepped away from the dust and darkness.

Awaiting us was a wondrous sight indeed. Brightly lit, spacious, clean, uncrowded Byapannahalli Station! (The woman guard who had to frisk us said “Ae, banni illi”, to which O very primly tried to correct her to say “Ae, ladies, banni illi”.)

Were we entering a plane? Were we in Singapore?, we exclaimed and clapped in glee as we walked through the station and boarded this really cool train. Better than London, better than New York, we trilled to each other. Within minutes, and for just 30 rupees, we were on MG Road, where yet again we were at the mercy of an overcharging auto driver for the short ride home.

The highlight of the journey was this: a girl sitting opposite us had absent-mindedly left a tissue behind on the seat.( It wasn’t her fault, O had roped her into taking our pix at the station and in the train and she must have got flustered with all the directions being thrown at her). A group of young girls and boys got in at Indiranagar, and one of the girls insisted on picking up the litter. Her friends said that it could be dirty, but she didn’t mind, saying “We should keep the metro clean.”

namma metro  The metro demonstrates that if we put our mind to it we can build and run efficient systems, and feel decent and happy and proud about ourselves.

I am looking forward to the time when I can take a metro to any part of the city with ease.  If the metro works with BMTC to sort out the connectivity to and from its stations, it would see me more often.

(Disclaimer: The writer admits that though she’s walked to school, taken the bus to college, and in the early part of a reporting career hitched rides in trucks to get a story, she’s grown soft through driving a car ( and due to middle age). This story is about her first time in namma metro, almost two years after it started.)

Paul Fernandes serves Bangalore funny side up


Slightly-built Paul Fernandes is the opposite of in-your-face. This characteristic works in his favour as he recedes into the background and observes everything and everyone with a keen eye. His observations become fodder for his delectable cartoons.

Paul Fernandes ‘s view of the old Plaza theatre on MG Road

Just as Goa has been immortalised with loving amusement by Mario, Bangalore plays muse to Fernandes. Or rather a slice of Bangalore that he is familiar with – the ‘Cantonment’ side. Over the years, as he has captured the idiosyncrasies of the city and its denizens, we have split our sides laughing at the images which vividly remind of us places and people we know.

Sadly though, the IT boom of the 90s and the haphazard development that it set off changed Bangalore drastically. The heydays of the city can only be viewed at Fernandes’ new gallery aPaulogy.  Just across Richards’ Park, it is in a small and simple building where locals can take a walk down memory lane and newcomers get introduced to a juicy slice of the city’s history. One room is dedicated to his impressions of Bangalore in general, the second is for his part of town Benson Town and its surroundings, and the third is his homage to music.

I don’t really need a guide but I want to hear young Jatin’s spiel and he sets about giving nifty descriptions of each drawing’s inspiration. From the ‘overnight guest’ at Shoolay police station (now renamed Ashoknagar police station and relocated as the old building was pulled down), to a nose-in-the-air couple at Bangalore Club to old man Koshy (restaurateur) and his friend warbling arm-in-arm to the aunty with knee-high socks and red ribbon returning from church, there are quirky stories of local characters that the pictures vividly capture.

It is not the expressions on the faces but also the authentic lines of the buildings that seem to surge with vitality. The images are part of our collective memory and I feel an almost physical pain in my tummy that I recognise as regret for times gone by.

 

I ask Fernandes, “There is such a strong strain of nostalgia running through your work, tell me if you approve of any of the changes? Is there is anything positive in what has happened?”

“Oh yes. Take Richards’ Park for example. It used to be a dry dusty hole and look at it now – it’s green, full of birds and bees and you can breathe clean air,” he says.

He would make an ideal candidate for one of his own pictures; quiet, almost reclusive, he has suffered a career in advertising. He hates meeting clients – he just wants them to buy his work without all the talk that accompanies a transaction. The naughty twinkle in his eye gives an inkling of his talent but he is a kind man. While always humorous, his portrayals are never hurtful.

Referring to the recent furore over cartoons in a text book, Fernandes says, “While politicians make for great cartoons, you can’t make fun of certain situations as minds are not mature enough to appreciate it. It is a delicate line.”

I ask him about the general opinion over Indians having a thin skin but he disagrees. “Indians do have a great sense of humour or how else would the poorest of our poor be able to smile and joke in the most horrible circumstances?”

Paul captures a familiar scene in Bangalore

aPaulogy Gallery sells copies of the prints on order and if you are not visiting Bangalore, you can visit it on www.facebook.com/aPaulogyGallery.

Ale Tales

Its summertime and the choice of tipple is obviously beer.

For Bangaloreans of course, beer has been a perennial favourite, with United Breweries located here. We could inhale the aromas as we walked past the brewery on Grant Road; it shifted to the outskirts quite sometime ago and in its place stands the plush mall UB City on the rechristened Vittal Mallya road.

But coming back to beer, the beverage came to India through the East India Company to quench the thirst of the hordes of Englishmen who were here to colonise the land. But when the ships unloaded their cargo, it was found that the ale from home could not survive the choppy sea voyage with its flavour intact.

The band Retronome plays pub favourites. (L-R) Chris,Richa & Saggy

An enterprising brewmaster concocted a beer with a higher ratio of ‘hops’ (the plants whose cones give beer its bitter taste and aroma) to suppress bacterial infection and to retain the distinct taste. The new brew was christened ‘India Pale Ale’ or IPA.

IPA went down the gullets of the colonials so well that they demanded it even when they went back home. Indian beer brands are available in several countries including UK, where some of our brands are firm favourites.

The British tradition of stand-alone pubs with character is fading; recession led to the pub-owners selling out to chains that recreate a standard look and feel. Ah well, that’s the principle of survival of the fittest at play, as Britishers Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin have said.

Along with being a mainstay for locals and travellers, the British pub contributed to English grammar, too. The phrase, ‘mind your Ps and Qs’ was used by publicans in England when telling their customers to mind their own Pints and Quarts and not pick up a fight with other customers.

The Lock & Key Pub, Saffron Walden, Essex

Those guys knew how to run their pubs; their customers did not have to struggle vainly to get a waiter’s attention for a refill. All they had to do when their ceramic mugs ran dry was to blow on the whistle on the handle; that’s where the phrase ‘wet your whistle’ took hold.

This city was once famous as the pub capital and the place where people flocked from across the country to guzzle the brew and hop or crawl from one nightspot to another. Our nightlife has lost its sheen in recent years with early closures, ban on live music and dancing, and oh, so many other restrictions but occasionally we have a delightful treat.

Last night was one of those happy moments at the old haunt Tavern at the Inn. My friends ‘Saggy’

(Santosh Gnanakan) and Chris Avinash with their band Retronome played evergreen pub favourites – Deep Purple, Floyd, U2, Bon Jovi, Doors, GNR and more. That was one good night and the draft beer must have been drained to the last drop.

 

 

 

Can Bangalore have its own Google or Microsoft?

 

The desi Silicon Valley dreams big. This city’s lack of infrastructure gets so much flak, and has been doing so for several years now that one has to admire the grit and perseverance of companies that continue to function as well as they do. It is this same ‘can-do’ spirit that perhaps prompted the Confederation of Indian Industry to have as the theme of the Seventh India Innovation Summit ‘Making Bangalore the innovation hub of Asia’.

Just before the conference, a financial daily quoted local technology companies who repeated in unison what they have been saying for most of the last decade. This city, once touted as the desi Silicon Valley, has lost ground to others outside the state.

How long can its celebrated weather and the cosmopolitan tag remain attractive? For businesses to survive and thrive, they need infrastructure – give us power, water, roads – is the common refrain that successive governments of varying political hues have become deaf to.  The new BJP Chief Minister DV Sadananda Gowda made the same assurances but one can’t expect him, lame duck as he is portrayed to be, to really do much. But who knows, he might well surprise us, and one can live on hope.

Industry does that remarkably well; Dr. Sridhar Mitta, who left Wipro to start NextWealth, a social enterprise that takes IT to tier-2 and 3 cities, is confident that Bangalore will soon give birth to a company like Google or Microsoft. “Innovation comes out of adverse conditions and India is a good place for it because of the chaos”. Businesses do well in spite of the government, he repeated.

I really wish that this were not so.  We have a few enormously successful businesses driven by NewGen technocrats. Imagine how many more would have come up if the government had the right attitude? How much faster would have been their growth?

Instead of listening to snide remarks about lack of original ideas, the homegrown companies that have now set their sights on scaling up the value chain, would have perhaps already incubated original business ideas.

The good news is that the spotlight is on R & D and on an ecosystem that supports innovations. Large multinational technology companies are already at it. Cisco’s ‘smart campus’ is its showcase to global customers and Yahoo India’s R & D centre here is its second largest globally. Dr Praveen Vishakantaiah, President, Intel Technology India proudly pointed out that India is quoted as a model within the global operations of Intel.

Talent has been scarce with a lack of domain expertise especially in the higher levels, and several companies said they were working with universities to up the knowledge quotient. Representatives from universities who need these companies to hire their students were in plenty at the session.

Researchers also need soft skills, as it is critical for them to sell their ideas internally and many engineering students used to be not very good at doing this. This seems to be changing too, going by Yahoo’s VP and CEO Yahoo India R &D Shouvick Mukherjee who said that he has seen a positive change in how young recruits articulate their goals.

More PhDs and more patents will place Bangalore and India as an innovation hub. Now all we need is the political will to ensure that labs that are currently unused for lack of power and water can work at peak capacity.

This is my column published in oheraldo on September 10, http://www.epaperoherald.in