Friday, January 27, 2012

Chennai’s Fourth Estate at War

Touching upon competitive spirit, the legendary writer George Orwell, in an essay dated 1945, had described sport as war minus the shooting. He could very well be referring to the ongoing veiled battle between two of India's English dailies.

When “India’s national newspaper since 1878” and the “Largest read English daily in the world” decide to slug it out over Chennai’s newspaper readership, rest assured that the battle would spill over to the TV media, as was witnessed recently. Cheeky indeed were the ads that thumbed the nose at one another; though, few were in doubt over who the target was.

To the uninitiated, the two newspapers – The Hindu and The Times of India (TOI), respectively – have modus operandi that are as identical as chalk is to cheese, or uppu (salt) is to upma, a South Indian snack. The "war" in question is the race to get hold of the average Chennaiite, and eventually the Indian, newspaper reader’s attention.

And no, this piece of opinion isn’t about the controversies that have dogged the Mount Road Mahavishnu or The Old Lady of Boribunder. So there.

TOI fired the first salvo, a few months ago, with an ad of a sleepy nation having a Tamil lullaby as its background music. A man dozes on another’s arm, holding a newspaper, ostensibly The Hindu, identifiable with its headline font. The ad then asks viewers whether they are “stuck with news that puts them to sleep” - a jab at The Hindu for its totemic conservatism - and urges them to wake up to the TOI, with even the BGM working up a frenetic pace.

It wasn’t too long before The Hindu served its riposte.

In its ad, a few youngsters, who when quizzed on general knowledge draw a blank, know it all when questioned on film stars - a pointed jab returned with due courtesy. Few would deny that it was TOI which kicked off the Page 3 trend among Indian newspapers. They are then asked which newspaper do they read, and the common reply is, no surprises here, TOI, although the audio gets bleeped out accurately. The ad closes with the phrase “stay ahead of the times”. The Hindu sure knows how to give it back.

The ads, humorous as they may be, fall prey to the phenomenon that is sweeping generalisation.While the former stops short of declaring that only the old-fashioned, the crowd sans hep and style, read The Hindu, the latter wears on its sleeve the philosophy that if you read or follow any pg3 content, your IQ levels have already plumbed to such an extent that Jules Verne must probably rewrite his Journey to the centre of the Earth.

From a reader’s perspective, The Hindu has, perhaps until recently, employed conservative headlines with largely text-heavy layouts (if it can be called that), and has been the newspaper most elders would love to pick up. After all, not too many newspapers devote space to in-depth description of Carnatic concerts or religious discourses. Attested by many as the next best thing after a cup of effervescent filter kapi, this does not mean that it has shied away from modernity altogether; the paper, by all means, retains a pleasing layout, much like a Morris Minor retro-fitted with a supercharged Ferrari engine. It is said that colourful presentation of content was anathema to the paper’s former editor-in-chief, Narasimhan Ram, who is even said to have remarked that readers must not be made lazy enough to even leaf through the contents of the paper in its entirety.

If the above factors can be construed as true, then TOI can be stated as the anti-thesis of The Hindu. “Colour thy name” can describe the paper which made a surprisingly late entry into the land of Kalaignar and Amma. Its headlines are usually far from sedate; its visually-pleasing layouts ensure that the maximum eyeballs are captured – who can blame them for the dwindling attention spans and hectic lifestyles of most readers? Its daily supplements have played a vital role in wresting markets all over India.

In short, if The Hindu can be likened to the coy, sari-clad girls of the 80s, TOI can be likened to the short-skirt sporting new-age girls.

Will The Hindu in Chennai go the Hindustan Times way in Delhi or the Deccan Herald way in Bangalore, which were steamrolled by the TOI on its way to the numero uno position of circulation index? These still are early days; it is also likely that we may get to see a second round of this TV ad conflict.

Regardless of who will lord over Chennai's English daily readership, the banter exchanged between these two dailies has been nothing short of entertaining.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Nanban: Rancho speaks in Tamil, and how!

Bollywood fare, served with Tamil niceties

When the recipes of Gobi Manchurian and Chicken Tikka can transcend national barriers and become a rage elsewhere, can’t we have different versions of an intra-national rage: a remake of a successful Bollywood movie in another language, for instance? Director Shankar answers the question with Nanban (friend), a faithful reproduction, nay a spitting image, of its original, the Aamir Khan-starrer 3 idiots, comprising its highs and lows with equal measure.
The hero and the anti-heroes

The flaws in our higher education system, especially engineering, and campus life unite to form a heady theme, with Vijay, reprising Aamir Khan’s cool dude-cum-Buddha-like role in the original, offering ingenuous solutions to many a conundrum. Did he levitate on screen? I don’t know; however, I am not willing to bet against it. Jeeva and Srikanth (after a hiatus), portraying Sharman Joshi and Madhavan’s roles in the original respectively, are his perennially flabbergasted class and hostel mates who always seek his gyaan.
It is the movie’s primary antagonists, though – Satyaraj, as Virumandi Santhanam or Virus, the college principal with a fetish for perfection, and his nephew Satyan, as “Silencer” Srivatsan, who swears by learning by rote – who come up with brilliant performances.

The visionary that he is, Panchavan Parivendhan (Vijay), a student of mechanical engineering at a prestigious college, unwittingly rubs his teachers and classmates the wrong way with his ideals, getting into confrontations with the principal. He is also an agony aunt and a source of motivation to his chums, Venkatakrishnan (Srikanth) and Sevalkodi Senthil (Jeeva). Panchavan, by helping his friend come out of paralysis, also gets to experience an Awakening-like Robin Williams moment. Riya (Ileana), as Satyaraj’s daughter and a student of medicine, plays Vijay’s love-interest, thereby satisfying the unstated cinematic injunction that the anti-hero’s daughter must be the hero’s sweetheart. In the end, will standardised education or unconventional thinking with that extra bit of passion win?

That’s for anybody’s guess to make.

The traditional Indian
cinematic romantic track

The infectiously humourous scenes that characterised the original – the recitation of a wrongly memorised welcome address, the faking of a heart attack to disembark a flight, the opera in the background when Virus decides to shave and the banker-groom obsessed with brands – make its way into the remake as well.

It’s a Vijay movie all the way, despite his restrained performance, a far cry from some of his recent outings. True, he shares screen space with two other heroes, but the screen time devoted to him should put paid to any such theory. Satyan brings the roof down with his performance. One only wishes that a proper dubbing artiste was employed for Ileana.

Manoj Paramahamsa’s cinematography stands out – be it in the breath-taking shots of the Pamban Bridge in Rameswaram or Ootacamund; Harris Jayaraj seems to have finally got his act back with a memorable music score. Shankar decides to stick to the original and has come up trumps in the process.

This Nanban will be one friendly theatrical outing!

by Rajagopalan Venkataraman

Appeared in City Express, the daily supplement of The New Indian Express, Bangalore on January 17, 2012

Monday, January 2, 2012

So, What Is Your Tobacco Quotient?

It is OK to smoke. Yes, you read that right. If you have started pondering over this stupefying declaration, the right side of your brain is functioning well. So raise a toast to yourself.

However, before anyone decides to disprove this statement, I urge them to finish reading this piece of literature (if it can be called that).

Going by the
Supreme Court's not so recent, and much violated, smoking ban in public places, I am supposed to get nothing but clean, fresh air every time I step out. And therein lay the paradox.  

I decide to wake up early one day and venture out. However, I realise that I need milk for my morning coffee and head for the nearest shop. “Mornings are ideal to get some fresh air and rejuvenate the respiratory system....” I remember telling myself as I open the door, when cigarette smoke hits my nostrills. I crane my neck to see the offender; it’s my neighbour, his head surrounded by a haze of smoke, just as a halo around a god. Not only has he risen earlier, he is fellating his cigarette vigorously like there is no tomorrow. I smile at the metaphor, but realise, much to my horror, that I have become, rather unwittingly, a passive smoker. Immediately, a plethora of images rush into my mind – cancer, nicotine, an emaciated patient on his death-bed fitted with numerous plastic tubes connecting to electronic contraptions... I make an effort to hold my breath as long as I cross him. He gives me a polite smile; I run away from him as if he is the last survivor of the great bubonic plague of London.

If ever there was a moment when I wished that I had a gas mask that one of the Terminators or Robocops had, it was when I reached the grocery store, which had a tobacconist next to it – and a sizeable crowd of Marlboro Men at its entrance. A cigarette smog pervades the store. The storekeeper is busy, oblivious to the perils of smoking. I suppress my urge to warn him and place my order. I try holding my breath in vain, and end up breathing in gasps, just as someone would do while drowning. The shopkeeper gives me an incredulous look, and either thinks that I am trying to impersonate James Watt’s steam locomotive. I realise that the more I try to hold my breath, the more cigarette smoke I am inhaling. “Grin and breathe it,” I say to myself as I exit the store, panting like a Terrier-hound. As I return home, my neighbour is billowing smoke like a chimney with his pipe; it seems he has been waiting for me to strike a conversation. I give him a weak smile and rush in, while making a mental note to Google for breath control exercises.

As I leave, I am thankful that my neighbour isn’t around, so I take a deep breath and hurry to the bus stop, where I am handed a practical lesson on purchasing power: three men are smoking – the first who seemed to be a blue-collar worker, was sucking a beedi; the second, who seemed to be a government employee, was sporting a cigarette; and the third, attired in a suit and well-polished shoes, gently tapping the ash off his Havana. The bus, as expected, does not arrive at all; I hail an autorickshaw and board it. No sooner does the rickshaw gather speed, does its driver light up, fuelling my agony. I tell him in my politest tone that I am suffering from a chronic respiratory disease, wherein my lungs would get deflated like a cycle tyre over a nail if I were to inhale tobacco smoke. He gives me an incredulous look and stubs the cigarette. 

My happiness, though, was destined to be short-lived; I had not counted on the conundrum that is our traffic signals, where vehicular emissions, both permitted and outlawed, pervade as mist would at a Himalayan hill station. Two cars pull up on either side of my auto at a traffic signal where I am waiting, and as if by clockwork, their drivers, a man and a woman, roll down the windows, and, as you may have guessed by now, light up. Talk about gender equality! My auto driver mockingly asks whether he need call an ambulance. I gnash my teeth.

I head to the nearest theatre, where a cursory glance would present a strong case for smoking being made our national pastime. Everyone – the man at the counter, the security guard, the ones who have purchased tickets as well as those waiting patiently for the queue to move forward, and even the movie poster, has in possession of one of the multitudinous avatars of tobacco. Move over socialism, who says India isn’t an egalitarian society?

Meanwhile, I enter the queue and start practising my breath control exercises.

The movie starts and so does my nightmare. Had anybody said that this theatre was the blueprint for Hitler’s infamous gas chambers employed during his ethnic cleansing, I would have willingly believed them. In the darkness, all I can see, apart from the screen, is an ocean of orange-coloured tips of lit cigarettes, resembling flower buds. I felt the joke was on me, a la Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, with everyone around fuelling my agony. I chafe, I squirm, my eyes turn watery, my neighbour starts puffing away; I decide to let off some steam and ask him to stub out his beedi. He does so reluctantly, cursing me under his breath. I get the feeling that I may start floating in air, given all the hot air that is regurgitating from my system... only to enter it again. The door keeper, who has just dropped a cigarette butt to the floor and stamping it vigorously with his foot, looks at me as if he has spotted the dodo, as I walk out of the theatre barely fifteen minutes after show commences.

Its noon, I head to the nearest coffee shop, a dull headache clouding my thoughts as if in a hallucination. A signboard says that the smoking and non-smoking sections are clearly demarcated; my mind by now is conditioned only to expect the worst. True to word, the ‘demarcation’ is a misnomer, it could have supplanted the Berlin Wall in the USSR era to promote bonhomie, so gaping were its gaps near the ceiling and bottom. I walk out before the bearer comes to take my order.

Walking back home, I observe that public smokers are India’s omnipresent phenomenon, and not open drains or nasty traffic snarls. Recollecting the day’s events, I estimate that I may have passively smoked at least three dozen cigarettes without having to pay for even one. Hence the humble recommendation to the reader to reach out for that pack of 555 or Marlboro or the wide variety of products from our-own navaratna ITC. Be it the Basic Instinct Sharon Stone pose or The Godfather Marlon Brando style, at least the smoker wouldn't run low on the 'cool' quotient.

Cancer? Who gives it a rat's ass?