Monday, October 20, 2008

The Evening of October Nineteen

Monotony has crept in. Apart from the Sunday which passes with a surprising celerity, all other days just seem to crawl. What I am I doing these days, you ask, Precious? Repeating the same old mistakes and paying for them, through EMIs. But more about it later. It’s 8.30 in night. What can I do? Ah yes! I have a movie. “The Illusionist”. Done. So long.

Der Film ist aus. “The Illusionist” is setup in the late 19th and early 20th century Vienna, capital of Austria. “The Illusionist” or Edward Abramowitz, who later assumes the sobriquet, Eisenheim (Iron house????), is a magician. He has spent a large part of his life in the Orient. Nobody knows who taught him magic there or how much he learnt. But his repertoire is impressive. For instance during one of his performances he asks the audience whether man can stop or slow down or accelerate the flow of time and then he puts an orange seed in an empty container and right there in front of everyone appears an orange bonsai with of course, tiny oranges clinging to it. He is not any ordinary magician, he is a wizard or so praise his admirers. All is going well for him when, during his performance, one day, fate reunites him with his childhood sweetheart, Duchess von Taschen. But there is a hitch. She is on her way to marry the crown prince of Austria, Leopold. Yes yes. The trouble has started. Taking the liberty to digress a bit, I say, why do sensible men fall in love? Fall they must? Or is it simply too tempting not to? Or is it indeed a genuine emotion? I am perplexed! Let’s go back to the story. This crown prince of ours is a woman beater, an insecure and an arrogant person. But our Duchess is helpless. Crown prince Leopold plans to marry her and thereby annex her land, Hungary, to his kingdom. Meanwhile Eisenheim and Duchess von Taschen recognize each other (they were separated in their greener years), meet and, of course, copulate, a sina qua non for a Hollywood flick, in an aesthetically shot sequence.
Oh! I forgot the narrator. Meet Chief Inspector Walter Uhl, who is telling us this tale of illusions and magic. This chief inspector has committed to help crown prince Leopold in his plans to dethrone the Emperor of Austria (i.e., crown prince Leopold’s father). In return Leopold has promised Uhl to fulfill all his political aspirations and thus obliges Uhl. Uhl spies Duchess von Taschen and Eisenheim, questions him, begs him to keep away from her. Now this Uhl is an extremely interesting character, even more than Eisenheim, I dare say. He knows that by pledging his loyalty to Leopold he will realize his dreams. But at the same time he is not the quintessential venal cop. He has a conscience. Apart from being interested in Eisenheim’s art, he claims to be an amateur; he also desires his well being. Later when he becomes sure of crown prince Leopold’s complete moral debasement, he fearlessly confronts him, even putting his life in danger. All these conflicting emotions, his genuine admiration for Eisenheim and most importantly the sharp and keen inspector in him come out very nicely. Paul Giamatti plays Uhl. I first met Giamatti in M.Night Shyamalan’s “Lady in the Water” (2006) and I think, this time around he was far more convincing.
Now the climax. Eisenheim summons the illusionist in him. Leopold has already shut down his troupe. Also he knows that Duchess von Taschen loves Eisenheim. One night Leopold confronts Duchess von Taschen and threatens her. She defies him and leaves the chamber. He follows her to the stable where they have a noisy argument and suddenly she comes out, riding on a horse, wounded. She disappears and Eisenheim discovers her in a stream, dead. Postmortem reveals a fatal wound by asword or knife. An emotionally distraught Eisenheim tells Uhl that Leopold has murdered her, who obviously doesn’t believe. But the evidence is quite suggestive. Eisenheim buys a run-down theatre and starts a new kind of show. He calls spritits of dead people, allows them to converse with the audience. However he is just leading them to a surprise. One day, in the presence of crown prince Leopold, who is present there under the guise of a layman, he summons Duchess von Taschen. She tells people that her killer is in the audience. This generates a lot of negative sentiment for the already unpopular crown prince, which unsettles him. In his next performance Eisenheim again calls Duchess von Taschen and this time Uhl is ready to arrest him under the charges of fraud, charlatanism and conspiracy against the empire. As he reaches to grab Eisenheim, he meets thin air, only to realize that till now he was talking to an illusion. Eisenheim disappears, leaving everyone stunned. A thorough search follows but in vain. From Eisenheim chamber Uhl gets clues which lead him to crown prince Leopold, Duchess von Taschen’s killer. He conveys the truth to the emperor and refuses crown prince Leopold any further help. Leopold, in panic, shoots himself. In the last scene just as Uhl is coming out of the royal palace, an urchin hands him a packet saying Eisenheim has given it. Its pages illustrate the technique behind that orange tree trick. Uhl spots Eisenheim in the crowd, chases him but he escapes. Then the mystery unfolds itself for Uhl and he realizes what Eisenheim has done to all of them. A master illusionist,as he is, Eisenheim first concocts a perfect case for Duchess von Taschen’s murder by crown prince Leopold. Then sends her out of the country, successfully turns public sentiment against the prince and leads Uhl to the evidence. By the time Uhl sees the big picture, Eisenheim is on his way “to be with her”, forever.
Performances by the actors are very good. Especially Giamatti and Rufus Sewell (crown prince Leopold) stand out. Sewell has portrayed the menacing and vindictive Prince superbly. You may have seen him in “The Legend of Zorro” (2005). Here also he has a similar kind of role. Jessica Biel (Duchess von Taschen) is ok. Edward Norton as Eisenheim is very very expressive. This is not a role which involves a lot of physical acting. Norton says it with his eyes. Watch out for the duels between Sewell and Norton. Gripping, to say the least. Then there are the illusions. The orange tree, which I mentioned earlier, or the painting of the Emperor or Duchess von Taschen’s tryst with her soul. All are fascinating to watch. But the best among the pack is the one in which the butterflies carry the handkerchief to the lady. Like Uhl, I am,too, confounded. Director Neil Burger scores handsomely here.
By the way, since the setting is in Austria, presence of German is evident. For instance I saw a board “Tanz Schule” which, of course, means “Dance School”.
When Eisenheim is trying to convince Uhl that crown prince Leopold has murdered Duchess von Taschen, Uhl retorts that what he presents as evidence (testimony by Duchess von Taschen’s spirit) is just an illusion. Eisenheim replies, “Perhaps there is truth in the illusion”. Perhaps there is.
So much about the movie. Its 2.30 .The night is dark and still. The Nocturnal must retire. Gute Nacht, Precious.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Rain Rain

It rained incessantly for last three days. Though it gave relief from the sapping summer heat, it also cast its inevitable gloom. Sad and dark rainy days. Heavy, black clouds gained an upper hand in their perennial battle with the sun. Sometimes it became very dark, dark enough to dissolve the boundaries separating day and night. Clothes, too, wore the typical wet and damp perfume. If you had grabbed and squeezed a palm-full of air, I am sure it would have disgorged water. It was so damp! I was feeling like a prisoner. Prisoner of rain!! I sat patiently inside the house having only an occasional glimpse of outside. Yesterday night I slept listening to the clatter of rain drops on the tin shed.

I wake up, however, to a bright sky. There are still few leftover clouds but otherwise it’s very cheerful. A complete turnaround, I must say. I come to the gallery of my room and cast a glance ahead.

Nature has responded superbly to this rain. Earth is so thrilled & smelling so splendid that it has outdone even the best from the Chanel’s. Greenery has spread its wings to every possible corner. Birds are chirping so loudly as if to makeup for the lost time. The newspaper boy waves hand at me. Probably he is wearing the biggest smile. Why you ask? Because he must use the same pair of clothes throughout the day, he has only two of them. Rain soaks his day, literally. But today he doesn’t need to worry. The day is nice and cool. Easier to paddle his way from house to house, from lane to lane. Maybe I should get a raincoat for him.

I come inside my room. I am feeling fresh as a daisy. Lots of things are pending and the morning is so pleasant. Seize the day, I tell to myself. See you again, Precious. So long!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Oh Roger Roger….it’s not that difficult!!

It can’t get worse than this. Mind you, it’s not about clay, it’s not about the mononucleosis he contracted at the beginning of this year..and no, this time it’s not even about Rafa. Agreed that Rafa, as usual, played some magical shots. But even then this final is more about the lackluster performance of Roger Federer, ironically the world no.1 for last 4 years, than anything else.
As a Federer fan I have always believed that he is just one good performance away from that elusive French crown. But after such a horrible display I doubt whether that man himself believes that he can beat Rafa on clay or not. Today he was simply pathetic and pathetic is just not the adjective one dares to use for Roger’s game. Yet he left so little for Rafa to do that after he clinched the title, for 4th time in a row, there were no typical Rafael Nadal celebrations. Just hands in air and that was it. More than the spectators, more than Roger it was Rafa, I think, who was the most astonished one by the manner in which Roger faulted, faulted and again faulted and in the process handed him an easy title.
As I said earlier it’s not about the external factors. Those inner demons, they are not allowing Roger to play at his best. I seriously doubt whether he is able to imagine himself defeating Rafa on clay or not. Because that’s the first step. You got to believe & visualize yourself achieving your goal. Then only your discipline, hard work and regimentation will fall in place in order to make the execution possible. It pained so much when one after another he kept hitting those regulation winners in the net, when he consistently failed to score off his second serves. First or second, Roger Federer’s serve is regarded as one of the best on the men’s circuit. It is such a potent weapon that his serve alone made the difference in the last year’s Wimbledon final. Even if one discounts the difference in the pace of grass & clay surfaces, that serve is still extremely capable. But today he had completely lost it.
For a brief passage of play, though, in the second set he took control of the match. And he looked a totally different player. Finding incredible angles, putting the ball in the right places with pinpoint accuracy, he succeeded in raising false hopes. But as soon as he was broken in the 8th game of the 2nd set it looked as if he wasn’t interested anymore. His strokes, at best, can be described as wayward. He tried coming to the net and few other tactics but those were desperate moves with no conviction whatsoever. Eventually he lost the third set 6-0!!
Agreed that you know tennis better than us, still Roger, you are better than that man..much much better!!

What a beautiful Queen!

In this year’s final at Roland Garros Ana Ivanovic showed that what happened last year was just another instance of nerves and inexperience getting better of ability. And she knew this. That’s why even after the drubbing she got at the hands of Justine Henin she sounded optimistic. There was no shame, no inferior feeling, just the honest realization that the stage was too big for her. But not this time around. She was prepared for it, both mentally and physically.
After literally crushing all her opponents en route to the semi-final (she won her fourth round match 6-0, 6-0! ) she had to fight hard against her fellow Serbian Jelena Jankovic in the semis. However, I think, that magnificent effort (in the semi-final) might even have helped in removing any trace of complacency that can get into the system after so many easy wins. So in the final she was calm and composed, having been there before and played with such an assurance that her victory seemed the only possible outcome.
Ana Ivanovic appears, to me, quite a mesmerizing character. This year she has made it to the finals of both the majors and it is apparent that she is moving more briskly on the court than she was moving last year. Her improved court coverage is a solid proof of this. It shows the amount of physical effort she has put in to get herself into right shape and this has provided certain fluidity to her game. Also the forehand winners have become more powerful & accurate and hence an extremely deadly weapon. So, as a player, one can see the maturity in her game that has inspired her to the recent success. At the same time she is graceful enough to appreciate fine play by her opponent (when she applauded Safina’s drop shot and subsequent winner) even if the match is as crucial as a grand slam final. That goes on to show her confidence and self-belief and the respect she has for the game. So much about Ana Ivanovic, the player.

Then comes the most fascinating aspect of Ana Ivanovic, the 20 year old girl. When you are admiring the improved and mature Ana Ivanovic, the player, she enthralls you with that tantalizing swirl with one leg lifted in air accompanied by a shriek and a clenched fist that you simply fall in love with that innocent gesture of triumph. Only then one realizes how sweet tastes success! Even when she is addressing press or in her acceptance speech her manner, voice and her choice of words betrays her girlish charm making difficult to imagine her as a hard hitting tennis player.

Oh yes, about the runner-up, Dinara Safina. My heart ached for her. She had shown immense mental strength and tremendous physical fitness to reach the finals. She had turned two matches on their head and emerged victorious from the brink of defeat. That too against a player as tenacious as Maria Sharapova and then against vastly experienced Elena Demetieva. After such exhausting encounters she had enough power left in store to answer the groundstrokes of Svetlana Kuznetsova in the semis. But the final was played as if Ana was destined to win. When Ana was finding the lines just marginally, Dinara’s strokes were landing just outside without fail. Tough luck gal! But she showed lot of guts and tremendous confidence, even in a losing cause and I think with this year’s performance she has come out of the shadow of her mercurial elder brother. Next year,I hope, she does an Ivanovic and adds to the grand slam tally of the Safins.
Returning to Ana, with the unexpected retirement of reigning world no.1 Justine Henin, the no.1 spot was up for the grabs & there were quite a few eager contenders. However with her grand slam winning performance Ana has ensured that when she is crowned as the new no.1 she has a major in her kitty too. So on the coming Monday women’s tennis gets a new queen and, gosh, what a beautiful Queen!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Wodehouse: God’s gift to the jocular veins

Welcome to the world of Wodehouse. A place where there are absent-minded Earls, dyspeptic uncles who own millions, strong-minded conniving maidens, autocratic aunts, confused young men either living on the fortunes left behind by a wealthy distant relative or scratching eccentric uncles for money, there is an extremely gifted chef, Anatole, whom Wodehouse so deliciously introduces as “God’s gift to the gastric juices”. And then, of course, there are butlers, the finest creation of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. Reginald Jeeves, most outstanding among them, is so brainy (Wodehouse feeds him on a healthy supply of fishes) that no situation is too grave for him. Every now and then, without fail, he bails out his master from an awkward spot and you wonder at his resourcefulness. And he does it with such a poker face that his response to even a very shocking news is a stoic “Quite disturbing, Sir” with a minuscule movement of an eighth of an inch of his left eyebrow. Extremely sanguine creature, he is, as Wodehouse suavely puts, “A gentleman’s personal gentleman”.

The stories are generally setup away from the hustle & bustle of London, in the serene country sides of pre-war England. His characters have ample time to indulge in petty affairs like stealing cats of their neighbours (Aunts aren’t Gentlemen) or to get fascinated by newts (Gussie Fink-Nottle). Even a span of a single story is enough for reckless youth to get engaged and subsequently disengaged twice or sometimes thrice. Wodehouse and his idiosyncratic characters create such a farce of chaos, confusion & misunderstanding that weaves a web of laughter around the reader. After reading some of the stories I thought it was quite strange for someone to have a life as Wodehouse’s characters live. I mean very rarely we find such a relaxed, idyllic lifestyle (especially after the urbanization witnessed in the second half of the 20th century) completely oblivious to the tensions and pretensions of the industrialized world. Wodehouse himself acknowledges this when he says, “I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music & ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life & not caring a damn”.

In a typical Wodehouse story, matters, which can be settled through a five minute dialogue, get so entangled, just because a nephew here, in dire need of his uncle’s monetary support (either to enter into matrimony or to setup a business venture), or a brother there, scared to the bones of his authoritarian sister, or somewhere else a charming girl apprehensive of losing her heartthrob, twists the facts which ends up in complicating the situation even more. Mean while, the reader, sitting on the periphery & enjoying the farce, can’t help chuckling. Actually this is the beauty of Wodehouse’s stories. In my opinion Wodehouse is the clear antithesis of those masters of mysteries, namely, Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. Here the reader is the one who knows all the secrets. He only knows who is in love with whom, at any given point of time who is engaged to whom. Since he knows what exactly is going on reader waits with a bated breath to see where the story leads him every time a character tries to manipulate the situation. So in spite of being in complete possession of the facts the sense of anticipation thrills the reader. Doesn’t it? When you know, for example, that Ronnie Fish (in Summer Lightning) is engaged to Sue Brown (a chorus girl) whereas his aunt Lady Constance Keeble plans for his alliance with her niece, Miss Millicent Threepwood, one can’t wait to see the reaction of Lady Constance, a staunch advocate of English aristocracy. It gives the reader a feeling of omnipotence. Therein lies the magic of Wodehouse. He first tells you all of his secrets, yet keeps you glued to the book till the very end. His marvelous use of English language, clever play of words and phrases, smart references to the literary works, his tongue-in-cheek comments on the events happening around him makes it a compelling reading, a real joy to the senses.
There are no villains in the world of Wodehouse. Yes, occasionally there pop-up musclemen like G. D'Arcy "Stilton" Cheesewright (in Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit) who promise “to tear the insides of Bertie with bare hands” or “to break his spine in five pieces”. But it is only their apprehension, (often misplaced), of Bertie stealing their objects of desire, that compels them to make such proclamations. Otherwise they have hearts of gold.

Then there is Bertram “Bertie” Wilberforce Wooster, the last of the Wooster’s. A baffled young man, ”young blot on the landscape” according to his aunt Dahlia. This hero of Wodehouse, however, doesn’t fit the conventional bill. As far as Jeeves’ opinion goes, Bertie is "mentally negligible". Whenever he, with the purest intention of helping a friend, takes matters into his hands, invariably makes a mess of them & gets misunderstood, so much so that his own fearsome Aunt Agatha advised a girl not to marry Bertie because she thought he is “a spineless invertebrate”. Every young man in Wooster clan suspects that Bertie is making moves to elope with his girlfriend. Devious girls use “else-I-will-marry-Bertie” line to threaten their parentage and parents scared of such “a dangerous prospect” yield to their wishes. Sometimes these “lovely little girls” do not even bother to take Bertie’s consent before making announcement of their engagement and poor Bertie faces the flak. But he has his savior at his side when he needs him most, Jeeves. Quite often Jeeves comes up with a brilliant solution to divert the impending doom. Once he even popped up as “Chief Inspector Witherspoon, Scotland Yard” (Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves) to rescue Bertie from a threatening situation.
Such is the world of Wodehouse. Full of whims, idiosyncrasies & eccentricities. There are lots of such inhabitants of this place who amuse us, take us on a ride to a world which we cannot even imagine while living in the 21st century. A world where the greatest ambition of an Earl is to take his pig, he so delightfully addresses it as the “Empress of Blandings”, to an unprecedented second successive crown at the Shropshire Agricultural Show!!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Joker's challenge to King.

Came Sunday Jan 27, 2008 and the world of tennis got a new winner. No doubt Novak “Djoker” Djokovic has got everything in him to emerge as a champion, but let him earn it. We are in no hurry. Nonetheless Novak has provided us the much needed change because since Australian Open 2005 Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have shared all of the 11 possible Grand Slam titles between themselves and tennis aficionados around the globe, though enthralled by Federer’s artistic and almost poetic display of tennis and awed by Nadal’s brutal, hard hitting, street smart brand of tennis, were murmuring about the predictability these two gifted men had brought to the game. Against this backdrop Novak’s win is even more remarkable. Quite expectedly Federer and Nadal were heading towards another final clash and tennis lovers were talking of monotony. But they were in for a, rather two, mighty surprises. First it was an unheralded Frenchman, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga who unsettled Rafa with his immense power. Add a nickname as mighty as Muhammad Ali and one can conjecture Rafa’s bewilderment after receiving those powerful punches, I mean groundstrokes. In 2006, it was Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus, 2007 took Speedy Gonzalez to new heights and this year it is Tsonga. Australian open is having a new poster boy every year! However, if Nadal’s defeat came as a shock, seeing Novak brushing aside Roger in straight sets was even more shocking. Make no mistake. Three years ago Roger lost exactly at the same stage of this tournament to that mercurial, racket breaker Marat Safin. But there was no pain in that defeat because Safin played unbelievable tennis on that night. (How I wish he had the cool head of Roger...he would have been deadly..alas..). This time, though, as I said earlier, we are aware of Novak’s potential but more than that we are confident of Federer’s ability to produce his best at the crucial moments and on that fateful Friday, under the closed roof of Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne Park, what we saw was almost anti-climactic. We are not used to see a Federer serve getting broken while serving for the opening set of the match, we are strangers to a Roger Federer squandering a 2-point lead on his opponents serve and even more to such a vulnerable Federer forehand. This was what was more shocking, not the defeat, but the manner. He was clearly unsettled by , another Serb(a Serbian coup against a Swiss King?? ), make a note of him too, Janko Tipsarevic, in the third round who took him the distance, teasing and tormenting him for 4 hours and 27 minutes, by his thundering groundstrokes and tenacious serve, adding to the doubts a pre-tournament virus may have infested in Roger’s game. It would be hasty to conclude anything just now, but certainly over the course of last one year quite a few players have displayed the quality to challenge and unsettle him on a continuous basis. Nalbandian certainly raises his game against Roger and even beat him twice in a row at the end of last year. Federer lost to Guillermo Canas thrice in a row. Rafa has kept him on his toes (twice 15-40 down in the fifth set..remember that Wimbledon Final last year.) Add Richard Gasquet and (shall we??) Janko Tipsarevic to this list and suddenly there is hope. Roger will be 27 this year while Novak, Rafa , Gasquet , Tipsarevic are all in their early twenties. That promises exciting tennis in the coming years. These players have so differing styles, their own unique approach to the game that they promise to leave an indelible stamp of their own on the canvas of world tennis. Here we realize Roger Federer’s contribution towards the advancement of the game. Just look what a master craftsman like Roger can do for a sport. He just hasn’t won all those Grand Slams in such a short span nor it is only about his dominance for last four and half years. I think it is about the ability of a genius to single handedly (don’t ask whether forehandedly or backhandedly) raise the game to an altogether new level. Because when you dream of beating a certain Roger Federer you better reach his level first. In this process the game evolves and reaches a new high. Same happened when Williams sisters rocked women’s tennis by their, hitherto unknown in women circuit, brand of power tennis. Today that has become the benchmark.
By no means is this an obituary to Roger. On the contrary I am quite eager and excited to see his response. The year 2008 will decide where Roger ends up and how he will be remembered by the posterity. As a tennis player who dominated the field first and when challengers came, faded away or as an all-time great who rose to each and every challenge thrown to him, unruffled by the temporary setbacks came back strongly and continued his march towards immortality and of course towards that elusive title at Paris.