Every Human is an artist

Every human is an artist, a storyteller with a unique point of view.
When we see ourselves as artists, we no longer feel the need to impose our views on others or to defend what we believe.
We know that every artist has the right to create his/her own art, their own story.

–Don Miguel Ruiz

This is a great message from our very own contemporary Toltec Mexican shaman, Don Miguel Ruiz. So often, we get carried away with our own stories. Stories of how miserable, sick, pissed we are, what a rotten world this is, etc. Or, more violently, stories of our own religion, region, nationality, sexuality, that we try to impose on others–or else, I’ll shoot you?
–Raj Ayyar

OTT Escapes From Bleak Corona Reality; The Irregulars, Mrs. Dalloway & …

4 Films: The Irregulars, Mrs. Dalloway, Searching for Sheela, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Alas, India is in the grip of a virulent Covid deja vu–as we battle the second wave, there is a brain-numbed empathy for the dead and for the pile-up of bodies outside crematoria (does anyone die a ‘dignified death’ anymore?), a breath-stopping horror at oxygen and vaccine supplies running low, and the home incarceration blues caused by yet another lockdown.

Aside from reading almost incessantly, I also map strategic escapist exits into Netflix, Amazon Prime, and youtube bingeing from time to time. Plus my own buoyancy that still sees and relishes the dappled sunlight on the leaves, the beauty in the eyes of a cat, and the sheer gratitude for being alive here and now.

I love the bleak dark cityscapes, with occasional gleams of light piercing the murk (an almost Gnostic sense of atmospherics). What I dislike about the series thus far: the portrayal of Holmes as a wasted junky who just lies around 221 B, occasionally puking his guts out. I remain true to the canonical Holmes whose morphine and cocaine addictions are always secondary to his prime addictive passion: his work as a consulting detective.

Four bite-sized film reviews of OTT films that touched a chord or two in me, wincing now and again: First, The Irregulars–a really weird Holmes pastiche. Don’t get me wrong–I am not a Holmes Canon fundamentalist, fretting and fuming at the non-canonical deviance of this Netflix series. A few aspects of the series (I’ve watched the first two episodes of the first series) that really tickled me. One is the brave multiculturalism, rescuing Holmesian tradition from the all-white male late Victorian stuffiness of the canon. Watson is played by a black Brit. actor. The Irregulars, a ragtag bunch of white male street kids in Conan Doyle’s version, is headed by Bea, a feisty Chinese Brit. girl, her white sister (sic!) Jess, and a black kid named Spike. Billy is the only white kid in the bunch and is depicted pretty much as I visualized Doyle’s Billy.

There is also the white haemophiliac Prince Leopold, who escapes the palace, to hang out with the Irregulars incognito.

The second film is one that I enjoyed without caveats: the Vanessa Redgrave version of ‘Mrs. Dalloway’. Vanessa plays Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway to perfection–there is a sense of graceful, effortless gliding about her role in the film. Clarissa Dalloway gliding up and down staircases, through lush lawns, and tete-a-tetes with acquaintances at a party.

Behind the glide is all of Clarissa’s (and Woolf’s) proneness to anxiety caused by low self-esteem, and little plunges into small whirlpools of depression. The film does its best at capturing the complex flowing Woolfian stream of consciousness style, with flashbacks constantly juxtaposed with here-and-now realities.

My third pick: the Netflix biopic Searching for Sheela, based on flashbacks and real-life interviews with the ever-controversial Ma Anand Sheela, Osho’s love, his muse, and director of the discredited Oregon commune.

Much of the biopic focuses on her return to India to promote her book on Osho. Oddly enough, Sheela comes across as likable, vulnerable and yet centered and at peace in this biopic, spouting Osho-isms to her disabled clients at a care center in Switzerland. Karan Johar, Barkha Dutt, and other interviewers did a good job overall.I love Sheela’s off-the-cuff reply to Karan Johar about Osho’s eyes being more beautiful than his penis. She insists that they had a deeply spiritual I-Thou, rather than physical sex.

Curiously enough, the interviewers weren’t tough enough on her. They went around in circles, coming back to the same tired-ass questions about whether she was a bio-terrorist in Oregon or not. I would have asked her the really important question about why she created a religion called ‘Rajneeshism’, given that Rajneesh (Osho) was as allergic to organized religion and politicized religion as someone he loved and bashed at the same time, namely, J. Krishnamurti. She did this when Osho went into a period of silence in Oregon. All in all, an interesting biopic.

My fourth and final film for this post is Tom Hanks’s take on the child TV host, Mr. Rogers–‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’. Hanks plays the ’80s child TV host Fred Rogers well, capturing his strange naivete bordering on innocence, his schmaltziness about the beautiful neighborhood and world, and his genuine eccentric caring for strangers.

It occurred to me that Mr. Rogers often echoes New Age guru Louise Hay on unconditional self-love and openness to the positive.

Cliched and sentimental? In a Covid round 2 context, perhaps that’s just what we need–a dose of Louise Hay and Mr. Rogers to feel better about ourselves and the world.-

Barun Chanda’s Murder in the Monastery: A Mini Review / Raj Ayyar

Barun Chanda’s ‘Murder in the Monastery’: A Mini Review

‘It rained unseasonably in the afternoon–a sudden shower that came without warning. High winds moaned through the glass panes of windows. People ran indoors.
Blue streaks of lightning zigzagged through dark clouds, freezing the raindrops mid-air. Then came the hailstorm.
In no time at all, the courtyard turned snow white.
Gusts of wind made the prayer flags flap loudly in protest.’
–Barun Chanda: Murder in the Monastery.
Unfortunately, the sun comes out a little too soon, just after the Gothic build up!
I have mixed feelings about this murder mystery set in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery high up in Sikkim, with splendid Himalayan views, and a cast of eccentric characters some murderous.
I’d say–one thumb up, and one thumb down for Barun Chanda’s second thriller translated from Bengali to English.
I don’t know why Chanda, a maverick actor (even had a role in Satyajit Ray’s ‘Seemabaddha’), cum executive cum author is considered the daddy of the Bengali adult thriller. Though Satyajit Ray wrote his Feluda mysteries for kids, I suspect more adults than kids read them these days. Ditto for Saradindu Bandyopadhyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi.
The text situates itself initially within the whodunit genre, with detective Avinash Roy and his sidekick Pradyot, surrounded by a host of suspects, many of them European expats of dubious credentials. However, it flip flops over to a Dan Brown style thriller, complete with a missing secret manuscript about Jesus spending time not during the missing years, but after his alleged death, at a Buddhist monastery in Kashmir.
The manuscript zealously guarded in a basement vault by the good Buddhist monks at Chanda’s Dengziang monastery in Sikkim. Yet it vanishes leaving a distraught abbot, tense monks running around, and two murders linked to the missing manuscript.
Chanda, unlike Dan Brown, manages a credible, minimalist diplomatic secularism–though the murderer is s hired goon of some Christian sect or other, Chanda does not point fingers at the Catholic church or Opus Dei, a la Brown in ‘The Da Vinci Code’.
I liked the erotic undercurrents in the novel overall–the steamy one-night stand between Miriam the fair-skinned Coorgi Catholic nun novice and Tenzing, the fully grown adolescent Buddhist monk novice, is deliberately understated and leaves the reader’s pornographic imagination to fill in the details.
However, Chanda is resolutely heterocentric, and his detective marginalizes suggestions of monkish gay sex with a disapproving homophobic sniff, that is implied, not expressed.
Well worth a read at an airport, or on a long airplane ride.
Raj Ayyar

The film ‘Manto’–A Review by Raj Ayyar

‘I am a walking, talking Bombay.’
‘Saadat Hasan Manto, RIP. He lies in that grave, wondering: Who is the greater storyteller? God or Manto?’
–Saadat Hasan Manto.
I enjoyed watching the biopic ‘Manto’,  A great Indo-Pakistani genius comes alive in this film. A man whose life-world is torn apart by the brutal Partition, one whose life thereafter would always bear the scars of that trauma.
Manto’s intense, and yet funny Urdu storytelling elan comes to life, as does his quirky humor, his roving gaze that took in details of street life with merciless precision (always privileging the marginalized street person, sex worker or insane victim of the India-Pakistan partition), and stitched them into narratives.
It is a measure of Nandita Das’ skill as a director, that five Manto stories are woven into the fabric of the film, one each for his five most creative and tormented years–often, the film slips from a ‘realistic’ biographical description into the heart of a Manto story. Only later does the viewer come to realize that s/he is now out of the story, and back to Manto’s life.
Hats off to Nawazuddin Siddiqui for pulling off such a complex role with elan–he captures the humor and dark irony of Manto’s personal conversations, as also of his stories with a seemingly effortless ease.
Rasika Dugal has a sidekick role–as Manto’s wife Safia, she is reduced to the role of a codependent, mothering wife, who takes care of him in his darkest moments.
I loved Rajshri Deshpande as Ismat Chughtai–she looks a bit like the young Ismat and portrays her love-hate for Manto well (‘Manto my friend, Manto my enemy’).
The film reminded me of a forgotten Bollywood matinee idol–Shyam Chadha. He was Manto’s closest friend and might have broken the rule of the filmic triumvirate–Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, and Dev Anand, had his life and career not ended tragically in an accident on the sets.
Tahir Bhasin is adequate to the role but lacks Shyam’s extreme good looks, and his flashy personality.
The film relives two of Manto’s best stories–‘Thanda Gosht’ (Cold Meat), and ‘Toba Tek Singh’. The former about a man stabbed to death by a jealous sweetheart confessing that he had an extra-marital quickie with a corpse, and the latter the ultimate Indo-Pakistani story about the horrors of Partition, seen through the eyes of a madman.
One wishes that the film had spent more time re-creating ‘Toba Tek Singh’, and less on Manto’s rehab and therapy. It does capture Manto’s depressive alcoholism after his move from his beloved Bombay to Lahore, but those scenes could have been shortened without losing the overall effect.
Raj Ayyar

Lipstick Under My Burkha–A Review by Raj Ayyar

Lipstick under my burkha

I enjoyed watching Lipstick Under My Burkha this afternoon–the film is now in its once a day matinee phase, about to exit the big screen.

The film is a great commentary on the suppression of female sexual desire and sexualities in contemporary India. Pornography, phone sex and endless erotic fantasy are the substitutes.

The lead figure in a Hindi porn novel series–Rosie, becomes the fantasy persona of two of the women in lead roles–Ratna Pathak as the older sexy Buaji and Plabita Borthakur as Rehana Abidi, the young Muslim woman, who spends most of her spare time fantasizing about sex in the Rosie persona.

Both women are oppressed by their families; Rehana once her kleptomania is revealed, and Buaji for her erotic fantasies as an older woman. Past 40, women In India are not supposed to think of sex.
Her phone sex with a stud–a swimming life guard, plus her hidden porn stash, get her thrown out of her family and out into the streets. Bua’s situation reveals the sanctimonious ageist sex prohibition (aside from a generalized sex phobia, homophobia, transphobia and more), rampant in India–older women and men are supposed to be sexless nurturers of the young and nothing more,

Konkona Sen Sharma is disappointingly reduced to sidekick status at best in this film–a shame, given her considerable acting talent (remember Konkona in Mr. & Mrs. Iyer?).
In the end, the major characters are manifestations of the porn novel Rosie character–porn is the real hero of Lipstick.

For me, the glaring melodramatic flaw in the film: the lifeguard who flirts with Bua Usha, and enjoys phone sex with her in her camouflaged Rosie persona, exposes her publicly in her neighborhood, and turns her family and most of her friends in that ghetto against her. Topping it off with a stream of ageist abuse. Given his studly narcissism and enjoyment of the phone sex, it is out of character for him to attempt such a wholesale destruction of one of his admirers.

No, this is Ekta Kapoor channeling thru the director of the film, back to the weepy, the overdone, the implausible melodramatic excesses of Ekta’s soaps. Tsk, tsk.