Monday, November 26, 2007

The one about the break

This post was long due. A few days back I quit my full-time job. Not to take up a new job or do my own stuff. But to take a break. This post is about getting things off my chest.

[Side note: If you expect dramatic farewell e-mails copy/pasted here then this ain’t that dhobi ghaat. But since you asked, I had a dream job and I was lucky to work with some tough-ass talented, even genuinely nice, people]

"Why?": No simple reason. I think career decisions like these are the toughest ones to make. And sure as hell, the toughest one to take. I worked for eight years in a great job, but somewhere I drew a line and said, well, that’s that then. I need a break. Not that whole running away to Ladakh and finding your mojo (for the record I also did that) kinda breaks. Not those varieties. I’m talking clean break.

I’ve seen how we slog. And boy, all of us slog. Those late hours and all those reasons to justify them. I’ve seen some people doing the work they were born to do. Good for them. Me? I’m not in a tearing hurry to find out what I was born to do. Like that Jerry Maguire tagline I love – “The journey is everything.” So one fine day, I decided I needed to exhale. You know, take a look around. And hence the break. Or the brake.

"What next?": “Dude, I don’t know, let’s see”. Some people buy it, some don’t, even if I’m not selling anything. What I can’t quite get is why this “I don’t know” isn’t acceptable. I mean, what’s the big deal in someone just taking a break without a job offer or a business plan in his hand?

The opinions: Dicey, dicey. We live in times when ambition and drive are taken for granted. Pushing harder is the order of the day. Tolerance and understanding come at a premium. We’re all entitled to our opinions and views. And neither have to have anything to do with the truth. Or with your side of the story. Being judgmental is easy. But our opinions about others can say more about us, than about them. Enough said.

The ones on my side: One funny question I got often was “What’d your wife have to say?” I don’t know the point of this question but since you asked, she was cool with it. My friends were also, by and large, cool. So ok, some of them questioned my intelligence and some warned me about desolation, doom and gloom. Oh I kid them, but come on, they did so only for my good. They couldn’t understand my reasons and I don’t expect them to. I’m just glad they’re there. But the ones I love are those that went “Congrats” and “You’ll figure it out”. And those that never asked me why.

Finally, here’s the thing. I have no idea what job or business I’m going to do tomorrow or whenever. And sometimes, that ain’t a pretty thought. But sitting here today, if I take out the debris of an all-too familiar panic, I can see excitement too. What the heck. We all make decisions and we all have our reasons. It’s a risk we take, a call we make. Things work out, things don’t. They call it life. This is mine.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Why I prefer TV series

One of the reasons I dumped movie lists was because I was seeing just too many so-so and so-no movies. Big stars, or big directors, weren’t enough to guarantee a good movie experience. While the path to any great movie is strewn with lemons, I think I was seeing too much of mediocrity to justify my DVD subscription. Some movies meandered their way through meaninglessly as if to justify their big stars, some had wafer-thin plots relying either on their big stars on heavy special effects. To my own horror, I was forwarding some movies just to get it over with.

Then I discovered TV serials. And now, I am in no doubt when I say that if you’re looking for a sustained stream of good quality entertainment, you must consider watching TV series. One season of a TV series typically has five to six DVDs with each DVD containing about four episodes, each of just about an hour. I'd typically watch one to two DVDs every weekend and finish off one series in a month.

In terms of production values, TV series (and here I’m referring only to American ones, although I think there’s much in the British counterparts that I should be seeing) have matched, if not surpassed, big studio Hollywood movies. In terms of genres, the series span the entire gamut of drama, action, comedy, suspense, crime, etc. In terms of stories, scripts and plots, it's evident that TV series have come a long, long way from the LA Law, Ally McBeal, Picket Fences and X-Files days.

In some ways I think this is a larger reflection and an expression of America and its residents in this new post 9/11 world. I admire the way the American TV channels have expressed this via the entertainment industry. A phenomenon which we in India have yet to see, at least in a big way (an issue I touched upon in an early post here). I’d give anything for an ad-free HBO out here, but I doubt it'll ever happen.

Moving on, here’s what I’ve watched in the last one year. All the TV series below comprise one story running throughout the season, unlike say an episodic series like CSI where each episode revolves around one story. Personally I prefer the one-story-one-season format because I get hooked to it for a month.

1. 24 – Call it a neocon dream or liberal nightmare (switch that?), but I’m an unabashed fan of Jack Bauer. Purely in terms of thrills, twists and turns, 24 smokes just about every so-called “action” movie I’ve seen lately. There’s also this carefree abandon with which they kill just about every key character in the plot. Just when you’re endearing yourself to someone, he gets blown up by a car bomb, shot in the throat or gassed to death. No sentimentality or emotion, just pop off the good guys and make it tougher and tougher for Jack Bauer to win. Sure, the plots stretch your imagination to the point of incredulity, but it doesn’t matter because there’s enough to keep you gripped.

I think Season 4 was the best while Season 5 was a bit of a let-down. I’m waiting for the release of Season 6 DVD, and no I won’t download and see it. In India, AXN has shown 24 but, not surprisingly, the series never really took off here. (Also read this superb New Yorker piece on the politics of Joel Surnow, the man behind 24)

2. The Sopranos – I thank my good friend Purush for pointing me to this one. I have no doubt that it’s the best TV series I’ve watched till now. For something that I thought was “just about a mob boss”, I just loved the experience of seeing how the series was much, much more. It has a cult following in the US and rightly so. The script and the storylines are brilliant, the performances of the finely-etched characters are superb. Some of the action can get gory (well, it is about the Mafia), but there’s enough on the dialogues to keep you riveted and entertained – and I mean funny too.

Then there’s the all the symbolic stuff that I could never get, and then never get enough of. But you have to see the series. This is television at its best. I hope they never make a movie of out of it. I’ve seen the series till Season 5 and I’m waiting for Season 6, also the last of this path-breaking series.

3. Heroes – A.k.a. how the left sees 24. Not every hero needs is alone or resort to torture and maim because he has only a few hours to save the world. Nopes. But yes, the world is coming to an end thanks to the greed for power. In this case, greed for superpowers. Oh come on, don’t we all love good v/s evil? After all – and pardon the cliché – we’re all heroes in our own way. Some of us can create fire, others can re-generate, some can read others thoughts, talk with machines, move in time…. And that’s only a few of them.

Update - I've now also watched 4. Lost and 5. The 4400 after the kind comments from readers below. Thank you.

Besides the cutting-edge special effects, what I loved was that the episodes never fawned over individual heroes (and hence their powers), thanks to which the plot and the story was always central. I admire NBC’s (which airs Heroes) reply to Fox (which aired 24), if only because the viewer is the winner. I’ve seen Season 1 on DVD and am waiting for #2, which already began in the US some time back.

I’ve also seen Season 1 of "The Wire" (Purush, thanks again for this) which was also excellent, even if a bit too US-specific for my likes. And there’s of course the magnificent "Seinfeld" and its co-creators tribute to foul behavior "Curb Your Enthusiasm". After seeing all of these, I'm convinced that TV series remain a much more enjoyable option, than movies, to regular weekend DVD viewing.

So, seen any of these? Have any favs of your own? Love to hear from you.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Scenes from a city abroad

Singapore. Some scenes, some thoughts below. Comments, as always welcome.

Too sleepy to check out Changi Aiport. We’re now on our way to our hotel. Groggy, red-eyed, first impressions of Singapore. Long roads with loads of cars, all kinda cars. What speed are we going at? 100kmph? On city roads, what’s the deal? Am I dreaming or was that an angel I saw flying past in a Mini Cooper? Fast, but not furious.

Freshed up at hotel and out on the roads. I’m head over heels. What a city. The control freak in me implodes. I want to relocate here right now. I can’t believe there’s any place in this world where everything is so damn orderly. It’s too much to handle, really. Everything’s so clean, squeaky clean. I mean, why is everything so lush green here? (Updated: Here's the answer). There are plants and trees sprouting out of everywhere. Everywhere. I mean outside my hotel, on every street, corner, nook and cranny. All concrete and loads of jungle.

Malls. Lots of large malls. They call it Orchard Road. You can shop here forever. Which is something I don’t get. I mean, how much can you shop? Clothes, perfumes, jewelry, leather…How long can you spend there? Wife isn’t listening to me. But hang on, what’s this shop? Says “Bookbinder Designs, Sweden”. Such exquisite stuff, diaries, calendars, pencils. Must see. Must go. Must buy. Must shop.

“It’s the Truman Show, yaar” drawls a friend, puffing clouds of cigarette smoke. Huh? “Oye, I tell you. You look at each road at any given time. You’ll see the same car, taking the same turn, going to the same place. It’s all staged. There’s cameras everywhere. They’re watching you.” Too much coffee. But for a minute, he spooks me.

So, we’re waiting at the corner of a junction hailing a cab. Waiting and waving at cabs. Wife nudges, points to a small line of cars that’s formed in front of us, out of nowhere. They’re all calmly waiting. Huh? Duh? Wife whispers – “They’re waiting for us to cross”. Inadvertently we were standing at one end of a small zebra crossing. So, they’re waiting for us to cross. We hop over to the other side, barely four steps. Calmly the cars pass us by. These guys, they actually give way to people to cross the road. Faint.

The first Airbus A-380 was delivered to Singapore Airlines that day. On TV it’s the Prime Minister himself, addressing an event. Before I start scoffing (you know, what’s the big deal?), I catch the phrase “… in our relentless pursuit of excellence…”. I’ve never heard a nation premier talking about pursuit of excellence. Now, I’m feeling like the tourist I am from a poor, third-world, developing country visiting a developed one. Ticker below moves across “Mumbai Sensex: all-time high”. Am feeling a bit hollow.

At Night Safari now. I’m marveling at how these guys have done it. We’re in a tram with a guide explaining everything. We pass a rhino here, a lion there. Oohs and aahs rippling across. Louder ones at the amphitheatre with the nocturnal animals show. Hosted by nice, funny, trainers entertaining the audiences. And I’m thinking, ain’t this cool? This is what tourism is about. Making life easy and fun for tourists, make them go ooh and aah. You know, few animals, some fire-eating tribal dances, food joints (they’ve got a Ben & Jerry’s here). These guys are just brilliant, they’ve got it all figured out. I mean, there’s nothing particularly spectacular about the whole place. But they’ve put in focused effort, planning investment and packaged it as must-see Singapore. And it is, it is worth the visit. I’m thinking, what have we done with Kazirangha, Bandavgarh..just to name a few? More hollowness.

In conversation with friend. Idle touristy chat, I’m telling her “You know, someone once told me, long time back..pata nahin when, school, college, naukri.. that these guys throw vessels in the air to keep their names. Bartan phek ke naam rakhte hain.” Friend says “Haan suna tha. Not funny any more, na?” Silent nod.

I’m driving across the streets, seeing all the cleanliness, efficiency, order, discipline. We don’t hear a single honk – and I mean it, not a single honk – in all our time there. The cars, all of them, shine as if they’re new. No scratches or dents. So, I’m taking it all in. From nowhere I remember that Laloo-Japan PM joke (read the last one here). Not funny any more.

Walking across Clarke Quay. Vibrant, party atmosphere everywhere. People milling around, unwinding on a Friday night. Out on the streets. All dressed up and everywhere to go. Loads of trendy restaurants; there’s one based on a hospital (people sipping from an IV, chairs and tables themed on hospital beds. We go “Morbid”) and there’s even an oxygen bar. There’s this whole line of restaurants with seating extensions near the quay-side. Spanish restaurants, guitars strumming away. All in the open. I think I get the term “nightlife” now. Cross over to Boat Quay, which, I’m told is the poor cousin to Clarke Quay. Dinner at a “desi” joint. Friend says, best kaali dal in all of Singapore. Very, very yum.

And before I know it, too soon, I’m back in Bombay. There’s an Indica cool cab in front of me. One single word emblazoned on its back windshield. “Jesus”. Around the corner, three traffic cops talking to each other, some wearing tired expressions. Their day’s just over. Or just begun. Moving out of the airport. Across the slums, its dandiyas. Huge posters with bloated netas and a small place for God. Crowds of people thronging the dandiyas in those slums, colonies and chawls. Some watching, some dancing the night away. Lines of people, crowds of people, circles of peoples.

Dandiya. Mumbai. Jesus.

I’m home. Back home to the crazy, crowded, corrupted, congested city. Enough of Singapore detox. This is Bombay. I’m drugged to its delusions. Addicted.

“Itna bhar de, ki khaali kar de”

This city I tell you.