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For many years now, I have been talking about starting a Conversation Club. Generally,  at parties, the men and women form two separate groups and converse on the same old topics. The men talk politics, sport and money; the women about families, children and fashions. It’s all very predictable and boring, particularly the political discussions which never lead to anything ; nothing is going to be solved by us armchair experts but still we plow on.

I had read about The Socrates Club,  impromptu gatherings in public places, open to anyone who wishes to attend, at which attendees explore a topic announced shortly in advance. By exchanging views and asking questions, people from different backgrounds learn more about the subject and become more tolerant of each other’s views. There are now more than 600 such clubs all over the world. Sample topics: ” What is good art?” and  ” What does love of country mean?”

My idea for the Conversation Club was slightly different because my objective was different. The topics discussed at the Socrates Cafes, interesting though they were, appeared to me to be too highbrow for my friends’ tastes. Neither did I feel qualified to lead the discussions on such subjects.  I wanted to have a small group of friends meet regularly and discuss topics from our everyday lives, the idea being to cement our friendships by knowing more about each other, our likes and dislikes, our experiences. Sample topics: ” How do you feel about New York City? Do you go there often, seldom or not at all?” and ” Is winter just another season to be enjoyed or does the cold weather depress you? What do you do to avoid the winter blues?” or ” Hamburgers or Hot Dogs? Which do you prefer and why?” Follow-up questions would enable a thorough exploration of the subject and a better understanding of ourselves and each other.

I never did start a Conversation Club but I have used the approach in putting together a column, ” Your Turn”, that is published in the monthly newsletter of our Active Adult community. Each month I ask five different members of our community a question,( like the ones above) and add my own thoughts  to theirs. I started out interviewing my friends and neighbors, then the acquaintances from the different groups I am a part of and have now progressed to buttonholing people I meet in the clubhouse or on my walks. The answers are always interesting and sometimes surprising . It has also made me some new friends.

I am now thinking of starting — I will be starting – – a Movie Viewing club. The idea came to me after the Sunday Afternoon Cinema Screening of ” Monsoon Wedding” for which I was the moderator. ( See last post). Watching the movie in a group and discussing our reactions to it was not only a highly enjoyable experience but it created bonds between those who participated in the experience. I want to do it on a smaller scale at home. My idea: Invite two couples and show a video either borrowed from the library or from Netflix streaming services and then discuss it in a relaxed home setting fueled by coffee and snacks. Of course, the movie must be a meaningful one, perhaps ” Queen Of Katwe’, a Mira Nair film about a 12 year old girl from the slums of Uganda who becomes a chess prodigy and transforms her life. There are several talking points about the movie which would make for an interesting discussion. Now, I have to find out who among my friends and acquaintances, would like such a movie and be prepared to discuss it. Since I want to keep the viewing audience small, I want to take my time and be very selective in who I invite. It should be fun.

 

 

 

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Once a month , on a Sunday afternoon,  our Active Adult community shows a movie at the clubhouse. There is no charge. Attendees bring snacks for general consumption and the club provides coffee and tea. A moderator introduces the movie and, after the screening, leads a discussion on it. Yesterday, the club screened Mira Nair’s 2001 hit ” Monsoon Wedding” and I was the moderator. Everything went well,  it was an interesting experience and I came away with some fresh ideas on how best to enjoy a movie.

My wife and I saw ” Monsoon Wedding” when it first came out 16 years ago ( It really doesn’t seem that long ago). We saw it at a theater in Westfield, N.J and  were surprised by the reaction of the audience at movie’s end. When the lights came on, there was a sustained burst of applause and they then remained seated for a full five minutes  as if stunned.

I remembered the main points of the film but had long forgotten the details. So, the week before the screening at the clubhouse, I watched a video of ” Monsoon Wedding”, not just the movie but the bonus features too. They included a commentary by the director, Mira Nair, that was as long as the movie itself. It was a good thing I did because it cleared up some questions I had besides providing some interesting insights. Watching the movie for the second time was very helpful too. Since I already knew the plotline, I was able to focus my attention on the faces of the characters and appreciate the fine nuances of their acting.  At some points, I replayed the scenes and picked up additional details that I’d not previously noticed. One other thing I did was to read as many online reviews of the movie as I could.

All this prep work came in handy  since it gave the confidence that I could handle most anything that came up at the screening. I kept the introduction short and gave just the barest description of the beginnings of the plot. I mentioned that it was an ensemble drama and that while the movie might seem chaotic in the beginning with lots of characters coming and going, they (the audience) would know every character intimately by the end. I warned them of some graphic language in the movie and re-assured them that this Indian movie at least was not over-long.

After the movie, I began by asking the audience what they thought of the movie, and we were off to the races. Their comments were very perceptive and  one comment led to another. When the conversation seemed likely to flag, I threw out a question of my own. Every now and then, I had to clarify some point about Delhi society and Indian wedding customs and was able to do so without any problems. All in all, a most enjoyable experience because of this sharing of views. I was most impressed by the depth of understanding and the broadmindedness of the views expressed by the audience members

So.. what did I learn about how to watch a movie? Well, if you like the movie and want to know more , watch the bonus features, particularly the director’s commentary. It will give you fresh ideas about the plotting and how the director translated the script into the action on the screen. If you still want to know more, read what some of the well known film critics have to say about the film. Don’t just take their opinions as gospel but examine them and see whether  or not your own views are in agreement. This may sound like a lot of work but it really isn’t because you doing something you like. It’s  fun too because, once in a while, there is an “Aha!” moment when you stumble upon some the answer for some obscure point and then discover that it was what the director intended. In time, these practices will make you a much more discerning viewer and bring you much enjoyment besides.

Next post: Starting a Movie Viewing Club

 

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The reviews for the movie ” Dangal” have been uniformly good with most critics giving it 4 or 4.5 stars out of 5. The acting, the theme, the music, the cinematography have all in for praise but one review had an interesting sidelight. It said, in part,

The elevation of women is still a manifestation of an unfulfilled male dream. It is still the male who emerges as the true hero, not the women. ….. Geeta is nothing without her father, her man.”

For myself, I don’t agree. I can see how one might come to such a conclusion but I don’t think it is warranted. While the early part of the movie necessarily focuses on Mahavir Singh Phogat and his efforts to turn his daughters into world class wrestlers, the focus gradually changes to the daughters, particularly Geeta. In fact, in the climactic sequences as Geeta battles to a gold medal, Mahavir Singh is not even in the audience, thanks to the machinations of the coach. During the match, she remembers his words of advice but it his her skill and dogged will to succeed that carry her to victory. Afterwards, when Geeta seeks out her father and shows him the gold medal, he looks at it, then places it around her neck. How can anyone say of the film that ” Geeta is nothing without her father“.?

What you think?

 

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On a gray winter day, what can be better than a movie and a pizza in the company of good friends ? And when that movie is a wonderful… outstanding!

Last Friday was just  such a day  and the movie we saw was ” Dangal” (The Wrestling Competition), the Bollywood blockbuster that has been breaking all box-office records since its  December 23rd release. I am not a particular fan of Bollywood movies but I have to say that Dangal is superb. If you have not yet seen it, I would urge you to do so ASAP. The movie  has English sub-titles and can be enjoyed by everyone, Indian or not.

Dangal  is the story of Mahavir Singh Phogat and his daughters, Geeta and Babita. Phogat was a prominent wrestler who had to give up his wrestling career in order to earn a living. He decided to train his sons to succeed in the wrestling arena but his wife and he were blessed with four daughters , one after the other, no sons.Unwilling to give up his dream of bringing honor to the nation on the sports field, he transferred his ambitions to his two oldest daughters,  Geeta and Babita. He got the idea when they beat up two neighborhood boys who had been harassing them. Subjecting his daughters to a punishing training program and a strict diet, he had them enter wrestling competitions against boys. How they bought into his ideas and achieved national and international wrestling prominence is the story of this film; I will not spoil it for you by giving you more details.

Aamir Khan plays a large part in the success of this film, and I mean that literally. In order to play the role of the wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat, he put on 60 lbs. and has also delivered a bravura performance. He convincingly depicts Mahavir Singh’s single-minded determination, his resourcefulness , his never-say die attitude and his struggle to put aside his love for his daughters in order to spur them to greater and greater heights. He is to be applauded for taking such a role at a time when he is still a box-office draw in hero roles. Aamir’s is only one of many fine performances. Sakshi Tanwar as his wife Daya Kaur, the two girls who play the young daughters,  and Fatima Sana Shaikh in the role of the grown up Geeta are all excellent. Indeed, the entire supporting cast is to be commended for its fine acting.

While the scenes of Geeta competing in the Commonwealth championships are exciting, I thoroughly enjoyed the early part of the film set in rural Punjab and Haryana. The village atmosphere and the wrestling competitions have the feel of authenticity and flashes of humor enliven a film that could easily have become serious and leaden.The narrow minded small- town attitudes towards girls and women are subtly but unflinchingly depicted, making it all the sweeter when Geeta and Babita burst the barriers. The upbeat musical sound track by Pritam is also a huge plus.

One of the most powerful scenes in the movie is when the young bride details her fate ( and that of girl children in rural India) and causes Geeta and Babita to drop their resistance to their father’s diktat. Hopefully, this film will play an important part in changing the way girl children are regarded. Realizing this, four Indian states have given Dangal tax free status to promote the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao ( Save your Daughters, educate your daughters) program, the object of which is to eradicate female foeticide and promote female education. The film also casts a harsh light on the arrogance and hide-bound attitudes of India’s sports bureaucracy.

In an otherwise  terrific production, there are two minor blemishes. One is the portrayal of the national coach who goes to extremes in trying to discredit Geeta’s father and take the credit for her success. The other is the slighting nature of the pre-match remarks of Geeta’s Australian opponent. Neither happened in real life and one wonders why it was necessary to fabricate them. Why do we need a villain ( or villains) in the story?

Still, this should not detract from the excellence of the film and one wishes it much box-office success both for its entertainment value and its uplifting, inspiring message.

P.S The pizza at Bertucci’s Brick Oven Pizza was good too… but not as good as the movie.

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As one who has suffered through old time Hindi movies with improbable stories, innumerable dance numbers, and songs sung by heroes pursing heroines around trees, I am still surprised by the advances made by Bollywood films in recent years. Granted there are still some throwbacks to old time movies but there are now many Bollywood films with strong, realistic plot lines, good acting and cinematography,  and production values that rival anything that Hollywood has to offer.

One such movie, a recent release, is “Airlift”, which is based on a real life happening, the rescue of 170,000 Indian workers stranded in Kuwait as a result of the 1990 Iraqi invasion. The protagonist is Ranjit Katyal ( Akshay  Kumar) an Indian businessman in Kuwait whose only motivation is money. Hard drinking, hard partying Ranjit is living high on the hog when the Iraqis invade Kuwait. Initially, Ranjit and his businessman friends do not worry about their situation; their expectation, and that of most Kuwaitis, is that the Americans  will soon arrive and oust the Iraqi invaders. Gradually, the precariousness of their existence dawns on Ranjit. As he attempts to reach his office he sees the widespread looting and the rampant destruction  that has been unleashed. What shocks him to reality is the cold blooded murder of his driver, Kurian, by a gun-toting 16 year old soldier. He himself only escapes that fate because of the intervention of an Iraqi major Khalaf Bin Zayed ( Imanul Huq) who had met Ranjit when he was in Baghdad for a business deal. Major Khalaf was his interpreter and assistant and he protects Ranjit for old times sake and, of course, to extort money from him.

Initially Ranjit seeks to help only his employees but other Indian workers also seek refuge and he is unable to turn them away. The experience of trying to feed them and give them shelter changesRanjit from a selfish man to one who takes on the responsibility for his fellow Indians, first to keep them alive and later to somehow get them to safety. It’s a gripping story with one setback after another until Ranjit finally succeeds..

Akshay Kumar turns in a sterling performance as Ranjit, the businessman who is initially out only for himself but gradually becomes a man obsessed with saving his fellow Indians.  His transformation is utterly credible  and, as you watch the film unfold, he becomes Ranjit; no longer do you see him as an actor playing a role. It is a bravura performance from someone who until now was not known for his acting. It’s still early in the year but I would be surprised if he is not nominated for a Best Actor Award 2016.

Akshay as Ranjit dominates the film but he is ably supported by Nimrat Kaur who plays his wife , Amrita. In the course of the film, Amrita too undergoes a transformation. From a trophy wife exasperated at her husband’s sybaritic lifestyle  but who nevertheless  thinks only about her family, she becomes one who like her husband begins to care about all the Indians in Kuwait. In the process she falls in love with her husband all over again.

Other notable performances come from Prakash Belawadi  as George Kutty , as a cantankerous, obnoxious old man concerned only about himself; Imranul Huq as the venal Iraqi major;  Kumud Mishra as Sanjeev Kohli, a mid-level bureaucrat in New Delhi who helps Ranjit when the Minister and other bigwigs don’t give a hoot. and Purab Kohli     as Ibrahim Durrani, Ranjit’s right hand man.

The film is gripping as Ranjit lurches from one setback after another even as the situation becomes ever more precarious. The scenes showing the Iraqis overrunning Kuwait and the attendant burning and looting are so realistic that you wonder how they were shot and where ( Much of the film was shot in UAE and Rajasthan). The few songs in the movie are catchy but unobtrusive. All in all, the movie rivals anything to come out of Hollywood.

One criticism I have about the movie direction: the latter parts of the movie seem rushed. The final phase of the evacuation in which 170,000 Indian citizens were airlifted by almost 500 flights, most by Air India personnel, and the difficulty of getting them passports could have been spun out a little more. Also I wish more prominence had been given to  Sunny( Toyota) Matthews and Vedi, the two real life heroes who orchestrated the evacuation  and on whom the fictitious character Ranjit Katiyal is based. There is only a brief mention of them in the closing credits. I had never heard of them earlier and allegedly their names had been previously withheld for security reasons. Security reasons? Give me a break. I think it is more likely that the minister and other bureaucrats wanted to take all the credit for the operation, the largest ever airlift of its kind. The movie depicts the government functionaries  as slothful, uncaring and unwilling to take any responsibility but only too happy to be front and center for publicity when something is a success. Sounds true to life.

Four stars out of five. Do see the movie; you won’t regret it.

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What Am I Missing ?

I just saw ” Interstellar”, the 2014 movie starring Matthew McConaghy and I am mystified by the laudatory reviews it received. Set some time in the future when life on Earth is getting increasingly impossible, the movie is about a desperate quest to connect with aliens in another galaxy and save mankind. Visually and technically, it is a treat. Early on, the scenes of small town America, where people are barely hanging on as life deteriorates amid dust storms and blighted crops evokes memories of the Dust Bowl. Later, as Cooper( McConaghy) and his crew search for intelligent life in far-off worlds, the depiction of these planets and their harsh conditions is stunning. However, the storyline left me mystified. How exactly does Cooper make it back to Earth and how do the ecological problems on Earth get resolved? For a movie that is almost three hours long, the movie ends with a lot of unanswered questions.

In my opinion, Interstellar deserves perhaps two stars out of five. I was amazed therefore to find that most viewers liked it; almost 16,000 of them gave it four stars. I don’t get it. What am I missing ? My son and my nephews liked Interstellar; some even loved it. Is this because of the generation gap? Am I unable to appreciate new ways of telling a story, or understanding futuristic concepts?

I know I am not alone in my predicament. A few years ago, my cousin went to the movies and saw The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou ( starring Bill Murray) and he hated it. His children , on the other hand, loved it. This has happened with other movies too. My kids loved The 40 year Old Virgin; I was turned off by it. Then again, I don’t understand why so many movies have to be ” dark”. The newer Batman movies and even the later installments of the Harry Potter series are good examples of this trend.

I guess I will just have to accept that tastes have changed and that I am no longer in sync. Luckily, there are enough other movies and TV shows to keep me interested..

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Producer- Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali is noted for the opulence of his films and his latest, ” Bajirao Mastani” does not disappoint. Bajirao is the story of the Peshwa  who commanded the Maratha forces and was undefeated in battle. The movie describes how he fell in love with Mastani, the half- Muslim daughter of the Raja of Bundelkhand and the tragic aftermath of their infatuation.

Indian history books, at least those in my time, focused mostly on the Mughal Empire and the British Raj. There was some description of the Maratha empire, but not much beyond the exploits of Shivaji. Little was written about the Peshwas and so I was  unfamiliar with the story of this film.

As the movie begins, Bajirao ( Ranveer Snigh), who has made it his mission to bring down the Mughal Empire, is diverted from his purpose by a plea for help by Mastani( Deepika Padukone). She audaciously forces her way into his presence and asks his help in lifting the siege of Bundelkhand by a Muslim army. Initially reluctant, he accedes to her wishes and comes to Bundelkhand’s rescue. In the course of the fighting, he gives Mastani his dagger, which according to local custom means that he is now married to her. Against her parents wishes, she follows him to his palace in Pune. However, Bajirao’s mother , Radhabai, is aghast at the idea of such a liaison.  Bajirao is married to the beauteous Kashibai ( Priyanka Chopra) and Mastani’s sudden appearance in Pune is very upsetting. Radhabai tries she can to nip the affair in the bud, and humiliates Mastani by treating her like a courtesan. However, Bajirao is infatuated with Mastani and their love blossoms despite fierce opposition from Radhabai,  Bajirao’s brother Chimaji Appa,  Bajirao’s older son Nana, and the royal priest. The rest of the movie  deals with the interplay between Bajirao, Kashibai and Mastani and its tragic aftermath.

“Bajirao Mastani” is visually amazing, with lavish sets, colorful yet tasteful costumes, and riveting battle scenes. The three main actors all turn in great performances. Ranveer Singh is utterly convincing as Bajirao, projecting the right blend of hauteur, tenderness and stubbornness. A good friend remarked that when he watched the movie, he felt he was watching Bajirao himself, and not Ranveer Singh as Bajirao. True, but part of the reason, I think, is that we do not know what the real Bajirao looked like. This is not to take anything away from Ranveer’s standout performance. In addition to his acting, I was impressed with his muscular body and his six-pack abs. I really think that our Bollywood heroes are more buff than their Hollywood counterparts. The two female leads are a good match for Ranveer.  Priyanka ,as the virtuous Kashibai,  has the meatier role and she runs full gamut of emotions from love to anger to resignation. I hope she gets a Best Actress award to go with her triumph at the Golden Globes.  Deepika, as Mastani, is almost as good. Both of them look stunning. BTW, I have to commend Deepika on the hard work she has put into her acting career. She improves from film to film and is unafraid to take on all sorts of roles, including  unglamorous ones in which she dons very little make-up.

When the movie was about to be released,  Bajirao’s descendants roundly criticized it as being inauthentic. While their objections are understandable,   Bajirao was never intended to be a  documentary. Without the dances and songs, the film would not appeal to the public and would flop at the box office. For instance, the idea of Kashibai and Mastani performing a dance duet is laughable but what can you do? This is what the public demands.

A more serious shortcoming is the depiction of Bajirao’s obsession with Mastani. It seems difficult to imagine that he would suddenly throw over his beloved wife and treat her so callously. Also unbelievable are some of the battle scenes, particularly when Bajirao charges a massed army, fending off a flight of arrows in mid-air  with his flashing sword (much like Jet Lee in” Hero”). He then mows down dozens of his adversaries, like the blind Zatoichi did in dozens of samurai epics. In an earlier battle sequence, he scampers up  the trunk of a war elephant and kills its rider( remember Legolas in Lord of the Rings).  Is this a period drama or a fantasy epic?

Still, these minor flaws do not detract from what is an excellent film. In addition to the CGI enhanced settings and terrific acting, the movie has a superior soundtrack ( courtesy  Sanjay Leela Bhansali ,  music director) , dances  and good pacing. Though 2 hours 38 minutes long, it does not seem that long.

My rating: four and a half stars out of five.

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