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Friends had long ago told us about the Netflix series The Crown and how good it was but we put off watching it. “How interesting could it be?” we thought. I am not a fan of the British royal family and Queen Elizabeth has always struck me as a colorless character, her monarchy boring. Consequently, my wife and I didn’t watch The Crown until two weeks ago. Then, in the space of eight days we raced through both seasons ( 20 episodes) and absolutely loved it.

These first two seasons ( I believe a total of six are planned) cover the early years of Elizabeth’s reign which began in 1953. The first episodes provide a preamble to her ascension to the throne with flashbacks cluing us to the circumstances that led to it , notably: the abdication of Edward VIII ( later The Duke of Windsor) and the short reign and early death of George VI, Elizabeth’s father. We also get vignettes of Elizabeth’s childhood: her father’s affection for her and her sister Margaret, and her marriage to Prince Philip her impoverished second cousin from another branch of the family.

The series is a masterly collage of scenes that give us a sympathetic portrait of a young woman, totally unprepared for the monarchy, who nevertheless grows into it, overcoming government ministers who look down upon her, palace intrigues, a petulant husband who feels emasculated by his role as Prince consort and a train of events that she has no control over but which will reflect upon her as the Queen of England. Among the problems she has to deal with: her sister Margaret’s dalliance with a married man Group Captain Peter Townsend, and her later marriage to Antony Armstrong- Jones; the aging PM Winston Churchill, at 80 a shadow of his former self who still thinks of himself as indispensable; his successors Antony Eden beset by health problems and in over his head  and the weak ineffectual Harold McMillan; the Suez crisis; the breaking away of Britain’s African colonies beginning with Ghana and, in the last episode of the second season, the Christine Keeler scandal which threatened to ensnare Prince Philip if only because of his connection with Stephen Ward the osteopath and procurer who committed suicide before he could be tried.

As she overcomes these problems, Elizabeth is shown as growing from an inexperienced, under-educated unsure young woman into a true monarch even though she has limited powers. Claire Foy is magnificent as Queen Elizabeth, portraying her as one imbued with a strong sense of duty, dignified, hardworking, vulnerable and lonely and yet possessed of a quiet strength that comes through when she needs it most. The scene in which she stands up to her uncle, the Duke of Windsor, and turns down his quest for a meaningful job is a masterpiece. It made me want to stand up and cheer.

She is ably supported by the rest of the cast particularly Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret, John Lithgow as Winston Churchill and Alex Jennings as the Duke of Windsor. The one weak link, in my opinion, is Matt Smith who plays Prince Philip and turns in a one-dimensional performance. Other strengths of the series are the excellent writing ( Do people in real life really express themselves so well?), the attention to historical detail, the costumes and the pageantry and the lovingly photographed English countryside.

The Crown does not have violent scenes, nudity or even partial nudity. Neither does it have epic  battle scenes. That it yet is so gripping is a tribute to the acting, the smooth pacing of the unfolding story and the superior acting and writing. There was one episode, about Prince Philip’s  struggles as a young boarder at Gordonstoun which I thought was given more screen time than necessary. I understand how it led to his insistence that Charles follow in his footsteps and attend that school but surely it need not have taken up an entire episode. I would have much preferred to know more about the early attraction of the young Elizabeth to Philip , as also the way in which both Elizabeth and Philip neglected their children, particularly Charles.

Growing up in India in the fifties and early sixties, I was exposed to more coverage of the British royal family than most Americans. Once I came to the U.S in 1968, I ceased to follow news reports about them and read only the major stories about them such as the death of Princess Diana and its aftermath. Consequently, most of what I knew about Queen Elizabeth pertained to the early years of her reign. I certainly didn’t know the extent of the Duke of Windsor’s Nazi sympathies or what a bounder Antony Armstrong Jones was or the suggestions ( in this series) that Philip was a womanizer who played around.  I am sure the writers and producers of the Crown have a solid factual basis for the events described in the Crown but have no way of knowing which of the details are imaginative extensions of the truth. This, after all, is faction ( a blend of fact and fiction) or ” creative non-fiction”.

Whatever be the case, the series has left me impatient for the next season. Until then, I am going to bone up on stories about the British royal family. Already, I have gotten from the library a book on Prince Philip. In The Crown, Philip does not come across as a likeable character. He is always whining, obnoxious and loudmouthed, resentful at his secondary role, harsh with Prince Charles and not there for his wife when she really needs his support. I didn’t like him even before I saw The Crown but was he really that bad? The book I have seems to say that he was a talented man with many accomplishments to his credit. I want to find out if that is really true.

 

 

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Many TV shows allow you to travel the world, see different places and eat different foods while sitting in the comfort of your home.  There is one I discovered recently which I think you will quickly become your favorite as it has mine. It is Migrationology.com, a vlog or video log by Mark Weins and you can watch it on You Tube.

Mark Weins is a 31 year old American, born in Arizona, brought up in France and Africa by missionary parents, who now lives in Bangkok with his Thai wife, Ying, and their one year old son, Mika. He has been producing these videos for the past six years, first in Asia but lately in Europe and the rest of the world. His videos make you feel that  you are at the table with him ; you can see that roadside stall or restaurant, smell the food, almost taste it.

What makes these videos so appealing, so much more enjoyable than the rest? It’s three things. Firstly, the camera work. The visuals are crisp and the editing masterly. The narrative focuses on the food and the ambience, mostly the former and just enough of the latter to give viewers a feel for the country Mark is visiting. BTW, Mark Weins is a one man show. He is the star, the cameraman ( he uses a video camera on a stick, like the one you shoot selfies with), the writer, the planner and the editor.  Secondly, the restaurants and the roadside stalls he eats at are just the sort that any foodie traveler would love to experience. They are recommended to him by his legion of fans worldwide who often guide him and accompany him to the best local haunts Next to home cooking, this is the most authentic food there is. Lastly, and most importantly, Mark’s personality is  a big reason for the popularity of his videos. He is knowledgeable about food without being pedantic, always pleasant and smiling, personable, good natured and respectful of the places he finds himself in and the people he encounters. I’ve never seen him say anything bad about anyone or any place that he has been to. Never.

Recently, I watched videos of Mark’s five day trip to Mumbai, India , the city where I grew up. I saw him visit familiar places, go to  restaurants that I’ve been to, eat dishes I’ve enjoyed. For instance, on Day 4 of his trip, Mark tried nalli nihari and tandoori roti at the Noor Mohammed Hotel on Mohammedali Road, demolished a vegetable sandwich  street side, and ate a malai cream ( a sweet dessert made from the first milk, or colostrum, of a cow that has just given birth). Then onto the Elco Arcade for bhel, pani puri and sev puri before a final stop at the Jai Jawan Punjabi restaurant on Linking Road in Khar for a dinner featuring Fried prawns, Tandoori Chicken and Daal Makhani. Imagine… all this in a single day. Truly, the man is a fearless eater with a cast iron stomach and the amount of food he can put away is amazing.

Mark is an adventurous eater though he does not go out of his way to find bizarre foods. He eats the local specialties, stuff that you and I would love to eat and he eats street food without a care in the world. He is not too fond of sweet things but  loves spicy foods and crunchy things. I watched in horror as he popped a fresh green chilly into his mouth and chewed on it.  Mentally, I was screaming” Don’t do it, Mark! Don’t do it!” but all he did was go ” Umm, a little spicy.”

I love to watch Mark eat. As the first morsel pops into his mouth, his eyes open wide in delight and a blissful smile spreads over his face. Then his eyes close in ecstasy and he goes ” Wow!” as he slowly tilts sideways to the right. Words can’t adequately describe this spectacle; you have to watch the video. Most dishes provoke this reaction in Mark but I have become an expert in gauging how much Mark really loves a dish. The reaction I’ve described means that the dish is top classs, A-1, not to be missed. If , however, he omits the sideways lean, it means just ” Good”, not ” Very Good or excellent”. If, on the other hand, Mark goes ” Ummm!’ while widening his eyes and pointing to the dish, it means the dish is just OK. He never finds a dish less than OK. Once, in Korea, when he was tasting sea pineapples- a shell fish that looks like a miniature pineapple – he said the fish flavor was very intense. That should have been enough to warn viewers away from it. ” Intense” is also the adjective he used to describe traffic in Mumbai, an epic understatement. Mumbai traffic is terrible, exhausting, intolerable. Comparatively, being caught in rush hour traffic in New York is relaxing.

Mark’s enjoyment of food may seem theatrical but it is genuine. When he was eating nalli nihari, a sinfully rich dish of mutton and bone marrow,  on his first stop that day, he expertly scooped it up with his tandoori roti but ran out of roti before he finished the dish. No problem. Remarking that the nalli nihari could be eaten like a soup, he grabbed a spoon and polished off the rest of the dish.

Many of us dream of traveling and eating  all over the world. Mark did too. The difference is that he went out on a limb in the pursuit of what he wanted to do and is now living his dream. Strangely , I am not jealous of him. I’m just happy that I get to watch his videos and share his experiences, even if it is only vicariously. You can too. remember ” Mark Weins” on You tube. Or if you want to read his blog, it’s migrationology.com.

 

 

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Just finished watching the BBC series Sherlock Holmes which is set in modern-day London. These British dramas have only three episodes each year and we zipped through three seasons worth in a week’s time. The first season was good,  the second so-so and the third excellent. Benedict Cumberbatch is terrific as Sherlock Holmes and the supporting cast is a match for him. The series is available on Netflix streaming . Do watch it if you can.

However, that is not  what I want to write about. What struck me about this series is that there were no car chases, no crashes and no explosions. ( There was one scene that showed the Houses of Parliament come tumbling down as a result of a terrorist bomb but it was just Holmes imagining what would happen if he didn’t stop the terrorists in time.) Despite this, these were all first class mysteries with their fair share of tension.

I have no doubt they would have been much more explosive had they been made for American TV.  Why ? Do really need to see cars ramming into each other and buildings being blown up to get our jollies ? I remember the car chase in The French Connection and how thrilling it was but we seem to have gone overboard with such scenes. With the advent of computers and CGI, such scenes have proliferated. For instance, the climax of an American made movie had Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes  fighting the villain on  London’s  iconic Tower Bridge  as it collapsed about them. Computer generated effects are fine but when they are used to show events that are patently false, the drama enters the realm of fantasy.

At least, when buildings and bridges are depicted tumbling down, no actual destruction takes place. This is not true of on-screen car crashes which really happen. Whenever I watch one of these, I can’t help thinking ” What a waste!” and I wonder why these are necessary and how the British and the Europeans manage without them. Is it because we Americans like them so much ? Is it because overseas productions do not have the lavish budgets that Hollywood and the American studios enjoy? Or is it an example of our wastefulness ? Or perhaps it is because of all of these? I don’t know.

Unfortunately, Indian movies seem to be modeling themselves on Hollywood. Recently, I saw two Bollywood movies and they were replete with car crashes ( and explosions) and the thought crossed my mind ” Are these really necessary?”

 

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“Bosch” : In Print and on TV

The Washington Post calls Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books ” the finest crime series written by an American”, a statement I fully endorse. I have read almost all the Harry Bosch books, over twenty of them, and no other series even comes close. My problem is that when I get hold of one of them, I am so hooked to them that I finish them in two or three days and then have to wait impatiently for the next one.

I just finished reading ” The Burning Room”, Connelly’s latest, and it is one of his best. Bosch, retired but still working in the Open- Unsolved Unit under the DROP program, is in the last year of his long career but is still as driven as he was in his prime. When the book begins, he is mentoring his inexperienced partner Detective Lucia Soto as they investigate a most unusual case. A mariachi musician who was shot during a performance ten years earlier has finally succumbed to his injuries. The body may be fresh but there are almost no other clues except for the bullet which was embedded in his body and has now been extracted. LA’s former mayor who had used the shooting in his election campaign is now running from governor and is taking a keen interest in the investigation. Examination of the bullet shows that it came from a rifle, not a handgun; Bosch and Soto realize that this was no drive-by shooting but a premeditated murder. This takes their investigation into new territory. Complicating matters is Soto’s backstory. As a child she had survived a fire in her daycare center, a fire which killed several other children and a beloved caregiver. The fire was belatedly ruled a case of arson and Soto wants to find the perpetrators. Harry agrees to help her and , soon, there appears to be a connection between the arson and the murder.

Connelly used to be a crime reporter for the L.A. Times before he became a full-time writer and it shows in his mastery of police procedures and local and police politics in the City of the Angels. As Soto and he pursue their investigation, and the clues emerge one by one, the reader almost feels he is in the squad car with them. Because of the political ramifications, Bosch has to tread carefully even as he has to work around budget restrictions and overtime constraints. Bosch, however, is his usual driven self, trying to be there for his teenage daughter Maddy, while trying to unravel the puzzle. Before the case is solved, it will take Bosch and Soto to Tulsa and Mexico but solve it they do , though the ending has a surprise twist that seems to hint this may be the last case of Harry’s career. I hope not because, as a loyal reader of the Bosch novels, that would be a sad loss.

One, perhaps two, of Connelly’s novels have been made into films but they did not feature Harry Bosch. I was delighted to chance upon the just released Amazon Prime series ” Bosch”. It is a ten part series starring Titus Welliver in the title role. I remember him best as the crooked DA in ” The Good Wife” though his face is also familiar from many other roles that I cannot now recollect. Welliver is an inspired choice to play Bosch; he is just as I imagined Bosch would be. The hooded world-weary eyes, the worn features, the walk with a hint of swagger, his obsessive nature, his uncompromising attitude and resistance to authority and his essential loneliness… they are all there. The supporting cast is also excellent. The storyline for the series has been taken from a mix of several of the Bosch novels. The film begins with the accidental discovery of a child’s bone on an L.A hillside. The entire skeleton is soon discovered and forensic analysis reveals that the poor child had been subjected to horrific abuse. Simultaneously, Bosch has to deal with a serial killer who escapes from custody and taunts Bosch to capture him.

I must warn you that the series is very ” dark”. Watching it , I was a reminded of a friend of mine, a forensic criminologist, who never would tell his wife about the work he did and the cases he had to investigate. He told her that if he did she would lose all faith in humanity. Reading about these cases in the novels was not as horrifying as when they were depicted on TV. It is not that there is any graphic violence; it is the sheer depravity of the perpetrators.

One disadvantage of having read the novels already is that I remember who the killer was, why he did it and other details of the case. Still, I found the series enthralling because of Welliver’s portrayal of Bosch and because it brought to life the milieu that he works in. The detectives squad room, their camaraderie and the office politics, the glimpses of L.A, Bosch’s hillside house with its stunning nighttime view of L.A, his relationship with his ex-wife and their growing daughter … all are shown in rich detail. The series is true to the novels though some things have been modernized to make the setting more up-to-date. For instance, there are references to Bosch serving in Afghanistan, and to the race riots in Ferguson, Missouri both of which are not in the books.

All in all, this is a series well worth watching though it is disturbing at times. If you haven’t read the books, you have the advantage of not knowing in advance how it all shakes out. If you have read the books, you have the pleasure of watching on-screen what you had only read about and of seeing how closely the two match.

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As one who does not often watch regular TV, I had forgotten how intrusive ads can be. I was reminded of this all over again when I watched the Super Bowl and was taken aback by the sheer volume of the ” commercial interruptions”, a euphemism that does not make ads any more palatable. There were times when the ads seemed like the main event and the game itself a sideshow. Particularly egregious where the times when either team scored. Immediately, we were bombarded with three or four ads. Then a brief interruption lasting less than thirty seconds for the kickoff and the return ( less than 10 seconds actual playing time) and then another three or four ads before the next play. In all 6-8 ads sandwiched around a single play lasting a few seconds. I’m conscious of the huge amounts the networks pay to the NFL to air the game and I know they have to recoup them through ad revenue but … Isn’t there some point when it becomes too much? When the ads destroy our enjoyment of the game? I think there is and the line has long since been crossed.

Perhaps I am less inured to ads than regular viewers because most of my viewing is done through streaming services ( Netflix, Amazon Prime). I have gotten used to watching TV without commercial interruption and the difference between it and regular commercial TV is like night and day. This was brought home to me recently when I watched the USA network’s series ” Suits”. The first three seasons were available free to Amazon Prime members and we thoroughly enjoyed them. Entertaining characters, superlative scripts and interesting subplots. Enthralled by the series, we blazed through forty-four four episodes in less than two weeks. The later seasons were pay per view and we decided to postpone watching them, meanwhile joining season 4 in progress on the USA network. What a disappointment. The ads disrupted the narrative flow and it was difficult to sustain interest. It didn’t help that last week’s episode included a number of unnecessary flashbacks which added to our woes. We decided, then and there, not to watch the new episodes. Either we are going to wait for them to become available free to Amazon Prime members or pay $1.99 per episode and watch them immediately.

It’s not as if the commercials are interesting, funny or otherwise compelling. Even the Super Bowl ads were eminently forgettable.( The only one I remember is the Doritos ad). Even when I like the ad it’s not as if it is going to sway me to rush out and buy the product being advertised. For instance, my wife and I like the AT& T ads because of the pert spokesgirl featured in them but that doesn’t mean we are going to switch our telephone provider. I know advertisers must be getting value for their money but I find it difficult to understand how. Most viewers either tune out the ads or fail to remember the product being advertised. Could it be that , on some subliminal level, the ads are in fact getting through to us?

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Sushi Fallacies

As long as I have been eating sushi, I have been under the impression that the quality of the sushi depends on the freshness of the fish and that the best sushi is necessarily more expensive because it utilizes the most expensive cuts of fish. It turns out that I was under a misapprehension. According to Master sushi chef Naomichi Yasuda,

1. Fresh fish has no taste . It is just hard and chewy

2. You don’t need expensive cuts of fish to make exquisite sushi.

3. Rice, not fish, is the most important ingredient in making sushi. 

Rice is more important than fish in sushi ?!!This will sound almost heretical to a sushi lover but Chef Yasuda speaks from a wealth of experience. For twenty-seven years he lived in New York City and was the chef and part owner of Sushi Yasuda, one of the best ( if not the best ) sushi restaurants in NYC. Then, in 2011, he suddenly pulled up stakes and relocated to Tokyo where he runs a small 14-seat sushi restaurant with his wife as his sole helper. His friend , Anthony Bourdain, tracked him down in Tokyo and interviewed him for one of the episodes on his TV show, Parts Unknown.  Why did Chef Yasuda relocate to Tokyo so suddenly and after such a long successful stint in NYC? According to him,  it was simply a desire to work in the city which is the home of sushi.

Like other top chefs, Chef Yasuda also gets his fish at Tokyo’s world famous Tsukiji market but , unlike them, he does not get up in the middle of the night to get there at 4 AM. Unlike them he doesn’t pay top prices for pieces of toro, the fatty belly meat of the tuna.He gets there later in the morning and selects from among the lesser pieces of tuna, often pieces from the head. He then transforms them by dint of his masterful knife skills and by ” curing” the tuna meat, often by freezing it in a blast freezer for a week or more. Chef Bourdain who ate at Chef Yasuda’s Tokyo restaurant says that his sushi is as good as it ever was.

What a difference between Chef Yasuda and Chef Jiro whose highly acclaimed sushi restaurant received three Michelin stars. Jiro is no doubt dedicated to his craft but he comes across as a sourpuss and an elitist. Not so chef Yasuda who laughs readily and seems a much friendlier type. If I were to go to Tokyo again I know  whose sushi I would want to sample.

P.S Bourdain’s show Parts Unknown is worth watching but the quality of the episodes is uneven. The show is more about the culture of a place and only incidentally about food. The episode on Tokyo riffs on night life, bondage, the sexual nature of mangas and other topics and” Viewer discretion is advised”.

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On a recent edition of The Chew, the studio audience was asked ” What do you feel  is the perfect age… The age that you look back at fondly if you are older, and the one that you look forward to if you are younger ?”

What would YOUR answer be ?

Knowing how much youth is valued in America, I thought they would pick ” Twenty-five” or perhaps ” Twenty-nine”. At either of those ages, one is setting out on one’s own, independent and still young with the endless future stretching out ahead. Either of those answers would not have surprised me. The audience’s actual response was unexpected. Are you ready for this ?

Their perfect age was ” Fifty”. Their reasons were varied. Being comfortable with who they were. Enjoying the company of the generations on either side of them, both their parents and their children. Stable family life. Etc., etc.

I was very impressed with the maturity of the response. This is a subject I had touched upon in an earlier post four years ago after reading an article in The Economist that described how happiness changes with one’s journey through life. According to it, happiness rises slowly throughout our early years, peaks at age forty-six and then decreases only slightly all the way till the end of life . Kudos to the studio audience for knowing that youth is not all it’s cracked up to be.

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