Thursday, March 31, 2011

Road to the final: the ordeal

The story so far: having set aside a paltry number of tickets for the public, failed to control crowds at booking counters, and seen the ticket-selling website crash when sales opened for the cricket world cup final, the BCCI, through its partner Kyazoonga, opted for a ballot to decide who would get a ticket to the event. I was among those whose name came up. Two days ago, I received an email from Kyazoonga. It said the physical tickets would be available for collection from March 30 to April 1 between 12.30pm and 8pm at the local hockey association ticket counters near Wankhede stadium. Claimants of tickets were asked to bring printouts, a government ID, the credit card with which the purchase was made, plus photocopies.
The first collection day, yesterday, was also the day of the India-Pakistan semi-final. No cricket fan in his or her right mind would miss that. I stayed home and watched TV. This afternoon, I went to the pickup location, getting there at 4.30. A policeman barred my way, and told me to come back tomorrow.
"It's full for today", he said.
"But I was told the counters would be open till 8".
"Yes, but we've sent in four hundred people, and that's all we can accommodate today at the rate they're giving out tickets".
There was some back and forth with me and two others who got there immediately after; the policeman, expectedly, enjoyed our plight.
"I've come a really long way" one said.
"Long way? From Australia?"
"That's close by. Come back tomorrow."
"It's a working day; I've already taken half-day today".
"What can I do about that?"
And so on.
So tomorrow, I shall pack a picnic lunch and a book and get there before noon, prepared to stand in queue for five or six hours. But of course, news of this additional obstacle must have got round, which means there will be a rush early, which means maybe even noon isn't good enough. People selected in the ballot who live in other cities and will only get in tomorrow afternoon are in for a cruel shock.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The fuel surcharge scam

Regular travellers across the world have by now got used to the absurd division of airline fares between a meaningless 'base price' and an arbitrary 'fuel surcharge'. I call the surcharge arbitrary because it does not vary with the price of aviation turbine fuel. In the early days of the surcharge being put in place, travel websites would quote only the base fare, and those booking tickets would have to click through one or two screens before hitting the full ticket price.
The first website to quote complete fares up front was Cleartrip and, once I discovered it, I stuck with it: it was honest, easily navigable, offered good deals, didn't send out spam text messages, and had a Google-like simplicity to its GUI.
Recently I bought a ticket on Cleartrip which came with a 'free ticket' offer. The offer wasn't the reason I bought the ticket, but if it had been, I'd have ended up feeling cheated. Here's why. A few days after buying that ticket, I looked up fares to Goa. The 'free ticket' was restricted to SpiceJet, which quoted a price of about 2200 rupees on the Bombay-Goa sector, one-way. Go Air and Indigo offered virtually the same price. The fare break-up was, however, very different on the three airlines. Indigo's was something like: base fare, 900 rupees; fuel surcharge, 1000 rupees; taxes and levies, 300 rupees. Go Air's was: base fare 400 rupees; fuel surcharge, 1500 rupees; taxes and levies 300 rupees. SpiceJet had a base fare of exactly one rupee, and a fuel surcharge of 1900 rupees. So, taking up ClearTrip's free ticket offer, which applied only to the base fare, would have saved me a grand total of 100 paise. I chose to shell out the extra rupee and fly Indigo.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Save the date

The first 'save the date' invite I received was to my friend Goodwin's wedding. The event was to be held in October on the banks of the Shenandoah (Had to put that detail in because it's such a lovely name), and the letter got to me in March or April. Though I couldn't make it to the wedding, I was given sufficient time to make arrangements.
About two or three years ago, Bombay galleries started sending out cards and emails with the tag 'save the date'. Without exception, they were for openings scheduled within a week of the mail's delivery. It isn't unusual now to get a 'save the date' invitation today for an opening tomorrow. I don't expect art shows here to be planned as far in advance as American weddings, but surely there comes a point at which appointment books should be presumed to have been filled, after which it becomes mildly insulting to ask for a date to be saved.
I used to be bothered by the use of 'vernissage' instead of 'opening' or 'preview', since the French term sound dreadfully snobbish. But now 'save the date' annoys me more, partly because the meme has proven so infectious.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor

For an iconic actress who won two Academy Awards, Elizabeth Taylor left a curiously thin legacy of classic films. She was at her peak in the 1950s, and when I consider her beside other stars from the same period like Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, Taylor comes in a distant third. I can still watch and enjoy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot. Monroe's limitations as an actress are apparent in these movies, but so are her unmatchable strengths. Similarly, Roman Holiday and Sabrina retain their charm, thanks largely to the presence of Audrey Hepburn, who outshines Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart. Taylor, on the other hand, was overshadowed by James Dean in Giant.
When one thinks of her roles, the one that comes insistently to mind is the ridiculous Cleopatra. OK, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf isn't bad, but that did not showcase Taylor's incredible beauty, preferring to play against the grain to prove she could act, though no such proof was needed. Its director, the young Mike Nichols, really hit his stride with his next film, The Graduate, which I've seen a dozen times. Back in 1967, the assessment of the relative merits of the two films was probably different. Virginia Woolf was nominated for 13 Oscars and won 5, while The Graduate was nominated for 7 and won just a single Academy Award. Just goes to show.
There must be fans of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof out there, but to me it seems like a poor cousin to a previous adaptation of a Tennessee Williams drama, A Streetcar Named Desire. Marlon Brando in Streetcar, Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in The Graduate, Marilyn in Gentlemen, Hepburn and Peck in Roman Holiday, those are truly memorable parts in the history of cinema. I can't think of anything Taylor did that occupies a similar place.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Got tickets

Four weeks ago, I described my frustrating effort to buy tickets for the cricket world cup final. I was among half a million people who tried to access the site at the moment the tickets went on sale. Hardly surprising that it crashed. More surprising that the organisers didn't predict it would happen.
Belatedly, they put a fair system in play, based on a ballot. My name came up in the lottery, which means I have two very expensive passes to the final. But that's only stage 1 of the lottery. Frankly, although I'd love to see a game between, say, Australia and South Africa, I'd only find it worthwhile shelling out 35 grand for two passes if India are in the contest, which is only a 25% chance right now. I haven't checked the returns policy on Kyazoonga; the website might be crashed by punters seeking refunds the moment India are eliminated, if that dreadful event does come to pass.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Kababs etc

I'm staying at Nizamuddin for two days, so naturally I braved the flies and dirt of the road leading to the dargah, and lunched at Karim's. The meal was fine, the seekh kababs succulent and flavourful, but I was reminded of the hype about the restaurant by articles quoted on the menu's front page.
It is strange so many people believe Karim's offers some kind of authentic Mughlai cuisine. To begin with, what we call Mughlai is very distant from what the Mughals ate. Aside from this fact, which applies to all Indian restaurants claiming to serve Mughal dishes, Karim's stands out as particularly inauthentic because all the food coming out of its kitchens is cooked in a partially hydrogented vegetable oil known as vanaspati. It's a cheap ghee substitute originally marketed by Unilever, and based on a chemical process that's been used in industrial-scale manufacturing for exactly a century (Procter & Gamble began making Crisco in 1911). There were no Mughals left in 1911, but had there been any, I can guarantee they'd have turned up their noses at the idea of kababs and biryani cooked in vanaspati. Jabeen and I did exactly that when we first dined at the Karim's in Old Delhi over a decade ago, and I'm sure the Mughals had more discerning palates where this kind of food is concerned.
Karim's has gone posh in the past couple of years; the Nizamuddin branch is now a spacious, two-level affair with air-con. The owners clearly have no need to use vanaspati as a cost-saver any longer, but they've stuck with it. They believe, I suppose, that their regulars have acquired a taste for the inferior, trans fat laden cooking medium they have used for decades.

Unlike the Mughlai tradition, the nawabi one that flourishes in Lucknow has genuine claims to authenticity: a number of current chefs are descended from men who cooked for Wajid Ali Shah and his extended family.
One such chef has opened a chain of biryani and kabab eateries called Kakori House. The three Kakori House outlets in Bombay have a few tables for in-restaurant dining, but operate mainly through delivery and take-away. They provide by far the best home delivered kababs I have had in my life. The first time I ordered from Kakori House I wasn't fully satisfied. We asked for haleem and galouti kababs, and didn't care for the consistency of either. It's one thing for kababs to melt in the mouth, quite another for them to be melted before they get to the mouth. I like meat to be at least a bit aldente since, unlike the nawab for whom the galouti kabab was supposedly invented, my teeth are virtually intact. Kakori House's burra kababs, which I was treated to by my friend Jerry and subsequently ordered from home, provide exactly the right combination of resistance and softness. Their smoky flavour is exceptional, way better than most high-end Indian restaurants can manage; and the biryani is brilliant as well: flavourful but not over-spicy, and loaded with juicy goat meat.
Kakori House is a premium caterer: most dishes cost between 150 and 300 rupees. But for those who are sick of run-of-the-mill Mughlai offerings, and are willing to pay extra for real quality, I whole-heartedly recommend this relatively new chain, particularly the mutton biryani and burra kababs.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Black Swan

I have now viewed the films in competition with The King's Speech for the Best Director Oscar, and I rank the Colin Firth starrer fifth out of five. The Social Network and True Grit show far more cinematic acumen, though the latter is some way from being the Coens' best effort.
Darren Aronofsky would get my vote for Best Director, for Black Swan, which I saw yesterday. It's a movie that takes many risks; brimful of cliches, stereotypes and melodrama, but making something unexpected and disturbing from them. The film gives us a glimpse of the heart of darkness, while we imagine at the start that the protagonist's gradual discovery of an edgier self will bring relief and catharsis to us the audience.
Let me step back and explain what I mean. Natalie Portman plays Nina, a pretty ballerina (see what I mean by cliches? Aronofsky riffs off everything from ABBA to fairy tales, Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes and Roman Polanski's The Tenant in the course of the movie's hundred minute running time) who is selected to play the main role in a production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Swan Lake is about a woman cursed to take the form of a white swan by day and requiring true love to become fully human again. Just as she appears to have found such love through Prince Siegfried, a scheming doppelganger named Odile takes the Swan Princess's place, and tricks Siegfried into declaring his love for her. This woman, Odile, is the Black Swan of the title.
The director of the ballet company is certain Nina will make an accomplished White Swan, but fears she is too goody-goody to be an effective Black Swan. He encourages Nina to walk on the wild side a little, to lose control. He thinks of this in sexual terms, asking her at one point to go home and touch herself. While Nina may be too repressed to touch herself, she is used to scratching herself, a form of self injury that complements her bulimia.
As she seeks her dark side, an abyss opens up much deeper than anything the ballet director could predict or desire. Starting off as a tale of self-overcoming not too far removed from The King's Speech, Black Swan shifts register and genres till, near the end of the ride, you're in the horror film neighbourhood, which is a bit like starting at the Lincoln Center and finishing in the Bronx.
Natalie Portman is excellent in the lead role. It's obvious she isn't a professional dancer, but she trained enough to be a plausible imitation, which is as much as you can expect from an actor. Her love scene with Mila Kunis was entirely removed by the censors.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The King's Speech

The King's Speech is a rather rudimentary film enlivened by some excellent acting. Had it not won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director before I viewed it, I'd probably have enjoyed it considerably more than I did. The wide-angle lensing used throughout the film seemed excessive to me, good for a narrative more grotesque than one about a prince's speech impediment: it feels like an unsuccessful attempt by a man used to directing for television, as Tom Hooper is, to make cinema out of a piece of theatre. There's a noticeable axis jump in the long scene where Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush first meet, which is really surprising considering how much TV work Hooper has done. The music was horrible throughout, cutting unnecessarily into the final address, delivered by George VI as war clouds gather over Europe.
The highlight of last month's disastrous Oscar ceremony was the cutting of glimpses from the ten movies nominated for Best Picture to the sound of Firth's final speech. It worked much better than the mute tableaux presented near the end of The King's Speech.
Another downside to this enjoyable minor film was Timothy Spall's scowling Winston Churchill: surely the worst Churchill in movie history.

The film was hit with an R rating in the United States, thanks to the profanities voiced by Firth after Rush encourages him to overcome his inhibitions. Harvey Weinstein is now considering a PG rated version of the movie with the strong language removed. For some reason, the Indian censors have passed the film with a certificate for Universal exhibition, without a single sound cut. Funny that a series of fucks enunciated in a plummy Brit accent is fine for kids to hear, but if an Indian character says madarchod, our censors find it too provocative even for adults.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

NDTV's false propaganda about ports

Anybody who has watched NDTV down the years knows that Prannoy Roy (who appears to have instructed correspondents to highlight his educational achievements: Yesterday one of them said, "Prannoy... I'm sorry, Dr.Roy") loves liberalisation and the stock market. Every February 28, he suggests the best way of judging the budget is tracking the market's intra-day movement.
But there's one business Prannoy Roy seems to abhor: ports.
NDTV has been conducting a drive to Save India's Beaches. Perhaps because of worries this would be regarded as elitist, this has now morphed into a campaign to Save India's Coast. Roy emphasises it's not about people tanning themselves on golden sands but about the livelihoods of poor communities. The programme is sponsored by Toyota Etios. It stands to reason that the manufacturer of machines that cause massive amounts of pollution is chosen to fund an environmental crusade.
Perhaps the problem is with the medium itself. Is television well equipped to handle complex issues while maintaining ratings? TV programmes depend on assigning blame to easily identifiable targets. But there is no single predominant cause of beach erosion. Factors that can influence such erosion include dams on rivers, ports that don't dredge adequately, rising sea levels resulting from global warming, sand mining and catastrophic events like the 2004 tsunami. Of all of these, Roy has elected to concentrate almost exclusively on ports as the culprit threatening beaches.
Beach erosion, in turn, is blamed for all kinds of ills for which it's not responsible. In last night's programme, a correspondent from Madras spoke of salinity of water, and Roy annotated this by saying that, as beaches are destroyed, sea water tends to get further inland and contaminate wells. This is not false as an abstract statement, but is absolutely not the reason why Madras's wells have turned more saline. The cause of that is overuse of groundwater, leading to depletion, leading to tubewells being sunk ever deeper, until groundwater levels fall below sea level.

"We have far too many ports. We have a 180 odd ports, that's nuts", Roy complained last night. Well, we have over 180 television channels, and that's nuts too. But wouldn't it be worse to forbid the entry of new channels? Wouldn't that be against the free market principles Roy otherwise espouses? Of course, he has never suggested markets ought to be unconstrained by regulation; but then, there ARE regulations governing ports. Ports are required to ensure they do not block the drift of sand, so beaches continue to be replenished. The point is not to disallow ports but ensure they obey the law of the land, and punish them if they fail to comply. It would help if NDTV did an investigative report on ports that skirt regulation and harm the environment as a result.
NDTV's normal go-to person for environmental causes is Sunita Narain. You can read what I think of her operation, the Centre for Science and Environment, here. Among a series of platitudes on the programme, she indicated it's important that our development move inward. So should we set up a harbour in Chattisgarh next? A dockyard in Sikkim? And is the CSE supportive of any large extant industrial projects in the hinterland?

China, by the way, has 2000 ports.