Friday, August 27, 2010

Unsurprising surprise

It's been amusing these past years to read continually of 'suprise' or 'unannounced' visits to Afghanistan and Iraq by foreign heads of state. The media never began to feel the redundancy of those words, even though ALL such visits were surprise and unannounced. The surprise, though, was apparently not surprising enough in David Cameron's case. His helicopter was almost brought down over Afghanistan during his visit to that country in June. Insurgents had got wind of his plan to visit troops in the Helmand province.
As it happened, Cameron also faced air problems during his next visit to this part of the world, a well publicised trip to India. A radar at New Delhi airport malfunctioned just as the UK Prime Minister's flight was due to land.
Lots of people are seeking signs of real progress in Iraq and Afghanistan. Well here's one to look out for: Barack Obama arrives in Baghdad or Kabul on a visit that's been announced weeks in advance. Don't hold your breath on that one.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

What happened to macho movie star?

I saw a ridiculous film called The Expendables last evening. Such movies are saved, if they're saved at all, by the quality of the action scenes (which was not very high in this case) and the charisma of their stars. The stars of The Expendables were mainly fifty- and sixty-somethings, their faces warped and twisted by time, steroids, and an overdose of the good life. Sylvester Stallone, Mickey Rourke, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li (who's just short of 50, and doesn't have a warped and twisted face, but looks more like a banker than an action hero).
And I asked myself: what happened to the macho Hollywood star? Which actors today could carry a franchise like Rocky or Terminator? The last one was probably Vin Diesel, though he never became a megastar in the Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis category. This summer's blockbusters told a depressing tale. The star of two major franchises is a five foot six inch former coke addict called Robert Downey Junior. Now he's a fine actor, one of the best of his generation, and therefore manages to fit the roles of Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes, but macho he is not. The youngest of the stars of The Expendables is Jason Statham, who did a series called The Transporter. But he's a Brit. We had the Aussie Russell Crowe playing Robin Hood. Crowe had his macho moment in Gladiator a decade ago, and is now too fat and too old for the job, though, like Mickey Rourke and Robert Downey Junior, he's a good enough actor to seem almost right for it.
The top action star right now is Matt Damon thanks to the Bourne series; Matt Damon, remember, the pretty boy of Good Will Hunting, the cerebral, pacifist, left-winger. No wonder the producers of the biggest budget action flick of this summer, The Prince of Persia, felt the sensitive, brooding Jake Gyllenhaal could make the action hero cut. Next year, we'll have Ryan Reynolds playing the Green Lantern, which is going to be like Ben Affleck playing Daredevil.
Speaking of pretty boys in action films, one mustn't forget Orlando Bloom in Pirates of the Caribbean, alongside a fey Johny Depp. Keira Knightley was probably the most macho thing in those films. It's not surprising the makers of Salt, a role written for a male star, felt able to substitute him with Angelina Jolie in the spy thriller.
(While mourning the death of the macho star, I should add parenthetically that I much prefer the Bourne trilogy to the Rambo movies).

Monday, August 23, 2010


My Yahoo! India column for the fortnight can be read here.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Asia 7 at Palladium, Phoenix Mills

The first thing I notice is the noisiness of the place. We have a table for two, but it's sandwiched between family-seaters, and there's nothing absorbing the sound. I ask for a glass of Spanish red wine, Jabeen a sake cocktail. Sorry, we don't have sake. OK, a mojito then, and a plate of sushi. There's little difference in price between the platter we order and the vegetarian version. I can't imagine anybody paying handsomely for vegetarian sushi, but evidently there are plenty of such people around.
The mojito's oversweet, the wine's watery. Sushi's not bad: some way from Wasabi, obviously, but a notch above the stuff at Global Fusion. We decide on Beijing lamb chops and sticky rice for the main course. Sorry, we don't have lamb chops. OK, the beef Bulgogi, then. Asia 7 is so named because the cuisine covers seven Asian nations: Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, China, Korea and Japan. Indonesia must feel left out. Can't get no sataysfaction. OK, that's not true, Chicken Satay is listed, as Malaysian. The restaurant missed an opportunity to be Asia 8.
The beef is extraordinarily tender, by far the best part of our meal. It's not as flavourful as the Bulgogi one used to get at Busaba, cooked as you watched. Busaba, unfortunately, discontinued the tableside performance, saying customers objected to beef being grilled so publicly. The Bulgogi never tasted as good brought ready from the kitchen.
What went into the sticky rice? We use only pure basmati sir. I knew it, but might as well confirm. Basmati's a thing of joy in biryanis and pulaos. It is out of place in joints like Asia 7. I mean, if they charge 250 rupees for a plate of rice, surely they can get the right type. The sushi, I have to say, didn't appear to use basmati. We skip dessert, which is the usual boring Chinese restaurant list, date pancakes, honey tossed noodles and that kind of thing.
Not a bad dinner overall, but I doubt I'll go back to Asia 7 for a while.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Indigo's new look

I travelled to and from Delhi on Indigo, and was surprised to see the flight attendants not only dressed identically, but sporting similar make-up and hairstyles. The new look consists of a bob matched with bright red lipstick and nail polish. When it works, it looks great in a chic French way. When things go wrong, the hair seems wig-like and the lipstick garish. I wonder how long it will be before a very Indian combination of laziness, love of long hair and hatred of regimentation leads flight attendants to protest the airline's extended uniform.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Return to Ashok Yatri Niwas

The first hotel I ever checked into and stayed in by myself was Delhi's Ashok Yatri Niwas (AYN). An Orwellian tower in a great location just off Janpath, Yatri Niwas was the government's budget option in the capital, a grade below Kanishka next door which was, in turn, cheaper than the five star Ashok in Chanakyapuri.
I was in Delhi in mid-December for a scholarship interview, and in those days was reluctant to stay with aunts and uncles who would gladly have provided more congenial accommodation. AYN had tiny rooms, cement beds, and lifts that took forever to get up and down its twenty or so floors. I couldn't ventilate the musty room because it was unbearably cold even with the windows shut. After spending a miserable night under a lone blanket, trying to breathe through a blocked nose, I woke to discover the Yatri Niwas promise of a hot morning shower was greatly exaggerated. It is possible veterans had used up the warm water before 7 am.
I wasn't in the best frame of mind on reaching the India International Centre, but the interview went well, and I was given the scholarship. That night I walked from AYN to the Central Telegraph Office on Janpath, which was one of the few places in the city offering long distance direct dialling facilities. I called home, and my girlfriend's home, and then celebrated with a fudge sundae at Nirula's, before trudging back shivering inside and out.
When I heard about AYN next, it was because a well-connected man had murdered his wife and burnt her body in the hotel's giant tandoor. This was not great publicity for the establishment, which found it hard to attract visitors even after changing its name to Indraprastha.
Two nights ago, I landed in Delhi at 11pm. I was on a work trip and had been told shortly before my plane took off that I'd be staying at the Ramada Plaza. We got there near midnight, but even at that late hour I was certain I was entering the building that once housed Ashok Yatri Niwas. The place has been tarted up in a baroque-Roman style -- fountain in the front yard, cherubs, marble columns, gilt decorations, Fragonard reproductions, statues of barely-clad women -- but the rooms are tiny as ever. I was surprised to see a flyer boasting the Ramada Plaza had won a best boutique hotel award. What does 'boutique hotel' mean if a 400 room, 20 floor joint run by a multi-national chain can be so described?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

High Five

It's about a decade since Five opened on SV Road in Santa Cruz, and in those ten years I've eaten there about a dozen times and never been disappointed. It's one of the few restaurants in Bombay with real atmosphere, a great place for a quiet date or anniversary meal. A few meters away, Yoko's and Dynasty provide factory food to clients who can't get enough of it. Five, on the other hand, though much smaller, usually has tables vacant.
That wasn't the case when we dined there last night. The owners have placed two tables in the patio to augment the eight inside, and even these were occupied by the time we left. Being full, the restaurant was noisier than usual, but we could still converse with ease. My two companions had eaten late in the afternoon and decided to make do with soups and starters. We ordered celery soup, a catalan seafood soup, a seared mushroom, feta and spinach salad, cajun chicken, a braised lamb shank, an order of garlic bread, a Red Bull, a kiwi cranberry daiquiri and a sparkling melon cocktail. The bill, including taxes and service charge, came to just over two grand, which is pretty reasonable by Bombay standards, though obviously way out of reach of the 45% of Indians who earn less than 20 rupees a day (The mind boggles. 20 rupees a day. Surely there's a typo there).
In Bombay, red meat almost always comes from goats, but is called lamb in the fancier places. Since the lamb shank was fattier than goat meat usually is (I didn't mind, the fat was pretty flavourful, and the meat tender, almost falling off the bone), I made enquiries and was told the shank was sheep meat. I didn't ask if the sheep was less than a year old. The mushroom and feta salad came with spinach that had been perfectly sauteed in olive oil. It neither sat limp between cheese and fungus, nor was dry and greasy like the crispy stuff in Chinese restaurants. The Cajun Chicken was the lone letdown, being indistinguishable from Chicken Tikka.

Friday, August 13, 2010

MakeMyTrip's long journey

When I worked for Chaitime between the dotcom boom and bust, we had a fabulously located office in the Eros theatre building, Churchgate. The venture capital firm backing Chaitime, eVentures, had also put about 2 million dollars in a travel site called MakeMyTrip (MMT), headed by Deep Kalra. MMT used a small part of the leased Churchgate space. Chaitime soon collapsed, but MMT soldiered on, with Deep Kalra taking a stake himself and finding willing investors like Softbank Asia Infrastructure Fund (SAIF) after eVentures pulled out. The focus of the company gradually changed from targetting PIOs to serving the local Indian market.
At its launch, the plan for MMT must have envisioned a public offering in 2001. The IPO finally fructified in 2010, after something like 50 million dollars had been poured into the site. MMT has yet to turn a profit, but at the end of its first day of trading on the Nasdaq its share price had jumped 90%, leaving the company valued at 800 million dollars. We can expect a slew of new issues from Indian travel sites following this huge success., the one Indian site that was actually listed during the boom, has also yet to claw out of the red, and is currently valued at between 50 and 60 million dollars.
For what it's worth, my favourite website for online bookings is Cleartrip. I gave up on MakeMyTrip because it sent me lots of sms spam, often at odd hours.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Commonwealth Games

Suresh Kalmadi's definitely not going to survive as chair of the Commonwealth Games organising committee. So who can take over with just a few weeks left? My money's on Rahul Gandhi following in the footsteps of his father Rajiv, who helmed preparations for the Asian Games of 1982. Rajiv, of course, had two years in charge. With just two months to go, it's unlikely that even the clout of a Gandhi will make a huge difference.
Still, Dimples appears the natural choice. Alternate suggestions, anybody?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Headline of the Day

'Only 45% of the population earns less than Rs. 20 a day'. That is Rajesh Shukla in today's Times of India. The full article is here.
For those who don't understand the Indian currency, 20 rupees is somewhat less than half a US dollar.
So apparently we should be really happy that only 45% of India earns less than half a dollar a day.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Pot and kettle, frying pan and fire

My latest column for Yahoo! India can be read here.