New York

nyc%202 New York

Question:   When is New York not New York?

Answer: When it’s Philadelphia, or Jersey City, or Toronto, or anywhere else.

It rankles when a film is supposed to be set in NYC, but isn’t actually shot here.   Last night, as I watched Kabir Khan’s New York and its car chases and street scenes, at first I thought “Hang on, was this filmed in some obscure area of downtown that I don’t know?”   But no, I soon realized that in everything from the buildings to the street signs, it’s not Manhattan.

Look, I know New York City is an expensive place to go on location, but for people who know the city – as I’m sure many of the globe-trotting crowd at the multiplexes do – when you sit down in a cinema and have locales being foisted off on you that you’re just not buying, it detracts from the experience.   And no, the gratuitous shots of Times Square and Central Park don’t make up for the lack of everything else.

times%20square%202 New York

Ok, now that I’ve gotten that bit of urban chauvinism off my chest”¦..

Yash Raj’s big summer release, our first drink of cold water after the long drought at the movie halls, is an interesting choice for this time of year, given the rather dark subject matter.

Neil Nitin Mukesh’s character, Omar, is woken up from a good night’s sleep by a SWAT team and dragged off for questioning at an FBI office after weapons are found in a taxi he owns.   The handsome man interrogating him in Hindi is none other than “Irrfan” (or Irrfan Khan as he used to be referred to in the screen credits).

irrfan%202 New York

In a reprise of the ol’ Slumdog path he’s just recently walked down, Irrfan’s questioning allows Omar to flash back to the sunny days of September 1999 when he arrived at New York State University (shot at Bryn Mawr College) and soon fell into the easy company of Maya (Katrina Kaif), who we can tell is a bohemian by the many magenta streaks in her hair,

katrina%20boho%202 New York

and Sam(ir) (John Abraham) who is the bona fide big man on campus: athletic, handsome and apparently smart too, since he is a winner at chess, like everything else.

john%202 New York

The delish half-Parsi, half-Syrian Christian Bombay boy looks almost as gorgeous here (especially in shackles!) as he did in last summer’s sex farce Dostana, but c’mon folks, are we really supposed to buy him as a grad student???   Ok, he’s not as old as Aamir was when attempting the same laaaaaaaaaaaaaaambi stretch of the imagination in Rang De Basanti, but still, if they could have at least introduced him as “Sam, who’s in the 10th year on his PhD”, it would have been kosher, but a fine young thing somewhere between, say, 22 and 26, is just a bit much.   And, please, I’m not being ageist.   It drives me barmy when someone will remark “Tsk, tsk, Juhi/Madhuri/fill-in-the-blank looks SO old!” when she looks perfectly fine (or better) for her age, but here we’re being asked to buy a terribly false bill of goods.   Ok, rant over.

happy%20trio%202 New York

Omar’s two college buddies are both desi kids who’ve spent most their lives in the US and are more at ease with Vestern ways than f-o-b Omar, and don’t get mad at me for using that acronym, as Maya uses it too, to dear Omar’s face even.   If you guessed there was a love triangle coming, you obviously know your Hindi movies, because right before The Fateful Day, it makes its presence known.   But just as Omar’s eyes are welling up with tears, a blood curdling scream across the campus shatters the moment and the trio all end up in front of a TV screen, watching the Twin Towers get hit by the planes, then crumble.

Back to the present, Irrfan’s character offers Omar a chance to save himself, by infiltrating Sam and Maya’s lives in their typically American center-hall colonial home (he’s seen neither since that day, when he bolted for Philly), because the FBI are convinced Sam is the head of a Muslim sleeper cell.   Omar recoils at the offer, but then reasons it will allow him to clear himself and also prove the Feds wrong for suspecting Sam.

Up until now, the film was trotting along at a good clip, the twists were interesting, the leads pretty to look at, but after the Intermission (and that’s how it was written on screen, not Interval) the plot felt rather like I imagine trying to capture slimy eels while under the influence of heavy duty painkillers; it went hither and yon while taking what seemed a very long time to do so.   (And shame on you to the folks at MovieTickets.com for listing the film’s running time as 1:48, for it was at least an hour more than that.)

There are twists and reveals, and torture and car chases and rappelling down the side of a PNC Bank building, but it took too long to get to the surprising (for me anyway) climax and I got terribly sleepy and fidgety for the last 30 minutes.

See it or skip it?

Tough call.   Kabir Khan ran a much tighter and more minimalist ship in his first venture, Kabul Express, but then again, consider where he was shooting.

While his New York contains all the happy-pretty-young-people-bathed-in-sunlight bits you’d expect from a Yash Raj film, it also tries to broach some very serious and deep subjects (torture, the blowback from torturing people, racial profiling, being Muslim in America after 9/11).   The viewer will feel for innocents subjected to waterboarding (actually depicted here, briefly), but the final moments feel somewhat disjointed and overly optimistic in view of the grave material presented less than an hour before.

That said, we’ve all been deprived any movies for so long, and this one does touch on such a big subject, I’m sure your curiosity will get the better of you anyway, so go see it.

Irrfan – he of the unimonniker now – is the best there is in the film, but also, he’s so good anyway, he could turn in this performance while at 50% power.   The surprises for me were John Abraham and Neil Nitin Mukesh, both who managed to make me believe them in the most dramatic scenes, though less so in the more mundane moments of their celluloid lives.   Ms. Kaif was her usual attractive self, but a bit too light to be credible as a “human rights worker.”

One last thing”¦. If you see this at the ImaginAsian, or wherever you might see it in the US, count how many crappy ads you have to sit through before you even get to any movie trailers (in our case last night, the very colorful Dil Bole Hadippa, and Kambaqt Ishq).     I estimate we had to endure some 10 or 12, about one third of which were for cell phones, and they weren’t even the “extended play” movie quality versions of some ads that you used to get.   Boo hiss to Phoenix Adlabs.   After paying $13 I wouldn’t mind if it was 10 trailers, but not that trash we were subjected to last night.

YRF’s New York: Careful, people

ny%20poster%202 YRFs New York: Careful, people

I was born here, grew up here, went to college  and got my first tastes of independent life  below 23rd Street (admission to dance clubs on Tuesday nights for less than $10!) and above Central Park (ah, the luxury of cutting class to go to some exhibit at the Met or the Cloisters).   This is my city, and more  than American, I am a New Yorker.

I was on my way to work when the planes hit the towers, and the last time I saw them from the street –  and not on some computer monitor or TV screen –  I looked south on Third Avenue and saw the fat band of smoke encircling the twin columns like a gunmetal grey wool scarf.

Less than an hour later, they both  plummeted with a vengence into the ground.

So, I’m  just a few hours away from seeing Yash Raj’s big summer release and a little wary about how they’re going to handle the day that was so awful for this city.

More later…

Delhi Noir at the Rubin

 Delhi Noir at the Rubin

Meera Nair, Hirsh Sawhney and Pete Hamill

Attended the book launch for Delhi Noir, the latest in the international series from Akashic Books, held at the Rubin Museum on June 10th (yes, that lovely space that used to be Barneys).

Well now it’s even lovelier, and bless their hearts, they keep the gift shop open well after the evening event has ended (something I wish the Asia Society would do too).

The emcee for the event was Hirsh Sawhney, the editor of Delhi Noir as well as a contributor.   He was joined onstage by Meera Nair, she of Video fame who also has a story in this tome, and Pete Hamill, a noir godfather of sorts, given that his was the first story in the first book of the series back in 2004, Brooklyn Noir (and a great story it is, darker than Hamill’s work usually is, with a wonderful sense of foreboding as we follow famous writer Carmody on his way to his Barnes and Noble reading in Brooklyn).

Joining the trio on stage were actors Rita Wolf (who was so terrific in My Beautiful Launderette) and Ajay Naidu, who I adored most recently in Loins of Punjab Presents.   Each took turns reading excerpts of several stories.

In between, Sawhney, Nair and Hamill discussed noir and its history in film and fiction, and the new book.   It was a lovely unhurried conversation.   Here’s a link to where you can read more and listen to some of the readings, and here’s where you can see some more pix.   Enjoy…

From New Zealand with Laughs

darranged%20marriage%20poster From New Zealand with Laughs

This is a story I did that ran in the May 29, 2009 issue of India Abroad:

In recent years, New York City stages have carried several plays about the Indian immigrant experience.   Sakina’s Restaurant, East is East, India Awaiting – each depicted aspects of life of members of the Indian community in the United States or the United Kingdom.

Since April, theater-goers have had a chance to see the New Zealand Indian experience as portrayed in the one-man comedy show D’Arranged Marriage, starring Auckland native Rajeev Varma.   The play arrived in New York after long runs in New Zealand, and sold out shows in Australia, South Africa, Singapore and Malaysia.

The idea for D’Arranged Marriage originated with comic, actor, writer and director Tarun Mohanbhai, who still resides in New Zealand, and was developed together with Rajeev Varma, who now makes Park Slope, Brooklyn his home.

Though Rajeev, now 33, and Tarun, 37, only lived some three miles apart from each other when growing up in Auckland, they had rather different childhoods and didn’t actually meet until both were in their late twenties.

Rajeev, whose Rajasthani and Punjabi parents separated when he was nine, grew up with a strong love of performing and was encouraged by his mother to pursue his interest at drama school.

Tarun’s family, who had been traveling back and forth between Gujurat and New Zealand since the early 1900s, were business people and Tarun, like Sanjay in D’Arranged Marriage, went into the family business, a grocery shop, when he graduated from high school.   Tarun had done some sketch writing and took a chance at an open mike night at a club in 1996 where, happily, he “killed.”

“When I graduated I didn’t really accept my ethnicity, I just felt that being an actor I “˜d be able to get by by doing good work, but I realized very quickly the industry works based on what you look like and what kind of type you are,” says Rajeev, about life after drama school.

“I did a lot of my self-created work through the late “˜90s and got bits and pieces of television and film work.   But it really didn’t take off for me until I met Tarun and in 2002 we created D’Arranged Marriage – from then, it just exploded.   As soon as I owned my cultural identity and used it as a source for my creativity then everything really started to move forward quite quickly.”

Though interviewed separately, Tarun echoes Rajeev when asked about how he describes himself, having grown up a Kiwi with roots in India.   He says:   “Over time it’s changed.   Initially as a New Zealander, now I’m a Kiwi Indian or an Indian Kiwi, either/or.   It’s really bizarre, but I feel that the very career path I’ve chosen has brought me closer to the roots of who I am.   But it’s probably the very career path that Indian people in general wouldn’t entertain as a viable or respectable career path.”

The summer before he met Rajeev, Tarun had begun working on the idea for D’Arranged Marriage, basing it on his experiences growing up in a large family (with an average 9 to 13 people at home any given time) and attending lots of Indian weddings and get-togethers.

“I met Raj when I was looking for a director.   We ended up co-writing it as a joint event.   I would tell him about my uncles and cousins.   Most of the characters are based on people that I know,” says Tarun.

The two founded the Those Indian Guys theater company and took the show all over New Zealand, where it’s been running ever since.   While Rajeev headed to the U.S. to pave the way for the show here, Tarun had just performed it in New Zealand two months ago.

The successful Rajeev-Tarun partnership led to From India With Love, a prequel of sorts that explores Sanjay’s parents’ emigration to New Zealand, and to an East-meets-West television comedy show called A Thousand Apologies, and various other TV and film spots in between.

Though often recognized on the streets back home, Rajeev is now living the hard-working New York City theater dream in relative anonymity.   The Saturday after his most recent performance, and after finishing his day job as a docent at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Rajeev gave a rundown of his life here:

“The last three months, life has just been auditions and callbacks and shootings, interviews, productions, marketing, rehearsals, rewriting, working and performing.   Since January I’ve just been living in a pressure cooker.

“I’ve been really fortunate as I’m auditioning all the time.   Last week I had an audition for a Warner Brothers film with Bruce Willis directed by Kevin Smith and I got called back and I got to meet Kevin Smith.   I’m just fully focused on my work now and it’s totally consuming, I barely have time to think.   Tonight I’m editing a DVD of D’Arranged Marriage and getting together an ad for it and I’m gonna put that on the “˜Net and do some viral marketing.

“Now my focus is finding Indian businesses and people who can help me raise funds to make a main stage production of D’Arranged Marriage.   I want get it on off-Broadway.   The show was mentioned in The New Yorker and listed in TimeOut, and Aroon Shivdasani of the Indo-American Arts Council came last night.”

If the show does go on to off-Broadway and maybe a national tour, then Tarun would come over and the two partners, who get on Skype every weekend and write together for several hours revising lines of the show, will take turns performing nightly.

“New York audiences are very, very theater-savvy and they’ve seen a million shows before, so you get away with less and you have to rely more on the writing, and it has to be clever and tight,” Rajeev admits.   “I feel very privileged to be performing a show in a city where artists come to pursue excellence.”

= = = = = = =

One-man barmy army

In the first ever telling of the Indo-Kiwi experience on a New York City stage, Rajeev Varma plays Sanjay Gupta (no, not he of CNN fame), a thirty-year old New Zealand Indian who manages the family grocery shop while being urged by parents Manohar and Pushpa to let them find a match for him.

In fact, Varma plays his parents too, as well as all other roles in this one-man show.   It’s a high energy whirlwind sprint as Varma takes us through Sanjay’s youth into adulthood, giving us a peek into his dreams of a career as a stand-up comic, and the hilarious pratfalls of his first encounter with Neenu, the girl who wins his heart and turns out to be the one his parents wanted all along.

Varma appears variously as village idiot Rundeep, who is dating the girl of his dreams; an uncle who is looking for a woman who can cook, clean and play cricket; a cousin who is an information geek, the information he tosses into conversations at random moments being totally useless; Dave Patel, Neenu’s father and whisky-addicted snob”¦

It is a cast of characters instantly familiar to most Indians, who have met the “˜types’ in their own daily lives.   And in between, D’Arranged Marriage touches on the uniqueness of being an Indian in New Zealand (including relationships with Fijian-Indians and the Maoris) as well all the broader pop culture references that Indians in the UK or the US would find familiar (cricket, Anil Kapoor, bhangra and a bawdy litany of every film set in the desh from A Passage to India right up to Slumdog Millionaire).

Varma’s only accompaniment are images from a slide projector and some recorded music.   While I would have liked a little more back story for some of the secondary characters, Rajeev Varma pulls it off with his versatility and endurance in a show that requires him to play eight characters on a bare stage with no costume changes, as well as sing and dance, all which he does with ease.

= = = = = =

Note: the show’s run in NYC has been extended through the summer.

As Gary Glitter used to sing…

… hello, hello, I’m back again.

I’ve been off the blog for way too long, first due to a variety of pressures, but then, due to complications with WordPress.

I’ll spare you the colorful expletives about that experience, but I will share with you high praises for friends who made the time to help untangle things:   Patrix, a wonderful triage doc, stepped in, applied pressure to stop the bleeding and made an initial diagnosis, and then Madhu, the chef surgeon who, after a long and thorough consultation, identified the offending part, deftly sliced it off and replaced it with a better one.   (Madhu’s the chef par excellence and proprietor of Shiok and the lounge, Moss, in Bangalore.)

Madhu As Gary Glitter used to sing...

Heartfelt appreciation to both gents, and, boy am I happy to be back.