Book Review – Perdido Street Station

Fanart book cover of Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, cover design by Vishal K Bharadwaj

It’s a fairly well-known fact to anybody who’s read this blog that I’m poorly read, and that fact has always been something I’ve been trying to change (not going to be much of a writer if you haven’t read anything). So with the aim of developing a reading habit, I decided to start picking up books I’d always wanted to read but had never bought, waiting for that mythical
‘someday’ when I would be in a relaxed mental state to kick back and read a bit. ‘Someday’ turned out to be when I walked by the Fantasy section in Kinokuniya and spotted a paperback of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station recently, not horrendously overpriced as books in Dubai tend to be, and picked it up. Instead of relegating it to the bookshelf like several previous purchases, I cracked the thick tome open and started reading the second I got home.

Perdido Street Station is a book I have been hearing about almost since it first came out in 2000, mostly through the lavish praise and the awards & nominations it was starting to rack up back then. Online friends raved about it (What? My real life friends, and read? Not bloody likely), and I’d hear it or Miéville’s name mentioned every now and then, so it was rarely out of my mind. Alas, I almost never saw it sitting on a shelf at any bookstore I frequented, and nine years passed before I picked it up (there are far too many unread books sitting in my house for me to even dare open up the Pandora’s Box that is easy online shopping, so I tend to limit myself to retail, brick-and-mortar purchases). And in all that time I managed to glean very little about the plot, other than that it was set in a strange, highly detailed Victorian-era steampunk-style city on a world called Bas-Lag.

That city, New Crobuzon, is at the very heart of Perdido Street Station. It permeates every page, described in loving (and often excessive) detail by Miéville. But such is the baroque style of the book’s prose, and as an exercise in worldbuilding it is a sumptuous, if indulgent treat (no wonder there’s a New Crobuzon-set RPG in the works). From the mysterious Glasshouse, home of the Cactacae plant people, to The Ribs — literally the towering bones of some long-demised creature — to the leviathan-like presence of the station itself, and all points in-between, New Crobuzon is a gloomy, rotting hulk of a city. An old city where life just seems to keep on chugging. It becomes less a setting and more a character in itself, its various burroughs and neighbourhoods forming a weird anatomy on which its protaginists and antagonists scurry like insects, rather than inhabit, scarcely in control of events and the city’s whims.

We get to know some of the city through the eyes of Yagharek, a garuda (roughly a bird-man — the name comes from Hindu mythology) from the far desert of the Cymek, who has come to New Crobuzon seeking the solution to a peculiar problem that afflicts him. He zeroes in on the scientist Isaac Dan de Grimnebulin, a maverick, his head brimming with ideas of tapping ‘crisis energy’. Isaac’s cricle of friends is similarly radical; anti-government magazine journalists like Derkhan, and his Khepri sculptor girlfriend Lin (she has a human’s body but the head of a scarab beetle). Isaac’s investigations into Yagharek’s problem inadvertantly leads to him unleashing a near-unstoppable, deadly force upon the city. With everyone from the shadowy government to drug-baron gangsters on his tail — and with the help of some very unusual allies — he must rid New Crobuzon of this threat.

You’d think that a plot as simple as this couldn’t possibly fill out seven hundred pages, and you’d be right. So much of the book is spent in worldbuilding, in laying down the structure of the city, the peculiarities of each neighbourhood (oddly enough they all end up sounding pretty-much the same, with only a little less or a little more gloom here and there), and the characteristics of its myriad non-human races, that the plot and the characters tend to get lost.

Frequently, a character will commute from one part of the city to another, and we get a long, detailed account of every area and lane and neighbourhood the person passed through to get there. After about the fifth time you start to glaze over. It often reminded me of a Monty Python sketch about train timings, but I don’t think Miéville is trying to be funny.

Actually, I’m pretty sure he isn’t trying to be funny, because this is possibly the most humourless novel I’ve ever read. On the surface of it, a book about ravenous flying beasties terrorising a city of weird fantasy folk should be funny, but I can’t for the life of me recall anything in the book that wasn’t meant to be taken in a deathly serious manner. Pretty-much everything in Bas-Lag is horrible, a lurid tabloid newspaper version of life, and this fact is repeatedly brow-beaten into the reader. It doesn’t matter if you forget how hot it’s supposed to be in the city, because there are going to be fifteen more times when the heat will be described — usually in very pretty sentences that should be blown up and stuck on a wall. And yet this enormous mudslide of style is employed in the service of what is the plot equivalent of a Michael Bay movie, and you end up scratching your head wondering, “Is that it?” By the time the plot has cleared away its considerable mountain of clutter, all that it amounts to is an action thriller with overegged production design.

It might be acceptable had Perdido Street Station billed itself as a straight thriller set in a well-decorated fantasy world, but the book tries very hard to seem important. It should be a treat: a book that folds hard Science Fiction and Fantasy with Literary Fiction, Dystopia, Steampunk, Clockpunk, Biopunk and perhaps more variations of punk that I’m not even aware of into one big, juicy steak of a tome — but like most dishes that play with too many ingredients, it just ends up an indifferent heap.

Every interesting thread that you think is going somewhere — Isaac’s crisis engine, the weird Mr. Motley — are turned into the most facile of MacGuffins and deus ex machina solutions later on. So maybe Miéville has some grand plan to use all of these elements ten books down the line (two more Bas-Lag set books have already been released, The Scar & Iron Council) but really, do I need any of this information right now? No, of course not.

There are moments when I really wanted to love Perdido Street Station. Every now and then a beautifully-wrought passage or sequence would make me smile, but then there would be another five pages of how much grime that bit of the city had, or how polluted the river was. And then some bits just made my eyes glaze over; there’s a mid-air fight between flying monsters and people flying in pairs strapped to each other’s backs that was complicated enough without trying to remember what a Sinsitral and a Dextral was, and why I should care.

And caring is something I never did for the protagonists either; whom, despite all the text devoted to their actions (and which route they took through which lane & over which bridge to get there), I barely felt I knew as people. They do a lot, and talk a lot, but even I wasn’t sure even they believed any of it. And then there’s the ending, where suddenly everyone who had no problem killing folk left right and centre up until that point suddenly took the moral high ground on things (like I said, Michael Bay movie).

It’s a shame to come to the end of a seven hundred page book, a book of great ideas and occasional beauty, and then conclude that you probably shouldn’t have bothered, but that’s exactly how I felt. Perdido Street Station has everything a fan of speculative fiction could want, from clockwork robots & quantum mechanics to wizards and brain-drinking beasties.

And all of it just seems far less than the sum of its parts.

Section of Fanart book cover of Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, cover design by Vishal K Bharadwaj


This post was included in Book Review Blog Carnival #32. Check it out for more great book review links!

Prince of Persia Revisited

screenshot of the original Prince of Persia
At the cusp of the 1990s, every home PC had to have one killer app installed. When you’d go round to a friend’s place and they’d show off their new Amstrad or IBM beige behemoth, the first question out of your mouth would be, “How did you convince your parents?” The second would be, “Do you have Prince of Persia?”

Jordan Mechner’s seminal 1989 game (published by Brøderbund) was the high watermark for computer games at the time, a title that combined fluid graphics, exquisite music and challenging gameplay into an astonishing final product. I remember the first time I saw it in 1990, on the PC of one of my parents’ friends. He fired it up for us, to keep us kids busy, I suppose, but I don’t think even he would understand quite the impact the next hour or so of play had on me.


Here was a computer game, until then just a kid’s thing with colourful graphics and tinny bips and bleeps for sound, only it was strangely adult-oriented. The character was humanoid and moved in a lifelike way (thanks to the rotoscoping animation process), the environments were grey and moody — unsettling, even — and there were no guns, no quick-trigger projectiles with which to fell waves of enemies. Come to think of it, there weren’t many enemies either, and the your character started with no weapons. Deadly spike traps, floor switches and a labyrinthine maze of a dungeon was all that lay between you and destiny. If only you could complete it in one single hour.

It’s amazing how well the original Prince of Persia holds up nearly two decades after its initial release. Sure, later versions cleaned up the graphics and gave our hero a makeover (out went the white pyjamas, and in came the turban and vest combo), but the essence of the game has remained intact in every version. The prince is still a tireless acrobat, leaping over pits and scampering up and down ledges. His swordplay is not the quickest — can’t expect much else from a street urchin — but there is an inherent pace and rhythm to the combat that was (and still is) uncommon among games, favouring position and timing over mindless button mashing. Many a heartbeat was skipped in the split-second that both his and the enemy guard’s swords arced through the air and I hoped that I was just that minuscule bit quicker.

I must admit that I never did finish the original Prince. My nascent curiosity about all things design was just forming (even though I wouldn’t realise it for another decade) and I spent most of the one hour of alloted time pootling around the first few levels, exploring every nook and cranny, seeing how it all fit together (I think I ran around the room telling all and sundry that I’d found the alternate way back to the intial starting point of the first level — you could never do that in Mario). I was fascinated by the spike pits that were perfectly harmless when you walked carefully past them — there’s more than one way to skin a cat — and by the mirror prince, by health replenishing and enhancing potions and the copy protection roadblock before level 2 (you had to drink a certain potion of a certain alphabet, a fact only knowable to people to had the game’s manual and had therefore purhcased the game properly).

Screenshot from the Opening sequence of Prince of Persia
Mostly I was enthralled by the cinematic nature of it; the sweeping opening music, the stark, simple gestures in the opening sequence. It was the first game I’d encountered that was trying to tell a story rather than a high score. It was the first time I’d seen blood in a game, and I recall with morbid fascination the first time I saw the prince chopped to bits by a steel-jawed door trap, his blood still oozing from its teeth. Looking back now, there was also that fantastic device of having the game played on non-scrolling individual screens; you never knew what was going to meet you on the next one!

Screenshot of Eric Chahi's Another WorldScreenshot of Delphine's Flashback
Prince of Persia spawned a whole genre of single-screen adventure games where the emphasis was on puzzle-solving and mood, and I was a huge fan of two of the most prominent Prince-inspired games, Delphine software’s 2D vector classics Another World (by Eric Chahi) and Flashback. As time passed and technology grew, the 2D side-scroller was rapidly losing its place in the world. It’s amazing to think that just five years after Prince of Persia was released, the original Sony Playstation debuted in 1994, ushering in the age of the 3D polygon videogame that is still with us. There was a 2D sequel to the game in 1994 (the lovely Shadow and the Flame), and in 1999 the flawed Prince of Persia 3D was released, but it wouldn’t be until late 2003 that the world would see a game worthy of the Prince of Persia name.

The orginial is still a classic well deserving of that status, and if you’ve never played it, you’re missing out.

Race – Movie Review

Director Duo Abbas-Mustan (not otherwise known as ‘The Brothers Burmawalla’) have been steadily putting out pulp thrillers since their early 90s hit, Khiladi. The brothers’ latest offering, Race, hit theatres a couple of weeks ago, and since then has gone on to do unexpectedly good business. Some of this success can be attributed to the fact that it’s the first truly ‘Bollywood’ movie to come out for months; whether we admit to it or not, posh city folk like nothing better than an indulgent entertainer now and then. The last one that fit the bill — Om Shanti Om — was released last October. If only someone would tell our filmmakers, who are increasingly shifting their attention towards an output of macho noir violence-fests, epic historical snore-a-thons, Oscar bait (and always failing that, Filmfare Critics award bait) and trendy urban train wrecks distinguished by their characters calling each other ‘Guys’ a lot and knowing what ribbed condoms are.

In this age where the term ‘Pulp Fiction’ is more synonymous with an overrated art movie than the vibrant genre that supposedly inspired it, it’s nice to see that someone, somewhere at least isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel or make a genre of pure entertainment ‘relevant to this post 9/11 world.’ Wielding the twin cannons of amoral pulp and bollywood exuberance (with both genres’ devil-may-care attitude to realism as their car’s engine) the brothers have came out with a winner.


To summarise the plot of Race would be foolhardy. It’s ostensibly about two rich step-brothers who stand to inherit tons of cash in insurance payouts should either of them die in an accident. Obviously, this being pulp, one of the brothers is rotten and wants to bump the other off, and the story goes from there. How it does so is nothing short of marvellous: over the course of its two and a half-hour running time, Race manages to squeeze in more plot twists and sudden reversals than a whole DVD box set of thrillers. The twists themselves are all the old ones, but the makers are obviously aware that the viewers will be actively trying to guess which one comes next, and almost always the twist that they do deploy is not quite the one you were expecting. Is there one twist too many? That’s an irrelevant question in this case. It’s a tightrope walk, for sure, but it manages to be consistently entertaining.

The characters are sketched very broadly. You have the work-hard-play-hard businessman, his alcoholic schemer of a brother, the dame with a dark past, the pining secretary, the corrupt cop and his bimbo assistant, all of which is laid out within ten seconds of their onsceen appearance. It’s more archetype than character, and in any other movie this would not be enough, but Race is a film where your focus is always on the increasingly knotty plot; any attempts at making whole characters out of this bunch would distract from it.

Also, if you made these people more realistic they would throw the ludicrousness of the world they inhabit into sharp relief. Here people are blown up in broad daylight, men survive treacherous falls and deadly car accidents, and insurance companies have no problem parting with 50 million in cash once a little paperwork is done. Race is unrealistic to the core, and it knows it; it’s a sexy pre-code comic book where there are no good guys, but everybody isn’t a dour Frank Miller creation either.

To their credit, the actors do a fine job with what little they have. Saif Ali Khan and Akshaye Khanna are wonderful when they’re playing bad guys, and it only dawned on me a few days later that they were both in Dil Chahta Hai together (playing very different characters). Anil Kapoor’s fruit-munching cop is loud, over-the-top and has more bad jokes in him than there are pips in his orange, but even this manages to fit snugly into the proceedings. The women have less to do and don’t quite distinguish themselves beyond eye candy and comic relief.

What really impressed me about Race to begin with is the great pacing. Usually in films there’s an energetic first fifteen minutes, and then the filmmakers decide they’ve had enough quick stuff, and according to that ‘How to Make a Movie’ book they read, it’s about time to slow down and add in some character and texture to it. Not so in Race, whose first half maintains its breakneck speed from start to finish. Even post-interval they keep it up, and it only ever really slackens for a few minutes here and there. To anybody who says it can’t be done, this should be Exhibit A.

If anything lets Race down, it is often its technical side. There’s terrible sound mixing in the songs; Bollywood movies are loud and hissy anyway, but the songs here are really pushing it (and I saw it in a good theatre with excellent sound). The soundtrack itself is the by-now standard action movie staple of Pritam-composed songs and a revolting Salim-Sulaiman background score (they should stick to film songs; they’re much better at it). Lots of jarring hip-hop and crashing guitars. Some of it is hummable but most is not, and one wonders how much better the film would be if the score wasn’t trying to hit you over the head every two seconds. Oh, and the songs literally come out of nowhere (incuding one which happens just after a major twist in the second half), but like every excess in this film, I went with it.

Also, the film could have used a few more weeks of post-production, especially digital grading. There’s some wonderful physical camerawork to see, but since a lot of the film is shot during stark daylight it doesn’t quite have the same impact. Towards the interval there’s a fantastic day-for-night sequence on a high-rise terrace; it’s coloured to look surreal and weird, and I wish the rest of the film’s sequences could have had that much attention paid to them (but they probably ran out of time/money).

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here with dreams of logic and social relevance. This is the land of surreal entertainment that Bollywood should never really forget, and as long as Abbas-Mustan in their matching white clothes are around, it never will. Race is pulp without parody, Bollywood madness without apology. It’s loud and loopy and I loved it.

The Ten Rupee Book Club 001

Stack of Ten Rupee Books 001
Over the past five years I’ve been amassing an eclectic collection of cheap used books on my trips to Bombay. At Rs.10 apiece (around $0.25 US) they aren’t expensive or significant (most of them are, in fact, the very opposite), but they are valuable to me, insomuch as they are weird — and I love weird. I have read very few of them; Of the hundreds (and by now, thousands), I have only finished a handful. There have been plans ever since I started blogging to talk about them, to read and review them, but this has so far not happened.

I was reminded of this recently when Dan blogged about his bookshelf, and in the comments I lamented that most of my books were in boxes (he suggested I just take a picture of the box). “That’s it,” I said to myself, “enough dawdling!” I looked through a small box of them and chose seven — none of which I have read — but which I think are interesting. Maybe this will give me the impetus to actually read some, but for now I will talk of their weird and wonderful subjects, their pretty and often breathtaking covers, and their all-round coolness. I hope you find them as fun as I do.

A Bit of Background

Used Booksellers 01Used Booksellers 02
India has a huge English-speaking population, especially in the cities. In a culture that values education and knowledge as much as we do, it stands to reason that books and reading are still a significant part of life (at least among the urban middle class). So nothing is thrown away, old books move from private collections into small neighbourhood libraries where they get read by thousands of people over dozens of years, and eventually when they’re tattered and worn, or riddled with worm holes, they end up in raddi.

‘Raddi’ literally means ‘scrap’ and raddi merchants deal in paper and other valuable things like copper and metals. They buy in bulk by weight, and pick and sort things by hand into various piles in their usually hole-in-the-wall shops. The loose paper ends up in things like newsprint, and single-side printed matter is cut and bound into cheap notepads, while some of it even ends up as sandwich wrapping from roadside vendors. It’s a fun game to read the scrap on which you get your sandwich; usually it’s some kind of internal documents from companies — memos and letters and photocopied invoices — and sometimes it’s even old school textbooks (which are crap anyway, so no big loss).


The books, however, are kept aside and resold. In raddi shops the price is not fixed and is negotiable; you choose a book, ask the vendor how much he wants for it; he inspects it and quotes something ridiculous (5-10 times what it’s worth) and then you haggle. In South Bombay where time is money and people just want to get from their office to the train station and vice-versa, things are a little more advanced, and in addition to the stack of negotiable old tomes, there will usually be a display of fixed price 10 Rupee books.

Remember, these people buy by weight, not title (and most of the hawkers don’t know English, but can read the words), so it’s quite common to find something you might pay a hundred rupees for just sitting in that pile because it’s too worn or the cover/author’s name is uninteresting. Many bargains are to be found. And below are just seven:

(Oh, and you can click on the front covers for larger versions)

1. Envoy to New Worlds/Flight From Yesterday

Envoy to New Worlds by Keith Laumer - Click to EmbiggenFlight From Yesterday by Robert Moore Williams - Click to Embiggen
Our first book is even greater value for money than the others, because it’s actually two books. Published by Ace Books’ ‘Ace Double’ imprint, this is two novels for the price of one. When you get to the end of one, just flip it over and continue reading! It’s a gorgeous format from a design point of view alone, and there were hundreds of these, including this which was published in 1963.

Of the two tales, Keith Laumer’s Envoy to New Worlds is significant because it marks the first appearance (in a novel) of Jame Retief, ‘The Machiavelli of Cosmic Diplomacy’ as it states on the cover. He’s apparently an intergalactic diplomat, a role modeled somewhat after the experiences of his author in the United States Foreign Service. Retief would go on to star in upwards of sixteen books. The absence of a back cover summary prevents me from making any guesses as to the plot of this first adventure (I’m guessing there will be diplomacy), but any cover that depicts a man who has descended from a ladder with a cape, a gun, and a cummerbund, has piqued my interest.

Not your average flip-bookOn the flip side (haw haw), the slightly less well-known Robert Moore Williams (his name is so plain he couldn’t have made it up) gives us Flight From Yesterday. ‘Yesterday in America, tomorrow in Atlantis’ the cover blurb reads. Surely, hey must be talking about lost airport luggage. No? Oh well. Keith Ard (‘es well ‘ard, I hope) is an unemployed test pilot who answers a mysterious classified ad and apparently meets up with vanishing men in togas (or is it vanishing togas?) and girls with literally flaming hair. If this is any kind of good SF, the man with the vanishing toga teaches him stuff, and he gets off with the truly hot hottie. If this is progressive SF, then the roles of the man and the girl are switched. Either way, Keith Ard!

The cover reminds me of The Phantom Tollbooth movie, which is one of the reasons this book caught my eye. Sadly, no artists are credited on either of the covers. The books themselves are slim (Flight From Yesterday is 120 small pages, 11 pages longer than its ‘book-mate’) and both have a certain charming brevity to the narrative. For instance:

“How’d you get this, Keith?” he asked.
“I was struck in the back by something that felt like a hot wind made in part of living electricity,” Keith said.
Dr. Riker made no comment.

I love old SF.

2. Mushrooms, Molds, and Miracles

Mushrooms, Molds and Miracles, by Lucy Kavaler - Click to EmbiggenMushrooms, Molds and Miracles, by Lucy Kavaler - Back Cover
To say that author Lucy Kavaler’s work is eclectic would be an understatement. Anybody who writes books called The Private World of High Society, The Artificial World Around Us and The Wonders of Algae deserves to be taken seriously, and by all accounts, Mushrooms, Molds, and Miracles is a very well received and regarded book. It covers everything from fungi as miracle foods and medicines to yes, even hallucinogens and extra terrestrial speculations. The writing style is a perfect mix of conversational and academic; not shying away from big words when it needs to, but eschewing them when something simpler will suffice.

Mushroom book interiorIf it still aren’t convinced, here’s the first section of the back cover copy:

Martinis and the secret of heredity, Penicillin and The Angel of Death, Truffles and L.S.D., the Irish Potato Famine and the Fall of the Roman Empire, Astronauts, Gourmets, Scientists, and Indian Medicine Men
What does this wildly assorted list have in common? The answer is Fungi.

How could I not pick this book up?

3. A Dictionary of Geography

A Dictionary of Geography by W.G. Moore - Front Cover - Click to EmbiggenA Dictionary of Geography by W.G. Moore - Back Cover
All this talk of mushrooms should get you in the mood for the great outdoors, yearning to fulfill that romantic ideal of going out into the nearest wood and poking around under a rotting tree bark. It might help, therefore, to have a handy guide to tell you the difference between a gryke and a gulch; to be able to properly interpret the hachures on your map and to watch out for precarious talus.

Geography book interiorAll these and more things can be found in the Revised an Enlarged edition of Penguin’s A Dictionary of Geography by W.H. Moore. This surprisingly weighty paperback does exactly what it says on the cover, and even has a bunch of pretty black and white pictures in the middle. It’s fun enough if you are a closet geography nerd like me, but is also useful as an idea mine (there are several terms I’m going to steal for story titles already). We’ve all been at a dinner party where we’ve needed to know the difference between a Mercator’s Projection and a Sanson-Flamsteed Sinusoidal one, haven’t we? Well now we can be ignorant no longer.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the top of that there drumlin to see if I can spot that dingle I’ve been trying to find all day.

4. Our Language

Our Language by Simeon Potter - Front Cover - Click to EmbiggenOur Language by Simeon Potter - Back Cover
Big words scare people. It’s the truth. But big words needn’t scare you any more after you’ve read (Prof.) Simeon Potter’s Our Language. The beautiful Romek Marber cover was enough to convince me to buy this book long before I opened it. Its ambition of telling the history, structure, dialectic branches, trends and future of the English Language (also known as ‘Merican’), and that too in only 200 pages, sealed the deal.

Our language book interiorThis is the kind of book that publishers seemed to just pop out on a lark back in the 1950s and 60s, and is now unjustly forgotten. They do not make them like this anymore. Here’s something that doesn’t claim to have the answer to everything, is not a trendy pop-culture phenomenon, the latest gee-whiz-ain’t-it-spiffy nonfiction breeze that gets blogged to death and launches a thousand speaking tours (even though I greatly respect and love things like Tipping Point and Freakonomics). It’s just a simple, well-researched, intelligent account of a subject, and we’re all busy reading about Britney’s navel grit.

Shame on you, human race.

5. Teen-Age Vice/Designs in Scarlet

Teen-Age Vice or Designs in Scarlet by Courtney Ryley Cooper - Front Cover - Click to EmbiggenTeen-Age Vice or Designs in Scarlet by Courtney Ryley Cooper - Back Cover
Speaking of the human race…

Oh, where do I begin? This 1939 (but 1957 edition) book is so deliciously cheesy. Told in a Bob-Woodward-channeling-Raymond-Chandler style, only bad, it apparently took Cooper eighteen months of “relentless, coast-to-coast personal investigation to ferret out the facts. If you are shocked by what he found, remember — he meant you to be.”(!) — this from the inside flap.

The entire book is like this. I should probably point out here that the author started his career as a clown, and at the time of his suicide in 1940 was the chief publicist for a circus. Of course, nothing I could say about this book could match the back cover copy, so I’ll just let it do the talking:

teen-age vice interiorWhat makes them do it?
Who is to blame?

They hold orgies in cellar clubs, go on juke-joint “honeymoons.” They get hopped up on liquor and dope, then rob and rape and murder. They are the young people under 21 who commit more than half the major crimes in the U.S.A.

Inspired by J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Courtney Ryley Cooper gives you the grim and tragic answers in this brilliant and blistering exposé of TEEN-AGE VICE.

…To paraphrase Renée Zellwegger, “You had me at ‘Hoover.'”

6. Cool Kids with Hot Ideas

Cool Kids with Hot Ideas by Jules Archer - Front Cover - Click to EmbiggenCool Kids with Hot Ideas by Jules Archer - Back Cover
Likewise, this book had me the second I saw its cover. No, I’m not just talking about the naked girl on the bike (although it is a well-posed photo, and she isn’t bad either). The cover design is remarkable, though entirely uncredited (and in a rare instance, they paid attention to the back too. Cover, that is). I routinely pick up books I have no interest in if the cover is particularly good. Being a graphic designer (with the emphasis on graphic), strong stark covers like these have always appealed to me over today’s wispy, layered and overworked Photoshop monstrosities.

cool kids with hot ideas interiorThe text itself is a lot less sensationalist than the cover would have you believe; certainly, it’s not as SHOCKING(!) as Teen-Age Vice. A compilation of articles, Cool Girls… may have lost its edge when viewed from our media-saturated times. Perhaps, in 1968, this boook chronicled the kind of shocking behaviour people associated with fringe sorts like hippies and beatniks, not ordinary teenage daughters. Most stories deal with unplanned pregnancies, unwed mothers, and illegal abortions (remember, Roe Vs Wade only happened in 1973). The others deal with drugs and teenage prostitution, and none of them are made to look sexy.

It’s interesting that a book with such an unabashedly titillating cover disguises what is fairly straightforward, even depressing, content. I could go on and on about how news has always been latently pornographic, but that’s another story. This book is the perfect example of ‘Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover.’

But what a cover.

7. How to Build Your Cabin or Modern Vacation Home

How to Build Your Cabin or Modern Vacation Home, by Harry Walton - Front Cover - Click to EmbiggenHow to Build Your Cabin or Modern Vacation Home, by Harry Walton - Back Cover
“Enough!” I hear you say, “all this teenage vice is too much for anyone to take. Can’t we talk about those nice mushrooms or sexy dingles again?”

Well, sure, I’d love to, and if you do want to chuck it all and move to the farthest wood, it would be a good idea to have some place to live when you go there. The first thing that strikes you about this Popular Science Skill Book (other than the splendid Bauhaus cover by Frederick Charles) is the little note on the inside that says it’s printed on 100% recycled paper. Somehow I never imagined that people highlighted that fact before the 1980s.

How to Build a Cabin InteriorThis is an honest to goodness 160 page attempt to teach you how to build a cabin. It’s pretty successful too, and I have little doubt that a person of average intelligence might actually end up with a functioning home in the woods if he used it as a rough guide. The genius of the book lays in the fact that it doesn’t just show you ‘four methods of supporting rafters on top plates in gable-roof construction’, but also covers things like ‘how to develop a spring’ (as a reliable water source), how to choose a site for your home in the hills, and an overview of the tools you might use (of chainsaws it says: “Gas-powered chainsaw speeds log-cabin building. It is strictly for outdoor use.“).

My favourite part has to be an early chapter showcasing classic and avant-garde cabin designs to inspire you. I have half a mind to buy a plot of land and try one out, but I think I’ll start in miniature with ice-cream sticks. The fun doesn’t stop there, though; the back cover gives the names of several related titles, including How to Work with Concrete and Masonry (for my closet brutalist, of course) and How to Build Your Own Furniture (I’m also vaguely intrigued by How to Do Your Own Wood Finishing by Jackson Hand, but only so that I can giggle like a schoolboy).

How to Build Your Cabin or Modern Vacation Home is strange; it’s set up almost exactly like every book on drawing I have ever seen or purchased, only at the end of it you get a house. How cool is that?

In Conclusion

Used Booksellers
I hope you’ve enjoyed this short trip through a little corner of my book collection. Even though I didn’t look through the majority of them, there were enough good ones that I was spoilt for choice, and could even group them by theme. This first one was a pick-and-mix of strangeness to whet the appetite, an amuse-bouche for your bibiomaniacal palette.


Neat stack of books.

Giant Iguana Not Included

Dubai-itis is the term I use for that low, frustrated feeling that sets in almost immediately after I return from vacation, to suddenly realise that I live in a flat, hot, congested city where people dress up to go to shopping malls. Any place that makes me miss even the most tedious aspects of a city like Bombay (the chaos, the infrastructure or lack thereof, the garbage and the idiots) is noteworthy.

My escape often comes in the form of a trip to the movies. I begrudgingly overlook the snip-snip of the censors and the twenty minutes of brain-killing advertising, and do enjoy myself. The pre-fab box multiplex model that cinema has transformed into doesn’t damper my spirits (I am, in fact, thankful that for now at least the projection and sound quality is better in multiplexes), and once the lights go down I’m a sucker for the experience.

The worst weeks, then, are when there is nothing worth watching. I’m finicky that way; I revel in cheap entertainments, so nothing is going to convince me to watch No Country for Old Men (yes, I think Fargo is vastly overrated… but I also think O Brother, Where Art Thou? is underrated) no matter how much people rave about it. The fact that Subhash Ghai seems to have turned over a new leaf and is now actually delivering coherent cinema (in the form of Black & White) may sway others, but if anything this new turn of his is not weird enough to warrant my money (because Yaadein had a reference to ‘Poisonous Marine Worms’ and we all know you can’t top that with sensitive post 9/11 Terror vs TLC).

Then there is of course the big, shiny new 10,000 B.C. (and shouldn’t it be more PC by being called 10,000 B.C.E?), which doesn’t in the slightest pique my interest, and I’m a fan of the original Stargate movie! I suppose the reasons are plain and simple: the movie is just not sexy enough. Camilla Belle may be quite fine looking, but she’s no Raquel Welch. Also, frankly, the movie doesn’t look bonkers enough. Where are the giant lizards? Where are the giant sunny-side up pteradactyl eggs? Where’s the fun?

And that, I suppose, is part of what I mean by ‘sexy’; in this strange race to make every movie relevant, to have a message and a moral (and 10,000 B.C.‘s seems to be some kind of ham-fisted rejection of false gods let’s get all the various races together to beat the crap out of the guys with the good architecture), big movies have ceased to just be fun.

And fun is very sexy. Just ask Raquel:


Khoya Khoya Chand – Movie Review

Khoya Khoya Chand Review Image
The good thing about living in a country with a Friday/Saturday weekend is that movies release a day earlier than other places, and because of the extra day an early evening screening can still be relatively empty (most people are still at work). Not that I expected a huge turnout for Sudhir Mishra‘s latest, Khoya Khoya Chand, but in multiplexes Hindi films are shown in the smaller screens, and those hundred odd seats can fill up quickly.

Starring a bunch of well regarded actors who aren’t quite stars yet (and one wonders why), Khoya Khoya Chand is a gorgeous, quirky and ultimately satisfying movie about Indian movies. Om Shanti Om from a couple of weeks back also was an homage, but while it was a loud and tongue-in-cheek pastiche of 1970s potboilers, Mishra’s film is a subversive, adult drama set in the fifties and sixties, the transition era from black-and-white melodramas to technicolour kitsch. It does so with class.


The theatre was pretty empty; in this neck of the woods stars sell, and unfortunately, despite Shiney Ahuja and Soha Ali Khan being in more than a couple of hit films between them, they aren’t considered box office darlings (…yet). In this film, Ms. Khan’s the dancer turned ingenue turned rising star, while Mr. Ahuja’s a novelist turned screenwriter who’s drafted in to work on one of her films. She’s being groomed and bedded and marionetted by an older star (Rajat Kapoor), he’s exorcising his demons through cinema.

In anyone else’s hands, this film with its hackneyed premise would be a complete shambles. But Sudhir Mishra is not your average director, and when you buy a ticket for one of his films you should expect something a little out of the ordinary. Don’t get me wrong: on the surface the film is a melodrama. There’s enough stolid weeping and heaving sighs, but that’s just a device that puts you in the period that defined Indian cinematic melodrama. Everything else — the screenplay, the characters, the dialogue — are refreshingly new. It feels less like a movie and more like some kind of epic novel, and is structured like one. It’s a weird, sometimes surreal film and I’m sure that will put off a few people, but it really worked for me. This isn’t a documentary, it’s a poem.

Of course, if the actual film had been a complete dud I wouldn’t have really cared, because it just looks so good. The cinematography, the lighting, the set design are all top notch. They’re hyper-real, expressionistic like the screenplay, changing as the years go by to suit not just the period but the look of the films that came with it, and also the characters who are experiencing it. Shiney Ahuja’s scenes, for instance, are shot in warm brown hues with deep blacks, while the sequences in the sixties are riotously painted with the pinks and turquoises of early cheap colour films. It’s done with a kind of subtlety and grace that is breathtaking. It’s like watching Guru Dutt — in colour! It’s what that sepia-dunked monstrosity from earlier this year — Guru — should have looked like (and that was probably made at thrice the budget). This is a film worth watching just for watching.

That the characters are as good as the visuals only adds to the enjoyment. They shake off their stereotypes, stamp them into dust and are unapologetic about it. They’re politically incorrect, sexist, misogynist, exploitative and flawed — and you still like them. While the lead pair are the focus of the film and they do their jobs very well, it is really an ensemble cast, and what a cast indeed. Rajat Kapoor brings his A-game as usual, while Vinay Pathak, Saurabh Shukla and a host of others (even Sushmita Mukherjee, who never gets a good part!) play equally complex characters — actual characters — instead of just the filler roles or comedy jobs they are usually given.

But the real revelation of the film, for me, is Sonya Jehan. She’s terrific in a role that would otherwise have just been throwaway. She shows some real acting chops, and there’s parts of the film where you wonder why Shiney Ahuja is still pining for the that other woman. Hopefully, this role will lead to more good stuff from Ms. Jehan. I’d hate to see her slumming around in the latest Mahesh Bhatt bollysploitation thing a few years from now.

Now, of course, the big question: will this film do well? Um, probably not. It’s just too weird. Young people won’t get the strange 1950 affectations of the characters (the young couple a few rows behind me chattered and giggled all though it, and were laughing at the film). Old people will be outraged that their nostalgic vision of the pure classic era of Hindi films is shown to be full of immoral, oversexed, inelegant and rude people, however realistic that might be. It’s still a great film, and I dearly hope that it will find an audience, but I fear that audience will not be in the hundreds of millions.

But what do I know? I’ve been wrong about this stuff before, so don’t let that get you down. Khoya Khoya Chand is a fantastic film, and is well worth your money (just don’t expect a typical Bollywood movie).

And now, a rant about the english subtitles. Warning: lots of naughty, naughty words.

Those Fucking English Subtitles

Of late, somebody’s been sending out Hindi films with English subtitles, and whoever subtitles them seems to think that the word ‘fuck’ is interchangeable with the comma.


It’s horrible! “What are you doing?” says a character. “What the fuck are you doing?” reads the subtitle. “You’re as selfish as he is,” says the girl. “You’re as much of a bastard,” reads the text. So much of this movie especially is in the nuanced dialogue; the particular accents and colourful patois of these varied characters.

When Shiney Ahuja’s mannered Luknowi tells someone off, he says, “Here’s what I suggest you do: Take your script, place it under your rear, and take a long, deep breath.” What does the subtitle say? “Shove it up your ass!”

Half the script is lost in this inane, immature subtitling job. If you don’t understand Hindi, then I’m sorry, but the film is pretty-much ruined. The only problem with Khoya Khoya Chand are those. fucking. english. sub-fucking-titles!



Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

There are a few of laughs peculiar to the cinema. There’s the stifled, back-of-the-throat rumble. There’s the quick “ha!” and the long giggle. There’s even genuine rolling-in-the-aisles, uncontrolled mess of laughter that filmmakers actually have to anticipate and incorporate pauses into the movies for. This is one the true joys of coming to a cinema, the ability to have your silly laugh literally drowned out by everyone else’s silly laugh.

Then there are the fake ones. You can spot these very easily because they always come a half second after the genuine laughs – or worse, a half second before – and are always too long and theatrical. It’s painfully obvious that this person is trying to show to everyone else that they get it,‘it’ being some kind of joke; usually an unfunny one that wasn’t worth laughing about in the first place.

You can tell a lot by cinema crowds by the way they laugh at the ads before the movie starts. If people laugh at really funny ads and you hear a few delayed theatrical ones, then chances are you’re in good, intelligent company. If, however, the banal car ad that’s already a year old generates long, loud haw-haws precisely one second after the sound has died down, then you’re in trouble. You’ve just walked into a movie with normal people.

The man/kid/thing in the seat next to me immediately took one look at the PIXAR logo on the screen and let out a laugh that went precisely, ‘Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-hahaha’ in a flat, monotonous fashion. Then the screen said, ‘Presents’ and there he went again, in exactly the same manner. This happened a few more times during the Ratatouille trailer, at either random intervals or a half second after everyone else had finished laughing.

I was thankful that as At World’s End started up, he was busy chomping down on that pungent smelling thing he had smuggled in, but was left with mixed feelings. While the sooner he ate the sooner the smell would go away, it would also mean a return to his laughing at everything.

Lucky for us the movie starts on a pretty somber note, with lots of people being hanged. Unfortunately this bit where a kid is too short for the gallows came up between my neighbour’s mouthfuls and he let rip another factory-specification laugh. It’s as if he was trained or something.

Things weren’t going well. At World’s End was more of the same stuff I hadn’t liked in Dead Man’s Chest There was a whole bunch of Keira Knightley trying to act. There was a bit of Orlando Bloom forgetting he can. The jokes were a bit on the stupid and obvious side. Everything was gloomy and green, but at least Geoffrey Rush and Chow Yun Fat were around, and provided much of the spark of the first thirty minutes.

I heaved a great sigh of relief the second Johnny Depp’s nose came on screen. What followed over the next few minutes is perhaps the most surreal sequence ever to appear in a pirate movie, and it’s absolutely beautiful. So strange and so unfathomable, the normal people in the audience – my neighbour included – were for a good while silent as Captain Jack Sparrow was reintroduced to us. I was one of those people who wondered what on earth had happened to the character in the last movie, and so I was the happiest little pirate indeed to realise that back was the witty, smart and intelligent Jack Sparrow of Curse of the Black Pearl.

Over the next two-and-a-half hours I was nothing short of entertained. I went with every plot twist and double cross and over-done special effect, because there were good characters doing good movie stuff to watch. It didn’t matter and even became something of an entertainment whenever my neighbour – utterly lost by this point – would cling to anything that seemed vaguely like it was going to lead to comedy and start one of his patented ha-has.

I could tell that this film has definitely been retooled since Dead Man’s Chest came out. A couple of the major plot points only show up in this one, and surely if they were meant to be there all along some degree of foreshadowing would have happened in the second film (I speak of course, of what happens with Tia Dalma). This retooling is a necessary and welcome step, and in my opinion they’ve ‘saved’ this trilogy. Someone finally realised that we all watch this movie not for a bunch of bland, do-gooder young folk with noble and tragic stories, but for the pirates — The Pirates!

And so we have much more of Jack Sparrow and Mr. Gibbs, and much more of Barbosa. While in the first film he was a memorable but pretty straightforward villain, in At World’s End he’s revealed to be just as flamboyant, just as charismatic – and most importantly, just as crazy – as Sparrow. Even the Keith Richards cameo starts out a bit cloying but ultimately hits you with a hammer of a punchline. I’m very glad that Johnny Depp has said yes to Pirates 4 and beyond, and sincerely hope that Geoffrey Rush is also a part of those movies, because I would be sorely disappointed otherwise.

The film certainly shares more of a vibe with the second than the first, in that it is also a helter-skelter, million-plots-at-a-time story full of twists and turns. Thanfully this time those plots are put together better and are constantly moving the story forward. Also, there aren’t any long and silly action set-pieces (while the extended cartwheel swordfight from the second was entertaining on its own, it didn’t quite fit with the rest of the film). The action, in fact, is frequently thrilling and well laid out, the climax especially.

Hooray then, for Pirates of the Caribbean. While At World’s End is not as astoundingly excellent as Curse of the Black Pearl, it is quite a good movie and great way to wrap up what is hopefully the first of many trilogies to come.

The Top 5 Films You Never Thought Someone Would Produce (But Thank God They Did)

What would you define as a good movie?

Award Winning? Critically Acclaimed? It has your favourite star in it? All your friends like it?

For me, it’s a movie that entertains me, plain and simple. Now, entertainment is a broad term that can be very subjectively defined. For instance, I never let professional critics’ opinions sway me from watching ‘bad’ movies — in fact, more often than not I find these bad movies to be highly entertaining, and yes, even good.

There’s a special type of ‘bad’ movie I love, that doesn’t follow any rules or logic and usually makes it to people’s ‘Top 5 Worst Movies’ list. These are movies that are so off-the-wall, so zany and silly that they put off most people, but I’m forever glad that someone had the good sense (or a lapse of it) to put some money behind them and get them made. These are the kinds of movies that, even on paper, don’t sound like a good proporistion.

These are also some of my favourite movies, and here’s my top 5 list. If you’ve never heard of them, or have heard of them but in a negative way before, I hope this list will do a little to change your mind and get you to see them:

1. Caveman!

Ringo Starr, Dennis Quaid and Barbara Bach as cavemen — sorry, cavepersons. If that sentence alone wasn’t enough to convince you to go out and find this movie right now, then may I urge fans of special effects (especially of the Ray Harryhausen kind) to give it a watch purely for the great stop-motion animation, or the laugh-out-loud hilarity?

This Python-esque send-up of One Million Years B.C. (set, of course, in One Zillion B.C.) scores over that movie because of its sheer chutzpah. While I will admit that the Raquel Welch movie does more immediately spring to mind when thinking of caveman romps (well, that’s purely because it has Raquel Welch in it!), Caveman! is as if not more memorable, and if you’ve seen the former you owe it to yourself to watch the latter.

Because any movie that features both the invention of music and the discovery of fried eggs just deserves to be a classic.

2. Danger Diabolik

Mario Bava may have inspired many great filmmakers with his horror and weird movies, but this will always be my favourite. From its psychedelic title sequence (and even more drug-fueled title song) to its zany lead character, Diabolik is the kind of movie that runs on cool and cool alone.

Forget the plot (hint: there isn’t one), forget the acting, and instead surrender yourself to the amazing sets, the fast car chases, the byzantine capers and the women — Oh! the women — who could only have existed in the 1960s.

Watch this movie and you too will, for a moment, wish you were a man in a tight black catsuit zooming around the countryside in an E-Type Jaguar. Any movie that can put you in that frame of mind is surely evil in all the right ways!

3. Party 7

Katsuhito Ishii’s follow up to his hit Sharkskin Man and Peach-Hip Girl is an odd film that takes place almost entirely in one hotel room. While the sprawling Japanese countryside from his first film is gone, the long, strange and rhythmic dialogue is still there, the characters’ quirkiness magnified even more by the confines perhaps, and the film builds to a cracker of an ending. It’s not as sublime as his follow up, The Taste of Tea nor is it as affectionate as Sharksin Man…, but I’ve rarely seen someone pull of such relentless strangeness with such aplomb.

Also, it features a costumed hero named Captain Banana and his sidekick, the yellow-jumpsuited Captain The Yellow (“Captain Yellow?” “The, The! Captain The Yellow!”).

Good stuff.

4. Babarella

Long before Jane Fonda was a ‘serious’ actress, she made this, the best film of her career. A free-wheeling, free love space adventure with enough weird special effects, shagadelic sets, white-winged underwear models and strangely named characters (the band Duran Duran took their name from one of the characters in this film) to fill five movies, Barbarella stands the test of time admirably.

One part Flash Gordon plus one part Flesh Gordon and ten parts madness equals tons of pure, unadultarated fun.

5. Zardoz

If you want to watch this with your girlfriend and she’s old enough to remember there being James Bonds before Daniel Craig, you can probably convince her by saying that this movie features Sean Connery running around in what basically amounts to boots, gun belts and a thong. Handlebar mustache notwithstanding, Zardoz is a fantastically weird examination of secluded future society.

By director John Boorman’s own admission they were probably trying to juggle one too many themes, but I can’t fault this film for ambition or ingenuity (all the special effects were done on-set and in-camera). It may look and feel strange, but that is what good Science Fiction is all about.

Also, Sean Connery in a thong.



(Darren Rowse at has been running a Top 5 competition, more a forum for exchanging and finding blogs. This is my contribution to the effort)

Spider-Man 3 Review

…I can’t believe I just gave my money to these people.

Music & Lyrics Review

Like I mentioned in the previous post, I had gone to the mall to watch Music & Lyrics. We usually don’t go to the mall on weekends as getting a parking space even in the enormous Mall of the Emirates parking lot on Friday can be a problem. However, it was not yet evening and with nothing else to do, we decided to chance it. The parking lot was quickly filling up, but we did manage to get a space.

I actually like the mall best on a weekend; for a guy who grew up in a city of 20 million people — and now resides in a country that has a population much less than that — have no fear of crowds, and almost miss them. The bustle of people of all shapes, sizes and nationalities is something I love. The noise of thousands of people and hundreds of conversations bubbling up through the four stories of the central atrium is also an experience that is not often found in this city of cars and their horns.

Weaving through the layers of crowd we made it to the far end of the mall with the cinema, and bought tickets a half hour early, giving us some more time to roam around, empty our tanks, and wait in the endless concession stand line for an overpriced and cinema-branded bottle of water (Seriously, I think the reason they show a half hour of trailers before a movie is because the lines at the snack bar take, on average, that long to work through). Despite being the first weekend of release, the screening was moderately full. It wasn’t the biggest screen in the house — that was, no doubt, still playing 300 (which I haven’t seen).

Sitting around waiting for the lights to dim I realised that it had been months since I’d seen anything in this particular theatre. For all of last year every single screening had begun with a Coca-Cola ad featuring Lebanese pop star Nancy Ajram. The ad was mediocre enough the first time, but seeing it dozens of times over the next year had begun to grate on me. I wondered if they still showed it, and at that moment the lights dimmed and up started a Coke ad.

Thankfully they had moved on from Ms. Ajram and replaced her with a mostly computer-generated ad showing the fantastical inner workings of a Coke machine. It’s and international campaign I’d seen on TV before. You’ve probably seen it too, and while I’m generally impressed with the technical aspects of it, the composition of the shots was terrible, so was the editing, and while the design of the fantasy universe was cute it was by no means memorable. I leaned over and said to my brother, “This is both the best and the worst Coke ad I’ve ever seen,” and he couldn’t help but nod in agreement.

The prospect of seeing this ad for the whole of this year — and possible beyond — was not a pleasant one. Nancy, come back!

They showed, among other things, a trailer for a Curtis Hanson movie starring Eric Bana (it’s good to see that despite Troy and Hulk‘s relatively disappointing numbers people still haven’t given up on him), and a short trailer for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End that I had been avoiding on the internet. The trailer seems nice in that it didn’t focus too much on the special effects, and instead was almost entirely dialogue. What little scenery was shown looked disappointingly monotone and fake (a problem I had with the second Pirates film), but who knows, they might be able to pull it off. I wonder how many islands were ruined for this one?

I knew very little about Music & Lyrics going in, other than that it was a romantic comedy starring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore, and that it had something to do with pop music. Really, that’s about all you need to know about a romantic comedy movie. I like Hugh Grant movies. I’m a sucker for Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and especially Love, Actually, so I was pretty much sold on the whole thing to begin with. Still, must be objective, must be objective.

The film is solid, if a little short. It’s funny (poking fun at the 80s might seem easy, but the writers do it in continually interesting ways), it’s romantic, Hugh Grant delivers (as usual), and I’ve finally seen a Drew Barrymore movie I actually, really, like (okay, so Never Been Kissed was not bad either, but let’s not speak of those Charlie’s Angels movies she helped produce). Side characters are relegated to stereotypes for the most part, but they aren’t caricatured as much as one might expect in an American movie: the bumbling, lonely divorcee agent and the giggly fangirl sister aren’t overplayed. The young popstar played by Haley Bennet is sufficiently vapid; I’m just not sure if this is great acting or just the way she is.

I did say that it was a little short, and by that I mean that it doesn’t feel as large or ‘epic’ as Four Weddings or even Notting Hill. In fact as the credits roll we are shown some scenes that — judging by the characters’ costumes — took place during the midsection of the film, which I certainly wouldn’t have minded seeing there.

It’s still a good film and is well worth the watch, so maybe I’m just a Hindi film nut who expects a three hour running time to be par for the course. Also the pop songs in the film are exactly the kind of stuff that you can’t get out of your head — I’ve had the main one (“Pop! Goes My Heart” which in the movie comes complete with cheesy A-Ha-inspired music video) buzzing around in my brain for the past few weeks!

That’s Music & Lyrics in a nutshell: a bit on the light side, but far more memorable than the average pop song.

Excuse me, for now I need to go hunt down the lyrics to “Pop! Goes My Heart”…

pyaar ke side effects review

I don’t know about your schools, but in mine (Indian School Muscat, or ISM for those of use who have survived that enigma) Drama and Theatre weren’t big. Oh sure, you did have the odd teacher who’d come along every few years, fuelled by passion and memories of his or her golden youth (usually five years past) in some sleepy hill station boarding school where ‘The Classics’ were paraded out — bedsheet togas, pathetic iambic pentameter and all — and put on show in some august hall whose seats were varnished every other week. They’d pick up everyone who ever scored in the top five in English in every class*.

(* – Thankfully, despite achieving this, I was never taught by one of these imbeciles or was considered too uncharismatic. The few times I was pulled up I stood very still at audition and read in a continuous, droning whisper.)

The result would be a huge number of very bad ‘Indian Victorian’ accents (I can’t describe this any other way, except that it is so excruciatingly bad it makes me want to punch someone while simultaneously drilling into my eardrums through my sphincter with a frozen echidna), a great number of puffed chests swelling already overfilled gasbags, and then either the exams or periodic tests would crop up (as they do in Indian schools, every other week) and Mummy and Daddy and Mr. Vice Principal would put all rehearsals on hold because little Bunty had to study all the time and get 99 marks in everything (Mr. Vice Principal wanted everyone to get 99 in everything so that the overall grades of the year would surpass the rival Indian school across town), or Mummy and Daddy would realise that they don’t give out little trophies or certificates for a play and tell Bunty to go back to athletics practice so he’d get some on Sports Day.

End result: not many plays.

More frequent would be the Middle or High School Alpha Female, destined from birth to break free from the shackles of Savage India and be educated in ‘The States’. Hence, she played softball (when we didn’t even have a team or anyone else who knew how to play it) and only dated people on the basketball team, rolled her Rs and used various words as punctuation (“Like, I mean, rrrruuuhly.”)*

(* – This, I realised, was much more endemic in Dubai, where the glut of private Indian schools led to each institution developing its own accent based on how expensive it was (more fees = more States-bound little munchkins). I can still spot an Indian High School girl in seven words or less. Anyway…)

Alpha Female, no doubt feeling the twitch of alienation in her anorexic little bones after watching the ‘school play’ episode of Beverly Hills 90210 (or any of the various high school shows of the time) would burst into the classroom the next day, gather her gang of like-minded cool folk the rest of us steered well clear of (the smart ones, anyway. Most just couldn’t even understand what language they were speaking, and vice versa) and set forth her plan of action. This usually involved buttering up the same kinds of teachers I’d mentioned before (freshly burned from the previous term’s adventure of trying to teach Bunty that “How” in Shakespeare did not mean, “How?”), only instead of the classics they’d think of putting on West Side Story or something else that would give a proper vent to all those rrrruuuhlys they had stored up over the year.

Alas, exams would come about, maybe Sports Day. Or, as would usually happen, Alpha Female would have a fight with Alpha Male — the hitherto default male lead of the Extravaganza(!) — and Beta Female would act as ambassador between the two parties while hitting on Alpha Male as she always wanted to. Big Muscle, Intense Guy, Comic Relief and various Lesser Females of the pack would run helter-skelter and gossip or hit on Alpha Female, and then the winter vacation would come along and people would go back to watching Beverly Hills 90210 or NBA Inside Stuff.

End result: not many plays.

There were, however, two kinds of theatrics that one was bound to encounter in a year. One was the school elocution, a torturous affair during Lower School because the entire class had to stand up on stage and belt out some kind of silly poem written by an absinthe-addled Englishman, in forced Indian Victorian that the teachers thought was the proper way to speak (bastards).

In Middle and Secondary Schools it became torture only for the audience, as the best and brightest of each class was picked up to subject the rest of us to more prolix, absinthe-addled verse. Worse, the elocution always seemed to take place on the same day of the week we’d have our only art class (bastards). The sole highlight of these affairs was when someone would flub a line and whisper a terse — but eloquent — “Shit!” (I think they got extra points)

The Second, more free-form method of theatrics was known as a skit.



The very term sounds mediocre and transient. Skits were usually performed by five man or woman troupes on Teacher’s Day, Children’s Day, those five days after the exams but before the winter vacation when people would come to school but nothing was taught, and at various Scouts and Guides thingamajigs (I only ever attended the three day camp in the desert, staying well clear of any regular meetings involving spurious knot-making instructions and disturbingly cheerful renditions of Anna-na Cycle-a Belle Yillee Seat Yillee Mudguard Yillee Yillee!)

First problem — and, to be frank, most damning: Skits were usually written by the students themselves. Oh nooooooo.

Oh, the horror of watching five people you sort-of get along with during the week suddenly turn into giggling, lobotomised train-wrecks of ‘thespians’ making some kind of unoriginal five minute monstrosity (that always ended with everyone saying the catchphrase of the ‘show’ at the same time)! I remember one was a direct rip-off of a supposedly popular — I’d never heard of it — Hindi sitcom (a term always used lightly) except to stave off nonexistent copyright lawyers they changed the show’s scene/episode ending catchphrase (Hindi sitcoms and school skits seem to share much DNA, hence my loathing for both) to something else (Genius!). The term they came up with was “Oof!”, which by the end of it the audience was saying anyway.

Second Problem: Skits were perfomed by students with no Pavlovian input from teachers, and so while it did finally free them from the curse of Indian Victorian, the delivery ranged from dead (Bunty) and bored (Mallu girl) to overboard (Elocution Boy) and requiring subtitles (Like, rrrruuuhly). It was not even bad enough to be good, if you know what I mean.

The one time I somehow ended up becoming part of a skit (I was bored, the group was sitting one row in front of me and their comedic stylings were, how shall I put this, skitshit), I added in bits of writing to what was supposedly a guy’s radio set tuning to different channels at random, with crazy — I said, Kerrraaaazy! — results. I’ll admit, even my 14 year old self couldn’t come up with anything too interesting or good (I did do something I was proud of a few months later, but that’s another story for another time) and mainly I streamlined a few jokes and helped things along.

Came time for the audition, for the Teacher’s Day show, and our boring bunch of nerds got up on stage (these guys weren’t nice nerds: they thought Transformers was a three mark Physics paper question). The year previous I had been a part of a sickening white-shirt/black-pant/red-bowtie group song recital that made it to the final show, where I had left the stage with a leap and a fist pump that got more applause and laughs than the entire performance, much to the surprise and embarrassment of my colleagues. Heh. Anyway, we got into our skit (being one of the writers I was also, unfortunately, one of the ‘actors’) and we lasted all of two minutes. I think it was the unpalatable juxtaposition of a cooking show with a news report on a famous (at the time) murder involving a tandoor oven that sealed our fate.

Needless to say, I didn’t write that one (or if I had, it would have been filthier).

Skits are terrible. You can do them well, but the chances of that happening at school are about zero and, well, zero. About the same amount of chance that you’ll be able to bang out a rollicking Musical Shakespearean TrageComedy Event in between exams, periodic tests, unit tests, Sports Day and private tuitions in an Indian School.

I’d pretty much forgotten about either, um, ‘art’ form, until today, when I saw Pyaar Ke Side Effects.

I’d missed it in theatres because the trailers didn’t look interesting. The teaser poster was much more promising, but the subdued nature of the TV promos made me take it off my “Watch it in a theatre” list. There were a lot of Hindi movies coming out last September, and I like to watch as many of them as I can even if they seem in the slightest bit promising, because Hindi movies are my opiate and without watching one or two every week — any movie — I get grouchy and depressed.

Now, a lot of people had to told me, “YOU MUST SEE PYAAR KE SIDE EFFECTS!” in a voice roughly approximating all caps. It seemed to be a movie that instilled the kind of wide-eyed, excited feeling that I rarely see in people who, unlike myself, aren’t movie nerds.

So yesterday when I was browsing through the racks of my DVD rental store I came across a copy with that same alluring teaser poster I had seen a year or two before. Rahul Bose is usually hit and miss for me: good in Jhankaar Beats, great in Chameli, and Mumbai Matinee looked so bad I didn’t even bother. Mallika Sherawat is not usually a memorable actress (she can, in fact, be quite terrible) and I don’t find her sexy. Still, all those enthusiastic recommendations plus the thought of seeing India’s most clearly defined mainstream Sex Symbol acting with a guy who is known for never dancing and singing on screen, being in practically every ‘Hinglish’ and Crossover movie of the past ten years, and playing rugby, piqued my curiosity enough rent the thing.

Note to self: don’t listen to anyone. Ever.

The movie is as awkward as any of those skits I saw in school, and is full of the kind of vapid, overbearing characters I avoided (and who are now, unfortunately, possibly tormenting my geek friends in America. I feel for you guys). When the protagonists aren’t acting like idiots they’re delivering punchlines to technically funny jokes as if they’re sliding dead fish under their neighbour’s porch. Granted, I’m not the target audience for this kind of movie — I have a brain and not the pretence of one — and I know enough people who would relate to this stuff (worse, they are this stuff) but that’s still no excuse for the kind of amateurish direction that runs through the production. Once in a while the cinematographer wakes up and gives us a five second shot that isn’t boring. Once in a while a line that is funny is actually delivered that way, and for those few moments you think the film might actually turn around and start behaving like, well, a movie.

Alas, we’re stuck with Rahul Bose playing the standard commitment-phobic, confused urban man he usually does, with none of aplomb of Jhankaar Beats, or the quiet sincerity of Chameli, and Mallika Sherawat, while never as bad as she was in, say, Kis Kis Ki Kismat, is never any better than just okay. It doesn’t help that her character is flat and unlikable.

Side characters come and go. Ranvir Sheorey plays the crazy roommate (because nobody has a normal roommate, of course) and does so quite well with what little he’s given. Then they go and ruin it by ramming in a clumsy attempt at a character arc towards the end. Other people play other stereotypes and are quickly forgotten or just annoying enough to make you hit fast forward.

About the only character who actually comes off as having a brain is Sophie Chowdhury, and she’s the damn item girl. When your sexpot has more sympathy than your lead, there’s trouble. This, of course, leads to the same thought I had after watching Dil Se, which is, “Oh thank God the two crazy people got together and the sane one is left alone.”

[Dil Se SPOILERS ahead]

Unfortunately, Pyaar Ke Side Effects does not end with the two protagonists blowing themselves to lovelorn smithereens by triggering a suicide bomb with their embrace.


In fact, it barely seems to end. Suddenly there’s an even clumsier (than everything before it) attempt at slapstick, guns and horses and a chase are cobbled together for fifteen seconds while the DOP goes off for a smoke and leaves the camera on ‘landscape’, and the credits roll while the final lines are still being spoken. They don’t even resort to the good old Hindi sitcom and school skit formula of ending on a catchphrase (the Sidey Stud’s oft-repeated “It’s not a big deal” could have been trotted out one last time, thereby summing up the whole experience nicely, just like that school skit ten years ago!).

I’ve learned a lot of things from Pyaar Ke Side Effects. Never trust the movie recommendations of Indian High School Dubai girls. My classmates could write better. Hell, half of them could act better, even Elocution Boy. Never has “Written and Directed by” meant so little. The quality of Cinematography does not increase with the amount of cleavage on screen. All those vapid kids you knew in school will go though a similar experience as the characters in the movie, and just like them they won’t actually learn something, get married and have kids anyway.

Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.


© Vishal K. Bharadwaj, 2007, All Rights Reserved

something old, something new

Just back from seeing Don: The Chase Begins Again. The short version:



Not disappointed at all. Grinning like a kid throughout. Captures the pulpy mood of the original, heightens the realism and paradoxically also ups the fantastic elements. Farhan Akhthar, you shrewd old boy. Amitabh Bachchan was awesome in the old one, but Shah Rukh Khan in this version is utterly perfect. I can't think of another actor who would do justice to this Don like he does. Top marks to Boman Irani (as usual) and Arjun Rampal (please, can somebody 'notice' this guy — he's criminally underrated).

Superb cinematography, great music. Paced like an old Hindi flick, so it takes its time (a refreshing change from all these break-neck 2 hour rides with no plot and slick tricks). The plane sequence is worth the price of admission alone. So are Kareena Kapoor's fabulous legs. The choreography of her song is a bit frantic, but oh my god, those legs. Too bad she doesn't live long and we have to make do with Priyanka Chopra, grumblegrumble (Farhan tries to make her look sexy as she comes out of a pool wearing a swimsuit she can't even fill out, and this is the only time the director fails miserably). Meanwhile, fleeting glimpses of Isha Koppikar's arresting, sculpted Mangalorean looks (I'm biased) serve as some consolation (but don't go expecting her to go full on like in Kya Kool Hai Hum — it's a guest role, at best).

The script avoids many of the cliches of typical switched hero plots, has a bunch of nice, bloody fights and the ending…. oh, the ending! Let's just say: excellent replay value. Don't let your friends spoil it for you.

Dammit, I need to watch it again.

PS Don't tell anyone about the ending. Just. Don't. Please?