Chanchal Singh Kunwar (Photo: courtesy Chan)

Located in Bageshwar district, Kausani is popular for its tea gardens.

Although tea plantation was introduced many decades ago in Uttarakhand, it didn’t catch on. According to a September 2014 article in the Hindustan Times about the erstwhile standing of teas from Uttarakhand and how they languished later, tea cultivation was introduced in these parts by the British in 1835. They chose the hills of Kausani, Dehradun and Berinag to start the process. Initially, the teas of Uttarakhand did well. Subsequently, even as plantations became big business in North East India and South India, tea production in Uttarakhand plummeted. In recent times, according to media reports, efforts have been made to encourage tea growing and restore the market profile of teas from the state.

Kausani remains a small hub of tea gardens. As you come in from the Ranikhet side, the road ascends to the town, runs a bit on the ridge of the hill and then descends to the other side, which is when the tea gardens and their adjoining clutch of restaurants emerge to view. It is a popular halt for tourists, rewarding anyone making it to the spot at the right time on a clear day with great pictures of select Himalayan peaks. Kumaon is known for its panoramic view of the Himalaya. From the cafes near Kausani’s tea gardens, you see the peaks of western Kumaon. Late July, 2020 it was the season of rain in Kausani. It rained intermittently. The weather was pleasant; perfect for running. Some kilometers away from Kausani, is the village of Shauli. Early mornings and sometimes in the evening, a runner from here would take a route not normally taken by others around. While the general grain of economic development in the hills has been the tendency to trade walking trails for roads, this person – recently returned from big city – did the opposite. He traded Kausani’s roads for its quiet, forgotten trails. They wind their way along hill slopes sporting pine trees.

Kausani’s trails, July 2020 (Photo: courtesy Chan)

Until some months ago, Chanchal Singh Kunwar (Chan) was among those running regularly at Kharghar in Navi Mumbai. Navi Mumbai is a satellite city of Mumbai; it along with Thane is part of the larger Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR). MMR is one of the biggest urban agglomerations on the planet. An important node of Navi Mumbai, Kharghar evolved on flat land set against a backdrop of hills. The flats, roads therein and connections thereof to more roads in nearby Belapur offer adequate mileage for daily running. A five kilometer-long road leading up into the hills serves as additional tool for training. Every year as the annual Mumbai Marathon approaches, this hill road sees local runners and those from other parts of MMR, come to train. Indeed Navi Mumbai is one of the better places in MMR for a runner to be in. However, it is a bustling urban center and has been gaining vehicles and traffic by the day. The overall ambiance of your daily run is thus very much that of city.

Chan hails from Kausani. After a few years of growing up there, his family moved out to ensure better education for the children. Besides, his father worked in the Indian Navy and with any job in the defence sector, transfer is an integral part of life. Eventually, Chan found himself in MMR (at Kharghar), where as an employed adult, he worked with Star Sports. As of 2020, it was around seven years since Chan took up running. The bug got to him in Mumbai. In the initial years, he did what he could, sensing his way around in the sport and keeping an annual appointment with the Mumbai Marathon. By 2015, he was training seriously and by the following year, had graduated to attempting the ultramarathon. In 2016, he won a 50 kilometer-night run, a 75 kilometer ultramarathon in Pune and covered 96 kilometers at the annual 12-hour Mumbai Ultra. In 2017, he won the 101 kilometers category at Run the Rann, an ultramarathon organized in the Rann of Kutch in western India. That year he also won the IDBI Federal Life Insurance 12hrs stadium run in Mumbai covering a distance of 105.2 kilometers in the stipulated time; he also participated in and finished the 111 kilometer-segment of La Ultra The High in Ladakh. In 2018, he won the 50 kilometers category at BNP Ultra in Mumbai but later suffered injury while training for the Annapurna 100 in Nepal. “ As a comeback run in 2020, I bettered my course record at BNP 50 by two minutes, finishing the race with a PB of 3:56:01,’’ Chan said.

Kausani’s trails, July 2020 (Photo: courtesy Chan)

After his father retired, Chan’s parents shifted back to Kausani. The move isn’t permanent for them yet; at the time of writing his father was still undecided on whether it should be a shift for good or not. In March 2020, Chan was due to attend his Basic Mountaineering Course (BMC) at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) in Uttarkashi. By then he had also put in his papers at Star Sports and was looking forward to commencing something on his own in sports nutrition.  Against this backdrop, it made sense to blend his NIM trip with a visit home after the mountaineering course. After all, Uttarkashi is in Uttarakhand and Garhwal (where NIM is) and Kumaon (where Kausani is) are adjacent regions. However, the entire plan had to be cancelled following the outbreak of COVID-19 and onset of nationwide lockdown. Chan spent the first two and a half months of lockdown in Kharghar. Then, as the strict lockdown gave way to a slightly relaxed version, in mid-June, he traveled to Kausani to be with his parents.  With lockdown continuing and working remotely now an accepted way of life, he plans to make Kausani his new base.

Plains or hills, a runner cannot stay away from running. For Chan, Kausani situated at an elevation of 6200 feet, presented fresh options, especially on the trail front. He has plans to try some of the well-known trail running events of Himachal Pradesh and South India. It wasn’t long before he started exploring the trails around Kausani as potential training routes. Every day, he picks one of two windows or sometimes both; the first is in the morning around 7 AM, the other is around 4-4.30 PM. “ There has to be natural light. That is one problem in the hills. You don’t have street lights here as in the cities. But otherwise it is a vast difference between what I do here and the running I used to do in Kharghar. The weather in Navi Mumbai was always hot and humid and capable of exhausting you fast. The air was also polluted, which is the case in most urban areas. There was traffic. Here road traffic is less but then, I am not on the roads at all. I am on trails, which are frequented by very few people. It is peaceful. Yes the elevation makes you strain more than in the plains but the air is clean; you can feel good quality air in your lungs,’’ he said. As for inclines he has tonnes of it strewn around in hill country. According to him, the trails he found are a healthy mix of enjoyable running and steep, technical slopes. Incidentally, Chan is not the only one utilizing the value of Kumaon’s trails. Around the time the nationwide lockdown started, Nitendra Singh Rawat, one of India’s top marathon runners, had shifted from Ranikhet (where the Kumaon Regiment to which he belongs is headquartered) to his village in Garur. When contacted in early April, he was training on isolated trails near his village, away from people and the hustle and bustle of life. Garur is around 15 kilometers from Kausani.

Kausani’s trails, July 2020 (Photo: courtesy Chan)

As he continues his running in Kausani, Chan admitted to nursing a wish. Places like Garhwal and Kumaon have known running for long, possibly longer than it has been viewed as fitness movement or sport in the plains. The driving force for this widespread engagement with running was military recruitment. The Himalayan foothills have a tradition of sending people to the armed forces. Both Kumaon and Garhwal have regiments bearing their name. In the run up to every recruitment season (locally called bharti), the roads of Kumaon feature young men putting in the miles to stay fit. Same is the case in Kausani. “ The people here are good runners. They have the ability to do well. But they don’t have a year-round culture of running that is independent from military recruitment. They run to be recruited and when that reason isn’t there, they don’t have any incentive to continue running. I would like to do what I can to change that. I hope I am able to contribute in some way to creating a running culture here,’’ Chan said on the phone from Kausani.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Podium finishes and timings at races are as stated by interviewee.)


This image was downloaded from the film’s Facebook page and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Films on sports become memorable when they tell a unique story; tell a known story in engaging format, features great acting or hosts technical excellence like memorable cinematography.  A problem seen in this genre is herd behavior. When one model sells, others emulate by the dozen.  For instance, there is an element of fatigue brought by the innate need of these films to showcase motivation, teamwork and achievement. Even before story unfolds, you know what it’s going to be. That can be a damper.

The Way Back is a regular film anchored by the solid presence of Ben Affleck. The film revolves around a former, talented high school basketball player who has drifted off the sport and is then called in to coach a team from his old school. There is nothing new about the problems plaguing him, there is nothing new about the struggles of the young players he is asked to coach. What appears refreshing is the acceptance of known narrative and its handling with a steady hand rooted in reality. Unlike your average sports film, which tends to periodically court elation and uplifting sequences, this one remains a bit dark and grim. That is understandable because the coach has genuine problems to overcome. The bleakness of his world mixes with the goings on in the basketball court, making for an overall mood that rarely frees itself from the damage he has already done to himself and the damage yet to be. Doing so, it becomes a good document of what it means to live and be scarred by life (which in turn, makes you an effective teacher), what it takes to be a good coach and how accountable to wards and school, coaches have to be. That element of realism and ordinary world is this 2020 film’s strong point.

 Plus, Affleck turns in a convincing performance.

The film is available on Amazon Prime; worth watching.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)  


This image was downloaded from the Facebook page of the film. It is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

The human world has two camps. One finds purpose and security in clustering together. The other acknowledges the vulnerability of being alone but attributes greater value to journey by oneself.

Most of us know World War II as a contest within human cluster between the Axis and the Allies. Both sides were regimented for the task; it was a case of armies clashing and even in the case of civilian resistance, they went by their identity as a group – the Resistance. That is what makes the case of Franz Jagerstatter interesting. He was an Austrian conscientious objector. Cambridge Dictionary explains the term as: a person who refuses to work in the armed forces for moral or religious reasons. Conscientious objectors don’t count on herd for support. Their protest is typically personal and done alone.

Franz and his wife Franziska live in the village of St Radegund in the mountains of Austria. They are farmers; it is a hard but happy life. Both are devout Catholics. The life of Franz and Franziska (Fani) are the subject of the 2019 Terrence Malick film A Hidden Life.

It is the age of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany; its war machine and expansionism. People are ordered to serve in the Nazi army. According to Wikipedia’s page on Franz, when Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, he was the only person in the village to vote against the move in the plebiscite held that April. Franz reluctantly undergoes a round of military training. However the surrender of France in the initial phase of World War II and the realization of Nazi objectives till then sees Franz being allowed to return home. He abhors the Nazis; he dislikes their agenda. However the war doesn’t end with France’s surrender; it continues. When his fellow villagers succumb to the general trend, justify the war effort and indulge the ruling dispensation with greetings of “ hail Hitler,’’ Franz finds himself isolated. He occasionally makes his dissent publicly evident. Such instances mark him out as a traitor, a position that is – to his detractors – worse than enemy. All this, when he is guilty of no crime and his only fault is that he doesn’t tow the Nazi line. The resultant atmosphere is like an ever tightening noose around him and family; a sense of approaching gloom constantly creeping up on them. His wife stands by him. Eventually, Franz is ordered to report for work with the army. Although very attached to his family, he is sufficiently angered by the spinelessness all around, to report for duty with the explicit intention of making his dissent known to the authorities. Lined up for inspection after reporting, he stands out from among the recruits for not saying the ritual “ hail Hitler.’’ This and what happens thereafter, form the subject of the film, a biopic.

Terrence Malick is known for his visually impressive movies, often having strong philosophical and spiritual undertones. That idiom is strong in A Hidden Life. Every frame of the film captures your attention. Each of them is a study in poignant loneliness, which is the price human beings pay for standing by their beliefs.  Even in the utterly beautiful mountain landscape that embellishes many of the frames, the loneliness and vulnerability of the main protagonists shine through. You sense the abject difference between the spiritual meaning of existence as borne by the link between self and universe and the tiered descent to compromise that happens with higher and higher levels of human organization, from self to family, community and nation. There is no judgement by the film; there is just empathy. It is a study of predicament. There isn’t one moment when the director’s art flags. For the same reason, this isn’t an easy film to watch. It moves slowly, almost at the pace of human breath. I was patient. To my mind, notwithstanding its tragic story (not an easy trajectory to handle amidst depressing lockdown), A Hidden Life is one of the best films I have seen in recent times. It is memorable for its sheer quality and the periodic balancing of its tragic narrative with the love you sense in its carefully shot frames. It is also memorable for the relevance it holds for our times in the early decades of the twenty first century, when the tendency to worship massive human formations, fancy autocratic governments and force the individual to fall in line are all back in vogue.

Be patient with this film. Your patience will be rewarded.

The film is available on Disney-Hotstar.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)    


This image was downloaded from the film’s Facebook page and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Let put it in plain and simple terms – some films are relevant.

Just Mercy is one.

Well-acted and directed, this 2019 film is based on the real life story of a person serving time on death row although he isn’t guilty of the crime he is accused of. It offers insight into the trumped up charges (how they were engineered) and the legal battle that followed to get him released, including the intimidating atmosphere lawyers endure to ensure justice. The film also informs you of how in many cases, death row became a parking spot for people dealt with unjustly by the system. Framed and with their appeals thwarted repeatedly by a prejudiced system, they languish in prison. It is the exceptional who hold themselves together in one piece.

The story is based in Alabama, US. For the contemporary viewer, it acquires impact given the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement and the simple fact that society anywhere on the planet is never far from the edge of injustice. It is a grim film particularly relevant for geographies that have seen or continue to see the type of forces portrayed in the plot. Above all, it tells why the law exists, what a lawyer means and that deep down, even the wrong doers tend to reflect and correct, however reluctantly that may be. But the price of such reluctance is steep. Innocents die while others rot in prison for years, for no fault of theirs except as the prosecution sometimes says (and gets away with): he had all the appearance of a guilty individual or all the signs of being a criminal. That dependence on perception conveniently overshadows the diligent lawyer’s question: where is the evidence?

Life in lockdown has stripped away my appetite for special effects and comic book heroes. They remind too much of excess. On the other hand, simple, bare films featuring people and their lives have been attracting as idiom for the times. It was that instinct, which made me click on Just Mercy when it showed up on Amazon Prime. It didn’t disappoint. And I didn’t mention that comic books-angle for nothing. The lead character – that of Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer – is played by Michael B. Jordan who has previously starred in Fantastic Four and Black Panther. Anchoring his legal firm – the Equal Justice Initiative – is Eva Ansley, portrayed by Brie Larson, known best for her role as Captain Marvel. Here, you see these actors for what they are genuinely capable of. Acclaimed for Ray, remembered for Django Unchained and with a detour to the Electro of Amazing Spiderman-2 in between, Jamie Fox plays Walter “ Johnny D” McMillian, the innocent man stuck in death row.

This is a film worth watching for what it is and to also reflect a bit on the many things the human being can be, ranging from the one who frames to the one who saves.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)       


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The cross country event proposed for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games will be a mixed team relay featuring 15 countries, the World Athletics Council has confirmed.

“ Each team would be composed of two men and two women. Each member of the team would run two legs of the 2.5km course, alternating between male and female athletes as each athlete completes the 2.5km course and hands over to a teammate,’’ a press release dated July 30,2020, available on the website of World Athletics, said.

According to it, World Athletics will meet with the organizing committee of Paris 2024 in the near future to work out further details of the proposal. World Athletics, president, Sebastian Coe he expressed delighted at the prospect of cross country returning to the Olympic Games 100 years after it last appeared at the 1924 Paris Games.

“ My love for athletics began with cross country,’’ he was quoted as saying. “ When I joined my first athletics club, Hallamshire Harriers, the club president was Joe Williams, who ran in the last Olympic cross country race in Paris in 1924. It would be hugely symbolic for this wonderful athletic discipline to return to the fold after a century, and for a new generation of runners to fall in love with the glorious challenge of running off-piste,” Coe has said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)


This image was downloaded from the film’s Facebook page and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Do you shape the journey or does the journey shape you?

That’s a question creative people often confront. I don’t know if the makers of the 2017 documentary The King had a theme to chase or whether the chase served up a theme. My hunch is it was more the latter. Whatever the reason, this is an outstanding documentary on a familiar subject – Elvis Presley.

There was no doubt in my mind as regards what the topic maybe, when I saw the film and its title show up on Netflix. Elvis is so strongly linked to that reference: the king; he is the king of rock `n’ roll. Most documentary films about rock stars end up a carefully struck balance between puff piece and their struggles, typically the product of complex life or acquired habits. What I didn’t anticipate in The King was the manner in which the documentary explored the origins of Elvis’s music, the social circumstances that led to him and not others being the king of that genre, the many ways in which his popularity was leveraged leaving him a brand and eventually a commodity and how all this probably reflected at a larger level, a nation’s aspirations hijacked by money and power and rendered hypocritical.

That’s a lot to squeeze into a documentary film of finite dimension. But The King pulls it off magnificently with its idiom of traveling through Elvis country in the king’s own Rolls Royce and chats with singers and actors recorded as they ride in the car. None of those participating in the documentary – they range from Ethan Hawke to Alec Baldwin, Mike Myers, Chuck D and Emmylou Harris – hold back on what they think of Elvis. This makes the film natural and engaging. The musical genres Elvis promoted were not new; some of his songs were sung by others earlier and sung pretty well too. Even the car comes in for scrutiny – if Elvis was as representative of the American Dream as he was marketed to be, why did he keep a Rolls Royce? It puts the spotlight on what ingredients constituted the Elvis phenomenon. How did genres and lines that were already existing become a hit when sung by him? And in proportion to how things worked for him, you realize why it didn’t work for others. Little by little, the film, as it unravels the imagery around Elvis, unravels alongside the progressive decline of the original American Dream – life, liberty and happiness. The values the country once evoked appear lost through emphasis of money, companies and empire building, not to mention the steady propagation alongside of misleading imagery by a powerful entertainment industry.  The picture of America became that latter synthetic facade. A yawning gap opened up between it and reality. The King is as much about Elvis as it is it about what happened to America.

A few things made this documentary interesting to watch. First, as viewer, you live in the present with questions about America born from the social inequality and turbulence you saw happening there over the past few years.  Second, as you deconstruct the Elvis-image you see how much the above mentioned situation has remained simmering and unchanged through all those years.  Third, this film is not only absorbing for its subject but also for how it was made. It has an organic, evolving-on-the-go feel, which – when you think about it – is possible only if the creative mind is complemented by courage. Finally, work of this sort makes you respect America. Such films – and others, more hard hitting and on more sensitive topics – wouldn’t be made if room for critical perspective shrank as it is has in some other democracies currently diluting freedom of expression.

This is a documentary worth watching.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)     


This image was downloaded from the Internet and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

As mentioned before on this blog, one of the lockdown induced-drifts I experienced was an appetite for films that told a human story in an uncluttered idiom, free of special effects. The algorithms at streaming media platforms are pretty good these days and soon enough, Disney-Hotstar recommended the 2005 television film Warm Springs. It proved to be a rewarding experience at many levels.

The film depicts a stage from the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States. It picks up from the 1920 presidential election campaign, in which Roosevelt is the Democratic Party’s candidate for Vice President. At this point, Roosevelt is a picture of possibility. He hails from a well-known influential family, has had access to good education; is wealthy and married to Eleanor.  In the election however, his side loses. The Republicans gain a landslide victory. Roosevelt takes the defeat in his stride. It does little to dampen his spirit or invite introspection. He carries on as before, included therein being an affair with his wife’s secretary, Lucy Mercer. Eleanor discovers the affair and it causes severe strain on their marriage. A divorce is prevented by Roosevelt’s domineering mother, Sara.

Around this time, Roosevelt is struck by poliomyelitis. The disease leaves him paralyzed from waist down. Besides being a personal setback, the impact of paralysis is amplified by the effect it can potentially have on his political image and career. It seems the end of Roosevelt the politician. However, his political advisor Louis Howe believes, that needn’t be the case. In his assessment, the loss at the 1920 hustings had served to catapult Roosevelt to the national stage. He and Eleanor stand by Roosevelt during the period of his illness, drawing up plans to keep the extent of damage a secret and at the same time doing what they can to keep Roosevelt’s name afloat in political circles, including forays by Eleanor into the women’s suffrage movement. The film’s real story revolves around Roosevelt’s journey to a spa resort in Georgia and his subsequent stay there trying out hydrotherapy as means to improve his condition. Impressed by his progress and inspired by the people he meets, he decides to acquire the property in the hope of creating a center offering the therapy to those in need. It is a period that restores his faith in himself and also mends to an extent, the soured relationship with Eleanor. The film concludes with his return to active politics.

Aside from the fact that polio too is caused by a virus, what made this film relevant amidst COVID-19 lockdown, was Roosevelt’s tenure as president of the US and the curiosity to know what all went into making him the person he was. Beyond being the longest serving president of the US, Roosevelt is associated with his service to the nation during two critical periods – the Great Depression and World War II. The Great Depression began during the presidency of Herbert Hoover, with the Wall Street Crash of October 24, 1929. Roosevelt became president in the depths of the depression and it was under his leadership and the programs his government introduced, that America began clawing its way out of economic downturn. His interventions, while effective, were not welcomed by big business. The website notes, “ By 1935, the nation had achieved some measure of recovery, but businessmen and bankers were turning more and more against Roosevelt’s New Deal program. They feared his experiment, were appalled because he had taken the Nation off the gold standard and allowed deficits in the budget, and disliked the concessions to labor. Roosevelt responded with a new program of reform: Social Security, heavier taxes on the wealthy, new controls over banks and public utilities, and an enormous work relief program for the unemployed.’’

As an outside observer, you wonder – how did a person born and raised in elite circumstances come to embrace such an approach and lead his country out of an economic crisis? For me, now tackling the economic consequences of COVID-19 lockdown, that was the dominant instinct while watching Warm Springs (the film is named after the place where the spa resort stood), which scans a small but important phase of Roosevelt’s life. The film didn’t disappoint, unraveling in its sweep, the personal suffering Roosevelt endured on account of polio, the society he encountered in the conservative south, the fellow disadvantaged souls he attracted to the spa resort and the inclusive community he built there. As a politician, he was already a people’s man albeit withdrawn since the polio episode. In addition to his own transformation through hdrotherapy, what you notice in the film, is the change to the social circles he elects to connect with and learn from. You get a sense of cocoon breached and world seeping in. The film has a solid cast with Kenneth Branagh as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Cynthia Nixon as Eleanor, Jane Alexander as Sara Delano Roosevelt, David Paymer as Louis Howe, Kathy Bates as Helena Mahoney and Tim Blake Nelson as Tom Loyless.

Warm Springs remained dear to Roosevelt’s heart. He died during his fourth term as president. He was in Warm Springs when the end came.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)