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

It is often said in journalism that the best stories are those that were there right before us but missed being told and therefore stayed unknown till reported.

This line of perception works magnificently for the 2020 documentary The Social Dilemma.

We know its subject and core argument well but decline to examine them because we are too immersed in digital world to wish for an autopsy of that existence. You can blame the avoidance of close inspection on convenience, benefits (including monetary ones) accruing from networking, personal benefits outweighing concerns of damage – whatever you want. Fact is the avoidance of seeing our digital world as exactly what it is has created an even greater dearth of articulation around the problems it poses. It is a case of not desiring to talk and therefore, not possessing the means for it. All communication in this regard is still born or ritualistic.

Compounding the issue is the tyranny of life by business model. Business models bring their own compulsions partial to monetization and are often dismissive of humaneness and human interface. Not to mention, the generation bridging world without furious digitization and the one born to it, hasn’t arguably respected its intuition or spoken up enough. Later generations are therefore growing up with the phenomenon of digitization internalized; they are increasingly bereft of alternative perspective.

As some would argue, the core issue in the wake of world swept by technology and money is brutal dominance by one type of imagination. It has become such a plague that countering it is a massive challenge; the challenge begins with the very format for questioning dominance – it isn’t enough that you complain, you must speak the language of those inflicting the damage and present the case for correction in their idiom. This has for long been the gap between problem and solution; the ones experiencing the problems are wired one way, the ones authoring the problems and who are also expected to fix it, are wired another way. The gap has also eroded the merit of intuition, reducing what you feel in your bones to the status of an evolutionary discard. The only way out in this battle of competing convictions is if whistle blowers and other such concerned individuals in the technology-money establishment speak up. They know how their edifice works, what its wiring and jargon are. Getting such folks to speak up and anchor the documentary is this film’s biggest strength. You hear it from the horse’s mouth. Revelations like successful technology managers ensuring that their children have only limited access to mobile phones while the rest of the world bundled as market is encouraged to do the opposite, exposes the hypocrisy.

Not surprisingly, their articulation wouldn’t seem entirely complete in establishment’s eyes. The troubles dissidents nurse about the establishment and the absence of comprehensive solution they hint at betray potential dead end. We are too deep into the tunnel to withdraw; plus let’s not forget – the technology explosion provided real benefits too. So, where do we draw the line and how? Except in the case of one or two of those interviewed, solutions are not forthcoming. But that isn’t bad at all for the questioning and the reluctance to blindly toe establishment’s line that it inspires, are the missing link, the long awaited check. Will it work? Or will it be another call in the dark? Only time will tell. The Social Dilemma is one of the best documentaries in recent times about our digital, networked world and the problems it poses.

This is a very timely film; available on Netflix.

Watch it.

(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.

For some time now, Malayalam films have played around with new topics, engaging characters and different styles of narration.

Still I wasn’t sure how I would weather C U Soon, despite the 2020 movie being repeatedly recommended by a good friend. I had heard of its narrative style dominated by computer and mobile phone screens and its largely indoor ambiance. None of this works with me. It’s the sort of blend that triggers a mental claustrophobia. Not to mention, I would be watching it in COVID-19 times after months of being confined to one’s apartment and the immediate neighborhood. Would I want the same restricted ambiance and submergence of life in things digital, served up on screen for my entertainment too? Paradoxical as that may seem, it sums up life over the past several months. If there is anything I want, it is to get out and magically go back to the life I once had.

So it was with much trepidation that I got around to sampling C U Soon one day. As it happened – I watched it in one go. It held my attention. The idiom worked – it was something I didn’t expect; the experience left me amazed. In retrospect, I think it was the novelty of the format, a plot good enough to sustain viewing and a particularly good performance by Darshana Rajendran with Fahadh Faasil, Roshan Mathew and Amalda Liz anchoring the rest that did the trick. It was a taut film with little flab; it sped along under its own steam.

Wikipedia provides the production timeline of the film, described as India’s first “ computer screen film.’’ According to it, in June 2020 Mahesh Narayanan (he wrote the film’s screenplay) announced that his next venture would be an experimental film. The movie would be shot on a mobile phone and the location would be an apartment. Filming was completed in August; the film released on Amazon Prime in September. It is thus very much a child of pandemic and the progressively relaxing phase of lockdown; a milestone of sorts in domestic film making, I would imagine.

That’s more than one reason to see it.

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


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

BlacKkKlansman tells the real life story of an African American undercover detective of the Colorado Springs police department who, along with his colleagues, manages to infiltrate and expose the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). That’s the film’s summary as gleaned from the Internet after I watched it. I saw the movie with no idea of what lay ahead, except curiosity to know what a film with Adam Driver in the lead cast, held. The incredible story was therefore a complete discovery.

Directed by Spike Lee, the film – it won the Grand Prix at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay – is well made with a sense of underlying tension running all through. It features John David Washington in the role of Ron Stallworth, the undercover cop. Although based on the book by Stallworth, the script has plenty of departures from it; there are liberties taken. So what we end up with is a blend of fact and fiction, none of which however, takes away from the utter audacity of the main plot. This is a film about racism; it is also one that exposes the ridiculousness of presumptions and stereotyping. Plus it is a reminder that notwithstanding exposes of this sort, racism continues to tarnish human society.

My first instinct after watching BlacKkKlansman was to search for the 1988 film Mississippi Burning. It happens – you watch one film and then you develop this urge to revisit something similar you watched years ago. My memory of the Alan Parkin classic starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe was frayed at the edges; refreshing it seemed apt. Unfortunately I couldn’t locate it on any of the streaming platforms I have access to. But based on what I remember, my assessment is – that is a film with a more serious, gripping ambiance. It deals with an incident but equally highlights the issue. Spike Lee’s film is more specific to incident and has its moments of abject nervousness and statement of things as they are. But the overall delivery is accompanied by a stylized swag, which even if it is ephemeral and fleeting, tends to somehow sap the gravity of the whole. But it’s an interesting film overall; not to mention – Harry Belafonte in what should to be his first appearance in a feature film since Bobby of 2006.

This is a film worth watching; available on Netflix.

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


Photo: Shyam G Menon

I don’t know about you, but the one thing I cannot live without is music.

It has been my constant companion through ups and downs in life.

Music complements the other thing I value greatly – freedom.  Increasingly humanity has shrinking respect for freedom. It is being swept aside by the march of money. There have been many songs about freedom. No I am not talking of patriotic songs. I am talking of songs that celebrate freedom as an attribute to be cherished without need for any cause. Freedom does not require a reason to be important; it is important as it is. Why else would the physical universe be so immense? Why else, when we are in chains, do we have the ability to close our eyes and find that same universe within?

Everybody has their favorite song evoking freedom. I don’t dig lyrics much. I am more somebody who identifies with songs because they attract aurally. You find release. For a long time – practically since the first time I heard it in the late 1980s when the album The Joshua Tree was released, U2’s Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For stayed with me, an anthem for existence. In later years, Traffic’s Dear Mr Fantasy became a favorite, especially the live version by Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton from their concert at Madison Square Garden with its soaring lead guitar. Amidst pandemic and lockdown, Chris Rea’s Set Me Free emerged another favorite. Hope you like it.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Among major shifts accompanying COVID-19 and lockdown was Work from Home (WFH). Initially it was heralded as the digital future. Now, we are worried if it may end up an annoying blend of neither the best of office nor the best of home.

Over the past few months, periodic interactions with friends and relatives threw up concerns about WFH; especially long hours of work given employee is anyway at home and available on call. The boundary between home and office has increasingly blurred. With time we may retract to a more enlightened form of WFH. However, there are challenges. Currently, there is more money in an inch of technology than a mile of human life. In world by money, we just can’t be sure what will eventually triumph. In the meantime, as with many things beyond our control, the best option we have is to laugh at our predicament.

The recent past has for some reason drawn me closer to the music of Chris Rea, the British rock and blues artiste. His debut album was in 1978. In the late 1980s, somebody gifted me his album: Dancing with Strangers. It had the hit song Let’s Dance. From then on, I have listened to his work on and off. But of late, I have grown to genuinely appreciate his style. A talented guitarist, he keeps his music simple. His compositions often evoke a sense of space and momentum (a good example being that beautiful song: Set Me Free). I like this idiom of peaceful, spatial and moving in a world becoming more and more complicated and congested.

Working on It was a song he released in 1989.

Here are the lyrics:

Oh how I’d love it girl, just you and me

Take the day and fly

But oh this job, it’s got the best of me

Tell you why, tell you why

Somebody above is in a desperate state

Some kind of urgency, the kind that won’t wait

I say tomorrow, he say today

And the man in my head well he tell me no way

Keep working

I got eight little fingers and only two thumbs

Will you leave me in peace while I get the job done

Can’t you see I’m working

Oh, oh I’m working on it

Oh, oh I’m working on it

Well they’re coming from above me

And they’re coming from below

Yea they’re in there right behind me

Everywhere that I go

And my buddy, he’s screaming down the telephone line

He say gimme, gimme, gimme

I say I ain’t got the time

Oh, oh can’t you see I’m working on it

Oh, oh I’m working on it…

A few days ago as I revisited this old song, I felt it could be an anthem for our WFH days.

Use good headphones, speakers.

Turn up the volume.

Bass matters.

Amidst WFH, shake a leg.


(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 violation intended.

Many of us would know the name: Pierre de Coubertin.

How many of us have heard of Ludwig Guttmann?

The first is considered the father of the modern Olympic Games. The second is among those responsible for the Paralympic Games. In recent decades, the Paralympic Games have been typically held in the same host city as the Olympics, after the main event has concluded.

As you learn more about it, you realize that there is practically nothing to qualify the Paralympics as less than the Olympics unless your judgement is based on notions of mainstream, normal and majority – all of which nudge imagination towards a sense of physical and mental ideal. If challenge, hard work and determination are what author great stories from the Olympics, then such attributes are equally strong at the Paralympics. In fact, challenge may be more because the athletes overcome tremendous physical and mental hurdles before they are able to perform, leave alone finish on the podium. Yet the story of the Paralympic Games and that of the athletes participating in it, have always lived in the shadow of main and ideal.

This is what makes the 2020 documentary film Rising Phoenix essential viewing for anyone fond of sports. It gives you an inside view of the Paralympic Games – its genesis under the leadership of people like the German born British neurologist, Guttmann and the struggles the organizers and participating athletes endured in their life. It tells you of the step motherly treatment traditionally meted out to the Paralympic Games by society, which saw them as a cosmetic ritual – sort of corporate social responsibility – balancing the perception of the Olympic Games instead of genuinely valuing the drive, energy and commitment of the differently abled athletes. The Soviet Union, host of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, declined to stage the Paralympic Games; it was subsequently held in Arnhem, Netherlands. More recently in the run up to the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, the Paralympic Games were nearly canceled for want of funds. There have been other similar examples of cavalier treatment – instances of the Paralympic Games held to very few spectators in the stadium – as well as islands of endearing support like the 2012 Games staged in London. The Games in London is the largest Paralympics held to date with a record 2.7 million tickets sold. At Rio too, once the Paralympic Games got underway there was tremendous enthusiasm and crowd support; over two million tickets were sold.

While the modern Olympic Games held under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee, began in 1896, the Paralympic Games – as an athletic event for the disabled, coinciding with the Olympic Games – started only in 1948, when British World War II veterans participated in the International Wheelchair Games in London. The Paralympics acquired its distinct stature as an apex championship open to those other than war veterans, only in 1960 (Stoke Mandeville Games, Rome; it is seen as the first Paralympic Games). Its Olympic year editions started being held just after the quadrennial Olympic Games in the same host city or country as the Olympics, in the years following the Rome event and more reliably so by the late 1980s. As per data available on Wikipedia, India has participated in 24 editions of the Summer Olympics to date and won 28 medals in all (it hasn’t won a medal yet in the Winter Olympics, although it took part in 10 editions). It participated in 11 Summer Paralympics (it hasn’t participated in the Winter Paralympics yet) and won 12 medals, including four gold.

Rising Phoenix is available on Netflix. Among the athletes featured in it are Tatyana McFadden (she has participated in both summer and winter Paralympics with the bulk of her medals won in the wheelchair track and field category; she has also won elite marathons in the wheelchair segment), Bebe Vio Beatrice (wheelchair fencing), Jonnie Peacock (running), Ntando Mahlangu (running and long jump), Ryley Batt (wheelchair rugby), Cui Zhe (powerlifting), Ellie Cole (swimming) and Matt Stutzman (archery). Each of them comes alive as a composite of personal story, interview and footage of training for their sport and actual performance at the Paralympics.

Don’t miss this film.

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


Chadwick Boseman. Photo credit: Sam Jones. This image was downloaded from the actor’s Facebook page and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

In June 2019, Hollywood actor, Denzel Washington, was awarded the Life Achievement Award of the American Film Institute (AFI).

Among those who spoke at the function was Chadwick Boseman, the actor we all remember for portraying the comic book hero, Black Panther.

At the AFI ceremony, Boseman recalled the time Phylicia Rashad, his teacher at Howard University, contacted Washington for assistance in funding the studies of nine theater students who had been accepted to a summer acting program at the British Academy of Dramatic Acting in Oxford. Washington agreed to help.

“ As fate would have it, I was one of the students that he paid for. Imagine receiving the letter that your tuition for that summer was paid for and that your benefactor was none other than the dopest actor on the planet. I have no doubt that there are similar stories at boys and girls clubs and theaters and churches across the country where I know you have also inspired and motivated others. An offering from a sage and a king is more than silver and gold. It is a seed of hope, a bud of faith. There is no Black Panther without Denzel Washington. And not just because of me but my whole cast, that generation stands on your shoulders. The daily battles won, the thousand territories gained, the many sacrifices you made for the culture on film sets through your career, the things you refused to compromise along the way, laid the blueprints for us to follow. And so now, let he who has awarded be awarded, let he who has given be given to. It is an honor to now know you, to learn from you and join in this work with you. May God bless you exceedingly and abundantly more in what’s in store than he ever has before. God bless you,’’ Boseman says in the video available on YouTube. A teary eyed Washington listens.

It’s now time to remember the one who remembered to say the above.

Chadwick Boseman died on August 28, 2020 after a four year-battle with cancer. He was 43.

The last film I saw featuring him was Spike Lee’s Da 5 Blood. Previously I had seen him in Black Panther and some of the films from the Avengers franchise. On Wikipedia, Boseman’s career in films spans 2008 to 2020. It was in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War that he essayed the role of Black Panther for the first time. It was his first film in a five picture-deal with Marvel. The 2018 film Black Panther would later cement his status; the film currently ranks fifth in Wikipedia’s list of the highest grossing superhero movies with over 1.34 billion dollars earned at the global box office.

News reports about Boseman’s demise mentioned that he had been battling cancer for the past four years. According to a brief statement on his passing, available on his Facebook page, movies like Marshall (2017) and Da 5 Blood (2020) were filmed in the period that he underwent surgery and chemotherapy. What I will remember him most for is the struggle and dignity resonant in the words he spoke at the 2019 AFI ceremony. It was easily one of the most graceful and touching speeches of that genre heard at award ceremonies. Among those present was Michael B. Jordan, Boseman’s costar in Black Panther, who essayed a memorable role in the 2019 film Just Mercy. In the AFI video, as Boseman concludes, the audience gives him a standing ovation. Roughly a year and two months later, he would be no more.

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


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

“ In the end, if you are a racer, you are a racer. It’s a bug. It gets to you.’’ – Frank Williams

It was one of those coincidences.

The day I finished watching the 2017 documentary film Williams on Netflix, news broke that the Formula One racing team – it was in talks to rope in an investor – had been acquired by an American investment firm: Dorilton Capital.

Reports said, the name of the team based in Grove, UK, will continue unchanged. That should make anyone admiring passion and independence, happy, for Williams is one of the great stories of Formula One; great not just by performance but the determination it showed to keep going despite the odds. Given it was languishing in the lower half of the points table these past few years one may call the acquisition news of August 21, 2020 as expected. That would be a cold way of looking at things. What genuinely matters is the retention of the Williams name. If you take it off, a whole angle disappears from Formula One; that of the independent teams, founded and surviving not on the strength of capital, but interest in the sport.

A good documentary film is like that book you purchase despite everything gone online. There is something of a lasting value to it. The film Williams falls in that category. It tells the story of the Formula One racing team bearing that name and in the process gifts you insight into the sport, a man who became an institution in it, the people around him and how that life in racing left its mark on all of them. Motor racing is an expensive sport. Frank Williams wasn’t born into wealth or high society. He was attracted to cars from a very young age and instead of pursuing higher education, struck out on his own, including dabbling in auto parts and performance cars. Much of his earnings, dovetailed into Frank’s single minded focus on racing. His was a case of passion building a journey step by step, till following a stint as racer himself Frank eventually builds a Formula One team; the one carrying his name.

The film – like all films working within the limit of its length – is tad sketchy on the travails Frank faced in the initial years and for sure they would have engaged, for he is an outsider in a capital intensive sport ruthlessly partial to performance. It goes on from there to cover the first set of race victories that the team enjoys, including in between the early success (with Pierce Courage as driver) and the later poor showing and subsequent divestment to a Canadian investor. By the time the season that saw the investor come aboard, concludes, Frank is shut out from his own factory. It sinks him into a depression of sorts, release from which occurs only with a return to pursuing his dream of racing by starting a new team with Patrick Head. A few years into the championship victories that come the team’s way, Frank Williams suffers an accident. It leaves him a quadriplegic.

To adequately comprehend what this loss of mobility meant, one must note – Frank’s other great interest was running. He was into running marathons. Frank fights his way back to being by the race track and watching his team at work, from a wheel chair. The team he co-founded would win nine constructors’ championships and seven drivers’ championships at Formula One, as of August 2020. It is a journey entailing tonnes of human experience ranging from Frank’s early struggles to keep the team going, the drivers who race for him, the great drivers who lost their lives doing so, the scars it leaves on the team principal and eventually, his own accident off the track. Yet for all this drama, Frank Williams is a person totally lost to racing and his mission of managing a Formula One team. He lives and breathes that life.

The lives of intense people in intense sports, has often been the subject of riveting books in the biographical space. Less heard of, but as important – if not more important – have been the accounts of those who inhabited the surrounding ecosystem, without who, very likely the main protagonist wouldn’t have accomplished as much as he / she did. Among great stories told in mountaineering, has been the the sport as beheld by mountaineers’ spouses. They are as much affected by the risk associated with the sport; they are also among those enduring an utterly changed life when accident strikes leaving climber maimed or dead. What renders solidity to the documentary Williams is the inclusion of the memoirs of Virginia Berry, Frank’s late wife and the presence in the film of his daughter Claire Williams, who becomes deputy team principal. Virginia helps with resources in Frank’s struggling days; she is the one who takes care of him after his accident. Her memoirs – it runs like a spine for the narrative – serves as useful material to highlight the human story behind an obsession with racing; the toll it takes on a family.

I watched Williams after viewing Formula 1: Drive to Survive and A life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story (in that order) – all on Netflix. It was a trinity that helped put the sport often rendered remote and extreme by its glossy marketing, in perspective. Just one observation: as an independent team that built its own cars, cut a reputation for itself at Formula One, had its share of struggles raising resources and even became a publicly listed company, the story of Williams exceeds the dimension of a documentary film. It should be a mini-series.

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


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

“ Trying to be the best in everything? I agree with that. But never believe you are the best.” – Fangio

There is sport as we know it today and there is sport as it used to be. It sounds clichéd. I know. But an overview of the contrast is essential grounding as otherwise we would be building castles in the air. Somewhere in the first quarter of the 2020 Netflix documentary A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story, former Formula One world champion Mika Hakkinen describes his experience of driving the car Fangio raced in, “ it is amazing, the effort it takes to drive the car.’’

Fangio’s heydays on the circuit were in the 1950s. The Argentine driver was Formula One world champion five times, a record subsequently beaten by Michael Schumacher. He raced with four teams – Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Mercedes Benz. But it is the state of racing he endured that amazes above all else. Fangio’s early promise was in football. After completing his military service, he opened a garage and in 1936, commenced a career in racing, driving a Ford that he had rebuilt. That last bit is a defining characteristic of Fangio’s approach to the sport.

A modern Formula One race is for instance a demonstration of how a team works like an orchestra, perfectly conducted. While the young drivers push their cars to dizzying speed, what matters equally is the efficiency of support crew during pit stops. If you watch a pit stop in slow motion, it is a lesson; both in terms of the coordination displayed right then and the thought, preparation and rehearsing that may have gone into it. Fangio’s formative years were in South America’s touring road races. As some of the early footage in the documentary shows, racers at such events drove carrying spare parts and extra cans of gasoline. There was no support crew, no teams of mechanics on call to address a breakdown. The typical driver was a combination of driving and maintenance skills.

This backdrop, from which Fangio came, contrasts the imagery of modern day circuit racing, where every ingredient is handled as distinct silo with specialists for the purpose. Indeed a distinction mentioned in the documentary about Fangio is his ability to race at Formula One, comprehending the limits of his car and try preserving it to the end. He knew how to sense the thin line separating an engine pushed to the limit from potential breakdown. The above quality made Fangio the sort that worked collaboratively with his team. You see in the documentary the early form of the pit stop. In those days of Formula One, a crew of mechanics dedicated to each car wasn’t available. When signing up with the final team of his Formula One career, a clause Fangio wrangles is that his car would have a dedicated mechanic.

Further, one of the hallmarks of modern day motor racing is the high level of driver safety afforded by advancements in technology. I watched the documentary on Fangio after savoring the Netflix series on Formula One’s 2018 and 2019 seasons. The latter had spectacular accidents with cars flying due to the force of impact. In all those accidents – except one – the driver concerned emerged unscathed. Such advancements in technology were not there in Fangio’s days. Accident fatality rate was high. It was humbling to listen to racing greats like Jackie Stewart and Alain Prost recall in the documentary, the number of fellow drivers killed. Having said that, it also appears to have been a gentleman’s age compared to the cut throat competition of today. At one of the races, Fangio’s car develops a flaw that cannot be rectified. He finishes the race and wins it in a car that a team mate gladly surrendered for his use.

Fangio’s story is also different from a couple of other angles.  The current line-up of drivers in Formula One is young. Fangio was middle aged by the time he got to Formula One. Here’s what Wikipedia’s page on Fangio says: Fangio was the oldest driver in many of his Formula One races, having started his Grand Prix career in his late 30s. During his career, drivers raced with almost no protective equipment on circuits with no safety features. Formula One cars in the 1950s were very fast, extremely physically demanding to drive; races were much longer than today and demanded incredible physical stamina. Tyres were cross-ply, and far less forgiving; treads often stripped in a race, and spark plugs fouled.    There were, of course, no electronic aids or computer intervention. At the end of a GP, drivers often suffered blistered hands, caused by heavy steering and gear changing.  Fangio was born in 1911. His first time at the World Championship of Drivers was at the 1950 British Grand prix; he was 39 years old then. His last time on the circuit was at the 1958 French Grand Prix; aged 47. His success with a variety of teams also stands out. Few drivers have repeated that since.

There is a point in the film on Fangio, when Juan Manuel Fangio II (Fangio’s nephew and a former auto racing champion himself) says, “ if you want to be efficient in today’s cars you need precision. If you wanted to be efficient in the cars from the 50s, you needed art. Now like I always say, if you add precision to the art from the 50s, the result is a world champion. If you add art to today’s precision, the result is also a world champion. So what we need to do is to add to each period what that period was missing.’’ A Life of Speed: The Juan Manuel Fangio Story is available on Netflix. It is an engaging documentary to watch before or after the Netflix series on the 2018 and 2019 Formula One seasons. It doesn’t matter whether your understanding sprouts up from the seed or downward from the tree branches; what is important is that it has roots.

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


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

For a long time I was cold to Formula One. So why am I writing a review about a documentary series on the event? That’s because the said series has been crafted superbly and walks a thin line, which in retrospect I find, explains why I was unmoved by the sport and why I believe, I have begun to understand it.

If there is one word I would use to describe the 2019 Netflix series Formula One: Drive to Survive, it is: pressure. That attribute fills every ounce of the sport. For me, it worked as key unlocking a puzzle. My tryst with Formula One was as visits to the home of a gainfully employed friend, who, aside from time spent with family and friends, breathed the corporate life. Every time I was at his house watching a TV screen showing cars going round and round on a circuit, I would wonder: what’s so great about this?

A freelance journalist with feet in wider reality (and not owning a car to boot), I found the sport to be a rich man’s game; one that cost big money to host and wherein, the equivalent of a backpack damaged while hiking or a shoe worn out by running, was a smashed up car. When that happened, they just threw away the broken parts, found new ones and continued driving or, they wrote off cars and rolled in new ones. It appeared sheer materialistic excess. Perhaps I was being needlessly judgemental; committing that classic human error of looking for meaning where there is none. Anyways, something wasn’t connecting. All the while, my friend’s eyes stayed glued to the telecast.

Watching the Netflix series and stumbling upon pressure as the missing link eluding me, I felt the puzzle explained. The whole paradigm of high performance cars, quick driver reflexes, million dollar investments and large companies for players is accompanied by both prospects of tremendous possibility and, accountability. The result is a pressure cooker environment in sport that isn’t any different from the regular corporate ambiance. There is a hill (a points table) to climb every season and the urge, clearly, is to reach the top. The racing team may have the driver for poster boy and popular star. But given there are two drivers in each team and they must prove their mettle to stay indispensable, the mutual competition and insecurity can eat their innards. The real power is the team principal and the power behind the power is brand and financier; none of this – rules and variables influencing rules – lost on those accepting corporate logic. Very often, the fate of otherwise talented drivers is decided by this brew. I think I now understand why Formula One attracted my friend and others like him. Besides being intense sport, it probably endorses the professional space they inhabit.

I also understood the specific visceral pulls working within that larger attraction, the biggest of which is the raw act of driving at very high speed. At such speeds the stimuli we normally process for making decisions, appear and disappear like a flash. Given there are 20 drivers in all at the teams, there are 19 others (call them projectiles) besides you, processing stuff at manic pace on a given circuit. Things can go wrong in seconds. It is intense. The kinetic presence of other drivers around you, their capacity for individual madness, the challenges of each course and the fact that your skilled driving notwithstanding, your car is only as good as its support by other team members – all this, authors a dynamic environment, one that is pretty much like a car engine; a symphony of several components, a sum total of parts. It is innovation, coordination and discipline. It parallels corporate in attributes and instinct. It is said of some sports that it is meant for adrenaline junkies. I would say this one is for the pressure junkies. Being in a Formula One cockpit – be it driver’s seat (where the action is) or that of the team principal (where strategy is) – is a test of how much pressure you can take.

The beauty of this Netflix documentary series about the 2018 and 2019 Formula One seasons is how it has captured and delivered the thin line defining the sport, accurately. It has little flab in narration this side or that of the line it is treading. It stays taut; drives home that pressure. This is an eminently watchable series. However expect no great investigation of the sport or effort to contextualize it beyond racing circuit. This is a collaboration between Netflix and Formula One. It makes you feel that it hits hard but actually plays by the rules; which the way the series has turned out, isn’t bad at all.

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