TIMMY FAILURE: MISTAKES WERE MADE

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

For some of us, lockdown has meant back to basics; courting the life simplified.

To put it in terms of cinema, I found myself avoiding many of the special effects laden, gizmo-totting stuff of recent years lauded for the billions they minted at the box office. Suddenly it felt too much for my ageing processor. Probably because there was anyway COVID-19 around to depress me, I also avoided dystopian themes – be it dystopia by futuristic technology and fascism, or dystopia by stories of annihilation and extinction, some of which incidentally showcase virus attacks. No thank you – one virus is enough. Instead, clean, uncluttered frames of nature and human stories began to appeal. Plus, I found myself happily watching films meant for children; they seemed unabashedly original.

When I read the synopsis of Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made on Disney-Hotstar, I wasn’t sure what I was getting into although I sensed the main protagonist with polar bear-partner had an inviting Calvin and Hobbes ring to it. I stared at the still photograph announcing the film for a while and then said, “ affirmative.’’ In I went into the world of Timmy Failure, a boy on the edge of entering middle school, living and breathing the life of a detective. He is very serious about the detective agency he runs from home in partnership with his polar bear-partner, Total; their agency is aptly called Total-Failure Inc. Timmy lives with his mother, who he is close to. Constantly seeing himself as professional detective running a sleuthing agency, he speaks the jargon, dreams of shifting into a bigger office and tells his mother who has a low paying job that his agency will hire her for ten times the salary. That is the Failure ecosystem and the incidents that unravel, form the film’s story. The film is based on Stephen Pastis’s book by the same name; Pastis has authored seven books in the Timmy Failure series.

I loved the movie for its wonderful mix of life and fantasy and its unapologetic portrayal of the same. That word – unapologetic – it is important because when you become middle aged like me and slowly shed the weapons and armour you accrued for living the adult life with its many exigencies (making sense being one), you fully appreciate the value of childhood. That was one phase when you could be yourself and not give a damn, which is the tussle dawning in Timmy’s life – he is on the verge of going to middle school and it could require sacrificing his detective business for the compulsions of normal life. Winslow Fegley plays the title role of Timmy and Ophelia Lovibond appears as his mother Patty (if you are a Sherlock Holmes fan, you will remember her as Kitty Winter from Elementary). Wallace Michael Shawn brings Timmy’s teacher, Frederick Crocus to life while Craig Robinson dons the role of his school counselor Mr Jenkins. The casting is perfect right down to Kei as Charles “ Rollo” Tookus, Timmy’s best friend. This 2020 film is directed by Tom McCarthy (he is a director, screenwriter and actor) whose previous work includes well known films like Up and Spotlight.

Let me restrict myself to saying just this much and suggest instead: watch the movie.

Try it.

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

MAUDIE

This poster was downloaded from the Facebook page of the 2016 film. It is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

The film ` Maudie’ came to me during the COVID-19 lockdown.

That made a difference.

It is like what happens when after years of consumerism, you are sat in a quiet spot free of such stimuli. First the starkness hits you. Then as the withdrawal symptoms ebb, you grow acquainted with newfound bareness. Later, your adaptation to bare environment authors its own Spartan idiom. You discover how effective the clarity is. Intended or otherwise, that is what I felt taking in this film set in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia. It’s was a refreshing idiom, a style gaining popularity as filmmakers search for a distilled simplicity to tell stories effectively in age of mind numbed by excess. The vignettes of hard rural life, the plain dwellings, frames with few people, moments conveyed in full and the spacious landscape alternating between an autumn-look and snow covered world, all add to the idiom’s effectiveness.

The film tells the story of Maud Dowley, who was born with birth defects and developed rheumatoid arthritis that eroded her mobility, particularly her ability to use her hands. You find her living with her aunt Ida. Maud is an awkward young woman with a physical language that hints of withdrawn life and shyness but a quiet demeanor that is as determined as those better born than her. While her personal story unfolds gradually through the twists and turns the narrative takes, what is clarified early on is her wish to take charge of her life instead of having others fit her into the generally accepted patterns of society. At the local store, she overhears Everett Lewis, a fish peddler, seeking a cleaning lady to take care of his house. Maud secures the position in exchange for room and board.

Thus begins an initially rocky but progressively affectionate relationship between the rough fish peddler and the awkward woman, who brings to bear on the man’s life a touch of color with her capacity to paint and a sense of order because she can write and keep accounts. In due course, Maud’s talent for painting – she graduates from simple drawings on the walls of the house to illustrated cards and paintings – becomes the stuff of income for the couple. Thanks to a few patrons and the news of her work spreading thereby, she becomes known. The couple gets married. You also see the role of provider slowly reversing; Maud becomes the busier half, Everett does most of the jobs around the house. From erstwhile lord of the house with Maud subservient to his commands, Everett transitions – at times grudgingly – to supporting Maud. It is an engaging study of character, all the way to film’s close. The 2016 movie is a biopic; it is based on the life of Canadian folk artist Maud Kathleen Lewis (nee Dowley).

Sally Hawkins (of ` Shape of Water’ fame) plays Maud while Ethan Hawke stars as her husband, Everett. It is a sterling piece of acting from Hawkins; Hawke supports well. Directed by Aisling Walsh, the film (I saw it on Netflix) builds up slowly and maintains a steady, unhurried pace. If you are the sort who has been using lockdown to reflect on life, then this film is a good watch. It stills life to moments and goes into the heart of what happiness is; how much of everything you need to be happy.

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

LEAVE NO TRACE

This image was downloaded from the Facebook page of the 2018 movie. No copyright infringement intended.

A film with two good actors.

One of them, I was already familiar with from earlier movies watched.

I had seen Ben Foster in the 2007 film ` 3:10 to Yuma’ and the 2015 movie on Lance Armstrong, ` The Program.’ I knew what to expect. Thomasin McKenzie was an unknown quantum. I hadn’t seen the 2014 concluding installment of ` The Hobbit’ trilogy or ` Jojo Rabbit’ of 2019. Seeing her confidently hold her place next to Ben Foster and in some ways, even set the tone for the lovely film I was watching, was a lesson in grace. The film was ` Leave No Trace,’ released in 2018 and since, highly acclaimed.

The film revolves around a father-daughter duo, who elect to live away from human settlements. The father is a war veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); regular life is tough for him to endure. The daughter is home-schooled. She has a sense of awareness, sensitivity, independence and responsibility that can only be described as advanced for her years. They make their home, camped unseen in the depths of a forested park. It is illegal to do so, on public land. They take care to keep their presence invisible to others, except a few similarly camped on the periphery, who Will (the character played by Foster) sells painkillers to.

Thomasin McKenzie in Leave No Trace (This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the movie. No copyright infringement intended.)

The cocoon is disturbed after the daughter is noticed by a visitor. Authorities intervene. As the film illustrates the difficulty faced by the father-daughter duo trying to integrate into society as authorities wish them to, you wonder – why can’t otherwise peaceful people be left alone? The question becomes even more relevant as investigation by authorities reveals that the daughter has been brought up well. It becomes less a case of abnormality and more of incongruity with world as we know it. At the same time, it is also clear that the extreme lifestyle of the father-daughter duo is not ideal. It has its shortcomings and the daughter’s progressive choices reveal the balance with settled life she personally seeks; it is an equilibrium different from the harsh ethic pursued by the father escaping PTSD. It is a very reflective film; one that will be enjoyed in proportion to how much leash you gave yourself to question life.

Directed by Debra Granik, the movie (I saw it on Netflix) is affectionately shot. The two lead actors have done a brilliant job. Not having seen her work before, I found myself reading up on Thomasin McKenzie after watching ` Leave No Trace.’ She is without doubt, a major talent. As Will returns to life in wilderness, he is seen on the trail and then veering off it into the surrounding vegetation. It is an aerial shot that includes in its frame the sprawl of nature. The leaves and branches shake a while betraying person who stepped off trail. Then, the canopy reverts to what it was – a calm, green, cover; its secrets secure within its fold.

This is a beautiful film. See it.

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

EDIE

This image was downloaded from the Facebook page of the film. No copyright infringement intended.

There is life, and then, there is how you should live life.

The first is a blend of existence as it is and world as perceived by our sense organs. The second is a blend of individual sensory perception and opinion from the human collective; in fact, more of the latter. Most of us get entangled with the second approach. We are busy living life as it should be lived. Till one day, you wake up and ask yourself: what did I do to my life? My one shot at existence?

That one day came to octogenarian Edith (Edie) Moore in the phase following her husband’s demise. Her daughter, with whom she has a strained relationship, plans to shift Edie to a retirement home. The elderly woman resents it. The juncture invites reflection. Following a wild childhood that she thoroughly enjoyed in the company of her father, Edie had got married to George, a man with a very controlling nature. Thanks to him, she had been unable to go on a climbing trip with her father to Suilven, a mountain in the Scottish Highlands. Two days after their argument on the subject, George got a blood clot that rendered him invalid; “ he never walked or talked for thirty years until he died. And dad died not long after George had his stroke. So that was that, I never went.’’ Edie took care of George and her daughter but in the process, was denied her own life. Now in her eighties and beset with her daughter’s plans for her, the widow decides to take up that old trip to Suilven.

This is the premise of the 2018 movie, ` Edie.’

It is a beautiful film with Sheila Hancock in the role of Edie and Kevin Guthrie (remember him from ` The English Game’?) as Jonny, a young man who offers to lead Edie up the mountain.  What makes this film particularly meaningful is the way the narrative mixes straightforward story telling with contemplation on what happens to us in life. Sometimes the choices we make, hijacks our journey to the expense of all other possibilities. This is what happened to Edie in her younger days. She was reduced to being care giver and taken for granted. In her old age, she is a concoction of the rage in discovering that her best years were wasted, the frustration of being unable to feel young again (and be honorably treated while trying it) and eventually, the delight in undertaking an almost monastic pilgrimage to Suilven, a motif capable of restoring dignity to her existence. This is not an outdoor film in which, the rules of wilderness are strict and unflinching. There is an element of affection for the main protagonist, a sense of nature and heavens being supportive. But it doesn’t matter for the underlying warmth and compassion of this movie shot in great landscape, is refreshing.

This is a good film to watch (I saw it on Disney-Hotstar) especially in these days of lockdown due to COVID-19. Stuck at home and counting the hours, we have been reflecting on life. There is an Edie in each of us, seeking release.

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

TAKING CHANCE

This image was downloaded from the Facebook page of the film. No copyright infringement intended.

I had no expectations when I clicked on ` Taking Chance’ on the streaming platform, Disney-Hotstar.

I was well, taking a chance.

The 2009 television film was based on a true story. It portrays the experiences of Marine Lt Col Michael Strobl as he escorts the body of fallen Marine PFC Chance Phelps (posthumously promoted to lance corporal) back to his hometown in Wyoming from the war in Iraq.

Aside from a black screen with just audio betraying the sounds of war at start, there is no depiction of war in the film. It is all about chronicling the movement of a body accompanied by escort to its eventual resting place at a cemetery.

Kevin Bacon as Lt Col Strobl speaks only as needed. If you didn’t know the actor from earlier films, the movie would have felt 80 per cent like a documentary, which it is not. It is a recreated account, filmed almost like a documentary and the effect of that economy in narrative style and idiom is stunning.  On the one hand, it is a truthful representation of how the body of a fallen soldier is escorted home in the US. You see the attention to detail as the body is made ready for transport at the mortician’s. The film’s story is also a bit extraordinary for it is not routine for the body of a PFC to be escorted by an officer. Lt Col Strobl volunteers for the job and the journey becomes an insight – for protagonist and audience alike – into how the civilian environment responds. At every juncture people seem quick to understand; they know protocol, they display their concern for the military, show their respect for fallen soldier.

For Lt Col Strobl, the journey also serves as opportunity to reflect because unlike the soldier he is taking home, following action in the First Gulf War he had asked for and got a desk assignment in the US to be close to his family. He feels ashamed of that and admits the same to a veteran of the Korean War he meets in Wyoming. The latter tells him not to feel so; he is as good a soldier as the one who lost his life in the line of duty and there is nothing to be ashamed of in loving one’s family. The revelation for me in this film was about how much set traditions tell stories by themselves. You don’t have to wrestle with life and squeeze out a narrative. Sometimes, life speaks. All that the film maker has to do is listen and document. The resultant idiom is frugal and apolitical. That is what makes ` Taking Chance’ brilliant. There is no question of the film having conveyed anything except what it said. It is a passive form of film making – maybe even an active choice to stay passive – and won’t meet the requirements of every story. But after years of the media squeezing out stories from life, this approach felt refreshing, relaxed and dignified.

` Taking Chance’ will remain one of the best films I have seen in recent times; recent because I was seeing it more than a decade after it was released. Besides the very structure and production quality of the film, there is another reason for my feeling so. The film is proof of the power of economy in military narrative. People love their soldiers. They always will. You don’t need to remind them. Civilians live ordinary lives. But as Lance Corporal Chance Phelp’s journey showed, they will emerge from the woodwork to honor the fallen.

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

WHEN SOME OF US LOST SCREEN SPACE

Irrfan Khan (This photo was downloaded from the actor’s Facebook page. No copyright infringement intended)

What makes a good actor?

There is no one answer.

For the generation preceding mine, a great film and actor therein usually entailed drama. The elders grew up imagining family, men who protected, provided and were larger than life. When things became emotional in story (which was quite often) their actors sang, danced or emitted fiery dialogue, mediums within medium to amplify the drama. The realities shaping me were different. The world had become so overcrowded and competitive, that playing the old role of guardian either drained you or distracted you from better things to do. Women had become assertive and independent.  Not everyone dreamt of raising family. Many of us were no longer galloping on horseback for conquest and imagery. We didn’t want to. It wasn’t irrelevant for human being to right-size, even down-size and be part of the woodwork. We existed and were noticed only when we let ourselves be.

Needless to say, with this for my reality, I generally avoided Bollywood, still pushing king sized life. Not to mention – those inevitable song and dance routines, big, fat weddings and stylized feudalism. There were exceptions but you know what exception means; it isn’t the rule. One such exception was the 2012 movie – ` Paan Singh Tomar.’ That was the first time, I really noticed Irrfan Khan or maybe I should say he let me notice him. It was a good film (its production quality could have been better) and for me, easier to digest than the muscular, sharp-edged format the Milkha Singh biopic of 2013 embraced. Set in the past with matching period quality to movie, the sight of Irrfan Khan running on track harked of the simple, understated elegance seen earlier in films like ` Chariots of Fire.’ As the film on the athlete-turned-bandit faded from my memory, so did thoughts of Irrfan Khan. It was easy to live with his performances. He was already appearing in foreign productions – by end 2012 there were the ` The Namesake,’ ` Slumdog Millionaire,’ ` The Amazing Spiderman’ and ` Life of Pi’ – and his restrained style never threatened to settle like a big star or unquestionable institution in my head. In September 2013 a remarkable and utterly down to earth movie, ` The Lunchbox,’ released. It was a delightful film. I still recall leaving the theater thinking how beautiful Nimrat Kaur looked and with Irrfan Khan’s Saajan Fernandes, comfortably etched in my conscience as character emerging from Mumbai’s woodwork to grab my attention and then, disappearing back into it. That emergence and disappearance is just what life in big city is. Two years later, in 2015, it was ` Piku.’

By now, there was a pattern defining Irrfan Khan to me. He was a talented actor with capacity not to have any of his performances rest heavily on my mind. His was the very opposite of the dramatic dialogues to self in mirror, dialogues with God and eloquent speech before villain that were the hallmark of old Bollywood and still refused to vacate space totally. Irrfan felt light. Even the foreign productions he acted in were executed differently from traditional expectations. In years gone by, it was assumed that the barrier between Indian actors and opportunities in Hollywood was language; how you spoke English. Native diction was leveraged to either show servility and backwardness or invite mockery. Irrfan’s roles paid scant respect to that concern. He spoke English in the foreign productions confidently and as best as he could without straining to sound Hollywood-ish. You saw him hold his ground. From trying to impress, we appeared shifting to substance; defying stereotypes. For me, as viewer, that was yet another instance of him reflecting changed realities.

Another way of putting it would be: Irrfan was fantastic at being us; faceless and nameless with subtleties for high points, a dead eyed look to seem insensitive or a reluctant smile to convey connection and empathy. Like good writing, he went beyond immediate business paradigm deciding fame and reward, and perfected the craft. No fat, just lean delivery – that became his style. Embellishment was there, but sparse. He was a natural at working magic with less. All of this completely contrasted Bollywood’s known idiom of cliché and exaggeration passed off as acting. The last film starring Irrfan I saw was ` Karwaan.’

Irrfan Khan was in many ways, the cure Bollywood sorely required. Select vernacular film industries in India had already experimented with reality and changed. But a large section of Bollywood as well as portions of vernacular film industry reluctant to severe their umbilical cord with the old, were still battling inertia. They continued subjecting change to tradition and market, a situation aptly summed up by the late Rishi Kapoor when he pointed out that the market gets what it wants. The likes of Irrfan and the films they elected to act in conveyed hope of change. With Irrfan’s passing on April 29 a section of us – a section often denied expression by Bollywood – lost its face on screen.

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

 

LESS FOOTBALL, MORE HISTORY BUT ENGAGING NONETHELESS

This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the TV series. No copyright infringement intended.

In 1999, actor-producer-director Robert Elmer Balaban asked film director, Robert Altman, if they could collaborate on a country house murder mystery. Altman chose Julian Fellowes, British actor and writer, to prepare the screenplay. The result was the 2001 movie, ` Gosford Park.’ Besides being murder mystery, it was a study of the British class system of the 1930s as outlined by the owners of the country house, their guests – all of them upper class and wealthy – and the staff taking care of their needs. Featuring an ensemble cast, the film was a commercial success. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won Fellowes an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Almost 20 years later, the Fellowes touch – reminiscent of Gosford Park’s class study – may be tangibly felt in the TV series ` The English Game,’ released on Netflix in March 2020. The series wherein Fellowes has contributed to both writing and production, examines British football of the 1870s. At that time, it was a game controlled by the upper classes with social confrontation brewing thanks to an army of talent assuming shape in the ranks of the working class. The upper class, cocooned in tradition and comfort, treats the game as an extension of their lifestyle and licence to dominate. The working class, struggling to make ends meet, sees it as avenue for self-expression, an opportunity to level the social field and increasingly, as means to move up in life. At the heart of that last option is the early lot of talented players, paid money to represent working class teams. Given prevailing rules (it is the years before professional players became acceptable), such deals have to be kept a secret and when eventually sniffed out, critics view it as contamination of sport by commerce. Today, professional players and club transfers are part of football. The story as told by the TV series unfolds through an array of characters representing the class divide along with three footballs teams illustrating the predicament – Old Etonians, Darwen FC and Blackburn.

I haven’t seen ` Gosford Park.’ But the urge to read about that film and catch what little I could of it from the Internet was pronounced because well into ` The English Game’ it became evident that it wasn’t about football wizardry; it was about showing us a stage in the game’s evolution in the UK. The beautiful game is here a vehicle for acquainting us with a slice of old history, well emphasized therein being the class divide of early football and how view of world by sport eventually shifts perspective for those loving the game. Talent knows no class and you cannot stop the march of talent. ` The English Game’ is a well-made, well-acted series that should additionally interest audiences in India for a small detail tucked away in two inaccuracies related to the sport’s history, cited on Wikipedia.

The first inaccuracy in depiction of historical facts relates to overall time. The series gives the impression that its narrative happens in one season while in reality Ferguson Suter – one of the two main protagonists – took six seasons to be part of a FA Cup winning side. Second at the time of the incidents portrayed, Blackburn (shown as one team in the series) had two teams – Blackburn Olympic and Blackburn Rovers. The former is noteworthy as the first team from the north of England and the first from a working class backdrop to win the FA Cup, the country’s leading competition. This occurred in 1882-83. But Blackburn Olympic did not enjoy such success afterwards. The following year Blackburn Rovers won in the final and in the year after that, Olympic lost to Rovers in the second round. When the Football League was formed in 1888 with rule alongside that there could be only one club from each town or city participating, it meant Olympic out and Rovers in for Blackburn. In September 1889, Olympic shut down. In 2010, the Indian conglomerate V. H. Group with headquarters in Pune, bought Blackburn Rovers for 23 million pounds.

All in all, ` The English Game’ is a series worth watching. It captures a period of transition in the game; a transition well encapsulated by Suter’s observation in the series that if Blackburn isn’t allowed to play (over hired players present in its line-up) then those suffering won’t be just the players but also working class supporters, who after days of arduous work look forward to world recast by the talent of their local football team. See this series for early English football and a sense of what changed it. Not to mention – amid the wealth and big stars of today’s football, the series reminds you who actually forms the bedrock of support for the game.

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

FROM NOWHERE TO MILLIONAIRE

This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the TV series. No copyright infringement intended.

Among the many types of stories out there, the one about the underdog has always appealed.

We like a win. When the journey to victory is a case of clawing your way up from the bottom of the heap, we applaud. That’s the attraction in such stories.

The TV series ` Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker,’ released in March 2020 on Netflix falls in this category. It tells the story of Madam C. J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove), the first self-made African American woman millionaire in the US. The series is based on the biography, ` On Her Own Ground,’ by A’Lelia Bundles.

The TV series picks up Sarah Breedlove’s story at that stage in her life when she is trying to sell Addie Monroe’s “ Magical Hair Grower’’ in St Louis, Missouri. The year is 1908. A washerwoman, struggling to make ends meet, we are told through flashback that Sarah had suffered from severe dandruff and hair loss. It was a condition commonly found in the community, particularly among its poor sections having no access to good quality housing. To compound matters, her then husband – John Davis, was abusive. That’s when she meets Addie Monroe, also African American, who has a cream she made that can fix the hair problem. It works for Sarah. Impressed, she takes it upon herself to be a saleswoman for Addie but the latter – she is much better looking than Sarah and believes that looks matter for selling products – discourages the washerwoman and tells her to stick to her existing profession. This angers Sarah. She creates her own line of products, which given her new marriage to Charles Joseph Walker is sold under the brand: Madam C. J. Walker. That’s also how Sarah who begins to identify herself more and more with her work to the expense of all else, prefers to be called.

The story revolves around Madame Walker’s struggles as a woman, a woman of color and a wife, to steer her business to success. Funding is a big challenge. Hair care products for colored women don’t appeal to the men who control money.  Further, she is an unheard of woman and enjoys no recommendation from well-known names in society. But that does not dilute her drive. Sarah does not hesitate to dream of building up scale – setting up a factory – and becoming a millionaire like some men had already done in the US. The obsession creates rifts between her and her husband (Charles Joseph Walker is her third husband). And all the while there is the competition posed by the better looking Addie and her hair care products. She is as ambitious as Sarah and willing to play dirty to achieve her ends. Sarah’s story is as much rags to riches as it is a close look at old school capitalism. Above all it gives you a peek into what enterprise meant to a woman – a colored woman – those days; the difficulties she faced and the resolve she had to dip into to motivate self and achieve.

The casting is spot on and Octavia Spencer has done a damn good job, essaying the lead role of Sarah aka Madam C.J. Walker. The travails faced by the woman entrepreneur come through. However it must be pointed out that the narrative in the TV series is not completely true; some liberties have been taken with the characters. For example, Addie Monroe is a fictional character based on Addie Malone, who actually existed and was among the earliest African American woman millionaires. In real life, Addie – she too was in hair care products – is not said to have been as villainous as she is made to seem in the series. Also, Sarah’s daughter is portrayed as a lesbian in the series; in real life, that wasn’t the case. Wikipedia mentions both these departures from the truth.  The departures add spice to the story, especially the competition between the two women entrepreneurs, which provides palpable tension for several episodes of the series.

There is also a mild absence of the regular magic you associate with underdog stories mainly because Madam Walker’s character is firmly rooted in the human. We see her marriage to Charles Joseph Walker fail; as she becomes more involved with her work, he feels neglected and indulges in adultery. He also demands his share of importance given the business bears the Walker surname although the hard work and relentless commitment to enterprise is mostly his wife’s. It would seem the price every independent woman hauling the cross of tradition is forced to pay. But despite her own ascent through unflinching focus on business, Sarah ends up demanding a baby from her daughter for a business without heir is journey without purpose and continuity. Fiction or otherwise, at that point the modernity and liberalism you associate with the Madam Walker story falters before it is restored to dignity through recourse to adoption.

All in all, a fantastic story and a pretty well made TV series. It is recommended viewing, whether you have ample hair on your head or much less like me.

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

COOLER

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The other day I found myself thinking of the 1963 film ` The Great Escape.’

I saw it as a schoolboy. I also remember a book – it was a compilation of articles from Readers Digest – procured by my cousin’s family, which narrated the real story that inspired the movie. The film was hugely popular. For me, the bulk of its appeal revolved around Captain Virgil Hilts, the character played by Steve McQueen. I was too young to understand the gravity of war and the value of freedom. To my schoolboy brain, the act of tunneling one’s way to freedom from a Nazi prison camp resembled a cat and mouse game; an exciting one. It was another dimension added to the war comics and adventure novels that boys of that age indulged in. I loved the footage of Steve McQueen trying to escape on a motorcycle.

As I aged, the list of war movies I saw grew and my perspective became more critical. Both The Great Escape and films made so attributing a brand of smart bravery to the main protagonists, lost some of their old sheen. I began suspecting an element of playing to the box office in the film, which despite the holes critical gaze pokes in it, ranks even today among my all-time favorites.  Impressions from childhood are difficult to alter!

The Great Escape slipped into my imagination recently, in an unexpected way.

Cambridge dictionary describes the usage “ having a ball’’ so: to enjoy yourself very much. According to the website theidioms.com, “ having a ball’’ has its origin in the British culture of throwing balls (dances) in the 1900s. “ They would throw one to get to know each other in the society, show off their wealth or merely to have some fun in the times where entertainment as such, was not given priority in daily lives,’’ the website explained. If that be true, then in my opinion, that is a rather late association of the word `ball’ with fun. According to Wikipedia, the first authoritative knowledge of the earliest ballroom dances was recorded in the 16th century. On the other hand, by virtue of the fact that it moves, rolls, flies through the air and represents tremendous possibilities, the idea of ball as used in games, is older. From animals to human beings, everybody has fun with a ball. Its irresistible. Ideally, “ having a ball’’ should have originated from that simple, easily accessed fun; not some stylized dance. But then ` ideally’ is well just that and etymology is not always rooted in the ideal.

As the lockdown due to COVID-19 graduated from novelty to routine with commensurate alteration to the human experience alongside, I realized that I didn’t have a ball in the house. Given life in apartment complex, a tennis ball would have been apt. Bouncing it off the ground or a wall, while likely nuisance to the neighbors, has a calming influence. Not to mention – it improves eye muscle coordination and is, fun. Somewhere deep in the brain, a neuron fired and Steve McQueen’s Captain Virgil Hilts floated up in the imagination. Frequently dispatched to solitary confinement, Hilts – in the movie – was called “ The Cooler King’’ (cells holding just one prisoner were called coolers).  He would go in with baseball glove and ball, sit on the floor and pass his time bouncing the ball off the cooler’s wall. That’s how the movie signs off too. After most of those who escaped are killed or returned to camp, Hilts is locked up once again in the cooler. The guard, who is walking off after putting the prisoner in his cell, pauses to listen to the sound of ball hitting the wall.

This film poster was downloaded from the Internet. It is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Released in June 1963, The Great Escape became one of the biggest hits of the year. It won Steve McQueen the silver prize for best actor at the 3rd Moscow International Film Festival. Over time the movie – it was directed by John Sturges – acquired the reputation of being a classic.

In May 2006, The Guardian published an obituary for Squadron Leader Eric Foster. It noted how on the night of March 24, 1944, roughly 76 years in the past from our times lost to lockdown, Stalag Luft III near Sagan (north of Breslau, now Wroclaw in Poland) became venue of the biggest British led Prisoner of War (PoW) breakout during the Second World War. Three tunnels were dug – Tom, Dick and Harry – with Harry (the longest tunnel) accounting for 76 escapees. Three made it home, the rest were captured. Of them, 50 were killed. The story became well-known after the publication in 1951 of Paul Brickhill’s book: The Great Escape. The movie was partly based on the book. Eric Forster served as adviser to the filmmakers; he had been PoW at Stalag III but was not part of the famous escape. However the obituary mentioned at least three other attempts to escape from various PoW camps after Foster’s plane was shot down in June 1940 and he was taken prisoner. There were instances of solitary confinement. According to the obituary, he eventually faked madness and was repatriated home in 1944.

The Great Escape’s Captain Virgil Hilts is a fictional character.

Foster’s experience served as background material for the character.

Squadron Leader Eric Foster died on March 26, 2006, aged 102.

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

LOCKDOWN BLUES

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

One talent that is a blessing in times of lockdown is the ability to play music.

Ahead of COVID-19, the world was a very busy place. Not having time for anything other than work was perceived as sign of person’s success or potential for success. As lockdown took hold, many of us were thrust into the unfamiliar territory of having time, not knowing what to do with it and even if you did repeating some routine or the other, not knowing how to manage the monotony. Being creative – like being able to compose music – can be a gift for such challenging times. It keeps you engaged.

In early April, Mumbai-based rock climber Franco Linhares, shared a video of him essaying bouldering moves using the furniture at his house. Given their appetite for climbing moves and tendency to infuse daily view of world with hunt for such possibility, climbers have been known to ascend the outside of buildings (it is called buildering) and attempt complicated moves on chairs and tables. It is a way of challenging oneself and having some fun. Franco, 69, titled his simple video devoid of any background score: Lockdown Blues.

The name begged music for not only is the blues an engaging genre of music but the present times of people restricted to their homes for weeks to prevent infection is a study in pathos. It is perfect substratum for the blues. Decades ago, the genre was born from the suffering of people working the plantations and railroads of the US. Few styles in western music pour forth human emotion and feelings, likes the blues does. No matter how politically correct you wish to be about lockdown, there is no denying the human experience as you sit cooped up in your house, weathering the hours and days while a virus stalks the spaces beyond, you once roamed. Why not sing about it?

Late that evening, Franco sent across one more video. This time, it was Ernest Flanagan singing Lockdown Blues, lyrics credited to Prabhakar Mundkur. A subsequent search on the Internet yielded further perspective. Lockdown Blues appeared to be a generic series inspired by pandemic with plenty of versions and no genuinely convincing beginning to the trend (to borrow virus jargon: it may have an index case but I couldn’t trace it). The versions available ranged from raw, bare and personal in the tradition of the blues, like Prabhakar’s (uploaded on YouTube April 5, 2020) and Ernest’s (uploaded on YouTube April 10, 2020) to humorous, reflective and musical-like as Dominic Frisby’s (premiered March 31, 2020) to upbeat, sounding like a band and close to studio quality as the version performed by Shannon Rains (uploaded on YouTube, April 3, 2020). Plus the search yielded a Wikipedia page for a song called “ Lockdown Blues’’ by Danish band Iceage but it released on April 2, 2020, by when thousands of people had already endured lockdown for weeks in various parts of the world, some of them likely singing about it too. In fact, on April 9, 2020 Tamil rapper Arivu posted a feisty number titled “ Vanakkam Virus,” his take on the lockdown and its impact on the economically disadvantaged. By mid-April major names in the music industry overseas, were also getting into the act of connecting with world under lockdown. There was the One World: Together at Home Concert organized in collaboration with Lady Gaga that saw many artistes take part. There was also news from Pink Floyd that starting April 17, the band will stream its full length archival concerts for free, every Friday.

A longstanding pianist and jazz musician in Mumbai, Ernest is known to pen poems and lyrics on a frequent basis. He likes it when lines rhyme. On the internet you come across videos posted by friends, of them singing his songs. Associated in the past with well-known names in the Indian jazz scene, Ernest’s last job was with the financial institution IL&FS. Until it sank into troubled times, with corresponding retrenchment of employees, Ernest had been pianist playing every evening at the lobby of the institution’s headquarters in Mumbai. “ It was a dream job,’’ he said. He lost it in December 2018. A year and three months later, India was in lockdown to combat COVID-19. Ernest was no stranger to the blues. On YouTube, you will find a delightful little blues number he wrote and sang called ` Kickback Blues,’ posted October 2019 on the Jazz Goa account. Naturally, he channeled the lockdown experience. “ I wrote my version of Lockdown Blues and sent it to some of my friends hoping they would sing it. For some reason, nobody took it up,’’ Ernest said when contacted in mid-April. In the meantime, ad industry veteran Prabhakar Mundkur wrote his version of Lockdown Blues and posted a video. It was a brief take (about a minute and a half); it was also rather bare in terms of arrangement. Ernest then sang his version of Prabhakar’s song.

He introduced two differences. Being adept at keyboards he was able to infuse the song with that impression of band playing along.  He also added some lines to the lyrics. Ernest’s version is longer and its lyrics have a circular structure with the whole song running like a conversation with a nurse; a cry for help. Someone who likes to do things well, Ernest said he was not happy with the audio quality. He wished he had access to a studio (Kickback Blues, which has superior audio quality, was recorded in a studio). “ For Lockdown Blues I had to sing with one hand on the keyboards and the other pressing the recording icon on the mobile phone screen,’’ he said, adding, “ there’s only so much you can do from home.’’

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Thanks to Franco Linhares for sparking off this rendezvous with the Lockdown Blues.)