THE TINTIN YEARS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Many decades ago, two significant developments happened near simultaneously, in my extended family.

Two uncles, two comic strip heroes and a bunch of school going cousins – that was the context.

My uncle Narayana Pillai got me Flight 714, my first title from the series showcasing the adventures of Tintin. Until then, the only illustrated narratives I was familiar with were the ones from Marvel, DC, Indrajal and Amar Chitra Katha. They had strong following among school students, to the point that classmates with bound volumes of comic books were important people to know. I didn’t have bound volumes. Although my mother helped out by borrowing bound volumes from a local lending library, in general I suspect, my parents and grandparents held the view that comics, while popular, made for simplified narrative requiring less imagination. Reading was encouraged, purchase / borrowing of wholesome books approved. Days when the cousins got together typically featured a morning or afternoon of painting. Imagination was encouraged. A picture may speak a thousand words but the mind gets useful stretch if it can paint a picture from a word or a theme, perhaps even nothing – that seemed the approach. Into this ambiance landed Flight 714 and at the house of my cousins – Rajeev and Manju – thanks to another uncle: Sachidanand, a handful of books featuring Asterix.

It took me a while to warm up to Tintin. But you guessed it right – it took no time to like Captain Haddock. Who can forget “ thundering typhoons’’ and “ blistering barnacles’’? I also remember liking Skut for no stronger reason than that he was a pilot in Flight 714. Those days I shared a craze for aircraft with my cousin Jayu. Both of us had those small, thick Observer books with plenty of fighter planes in it and we spent time piecing together our respective air forces, which then competed for supremacy in the sky. We also made model aircraft from cardboard, Jayu being infinitely better at the job than I. Flight 714 thus landed at the correct time. My mind was ready for adventure. What attracted me to Tintin were also perhaps the size of a Tintin book and the average length of a story. Uniquely, it was bigger in size than the regular comic book. It told a full-fledged, long story spanning continents, sometimes taking two issues to finish; a sort of early introduction to the graphic novel format that would become popular decades later.

What I remember most is however something else.

Maybe it is a larger Malayali trait, maybe it is a family trait – I don’t know which of the two is correct –we had the tendency of analyzing experiences. At near fifty, I understand childhood better now. It is a phase when you have the luxury to do something because you feel like it; no analysis in the mix. Impulse and intuition are not unfashionable. Our passage to adulthood is fueled by just the opposite. We become adults by analyzing to make sense, till we become armchair analysts of all that is alive and stirring. Expectedly, my extended family put Tintin and Asterix under the scanner. The emergent fascination among the children for these two series triggered discussion among the adults. It was a discussion revolving around idea, story and artwork; we had no clue of such political details like Tintin’s origin in a Belgian newspaper identified with far right views. I remember the outcome. Asterix stayed ahead because its illustrations were bolder and had more flourish. Asterix stories with their play on characters’ names were also more deeply imagined and as the more sophisticated, layered comic book it was respected that much more because childhood is after all stepping stone to more sophisticated adulthood. None of that bothered me. I like Asterix. But Tintin is special. Something about it appealed to childhood’s idea of adventure.

My uncle probably noticed the brewing interest. His work took him often to other cities in India. Occasionally, it also took him overseas. Almost always, he returned with another title from the Tintin series. All the titles were displayed on the back of each book. So it was easy to identify what you hadn’t read and hunt for it. Tintin made me do crazy things. One of them was my scale drawing of a rocket. I arrived an evening with my father at the house of Rajeev and Manju. Their father – Govindan (he was a physics professor) – smiled and indulged me with his time and patience as I explained how my rocket would work. It was all well illustrated in the drawing on large graph paper – the fuel tank would feed the engine and my rocket would escape Earth’s gravity and be moon-bound. Why shouldn’t it? I had a rectangle with dials on it, labeled ` control panel,’ another rectangle with pipeline attached, labeled ` fuel tank’ and yet another one marked ` engine.’ That last rectangle ended in a nozzle copied from one of the jet engines in my Observer book. In retrospect it’s a good thing I didn’t join the Indian space program.

In those days of economy yet to open up like now, each Tintin bought traveled to multiple homes. At every home a kid or two eagerly lapped up the contents. Sometimes titles got exchanged at school; I will lend you my title if you lend me yours, which I haven’t read – that sort of deal. And unlike, regular comic books, which few bothered if they got misplaced or torn through lending, deals over Tintin and Asterix were deals of honor. Misplace or mishandle, you risked being branded unreliable for life. That adds a touch of mystery to how my Tintin collection – all titles acquired save four; that’s 20 out of 24 – fared, once I reached college and employment beyond. Back home in Thiruvananthapuram, not one title survives. I hope some kid; somewhere is still reading what I collected and drawing rockets and submarines. Slowly as Tintin titles became more easily available in India, we started buying the books ourselves (a visit to Kochi was always incomplete without dropping in at PAICO). One by one, we collected the titles mentioned on the back cover of every Tintin book. Then the search commenced to at least access and read titles not mentioned there; titles mentioned in Tintin lore or in conversation among his devoted fans. Meanwhile, my uncle’s children, Lakshmi and Hari, also grew interested in Tintin and started their own collection.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

I never outgrew Tintin. I can still pick up a title and enjoy browsing through it. In my adult life, the arrival of Steven Spielberg’s film on Tintin was a much awaited event. My favorite character was Captain Haddock and I was utterly curious to see how he would be on celluloid. I was disappointed and it isn’t Andy Serkis’s fault. My curiosity was in seeing which actor would pull off that role well and being an avid watcher of Hollywood films, I had even attempted some casting in the mind. As it turned out, the movie was made using motion-capture technology. That put it neither here nor there. It reminded me of the title: Tintin and the Lake of Sharks. Of all the Tintin titles I had, this one – assembled using stills from a 1972 animated film – had attracted me the least. When it comes to converting comic books to movies, I am not a fan of hybrid. After all, Tintin is not a Jungle Book, wherein modern animation technology makes animal characters life-like rendering the film a classic. Tintin sits firmly in the world of people and it surprised me that the producers deemed hybrid imagery, acceptable. I felt that was a letdown, considering Tintin has been portrayed before on stage and several other comic book heroes have been adapted brilliantly for the big screen.

In early August 2017, Lakshmi mentioned that a prominent item at Hari’s home in California is a poster of Tintin. Among his favorite shops is one where he picks up “ his Tintin stuff.’’ It made me wonder: what made her father Narayana Pillai, pick up Tintin books in an era of closed economy in India? Laskhmi’s own take on it was that her father bought it for the children in the family but he wasn’t above reading it on a flight himself! But then, unlike today when the media floods you with trends instantly, those days a comic book hero from Belgium was as distant as Belgium itself. You were compelled to read about Superman, Batman, Phantom and Mandrake because they were around. But Tintin? He didn’t have any PR machinery promoting him in the Indian media. It left the question: how did Narayana Pillai born and brought up in the Kerala of the 1940s and 50s, come to know about Tintin? He had never shared those details. A day into recollecting my thoughts around Tintin, I called up my uncle at his home in Aluva. Now in his mid-seventies, he laughed upon hearing that the phone call from nephew nearing fifty years of age was connected to his Tintin purchases from long ago. There was no loss of time in recollecting details. The bulk of the Tintin books were sourced from a book shop at the Mumbai airport of old, which my uncle visited during his business trips. “ I used to look for illustrated children’s books. That’s how I came across Tintin. I flipped through its pages and felt the characters in the book were interesting. The hero was a young journalist. When I bought my first Tintin, I had no idea how it will be. But from that one book, we moved onto many more, possibly the whole lot…Hari’s collection is still here,’’ he said. Further, in as much as he bought the books for children, he loved reading Tintin himself.

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

THE HOLMES IN US

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The only character I have come across in my readings who avoids boredom like the plague is – Sherlock Holmes.

It took me years to understand why I liked him so much. I credit the delay to our rationalization of the boring as essential ingredient for successful life. Boring is our Voldemort; we don’t speak of it lest we lose livelihood. In such a world – one that increasingly ignores what it means to have a brain – Holmes makes it alright to be you. His continued existence, even as fictitious character, assuages the sense of uselessness you accumulate for failing due to your own capabilities. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Holmes. But many others have contributed to his splendid evolution since, into an emblem of being alive.

Between film and television, I believe it is the latter that got Holmes right. The late Jeremy Brett is the best Holmes I have seen. By that I don’t mean staying true to what the creator of the character wrote; I mean more bringing the character alive. However Brett’s Holmes is in a context from the past. There have been later reinterpretations of Holmes; attempts to position him and his stories in more contemporary ambiance. My initial fling with the two TV series – Sherlock and Elementary – made no impression. I couldn’t accept Holmes as super warrior adapted for digital age or Watson as a woman. I mentioned this the last time I wrote about Holmes on this blog.

With more episodes watched, things changed.

I am intrigued by the nature of connect these series have had on me.

The connection is inspired less by Holmes and more by his immediate and extended ecosystem. That, I believe, is where the portrayal was tweaked for renewed appeal. The two series, while retaining Holmes’s known traits added new possibilities, particularly in the interplay between him and those around him. Embedded in the interplay are moments we quickly empathize with.

In social response familiar to those staying single, the detective-doctor duo of Sherlock is sometimes mistaken for being gay as they are inseparable friends. When it comes to Holmes’s life and work, Watson, his wife Mary, Lestrade, Mrs Hudson, Molly Hooper and Mycroft – all form a protective ecosystem, alternatively frustrated by the consulting detective’s sharp insight delivered bluntly and admiring it. Moriarty vacillates between being an evil character outside of Holmes to being the stuff of his own mind; a natural and inevitable counterbalance to the faculties he possesses. In Elementary, Watson is a lady doctor who accepts a position as sober companion keeping an eye on Holmes, cast as a recovering drug addict. Elementary has Holmes based in New York and assisting the NYPD. In both TV series, the police as a whole are not welcoming of Holmes. But Lestrade and Captain Gregson, as individuals, are very supportive.

There are two major factors common to both these TV series.

In an episode from Elementary, as Holmes sits nursing a fever and the NYPD texts of a dead body found in an abandoned building, Watson reminds a Holmes eager to leave for crime scene that the police don’t pay him for his services. “ Watson, you should know by now that boredom is far more dangerous to my health than any fever,’’ he replies. As scathing and unforgiving are his observations of boring world, equally strong are his slides to vulnerability. Unlike the old Holmes with cocaine and Irene Adler for vulnerability, here the vulnerabilities are many and the occasions when they are on display are also many. There is a pronounced degree of seeming misfit. You have characters being publicly sarcastic of Holmes. Recall Sergeant Sally Donovan and her word for Holmes – Freak? The name calling doesn’t hurt Holmes. It hurts us Holmes fans.  In Sherlock, he cracks up (remember the episodes around Watson’s wedding?). In Elementary, he often stands there like a person wronged. As Watson’s tenure as sober companion drifts to a close, Holmes admits in a moment of weakness that his life rendered dry and impassive by the science of deduction is not how he wanted it to be. He says that he would miss the collaboration with Joan Watson if she went away. What stifles a more direct plea for help and understanding is ego. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller – both fantastic as Holmes reinterpreted – have captured this struggle well. I found myself lapping up episodes from both the series.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The above mentioned vulnerability, which probably strikes a chord with many, has been critical to Holmes’s continued evolution and presence in our lives. I suspect the reason it strikes a chord is because so many of us, while hardly as intelligent as Holmes or given to deduction, are nevertheless in terribly boring situations and unable to do anything about it. Our capabilities are wasted. We are intellectually alone. Society attaches little value to insights beyond the mundane. Money favors that which matters for its growth and mundane fits the bill eminently. Money also likes stability. If you aren’t naturally wired for enduring this combination or lack compelling reason to tow its line, you risk becoming outcast. For some of us at least – the ones declining to endure such boredom or asking questions about it – our vulnerability stands exposed. We wish for Watsons and Molly Hoopers to emerge by our side. We crave supportive ecosystem, even if it be four or five people, which is all Holmes has. From attracting us by his riveting brilliance as consulting detective, Holmes has transformed through the past few decades to attracting us for how he pays for his brilliance – there is his loneliness, there is his isolation. Given perspective is a product of subject and beholder, Holmes’s transformation is equally a commentary about the beholder. It is a state of the world report.

Brett’s Holmes was a wonderfully engaging portrait. We peered through time into the goings on at 221B Baker Street; it was a period of syringes reused and carriages drawn by horses. In contrast, the Holmes of Sherlock and Elementary remind us of contemporary predicament. He becomes a figment of our straightjacketed brain navigating environment dismissive of its insight and creativity. The ecosystem offered by Watson and Holmes’s few other friends keep him as what he is while Moriarty, cut from the same fabric, represents what can dangerously be.

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

TWO FILMS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

I watched The Jungle Book for the first time in Bengaluru.

A successful animation film with several re-releases to its credit, I saw the movie in the early 1980s. It was screened at Rex Theatre on Brigade Road. I recalled this ahead of watching the film’s 2016 version at Mumbai’s Sterling Theatre, replete with 3D animation and contemporary movie stars providing voice to the characters. Further, keeping aside Jason Scott Lee’s Mowgli from the 1994 version, the main protagonist of Rudyard Kipling’s book was a human being on screen and not an animated character. While some people have said that the old 2D animated version is their preferred benchmark, things have changed for me – I embrace Jon Favreau’s creation as benchmark in my times with one difference: I thought Baloo’s song (The Bare Necessities) was more enjoyable in the earlier film. Maybe it’s because I was a lot younger then, less cynical, less critical and more spontaneous. Years later, as life took its twists and turns, among them bringing me to the outdoors and the mountains – I have often wondered: if not the bare necessities, what is it that I am seeking?

Image: courtesy Disney India

Image: courtesy Disney India

One knew that after Richard Parker, the tiger in Life of Pi, Shere Khan would be convincing despite animation. What one did not anticipate was Idris Elba. His Shere Khan remains for me, a force haunting Kipling’s jungle. From the menace Elba creates, flows the dark, ominous mood of the film, a trait that sets it apart from the more child friendly approach of the earlier version. But then, today’s child growing up with smartphone, is also arguably a more media immersed junior, for whom the earlier film may at best be fodder for a submission in class on how technology evolved. Of the people who voiced the characters in the earlier movie, only George Sanders was known to us at that time. In days preceding the Internet, old film magazines brought home Hollywood and Sanders was there in some of the issues I used to thumb through. Even then, a few of the voice actors in The Jungle Book, including Sanders, were no more by the time the curtain raised that evening at Rex Theatre. In the 2016 version, I could appreciate the main voices for these were actors of my time. I could also appreciate what seemed to me paradoxical choices that clicked beautifully. Thus for instance, Ben Kingsley’s voice – even and measured in how it registers aurally, seemed apt choice for Bagheera. Christopher Walken as King Loius – I wasn’t sure. Till I experienced it and felt the psychopath sort of terror – so not Shere Khan like – that Walken’s laidback, negotiator of a voice can bring. Bill Murray as Baloo was a breeze. What didn’t convince was Kaa, the python. It had one mesmerizing scene all to itself and then, was gone.

Above all, this will be for me a Neel Sethi movie. After seeing the earlier version, I was left with memories of Bagheera, Shere Khan and Baloo. With the 2016 version, Mowgli joins that list. Sethi does not essay his role harking of innocence. He brings an element of smart contemporary youngster to the frame, creating in the process, a bridge between city and jungle. I suspect, for a generation experiencing The Jungle Book in the age of reading’s progressive decline and walking as they do through its plot with Sethi’s Mowgli for company, Favreau and Disney may have replaced Kipling as creator of the story. In the business of making an impression, that is a measure of how effective you were.

In the latter half of the 1980s, I saw a remarkable film at a film festival in Thiruvananthapuram. I went to see The Mission because of Robert De Niro but came off knowing the talents of Roland Joffe and Jeremy Irons as well. For me, Irons is among the great classically trained British actors of his generation; the sort with commanding screen-presence. Indeed in his case, that presence literally lurks in the frame waiting to explode. A few things define the Irons of cinema – an apparent discipline, intensity and voice. It is hard to have him in a supporting role and not lose the film to him. But if you are a film buff, you don’t mind that for losing a film to an actor of Irons’ calibre is rarely a bad experience. That’s what happened with Race; that’s what happened with The Man Who Knew Infinity. In the latter, it also helped flesh out and establish the respective characters of G.H. Hardy (played by Irons) and S. Ramanujan (played by Dev Patel), not just for the individuals they were but also the backdrops shaping them.

Jeremy Irons (left) and Dev Patel in The Man Who Knew Infinity (Please note: this photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the movie.)

Jeremy Irons (left) and Dev Patel in The Man Who Knew Infinity (Please note: this photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the movie.)

I do not know much about Ramanujan beyond what I gleaned of him from the film. In the movie, he comes across as gifted in an almost mystic way; his mathematics by intuition versus Hardy’s math by proof, his tendency to spontaneously get started on equations and that dialogue – that his goddess, Namagiri, puts numbers on his tongue. There is always a bit of struggle in how the visual arts and directors, actors therein, portray genius. A similar struggle exists in The Man Who Knew Infinity and Ramanujan occasionally felt contrived. At times the mathematician’s earnestness, isolation and genius seemed tad overboard in the portrayal. But then like I said, I don’t know how Ramanujan behaved in real life. Those who researched know best. Wikipedia describes Ramanujan as an autodidact, a person who is self-taught. A lacuna to my mind, in the film, was the dearth of material on how Ramanujan reached the level of proficiency in mathematics he had by the time he wished to publish. That proficiency may have drawn much from things deeply experiential, like the relationship between self and ecosystem with math embedded in its living traditions. Equally, in conservative society with life and lifestyle rigidly defined, the abstract world of numbers may become a liberating private refuge. All this went unexplored in the film, which starts with the adult Ramanujan finding a mentor in his boss, Narayana Iyer.

Matthew Brown’s movie was more about the Hardy-Ramanujan-Cambridge equation. Not for a minute am I saying that the Cambridge chapter is unimportant or uninteresting. The characters in that chapter have been presented well; the ambiance created by Hardy, J. E. Littlewood and Bertrand Russell is wonderful. Had it not been for them, we won’t have Ramanujan the way he is known today. Still, Cambridge is where the man was vindicated; he was formed elsewhere. Can a story of genius vindicated be complete if the formation of genius is not explored? This film deserves to be seen. Reports said that the movie was a challenge to make because funding was hard to come by. It is a good effort and as usual, Irons is a class act.

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

REVISITING 1936

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

On the poster of `Race,’ actor Stephen James looks you straight in the eye.

A front shot of the signature Jesse Owens pose, it is an expression of absolute focus; the edge of his palm in line with his nose, splitting his face and creased forehead into two halves. Each half is defined by a raised eyebrow with an eye below preying on a distant object – a finish line. The palm, the creased forehead, the eyebrows, the eyes – they emphasise his concentration to the expense of all else.

What that poster conveys is the strength of Stephen Hopkins’s film. It tells an uncluttered, linear story that is almost a documentary on Jesse Owens. Denied melodrama, the film lets sport and its main protagonist, be noticed. Despite the light physical build of the classical athlete, his position in script is secure. The casting is balanced. The acting is right sized; a powerful actor like Jeremy Irons shines in his role but doesn’t squeeze others out. Amid the simmering race relations in the US of that time, the racist views of the Nazis and the growing danger in Nazism, sport shines through. There is the relation between Coach Larry Snyder and Owens. But I remember more other instances. There is a dialogue in the film, one that speaks the perspective of sport: when you are running there is no black and white; there is only fast and slow. In age of propaganda, we see the equation between Joseph Goebbels and filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl. When Goebbels uses a construction project to bait builder and sports official Avery Brundage, in Berlin to evaluate whether American participation is possible in a Nazi run-Olympics, we see the colour of money (a 1999 article on the Berlin Olympics, in The New York Times, mentions a 1938 letter from Germany in the University of Illinois archives, indicating acceptance of the bid by Brundage’s construction firm to help build the German Embassy in Washington). There is the amazement America’s black athletes have in discovering no separate quarters for them at Berlin’s Olympic village. Then there is that conversation between Owens and Carl “ Luz’’ Long, the German long jumper Owens beat to second position. Long reveals his disapproval of racism under the autocratic Nazis and his belief that the democratic US system is better causing Owens to say reflectively that he isn’t sure. The scene sums up the predicament of individual in collective, then and now. Race is a good film. See it.

However, a linear narrative denies as much as it shows. Owens is an athlete at times of racial discrimination in the US. Across the Atlantic, Germany consumed by notions of racial supremacy, views the 1936 Olympic Games awarded to Berlin, as an opportunity to showcase country under Hitler. America contemplates boycotting the Berlin Olympics to display its aversion for the Nazis’ racist policies and anti-Semitism even as transport buses on its own roads kept separate seats for African American people. Amid this, in 1933 and 1935 (as per the Internet) , Owens equals the world record in the 100 yard dash, becoming one of the top sprinters on the planet. Whether he should participate in the Olympics or not – easily answered in his athlete’s mind – becomes a vexing question for the African-American community. He is confused. It is a web of charged histories with athlete entangled. The film doesn’t delve deep into these trends shaping Owens’s times, even his life. Although eventual outcome is a film I found more watchable than what Bollywood served up on India’s best known sprinter, it must be said that in as much as the Indian film traded sport for the muscular nationalism loved by prevailing market, Hollywood embraced sport and breezed over history, including personal history. You suspect a more creative script may have accommodated those times better. I wouldn’t mind it even if the resultant film was called `1936.’ As sport becomes event management and event becomes the hunting ground of those seeking power, sport isn’t sure anymore what happened to it. That perennial question of individual in collective isn’t just a social, political or business question; it is a question in sport too, a question of what you lose in sport when you want sport on grand scale or want sport to prove a point.

Race ends showing Owens and his wife taking the freight elevator to attend a reception in his honour because coloured people aren’t allowed entry via the hotel’s main entrance. This is in the US, soon after he won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. There is no hint, except as epilogue in text, of what followed. Owens returned to America from Berlin with no congratulatory message from the President of his own country. His sporting career ended early. Wanting to capitalize on his post-Berlin fame, he took up some commercial offers as a consequence of which, officials withdrew his `amateur’ status.  Denied participation in amateur events and unable to sustain his reputation, his commercial offers dried up. This forced him to run for spectacle, including racing against horses. He ran a dry cleaning business and even worked as a gas station attendant. He eventually filed for bankruptcy. In 1966 he was prosecuted for tax evasion. It was after this, that recognition and help came.

When you read this on Wikipedia, you realize how important it is for a biographical film to pick up those portions of a person’s life, which tell as much of his story as possible. In Owens case it is tough to do so for he packed much into his life, not to mention, his times was equally packed with social issues and political developments. How do you make a script of it all? Problem is – the moment one heard of a film on Owens, one thought of `Ray.’ The film on the singer-musician progressively built his character. You understood from where each brick came. The Owens of Race appeared parachuted into the movie, inhabiting it for a while and then disappearing with a scene, which is the last in the film but we know is the beginning of a tough phase for the athlete. If a man’s life is a reel of film, then Race with its linear narrative, has snipped and showcased the middle.

Owens merits a Ray.

That is still awaited.

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

RHYTHM HOUSE DECIDES TO SHUT SHOP

Rhythm House at Kala Ghoda, Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Rhythm House at Kala Ghoda, Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

For many years, I worked in South Mumbai, close to Churchgate.

Sometimes too much typing on the computer got to me and I would step out of the newspaper office for diversion.

If I cut across the nearby Oval Maidan and its myriad cricket matches, then fifteen minutes walk away, was Rhythm House. It was a shop in an old building at Kala Ghoda, now the city’s art district thanks to the adjacent Jehangir Art Gallery, the pavement artists, the surrounding heritage architecture and an annual festival in the area with roads closed to traffic and open to arts and crafts. Compared to other shops selling music that arrived and closed during its time, Rhythm House was small. But it was packed with music and movie titles in the physical format. What you couldn’t find on the shelves, you ordered at the desk. I would spend some time here browsing through the collection, clear my head and return to work.

One day, I wrote about Rhythm House. The new century had arrived. Businesses overseas had witnessed massive change through Internet and digitization. The world of book shops for instance, was besieged by question marks. As book shops struggled, I wondered what was happening at Rhythm House. Hence that old story written and published in the newspaper I worked for. It failed to capture well the shop and its predicament. Maybe I hadn’t known Rhythm House long enough to tell a story. I acted in haste. But I remember the owners being concerned of what lay ahead in the fast changing market. Still, if there was anything challenging Rhythm House, it wasn’t visibly alarming for the shop was well stocked and it had customers. During festive season, the traffic built up. Besides, sales or no sales, everyone knew Rhythm House. It was a Mumbai institution.

At Rhythm House you met connoisseurs of music. Once in a while as I hung around the racks hosting music relevant to me, I would hear a customer or two ask the salesmen about specific albums or concert recordings. The salesmen would in turn indulge them in talk about the elusive recently sourced or, which can be sourced. The minor details bringing joy to collectors of music are fascinating. It is portrait by passion. You don’t sense these folks as palpably in cyberspace even though the digital side of everything is marketed as bigger meeting place. In the real world and its shops, you meet people in full and a person in full is person believable. I wrote that article on Rhythm House well over ten years ago. I subsequently became freelance journalist and in my less moneyed avatar, continued to visit Rhythm House but rarely purchased. I found relief just being there amid the music and films although I must admit, not being able to afford was progressively becoming a dampener.

Rhythm House; red board announcing Goodbye Sale (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Rhythm House; red board announcing Goodbye Sale (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

January 1, 2016. Having decided that a multiplex ticket costing Rs 400-500 to see the latest Star Wars movie wasn’t worth the strain on one’s purse, my friend Latha and I decided to go for a walk instead. Decades ago, I had watched the first Star Wars movie at a theatre in Thiruvananthapuram and returned home a fan of Han Solo. I watched the first trilogy. Then I watched Harrison Ford in all those Indiana Jones movies. Those days you could afford visiting the theatre. Now the question isn’t whether you are interested in cinema but whether you can afford multiplexes. I was a fan of Star Wars quitting at a choke point in the system called costly multiplexes. Our evening walk brought us to Kala Ghoda and the Jehangir Art Gallery, which we wished to visit. I think when you age you realize you are a traveller in the universe and therefore entitled to perspective. You find it in art, that’s why the occasional visit to the art gallery engages. As we left the art gallery, we noticed Rhythm House, distinctly less celebratory in appearance despite the festive season. When we drew closer, we saw the red board on its door: Goodbye Sale. I was shocked. Powered by discounts, the innards of the shop had been cleared out in parts. Latha picked up a rare recording of a Hindustani classical vocalist. Bill paid we got out but couldn’t leave. An institution was shutting down. We had no proper camera. So in the dim light, Latha took a photograph of the shop on her cell phone.

Unknown to me, Rhythm House’s closure had been in the media since November 2015. The articles featured musicians, music lovers, music critics, authors and other residents of the city who shared their memories of the iconic establishment. A visit to the shop’s website showed a message. Excerpts: We are the last of our city’s large format music & video stores to yield to the challenges posed by new technologies and piracy. We are set to close for business end of February 2016. We have been in the music business since 1948 and in the video business over the past 30 years or so and closing down is therefore going to be an emotional wrench for us. Many of you have echoed similar sentiments and we thank you for being with us at this difficult time.

I returned the next day to click the photos accompanying this story.

Mumbai’s art district and its music scene won’t be the same without Rhythm House.

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

AN IMPRINT FOR NOVEMBER

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Footprints are the stars of suspense and mystery.

Depending on context, a footprint can be much more than the trace of a foot or boot-sole on earth. A common contextual feeling among hikers for instance, is: I am not lost, I am not alone! Provided of course, whoever walked by is good company. Can you be sure of that? A footprint on earth is also imprint in restless brain. It is what it is and then, it is what you make of it. Or is it what it is because of what you make of it? Ha! – says Holmes, that solver of mysteries. Eyes closed; head thrown back, palms joined, a mocking smile on his lips, the triumph in needling Watson with his occasional barbed quips showing through.

One thing I know – I can’t be Holmes, for there is nothing as delightful as watching the character from far. Inhabit him and you trade that perspective for the hound’s nose glued to a trail. I’d rather be Watson capable of seeing Holmes or better still – the reader of a book or viewer of a TV serial showing them both, for Holmes with Watson alongside, is one of the finest character portrayals there is.

In my case, Holmes is an imprint in the brain.

Nobody means Sherlock Holmes more to me than the late Jeremy Brett.

I still remember my first meeting with Holmes. I was approaching middle school. Readers Digest was popular those days. Once in a while, the magazine sent out a list of the books it published, which readers could buy. There was a thick blue book with fiction abstracts and a red one. I ordered the red; my cousins procured the blue. The blue had chapters from Sherlock Holmes. Ours was a family appreciative of the creative arts. On weekends, the cousins gathered to indulge in some form of creativity. Initially it was painting; slowly that gave way to each one getting serious in some chosen passion – dance, music, reading, writing, painting, football, aero modelling, films etc. It continued till tenth standard, maybe some more. Then life, like water poured down a funnel, was recast in service of livelihood. It is like the story of mineral water; once was free, flowing water, now eminently saleable in bottle. By the time we finished college, we were just that – saleable.

Somewhere in the period partial to creativity, an evening at their house, Manju and Rajeev kept me spellbound by their narration of The Speckled Band. That was my first Sherlock Holmes story and it came from the blue book. Not exactly fond of snakes, the snake in the story left an impression, strong enough for me not to forget either the story or my cousins’ narration. For several years, Holmes stayed just that in the head – a story. I came across his collected adventures at other households in the extended family but the youngster in me wasn’t keen on a character set decades back in the past. My mother told me that Holmes was even a case of character brought back from the dead by popular demand. Such had been his impact. It failed to register for I wanted modern characters. Time passed by. The shape of Indian cars changed; the shape of household appliances changed – among them, the television. Colour TV arrived and with time, cable TV.

Among programmes telecast was the Granada TV series, ` The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ with Jeremy Brett as Holmes. It changed everything for me. I found myself keeping my appointment with the telecast that opened with unmistakable violin-notes. A simple, bare tune that resonated of an era gone by and told you clearly – get ready to be transported back in time. It was a fine series with good performances by not just the lead actors but also those making special appearances as important characters in each episode. In my opinion, the series was one of those productions in which the average quality across episodes stayed pretty high. Brett and his committed, intense portrayal of the detective grew on me. Above all, for someone sold on ` modern,’ I found myself enjoying the eccentricities of ` period.’ Everything, from conduct to language – it lingered distinct in the slower pace of the past, it cut a style. Holmes had style! When the series ended, I acquired a thick volume showcasing all the Sherlock Holmes adventures and set about reading it. There is still stuff I haven’t read, stuff I forget. I am glad it is so for it lets me get back.

Thanks to the Internet, I have sampled different actors as Holmes. None inhabited the character or created Holmes like Brett did. I don’t hold portrayals strictly accountable to what the author prescribed in every little detail. No, I don’t. That is probably why Brett impressed me so much. I was a blank slate for although I had read some of the detective’s adventures, characterization is picked up easier from an enacted piece than a written one. Brett provided a face to a figure, voice to a brain, life to a character and mannerisms, even arrogance, for recall; plus intensity. For all the logic Holmes attributes to his ability to deduce, Brett infused a crucial contrarian element to his Holmes – a touch of mystery. The sum total of what he offered as Holmes was a portrait of deduction as much enigmatic and enticing as a case delivered as question mark. It was the perfect package for imprint by image. The man was a genius; perhaps more accurately – it was acting genius unleashed by defining role. No Basil Rathbone or Peter Cushing for me and definitely no Robert Downey Jr or Benedict Cumberbatch; it has to be Jeremy Brett. Like imprint in mind authoring perception of footprint, Brett became Holmes for me. David Burke and Edward Hardwicke did an excellent job essaying Dr Watson in the series. I am partial to Burke. His Watson showed the spunk to stand up to Holmes, a sharp contrast to say, the rather bumbling Watson of Nigel Bruce.

I am not a researcher on Holmes or an academic knowing every detail of every story. I have also not been to London and Baker Street. I am sure learned discussions on Holmes and Brett may hold opinions different from mine. My journey with Holmes continues in occasional readings of the book, still enjoyed as return to character and language and every once in a while – recourse to YouTube where the old Granada series survives and Brett comes alive as Holmes to the fans he made.

Brett died in 1995.

He was born November 3, 1933, three years after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, passed away.

This is a November.

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

REMEMBERING ZORBA

???????????????????????????????Here’s an article originally published in 2012.

Seen from far, a glass of Gold Coin apple juice and a glass of whisky are not all that different. I was just about in high school. Apple juice in hand I sat in the living room of my uncle’s house in Kochi as he and my father shared a drink. On a shelf by the side, a turntable marked 33 rotations per minute. From the kitchen, the aroma of my aunt’s cooking wafted in. I don’t recall when the song was first played or what attracted me to it. But it was a request my uncle always obliged whenever we visited – Frank Pourcel’s orchestra playing `Zorba’s Dance.’

The song opened haltingly, then picked up speed and exploded to madness. There was something masculine about it. Not in a gruff, rough fashion but in a demented sensitive way lost on today’s competitive world. This song bothered about person and universe. That seemed to be its attitude – to hell with everyone and everything! It wasn’t long before my uncle spoke of Anthony Quinn and the film Zorba the Greek. He owned two versions of the title song– the Purcell and there was another energetic rendition with trumpets. I remained partial to Purcell. The original score was played with a plucked instrument, something I discovered much later.

For several years thereafter I knew nothing more of Zorba. Then one of the video libraries back home began accumulating titles from the black and white past of cinema. That library is no more there in Thiruvananthapuram but I still remember my membership number. From there I got a VHS copy of Zorba the Greek. The transition from imagery inspired by music to the actual story was jolting. I had built up this notion of Zorba as a dancing, vivacious Greek but not factored in the ambience he lived in or the story told as interaction between the two. This was serious cinema, story set in Crete far off from the US and its glamorous studios. I watched the film several times, burning into my head the mad face of Zorba; the writer Basil, played by Alan Bates and the pathos that surrounded Lila Kedrova’s Madame Hortense. I was amazed by how striking Irene Papas looked on black and white film and touched by the story of the widow – it was a universal story of the lone woman and the scene of Mavrandoni killing her could have been from anywhere. Equally universal I felt was the decline of man when in a group as personified by the villagers’ attitude towards the widow and the utter superficiality of human belonging as evidenced by the villagers stripping the Hortense residence of all things useful upon the lady’s demise.

The film was a turning point for many of its cast. The role of the santuri-playing Zorba was reckoned to be the zenith of Anthony Quinn’s career. It earned him an Oscar nomination although the two Oscars he got were as supporting actor in earlier films, Viva Zapata and Lust for Life. For Lila Kedrova, the role of Madame Hortense defined her Hollywood career. She won a best supporting actress Oscar. Alan Bates became much remembered as the gentle writer in the shadow of Quinn’s eccentric Zorba. For Irene Papas, the 1964 film cemented her presence in international cinema following as it did her appearance in The Guns of Navarone three years earlier. The film was arguably the most important one in the career of director, Mihalis Kakogiannis, also known as Michael Cacoyannis. He was nominated in three categories, including best director but did not win an Oscar. Composer Mikis Theodorakis, a noted political figure in Greece, has to his credit a vast repertoire of music. Zorba’s Dance remained his most memorable film score. That fantastic piece of music did not merit an Oscar nomination. However, two other Oscars did grace this unforgettable film – best art direction and cinematography. What I hadn’t tasted as yet was the original creative work behind it all – the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. This famous Greek writer, who narrowly missed out the 1957 Nobel Prize for literature to Albert Camus, had to await the release of the Kakogiannis film to be world renowned.

???????????????????????????????Several years went by. I was now journalist, probably as old as Basil (unfortunately not as rich to spare money for mining) and walking around Mumbai (an island like Crete), when I spotted a tattered copy of Kazantzakis’ book with one of the second hand booksellers at Flora Fountain. It was musty yellow, had fallen apart and the previous owner had stuck it up with cello tape. It was published by Ballantine Books and likely hailing from the fourteenth edition of the novel printed in February 1969 for right on top of the front cover, above a dancing Zorba, was the announcement, “ the smash Broadway musical!’’ After its success on screen, Zorba had two runs on Broadway and the book’s cover seemed to indicate the first from November 1968 to August 1969 with Herschel Bernardi as Zorba and Maria Karnilova as Madame Hortense. In the second avatar that ran from October 1983 to September 1984, Anthony Quinn and Lila Kedrova essayed on stage the characters made famous by them on celluloid. That old book was how I finally got around to reading the story of Alexis Zorba.

On the very first page was an abstract from Time magazine: “ who is Zorba? He is everyman with a Greek accent. He is Sinbad crossed with Sancho Panza. He is the Shavian Life Force poured into a long, lean, fierce-mustached Greek whose 65 years have neither dimmed his hawk eyes nor dulled his pagan laughter. Author Kazantzakis tried to kill him off in a letter. But he reckons without his own talent. He has created Zorba, but he cannot kill him.’’ From The Nation: “ Wonderfully moving, superbly written. Zorba belongs in the gallery of sainted rascals.’’ And on the back cover, the Saturday Review said: “ Alive with energy…Earthy and Rabelaisian – a strange journey into a haunting, wild and poetical conception of life.’’ The book was a splendid read. A few more years lapsed before I picked up a VCD of the film. Later, I bought a brand new copy of the book just in case my vintage edition fragmented for good.

I wonder what attracts me to Zorba. Maybe it’s that he broke free of people and became a person. Maybe it’s the specter of life laid bare. Madame Hortense and the widow – they are hauntingly that. They could be any of us despite changed times. Similar unchanged truth – the human insecurity that underlies man’s ornate constructions, echoes in Zorba’s irreverence for religion. Then there is Zorba’s view of life at large from women to writing. I can’t help liking Zorba. I love the music, the book and the film. Not to mention, that golden brown glow of apple juice in a glass long, long ago, among my first instances of being treated as a person.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article was published in The Hindu newspaper.)