THE MERCY

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

The Mercy is about a participant in the1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, which produced the first solo nonstop circumnavigation of the planet in a sail boat. But it felt much more than a film on Donald Crowhurst. Besides the reality of single handed sailing, vastly different from life ashore, it was invitation to contemplate why we chase goals, how prepared we are for what we wish to accomplish and how apt the sponsorship models adopted for the same, are. The film is recommended viewing.

Hurricane Gilbert of 1988 is one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record.

It was the most intense hurricane till it was surpassed by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Gilbert wrought widespread havoc in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico; it killed 318 people, damage to property was estimated at $ 2.98 billion.

The Cayman Islands, an autonomous British Overseas Territory in the western Caribbean Sea, was among regions affected by Hurricane Gilbert. Cayman Brac is part of Cayman Islands.  In 1988, among other things, Gilbert damaged further an already damaged trimaran – 41 feet long and at that time, twenty years old – which lay neglected on the beach at Cayman Brac. Whenever the story of the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race (GGR) is told, the little known Teignmouth Electron is as crucial a player, as the Suhaili, which won the race essaying the world’s first solo, nonstop circumnavigation in a sail boat or the Joshua, which upon getting back to the Atlantic traded its chances of winning for another half voyage around the world. Teignmouth Electron was originally built for Donald Crowhurst, the only sailor who didn’t survive the 1968 GGR. He faked a whole voyage around the world, from the Atlantic and back to it, while all along remaining in the Atlantic. It would be easy to dismiss him as a fraud. Behind every act of fraudulence is a story and such stories typically point to circumstances as much as they do to person.

The 1968 GGR is remembered in India because Suhaili – the sail boat in which, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston won the race – was built in Mumbai. Crowhurst was born 1932, in Ghaziabad. According to Wikipedia, following India’s independence, his family moved to England. Their retirement savings were invested in a sports goods factory in India. But the factory burnt down during the riots around India’s partition. Thanks to financial problems, Crowhurst was forced to leave school early and become an apprentice at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough Airfield. He subsequently served in the air force and the army. Eventually he commenced a business called Electron Utilisation which had among its products, a radio direction finder useful at sea. His attempts to sell this product and related presence at an expo around boats and sailing where Sir Francis Chichester (the first man to circumnavigate solo along the clipper route and the fastest circumnavigation till then) discloses plans for the 1968 GGR, form the opening scene of the film, The Mercy. “ A man alone in a boat is more alone than any man alive,’’ Sir Francis’s character played by Simon McBurney says. Colin Firth’s Donald Crowhurst is in the audience, listening.

A married man with wife and three children and a business struggling to stay afloat, he decides to participate in the 1968 GGR hoping to leverage his participation and the visibility it may bring, to rejuvenate his business. He builds a trimaran because it is capable of great speed. He also tweaks the design to accommodate one of his innovations meant to steady the boat should it capsize in rough weather. Stanley Best – played by Ken Stott – agrees to fund his participation in GGR; Rodney Hallworth – played by David Thewlis – comes aboard as press agent managing publicity. Until GGR, Crowhurst had only been a weekend sailor.  What unfolds in the race is even more desperate than the challenges he faced attempting to succeed at his business.

I first heard of Donald Crowhurst in 2013, while writing an article on Sagar Parikrama, the Indian Navy project that gave India its first solo circumnavigation in a sail boat (Captain Dilip Donde [retd]) and the first solo nonstop circumnavigation (Commander Abhilash Tomy KC; at the time of writing this article, out on his second solo nonstop circumnavigation as part of 2018 GGR).  It was Captain Donde’s recommendation that I read the book, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall. Crammed with details from Crowhurst’s logbook, the book was not an easy read. Compared to it, The Mercy moves faster.  However, books tell stories more comprehensively and you feel that about The Mercy, which introduces you to a Crowhurst willing to risk it all without giving you matching insight into what made his character so. Equally taken for granted or relegated to backdrop is the sea. If the sea and its nature played a part in weekend sailor-businessman becoming even more desperate miles away from shore, then that evolution is not adequately conveyed by the film. The isolation, loneliness and work to keep home upon water floating, don’t come through although the general sweep of Crowhurst’s story gets told. That’s the film’s strength. In particular I could sense the pressure caused by his expectations, the ill finished boat and the publicity accompanying sponsorship model. Into the voyage, fiction gradually replaces fact in Crowhurst’s progress reports.

The 1968 GGR entailed circumnavigation starting in England and ending there. In era preceding GPS, Crowhurst’s periodic radio transmissions are all that family and support team in England have to go by. When Crowhurst’s fictitious report puts him near the Cape of Good Hope, Hallworth in his statements to media pegs him farther out to build a positive, adventurous image. The publicist’s enthusiasm isn’t agreeable with Crowhurst, who is banking on a finish in last place to spare him probing questions that may unravel his fraud. He goes into radio silence. Hallworth keeps the momentum going with invented reasons for radio silence and access for media to interview Mrs Crowhurst, which she dislikes. When Crowhurst commenced his sail around the planet, he was a weekend sailor in a newly built, untested boat with no assurance of winning the race, his business and house on land marked as collateral to sponsors underwriting the voyage. In the seven months that follow, his plight – combination of boat not up to the mark and his own limited experience as sailor – becomes clear. Instead of admitting failure, he starts to fake circumnavigation. At one point, his fake radio transmissions have him sailing at record breaking speed. Eventually as the mix of cheating and loneliness gets to him he loses his mind. He hallucinates, becomes deeply reflective. “ The end must come to all human experience and that alone is certain,’’ he notes.

In July 1969, the Teignmouth Electron was found abandoned in the Atlantic; there was no sign of its occupant. Crowhurst is believed to have committed suicide. A film on a circumnavigation that didn’t happen, The Mercy – I felt – found its clearest moments in dialogue.  Towards the end of the movie, Rachel Weisz’s character, Clare Crowhurst, says the following and it should stay with us as reference point for our times, wherein few are content being themselves and there is imagery by money, media and marketing for use as currency to be larger than life. To the media gathered outside her house after news broke that her husband had possibly faked his voyage and was now missing at sea, Clare says: I don’t know if my husband slipped and fell or if he jumped as you are now saying. I would like you to rest assured that if he did jump, he was pushed and each and every one of you had a grubby hand to his back; every photographer, every sponsor, every reporter, every sad little man who stands at a news stand to feast on the scraps of another’s undoing. And once he was in the water, you all held him under with your judgement. Last week you were selling hope, now you are selling blame. Next week you will be selling something else. But tomorrow and every day after, my children will still need their father and I will still need my husband. I am afraid that doesn’t make a particularly good story – does it? But then I suppose the truth rarely does. In The Mercy Crowhurst is not entirely cheat. You see context and person. The 1968 GGR was won by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. He donated the prize money he got to Crowhurst’s family.

Both the Suhaili and the Joshua were at Les Sable-d’Olonne in France, when the 2018 GGR commenced in July. Following the 1968 GGR, Teignmouth Electron was auctioned off. It changed hands a couple of times before ending up on that beach at Cayman Brac. According to information on the Internet, it continues to be there. In addition to the damage it suffered, some of its parts have been stolen by vandals. A replica built for use while filming The Mercy, survives. The Mercy was released some months before the 2018 GGR. A second film on Crowhurst called Crowhurst – starring Justin Salinger in the title role – has also released to good reviews.

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

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.)