My Muse Alexa

I watched last week a film based on the life of Saadat Hasan Manto.

Manto wrote with pencil, on paper. Often, he squatted on his haunches on his chair as he wrote — any chair would do, any desk. He wrote in noisy places, in hot sweaty rooms, in troubled uncertain times, with little money and much criticism. He wrote without traveling far, traveling almost not at all.

People are reading him even now, sixty-three years after he died, aged 42.

I have the use of a Herman Miller Aeron chair for writing, and the Herman Miller Eames chair (with ottoman) for reading. It is not so quiet in my home as in European and American towns, but quiet enough for Bangalore and India. I have a MacBook Pro, an iPad Pro. And, just today, on the day of its launch in India, the iPhone XS Max was delivered me. I am not rich, but I am not poor either — I mean my lot is better than Manto’s was.

Why can't I write like Manto, then? How unkind is my life to me!

Supine on my Eames, I asked for help from Alexa, who is playing “Soothing Jazz” at my request. “Alexa,” I said, and after she’d begun rolling her electric blue eye I asked: “Can you suggest something for me to write?” She didn’t hesitate: “Concepts include,” she began, “The Indus Valley Civilization, The Theory of Relativity … ,” and she ended the list with, “Does that answer your question?”

“No," I said.

“Thanks for your feedback,” she said.

That line of hers sounded cheeky. I cannot answer cheekiness. I fell silent, laptop on my lap, its battery burning my thighs. After a few minutes of doing nothing, I asked again, rather plaintive this time: “Alexa, can you suggest something for me to write?”

“What do you want?” she said.

“I want ideas to write a blog post,” I said, cowed somewhat by this assured voice and tone of woman.

“I found two books for you,” she said, and named two long titles. After she'd suggested the first title, she asked: “Shall I add it to your cart?” I said, “No.” She asked the same question after the second suggestion. “Okay,” I said, too fearful to refuse a second time. “Do you want me to add it to your cart?” she asked the question again, tougher this time: She was wanting the precise word. “Yes!” I said, and she confirmed the title, and said she'd dropped the book in my cart.

Done dealing with me, she went back to playing the music that she had been playing until my interruption. And I, I opened my browser, went to my cart on Amazon, gawped at what Alexa had chosen for me, and deleted it: The One-Hour Content Plan: The Solopreneur's Guide to a Year's Worth of Blog Post Ideas in 60 Minutes and Creating Content That Sells and Hooks.

Then I looked to the Amazon Echo (Plus) in the corner, to see if Alexa was watching me, glaring at me for what I’d gone and done. I can't tell, but she's playing for me that thing everybody loves: Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald: Cheek to Cheek.

There’s a lesson here for me: Don’t mess with that rich man’s woman.

A Sojourn in the Cinemas of Singapore

 While going round and round on top at the Bugis+ FilmGarde

While going round and round on top at the Bugis+ FilmGarde

I wished to rest in that restless city, and I decided to do it at the cinemas. As it turned out, I was in town at the tail end of a film festival happening there. There was also an Indian entry, a lone one in a long list of Asian films scheduled in theatres across the metropolis. I decided I must watch it, among others.

I sat through four films: What's With Love (Indonesian), The Road to Mandalay (Taiwanese, set in Thailand), The Plague at the Karatas Village (Kazhakstan), and Lion (India & Australia). The first three were features from the Film Festival, and the last one, Lion, I watched in place of the Indian entry for the festival that I’d first planned on.

The Road to Mandalay tells of illegal Burmese immigrants in Thailand: how they’re smuggled in, their life among the Thai, their struggle to get menial risky jobs, and their striving to acquire an identity. The director, producer, and male and female leads attended, and answered questions on stage—questions in English, answers in Chinese. They were impressive: The director was short and stylish in a sharp glossy steel-gray suit; the tall male lead shone in casuals and often lifted his chin and turned and slanted it at varied angles and all could see the sleek traverse of his jawline; the leading lady, very slim and also tall and cased in a satiny gown, was effusive and ever-smiling. The producer looked different from the rest of them, like a working man, like he’d come straight from his desk at office.

 The female lead, Road to Mandalay

The female lead, Road to Mandalay

Mandalay was a celebarated entry. It was screened at the Marina Bay Sands, and the huge auditorium was full, and many other actors and directors and film personalities had come—they sipped wine and cocktails in the open behind a barricade before the rest of us, while we watched them and waited for the doors to open.

What's With Love had excellent cinematography, and the performance of the engaging male lead, Nicholas, was restrained, superb. It’s a commercial flick, but it had insight for me into Indonesian zeitgeist, specially of the young. Here too, the film crew was in attendance: The Director Riri Raza was cerebral, Nicholas Saputra was confident, and the producer Mira Lemana was genial but suffering after-effects of an operated throat—she wrote answers for questions posed her, and she laughed and grinned all the time with all her self, and was particularly endearing. There were many young in the near-full house in the basement-auditorium in the National Gallery where What’s With Love was screened. They asked questions: “Most of the movie covers a stretch less than a day. Were you inspired by Linklater?”

 The Indonesian Crew of What's With Love

The Indonesian Crew of What's With Love

The Plague at the Karatas Village felt like a play. The film must be the lowest-cost production ever. Karatas village is suffering a plague but the villagers will not believe it even in face of clear evidence, even as their dearest fall, even on their way to the grave, and they laugh and dance through their dark miserable lives. A new mayor comes to town, calls the folly, offers help, urges them to seek a cure, but there’s not a villager who’ll heed him. The truth of their condition is crucified on table and chair and burned as at the stake.

The truth the director was revealing wasn’t coated in anything palatable. At the start not a seat was empty in the petite theatre at The Art House in the Old Parliament, but a good number left the hall as the film progressed, trying hard to be quiet, unobstrusive, on their way out.

As regards the Indian entry at the festival, I arrived at 11:00 for the 11:45 screening of Psycho Raman, at the Bugis FilmGarde, pumped up to see the director, Anurag Kashyap, and hear him. The place was quiet, just an occasional couple or a single person strolled in and went up the escalator to the halls. Biding time, I walked round and round the fifth floor where the FilmGarde is located, and at 11:40, seeing no crowd, no celebrities, I decided to go in, feeling sorry for the Indian team. Such a poor turnout, it seemed. At the gate surprise awaited me. The usher took my ticket, said there’s no show at 11:45 at Hall 6, and, seeing my disbelieving face, dug back into my ticket and his papers and found my error.

“This ticket’s for 11:45 PM!”

“For midnight!”

“Almost midnight, la,” he said.

After a moment we both laughed. And as I went down the escalator I felt doubly sorry for Anurag Kashyap—to be scheduled for near-midnight! I felt sorry also for myself: As much as I wanted to see Kashyap and watch his film, I cannot stay awake midnight hours. So I bought a ticket for Lion, starting in ten minutes.

I shed many a tear for Sarroo, the Lion, I’m ashamed to tell you. But, remembering little Sarroo at the start of the film, I feel it's perhaps all right to cry for a child like that. Ooh, how that kid ran! And aah, how he smiled! Sometime in the middle of the show I decided to adopt a child like that, but the resolve quit me by the time I'd come down the escalator after the show. As I write these lines I remember the impulse, and I consider the possibility, but no. I haven't the strength and the goodness of heart to embrace the toils and challenges that a child—and the man he’d become—would surely bring me.

 Bugis+ FilmGarde Cineplex

Bugis+ FilmGarde Cineplex

Stray Dog

I saw Kurosawa’s Stray Dog the other day. From beginning to end, everyone hopelessly wiped sweat off their face and neck. Mifune, playing a Tokyo detective, wore a white suit all through, hot in body, deeply troubled in mind. The heat, being in the air, wouldn’t let anyone escape it. It was a Tokyo summer suggestive of hell and it spilled over from the television and filled my study. Mifune chased a thief all day in the heat until they almost became comrades at day’s end. During the chase she led him through post-war streets that looked those of Bangalore in the 1950s: wide and calm, with sprawling homes. Then in the night she gave him beer and lay down on the steps outside and looked at the sky. It felt cool for that while. He leaned back also, and looked at the infinite spread of stars: a brief glimmer of heaven. The movie panned back into hell. But Kurosawa is always kind to his viewer and not for one moment did he spill any of that suffering on me: it was life, and it was very well served.

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