Music, Today I Learned

Sakhi Maro/Tu Mera Dil

I listen to a lot of music. This is known.

A byproduct of that is that for long periods of time, certain artistes take on more, or very little, prominence in my playlists, a function of recent release schedules, my soundscape mood (there are times when nu-retro reigns supreme on my headphones, for example, or ambient anime piano), and pure serendipity.

The third factor, that of serendipity is what leads to goosebumps, when a song that I haven’t heard in a long while suddenly emerges front and center. Today was one such day, when a tune from Susheela Raman’s Love Trap, an album that defined 2004-05 for me, materialized in my head, and of course, I had to play the album from beginning to end. I was going about my morning with a smile and a skip, as song after song came on, releasing dopamine hits and unlocking half-buried aural memories. Suddenly, it was ‘Sakhi Maro’ on the speakers. If you know the song, you know it melts you like butter on a warm slice of bread. But today, out of all the times I have heard ‘Sakhi Maro’, I realized that the opening bars of the song reminded me of something else. Another song.

But what did it remind me of? I paused the song for a bit and thought about what exactly brought about that stray memory? It was definitely not Susheela’s voice or the tune itself. When I played it again from the beginning, it hit me. The gentle, melodic strumming that is the bedrock of the track reminded me of a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan track from one of his collaborations with Michael Brook. There being two of those albums – Musst Musst and Night Song. A bit of quiet contemplation brought me to the exact track. It was the opening track to Night Song, called ‘My Heart, My Life’, with the exact same strumming that was part-guitar, part-harp.

Now I had always thought most sounds on the Brook albums were the Infinite Guitar, the musician’s own modification of the electric guitar. As it turned out, the sound on both the songs was a West African instrument called the Kora. It has 21 strings and has features of a lute and a harp. And once you hear a kora and realize how versatile it is, it’s hard to ever miss it. Tom Diakite plays the instrument on ‘Sakhi Maro’, Kaouding Cissoko from Senegal plays it on ‘My Heart, My Life’. On both the tracks, these guys steal the bulk of the thunder.

Here’s a minute long video that shows how the same instrument produces different kinds of sounds, demoed by musician Toumane Diabate.

And here’s an hour-long concert that’s a cello-kora duet featuring Ballake Sissoko and cellist Vincent Segal.

On an aside, the MTV Unplugged version of ‘Sakhi Maro’ has Sam Mills playing the guitar on the track, which added to my confusion. The track also features renowned percussionist and singer Kutle Khan on vocals and the khartal, making it arguably better than Susheela’s original interpretation.

I cannot but be awed by the things that I still do not know, and by the secrets these familiar friends from decades ago still manage to unravel.

(Also, this is the second time in a year that I have gone back to Susheela Raman on the blog. That must count for something!)

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Movies

An animated discussion

For the sake of my sanity, I avoid being emotionally invested in the Oscars every year, and use it primarily as a checklist of movies that escape my radar every year. Los Angeles also brings it with it an incredible selection of free screenings during Oscar season, most of which are accompanied by interviews with the director or the cast. Of specific note, these past few years, has been the Best Animated Films nominations. The award has, with the exception of last year, been won by a title backed by a powerful studio – usually the predictable, family-friendly crowd pleasers. But the nominations for the category prove to be fertile hunting ground for titles that I wouldn’t have noticed.

In 2016, for example, I saw The Red Turtle. It’s one of the few movies I bought digitally, at full price — and trust me, that’s a big deal for me. A Belgian production that was distributed internationally by Studio Ghibli, the film lost to Zootopia. I don’t think the winning title was all that bad, but placing a work as emotionally hard-hitting as Red Turtle on the same platform as that unsubtle, pun-ridden roller-coaster was a travesty.

Coco won in 2017, beating the visually spectacular Loving Vincent. To be honest, I love Coco, it was one of the few animated movies that made me bawl. It was also Pixar making a two-punch comeback, along with Inside Out, after years of mediocre offerings and half-hearted sequels. But the sheer visual chutzpah of Loving Vincent sets it apart. More than 100 artists painted individual frames in Vincent Van Gogh’s style to animate the story, 43000 paintings in all. The Aero in Santa Monica screened the film with the directors present for a Q&A afterwards, and the passion with they approached their project, which ended up taking 9 years to go from an animated short to a full-fledged feature film, gave me goosebumps.

(Also, looking at the previous award years, Wallace and Gromit beat out Howl’s Moving Castle? Big Hero 6 beat Song of the Sea? Fucking Rango got the nod over Chico and Rita and A Cat in Paris! Frozen beat The Wind Rises. If I was a little more delicate, I would be calling for smelling salts right now)

This year, I saw the passion project that will probably not win, but is a spectacular offering in the category — the French animated film I Lost My Body, with a story adapted from a novel called Happy Hand, by Guillaume Laurant (who wrote the original book on which Amelie was based). It is, on the surface, a surreal journey of a disembodied hand that tries to find its owner across the city, an epic adventure filmed at angles and perspectives one does not encounter in conventional animation. It is the story of Naoufel, a broken young man, and about how he comes to terms with loss, in more ways than one. The film talks about destiny and choice, of connections, to one’s past, to humanity. It also has, surprisingly, a romantic subplot, one that begins with ten minutes of conversation via an apartment security system. Tread carefully, though, because Jeremy Clapin has a tendency to unsettle.

I Lost My Body is that rare film that goes in completely unexpected directions, and as the non-linear narrative comes together, a spiral of flashbacks and foreshadowing that culminates in a fifteen minute climax, you will find yourself holding your breath until the screen fades to black. And then maybe you find your eyes wet, or that could just be me.

Oh, and turns out the mesmerizing soundtrack, with its haunting recorder melody backed with orchestral strings and repeating synth patterns, was composed by Dan Levy. Dan is the ‘D’ in the band The Dø , one of my favorite French outfits and one whose next album I’ve been waiting for 5 years. It was fascinating to hear Jeremy talk about how Dan refused to look at the visuals and ‘audition’ for the role of composer, when asked. He instead composed 20 minutes of music based on the brief story narration Jeremy gave him, to give an idea of the mood he was going for. That worked perfectly with Clapin’s sensibilities, and fit the narrative in a way that traditional scoring wouldn’t, imbuing the story with a pathos and a grandeur that is nothing short of extraordinary. Small wonder then that I have been listening to it on repeat the last two days.

The contenders this year, other than I Lost My Body, are Toy Story 4, How To Train Your Dragon: Some Vapid Sub-heading, Klaus, and Missing Link. I would dismiss Dragon and Missing Link outright. Toy Story 4 is running on Pixar goodwill fumes and may be the one to win. Klaus is the interesting one — it is also a Netflix exclusive, like Body, and has been winning awards in the same circuits as the latter. Both won at the Annies, with Body winning the best Indie Animated feature, while Klaus walked away with the overall best animated feature. But on the other hand, Body won the Nespresso Grand Prize at Cannes (the first animated film to ever win this). My gut feeling is that Klaus may win just because it’s the more family-friendly of the two, and that follows the historical trend. We’ll see in a week.

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Music

you open the door to another door to another door

The title of this post is a reference to my first new album of 2020. Which came to me in a dream, believe it or not.

So this is what happened. I was lying on the bed reading (the third book of Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles Trilogy, called Solea, after the Miles Davis album), with Spotify playing over my headphones. At some point, I drifted off, floating along with the music in that happy blissful state of lucid dreams and semi-awareness. When you know that you are asleep but you haven’t quite lost control yet.

I found myself hovering back into reality, coaxed out by this beautiful voice singing, and through the haze of my not-quite-nap. The song meshed with the random visuals in my head, in the best way possible. “Caroline Polachek”, I read on the phone. The song was called “Door”, and committing that to memory, half-worrying that maybe I was still dreaming all this, I fell back to sleep.

I played the song later that evening, in the car. The chorus was like hot chocolate and pine-wood smoke, smooth, sophisticated, but very tender. But hold on, the voice sounded familiar. I have heard her before. I stop the car on the side of the road and google the artiste’s name.

Yup, Caroline Polachek was the singer on the Brooklyn band Chairlift, whose album Moth was one of my favorites of 2015-2016. It also so happened that despite buying tickets to their show at the Observatory, and driving 45 miles one Sunday evening to see them, I couldn’t. Because the show was cancelled. I got my money back, but the tinge of regret remained with me. More so because they disbanded a year later, in 2017, after playing a final show in Brooklyn.

And now, four years later, Ms Polachek has released a solo album, called Pang. It released in October, and for whatever reason, I had no idea of its existence until two weeks ago. Of course, in that time span, I have heard the album an umpteen number of times. I love every minute of it, from the haunted opening of ‘The Gate’ flowing into the title track ‘Pang’, to the closing notes of the tender ‘Parachutes’. Even though I could recognize her voice on the album, the mood, and the production were both very different from that on the Chairlift albums. For one, this was clearly an album about love and heartbreak and all of the feelings. It’s an album where slide-guitar licks morph into dance patterns, otherworldly beats and rhythms coalesce into splashes of intensity and adrenaline, and through all of these, Caroline’s voice weaves and wends through various moods and tonalities, gentle whispers to full-throated vocal riffs that advertise absolute control. And possibly a fair degree of auto-tune, but the electronic effects are tweaked to just the perfect degree of alien and human.

This is one of those rare album that feels like each track is better than the previous one. No wonder, then, that the first single, and accompanying video, was ‘Door’, which is the penultimate track of 15 songs, and runs a radio-unfriendly 5 minutes and 23 seconds. But it goes places. believe me, both visually and in sound and mood. The opening guitar riff, and the way the beat builds up slowly into that chorus is sublime. The alien vocal echoes on the word “door”. The guitar bridge. And that final humming that closes the track. Holy shit.

My personal favorite in the album, at the moment, is ‘So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’. Many reasons, including the upbeat 80s vibe, the catchy vocal riff that begins the track, the “woo” when she sings the chorus, that sharp intake of breath just before she sings “I get a little lonely”. And of course that semi-awkward, all-Caroline dance routine in the video, so reminiscent of ‘Ch-ching’ from the Moth album. The chorus, when I first heard it, sounded like “Show me the banana”, and I ran to check what it actually said. “Show me the love, nanana”. Pooh. I prefer “show me the banana”.

I could listen to it all day, except ‘Door’ starts playing just after, and then once the album finishes with the downtempo ‘Parachute’, I have to go back to track one again.

‘Ocean of Tears’ comes closest to the Chairlift sound. You could play the opening to me and I would have identified the song as one of theirs. Of course it’s fantastic, the bass throbs and then the rock guitars playing over the chorus.

Caroline plays at the Fonda Theater on February 1, and even though tickets are sold out, something tells me I will show up there, somehow.

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Books, Comics

An Apocalypse of Cockatoos

Please do this for me. Don’t let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons

Orson Welles, to film director Henry Jaglom, 1989

Recolored comics have been all the rage in the last decade. Both Marvel and DC routinely release their collected editions with new colors, especially the classic comics from the 40s to the 80s, when comics were printed with a limited palette on cheap paper. With few exceptions, most of these coloring jobs look like crap, but that is a subjective opinion coming from someone who grew up with the pre-Image era acetate overlay-based coloring, with benday dots and all. There was a period of transition during the 80s, when the paper quality visibly changed, and some titles began to sport more garish tones than others. By the time Image released their books, and companies like Olyoptics and

At the same time, there began the trend of indie black-and-white comics getting reissued in color. Early examples were hit-and-miss, like Barry Blair’s Elflord, or First Comics releasing airbrushed deluxe editions of Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Better results came about when creators took it on themselves to oversee the coloring. Jeff Smith’s Bone, and later, Rasl, were best-sellers in their color editions. Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim has found a new generation of enthusiasts once full-color editions came out. Even manga, the final frontier where two-color holds sway, has seen classics like Dragonball, OnePiece and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure embracing digital coloring.

But when I received the news of From Hell: The Master Edition, I felt a disturbance in the Force. For one, the scratchy black-and-white artwork felt like the perfect style for a book that was set in the soot and fog of Victorian London. This was one of the rare works where the artist worked in tandem with the writer to create something so iconic, that any thought of a remaster felt like it was interfering with perfection. The plan, according to publishers IDW/Top Shelf Comics, was to have the seminal black-and-white comic recolored by Campbell himself. And that is part of what allayed my fears and made for less trepidation. The person approaching IDW with the idea was Eddie, and it looked like he knew the kind of changes he wanted to make. There was precedent — Brian Bolland did it with deluxe edition of The Killing Joke, because he felt John Higgins’ psychedelic palette was not what he had envisaged. I really loved the original colors on the Killing Joke, but I also liked Bolland’s version. So maybe it wouldn’t be that bad after all.

A short preview of the recolored pages showed promise, but there was still the nervousness that the color would ruin some of the mood of the minimalist, dream-like nature of some of the panels. That the splash of red in a gore-dripped sequence would detract from the strength of the scratchy black and white line-work.

By the time I was on the tenth chapter (volume 7 of the re-release, which compresses 14 chapters into 10 volumes), all my fears had vanished. This particular chapter is a creative high point between Campbell and Moore’s collaboration, occurring in one room in London’s East End, featuring Sir William Gull’s final act of cruelty against the last of the five women. It also jumps through time, both forwards and backwards, in the course of its 34 pages. Gull imagines himself in the presence of his long-dead friend James Hinton, who we last saw in chapter 2, and then in his capacity as surgeon, displaying his sanguinary skills to a shadowy array of onlookers.

The final hallucination is the one that jumps forward in time, where Gull finds himself transported in the middle of an office-space of cubicles and computers, in the twentieth century. This is the moment that sends shivers up my spine, and Moore’s words drip acid and venom at the state of the world.

It would seem we would suffer an apocalypse of cockatoos…Morose, barbaric children joylessly playing with their unfathomable toys. Where comes this dullness in your eyes? How has your century numbed you so? Shall man be given marvels only when he is beyond all wonder?

Alan Moore – From Hell

The attention to detail is spectacular. A pink-haired girl, the blue in the fluorescent lighting on the ceiling, the design pattern on a shirt sleeve peeking from a jacket. The dry-brush effects in the panels are intact. The subtle way in which the blood splatter effects are just the right shade of muted red, while the backgrounds remain a flat grey. That final panel in the page below is both grotesque and hypnotic. This feels like a reclaiming of Campbell’s artistic vision, brought to life by a virtuoso meld of technology and ambition.

I would love to talk about this series, in detail, once the final volume is out. I have tried to speak of it in the past, but not only were my words not sufficient, but I feel like a superficial essay does not do From Hell justice.

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Books, Movies

A Book, a film

Two things caught me by surprise last week. The first was a book called The Devourers, by a writer named Indra Das. The second was a film called Laal Kaptaan, directed by Navdeep Singh and starring Saif Ali Khan. The two are completely unrelated, but I found them in them examples of the kind of historical fiction I want to read, or at least the kind of treatment that makes me not want to bang my head against a wall.

The Devourers falls squarely in the speculative fiction genre; talking about it is difficult because of the nature of the beast (pun intended). A professor in Kolkata meets a stranger one night, one who claims to be a half-werewolf and consequently, immortal. The stranger piques his interest by telling him a story set in Shahjahanabad, on the banks of the Yamuna, during the time of the reign of the Great Mughals, and then assigns him a responsibility. The story then becomes a retelling of three different individuals’ life stories, and an act of violence that weaves these stories together.

One of the reasons I picked up Devourers was the blurb by Mike Carey, he of Lucifer and Girl With All the Gifts fame. The other is the phenomenal cover by Chris Panatier, the kind of illustration you do not see on an Indian publication. The work is in pen and ink and watercolor, and wraps around the book. It captures both the soul of the writing as well as a very specific mood, reminiscent of both illustrators like James Jean and the imagery of great tattoo inkers.

But it was the writing that stayed with me. Das grounds his characters and the locale exceptionally well, bringing to life the mangroves of the Sunderbans and the marketplaces of Shahjahanabad; the moments of tension and terror are narrated with inevitability and poetry. And he grinds together myths and folklore of different cultures to produce the most vivid imagery one can associate with creatures of the supernatural.

The beast was like no animal I’d ever seen on this earth. Glowing red in the flickering light of rain-swathed fires, with its war paint of blood and tattered flesh, which hung like ragged pennants off its spines and slicked fur, it was rakshasa of the Hindus, it was asura, lord among their demons. It was glowing, infernal ifreet of the djinn, it was Iblis made incarnate, rising from cold wet earth instead of the arid sand of the desert. It was a towering impostor god of Europe resurrected in this empty stretch of Shah Jahan’s empire and worshipped with fire and violence.

Indra Das – The Devourers

How can I describe what came to my senses, in that silence? Even the birds stopped their screaming, the insects their singing. The smell of it was overpowering. It smelled like birth, the birth of god or demon, raw and animal and steaming in the morning air. Sweet and musk, like frankincense and myrrh; heavy and pungent, like the juice of living things, blood and piss, sweat and spit; rancid and fecund, like waste, shit, and earth. It stank of both life and death, both so intoxicating I found myself flushed with my own blood, my heart aching. I could hear it, feel it breathing, the rumbling of a mountain slumbering through centuries slivered to seconds. It walked to me, twigs snapping sharp under its great hands and feet, soil squelching under its enormous, impossible weight. It was on all fours, or so its steps told me, and yet I could feel its boiling breath, a hot and humid wind on my face as it approached. Even crouched, it was as tall as me.

Indra Das – The Devourers

Usually, when reading a book like this, my worry is that it will end with a set-up to a sequel and an inevitable franchise, the bane of every work in this genre. Thankfully, Das does not fall into that trap. The conclusion involves a transformation, an end that reminds me of the best that outre literature has offered.

The Devourers is a work about change and acceptance; Laal Kaptaan, on the other hand is a story of revenge, pursuit, and ultimately, destiny. It is a film by a creator whose work I have followed with interest over the years. Navdeep Singh sauntered onto the Indian alternative film scene in 2007 with a local remake of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, set in rural Rajasthan and starring Abhay Deol (remember Abhay Deol? The guy was the poster-child of great Indian cinema in the 2000s, until he crashed and burned his way out of the industry). His sophomore effort NH10, a slow-burn socially conscious thriller, released eight years later in 2015, to considerable more acclaim and box office success. Laal Kaptaan, which released in 2019, alas, failed to find its audience. Possibly because the historical thriller comes at a time when Indian cinema is rewriting history to the tune of Hindutva. The past is sexy only when there is opulence and patriotic fervor kneaded into clear them/us narratives that spoon-feed how great everything was in the past.

Singh obviously does not take this route. Set in the late 1700s (1789, to be precise, if we look at the Battle of Buxar as the narrative lynch-pin), the film follows a Naga ascetic (Saif Ali Khan) on a hunt for a man named Rehmat (played by Manav Vij, who I last saw in Andhadhun last year), with whom he has — to quote Beatrix Kiddo — “unfinished business”. The story takes us through some incredible sequences set in the arid landscapes of the Chambal valley, a place already seared in our collective consciousness as a hell-scape where terrible things happen to everyone, good or bad. Saif Ali’s character is named Gossain, which I understand is just short-hand for “holy man”, so until the end of the movie, he is truly a man with no name. Over the course of his journey, he encounters a mishmash of characters, including a cheroot-smoking bounty hunter accompanied by two hounds, who can literally smell his prey; a veiled prostitute who attempts to hire the protagonist to exact her own revenge, but on finding him unwilling to take up her cause for money, shows him her mutilated face to sway him to her cause; a vertically-challenged Maratha chieftain leading some wayward Pindari warriors, a pack of undisciplined riffraff that refuse to follow orders and pounce like scavengers on corpses lying by the roadside; and Afghan warriors who track the gossain because — I kid you not — “you killed my master, prepare to die”.

In case you haven’t figured it out already, the movie is a genre-lover’s wet dream. It also helps that Singh and co-writer Deepak Venkateshan get their historical details just right. Everything — from weapons to costumes, language to customs — feels authentic and grounded in both era and locale. The characters are splendid — Khan and Vij make for excellent, balanced antagonists when they share the screen; the supporting characters shine regardless of screen time, the lonely widow played by Zoya Hussain, Deepak Dobriyal channeling a bit of Toshiro Mifune, Madan Deodhar as the hapless Maratha captain trying to bring his no-good men under control. My favorite moments are the ones that bring the nonsensical theatrics of neo-historical potboilers into sharp contrast, like the short dance performance in the Maratha tent, or the pragmatic outlook of the characters regarding the British. Or even the grounded notion that this land, in the eighteenth-century, was a complicated place where soldiers bickered and back-stabbed each other, with no grandiose thread of nationalism weaving through it all.

However, much like Dibakar Bannerjee’s 2015 Byomkesh Bakshi, all the attention to style and historical detail cannot take away the fact that Laal Kaptaan suffers dreadfully from Sergio Leone syndrome. One wishes the story being told was a little tighter, the pace a little more balanced than the steady canter it sinks into, even in its moments of action. We find our attention divided by too many perspectives; the reveals, including a betrayal in the middle of the story, do not bear the impact that they should. Overall, the film takes too long to weave all its threads together, and it suffers for all that.

The year’s best-of lists in Indian film have gone on record saying that 2019 was not as fertile for Indian cinema. I had high hopes about this particular film, based on the trailer, and my overall optimism regarding Singh’s storytelling skills. It does feels gratifying that something like Laal Kaptaan gets a theatrical release and at least a degree of star-power behind it. It is the kind of film that I like to recommend to friends, the ones that fall under the radar and can still evoke discussion. Hopefully, a filmmaker like Singh continues to push genre boundaries with his works. Hmm, maybe someone should point him to this werewolf story that is set in Mughal times, by this writer named Indra Das…

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