Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara: Movie Review

Movie: Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (Hindi w/ e.s.t.)

Directed By: Zoya Akthar

Starring: Kalki Koechlin, Farhan Akthar, Abhay Deol, Hrithik Roshan, Katrina Kaif, Naseruddin Shah

I don’t watch many Bollywood movies, and not all the ones I watch are exceptional, but among the good ones there are a few that I like enough to recommend to my Hindi filmi watching family and friends. My taste in hindi film (I will use the term Bollywood sparingly here, as it excludes the breadth and width of Indian cinema done in other languages) has been acquired over many years. I have cultivated it by watching everything from multi-generational family epics like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, classic love stories (of the 1980’s) like Hum Aap ke Hain Koun and Maine Pyar Kiya, comedies of the NRI variety like Dostana, and straight up masala (you say popcorn, we say masala) action movies like Dhoom 2. So, in their own way the hindi films have their own genres, each catering to different demographic, much like Hollywood.

In truth, there are a few significant differences between how a Bollywood film handles those cinematic tropes versus the Hollywood treatment of the same material, but I digress. Keeping in mind that a large majority of this blog’s readers may not be familiar with Bollywood tropes, here is a small primer courtesy of Wikipedia. Bollywood turns out thousands of films a year, a number of which are shot primarily for Indian audiences living abroad.

Which brings us to Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (Won’t Get Life Back Again). The movie features three friends Kabir (Deol), Arjun (Roshan), and Imran (Akthar) who take a three week road trip through Spain before Kabir gets married. The road trip movie as an archetype is about a journey of self discovery and we learn through intermittent flashbacks that each of the characters are dealing with internal struggles that seethe to the surface over the course of the trip. Kabir is getting cold feet, and is not certain that he wants to marry. Arjun who’s professional life is sucessful is facing the prospect of an unfulfilling personal life. Four years ago, we learn, Imran brought Arjun’s relationship with his girlfriend to an end over an affair. Imran is hoping to reunite with his father, a painter living in Spain, over whom he’s had a strained relationship with his mother. Zoya Akthar has a knack for directing both Farhan Akthar (her twin brother in real life) and Hrithik Roshan (whom she previously directed in 2008’s Luck By Chance), and it shows in their performances. All three male leads pull off warm personable performances without ever over acting or melodramatizing a scene.

Zoya’s cinematic language is often subtle and self aware, never drawing attention to itself.  What I mean by this is that the gorgeous Spanish cityscapes from Costa Brava  to Seville and Pamplona are allowed to speak for themselves without the riot of colours and song that usually accompany a Bollywood movie. In an industry where the song, dance, and colorful costume are a given fact in nearly every movie, Zindagi’s rejects the norm to use a  storytelling style that lets it walk the fine line between Indian and western movie-making.

Alas, you know what that means: no dream sequences. Instead of dream sequences, what we get are four passages in the movie where Imraan recites a Hindi poem in voiceover to highlight a particularly emotional moment. I found these passages to be utterly riveting and wished that I had a better grasp of Hindi so that I could fully understand the poems.

Music is certainly an integral part of any Bollywood movie. With Zindagi, Shankar-Eshaan-Loy have stayed with a fairly tight selection of pop and electronica beats. Stand-out songs include: Ik Junoon (Paint it Red) and Senorita.  The video for the former was shot at the Tomatina festival in Buñol and it looks like everyone involved just had a blast shooting it. (Check out the video here.) And Senorita stands out in particular for the clever sleight of hand that the composers used to blend Hindi and Spanish lyrics into the song. (See the video here.)

The best part is that although the movie runs 153 minutes, it never suffers for pacing. All of the characters are given their due in screen time and the emotional climax of the movie delivers (I’m not giving it away here) a resounding conclusion that could have been in a movie a third of its length. Looking back, I would definitely recommend this to anyone who likes Bollywood movies and to the more adventurous crowd willing to try out a Hindi movie.

I watch Dr. Who now. Dr. Who is Cool.

If you’re not watching Dr. Who now, friends, you are missing out on some of the best science fiction drama/comedy storytelling on TV.  In my family Dr. Who is a multigenerational tradition. My dad saw the original series when he lived in England (I believe Pertwee was his first Doctor), and more recently me and my brothers have started watching it.

I’ve tried to find the adequate words to describe why you should watch this show, but I think Neil Gaiman, who is a lifelong Dr. Who fan, writer of the season 6 episode “The Doctor’s Wifeamong other things, and all around good guy says it better than I could:

“There’s a big blue box.  It’s bigger on the inside than the outside. It can go anywhere in space and time, sometimes where it is supposed to go.  Something will go wrong, and there’s some bloke called The Doctor who’ll make it all right because he’s awesome.  Now sit down, shut up and watch Blink.”

But really, for me, aside from the hours of brilliant heartfelt storytelling that Dr. Who delivered, the biggest impact was on my writing. I’ve started writing fun stories, silly stories, stories that I would not have conceivably written had it not been for Dr. Who. (And yes, I do write Dr. Who fan-fic. Its out in the open now. Not that I plan on showing the world any time soon.)

To catch you up, here’s a brief summary of everything you need to know about Dr. Who.

For someone new to Dr. Who I wouldn’t suggest starting from Series 1 and working up to Series 6, unless you want to be complete about it. At the very least I’d say you should watch these episodes to understand Steven Moffat’s (current showrunner of Dr. Who) story arc:

1. Dalek (Series 1)

2. Girl in the Fireplace (Series 2)*

3. Human Nature/The Family of Blood (Series 3)*

4. Blink (Series 3)**

5. Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead (Series 4)

6. Everything from Series 5 onwards.

Though, if you had to watch just one, watch Blink. You can thank me later. The latter half of Series 6 starts in September 2011, so you’ll have plenty of time to catch up over the summer.

*[The starred episodes are, imho, the best written ones.]

I’d be interested in hearing other Who-vians opinions about how to introduce someone to the show.

And, as an afterthought, fans of Moffat’s Dr. Who work might like his work on the BBC’s Sherlock: a modern day adaption featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman (who’s playing Bilbo in The Hobbit) as Watson. It’s clever, cerebral, witty and labyrinthine storytelling at its best.

I Don’t Want to Kill You: Book Review

Dan Wells is a magician. Well, ok not really.  He’s a writer, and over the course of three books he takes an unsympathetic/unlikeable character and makes you root for him.  Its one of the hardest tricks in the fiction suite to do right–Severus Snape was an example of this done right– but seeing how effortlessly Dan pulls it off it may as well be magic.

The series, collectively titled the ‘John Cleaver’ books, follows the series’ narrator: a teenage sociopath who exhibits all the classic symptoms of a serial killer (pyromania, lack of empathy, and animal cruelty among others).  John’s family owns the local morgue where John occasionally works, which set the basis for scenarios that exacerbate John’s serial killer tendencies.  John is always in conflict with this inner nature, going so far as to establish rules to act ‘normal.’  In all three books he’s pushed to the breaking point, forced to abandon these rules to take on killers plaguing his home town.

The morgue becomes a major setting in the three novels, as John examines cadavers like a sociopathic modern day  Sherlock Holmes to determine each killer’s modus operandi and emotional weaknesses. Indeed, John cites the famous detective’s saying: “ when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” in the book.

All the morgue scenes, including descriptions of the embalming process, are very realistic (or seem very realistic), which begs the question how Dan conducted the research for those scenes. But I digress. The serial killer facts and lore that John cites in his narrative grounds these books in reality, and helps to humanize the villains to the point that the reader can understand their motivations.  These monsters are not caricatures or cardboard cut-outs. They are in a word: human.

The first book, I am Not a Serial Killer, which I reviewed here earlier, reads like a crime novel with horror elements, or a horror novel with crime elements depending on which way you look at it. I understand that some readers were put off by the horror in the first novel, but looking at the story arc over the trilogy, it was an essential element.  Without giving too much away, John faces a supernatural adversary who engages John in a downright macabre cat and mouse chase.

Mr. Monster, the second book in the series, follows a format similar to Book 1 with respect to the horror tropes, but I Don’t Want to Kill You stands out as the best in the series, and as my personal favorite. It has (no pun intended) killer pacing; it doesn’t feel like a single scene is wasted or unnecessary, and despite a few questionable character motivations towards the end of the book, the main characters were well rounded. And where the first two books tended to emphasize the horror, book three’s focus was romance.  But I hesitate to call it a horror/romance novel because those two elements are so disjointed and might give you an entirely wrong idea about the book.  Instead let’s put it this way: it’s a horror novel where the romantic relationships are a significant part of the story.  Despite the romance, there’s not exactly a happy ending, so I wouldn’t recommend reading it on those grounds alone.

After following this story through three novels to the last word of the last sentence my first thought was: “It can’t end now. There has to be more.” It’s perhaps the greatest testament to Dan’s skill as a writer is that he managed to turn a teenage sociopath into a likeable character. And there’s good news: although the third book ties up the story started in I am Not a Serial Killer, the ending hints at more stories. I’ll be first one to say it.  More please.


A Couple of Updates

Been busy lately, but here are a couple of quick updates:

1. I’ve put up a What I’m Reading page, which I will update occasionally with whatever I happen to be reading. I’ve got a Goodreads profile, but I’m not sure how to publicly share that, so I’ll work with this for now.

2. I’ve given my in-progress heist novel a title: The Blind Thief and The City of The Jinn

(Not a major milestone, I know, but not having  a title for the story was starting to bug me.)

To Get Better, First Write Badly: A Brief Retrospective of My Last Eight Years

I sat down today and looked at my writing projects from the time I started to write seriously (Grade 10) till present day (a period of about eight years.) I’d like to share some of the things I discovered about my writing progress with you all.

– I finished eighteen short stories in those eight years. I’m being charitable to myself when I say I finished these stories. In reality they’re mostly first draft efforts, with the odd story that I took the time to revise into a second draft. Its fairly clear from my progression that I’ve gotten a much stronger handle on plot, character, and setting. I was surprised at how much ambition I showed in those early stories, though I lacked the foresight and skills to revise my work.

– I mostly wrote those stories for myself. I was trying to figure out who I was a writer; imitating various authors, trying different narrative styles, and playing with language. These days I’m more focused in my goals. I’ve been setting deadlines for myself, and started submitting my short stories to markets. Compared to my previous efforts, these stories are getting finished faster and I’m learning more from each one.

– I’ve racked up close to 600 pages in free form journal writing. Writing a journal didn’t directly help my fiction writing but it did get me used to the act of writing on a daily basis. In retrospect, it was an invaluable habit for me to develop.

– A lot of my fiction writing was tied up in collaborative storytelling on online forums. An forum story role play (RP for short), for those not familiar with the concept, is basically a shared world story created and written about by a small group of writers in a fairly standard phpBB forum.  I must’ve written reams of fiction in those days, although most of it is now erased from the Internet.  Looking back on it now, forum storytelling was my first real exposure to longer form story with multiple characters and subplots.

Reflecting on progress is helpful, I think, because in the day to day process of writing we don’t perceive those imperceptible leaps in skill where the broken elements fix themselves and the story stands on its own.

In the end, I wrote a lot of fiction in those eight years, most of it bad. But from each story I finished I learned incrementally more about all the elements of story. In the long run, the last eight years have just been a drop in the bucket. Some of my favorite writers like Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss needed twelve unpublished novels and ten years of focused work respectively to get published. Its at once humbling and exhilarating to see how far I’ve come on this journey and how far the road ahead is.

My Favorite Authors and Literary Influences (Pt. 2)

As promised, here is my second entry on books and authors who’ve been a formative influence in my writing. For sake of brevity, I’ve left out a lot of other authors out; consider this to be a representative sample. I may post another list on another day with all the rest.

More Recently:

Susanna Clarke:

She’s only written one novel: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell; which I’ve read at least three times since its initial release. Despite what people consider to be its flaws (sprawling story, glacial pacing, and a vague magic system) I love this book for those flaws. Because, as a whole, it works. Clarke does a wonderful job as narrator to build a comprehensive alternate history of English magic and stitch it into the known events of history. Strange and Norrell is not a secret history, by the strictest definition, but it certainly does fit some of those tropes.

And the characters! Every time I read this book, it was like going on a long vacation with friends I know really well. Whenever I recommend this book to someone, its almost like introducing them to the characters they’ll be spending time with. To you readers, who’re going to read Strange and Norrell for the first time, I envy you.

Stanislaw Lem:

I’ve only read one book by Lem, The Cyberiad, but it was awesome enough that I think Lem warrants a mention in this post. He captures the big ideas, sense of wonder, and broad philosophical scope of science fiction without being limited by the realities and constraints of science.

William Gibson:

Neuromancer was my first Gibson book, recommended to me by a friend in high school. I mostly read fantasy in high school, with science fiction being intermittently read throughout, but Gibson’s novel first turned on the proverbial light that there was science fiction beyond space opera.

Benjamin Rosenbaum:

I’d rank “The House Beyond Your Sky” as one of my most re-read short stories of all time. The way Rosenbaum fills such a short story with a fully realized world complete with cosmological back story and half a dozen Big Ideas while maintaining a subtle poetry in his narration is literally awe inspiring.

Tobias Buckell

Tobias wrote the first (AFAIK) Carribbean steampunk novel: Crystal Rain. Along with Vandana Singh’s stories, Buckell’s novels really opened my mind to potential diversity of viewpoints in SF. And being a writer of colour myself, Tobias’ books encouraged me to try out my own stories featuring my own Indian cultural background.

Neil Gaiman

Where to start with Neil Gaiman? I first encountered his Sandman series in high school. My initial reaction back then would have been: “wow, this is weird, but I want to read more.” From there, I read Books of MagicAmerican Gods and Anansi Boys and a lot of his short stories.  Gaiman’s influence is writ large on my early fiction attempts when I tried to mimic his prose style.

Robert Charles Wilson:

I read Spin as part of a promotional ebook giveaway by Tor books a couple of years ago. This novel is brilliant in that Wilson never ever oversells the ideas in the book. It taught me an important writing lesson: writing a good science fiction novel doesn’t have to be all about the idea, when we care about the characters. And it has one of the most memorable opening lines I’ve read in a while.

I was twelve, and the twins were thirteen, the night the stars disappeared from the sky.

My Favorite Authors and Literary Influences (Pt. 1)

Here is a list in no particular order of some authors that I’ve read, and books that have really influenced me as a writer. I had a hard time coming up with this list in the first place, but at the end of the day, if my house was burning down and I could only save a few books these ones would be pretty high up on that list.

Since the list of authors grew beyond the scope of a single blog post, I’ve divided up the entire thing into two pieces. Today, I’ll share my influences from the early days, and tomorrow I will share more recent influences.

From the Early Days:

Daniel Pinkwater, Brian Jacques, and Roald Dahl

I can’t think of much to say about these three fellows, but they still stand out in my mind as being the most memorable writers of my early childhood. I assume that readers of my generation probably encountered most of the same books I did at Grade 3 and Grade 6. I mean, we all read Animorphs and Goosebumps. But, all the telling details that inform my writing in unseen ways definitely took root when I read the Pinkwater, Dahl, and Jacques triad. In no particular order, these are the books that I’d recommend today.

By Pinkwater:

Lizard Music

Roald Dahl

The Witches

Danny, the Champion of the World

Charlie & The Chocolate Factory


All of the Redwall books, but these are my favorites.

William Sleator

I read Interstellar Pig and The Boxes at a time when my primary fantasy consumption was with authors like David EddingsRobert Jordan, and Terry Brooks. (circa Grade 8,  I’d guess.) These books were weird, dark, off-center, and scratched my itch for new fictional milieus that I wasn’t getting from the epic fantasy genre. Don’t get me wrong, I still do read the occasional fantasy novel, but more than anything I’d read in my childhood, these books pointed to my eventual adult writing influences.

Garth Nix

I’m sure everyone remembers one book very vividly from their childhood, one that inspired a eureka moment when they discovered that they were fantasy fans for life. Most people might point to Lord of the Rings or the Wheel of Time. And sure, I read Jordan, Tolkien, Brooks, and Eddings. But Sabriel was the gateway drug, the one book that hooked me, made me a fan for life. To this day, some of the most vivid scenes that form the fictional tapestry of my childhood stories come from Sabriel. Besides, the story features a badass necromancer heroine who fights dead spirits with swords and seven magical bells. What’s not to like?

How about you all? Which book first got you interested in sf & f? Or reading for that matter?

Once Upon A Time: A Trunk Poem

Following in the tradition of revealing my trunk stories years after I’ve written them, I would like to share a poem I wrote lo’ those many years ago. I didn’t understand poetry fully then (still don’t) but something about the imagery in a few lines of this poem were evocative enough that I thought to finish the whole thing. Enjoy!

Once Upon A Time

We remember fables from childhood:
How the synthetic greenery
Of Old Earth
Once bled to a black clot.
Where ebony graves
Were tucked snug in the
Cracks of desert floors,
And ebbing ocean tides
Orphaned continents
Whose true names we’d long forgot;
Then, that Earth was stripped bare
Of fuel rich mineral guts:
As a cancer grew deep in her lungs.
As we survived and
crusaded to the vastest reaches
Of space.

Alone,she squandered her infinite lives,
Star-gifted to planets,
To bring breath to a choked sky
Struggling with certainty,
Grappling with fate.

When transient echoes of life
Were heard, across time and space
On another home, an adopted Earth,
We felt the stasis of a planet,
We thought dead,
Only a myth.

Again there were verdant swatches,
Oceans kissing land,
The uncanny shuffling of mountains
Creasing continental brows,
And all the beleaguered triumphs
Of the civilizations which followed
To the stumbling cadence
Of nature’s paradigms.

Now, we quest across the cosmos,
Seeking a home old as time,
Turning revolutions, far, far, away.
How long before her breath gives,
How much longer can she live?