Category Archives: Features

Chennai Express: Funny Despite Itself

“I don’t make my movies for intellectuals,” the director of Chennai Express, Rohit Shetty, is supposed to have said. I can well imagine him making that statement, sneer on his face, contemplating his previous box office successes like Bol Bachchan and Golmaal, all made with similar LCD ingredients of slapstick humor, over-the-top acting, and overwrought emotion.

But a sweet seller (bear with me on the analogy for a bit) is not an intellectual, and a good one will know exactly how much ghee and sugar to put in the halva without needing a culinary degree. If the halva is over-sweet and dripping with fat, people will still eat it, and maybe even relish that first decadent bite, but at the end of it all they will be left with is a stomach ache and a desire never to repeat that mistake.

Which is how I felt after watching Chennai Express, a tale of a North Indian halvai (and there’s the analogy returning to roost) and a South Indian lovely who meet by chance on a train and have adventures on the run.

To be fair, CE is pretty funny in bits; the sequence where Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan spoofing himself) pulls Meenamma (the lovely Deepika Padukone) on to the train, DDLJ style, is hilarious. Even though the dialogues are just plain awful, the situational comedy and Padukone’s perfectly pitched turn as a Madrasi lass are enough to have you in splits through about 70% of the movie, especially if you are sitting in a theater surrounded by tweens. The kids laughed continuously, despite missing the Hindi-Tamil jokes and the SRK references, and we adults laughed along.

But, fair warning, the last 20 minutes are just horrendous and there is a sequence involving a small person which is not just insensitive but bizarrely incomprehensible and left us all scratching our heads. I happen to be a fan of SRK, but ever since R.A.One, I’ve been wondering what the heck happened to the guy. His facial contortions, his weird grimaces and mannerisms – were they always there or is this some pathetic attempt to live up to his superstar expectations?

What saves the movie (and SRK’s butt) is Padukone, whose performance leaves me no doubt that she is the next big thing in mainstream Bollywood. She delivers her cheesy lines with aplomb, completely getting into the skin of what can only be described as a mythical Southy stereotype, the kind once popularized by Mehmood with his “aiyyo-jees.” The role is a complete departure (as much it can be in a Hindi movie) from her successful outing in Yeh Jawaani hai Deewani, and she does it justice in a way that really exposes SRK’s  shortcomings.

It is almost a pity that Chennai Express (as I write this review) is turning out to be a big box office success, because it sends a message to other filmmakers that it is okay to skimp on quality dialogue, it is okay to hire ensemble actors who suck so badly they must be related to the producer, it is okay to pair an over-the-hill lead with a young, gorgeous twenty-something, it is okay to poke fun at disabled people, and it is okay to engage in the worst kind of Southern stereotyping so long as you have a formula and a hook that brings the audience in.

That the crassly commercial Lungi Dance was added as an afterthought suggests even Shetty had some doubts about the viability of a movie where so many aspects were shortchanged.

That the movie is going to be a blockbuster suggests that all those doubts will be erased. Sigh! I gorged on the halva yesterday, but today I’m feeling sick.

*LCD = Lowest Common Denominator

Archives, Archives, Archives

Spent the best part of 4 hours organizing all the archival material of my radio shows. If you look at the new menu above, you’ll see the two new archive options – Parent Talk Show Archives and Quiz Show Archives.  Despite being fairly mundane, the whole process was incredibly validating, especially as I was typing out the various topics I had covered during the year-long run of Parent Talk.

Each archive has the recordings of the various episodes in mp3 form. I’m still not done with the quiz show archives but another couple of days and all the episodes should be up.

Tried out the WpPro Quiz plugin to see if I could put up all the quizzes I have conducted, but it seems to be an incredibly time consuming process, because each quiz question and answer has to be entered separately, and with 25 quiz shows and over 750 questions, that’s a task I am not willing to undertake. Anyone know of a better plugin that will allow me to copy my questions off of MsWord?


Writing a Novel – Day 21

Snoopy typingHurray! The writer’s block seems to be dealt with for the moment, with only a little shaming from the spousal unit. I knew it was a good idea to go public with my plan to write a book since now I have many well wishers asking every day how much progress I’ve made. I finished my next mini chapter and put a research question out to a friend about a problem to be solved in the next chapter. I think I’ll add him as a helpful character in my book.

I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but the book is a light mystery story whose plot I’m making up as I go along, so the chapters are as much a revelation to me as they are to my characters.

Does this breakthrough mean I am going to be efficient and finish up the book lickety-split? Naaah.

Reading a Novel – Writer's Block Edition

Writers blockNope, the novel is not going anywhere. In a desperate attempt to jumpstart my recalcitrant brain, I went to the library a couple of days ago and picked up a bag full of books. My method, if I am not picking a known author, is to open the book mid-way and see if I can tolerate the language…a necessary ritual, given my declining attention span.

Well, this time my fishing was spectacular. Here are the gems I found.

Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie: If there’s any justice in the world, this man will win a Nobel Prize one day. These short stories, chronicling the un-moored life of Native Americans, are so spare and beautiful that each is a master class in writing. The matter of fact wretchedness of the lives in these stories make for a somewhat grim experience, but I find it difficult to stop reading. Alexie’s keen observations of reservation life and the impact it has on its inhabitants makes you realize that slavery still exists in the US, insidiously cloaked in the trappings of welfare and reparation.

Alexie had a pretty eventful and traumatic childhood, which probably gave him a heightened sensitivity to suffering, but he doesn’t wallow in it. Each page has a paragraph or two that makes you go “Wow” in admiration. If you love to read, and are not daunted by bleak writing, you must, must read this author.

The Doctor of Thessaly by Anna Zouroudi: Now that the Ladies Detective Agency books are beginning to pall a little, I’m really fortunate to have found this series, featuring fat detective Hermes Diaktoros. Lovely comfort food for mystery lovers, in the vein of Miss Marple adventures. There are only three books in the series so far, but I am going to find the others and then wait patiently for the new ones. Zouroudi is also a minimalistic writer and is able to sketch her Greek characters with a sharp pen.

The Girl in Blue by P.G. Wodehouse: I thought I’d read all of Wodehouse’s oeuvre, but I could not recall this one. But the real reason I picked it up was its ancient plastic cover and the faded, silverfish-eaten, brittle pages inside – I had a flashback to the musty libraries of my childhood, mostly stocked by the British before they left India, full of holey books and the smell of mold. Heaven! The Girl in Blue is pretty formulaic Wodehouse, but still a lot of fun and, unlike my reading style as a kid when plot was all that mattered, I read this time to savor the punny style.

Two other random choices were Fleur DeLeigh’s Life of Crime by Diane Leslie and The Spare Wife by Alex Witchel. Each is a satirical peek into the life of the rich and glamorous, one in New York and the other in Beverly Hills, and I’ll review when I finish reading them.


Writing a Novel – Day 20

Snoopy typingYou know you have a problem when your Aspie teen with anxiety issues and a video game addiction is further ahead on his novel that you are on yours. I swear I am never yelling at him again for his lack of motivation.

Got back to my novel after days of wasting my time and discovered I needed help with the continuity, even in as small a book as mine. What was the name of that lady in chapter 2? What did the heroine say to her friend in chapter 5? So I had to go back and re-read what I had written so far, a project strewn with the landmines of self-criticism. Luckily I could still tolerate the story I had written so far, so I went ahead and worked on chapter 10.

If I had to do some introspection, I guess I would say that the reason I am not in a hurry to finish the book is because once it is done I will have to show it to people and that prospect freaks me out.

Writing a Novel- Day 19

Snoopy typingWork on the book has been slow lately. I’m up to chapter 8, still in a good place to continue, just busy with a quiz show I’ve been hosting and some other household obligations. Tomorrow I plan to put in some serious time and get to the heart of the story.

Tried to get my daughter to read what I’ve written so far and give me a critique and she flatly refused. I wonder why? I guess she’s afraid of criticizing and hurting my feelings or having to lie about it! Admittedly those are not good choices but her perceived options don’t help my self-confidence!

I’m also toying with the ambitious idea of starting a story website where I will post a chapter a week of a new story that kids can subscribe to to access the content. Need a web designer who can come up with a snazzy looking website which can do the job. Anybody out there who can do a clean job at a reasonable price?


The Loneliness of the Long Distance Blogger

bloggerWent through a site redesign..not as fancy as it seems. It just involved picking a theme from WordPress’ featured ones and clicking “Install.” The result is a simple minimalist blog based on the theme “Twenty Twelve.”

The reason for the redesign was that WNI has more and more become just my personal blog rather than the community hangout I had once envisioned. Dear friends like Isheeta Sanghi (who I know only through her posts but I feel I know well!) pop in once in a while to post, but mostly is I, me, and myself who posts. It feels more efficient to collect all my writing in one place. In fact, I even plan to create a section for all my India Current editorials here and link back to the magazine. It’s just better curating.

Anyway, the heads up on the redesign was just part of the reason for this blog post. While updating it I was sorry to remove the names and bios of the many people who contributed to the site when it was younger. They got busier and softly walked away. And when I checked the blogs I had linked to, most were defunct.

These writers and bloggers began their journey on the internet with such enthusiasm and hope. The medium of the blog was their deliverance from their humdrum daily routines, a place to be their best creative self, a launchpad for a richer inner life.

But keeping a blog going, as I can vouch for, takes quite a bit of work, and not a little narcissism. And those dreams of making money through eyeballs never really materialized for anyone not outrageous or shameless (that means you, HuffPo).

Right at the point where bloggers were wondering whether the sweat they were pouring into these confessions was worth it, along came Facebook and Twitter and offered sweet validation in 30 words, 140 characters. One picture could generate the kind of commenting 4 paragraphs in a blog could not. One-liner announcements or provocations could start the kind of vigorous discussions that well-reasoned essays never did.

When long form journalism is hunkering down for survival in a handful of national newspapers and magazines, when even seasoned economists and philosophers have taken to encapsulating their ideas in bite size chunks, can a lowly blogger survive in his or her lonely corner of the internet?

I feel the wheel has come full circle. When blogs first began, they were web logs, or online diaries that people maintained to preserve a record of their personal growth. And in the future, the only true blogs, and I mean those that are not selling something or someone, that will continue that mostly solitary journey are of those of the very same nature, perhaps even by the same people, who will use the medium to put themselves and their lives out there, and readership be damned. The only readers they are writing for are their own future selves and that is one audience that will never desert them.

Image courtesy


A Rotten Apple Spoils the Bunch

By Isheeta Sanghi

You may not know what happened in Delhi two weeks ago, most likely because we were mourning the loss of all the innocent children in Connecticut, who were murdered a day earlier. But something horrible happened. And no loss, or tragedy should be pinned or measured against another, but I feel like what happened on December 16, 2012 in New Delhi is something that every woman, every man, and especially every American of Indian heritage needs to know about.

I am too emotional to put into words the horrific events that led to the brutal rape and subsequent death of a young woman, but I’d like to recommend a blog article posted by a former colleague of mine.

The Mayans predicted that the world would end, and in my view, they were right. Humanity has died, and has been laid to rest.  I think, when something like this happens, when something like Sandy Hook happens, you start to think about things, you start to use those two words, ‘what if.’ What if, it was my child, who I sent to school that day, but will never get to send to school again? What if, I was that girl, who got onto a bus, after just watching a movie with a friend, but would never ever be able to get onto another bus again?

What if.

What happened makes me want to retract everything good I have ever written about India – hence this title. Never have I been so ashamed of being Indian, never have I been so mortified and completely shocked by the human race.

I think more than anything I am disgusted that this is something that has happened, in 2012. In a city that claims to be metropolitan, in a country that wants to move away from being “third world.” Guess what, you just moved all the way back, and then some.

I lived in Delhi alone, for a year, and I can’t help but think what if. That girl, she did what I would have done, she got on with a male friend, and assumed a natural level of comfort, which 6 barbarians have just stolen away from every single young, working woman in the capital. What if it had been me?

Following the girl’s death, reports came out that she and her friend were actually waiting for an auto before they got onto the bus. I can’t tell you how many times I had to wait and wait and wait for an auto, but I never got onto a bus, because I never knew how they worked, and I would just start walking. I’d walk on main roads, and again assume a natural level of safety thinking “If I stay on the main roads I’ll be fine.” I guess I must have been really, really lucky.

I am an optimist. I like believing people are good. I still want to believe in fairies and love, but at the end of the day, you read about something like this, and you re-evaluate everything you’ve ever thought of, everything you’ve ever believed.

What’s worse is some of the comments we’re hearing from officials. “Ladies shouldn’t be on a bus at that hour.” Really? Well, why do you have movies that start at 10pm? Oh wait, I’m sorry, that’s only something for men to do? “Ladies shouldn’t dress inappropriately with short skirts and tank tops.” Um. I don’t even know what to say to that because that’s the most illogical reasoning I’ve ever heard in my entire life. So what you’re saying is that I’m inviting someone to rape me by wearing a skirt? Sorry, but, no.

I think it’s beyond ridiculous that we’re still living in a society that places women underneath men.  I think it’s beyond ridiculous that the officials of the country are coming up with reasons that justify the accused’s actions. Basically what you’re saying is that it’s a crime to be a woman at all, and we should wear baggy trash bags so in order to not encourage men’s primal instincts. Not that it’s going to stop them anyway.

Being under the influence of alcohol makes you do stupid things, this we know. We all say things, text things, FaceBook things that we end up regretting. But this, this is inexcusable; I don’t know how much you’d have to drink to do these unexplainable things.

Luckily the 6 accused are in police custody. Though I’m not entirely sure how effective that is, given that the political situation in “The World’s largest Democracy” isn’t what one would call organized or fair. I’m not sure what fate awaits them, I’m not sure what their mothers, sisters, or wives must think of them, though I do know what the world thinks of them.

I don’t know what will happen; I don’t know if things will change, though I’m sadly doubtful that anything will come of this. The thing is we still live in a world where these unspeakable things happen on a daily basis, but we just don’t hear about them. It’s true that these unspeakable events don’t happen only in India, but when it happens so close to home, we feel it so much more. The reason we don’t hear more about them is because we, as a society, shove them under the carpet. Because, as women, we’re ashamed of what the world will think of us, what our families will have to deal with. What we should be more concerned about is highlighting that we didn’t do anything wrong, WE were wronged.

We do not know her name, but one thing is for sure, we know what happened. Wherever she is, she should know that we all heard her story. We know that when she got to the hospital she told her mother and the doctors that she wanted to live. We would have wanted here to know that what happened wasn’t fair.

Her legacy, horrifying and painful as its origins may have been, is that we are all talking about the vile act that is just an extension of many smaller indignities that Indian women face all the time. I hope she knows that, and is comforted.

Isheeta is one of the many first-generation American born Indians that relocated to India for college. She studied in Delhi, and after finishing up relocated to Bangalore, to work for Reuters as a journalist. After a few years of living and working in India she recently relocated back to the Bay Area, where she was born and raised. She shares with us her unique perspective on her experience of living in India, and dealing with various cultural issues. She currently works at a start-up in the Silicon Valley.

Reduce, Re-use, Recycle … Your Wardrobe?

Quick show of hands – How many of you have lovely Indian saris and outfits moldering in your closet, worn once and never to be worn again? Or worse, those lehngas that your aunt sent that don’t fit you, or the sari received as a gift at a wedding that just isn’t your style?

I do, and Dina Patel of Didi’s Wardrobe is betting you do too.

After 10 years in the finance world, putting in 100 hours a week, Patel was ready to try something different. Noticing how didis wardrobe 1she always ended up exchanging clothes with her friends when she needed party outfits, and how many of her own clothes were worn so infrequently, she set up Didi’s Wardrobe, a place for buyers and sellers of gently used clothes to come together.

“I looked at the rental concept first,” says Patel, “but there are just so many players in that area.” (see Borrow it Bindass). “Plus, they have a significant inventory investment, and I wasn’t ready to do that based on my market research.”

Didi’s sellers operate in two ways. For the enterprising ones who want to use Didi’s as a consignment store, Patel offers an easy way to get the clothing details up on the site. She does expect the seller to be good with measurements and to put up pictures of the clothes offered. Also, to protect the buyer, payment is not made to the seller till confirmation of receipt of goods is received from the buyer. For this kind of seller, Didi’s Wardrobe keeps 18% of the sale proceeds.

For the more typical seller, who has a bunch of clothes but can’t be bothered to sort them out, Didi’s Wardrobe has a much more convenient option. Just bundle up the  clothes and ship them and DW will sort them, measure them, put a price on them, and display them effectively on the site. In this case, DW keeps 50% of the sale price.

“Customers are quite happy with this option and the prices we set on their clothes,” reports Patel. And buyers can clearly see if the clothes are from DW’s inventory or directly from the seller. Best of all, the clothes are rated on their condition.

Based in the Midwest, Patel has been setting up drop-off days in the area this summer, and says she has met with tremendous response from sellers who have, on occasion, brought garbage bags full of clothes to the location.

Supply doesn’t seem to be a problem, but how comfortable are people wearing used clothes?

Indian Saree 1155aNot surprisingly, 50% of DW’s buyers are non-Indian. I guess DW is a great way to try out Indian clothes at a low entry price. “But I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the profile of my Indian clients,” says Patel. They’ve been fairly high net worth customers, and DW has been able to meet their discerning standards.

I tried DW’s system a couple of months ago and purchased an olive silk sari with a blouse that claimed to be my size. I received my purchase in short order, and found the sari as lovely as it looked in the picture. I did have to make adjustments to the blouse, but a local seamstress was able to do that with no trouble and I ended up with a printed silk sari and blouse for $60, which, frankly, I thought was a steal.

DW has been growing slowly and some of it has been by design. “I was very concerned about getting the mechanics of it right,” says Patel, and her site has been growing organically, with minimal marketing. And she has resisted efforts to make it a mall kind of experience, where many sellers of new clothes can congregate.  “Our aim is to be environment friendly, and selling new clothes defeats that purpose. The idea is to reuse clothes and recycle our wardrobes,” says Patel.

Didi’s Wardrobe has been getting good traction over this summer and quite a few repeat buys. “The biggest challenge is to overcome inertia,” says Patel. “We all have beautiful clothes in our closet that we would be happy to sell, but it is making the effort to send us the stuff that daunts people.” Still, the drop-off days have been very successful and Patel plans to expand the area covered for the drop-offs.

Other expansion plans include a bridal section. “We haven’t really pushed this segment, but we are growing slowly,” says Patel.

Go check out Didi’s Wardrobe to help you prune your closet. And if you are looking for pretty outfits you don’t have to pay a fortune for, Didi’s Wardrobe is a great place to find those bargains. Best of all, you’ll end up spending less, having more, and knowing that your lovely clothes will be cherished and worn by people who appreciate them as much as you once did.

Amar Seva Sangam: Helping the Disabled Efficiently

By Mahesh Padmanabhan

This summer, I had the opportunity to visit the Amar Seva Sangam. It is an institution that cares deeply about physically and mentally challenged people in India and has the organizational and operational skills to really make a difference to their plight.

My parents had been contributing regularly to this institution – making donations (on my birthday and my sister’sAmar Seva 2 birthday) and getting it more exposure within the media.

I am usually very skeptical about the efficacy of an institution like this in India. With rampant corruption permeating almost every facet of Indian society and virtually no laws or programs in place to address the needs of disabled individuals, I was certain that it would be poorly run and its existence was merely a way to funnel money to its founders and investors.

I resolved to make a trip to Ayakudi, the headquarters of Amar Seva Sangam with a mixture of cynicism and curiosity. Ayakudi is a village beautifully nestled in the foothills of the Western Ghats. The Sangam itself is situated on the outskirts of this idylic village among the ubuiqutous wind farms strewn across the countryside.

I was pleasantly surprised by what I discovered.

Even though the Sangam has grown organically, the tour of the facility made me realize that they had given some thought to planning the growth, resulting in easy access to all buildings within the facility. Wheelchair access sometimes resulted in shorter distances to other buildings.

The Sangam started off as a shed but due to the diligent work of its founders, support staff, donations and sponsorship, has decent facilities now for early childhood intervention, rehabilitation, schooling and vocational training.

Amar Seva 3I had the opportunity to talk to many teachers and administrative staff and I was impressed with their sense of purpose and their enthusiasm for their role and responsibilities. The entire network of people operating and participating in the Sangam felt like a well oiled machine. Many of the teachers and administrative staff come from nearby villages and more
importantly, are products of the Sangam.

The Sangam’s outreach program is equally impressive. Disability, especially in Indian villages, is akin to being a leper so village society shuns disabled individuals. A disabled family member is forced to stay away not just from society but from other family members. This isolation further exacerbates that individual’s psyche and does away with any notion of being a productive member of society.

The outreach program operates in over 600 surrounding villages and takes the hard road of door-to-door education and potentially getting disabled individuals back into the Sangam for rehabilitation and training so that they can make a positive impact to society. The program also has clear structure and guidance on establishing a self-sufficient group comprised of people from the village that can continue the process of education thereby allowing the outreach program to scale.

The Sangam was started as a rehabilitation and training center but has grown to include two things closer to my heart, integrated schooling and early childhood intervention.

Integrated schooling allows normal and disabled children to study and play together thereby increasing tolerance to and understanding of disability at an early age.

Early childhood intervention deals with getting disabled children into the Sangam at as early a stage as possible thereby mitigating the effects of age on self-sufficiency. This is especially true for mental retardation where detecting and starting the rehabilitation program as quickly as possible is critical to the well-being of the child and the child’s progression to

I left Ayakudi uplifted, humbled and determined that I would try my best to keep the Sangam running for years to come. The Sangam relies heavily on donations and sponsorships especially as they are trying to make serious inroads into early childhood intervention, education, continued rehabilation and training.

It is absolutely essential that we do our part in helping this well run institution continue its noble mission. Please check out or better yet visit the Sangam as a volunteer. Please donate as much or little as you can or get your company to participate in corporate sponsorship of this excellent institution.