Monday, August 29, 2005

We totally have Justin in da house!

Funny, that I was alerted to this by a rather disparaging post about the person in question, but I think we may be finally witnessing the emergence of a genuine home-grown Indian "popstar" in the Western sense of the term. To make sense of the point I'm trying to make here, we'll have to step back a bit and assess the history of Indian popular music over the last 4 decades or so. Indian popular cinema has always given pride of place to music, barring only a few exceptions. In days when dubbing technology was still not very well-developed, Hindi films used a workable compromise to cast actors in movies, those who had charisma, screen presence and acting skills, who also had moderately good voices that would pass muster in popular music. Sometimes someone was a better singer than an actor, a la KL Saigal, but mostly singing beauties like Kanan Devi and Noorjehan made it a fairly happy compromise.

As sound technology developed in the late 1940s and with it the possibility for playback singing, the connection between on screeen presence and singing ability became increasingly uncoupled. So now, it became possible to have an actor/actress who was good looking and could act well on screen and have their songs dubbed by those whose sole talent was a superb singing voice. And thus, even though divas like Lata Mangeshkar (and I do mean diva in every sense) started their film careers as singer-actresses, she quickly moved on to become exclusively a playback/dubbing singer, heard universally, rarely seen. This arrangement continued for decades, and as a result in Indian public consciousness, there was a neat demarcation between visual appeal and charisma and a mellifluous voice providing aural pleasure.

Sure there were the Usha Uthups, dashing live performers with fab voices, but Usha was always at the margins, and never had much mainstream appeal (except in Bengal I guess). And then there was Kishore Kumar, brilliant singer and immensely entertaining as a live performer, but certainly no one expected him to have charisma (it was a bonus), and the fact that he had such a wonderful singing voice was enough. So of course, when pop music as a genre separate from film scores started in the early 1980s (Nazia Hassan's Disco Deewane was a pioneer), it was initially fairly hard for the Indian record-buying public to reconcile the dichotomy. One of my uncles loved Nazia and had her LPs (it helped that she was stunningly beautiful), but for a lot of members of my family, Nazia was just not talented enough. "Can she sing like Lata Mangeshkar?" was the constant refrain. Never mind that not everyone needs to be a singer in the Lata mould, technical virtuoso with the charisma of a wet blanket. Nazia was beautiful and could sing passably well. The young adored her, but the older generation still frowned. But Nazia was a flash in the pan and for years Indian pop singers had to struggle with a valuation system that was hypercritical of their singing abilities without taking into account their sex appeal, stage presence, situation in a certain musical idiom etc. Let me tell ya, Bob Dylan could have never, ever made it if he was born Indian.

That perception has been changing in recent years, and if we needed proof that this is the case, it is here. This is a new reality show meets Pop/American Idol on Indian TV called Fame Gurukul, where a bunch of contestants are made to undergo a random set of training sessions under the tutelage of singer Ila Arun, and then presented to a live audience to do their thing. They are rated on their performance by a panel of judges as well votes by audience members calling in. The winner of the show gets a recording contract with Sony Music, and of course the publicity and national recognition is good too. The show has been going on for a while now, and I haven't really watched any of the episodes, though I've seen a few video recaps online on the show's website. The curious phenomenon in the show is the case of Qazi Touqeer, a 19-year old boy from Srinagar, Kashmir with a flamboyant personality and effortless charm. The judges seem to think he's a mediocre singer, and put him in the bottom heap in every single show. But voila! what do you know, the voting audience keeps bringing him back on. This has apparently happened 5 times already, and as I write, I don't know if he's survived on the show or finally voted out.

Obviously the viewers of the show have a very different view of his potential as a "pop star" than the judges. None of the other contestants seem to have the audience appeal that this boy has, and he seems to revel in the spotlight like no other. His clothes, gestures and dancing are all brash and Bollywood, but in conversation he comes across as a genuinely likeable homeboy. Music companies would be foolish to not offer him a record contract, talent or no talent, because rarely have I seen a subcontinental performer strut on stage like he owns the place (I can think of Ali Azmat from Junoon, and Ali's voice and this boy's voice are at about the same point on a talent scale, don't get me wrong, I love Junoon). Sure he's cheesy, totally enamoured of Bollywood heros and his style is derivative of them, but he is a pop eye candy package in the way someone like Shubha Mudgal isn't (and I absolutely adore Shubha Mudgal, and would rather listen to her than Qazi anyday). Point is we need a desi Justin Timberlake, an Indian Britney Spears, heck even a subcontinental JLo. We just need to stir things up a bit. And Qazi may just be the answer we are looking for.

And no, I don't think people are voting for Qazi because he is a Kashmiri Muslim and the Muslim members of the audience are jamming the SMS lines, as the original poster alleges. Sure being Kashmiri adds to the appeal, but in the end Qazi brings a very fresh approach to pop music in India, one where we don't obsess over the technical perfections of the voice, but enjoy the performance as a whole. And he is definitely very easy on the eye, and I can see his appeal with teenage girls. You go boy!

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Painted into the scene

Oh daaahlings, aren't we so fine! Yesterday Em and I found ourselves in the midst of an LA moment, sipping martinis made of a hot new-in-town Dutch vodka (Stoli baby, I'm not switching loyalties, your competition is rather bleh), nibbling on dimsum that look like the miniature versions of those served in the regular Chinese dimsum emporia. And of course, mingling a bit but mostly surveying the scene. This was a party for the launch of a new foodie web-zine by LA.com , and I'd love to make up stories about how it was so exclusive and how I had to schmooze up to get into the celebrity-only guest list. Truth is, anyone could come, anyone who bothered to rsvp for the event. But since LA.com is ubercool (I'd like to believe so), there was quite an interesting mix, the bulk of the attendance made up by trendy twenty-somethings.

The restaurant where the party was held is a remodelled, pan-Asian one, and the chef seemed to take a real interest in serving up a good eclectic mix (think Filipino lumpia with Indonesian perkedel along with regular Chinese shui mai). It has a great patio, but the lounge area needs a bit of work. It is located in a stretch of Third Street that falls in Beverly Hills so of course has some very fancy restaurants and designer stores, including the hip labels like Trina Turk and Built by Wendy. The shopping is all pedestrian-oriented, so you can walk around and explore, but if you think of buying be prepared to burn a very large hole in your pocket.

Of course Em and I were amazed at the large number of 40 something women, who looked very well-maintained indeed, bless the botox and collagen infusions. Some of them seemed to have gorgeous men by their side, but many were definitely on the look-out. We met a very sweet couple who had moved to LA recently from Boston and were keen to make friends. We could have circulated more, but Em is usually not very keen on walking up to people and introducing himself, and besides he wanted to meet our new neighbours in the building meeting that we had right after the party. So we had to leave sooner, but it was a fun do, and hopefully there'll be more of the same.

What pebbles we treasure!

Em's brother and nephew left on Monday, and after a whirlwind few days of enjoying the beaches, the promenades, the good food and all the wonderful bounties of LA summer, I slid down into reflection on the BIG task. Here's an incident that serves as an analogy.

Till about two years ago, I couldn't swim. So when I visited Greece for the first time about three years ago, I was apprehensive about being on a sailing trip for three days. S had insisted that I wear a life vest at all times on board, and even with the vest, at times the very strong night winds had me scared. And then, after a morning of sailing, we anchored near the most gorgeous secluded beach in the afternoon. Even at the spot where we anchored, the bottom of the sea was clearly visible, starfish refracted through masses of shimmering blue-green, squiggling across the sea bed.And S insisted that I should try and wade across to the beach, with my vest strapped on of course. I was tempted, I wondered how it would be to be enveloped by this blue-green creature, that seemed to sparkle and frolick at every quiver.

I stepped into the water, still holding on to the boat step ladder. And then S said, "Let go, and lie down"! Suddenly, terrible rush of panic, my head stubbornly refusing to make contact with water, my hand tenaciously holding on to the ladder. S, not noticing my terror, tried to pull me into the water, and hold my body afloat. But at that moment, the blue-green acquired monstrous qualities, enguling me with menace on all side, and all I could think of was escape. I gripped the step ladder with all my strength and tried to clamber back on, screaming out to S to let me go. Back on the boat, I tried to regain composure, convinced that I had escaped certain death, while S consoled me, trying to cajole me to give a swim to the beach another try. I looked at the sea, again, the undulating happy prism of a thousand shades of dichroma. I stepped into the water a second time, gently lowered by S, and this time, when he asked me to assume floating position and dip my head in the water, the panic was not so intense, although there was residual familiar fear. I manages to flail my arms enough to reach the beach, and how beautiful it was, with it's mix of sand and many-hued pebbles, forever smoothened by the caresses of water that was almost clear and colourless at this point.

Lately grappling with my dissertation has at times brought on visions of that primaeval panic, the breathlessness and anxiety of it all. The enormity of the blue-green composed of a multitude of tasks, work that needs to be assembled bit by bit, finessed, painstakingly and then defended against the bored contempt of those who have seen too many nervous faces. I guess I hope for a beautiful beach at the end of it, metaphorically, but literally as well, a beach to lie down on and rest after my labors. But that's a distant dream, and for now what I have are several months of research to look forward to.

Em, Matt and I had gone to Zuma beach last Saturday, a quieter sort of beach almost on the outer rim of LA county, on the edge of Malibu. I sat on the beach as Em and Matt went off for a swim. The waves here tend to be fairly big, so of course a few surfers are always to be seen, keeping an eye on the next wave, positioning themselves for the few moments of glorious balance. I wondered if I could ride a surfboard, only for a few seconds, before being knocked off by a massive wave and my own clumsy feet. She didn't know how to swim, and now she wants to surf! I also felt a wee bit of sadness at another summer drawing to a close, and realization that some sources of anxiety need to be met head on over the next few months. As my advisor never fails to remind me, "You should think of graduating this year". Talk about understatement!

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Belly-envy and why I need more ab crunches

In continuance of my birthday celebrations, and to accomodate the San Diego appendage of our gang, we went off to Caspian in Irvine for a long-drawn out dinner on Saturday. A lot of last-minute bail-outs later (too far!too exhausted from work!yadda yadda yadda), it was me and S who set off to meet Em and family and the Pumpkins (yep that's what we call Beck and her boy). Also joining us was lovely Anna who made an earlier appearance as long suffering on-off girlfriend of Triangle. He was in Greece then, hooking up with past girlfriends and trying to join the mile-high club (as we learnt later) while Anna was trying to get a hold of him by calling him up as frequently as she could.

We reached Caspian only to encounter a mutant version of the Iranian diaspora that I had never encountered before: the pushy, rank-pulling Persian-palace-in-the-suburbs type. As we waited patiently in queue to speak to the host about our reservations, two to three parties who clearly joined the queue after I did tried to jump ahead and spoke to the host about how they knew so and so and how he should score them a table. These were all mostly older first-generation immigrants in their 50s and 60s, usually the most polite in LA. Clearly Irvine operates differently. The host was harried by the commotion, ignored us for almost 15 minutes before I insisted that he look up our reservation. We finally made our way to the table, where we were ignored by servers for about half an hour. In their defense, I must say that the place is cavernous and huge, and resembles one of those San Gabriel valley dimsum emporia or Glendale Lebanese-Armenian restaurants in its expanse. And it was packed to the gills on a Saturday night.

The rest of our party came in, and Matt (Em's nephew) was eating his 5th or 6th Iranian meal in a row. From once a month to every meal for three days was a bit much for the poor boy. But then, he loves burgers, and the koobideh kebab comes as close to a burger patty as anything, so he kept ordering koobideh at every place. The food came, and it was no patch on the excellent offerings of Shahrezad or even a take-out joint like Downtown Kebab. Average at best. But then, food was never the attraction of this place. The crowds were explained a few minutes later, when the lights dimmed and the belly dancers came in. Most places manage one on the weekends, this place had a whole troupe of belly dancers! They were all fairly good, but one of them was absolutely exceptional, and I really wished I had her talent with the diaphragm. The girl could wiggle her puppy fat like no other, making the guests erupt into applause every time she came in.

I can sincerely say that I've never ever had mixed feelings about belly dancers in restaurants. S says that all said and done the men are ogling at a scantily clad woman shaking her bum and belly, and tipping her by stuffing dollar bills in her flimsy top and belt is sort of objectifying. Somehow, I can imagine it being sleazy when performed for an exclusively male clientele who are less interested in the art and skill of it than the sexual arousal potential. However, in spaces like restaurants with men, women and children in mixed groups, it becomes easier to focus on the skill-set of the dancer. Sure you'd still pay attention to how sexy the dancer is, but her sexual aura is part of the allure of the performance and is not distilled out for its own sake. In fact, I prefer it when belly dancers dress sexier, (as opposed to a fully covered one) because it is possibly to see the amazing things she manages to do with her abs. Somehow we seem to operate on this whole Madonna-whore dichotomy where anything de-sexed and sanitized gets to be called art, while anything explicitly sexual is sleazy (think classical nudes vs. erotica/pornography). The only painter I've seen who seems to be able to straddle both worlds is Titian, with his sumptuous nudes, dazzlingly sexual, but I digress.

So apparently it was Matt's first time at a belly-dance performance, and he seemed really happy with the whole thing, especially with us urging him to tip the dancers as they came to our table. A very beaming Matt did so, and even joined Em and me on the dance floor to dance to the live Iranian music that followed. He did his best to keep up with the dance moves and was very sweet and trying to follow his uncle. Em explained it very precisely, "See Matt, it's easy enough, pretend you are changing two light bulbs with both hands and fidgeting your feet around as you do so!" Em can launch a brand new career as a dance instructor, Khordadian watch out!

So we stayed there for what seemed forever, eating and dancing and tipping the dancers, till the Pumpkins decided to make a move, as they had to drive all the way to San Diego and we followed suit. In the parking lot, Em's brother and Matt were hilarious mimicking accents from different parts of England for us. They live close to Leeds so they've got the Northern England accent down pat. The Yorkshire accent was so funny, and so was the cockney. Now if only they can explain this to those who marvel on my "British" accent!

Friday, August 12, 2005

A Family Potrait

I finally saw brother Em and nephew Em, and yes, the family resemblance is striking! S couldn't get over the fact that they seem to have the same noses, the same looks, even the same hand gestures. Uncle and nephew seem to have the same fascination for gadgets as the boy couldn't be parted from his tiny PDA and certainly knows a lot more about Bluetooth than I do. But what's most fascinating is that they all seem to have the same impeccable manners, courtesy and politeness that seemed to me to be Em's special gift for all the time that I've known him. I guess it runs in the family then!

Yesterday I accompanied all of them to Santa Monica where they stopped for a quick lunch at the food court and then walked to the pier and around the promenade. Em's brother was fascinated by the fact that a food court stall was selling Iranian food, as the Iranian restaurants near their home were more fancy places. We talked about British food, and I was surprised to know that you can eat fish and chips with mushy peas and gravy. Perhaps a northern variation? I told them that I knew of a British pub down the road (Santa Monica has a large Brit expat population, so there are quite a few British pubs and restaurants). Em's brother was very excited at the prospect of going to a British pub here, and told us that his favourite beer was a Northern English beer called Boddington, locally brewed at Manchester. And what do you know, the pub had Boddington on tap! And it was a very fine ale and after a long time I enjoyed an afternoon beer, which is something I love, rather than drinking beer at night.

We walked around a bit, and I was quite struck by what a polite and pleasant child Em's nephew was. The boy is a walking advertisement for the joys of procreation, if only all of us are lucky to have noble offspring like him. Mostly American media and newsstories about out of control public schools with serious discipline issues, kids throwing tantrums in public and generally behaving badly everywhere can put you off any thoughts of parenthood. One of the scariest shows on TV is Fox's Nanny 911, about kids who ware so badly behaved that parents give up on them and call for professional help. Quite ironic that a channel that consistently parrots the conservative agenda should put out a shows such an unpleasant side of the most beloved institution of conservative politics - the American nuclear family.

But then I also realize that behavioural problems in children is an issue that the American media has sensationalized over the years, creating an entire generation of harried and neurotic parents in the process. The regular aches and pains and quirks of growing up and finding yourself are turned into "issues" that need to be "dealt with". I'm not saying that there aren't serious problems that do require professional intervention, but those should be reserved for the most critical moments.

So after we ambled around Santa Monica, Em drove up to Marina Del Rey where we drove around a bit waiting for S to come and pick me up (we were attending a house party later). The marina looks very calm and beautiful at night, with rows and rows of sailboats neatly packed next to each other, good neighbours that don't need good fences. The apartments next to the marina, very desirable and very expensive and Em's nephew said we need a good printer so we can print all the money we want to buy them!

Postmodern transience in decidedly modern settings (it's more obscure than you think)

Taking the Bonaventure Hotel elevator all the way up to the 35th floor is almost like stepping into a quasi-film noir moment. No, not as sinister as Fritz Lang's M, but equivocal and intriguing, where the city offers hints of pleasure with rooftop bars, and despair with the rows of tents pitched by the homeless on sidewalks. The grand sweep of the view as one goes higher and higher is frightening in its imperiousness, but also mesmerising as we identify familiar landmarks and freeways.

On the 35th floor we stepped out into the Bonaventure's revolving restaurant, offering a great view priced accordingly with expensive drinks. But we were feeling a bit expansive on Tuesday, certainly I was, as it was my birthday, and a very special one at that. Before we moved to the Bonaventure, we had been sitting in a small Japanese restaurant in Little Tokyo that serves up more than 20 kinds of yakitori skewers that are perfect accompaniments for drinking warm sake. So there we had stayed for almost two hours, S, Illy, Pho (S' Taekwondo buddy) and I, eating and drinking and talking and then talking and drinking and eating some more. Illy looked radiant and fresh, it seems that the trip home had been great for her.

We had been waiting for Em and Soto to join us, but Soto was tired after a long work day and Em was in the midst of one of the most important events in his life. Even as we were listening to Pho tell stories about the Vietnamese countryside over our sips of sake, Em was catching up with his brother and nephew. And a lot of catching up had to be done, since he was meeting the brother after 26 years and the nephew, now 15 years old, for the first time.

Finally, Em did come over, the dear friend that he is, didn't want to stay away on my birthday. After he came, we wanted dessert and went over to Bonaventure. Em was still quite overwhelmed by the experience and it seemed that the meeting had not sunk in as yet. Pho wanted some coffee with our dessert, and asked the waiter if the coffee was good. The waiter said, "Of course it's good, it's Starbucks"! Voila! But perhaps if coffee quality in the United States is a spectrum, Starbucks is somewhere solidly in the middle, certainly an improvement on the godawful cat-piss they serve in obscure diners. But unequivocally good coffee it is not, certainly not the regular kind that is French roasted to death and then brewed to eternity till it loses all the merits the beans may have possessed. We did get the coffee, and the desserts, each getting a giant slice that was more dense than all the yakitori skewers we had consumed put together. But then there was the view, a panorama courtesy the revolving room, a glittering urban expanse, enclosed by the mountains on the one side and a whiff of the sea on the other.

On the way out, we collected tourist brochures from the hotel lobby and one was of an orchid farm an hour away from where we live. Hmm..who would have thought, apparently the largest orchid farm in the US. I should go, but then I promised to myself that I'd definitely make it to the heirloom tomato festival and I never made it to that. Damn, I need to get out more (and that was fully in jest my friends).

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Dehli-e-Qadeem

I almost never link to posts in other blogs, because most of the time, I'm too lazy to cut and paste the URL. This one is an exception and fascinating for purposes of Indian urbanscapes and Delhi nostalgia. Someol' Guy has a post on the etymology and historical connections of place names in Delhi, and it gives a fabulous glimpse of the eclectic, often cosmopolitan strains that make up the tapestry that Delhi is today.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Nibbles on a Monday morning

Highlight of the week gone by: Seeing Tyra Banks eat dinner a few feet away from us at The Grove on Friday, in the company of unidentified single white male (who apparently drives a bling bling Mercedes, as snoopy Em informed later, after scouting the parking lot). I'm still trying to figure out which was the bigger surprise, the fact that we saw Tyra, or the fact that we saw her eating. Em thinks she looks better on screen, I think in person. And S and Soto had no clue who she was. Sheesh men, don't you hoard Victoria's Secret catalogues?

We also went to a salon on Saturday (S wanted a haircut and I wanted my eyebrows threaded), where I met a Chinese woman who spoke fluent Bangla. Turns out her family's been in Bangladesh for generations (and seen the transition of the country from India to East Pakistan to contemporary Bangladesh). She had emigrated to the US four years ago, and found herself still unable to adjust to life here. She was very nostalgic about Dhaka, and spoke of the wonderful human interaction that she missed sorely in the very detached suburban existence here. Strange where we put down roots! In the salon were two other Chinese, one spoke only Mandarin, and the other only Cantonese, and the Bangladeshi woman spoke only the Hakka dialect. They barely managed to communicate with each other through sign language and English.

And the momentous news is that advisor's back in town, which means all the weeks of procrastination have finally caught on with me. I need to work, and blogging has to take a bit of a break. I'll try and put in something once a week, which should be just fine I guess.