Thursday, July 28, 2016

Journeying Through Petropolis

Winston Churchill spoke about very many things in his life spanning nine decades. To me, the most insightful statement was this: “I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.” He should know better than anybody else as he had cats, dogs, pigs, butterflies, swans, horses, parrots and even a lion named ‘Rota’ for company!

One man who’d surely agree with Churchill is George Clooney. He had a potbellied pig, ‘Max the Star’, as his pet for 18 long years before he turned his roving eye to his wife Amal Amaluddin.

Choosing to spend many hours with unusual pets is considered therapeutic by stars. That probably explains why Nicholas Cage had a shark, an octopus, and two albino king cobras as buddies. Or why Leonardo DiCaprio chose to cosy up to an exotic African tortoise.

Elvis Presley was another oddball with a penchant for the quirky. Rumour has it that the rock star bought a wardrobe full of suits and ties for his chimpanzee ‘Scatter’ who was later sadly poisoned by one of his maids. A piece of delicious trivia that would delight Karunanidhi & MK Stalin is: Elvis also had a horse by the name ‘Rising Sun’. They should be glad he didn’t call it ‘Two Leaves’.

When the Swiss Open organisers gifted Roger Federer ‘Desiree’, a cow, they assumed that the tennis great would shower love and affection on it. Instead he sent it to a dairy farm and had it slaughtered when the cow didn’t produce enough milk! Clearly, he was no pet champion.

In contrast, history has been rife with examples of immense love. Josephine Napoleon (spouse of Napoleon Bonaparte) used to accord royalty status to ‘Rose’, her orangutan. Salvador Dali, often took his dwarf leopard, ‘Babou’ wherever he went. Once, when Dali entered a restaurant, he was declined entry because of his carnivorous companion. Dali instantly cooked a surreal explanation and said, his friend happened to look wild because he had painted his cat. That pawsome quip saved the day.

Mike Tyson, the boxer famed for biting his opponent’s ears, is also renowned for spending close to $ 4000 a month for the upkeep of three Royal Bengal Tigers (names: Kenya, Storm & Boris). No wonder, he went bankrupt. Reese Witherspoon, however, takes the cake for unusual pets. She has two little donkeys, adorably named ‘Honky’ and ‘Tonky’. Apparently, she’s one lady who can tell her ass from her elbow!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Character Arc

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had four sons: Harilal, Manilal, Ramdas and Devdas. One of them turned out to be a rebellious drunk and was disowned by the Mahatma. Which one?

If Devdas was your answer, in all probability, you were heavily influenced by the Dilip Kumar/SRK classic about a drunken loser who gets sloshed to forget his true love. That’s what well-etched characters do to you. They grab precious real estate in your mind by becoming indelible makers for a definitive set of traits.

Which is why screenwriters and directors spend countless hours debating every little detail about the character, right from the name (Phunsukh Wangdu in ‘3 Idiots’) to how he laughs (remember The Joker’s hysterical cackle?) to what she reads (Sharmila Tagore in ‘Aradhana’ is spotted with the book ‘When Eight Bells Toll’) to what she wears (the Catwoman suit).

Since we are name-ophiles, let’s just stick to the theme of movie character naming. When George Lucas was once asked about how he goes about it, he quipped that a name should telegraph what a character is about. For example: Han Solo, the captain of Millennium Falcon in Star Wars, is a lone-wolf by nature. His surname is indicative of his one-man-army thinking.

Key character names are not randomly plucked from thin air. A lot of research goes into it. When Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar were hunting for a suitable name for the villain in ‘Sholay’, they opted for ‘Gabbar Singh’ aka Gabru, a real life dacoit from the fifties who had a gruesome reputation of lining up 22 children and shooting them.

Even while christening the baddie in ‘Mr India’, Javed Akhtar was seeking an African-ish sounding name that felt exotically evil. He rummaged through very many Hollywood titles before settling for a 1952 Clark Gable movie called ‘Mogambo’.

Quentin Tarantino, the master of the craft, invests as much ingenuity on his minor characters. One of the diamond thieves in ‘Reservoir Dogs’ is ‘Mr. Pink’, ostensibly a nod to Pink Panther, the fictional diamond with a distinctive flaw that resembles a leaping panther.

More often than not, the name choice is whimsical. Like in ‘Forrest Gump’, the protagonist Forrest is named after a racist general just to serve as a reminder that ‘sometimes we all do things…that make no sense’. Whatever the source of inspiration, the big trick in naming characters is that the name should have some character.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Out of Africa

If large pockets of the world still think we are a land of snake charmers, we are equally guilty of nursing some bizarre notions about Africa. We blithely assume it to be a Tarzan comic tourist zoo with well demarcated areas for giraffes, lions, elephants, pygmies, pirates, ebola, AIDS and cricket.

Admit it: your knowledge of the second largest continent sucks! You probably think Afrikaans is the most widely spoken language there (Fact: it’s Arabic). You have no idea how big it is (Fact: it houses 54 countries). You must be under the impression that Sub Saharan Africa is poorer than the word ‘poor’ (Fact: there are as many people below poverty, in 8 states in India).

See, there’s a lot you need to learn about Modi’s latest excuse for earning frequent flier points. Africa ain’t all masai mara and mumbo jumbo. It’s a macrocosm full of surprises.

Coffee, the drink, us South Indians, cannot do without, comes from the Kaffa region in Ethiopia. The story goes that a goat herder named Kaldi discovered it when he noticed his goats jumping with joy after feasting on some berries from a mystery plant.

Even Cola has an African origin. The Kola nut is the fruit of the Kola tree, which was supposedly first planted in Nigeria. Without Kola, we’ll neither have Coca Cola or Pepsi.

Sticking with nature, we couldn’t have enjoyed the Ladies’ Finger or Yam without the generosity of West Africa. The famed Peri Peri sauce of Nando’s, also has the same roots. Piri Piri in Swahili apparently means ‘pepper pepper’.

Remember the legendary Impala car from Chevrolet? It derives its name from the graceful antelope of Africa, best known for leaping over 9-feet high obstacles. By the way, Reebok too, is a nod to the South African antelope called ‘rhebok’.

Likewise, the ultra-fashionable tote bags that a woman can’t do without, has an African connection. They say, ‘tote’ is derived from ‘tuta’ in Kimbundo, which means ‘to carry’.

Jazz, juke, jive, samba, banjo, conga and several other musical and dance forms originate here. And shocker of shockers, in big backward Congo, solar-powered aluminium robots direct traffic equipped with surveillance cameras! So, the next time you reduce Africa to a cliché, you better go on a discovery trek (another African invention) or better still, a safari!