Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Magic of Movies and what if you made one...

In 2010 we launched ourselves into a serious project - movie making. We had a story, and a script that converted the story into dialogues and we had found experienced volunteers willing to give not just time and effort, but their 1000$ equipments as well. Movie making could not have been any more of a reality.

The story was from one of my older blog posts- Americaan Courthouse. Additional punch lines were included to make it entertaining and a script was readied. Ads were placed in craigslist for actors and they were found. Talent is overflowing in this bay area and waiting to be showcased. I decided to get the title role of the Bengali female caught by a cop for red light violation and faced with the difficult task of a court visit, something parents and culture had warned her to stay away from.

Rehearsals happened only twice - all the involved people were day time engineers in the valley and couldn't give more than weekends for this project. The project called for enormous project management skills - it was infinitely tougher to motivate and influence people who were simply volunteering. There was no money to be made. Except for YouTube fame, there was very little reward. It was lucky that everyone was equally driven.

From the stands, movies are alluring. An unsuspecting audience is easily consumed by the magic of the movie. He sees each scene in a seamless manner as if it was all done in a day. The story engulfs him and of course no one chronicles the real struggle of making something this magical. The actors of the industry always appeared as beautiful stars to me. I assumed they loved enacting their parts and their passion was the driving factor. ( Of course I must not forget the big bucks they made)

When we started the project, no one was going to pay us. In fact being the producers, we had to pay for renting locations, cars, and supplying food to the actors and volunteers. Food was the very least we could give these people working for free.

I memorized my lines, all the monologues, with expressions I thought fit. I chose my own costumes and did my own makeup. We had a volunteer managing Continuity and Script Accuracy. He noted down the costume details of every actor in case we had to shoot the same scene at a later date. He was also the most annoying person when you missed a word here and there. He was sure to bring it up, just when you thought you were capable of an Oscar.

Eight days, Four Saturday and Sundays for nine hours each day, the shooting lasted. Honestly if you loved acting, like I did, once you were through this rigors, all love was sure to take flight. Every scene were shot from three different angles and repeated between Standard and High Definition cameras, because we had two directors for this movie! At the end, only one of them stuck till the end with the same notions. And God forbid, if one of the actors even belched, the whole thing had to be done all over again! Because cameras don't lie. To my agony, in multiple actor scenes, one of us was sure to grin at the wrong moment in this comedy-drama (dramedy) movie.

The thing that enthralled me was the the process. Just as it was frustrating, it was equally exciting to see people come together to create the first motion picture we could all feel proud of. This movie obviously made me realize that effort is never directly proportional to the final outcome. I loved playing the distraught Bengali girl saddled with friends with mind boggling ideas for escaping a traffic ticket. The actors became friendlier and friendlier as we all stumbled through our lines and followed our hapless director's instructions. The camera man, lights man and sound guy had the worst plight. They had to hold the camera, light and boomer mikes throughout the nine hours, each day. At the end of shooting they had developed lean bicep muscles!

The onlookers for our outdoor shoots were few. Americans aren't as interested in independent movies as Indians are, be it a nondescript one. In India you are a celebrity if you are holding a video camera with a bunch of crew, shooting anything. Bystanders would clamour to get into the frame and look upon you with utmost awe, scratching their heads to recall, where they might have seen you. If you per chance need to use some one's shop to shoot your scene, he would offer it to you delightfully and might even serve hot tea! But california's south bay is completely different. We needed a Coach shop as one of our locales. When we approached them, we were very courteously refused. Frowning in irritation at our insistence, they gave us several forms and names of departments to appeal to, before we could so much as near their shop with a camera in hand. Our indomitable director,angered by this opposition, decided to resort to guerrilla shooting techniques! He had to drop his plan when no one joined him.

The shooting was a minuscule part of movie making. Four full weekends later, thoroughly exhausted, we came close to giving up. But most important work awaited. We needed to find an editor. Among the people who acted voluntarily, we found an experienced British guy, who volunteered his services. Reels were provided to him and coordination had to be done. When the director was shooting, he had a vision. But when the editor sat down to edit, his vision was sure to be different. A common ground had to be set before the movie made any sense.

Our editor decided to take off on a world tour, leaving our movie lying on his editing board. No work was done for five months. It took eight months before the first video draft was ready. Needless to say it came out way different from what we had in mind. Seven revisions later, it was close to what we wanted to see in the movie, true to the script. And then it was posted! On YouTube.

Every time I look at it, I recall the hardworking men and women who toiled to make it a reality. I am reminded of the amateur acting skills and some mature acting from people whose day jobs make them code and design. I am reminded of myself and my naivety in front of the camera. But most of all I see freshness- in every one's eyes. It's a dream to make a movie and being able to translate that to reality, deserves applause.
Despite the movie's nondescript YouTube life, I am proud. It feels great to create the Magic of Movies!

Americaan Courthouse:

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Bengali Cook

One thing Indians love is eating. When you love eating, cooking good food automatically becomes important. (Eating out was considered more of a luxury when I was growing up...not so much now)

In Kolkata,surrounded by working mothers and fathers, the burden of cooking still fell on my mother. My dad approached the problem in his own way. He knew how to make everything but chose not to do so, unless pushed to a corner. He was cornered more often than he liked. Holding a transferable job made him easily susceptible to living long periods of time in distant locations without us. He learnt to cook by necessity.

My mother tried her tactics to get him to cook at home, when he came around staying with us in Kolkata, after yet another transfer. On some Sunday afternoon, when she was least interested in making any food, she would try to train my dad tactically.

"You know how to make the the khichdi, right? Just put a few vegetables, just the way you used to make while in Maharashtra and make it no? Even the kids like it that way." She smiled genuinely, with hope and advance appreciation. [Khichdi is a dish prepared of rice, lentils and vegetables all boiled together with spices]

My dad was a wise man. Domestic happiness was important to him, but not at the cost of his own. He was lazy,and loved his couch, his newspaper, his two-time tea and his sleep. Down below this just mentioned list, lay his family, his kids, and his deep concern about their future.

My dad peered over his newspaper.
"Khichdi? Why? There is no food left from lunch?"

"No", said my mother, gradually losing her smile.

"Hm mm...I think Khichdi is not what I like. Not too good for my stomach.I don't want khichdi. So what's the point of making it?"

My dad was right- only in his own way. He didn't assume anyone's preference mattered more than his own and why make something that he wouldn't be able to enjoy?

My mother didn't see his point. She saw his laziness. She scrunched her eyebrows together.

"What would you like to eat then?"

My dad smiled broadly. He loved this question.

"How about that "mocha ghonto", with "methi saag vada", and "chingri machher malaikari? A little white rice with it would go very well." [The items listed are traditional Bengali dishes. Mocha ghonto is a way of preparing banana blossom, methi saag vada is deep fried balls of a bitter leaf and chingri machher malaikari is shrimps in coconut gravy.]

My mother smiled, even as her eyes almost rolled over in disbelief.

"Sure, I think we all would like those. Why don't you start making these one by one?"

My dad felt slightly trapped. Just slightly.

"But I don't know how...", he said believably.

"Don't you worry, I am here. I will guide you through it. Let's begin."

My mother stomped off in the direction of the kitchen. My father looked at us in dismay. We had been mute spectators of this scene. Our inputs were never sought in these matters. I gave a smile. So did my sister. We meant no harm.

My dad made a face at us. Murmuring under his breadth he said,

"These two daughters are their mother's disciples! Never taking my side! Humph!", he said angrily.

Thus uttering, he neatly folded his newspaper, following the crease lines closely, placed it on the exact same spot on the table where he placed it a zillion times before, , got hold of his manly wrap-around ("lungi") and followed my mother into the kitchen.

The dinner we ate later was , as my dad put it, "Entirely his effort." That was very different from what really happened. My mom cut cleaned and fried the vegetables, my dad looked on. My mom de-frosted the shrimps, prepared the coconut gravy with spices while my dad used a ladle to twirl it all together-twice. The rice was his only genuine effort. The pressure cooker made his work easy. Tired from all the supervision, he vented his anger on us.

"Why don't you two help out in the kitchen? Why do we have to do everything even after we have daughters? That too two of them? You should help out from tomorrow- follow my footsteps."

We smiled as before.We were following his footsteps.

Bengali cooking, like every other cuisine, has an art and heart to it. You relish and enjoy the simple flavors slowly. The cook revels in joy when you take longer to finish your plate. I have seen such variety in the very same dish. My father and my mother were from two different kinds of Bengali backgrounds. The East and the West. ("Bati" and "Ghoti" respectively) Their cooking styles and recipes were different. Factor in the cook's skills and you have way too many things influencing one dish.

As a child, I enjoyed my grandmother's, more than my mother's , more than my dad's. Whenever my dad was asked to make anything , all on his own, we had a difficult time. We were obedient and mostly hungry so no fuss was made on our part. My dad however tended to make a humongous deal whenever he cooked. We ran into neighbors and family friends occasionally, where my father would begin a sentence with, " It was raining the other day when I made the khichdi." It was an exaggeration but my dad was widely admired as a helping hubby, father and cook.

I have seen the real Bengali cooks. They are called "Moharaj"(The Emperor of the Kitchen). They are males, usually pot-bellied, humorous and extremely adept in blending spices and melting hearts with their mouth watering preparations. Technical term in Hindi is "Bawarchi".

I met one not so long ago. During my sister's wedding, we hired a Moharaj to handle the cooking while my mother and the other women busied themselves in "Satya Narayan Puja" ( Worship of Lord Krishna). He was prolific. In one hour he had seven dishes under control. When we all sat down to eat, he single handedly served all of us.

"Oh babu ,eat slowly...let your tongue then your soul relish the taste."
He asked of me, as I tried chomping down my food all at once.

I smiled. He treated the adults like children, taking utmost care to ensure we tasted all his dishes and enjoyed them. Sitting like a patriarch he oversaw our moves. Every time any of us asked for a second helping, he beamed. It was pure bliss for him. He never ate with us. In his own words,

"The happiness to cook and feed were far greater than eating food."

From "shorshe illish" (mustard salmon), "aloo bhaja" (potato fries), "arhar daal with machher matha" (Lentils with fish head), "aatop chaal" (rice), "mangsher jhol" (meat curry) and "payesh" (rice puding), every dish tasted better than the last. I ate with my fingers. Eating with hand is the traditional way of enjoying Bengali food.We are a tactile bunch. "Kobji dubiya khaawa", or eating with your elbows inserted is an expression of deep appreciation of food.[Don't take it literally -it is just an expression]

When Moharaaj urged me to eat some more, I was beyond full.

"Aar kheley ebaar potol tulbo!" I said gathering my steel plate. [ "If I eat any more I might just die"]

Maharaj looked disappointed.I guess he assumed I was capable of consuming endlessly. Perhaps my size beguiled him.

The meal finally came to an end. Smiling with hands folded, Maharaj collected his fees from my mother. As he left, he said, "Don't forget me for your other daughter's wedding."

I never saw him again.

I cook too. Nearly not as much nor as well as did my grandmothers, my mother, my aunts and the legendary cooks I ate from. I cook in my way - with mild hint of Bengal in the dishes I prepare. It would be a misnomer to call me a Bengali cook.
The cuisines that I enjoyed once, have not come alive in my kitchen. Only when my mother was visiting, did I feel an old aroma, taste coming back. It brought back memories of food served on freshly cut banana leaves, with earthen bowls of five dishes and dessert, served on the floor as we sat on "satranjis" (mats). It reminded me of the cooks who served them - with utmost love and care. The look of happiness on receiving appreciation- be it in a burp, slurp or spotless plates. Memories that remain forever, waiting to be recreated, in a small utilitarian kitchen in California.

"One day," I say to myself,"I will grow up to be a Bengali cook."