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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Smiles to go... 

Sometimes it is the strangest things that bring them to our lips

A baby’s smile is a thing of beauty. The lips are raised upwards in delight, the eyes light up, the nose crinkles just so, and an infectious gurgle emerges from those toothless gums. Who could possibly resist? Not me. Inevitably I find myself grinning back, cooing and gurgling and indulging in the kind of demented baby talk that all adults are reduced to when confronted with a smiling infant.

Yes, a baby’s smile can light up your day. But I often wonder what makes babies smile in the first place. Okay, when they are very young, it is probably gas. But once they begin to take in the world a little what makes their faces light up with delight ever so often? What do they find so amusing as they chortle away in their cribs? Why is it that some games make them giggle irrepressibly and others leave them cold? (And how can they possibly go from full-throated laughter to high-pitched crying in a manner of seconds?) 

With adults, it’s relatively easy to anticipate what will bring on the smiles. A fulsome compliment; an thoughtful present; a funny sequence in a movie; a witty one-liner in a TV sitcom; a great new haircut; your kid’s performance at the school concert; a long-awaited promotion; an unexpected raise; a wonderful meal; the list is long and predictable. There are as many smiles as there are occasions that bring them on. There are the social smiles that we plaster on whenever we are out and about in company. They may be just a social grimace which doesn’t quite reach our eyes, but they are smiles for all that.

There are the fake smiles that we immediately assume when a camera lens is trained on us, carefully calibrated so that we look happy rather than chubby. There are the smiles that we use to convey derision; the smiles we employ to express sarcasm; and the smiles we flash to show contempt.

And then there are the genuine ones that transform our entire beings with the happiness that lies behind them. A mother’s smile as she looks down on her suckling infant; a writer’s smile when he or she comes up with a particularly felicitous phrase; a father’s grin when his son finally manages to dispatch one of his medium-pace deliveries to beyond the square leg fence; a girl’s smile when her boyfriend surprises her with a ring; a child’s smile when his mother finally comes home after a long day at the office.

On occasion, our smiles break through against our better judgement. It probably makes me a callous so-and-so but I can’t help smiling whenever I watch someone stumble or fall. (In my defence, I giggle uncontrollably even if the person taking a pratfall is me.) I find myself smiling (but only in my head) when particularly pretentious people of my acquaintance mispronounce French or Italian words in an attempt to establish their credentials as polyglots. And no matter how politically incorrect the joke I can’t help smiling at the punch line (I call it reflexive politeness to make myself feel better).

Sometimes, though, it is the darnedest things that make me smile. Rummaging through an old handbag and stumbling upon a 100 rupee note tucked away in the lining; having an old favourite from the 60s start playing on the radio as I wait at a traffic light; the smell of wet earth as the first rains hit the parched ground; finding a childhood picture of a family holiday tucked away in a book; the sight of a dog gambolling on the street; the first sip of a strong cup of coffee as I start the day; my little niece slipping her hand into mine.

I guess it’s true what they say. Happiness does lie in the details. And the only way to go through life is to snatch little moments of joy as and when you can, without obsessing too much about the big picture.

Watch the sunset from your balcony. Decompress with a walk on the beach. Spend your lunch hour on a park bench reading a book, or simply watching the world go by. Cool off with an ice-cream on a hot summer afternoon. Get your nails done. Gossip with a friend. Wallow in an oil-scented bath at the end of a long day. Put the kids to bed and enjoy a glass of wine (or two) with your spouse.

Take your pleasures when and where you can. Because no matter how small and insignificant they seem, they will bring a smile to your face. And that smile could well light up your world.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

It’s only words...

What does the woman in your life want to hear?

Okay, fess up, what is your favourite compliment? What do you most enjoy hearing about yourself? Well, if you’re like most women, the first on the list would be those immortal words, “Have you lost weight?”

You can probably prove this by conducting an entirely unscientific survey among the ladies in your office. But an organisation called the Dental Care Plus Implants Centres (honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up) actually commissioned a study among 2,000 men and women to come to this staggering conclusion. Some of the other gems from this ‘study’: women like to be told that they have a great smile; but for some reason they are not happy if you suggest that they might have had dental work done to achieve it. And yes, the ladies don’t like to be told that they look like (or are beginning to look like) their mothers.

So far, so predictable.

But I guess when it comes to compliments, it’s not that hard to read women. And based on my 40-something years of experience here’s a ready reckoner for all you guys out there who want to please the women (girlfriends, wives, sisters, mothers, bosses, colleagues, etc.) in your lives.

1) Sadly, I have to bow down to the wisdom of the study quoted above. Women do love being told that they are looking thinner.
But tread with caution. You don’t want to overdo it. There’s a difference between saying, “Have you lost weight?” and “How much weight you have lost!” The first implies that the lady in question is looking a little slimmer than she usually does. The second is just another way of pointing out what a fatty she was before she finally went off the carbs (helpful hint: you don’t want to do that).

2) You know how women have this tiresome way of being cagey about how old they are? Well, be a pet and play along. The next time the tricky subject of age comes up, let discretion be the better part of honesty. If a woman confesses to being on the wrong side of 40, this is your cue to say, “You’re kidding! There is no way you are more than 35.” And if you’re asked to guess how old she is, don’t blurt out the first figure that comes to mind. How old do you think she actually looks? Now, subtract 10 from that figure. That’s the magic answer that will have her beaming for days to some.

3) You can’t go wrong with a compliment about her kids. If she shows off pictures of her new-born, dutifully trill “What a cute baby!” It doesn’t matter if you don’t mean it. She’ll be so much in love with the mite that it simply won’t occur to her that anyone could resist that bundle of cuteness. If you can’t bear to lie so blatantly, fall back on the tried-and-tested formula of: “Gosh, he/she looks just like you.”

Remember to keep your remarks gender neutral though. Nobody likes to have their girl mistaken for a boy or vice versa. And at that age, it’s hell to tell the sexes apart.

Caution: this ‘chho-chweet’ stuff should only be used on children below the age of 14. Any older than that and your drooling and cooing is just plain inappropriate – if not a tad creepy.

4) Compliment her on stuff that she’s a bit insecure about. A beautiful woman is always being told how beautiful she is. So, don’t bother telling her that all over again. But the chances are that she feels as if nobody can see beyond her good looks. So, praise her quick intelligence, her ability to hold her own in an argument, or even her wide and varied reading. If she feels you are captivated by her brain rather than her face, she will be putty in her hands. (With a brainy but not particularly beautiful woman, reverse and repeat.)

5) It’s not just about who you compliment; it’s also about who you don’t. Don’t tell her that her best friend has a fantastic figure, or that her sister looks great after her new haircut, or that the new recruit at your office is quite a looker. She doesn’t need to know how you feel about other women; it’s just going to make her feel that you compare her to them (and find her wanting). In her hearing, at least, compliment only her.

And while we are on the subject, here’s a quick word about what a woman doesn’t want to hear. “Gosh, you look tired!” No woman wants to be told that, especially if she has made an effort for a night out. (And it is even more annoying when she is not feeling tired at all.)

Actually, come to think of it, no man wants to hear that either. So if that’s all you’ve got to say, have the goodness to shut up.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sob story

There’s nothing quite as cathartic as a good cry, is there?

Tears. They’re a tricky business. Keep them all bottled up and you risk being seen as a heartless so-and-so. Turn them on whenever you feel overwhelmed and you are in danger of being dismissed as an emotional wreck.

You can see tears in a hundred different ways. They are the mark of a sensitive soul. They are a sign of emotional incontinence. They are the weapon of last resort for women. They turn men into helpless puddles of contrition. They are a sign of weakness, the preserve of those who don’t know how to keep their feelings under control.

Oh, and did I mention that men aren’t supposed to spill them at all. No, never ever. That is not the ‘manly’ thing to do. It doesn’t matter if their feelings are hurt or their knees badly scraped. Boys are not meant to cry unless they want to be asked, “What are you? A girl?”

Well, what can I say? I am a girl and have the tear-stained handkerchiefs to prove it.

I have to admit it doesn’t take much to make me cry. I well up whenever I am singing the national anthem. I get all teary watching soppy rom-coms like Sleepless in Seattle. I cry with laughter while catching up with the new season of Modern Family. I blub when I hear a particularly moving bhajan. A beautiful painting or a perfect sunset can move me to tears. The spectacle of Barack Obama being sworn in as the first African-American President of the United States had me sobbing on my couch.

My tears are very versatile. They can express almost every emotion across the spectrum: anger, frustration, sorrow, joy, love. Which, I concede, can sometimes get a bit overwhelming for people who are trying to figure out why I am welling up all over again.

To be honest, though, sometimes I don’t quite understand the process myself either. Why is it that I can sit through a regular tear-jerker of a Hindi movie and find myself completely unmoved? And yet, the sight of a man sitting down to a lonely dinner on a table set for one on a TV show makes me feel all weepy? Go figure; I certainly can’t.

In fact, sometimes the smallest, most insignificant thing, can set off the tears. The wizened face of a grandmother as she holds the hand of her granddaughter and helps her cross the street (or is it the other way round?). The toothless grin of a baby. The strains of a long-forgotten song.

Hell, on one embarrassing occasion, I even had tears rolling down my cheeks because a bowl of chilli in a Washington restaurant wasn’t quite as I remembered it. Yes, I know, it’s silly beyond belief; but there you have it.

But whatever the reason for their appearance, my tears are invariably cathartic. As the cliché goes, there’s nothing quite like a good cry to make you feel better about yourself. There is a complete cleansing of emotions; an overhauling of your nervous system that leaves you feeling both light and exhausted, both wrung out and ready to take on the world.

The only problem is that crying gets a very bad rap these days – especially if you are a woman. If you are arguing with your boyfriend/husband and begin tearing up out of sheer frustration you will be accused of playing dirty. “Ah, here come the waterworks.” (Don’t bother explaining that you’re not crying on purpose; that you simply can’t help it. Nobody is going to believe you.)

And don’t even think of letting the tears flow when you are at work. Not unless you want to be dismissed as a hysterical, hormonal, pre-menstrual/menstrual/menopausal (choose any one that fits) cry baby. Just do the smart thing. Retreat to the ladies room whenever you feel your eyes welling and your chin beginning to tremble. Lock yourself in and let the tears flow. Then blow your nose, wash your face, re-apply your make-up and head out to face the world again.

Strangely enough, though, even as women are being marked down for being emotionally overwrought and teary, men are increasingly being applauded for being in touch with their emotions when they let a tear or two escape their eyes. Clearly, political correctness has come a full circle on this one.

Our hearts well up when we see our cricketing heroes like Yuvraj Singh and Sachin Tendulkar with tears flowing down their cheeks as they celebrate their World Cup victory. David Beckham’s confession that he gets all teary when he looks at his daughter, Harper Seven, is enough to make all of us go, “Aww, how sweet!”

But while I am all for men being in touch with their emotions and expressing them in a honest way (and what could be more honest than tears?) one part of me is a little scared that this may just open the floodgates. Remember that Friends episode when Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) finally gets her boyfriend Paul (Bruce Willis in a hilarious cameo) to open up and express his emotions? And then has to drop him because he simply won’t stop blubbering?

Well, none of us wants that now, do we?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Movie magic

Listing my top ten film fashion moments

I have to admit – all those carping critics notwithstanding – that I quite liked Agent Vinod. I relished the twists and turns of a sometimes-improbable plot, I enjoyed the caper movie elements, I thought Saif Ali Khan did a great job of portraying a R&AW agent, and I was quite taken with Kareena Kapoor’s portrayal of an ISI asset.

But even though it was Saif who was all over our TV sets modelling his sharply-cut suits and tuxedos in the run-up to the movie, it was an entirely different outfit that got the audience’s retail juices flowing. No sooner had the promos rolled out than the ladies were salivating over the pink sharara that Kareena Kapoor wears during her mujra number in the film.

Brides-to-be came clutching pictures of the outfit so that their darzis could make a similar one for their big day. Designers quickly drew inspiration from the look for the next collections. And cheaper copies flooded the high street and flew right off the shelves.

Perhaps the last time a film costume had had such an impact on popular tastes was when Madhuri Dixit sang Didi tera dewar dewaana in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun in a purple, crystal-encrusted sari accessorised with a daring backless blouse and spawned an entire generation of women who wore exactly the same style for years thereafter.

Of course, if you think about it, films have always been the biggest influence on our fashion scene. Right from the days when Sadhana’s punishingly-tight churidar kurtas and cropped fringe (quickly dubbed the Sadhana cut) became all the rage to when Sabyasachi-style saris have become a design staple in every Indian woman’s wardrobe after Vidya Balan and Rani Mukherjee were seen wearing them in the movies. Not to forget Manish Malhotra, to whom goes the credit for re-styling such actresses as Karisma Kapoor and Urmila Matondkar and becoming a trend-setter in the bargain.

Yes, films and fashion have always had a symbiotic relationship in India. So here, in no particular order of importance, are my top ten film fashion moments:

1) Sadhana, in her tightly-cinched churidar kurtas in such 60s hits as Woh Kaun Thi? And Waqt, looks like an epitome of grace and elegance even five decades later. In her day, she completely revolutionised how young women dressed, with her sharply-tailored sleeveless kurtas and skin-tight churidars, bringing body-con dressing to Hindi cinema with style and panache.

2) Zeenat Aman in Hare Rama Hare Krishna. Those over-sized tinted glasses; the hippie-chic bell-bottoms and bright flowery tops; that orange kurti accessorised with yellow marigold garlands as she gets high in the Dum maro dum sequence, complete with an incongruous red bindi on her forehead. Aman’s flower-power style of dressing brought boho-chic to Hindi cinema long before we had even heard of the term.

3) In an era when styling was unheard of Dev Anand created his own distinctive look in the movies, with his high-collared shirts and jackets, dressed up with a casually-draped scarf, and topped off with that signature quiff of hair modelled on his childhood idol Gregory Peck. And once he had found his look, he stuck to it gamely until the end even though the rest of the world had moved on.

4) Who can forget Dimple Kapadia in Bobby? And no, not the famous orange bikini scene, in which all of Kapadia’s baby fat is put cruelly on display, but the outfit she changes into immediately after: a short polka-dotted knotted blouse which leaves her midriff bare and references a similar ensemble that Nargis had worn in an old Raj Kapoor movie.

5) This one is a no-brainer. Amitabh Bachchan in that now-iconic poster of Deewar, all smouldering eyes and pouting lips, his fingers thrust into the pocket of his blue jeans and completely rocking a red shirt knotted at the waist. So successful was this look that, not surprisingly, Bachchan reprised it in such movies as Hum as well.

6) Ek do teen may have been the song that turned her into a star, but Madhuri Dixit will always be remembered for another number: Didi tera dewar dewaana. The purple satin, crystal-encrusted sari and backless choli she wore in the sequence launched a million knock-offs in an instant.

7) The moment Sridevi sashayed into frame wearing another of her diaphanous chiffon saris with a halter blouse you knew that a thunderstorm – that would leave her drenched to the skin – could not be far behind. And the lady – and the weather gods – never ever disappointed.

8) Kareena Kapoor as the vivacious Punjaban Geet in Jab We Met convinced us of the impossible: that we could pair T-shirts with Patiala salwars and still manage to look stylish.

9) And then there was Bunty and Babli in which Aki Narula styled Rani Mukherjee in colourful Patiala salwars (yes, them again) and short kurtis and started a trend that every woman below the age of 30 bought into.

10) Sushmita Sen as the sexy school-mistress in Main Hoon Na. Her sleeveless blouse, midriff-baring chiffon sari look had all the schoolboys – and their older brothers – salivating and wishing that their chemistry teachers had been half as hot. Sigh.