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

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Age is just a number...

But only if you are a hero in Bollywood; heroines come with an expiry date

There’s one thing that the three reigning superstars of Bollywood have in common. And no, it’s not that they all rejoice in the surname Khan, though God knows that has been commented upon a million times. What binds Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir together is that they are all 48 this year.

Go a little further down the rung of super-stardom and it is pretty much the same story. Saif Ali Khan is 43; Akshay Kumar is 45; Ajay Devgn is 44; hell, even Hrithik Roshan is nudging 40 (he hits that milestone birthday next January). And all of them are doing very well indeed at the box-office, singing and dancing, romancing the ladies, and beating the bad boys to a bloody pulp, thank you very much.

Now, here’s a challenge for you. Can you name a single Bollywood actress who is still a top star past the age of 38? Yes, take your time. Scroll down the list of all the usual suspects. Use that old search engine thingie. Phone a friend. Found anyone who is still a significant player past that magical figure? No, I thought not.

Something mysterious seems to happen to our actresses as they creep – ever so slowly and oh so unwillingly; but honestly, given what awaits, can you really blame them? – towards their late 30s. One minute they are flying high on the helium balloon of success and the next they have crash-landed on hard ground. And no amount of Botox, Juvederm or plastic surgery can ever make them whole again. Well, not in the eyes of film producers and directors anyway.

When it comes to female stars, ageing seems to be calculated in dog years where 16 equals 25; 25 equals 30; and 38 equals death (at the box-office, at any rate).

No matter how brightly their star may have shone before, it tends to fizzle out around the mid 30s mark. Sridevi last big release was Judaai in 1997 and she effectively retired from the business at 34. And it is telling that she only put one cautious toe out to test the waters once she was pushing 50 and unambiguously past leading-lady age.

It is no secret that Madhuri Dixit struggled to find a decent role in her last years in the business. Or that Karisma Kapoor never managed a comeback after marriage and kids, even though she has never looked better. Rani Mukherjee tries hard to stay relevant with releases like No One Killed Jessica, but we can all see that this is a losing battle. And even Aishwarya Rai, delivered her last big movie, Guzaarish, in 2010, at the venerable age of 37 (though if anyone can make a sizzling comeback, it is her).

And these are the stars who have actually been on top of the heap for most of their time in moviedom. Those who were lower down in the pecking order fare even worse. Preity Zinta struggles on gamely at 38, but even she has to produce the movies she stars in (and it doesn’t help when they are like Ishkq in Paris). And Bipasha Basu seems to have slipped completely off the radar at a youthful 34.

But while the women fall by the wayside like so many dominoes, the men just go on and on. It’s almost as if with male stars the ageing process has been halted by some ancient alchemical process. Ever since Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar canoodled with actresses half their age, Bollywood heroes have seen it as a badge of pride to be paired with heroines who could well be their daughters. In fact, some of the heroines Amitabh Bachchan, Shashi Kapoor, Dharamendra have romanced on-screen could well have been their granddaughters.

And over the years we have become so inured to this December-April pairing that we see nothing incongruous about Salman Khan playing the romantic lead against Sonakshi Sinha who was two years old when he became a star with Maine Pyar Kiya. Or when Shah Rukh Khan sings and dances around the trees with Anoushka Sharma, who was five years old when he was stammering K.K.K.K.Kiran in Darr (Deepika Padukone was seven years old at that time, in case you are interested).

I wondered about this as I watched Madhuri Dixit (Shah Rukh’s co-star in Dil To Pagal Hai) play judge on the TV dance reality show Jhalak Dhikla Jaa, biding time, no doubt, till she is old enough to play the glamorous yummy mummy or the beatific badi bhabhi (given that her comeback vehicle Aaja Nachle didn’t exactly set the cinema screens on fire). Is this the way the cookie will always crumble for our Bollywood heroines? Or will the film industry change its sexist, ageist ways?

The way I look at it, Kareena Kapoor Khan will be the test case. At 33, she is veering close to the danger mark. Will she be able to change the rules? Well, I am sure we wish her the very best but if I were you, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The End

Do you always get there? Or are you the kind who has no problems abandoning a book half-way through?

So, to which author falls the distinction of having written a book that heads the list of the top five most abandoned – as in left unread till the end – titles? I am sure it will come as a shock for you to learn that it is none other than J.K. Rowling. But before you keel over, let me tell it is not for her Harry Potter series, but for the first ‘grown-up’ book she wrote. And the top reason people gave for abandoning The Casual Vacancy? Well, it wasn’t exactly Harry Potter, was it?

Well, as someone who has never read a single word that Rowling ever wrote (I am sorry but all that magic-Muggles stuff is just lost on me), I am really not qualified to comment. But the next book on the list of top five most abandoned titles makes perfect sense to me. It is Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, but more on that later.

After that, the list gets a bit mystifying. The next title that most people gave up on is Eat Pray Love (which I loved from the word go; and long before it became something of a cult book) on the grounds that the heroine was too ‘whiny’ and ‘self-obsessed’ followed by The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which many found too much of a slow starter to persist with.

Well, I don’t know about you but I firmly believe that when it comes to books, the world is divided into two kinds of people. The first group believes in the ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’ line and ploughs through to the (sometimes bitter) end while the second just wearily intones ‘Life is too short…” and gives up the moment boredom sets in.

Sadly, I happen to belong to the ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’ school so I have wasted years of my life battling through to the last page of books that were best left unfinished. But somehow, as far as I am concerned, to give up in the middle seems to smack of failure. And while at a rational level, I know that the failure is that of the writer and not mine, the reader’s, I am still reluctant to put the book away. So, there it lies, languishing on my bedside table, so that I can administer a sop to my uneasy conscience by reading a few pages every night before turning in. That way, at least, it serves a purpose: it puts me to sleep like no page-turner would.

Of late, though, I have begun to wonder if boring, unreadable books are really worth all that effort (not to mention the self-flagellation involved). The thought first crossed my mind when I tried to read Fifty Shades of Grey. Sado-masochistic bondage or Deviant Romances are not really my cup of coffee (I am more of a Regency Romance-Georgette Heyer kind of girl) but given that everyone was talking about it and that it behoves a columnist to be au fait with popular culture, I tried to give it a shot.

Honest to God, I tried. In fact, I tried three times to get beyond page 150 before throwing the book down in disgust and flouncing off to read something – anything! – else. No, it wasn’t the erotica that put me off (frankly, I didn’t find it the least bit erotic) but the sheer banality of it all. Not to mention the utterly execrable writing. (Though what really made me weep was the thought that this book had topped the best-selling charts and made its author a millionaire many times over.)

But I treated Fifty Shades of Grey as a one-off. It was just one of those freak books that you either loved or loathed; and I just happened to be one of those who loathed it.

That was before I downloaded Dan Brown’s Inferno on my Ipad before setting off on holiday. Now, I am the kind of person who loves long-haul flights for exactly one reason: you can read a nice, fat, fast-paced thriller uninterrupted for eight hours and, with a bit of luck, finish it in one greedy mouthful. And I had loved Dan Brown’s last page-turners, The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol, so I thought I was all set for the flight.

Not quite. About ten minutes into the book, I was beginning to get worried. Half an hour later, I knew I was in serious trouble. There was no way I was wading through this bilge for the next seven hours. Well, not without losing the will to live. Which would be rather ironic given the plot of the novel: a mad scientist tries to infect the world with a deadly plague and succeeds. But then, it turns out that it’s not really a deadly plague after all…ah well, never mind.

Suffice it to say that it took me not eight hours, but five weeks to finish the book. And by the end, even I couldn’t quite figure out why I was persisting with the damn thing. I couldn’t be bothered about what happened next. I didn’t care if Professor Robert Langdon was finally killed off. Hell, I didn’t care if Dan Brown killed off the entire human race in his parallel universe.

But still, I persisted until the very last page. Only to ask myself why I had bothered. Maybe the ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’ argument has run its course and it is time to remember that life is, indeed, too short.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Call him Mr Ford

 The fashion designer is tired of people first-naming him – and I have a certain sympathy with his view

In a recent interview, Tom Ford tells a story about going to a restaurant. The waitress walks up to him, smiles brightly and says, “Hi Tom, I am __ and I will be serving you today.” “Actually,” responds Tom, “I prefer Mr Ford.”

Yes, the fashion designer would like it to be known that now that he is in his 40s, he really doesn’t appreciate being called ‘Tom’ any longer. He would like it if you addressed him as ‘Mr Ford’, giving him the respect due to his years.

Stuffy, old-fashioned nonsense? A throwback to an earlier age when manners were at a premium? Or just plain old snobbery?

Well, you be the judge of that. But I have to confess to a certain sneaking sympathy for Mr Ford and his point of view. The older I get, the more irksome I find the current propensity to first-name everyone, regardless of age, gender, situation or context.

The worst offenders, on the whole, are medical folk. For some reason, they seem to believe that the magic letters Dr before their name allow them the liberty to first name every one else. But you, of course, must always address them as Dr So and So on pain of death (not literally, I hope!). And no, it doesn’t make sense to me either.

The other compulsive first-namers that I come into contact with most often are PR people. It doesn’t matter that they have never met you; that they are often a good 15 years younger than you; and that it is a professional relationship that they hope to establish. The very first phone call they make or the first ever email they send will set to establish first-name terms with you.

If you find this sort of familiarity annoying in the professional context and try and re-set the ground rules by replying with a cool Ms or Mr So and So in the hope that they get the hint – well, don’t hold your breath because it will never happen.

As it happens, I do find this rather annoying. I put this down to being brought up in a more respectful culture in which you never first-named anybody until invited to do so. Senior colleagues at my first workplace were always addressed with a Mr or Ms, or – this being Calcutta –  with the suffix of ‘Babu’, ‘Da’ or ‘Di’. The very idea of addressing someone who was older than you by his or her first name was regarded as blasphemy. Nor was it about seniority or status either. The office peon also had a respectful ‘Da’ added to his name.

I am still a creature of that culture. Even now when I call up to fix an interview with someone, or send an email to a professional contact, I wouldn’t even dream of addressing them by their first names. But increasingly I find that others have no such compunctions.

To be honest, it’s not the first-naming that irritates me the most. It is the implicit over-familiarity that rankles. And that over-familiarity has become endemic in our world. As a 50-something friend of mine recently complained, “Where does the order-taker at Starbucks get off calling me by my first name. I am old enough to be his mother!”

But I guess age no longer commands respect in our world. The new-fangled democratization means that everyone is equal, and even those whom we could have given birth to can first-name us with impunity.

Speaking for myself, I have to confess that over-familiarity is one of my bugbears. But there is an element of perversity at play here as well. When people call me Ms Goswami I tend to reply, “Oh please, call me Seema.” But anyone who first-names me without as much as a by your leave, tends to set my back up.

And that’s when I totally get where Tom Ford is coming from.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Sunny side up

Who is to say that breakfast should only be eaten in the morning?

There is nothing I love more about hotels than a room-service breakfast. It seems so wonderfully decadent to lie in bed, with a plate of French toast (or eggs and bacon; waffles; aloo parathas; medhu vadas; you can choose your own poison) balanced precariously on your pristine white sheets, a cup of coffee with easy reach, and the newspaper crinkling crisply as you turn the pages. I can’t think of a better way to start the day.

Or, indeed, to end it. Because, seeing that they are on to a good thing, some hotels have started to serve breakfast around the clock. So now, if you are so inclined, you can both start the day with a hearty breakfast and then end it with yet another slap-up breakfast. (And yes, I often do.)

Hoteliers will tell you that the round-the-clock breakfast menu is meant for jet-lagged travellers who have flown across time zones and have such screwed-up body clocks that they want the comfort eating epitomized by a good breakfast no matter what time they check in. But I know better. The truth is that they have put breakfast on the round-the-clock menu because it has such scrumptious options that it seems a shame to restrict them to just one meal of the day.

And who made up these stupid rules anyway? About how you can only eat certain things for breakfast and others for lunch and dinner? If you ask me, it makes no sense. Anything that tastes good first thing in the morning will taste just as good last thing at night. To misquote Shakespeare, a blueberry pancake would taste just as sweet if you ate it at 8 am or 8 pm. So, who’s to say that it is best served with your morning tea or coffee? For that matter, why can’t you have a bowl of crunchy muesli with milk for dinner rather than breakfast without being seen as a bit of an eccentric? Or even a full English fry up of eggs, baked beans, sausages, hash browns and toast?

It’s not just breakfast options, though. How about tea-time treats? Why should they only be reserved for the evening? A couple of crisp samosas or a plateful of pakoras (or bhajias or whatever you call them in your part of the world) with some spicy chutneys on the side would make for a delightful lunch or even dinner. So why do we always eat them as snacks or ‘naashta’ rather than at meal times?

Part of it, of course, is down to social conditioning. More often than not what you eat and when you eat it is a cultural thing. For instance, in Italy, salad is served at the end of the meal rather than at the beginning. So instead of stuffing yourself full of greens at the start of the meal and feeling too full to enjoy your main course, you relish your main dish, and then cleanse your palate with a salad dressed with olive oil and a dash of balsamico so that you can truly appreciate the cheese and dessert to follow.

Makes much more sense, doesn’t it? And yet, for some reason, when you eat out in India, you are always served the salad first and then the main. Result: by the time the dessert is served, you are far too sated to really enjoy it. (Now don’t be a spoilsport and say that that’s just as well; you know as well as I do that it’s the high point of the meal.)

Talking of dessert, why is it taken as a given that it will be served at the end of the meal rather than at the beginning? Why is ice-cream presented to us as a reward if we are good little children and finish our greens first? Why does chocolate cake have to wait until the cheese has been cleared to make an appearance? Yes, I know that delayed gratification is supposed to be good for you, but you are talking about chocolate cake here!

Some people have the right idea though. Some years ago, I ate at a restaurant called Ente Keralam in Chennai and was surprised to be offered a sweet as the beginning of the meal. Chef Reji Mathew explained that in his Syrian Christian community, it was usual to start a feast with a sweet rather than a savoury dish to prepare the palate for the treats to come. And I have to say that it worked like a charm.

So now, after many decades of following the dictates of of
od fascists, I have decided that when it comes to eating there is only one rule: that there are no rules. Or better still, that you get to make your own rules as you go along.

If you feel like having a bread and butter pudding for breakfast, go right ahead (nutritionists will tell you that this is the best time to have high-calorie sweet treats, anyway). If you fancy an almond croissant and not much else for dinner, that’s fine too. And if you want to have breakfast at all three meals of the day, dig in. Bon appetit!