Nov 5, 2013

Into the mind of a serial racist

From ‘interview girl’ who was offered free dinner (but declined) to ‘Roro’ by the end of the conversation, it was quite an interesting ten minutes with Russell Peters during his Notorious World Tour. Other than a peaceful side to the guy who’s made me laugh for years, there’s also the discovery that he’s terrified of bugs.

Russell Peters
What’s Russell Peters like when he’s not under the spotlight? Are you always trying to be funny?

I don’t think so. When I see something funny, I’m not going to not say something funny. On stage, it’s like an amplified version of yourself. So where I have to do for an hour and a half straight on stage, off-stage, I might do it every few mintues.

Can you imagine phasing out this profession?

No, I’ve been doing it for 24 years. I don’t think phasing it out is on the cards now.

Do you have a little black book where you jot down jokes as they come to you?

No, it’s all in my head. It’s all memory, observation and I like to talk to people in the audience because that’s how I find out things about people. Depending on who they are and how they react, it could go great or just be all right.

Do you think Indian comedians rely too much on stereotypes?

I don’t know about the other ones but I’m the first guy. Gotta figure I set the benchmark and the tone and the pace of it. So if anyone’s doing anything similar to mine or copying me, that’s not my problem. But if there was nobody else and it was only me, would you be able to say that? It’s my style of comedy – some guys do political comedy; some do whatever they know. I talk about what I know. What I talk about is culture and travelling around the world and stuff.

Have you ever/do you still have days when you imagine the audience in their underpants?

I’ve never done that in my life. I do it with chicks sometimes and picture them naked. But that’s only my own deviant mind doing that.

Then how do you deal with the pressure of entertaining a stadium with 3500 people?

Well, there are nights when I’m doing 18,000 people. There’s always pressure. But I’ve been doing it for 24 years. If you can’t deal with the pressure of your job, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.

What are the best perks of this job?

Money, fame, chicks.

Wait, aren’t you married?

I’m divorced! But I have a daughter. *shows me the photograph on his phone*

And are you really that much of a pervert as you make yourself out to be on stage?

“It’s obviously not who I am off-stage. It’s like ‘I can’t say this in real life but I can say it right here’. I have my own degenerate behaviour but I’m not forward like that off-stage. I won’t walk up to a girl that I don’t know and start talking to her. I was never able to do that and I still can’t. If I sense that she may know who I am, then I’ll say something but it won’t be like a pick-up line. I’ll say something witty to see if she gets it. If she doesn’t get it, I’m like ‘ah, she’s an idiot. Never mind’.

What challenges do you face?

You gotta continue writing all the time. It’s a double-edged sword – it’s a challenge but it’s also what makes it exciting. If your job becomes not too much of a challenge to you, you should quit. In comedy, you’re never above anything. You can mess up on any night. You’ve never above it. It’s one of those things. It’s what makes it so daring actually. I can go up and I can stink it up. It still happens all the time. It doesn’t matter who you are but you always have the opportunity to fail.

Any Indian stand-ups that you know of?

I know Papa CJ, Tanmay Bhat.

Do you see yourself as better than them?

I don’t really look at it like that because we’re all doing the same job. I see them as all very new. There’s no above or below anybody in this game. You might be more successful than somebody else but it doesn’t mean you’re better than them. There are guys who are not successful who are way funnier than I’ll ever be. But for whatever reason, it didn’t click for them.

Do you look up routines?

No. You never look up others’ routines. The minute you start copying somebody else, you’re not being yourself anymore. You’ve lost your point of view then.

According to you, what’s the future of stand-up comedy?
It’s been there forever and it’s going to stay there forever. It’s not going anywhere – it’s social commentary. You watch the news – they aren’t telling you the truth. The bad stuff will always go away. It’s the same with music – we live in a time when music is shit. Whenever there’s a war going on, the music usually gets better because people are depressed. We’re in the middle of wars and depression and the music has somehow gotten worse. I don’t understand that. It used to be the complete opposite. But then again, it can’t stay terrible forever!

When you’re not doing stand-up, what do you do?

I DJ – I stay home and work my turntables. I play for myself.

Do you ever let the celebrity status get to you?

No, because I don’t really buy it. It’s nice. I like it. I always meet people. I don’t have a problem with it. Even if people ask on the streets if they can get a picture, I say ‘yeah, no problem’. You know what’s going to be annoying – when nobody wants my picture or autograph anymore. That’s going to be five times more annoying than anybody interrupting my dinner.

But that’s a legit fear at this point?

It’s always a legit fear. Nobody wants to not be on top anymore. It’s inevitable but it’s how you fall from grace.

Lastly, how do you keep innovating?

I don’t know. You just keep thinking.

How does your brain work?

I don’t know. If I knew, I would sell it as a blueprint! Or brown print.

The interview was published in Metrolife on November 5, 2013. Here is the link.

Interview: Symbiz Sound

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Buddysym and ChrisImbiss, two brothers who are making some brilliant future dancehall music back home in Germany. Some excerpts from the interview:

ChrisImbiss and Buddysym
Were you always inclined to this genre?
Buddy: Until three years ago, I didn’t really listen to electronic music. I always liked more bass-oriented music like ska and reggae and Chris would hear a lot of hip-hop and dancehall. We didn’t listen to only electronica and I didn’t listen to it at all.

Chris: Our parents (Korean mother and German father) made us play the violin and piano when we were kids. So it was not always like this. We grew up around all kinds of music. When we started to work together, dubstep was a nice way of playing music. So it had a big role. Now it’s kind of something that’s less dubstep, more dancehall.

What’s the dancehall scene back home?

Buddy: It’s quite big back home. It was bigger in the 90s but it plays a big role in our music because it was the first ‘club music’ that we heard. Now, there’s a lot of global local music that’s implemented in what we do.

Chris: There are all kinds of influences. I think the beauty of this project was that we weren’t too into the scene. So we could naively do whatever we liked. We didn’t have to follow rules of what is acceptable or not acceptable in a certain genre.

Describe the chemistry between you two behind the deck and otherwise.
Chris: Depends. We can be very good brothers. We love and we hate each other. Buddy’s the more musical one – he’s good with chords and stuff and I’m more into the technical production-related stuff. As brothers, there’s crazy fighting as one would imagine. But we’re also like best friends travelling the world together. We’re very blessed to have that situation.

Buddy: I just kept playing instruments and studied bass at university. I was more into harmonics and theory but Chris is more of the visionary guy when it comes to this music. There are a lot of songs I didn’t like when he showed them to me first. Later, I started to understand what it meant. So it’s a good combination. Even though it’s really tiring sometimes and we get upset with each other, it really helps having him double-checking.

Chris: The musical conflicts aren’t so heavy. We have discussions and stuff but it’s not like we 100% disagree or are angry or anything.

Your thoughts on Bangalore?

Chris: We heard that officially dancing isn’t allowed. But we expect some rules to be broken. It has to be shut early apparently. We’ve played in four other cities and all the concerts were good. They were up for all the games we play on stage, which isn’t always the case in Europe. Games are part of the great fun for us. We say ‘Do that’ and people actually do it!

Buddy: We have a guitar on stage but we aren’t DJs. There’s production and our custom-made equipment and we really play as a small live band. A concert going good or not is measured by the direction of the audience for us. At the end of the evening, if everyone’s voice is broken and they’re sweating like crazy, that’s a good gig for us.

Best/worst memories of the India tour ?

Chris: There are things that can be very shocking in India like poverty. But this is now my fourth time here since we visited ten years ago. The big culture shock doesn’t come anymore. But you can almost see the change in musical culture. For example, NH7 Weekender was something really unthinkable 10 years. Since we saw India then and we’re seeing it last year and this, we can really see that there’s a scene that’s growing. It’s interesting and really good to see.

Buddy: The slums around Bombay are crazy and it’s shocking how polluted some places are. It’s very strange but you don’t see the poverty so much after a point. I remember the first time I was here, there was a little girl following me and asking for money and it made me cry. But now it doesn’t anymore. People who live here do not cry about this everyday. It’s not because they’re blind or don’t care anymore. But it’s a reality check to see what the world is.

What’s the next step for you guys?

Chris: Our debut album was just released in Germany in May. We have the next one planned though we’re not sure when it’s going to come out. Hopefully early next year.

What’s your process for making songs?

Buddy: It’s very different for each song. A lot of times, we work with Zhi MC, who just became a father so he couldn’t come for the tour. There’s usually an idea, which one of us finishes. And then we start putting vocals and beats on it. In the last album, we had around 12 tracks and 3 skits and on the 12 tracks, there were 11 different vocalists from 8 different countries. We’d send them the beats, they would record something and we could change the beat according to what they recorded. Sometimes we record on the spot or since we travel a lot, we try to record with them and make it part of the project.

Chris: There are no Indian collaborations yet but I’m sure that’s going to work out. We’ve always come here for a very short time but we plan to come back. The plan was to have five off days on this tour but we got just one and that wasn’t enough to record. There’s no other reason for not collaborating with someone here.

Buddy: Collaborating is the nature of this project. Travelling, finding artistes and more than that, it’s about making relationships and friendships all over the world and keeping in touch through the magic of the Internet.

The interview was published in Metrolife, Deccan Herald on October 28. Here is the link.

Oct 21, 2013

Fighting a lost battle

It isn't fair but we have to leave the body someday. Some people get shot. Slightly messy end but it's quick. Others have their organs stop one by one as the cancer takes over till their heart finally gives up and then, all is quiet.

Too real is how I'd describe experiencing a death firsthand. I didn't think that once the first death you have to see or touch, there'd be so many to follow. But it's been a rapid pace at which they've come and gone. Once, I never got to see the body but visited the grave. Eventually, the grave was bought over for another and I had no say in it. Another, I never said bye but went about my normal life knowing that he was being burnt to ashes many thousands of kilometers away. With the distant one, I felt closer than I had ever before at the moment he left this world. But this once, I touched his cold hand and kissed his cheek before they took him away. And then the curtain fell.

I've said it to myself before but I know I need to say it again. I only wish I got to say goodbye.

Saying goodbye to someone you've known only for the few months that they've known they're about to die is strange. You hear stories and appreciate the way they're told, you wonder what habits drew them to this day. The smiles and tears become more precious all of a sudden. There is hope. And then, there is nothing.

Aug 14, 2013

One day, people will forget me: Irrfan Khan

Before the release of D-Day, I had the pleasure of interviewing Irrfan Khan. I walked into his room and he said to me ‘I’ve seen you before’. I was a little stunned at this and politely said that I haven’t spoken to him before, though I’ve certainly seen enough of his films to know what I want to ask. He smiled and said he had found me intriguing as I was the only girl with a camera in the press con. I blushed, said nothing and found myself a place next to him as he started rolling some tobacco.

Tell me about your character. 

Irrfan: Wali Khan was picked up by RAW chief and sent to Pakistan. In the time he went there, he was a different person – he went with a mission, with a kind of conviction. When you start living with people, you have a perception about them. But when you spend time with them, it changes. So I find it very interesting how the concept he had about Pakistan changed when he went there. Then, he got married. But getting married to a Pakistani girl and living in that culture must have done something to him.

I’m not sure whether he was trying to test himself or what it was. But the interesting thing about the story is that at one level, it’s an operation where you have to bring back this guy from Pakistan to India. On another level, there’s a family line — Wali has a wife and kid and they aren’t supposed to know about his profession. They’re not supposed to know about it and that’s very interesting about these lives. I never knew how these spies used to work, what their living conditions are, why do they do these kind of jobs. Because there’s no reward in it – you don’t get medals, don’t get recognized, don’t get acknowledgement. If you fail or are exposed, the risk is ultimate.

Not specific to this film, how do you create a character sketch in your mind?

It’s the script – the way it’s written and what the director’s take on it is. Where does he want to take it? You try to understand that and then your personal inputs start coming in. Sometimes what happens is that you can push the story into another direction and the director is trying to push it to another. Sometimes it can create dynamics; sometimes it can destroy the impact. For me, it’s very necessary to work in collaboration with the director.

Have you faced such clashes in the past?

Yes, yes. Sometimes, I didn’t know what he was trying to do and I was doing something else. I thought that my detailing or homework was a hurdle. But it’s the director who has the final say. He’s the person who is telling the story. He’s in charge of everybody.

Did going to National School of Drama give you an edge over others? Because from most of your films, it seems like you always get the tougher roles to portray.

Maybe the tougher roles have come to me. Drama school gives you a kind of insight or training to do different characters. In India, we haven’t done too much of realism. So we don’t have a realistic school where you learn the techniques. Every actor has his own method. But drama school gives you exposure and prepares you in understanding and doing characters rather than cultivating a style.

Is that something you’re trying to bring about into Bollywood?

I’m trying to create my own space. That’s the only way – you don’t open a drama school and start teaching. An actor has to convince the industry and audience that they will be entertained when they see him perform. He has to convince the director and producer that he will do justice to the role and bring back the money.

You’ve worked in Hollywood in ‘Life of Pi’ and ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’. What elements of the industry would you want to see here?

We don’t reflect life in our films or explore subjects in a story. We depend too much on melodrama. There’s a large chunk of today’s audience which is dying to watch credible cinema. It’s high time that we start doing it.

But isn’t it happening now to a certain extent?

A little bit. People are in two minds. There are good subjects, biopics, lot of possibility to explore real situations. But suddenly, you see that the actor and director are deciding to go the other way. Even the talented and prominent writers go the other way to ensure that the film does good business and bring in elements that are not credible or interesting. We’ve been seeing that for ages! We are celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema. But do we have a point to celebrate? We can celebrate that we survived. But we didn’t go forward and we still need to evolve.

So what’s the Hollywood perception of Indian films?

Naach gaana, masala…I think it’s recently started changing because there are films that were based in India and they could see the Indian talent in the technical department and things like that. Fortunately, those films were acknowledged in the Oscars and so, the studios have opened up. Now they can base a story in India. The exchange can now happen and will influence the coming generations.

Diverting further, are you as serious as you’re made out to be in film?

(laughs) Not much. I watch comedy channels. The whole trip of my life is to make things lighter, happier and more enjoyable rather than broody. The industry gives me serious parts. But I try to find lighter elements even in those characters. Maybe it’s because of the way God has made my face.

There are a few characters that you want to come out of. In ‘Treatment’, a series I worked on, I was in America for three to four months. It was a heavy character who was too burdened and suffering. It’s not fun to do a character who’s suffering. It takes something from you. If the character demands that kind of involvement, I don’t get out of it. ‘Treatment’ was like that and the ‘Namesake’ character was like that. But in Bollywood, we don’t have a kind of writing where you need to connect so deeply. It’s a little superficial. We’re still not banking on nuances; we’re banking on louder things. They depend on the plot and the plot is their safety net. We still try to underline things. If a person is saying a sad line, the music would be sad. It’s over-emphatic and there’s no layering.

Would it be safe to assume then that you watch a lot of films?

Not Hindi films. Sometimes I watch documentaries or obscure ones that I come to know about. But I like to watch films in the theatre.

Fair enough. What are your upcoming projects?

I’ve done a film called ‘The Lunchbox’ by Ritesh Batra, who’s a new director. The film was in Cannes and got a fantastic response. I’ve wanted to do love stories but got few opportunities like with ‘Maqbool’ and ‘Yeh Saali Zindagi’. This is a special film and I suggest that if you are in love and want to increase that feeling, go and watch it. You’ll come out much more romantic. I’ll be shooting one movie after the other from August onwards.

So you have a romantic side to you as well? 

(amused at the shock I ask this question with) I’m an out and out romantic. Romanticism is something that gives you a break from the mundane reality. So you try to find that in music, film, poetry or just create your own form. You can look at people and feel romantic. You seek that romanticism through different sources.

What are your thoughts on Bangalore?

I haven’t explored it but I’ve heard a lot about it. The apparent thing which I can experience immediately is the weather. But I keep hearing that it’s not the same as it was earlier. But that’s the story of every City. The way our planning in India goes, we don’t give too much importance to infrastructure. All the cities are growing in an unplanned way like a disease. We call it ‘development’.

I’m much happier when I’m in a forest or where I can’t see any man-made alteration. I love that. It just rejuvenates me and brings me back to myself. You enjoy city life if you go to New York or Paris or Istanbul. In New York, whatever interests you have, you will find like-minded people. There’s so much happening there.

What are the fears of a modern-day actor?

There’s no guarantee – this job is insecure and you have to keep working. Even if you’re on top, you keep working to remain on top. I’ve seen very few actors who are okay. The basic nature of an actor is to draw attention, to thrive on attention. So that is something that’s very risky. There must be very few evolved actors who could really do a transition in a smooth way and can leave the temptation of drawing attention and still remain healthy mentally.

But the good thing about acting is that it gives you a chance to explore your surroundings, your life, yourself. I wouldn’t have been a happy person if this profession didn’t have the possibility of exploring myself. That has saved me. Otherwise, I’d have gotten bored with it. The presence of destiny is noticed much more in this profession than others. Losing that attention is the biggest fear that an actor feels. One day, people will forget me and that’s the reality. In today’s generation, there are some people who don’t know who Dilip Kumar is. That’s the way it goes.

Thank you, Irrfan. 

Aug 12, 2013

The lesser known side to Huma Qureshi

I have this image of myself 40-50 years down the line when I’m recalling my initial years of being a reporter in a daily. This image is completely assuming the fact that I make it as a journalist and go beyond writing about art shows that I don’t understand and bharatnatyam performances in shady auditoriums. But the one thing I will look back at with pride is the interviews I’ve done. About a year into working, I realized that I was better at getting famous people to divulge little pieces of information that the audiences they cater to normally don’t hear about. Huma Qureshi was one of those people. Here’s the full text of the interview with her before ‘D-Day’:

What’s Zoya Rehman like? How was your experience taking on this character?

Zoya is an explosive expert and an undercover immigration lawyer. On the surface, she’s a girl of very words and may come across as a little steely. But she’s quite human and fragile like anybody else. There are these choices that she has to make which are difficult. But she has to make them because if she doesn’t, it jeopardizes the whole mission. And in a way, she’s sort of the only girl in this all-guy team. Of course, it’s a very guy-heavy film and it is about the men and machines and espionage. But I think the girls, whether it’s my character or the other two, have a very special place in the movie and hold it on their own.

For me, it was just exciting to be a part of an action film. I’ve never done action before and I didn’t think anyone would cast me in an action movie. But I’m very grateful to Nikhil (Advani) for giving me this opportunity. I hope I’ve done justice to what he had in mind. I always say I’m as good or bad as the team I’m working with because I’m very raw. I’m still learning as we go by. It’s a medium that I’m still grappling with. Yes, you may say I’m four films old but it’s just been a year and there’s too much information I’m trying to cram. It’s all of those things combined.

Any character traits you could relate to personally?

She’s very pragmatic and I think I am too. Actually I’m very emotional so that’s not true. (laughs) Zoya’s very different from who I am. I’m a very emotional person but Zoya’s calm and collected and knows what she has to do. I’m far more volatile as a person that way. But Zoya also has the ability to put on these masks whenever required. I think I can do that because I’m an actress.

Can you compare your experiences with theatre and films?

Working in film and theatre are very different. I can’t say which my preferred one is because they both have their pros and cons. In theatre, I love the fact that you get an immediate response. You know exactly how it went. Films, of course, you reach out to so many people and so, the percentage of adulation and appreciation is much more, which is great. But technically, it’s just a matter of internalizing or externalizing. In films, you have to sometimes do very little to express. Theatre, on the other hand, just by the sheer design of it, needs you to project, express and ensure that the person sitting in the last row on the last seat is able to hear you as clearly as the first person. They’re both very difficult mediums.

And modeling versus acting?

I’ve actually not walked down the ramp that much. Ever since I started doing films is when I started being showstoppers. Before that, I was doing more of television commercials, which is more acting work than modeling. So I’ve never been a model in the quintessential sense of the word.

How do you feel when you look at the year that’s passed?

Honestly, I feel very cool. I don’t feel cocky or arrogant or that I’ve accomplished something. I don’t think ‘Oh my god, I’ve so much more to do’ or ‘Oh my god, I’ve come so far’. I don’t know what’s happening but I just feel it’s pretty cool. It’s one of those feelings. What’s really nice is that a lot of people tried to scare me. They tried to tell me that I was starting off in a very off-beatish space and I should wait. They said I have the looks and the talent and can be like the quintessential mainstream heroine. I could have chosen to get scared and rejected a film like ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ and the other movies that I’ve done. But I’m glad because I guess that makes me different. That’s my USP and what my audiences expect and like from me.

At the same time, I’m very open to doing commercial films. I’ve never been bracketed as an ‘off-beat actress’. I think tomorrow, if I do a rom-com, which I am planning to do, it’d be accepted as much as any of the dark edgy films that I’ve done. I’ve not had an image that people associated me with. The kind of person that I am – very talkative and in my brother’s words ‘badtameez’, emotional, hyper - has not come out in my movies. They’ve been strong, contained characters and my brother says ‘That’s a fraud! That’s not you’ and I say ‘Ya man, they don’t even know how I actually talk’. I’m just waiting for a film in which I can be my mad self.

So there’s someone that you specifically want to work with in the industry?

More than actors and directors, the genre I want to work with is in romance because I think it’ll reflect who I am. I’m a very rom-com sort of a girl. I love movies that make you well up and cry. It’s great to do an action film - it’s a lot of fun, very difficult and takes your endurance levels to another threshold. But I like romantic films.

Is there romance in your life? (Hint: Shahid Kapoor)

If there was, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.

Do you see yourself growing old with films?

I do. I’ll act as long as I can. Maybe I’ll be wrinkled and nobody would want to cast me. Maybe I’ll turn producer or director or writer. But I’ll do something with the movies. They’ve always fascinated me as a child - just the whole experience of watching a movie in a theater. That’s what gets you hooked. And to sort of live the dream, where you sort of aspire for it but don’t know what’s going to happen, is what I’m going with. I don’t see myself not being associated with films.

Clearly, the Indian film industry is taking an independent direction these days. What’s the future of ‘Bollywood’, according to you?

What’s started happening in the last one year is the fact that there are very interesting and stories and characters that are coming out. Earlier, you had very simplistic notions of good/bad, right/wrong, superhero/evil. You had the vamp or the damsel in distress. It’s not that today. Now, you have characters that could be slightly grey - someone could be a heroine but could still be in love with a drug lord. Someone could be a thief but a nice guy who is just telling his story. Someone could be a sperm donor. The hero of the film could betray the heroine and rape her but come back and redeem himself. Those are characters we see around us because people don’t come in blacks and whites; they come in all shades of grey.

Our movies are moving towards that and audiences have started identifying with that greyness they see around them all the time. Once they have accepted it, it gives the directors and actors more confidence to experiment and explore. It’s going towards an independent approach because newer and braver stories are coming out. Who thought that a film about Paan Singh Tomar or Milkha Singh would be made five years back, forget ten? But they are being made and there is fanfare and interest about them. That’s the whole point. People have started accepting it, which gives us a lot of hope.

Even in the commercial space, you’re looking for interesting things. You don’t want to see a guy and girl fall in love at first sight because that doesn’t happen anymore. It happens in very unique and weird ways and film-makers are exploring that. Say, a film like ‘Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani’, it isn’t your quintessential Bollywood film. It has so many shades of grey and all the characters are flawed. The set-up, in terms of your song and dance sequence, is there. But the stories have changed - the style and format has changed and that’s exciting!

Music is being used very interestingly. For example in ‘D-Day’, we don’t have any song and dance number because it’s not required. Hats off to Nikhil for not succumbing to the pressure and pushing in an item number suddenly where the heroine comes out dancing and the hero does a shimmy with her. He’s created the music with Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and he’s cut it in the film in a very interesting way. You have maybe a lovemaking scene and an action sequence going on and a very beautiful track in the background. It’s real and that’s what people are looking for. Music is such a big part of our Indian culture, whether it’s in weddings or festivals. But it doesn’t happen in the way it’s been shown on screen. Finally, people are feeling that it’s being projected how it really happens.

From the way you’re talking, is it safe to assume that you grew up watching a lot of films?

I was very balanced growing up. We used to have a cinema theatre close to our house and my mother would take us every weekend to see a film. But they were quintessential normal films. My brother and I used to sneak up and watch those cheesy films at night on Star Movies - like ‘Back to the future’, ‘Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey’. We used to love those films and I used to watch them on repeat. I wouldn’t say I was a film buff while growing up. In fact, I was quite the contrary. My parents always thought I’d do something more academic like sciences. But I quit that and did humanities instead because I told them I wanted to be a civil service officer. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I had to tell them something.

But being an actor, what has helped me, is the extreme upbringing we had. We’d go to a South Delhi school where you have your cool friends and listen to music and go out partying and then I’d come back home where my parents used to be very strict with me. I couldn’t go out after 8 pm, no boys calling at home and I’d be like ‘fine, Mm. You’re so old fashioned’. Then I’d go to my Dadi’s house, which is even more conservative, and wear a salwar kameez, be a good girl and behave myself. For summer vacations, we’d go to Kashmir because my Mom is from there, which was another world where I had a different set of relatives and a different understanding. From a very young age, there was a political consciousness because of what happens there and the impact it has on our lives.

What happened was that wherever we went, my brother and I knew that we had to fit in. You couldn’t not fit in because then you’d miss out on all the fun. So when we went to Kashmir, we became Kashmiri. I think that sort of helps in acting today because we are adaptable people. Even today, when I prepare for a part and director tells me ‘this isn’t working, let’s try this’, I immediately get into it.

So was going into acting was seen as an act of rebellion?

Acting was more than rebellion - it was a form of acceptance of myself. When you’re growing up, everybody goes through these adolescent pains and feelings of self doubt where you wonder whether you’re good enough. Acting was something I really enjoyed doing. But it was also one of those things I could never accept to myself that I wanted to do. It’s not the easiest thing to tell your friends and family that I want to be an actress because they’ll laugh at you and say ‘tumko heroine banna hai?’ You get mocked and I did.

They tried to convince me that it’s a passing phase. ‘It’s just gone to her head that she wants to be an actress’. Coming from a middle class family, they feel it’s unachievable. They think actors and musicians come from some different tree altogether; they don’t come from us. So that took a while. It only happened because my father really loves me a lot. My mother thinks I have him wrapped around my little finger, which is not true. I told my father ‘Dad, if I don’t do this now, I’ll always hold it against you that you never let me try’. That’s when he got emotional and said ‘Do it. But if it doesn’t work out within a year, you better come back and sort your life out.’ I respect him for that because if he hadn’t given me the deadline, I’d probably have been lazy and bummed around and in a sense, Mumbai as a city can really spoil you with the parties and new lifestyle and the freedom.

For me, as a girl who had never stepped outside the 10 km radius around her house and was always chaperoned, I still remember the feeling when I got my first house. My friends dropped me over there. It was an empty flat and I bought myself two liters of water and a mattress which cost me less than 1000 bucks and I moved in. My friends were petrified but I knew I just had to do it. I felt so grown up and so cool.

It had more reasons for it not to work out than to work out. But I guess sometimes you just have to hang in there, do your thing and believe in yourself and be ox-headed about it. I’m an ambitious person and I like to be good at what I’m doing. Acting has given me confidence. It’s put me in touch with myself.

(There’s a knock on the door to inform us that the other reporters are waiting for their turn. I stop the recording, watch Huma put on makeup for the photograph and do the job my lazy photographer was supposed to do. She approves of the photo, gives me a hug and I leave.)

Aug 2, 2013

Arjun Rampal: from model to action hero

I had to interview the extremely handsome and articulate Arjun Rampal last month for his upcoming film ‘D-Day’. He appeared to be one of those really tough cookies to crack. But a few casual jokes and I got straight to the point.

Nikhil Advani’s been known for his romantic/drama genre. What made you agree to do his first action thriller?

All of us had the same question when Nikhil came to us and said that he wants to make a realistic action thriller about nabbing the most wanted man in India. But the real question was the difference between my level of realism and his. He convinced us that the way he wanted to do it was in such that when the audience watches this film, they will really experience the whole drama, the human side of these people and it will really feel like it’s all unfolding in front of their eyes. It’s not nice to compare but to give people a clearer idea - it’s almost like an ‘Argo’ or a ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ mixed with maybe a ‘Bourne Ultimatum’ and as Irrfan says ‘The Heat’. It’s got the right blend and we took these films as parameters for making the film just so that when we saw the film, it came across. To trust him was a good decision.

Tell me about your character, Captain Rudra Pratap Singh.

I don’t think there are any similarities. I can’t kill anybody. But if I had to really go into where he’s coming from, I think Rudra Pratap comes from a very dark space - from a space where he’s seen the worst situations. He’s been let down a couple of times and therefore, he doesn’t believe in working with a team because he feels that every individual has his or her weaknesses. So he likes to work on his own. He is extremely one-dimensional when you meet him - very cold cut, frank, he speaks his own. And he doesn’t see eye to eye with Wali Khan, which is Irrfan Khan’s character. I think what is really interesting in the film is the journey that he goes through through this mission. He goes to hide out in the red light district of Karachi - Napier Road - where he meets a prostitute. It’s a really beautiful relationship between an assassin and a prostitute and the dynamics of that are what I really enjoyed playing in this film. It kind of gives Rudra another layer where he comes out of it and he starts looking at life. Two hopeless people - one can kill, the other can sleep with someone for money - find each other and start giving each other hope. A guy who doesn’t take things personally starts making this mission very personal.

How did you get into the character?

I don’t like to make a blueprint - I don’t want it to be like a building that just comes up and you say ‘Oh! it’s A,B,C,D,E’. I think you just go with the flow and feed off the energy of your co-actors, your director and his vision. For example, for this film, I had to go through two and a half months of proper training with Tom Struthers. Why? Because he said ‘I’m going to use the action in this movie in the drama’. The reason why Hollywood’s number one action director comes to this film is because he sees some credibility to this script. I really loved his approach to it, where nothing was pre-conceived and there was no choreography.
So it was all natural?

He put us in a camp where we were fighting with commandos - punching, blocking, fighting with knives, dismantling a gun, putting it back together, being timed while we do it, firing the gun; if a bullet got stuck in a chamber, how to dislodge it and keep on firing. Because you can’t stand up there (which I’ve done in previous movies) and say ‘Cut! My gun’s jammed’. I can’t do that because I’m an agent and guns do get jammed in the line of fire and I should know how to dislodge it. The scenes are there in the film. It was so good that we went through that practice. We met people who train the Mossad who told us how we should walk, how our mannerisms should be. They told us how alert you have to be all the time. For example, if somebody’s following you, you’re not going to look over your shoulder and see if you’re being followed or not. Because then, the enemy knows that you’ve caught on to something. You can’t lose the element of surprise. You have to surprise your enemy instead of your enemy surprising you. So you go to a reflective surface and see what’s happening behind you. If you’re in a restaurant, I could see the spoon and use it as a rear view mirror. These things don’t necessarily need to be in the film. But it’s the information you gather. If you feel that you can do it in a scene, that’s what’s nice because it’s real.

Do you think you could use this information in real life?

Definitely, if I got into a street fight, the guy would be cursing himself because he wouldn’t look very good. But yes, it gives you a confidence and that’s what I think it was supposed to do. Tom comes onto the set and says ‘okay, this is the set. There’s a sewing machine there, a pair of scissors, a newspaper. Rudra Pratap, you are disarmed. This guy’s picked up a pair of scissors. What are you going to do?’ He shows you how to make the newspaper a weapon - he uses the props within the set to choreograph it. Then he’ll say ‘okay, that move that we taught you. You’re going to do that. Irrfan, you’re going to do this move. Now go’. It’s all instinctive and the camera’s just moving and capturing whatever it has to.

Do you personally think that’s how it should be in action films?

No, it doesn’t necessarily have to be like that. There are people who choreograph sequences because it’s stylized. Some people do that. With ‘D-Day’, I didn’t want to create a blueprint because everything has to have this uncanny energy that will keep you on the edge of your seat. So even if there’s silence before you’re going to do something, it should be eerie enough to make you wonder what’s going to happen. If a finger’s broken in the film, you feel the pain. If a car slams into your car, you see how the guy inside shakes. And we were shaking because they actually slammed cars into our cars. But it was done in a very, very safe manner. They have the craft to do it and it was fantastic to work on that level.

And do you think this slick approach to the genre makes it a first in India?

I think so. I don’t think they’ve seen action like this. If you see the action in ‘Bourne Ultimatum’, he’s the same action director. But then he’s not done the action from ‘Dark Knight’, which is stylized in a particular way. But if you see ‘Inception’ or ‘Blood Diamond’, the way they use and guns and how they are, you see that here. These are all my favourite films. So I was really lucky to be a part of this film and experience this technician who gave so much to this film that supports the script that Nikhil Advani made. Because the action had to be credible since we’re not doing a James Bond kind of an espionage film. We’re doing a very realistic film.

Fair enough. This year, you’ve done ‘Inkaar’, there’s ‘D-Day’ and you have ‘Satyagraha’ coming out. How do you switch on and off from a particular character?

They’ve all been intense characters. I do one film at a time and I take at least three to four weeks off before I get into another film. So I think there’s enough time. Before you commit and say yes to a film, you’ve already spent three to four months with the script and you’ve tried to understand and see the film as clearly as the director sees it. So when you’re doing one film, you’re just with that film. Then you need some time to come out of it. And some characters don’t necessarily leave you. And sometimes, you like certain qualities of certain characters that you want to keep.

Can you point out any of these instances?

I think there was a lot of me in Joe Mascarhenas when I did ‘Rock On!!’. I think there’s a lot of ‘Rajneeti’ in me and it took me a long time to get out of that one because that came to me; it wasn’t me. When I was doing that film, my wife didn’t want me to come back home. She told me to go and live in Bhopal and come once the film was done.

What’s your character like in ‘Satyagraha’?

In ‘Satyagraha’, he’s an aggressive guy, a guy who has a heart of gold, who has political ambition. He is the voice of the youth but he is a zamin ka aadmi. He looks at this movement and joins satyagaraha, a peaceful demonstration, even though he’s not the most peaceful guy because he believes that society needs to change.

How do you like Bangalore?

Bangalore or Bengaluru? I really like it. Bangalore’s had some very lovely memories for me. I did my first fashion show here as a model and the first time I walked on the runway was with my wife. She wasn’t my wife then and I was so nervous on the runway that I held her hand because I thought I was going to faint and she thought I was trying to make a pass at her. But then, a relationship’s developed from there. It’s been lucky for me because the first time I came to promote a film here was for ‘Rock On!!’ and I won a national award for it. And then ‘Housefull’, which also did well. So now, I’m here for ‘D-Day’ and hopefully my dream run with Bangalore continues.

Do you prefer walking the ramp or is it easier to have dialogues backing you up?

What do you think?

I suppose I would want the challenges of acting. What about you?

You’re right. It really depends on how you approach your work and that’s what’s key in anything that you do. When I was modeling, my approach was that I had a lot of love and passion for it. Those were exciting times the fashion industry wasn’t as big as it is now. It was still looking for that industry status. There were few designers, few models and it was an intimate industry that was experimenting and I was lucky to be a part of that. It was a lot more than just walking the runway or doing a good picture. You spent a lot of time making the picture really good.

Was acting a secondary career? Did it ‘just happen’?

I loved watching movies since I was a kid. Unfortunately, from the 80s to the 90s, I stopped watching them because there were really terrible movies. I watched all of Mr Bachchan’s films. I was a big fan of his and still am. I remember I used to get completely transported into that world when I’d watch a movie and just get lost in it. Then I’d come back, enact it, maybe dress like that actor for a few days, depending on how it influenced me. I wanted to go to New York and study filmmaking and that’s when Ashok Mehta called me for ‘Moksha’ and Shekhar Kapur really pushed me in that direction. Once I was in front of the camera, the camera was like ‘okay, now you can’t get rid of me’.

How do you view yourself?

I’m comfortable and happy with the kind of work that I’m doing. I know where I want to move and in what direction. And I think I am different from the rest and as long as I know that, that’s good.

How do you brush aside the ego?

It’s all perception. I come with a lot of baggage of perception. My challenges have always been to break them because ego is the only thing that can pull you down; it’s your worst enemy. And I’m aware of that. I’m a Buddhist and that’s the way it is.

Thank you, Arjun.

Jul 16, 2013

The well oiled machine that is Iced Earth

I walk into the hotel and standing there is Iced Earth. I know it’s unethical of me to try and get the exclusive interview now but the journalist in me wants to know their story. Waiting for the press conference to begin just doesn’t seem that appealing. I wonder why. I try my luck but the band is reluctant and asks me to ask their tour manager, who says I'll get ample time after the conference anyway (he’s right). 2 photographs, 1 of which was blurry, and I let them go.

Iced Earth
The questions began flowing from the guy in front. He asks his questions. I’ve done my research and I start by asking whether the line-up changes over the years have helped or destroyed the original sound. Jon Schaffer, the only remaining member from the original line-up answers: "I think it’s necessary. Surviving as a mid-level heavy metal band is difficult and there are a lot of different challenges that go on for the whole spectrum of life and business. So, it does make it challenging but everyone that’s come into the band has put their unique personality into their parts. It’s in the execution of the parts where you see the individuals at."

Luke Appleton
I am curious about their art work, which seems to reflect their use of themes to cultivate their sound. "I’m involved in every step – from the concept to every step of the way. It’s actually a time-consuming job," says Jon. Is it as important as the music, I ask. "Yes, it’s all connected – it’s very important because there’s always a theme running through ‘Iced Earth’ records at least 90 percent of the time. I like to have the whole package so that the whole thing makes sense. From the kind of tones you choose for the instruments to the tones in the art, it’s all got to fit.”

They are in Bangalore a year later than they were supposed to be and from their press release with the cancellation then, it seemed like they really wanted to experience playing here. But they’re clueless about the City. "I really didn’t know what to expect. The food’s amazing and we’re going to a temple later today. I wish we had more time to check out the Indian culture but I hear Bangalore’s a metropolitan city so I guess there’s not a lot of that," says Jon.

The sound of this band is probably defined by what it was when it began its journey in 1985. But it's been a long time since and I'm curious if the songwriting process has change. "It’s not really changed. I don’t know, it just comes. It’s really hard to describe. It’s a different process from coming out and performing. That, to me, is a complete opposite of the way my brain works. I really like to get focused when I’m writing and not have distractions around me. To come up with riffs and stuff is one thing. But arranging and building songs and all that stuff is an emotional process and there’s a lot of pressure involved that I certainly create for myself. I think that’s the way you get the best performance. We’re all under a lot of pressure this summer because we’re playing shows and getting ready to record the new album. Raphael’s come into a situation where he’s had to learn a lot of back cataloguing and the new stuff. So we’re all feeling the pressure, which is a good thing because at the end of the day, people perform the best under pressure. It really shows the test of your mettle and what you’re made of," Jon tells me.

Jon Schaffer
I am content with this answer but I pry further and question him whether the lyrics precede the melody. "The lyrics are always last for me. It’s all about the music and the melodies. We frame the lyrics to fit in. Normally, it starts with a theme – like a lot of times, we come up with a title or maybe just a riff that ends up leading to a title. But the theme starts to blow up very early in the process and sort of unfolds.”

I look down at the questions I scribbled down an hour ago. I’ve asked many of them to other bands in the past. This isn't what I want to know, I admit to myself. Are you calm or angry when you write, I prod. The band laughs and Jon says, "Am I calm or angry while writing? A little bit of both. You’ll know when you hear the parts. It depends on what particular emotion is happening at that time."

There's a point in the conference where Stu confesses that the band is always jetlagged. Does touring become rehearsal itself, I ask. "You can rehearse as much as you can until you actually start making stupid mistakes because you’ve played it so many times. And then you get on the road and it takes at least another four to five shows before things really start to lock up. But in the last tour, we did a lot of shows and in the next tour, we’ll be doing a lot of shows. It becomes like *clicks his finger*. You don’t even have to think about what you’re doing. We’re a pretty well oiled machine at this point," Jon admits, visible pride on his face.

So what's the chemistry like in the studio? Jon says, "We stay till we get it right" and Stu adds, "Especially this summer." Elaborating their summer plans, Jon adds, "We’ve been living together at this place in Germany which is kind of like a castle. We’ve been rehearsing the old and new stuff. There’s a studio there we’ll be recording. We do like 9 days and then go and do some more festivals and then come back for 9 days and then more festivals. It’s like bam, bam, bam."

Is there ever a break from the music? All the band members shake their head. Stu decided to say more than just three words this time. “This is what we eat, breathe and live. If we’re not on tour, we’re preparing for other songs or writing. There’s always something going on."

Stu Block
I'm eager to know Raphael's story. He plays the drums for three other active bands and from the looks and fact that he has not spoken yet, looks the simplest of them all. In his Italian accent, he compares the experience with Iced Earth to all the other bands he has played for. "This is totally new and high level. Working with these guys means a lot to me and I understood so many things in the last month about why they are where they are. Because they work so hard. I’ve never met anybody who works as hard as they do. Nothing can compare to this," he says.

Is there a lot of pressure on you from the band? "We put him in a corner sometimes," jokes Stu. Then I hear Raphael's voice again. "It’s challenging but I always think that life brings you challenges and can accept them or not. But if you don’t, you always stay in the same position. There’s pressure but everything’s been great so far. In the first show, we had ten minutes to set up and after that, we started in the best way pressure-wise to perform to an audience. That’s rock ‘n’ roll."

The press conference is over. I get my autograph and while passing Troy, ask him if he ever speaks. "Not really," he tells me. After some TV interview they look tortured doing, I go up to Raphael and have a little chat. Excerpts:

What does it mean for you to be a part of Iced Earth?
I know the band since I was like 14. Iced Earth was one of the first few bands that I heard right after Iron Maiden. I know pretty much all the material. But knowing the songs and playing them are very different things. I played many of the old classics like ‘Watching Over Me’ and ‘Burning Times’ when I was a kid. I played with a band and I showed them how to play these songs on stage.

Raphael Saini
Is there a lot of pressure on you taking over where Brent Smedley left off?
It wasn’t easy joining them because I had to learn many, many songs. The new album is coming and during rehearsals, we practice mostly the new stuff. I’ve been doing this as a job way before this band. So I’m kind of used to crazy situations. Actually, I’ve had situations worse than this one. For example, I’ve been called 24 hours before a tour and had to learn 11 songs in one night. That’s why I think they have me - because they knew that in such little time, I could handle it. Jon was impressed by my playing and stuff.

You feel much pressure but you’ve to find a way to keep going. If not, you just get crazy. So keep it calm and do the best. So far, everything has been great but not easy. I’m enjoying it but not 100 percent because there are so many things I’ve to learn. I want to make it perfect for the people because I know they care so much. I care about doing the best for the people. I think, who is realizing this, more than me, are my friends. They’re all ‘Wow!’ and see the pictures. For me right now, it’s different because I have to make it right. That’s the main thing. It’s not about ‘hey, it’s cool’. It’s about people enjoying it. Brent was a great drummer. He did a lot and I want people to be happy with me. Right now, we’ve been practicing so much everyday for the last month – new songs, old songs. I care about making the new album the best I ever did in my life so people will really accept me.

I smile, wish him luck and then turn to Troy. I tell him I want to know his story. This time, he's a little more forthcoming. It's probably the cigarette he’s smoking that's doing that. Excerpts:

What kind of music do you listen to outside of Iced Earth?
To me, there are only two kinds of music in the world – good and bad. And I listen to good music. I mean I’m from Indiana! It’s where bluegrass started, jazz, Wes Montgomery. I’m pretty varied style-wise as far as the music I listen to - everything from the heaviest of heavy metal to jazz to bluegrass. And in all those genres, there’s good and bad that I consider in my own personal opinion. I like music. Period. And if you feel what somebody’s doing, I don’t care what kind it is, you feel it. That’s what music’s supposed to do – move you emotionally. The guys that are really talented at that, I don’t give a shit about what they’re playing, as long as they’re doing that. Guitar-wise: bluegrass Tony Rice, David Grier, Stefan Grossman; Fingerstyle players – Doyle Dykes. Heavy metal players, there’s everybody from Neil Zaza to Vinnie Moore.

I’ll go home and grab my acoustic guitar and play a bluegrass tune. I’ll go do a blues thing. I played the KISS convention before I came here. I’m not a jazz guitarist but I do play quite a few different styles. Iced Earth’s given me a really cool vehicle to explore all kinds of different guitar ideas, sounds, tones. A lot of people don’t realize how varied you can get inside of a genre if you want to, like if you wanna sneak a bluegrass lick on a metal song. I’ve done it but I won’t tell you which one. They never found out because it’s how you play it. An A chord’s an A chord but if you play it through a huge Marshall stack at a 110 decibels and cram the fucking shit out of it, it’s metal, you know. You play it lightly and it can be a jazz chord. It’s just how you play it.

I don’t narrow it down to metal. I play in a metal band and Iced Earth is Jon Schaffer’s vision. I work within that vision and do what I do. And I get to express myself as much as I want to musically within that that fits in Jon’s vision.

What is ‘Jon’s vision’?
Iced Earth. You’ve been listening to it for the last 25 years and it’s his vision. I mean, the songs move people. I’ve seen guys holding up their father’s medals from war over ‘Watching Over Me’ and falling apart right in front of me, making me fall apart on stage. And then you’re standing on stage with the guy who wrote that and ‘A Question Of Heaven’ and ‘Dante’s Inferno’ and ‘Dystopia’ and stuff. The guy’s a fucking amazing songwriter. I can come up with guitar riffs all day long but I’m not a songwriter. He is. He can take all those little things and turn them into a magical moment. That’s the stuff that separates the men from the boys. I’m very proud to be on stage with him because he’s an amazing musician. And he knows what he wants, which I bet a lot of fucking metal musicians don’t.

Is there any scope for a solo project?
Iced Earth is my life. It’s all I want to do. I dedicate every ounce of energy I have to it. But I do have other outlets like I said.

Troy Seele
Do you have days when you look back and can’t believe the direction your life’s taken? Does this lifestyle ever get tiring?
When you don’t know it, you don’t miss it. I played my first professional gig when I was 13 years old. There used to be bar gigs and stuff and you went back home to your own bed. But this is a lot different than that. I’ve been doing this for six years now and ‘normal’ is a distant memory.

Was the transition to a ‘big band’ tough?

It’s a different level. For me, it was a harder transition because you go from playing in a bar band, which is just jamming. You make a mistake and it’s no big deal because it was in the moment. Iced Earth is precision playing, timing and it takes a lot of practice to get up there and do it exactly at the level. Transition to a big band is a lot more dedication and a lot more focus on a setlist or an album. In Iced Earth, I just do the solos on the albums so, it’s a lot of focus on that one little part. But I’ll do it till I get it right. I don’t care if it takes me one night or a week or whatever. I’ll just keep going till I’m satisfied and Jon goes ‘I’m satisfied’ and I know I’ve done my job.

The 500 word article version of this has been published in Metrolife, Deccan Herald on July 16, 2013.

Jul 12, 2013

Animals As Leaders: a unison hammer kind of bashing on the crowd's head

I waited for two hours to interview ‘Animals As Leaders’, possibly the only band in the Bangalore Open Air line up that I really wanted to check out. I even managed to sneak out to Noon Wines for a few drinks, came back and there they were. 
Matt Garstka, Tosin Abasi, Javier Reyes

Here’s how the interview went down:

You’ve been out sightseeing all day. What do you think of Bangalore?
Tosin: We’ve been eating and shopping. We went to the Hare Krishna temple and chanted for a very long time and we’re just mesmerized because visually, it’s a very busy place. Sonically too. Everyone honks!

Did you find any inner peace? 
Matt: Yes, the people here are just kind, open and calm. There are not many people that are at a high frequency.

Tosin: In the US, large cities are very aggressive places. But there’s a strange sense of calmness here.

Interesting. Getting to your music, when can we expect the third album? 
Tosin: We’ve done pre-production. We were working with Diego (Farias) from Volumes and Misha Mansoor (of Periphery) We’ve completed ten songs as demos. We’re gonna book some drum sessions for late summer/early fall and just try to properly record the demos. We’ll try to have the album out by the end of the year.

Has it taken any new direction?
Tosin: I think a lot of the material’s more mellow. There’s new harmonic ideas. But it’s essentially Animals As Leaders. It’s the first Animals As Leaders album with Matt and with real drums. Sometimes, on an electronic kit, we would play parts. But primarily it was programmed. He has a distinct style too and that’s going to be added.

Matt, how’s the last year been for you since you came on board? You went from a gospel drummer to well, this?
Matt: I wouldn’t say I was a gospel drummer. I would say I was more of a fusion drummer but a lot of gospel guys get their style from fusion drummers. I was always kind of all over the place in terms of styles — I was playing the blues, rock, reggae, funk, R’n’B, Latin, jazz. I was playing metal for years since I was like, 15. So, it’s almost 10 years now. There’s no real transition period. But it’s fun to be aggressive and for that to be not only be deemed okay but encouraged.

Tosin: We keep him really busy.

Matt: the new guy on the block
Do you make a conscious effort to vary the songs? Being purely instrumental, is it more challenging without the burden of lyrics?
Tosin: It’s interesting. I’ve never made a conscious decision to steer a song in one direction before the song. It’s usually just inspired and I start playing something. But there are a lot of ideas that I don’t use. So I just try to pick the strongest ones. We were listening to Isahn’s set last night and the last song they played was very slow and very open. I realized that if I were to consciously choose to do a style, it would be something like that. We’ve never done a slow, dramatic song. That would be a conscious thing. But other that, the variation just occurs.

What’s the songwriting process like?
Tosin: It’s usually guitar-based ideas. I have three or four parts that I think work together and then we’ll put it into a recording programme like Pro Tools and then we’ll start to sequence the songs, compose the drums, that way. That’s been the way in the past two albums. It’s just the perspective of having it in the computer and allowing you to move parts around that’s really advantageous, you know. There are some things that we’ve just jammed out, like just single phrases. But to compose a full song that way on the level of composition that we’re doing doesn’t really…It’s a bit more coherent to just work inside of the computer. So that’s usually the process.

How’s it been going from a solo project to a band?
Tosin: The language can be really confusing around that because in a lot of ways because I don’t want to say it’s a solo project but my voice is probably the most prominent. I was approached to do Animals As Leaders not as a band but as a solo release. It was my idea to have musicians because I didn’t want it to be self-focussed. I wanted to include musicians who could make the sound bigger. It’s happening with Matt. It happened with Navene (Koperweis) almost not so much on drums but as much with electronic stuff and even guitar ideas. It’s been collaborative but also in a large percentage, also slightly like a solo thing.

Tosin playing the genius that it is the Ibanez TAM100 8-string guitar
Is there any chance of lyrics?
Tosin: (laughs seeing the hopeful expression on my face) I think we’re going to stay instrumental but we’ve toyed with the idea of using vocal samples. It could be cool. Maybe on the next one, I don’t know. Some sort of narrative or something.

What do you listen to individually? What kind of influences can we expect on this album? 
Tosin: I still listen to a lot of Bebop guitar players like Adam Rogers, Kurt Rosenwinkel; the Meshuggah influence is always going to be there. But I’m also listening to a lot of electronic music. Honestly, I like Siriousmo, Noisia; there’s a podcast called Neosignal with guys like Misanthrop and Phace. It’s really aggressive drum n bass.

Matt: I’ve been listening to Machinedrum, this rock group called Data, Deftones, Meshuggah. I should probably look at my phone.

Tosin: I know, I was about to do the same thing but my phone’s dead.

Does it go beyond the music or are you constantly playing/recording/listening?
Tosin: We’re very different. For me, I’ve a pretty active social life in Los Angeles. So I go out a lot and hear electronic music. There’s a party called Low End Theory. Flying Lotus has this residency and multiple times a week, I’m just hearing a DJ. I’m also into fashion and I actually like to go to flea markets and boutiques. I’m also into fitness. So, I do cross fit like five times a week. When we’re on tour, it’s 100% music. Off tour, I’m not really playing the guitar that much. I want my life to have balance.

Matt: For me, it’s like the part of the day that I look forward to. Without going and playing, it’s almost like a dark day. My life definitely reflects in my music that I come up with. I think that’s what I live for and it’s a part of me. It’s like eating. Without music everyday, I feel malnutritioned in a sense. But yeah, I like to go out and check out live performances. That’s very inspiring. I’m into fitness and eating healthy. I’m recently getting into fashion. Tosin’s helping me.

Tosin: Oh yeah? I gave him this shirt. He looks quite nice, doesn’t he? *they laugh*

*Javier walks into the interview*

Javier, how would you describe your relationship with the guitar?
Javier: I actually had an on and off relationship with the guitar. For a while, in my early 20s, I actually had a break from playing the guitar. So I spent two or three years without playing and just trying to discover the rest of my life — going back to school, working with the family business, stuff like that.

But it pulled you back?
Javier: Absolutely! Obviously! Probably when I was like 25, I started playing guitar again and it just came back to me. I felt that I was like a unique player and it just became something that I knew that I had to do. I had some people supporting the idea who were like ‘dude, you should always play guitar’.

Has it worked out well? 
I would think so. I’m in India and doing an interview, aren’t I?

Javier: the one who looks quiet but has quite a story to tell
How was Bangalore Open Air?
Javier: Last night was awesome. I was a little tired after the show.

Tosin: We messed up the performance! But the overall experience was cool. For us, the experience of playing in front of the Indian crowd was very positive. There was a lot of enthusiasm.

Did you come with any expectations?
Tosin: We have peers — Periphery, Tesseract — and they’ve all been like ‘dude, it’s crazy’. Before that, I didn’t know that there’s a metal community in India. On Facebook, we’ve been noticing a large amount of comments and stuff from Indian cities. So I kind of knew there was like some energy here for metal. But it doesn’t really prepare you for the experience of being in a large Indian city and playing.

How’s the chemistry between the three of you with Matt’s addition?
Javier: I think the chemistry’s been awesome. Having Matt in the band has kind of lit a new spark in Tosin and my creativity. We loved Navene but I think that what Matt offered for us is definitely a lot more what both of us were looking for from a drummer. I think having him in the band has definitely added a new chemistry. It’s actually fun for us to listen. We get to turn around and listen to him do some crazy thing and we’re like ‘Jesus Christ, you know’

Is it the same story in the studio?
Tosin: We haven’t done that yet. But the performance dynamic is much more organic. Whether he’s playing a part that he didn’t write or not, he has the freedom to interpret it. So that’s where we’re constantly surprised. But when we compose, it’s way more planned.

Matt: I try as much as I can to keep the integrity of the song and the feel and the phrasing. In most cases, it’s not that I’m going out on a limb. I’m actually playing closer to what they’re playing. It helps, especially live, to create more of this unison hammer kind of bashing on the crowd’s head.

Javier: For this style of music, I also think that live, you wouldn’t be able to change the leads or rhythm parts because it would become a whole new song. The leads, solos, act sometimes as the melody. People actually start memorizing them and singing along to them. With the drums, Matt has the liberty to change it up without sounding like it’s a new song.

What contribution do you think you have made to the instrumental metal sub-genre? 
Tosin: Animals As Leaders was never actually meant to be an aggressive thing. I was in a metalcore band and I wanted to make clean, intricate music that wasn’t aggressive. It was because I worked with Misha Mansoor that he started to metal-ize everything. But inadvertently, it created this synergy where the aggressive parts were balanced by the melody and texture of what used to be a non-aggressive song. I can play you demos of what the songs were before they became the final versions. It’s not metal. It sounds closer to electronic music. We’ve been responsible for, in some way, solidifying it as a genre in metal.

(At this point, the PR person comes and forces the interview to be stopped. I’ve long crossed my deadline of 10 minutes. I thank the band, check out the orange/black sari that Tosin’s bought (as a wall hanging) from their market, make them pose for the photograph and leave the hotel with the biggest grin on my face.)

The 500 word article version of this has been published in Metrolife, Deccan Herald on July 12, 2013. 

Jul 11, 2013

The Pursuit of Journalism

I was reading Narcopolis and I came across a part where the story of the opium dealer Rashid is being told and how a group of foreigners from Spain or Rome came down to Bombay to see what all the fuss was about. They took photographs of his khana and asked him questions about his life and saw where he lived and left. They had a story, one that had not yet been told. Or at least not one they had read or heard before. If you see a story, you want to tell it. That's why it's been a year or Monday meetings with at least 5-7 fresh story ideas and most have been written, published and read (perhaps). My job as a storyteller is done.

That's probably the reason why I chose journalism. I may have good stories to tell but I'm usually not good at verbalizing it. I write for myself but it doesn't come out the way I want to say it. Within the pages of a newspaper, I can share the world as I see it with the world. I was at Avenue Road this morning hunting down an obscure dosa restaurant for our eatery column. Most of my colleagues don't even bother searching for the best. But I want to find it, find out about its history and then tell people why they should go there. It could be an article with the basic details - where is it, what do you get there, for how much. But I ask the owner about the specials in the menu, how the 'hotel' was passed down from his grandfather to his father to him.

So after I was done telling the story of Hotel Vijay Vihar, I took out my camera to put the shutterbug in me at ease. There was commotion and energy and the rawness of any Calcutta market that was picked up and transported to the center of Bangalore. There was a man selling glittery blouses from a duffel bag in the corner of the road. I asked him if I could take his photograph. He let me. Someone else passed by and asked if I was 'from press?' I said I was, though this was just clicking for pleasure. It struck me then that today, that was the best possible reason for seeing a girl in a kurta standing and taking photographs at a busy market square.

To me, I had to be finding novelty in something that they saw around them everyday and be documenting it for something, even if they weren't sure what. That's the only explanation to wanting to do journalism even today. What's been reported has been reported - the wars, the freedom movements, the politics and state of affairs going from bad to worse every day.

But in today's modern context, it's a whole different history being created. The revolutions are of a different nature, the demographics of audiences at any performance different, the technology unlike the days of the printing press or a few hundred years more. It's exciting, to say the least, to be a part of this society, however messed up one might make it out to be. I had vowed to myself that the day I run out of story ideas, I'll quit. It's been one year now and I don't think that day's anywhere close.

Jul 3, 2013


I can just see you now
Walking the lonely corridors
White gown, ghostlike and yet full of life.
You exude a glow too earthly,
It fills me with joy each time.
Unlike the grainy past,
Tonight and tomorrow is clear
He is no longer beside you
And yet, he is not far.
When you cannot but remember him
You will have me to hold.
I can just see you now,

You’re dancing with the wind.

Jul 2, 2013

Interview: Vidya Balan

Photo by B H Shivakumar
She’s been known to be true to her art, putting on weight for some films, wearing hideous clothes in others. But it’s that devil-may-care attitude that makes Vidya Balan stand out in the sea of Bollywood actresses today. She tells Metrolife about her upcoming film Ghanchakkar, her love for Bangalore and married life.

As can be seen from the trailers, Vidya is playing Emraan Hashmi’s over-the-top, funnily dressed Punjabi wife in the movie. “I’m not too much like my character Neetu Bhatia except in the sense that she’s very happy being who she is. She’s bizarre, gregarious and vivacious. Her take on modernity is the clothes that she sees in fashion magazines and eating roti with a fork. But she doesn’t know or care that people find her funny or outlandish. That’s my point of identification with her,” says Vidya.

After ‘No One Killed Jessica’ in 2008, this is her second film with director Rajkumar Gupta. Comparing the experiences, she states, “He’s one of those directors who will go down in history as someone who did groundbreaking work with every film that he made. I have a sense that whenever he does a comedy, it will be fantastic. There was a scene in ‘No One…’ where my character Sabrina bursts out laughing in court. It was such an unexpected moment but that made me realise that there was some comedy waiting to come out.”

Though her look in the film has been a topic of discussion, she confesses that she signed the film partly because of the challenge it presented. “Raj came to me after ‘The Dirty Picture’ and told me not to lose weight that I had put on. He said he wasn’t going to shoot me like a heroine, that the clothes may not be flattering. But he explained that this was only because Neetu was a real person. If ‘The Dirty Picture’ challenged my vanity, Ghanchakkar has destroyed my vanity,” she laughs, adding, “it isn’t me at all, but that’s the fun and joy of it. When I can’t recognise the woman on screen, it’s another high!”

Is she a natural at playing the role of a wife in real life too? She grins and replies, “Yes, married life is treating me very well. Ghanchakkar is Siddharth’s (Roy Kapur) and my first film together after marriage and so, it’s even more special for us. But he and I don’t discuss the film at all.”

She’s no stranger to the City and has, over time, accumulated fond memories of the gardens and restaurants here. “I have lovely memories of Bangalore. My sister used to live in Cox Town and I used to come down at any given opportunity. It’s just so airy, bright and cheerful,” she says, recalling how she used to have coffee at Indian Coffee House for only Rs 4.'

(The interview was published in Metrolife, Deccan Herald on June 29, 2013)

Full text:

What was your point of identification with Neetu Bhatia? How did you adapt to the character?
"You invariably find that point of identification with any character. That one strain is very important. I don’t think I’m a lot like Neetu Bhatia except in the sense that she’s very happy being who she is and I think that was my point of identification with her. The moment I began to accept myself the way I was, I became a happier person. She’s not just over-the-top, she’s bizarre, gregarious, vibrant, vivacious – all of that but obviously she wants to be modern and her take on modernity is clothes and eating roti with a fork. She does that and thinks she’s the cat’s whiskers. She doesn’t know or care that people find her funny or outlandish. Just the fact that she doesn’t care what people think of her was my point of identification. 

What are the considerations for picking a film?
It’s a combination of a whole lot of things. I’ve to instinctively connect. I always ask myself whether this is a film I want to watch on screen, if it’s a story I want to tell as that character because sometimes, I like the other characters more but you know it’s not for you. The rapport with the director, the studio backing it also matter a lot.

How does it feel working with Rajkumar Gupta again?
Incredible. He’s one of those directors, if I may say so, who will go down in history as someone who did groundbreaking work with every film that he did; someone who pushed the envelope with every film. Whether it’s an Aamir or No One Killer Jessica or Ghanchakkar, they’re all extremely different from each other. Having made the first two, I know that the suspense thriller is his genre. But in this, he’s combined it with comedy. I had a sense that whenever he does a comedy, it’ll be fantastic because there was this one scene in NOKJ because Sabrina, my character, bursts out laughing in court. It was such an unexpected moment but that made me knew that there was something waiting to come out.

There were reports that you gave some of your own belongings to the sets to make it homely?
No way! My Mom would kill me. They dressed up the house as very loud and my house is nothing like that. From my travels, people gift us things and those were lying around and some of those came handy. There’s no bling element to my house at all but some of these crystaly photo frames and things in silver that I had and don’t use were lent, or gifted to the Ghankchakkar sets. Also, because Rajkumar allowed me to visit the sets in advance and I gave some suggestions which they found valid and incorporated.

Compare the two experiences of working with Rajkumar.
It’s interesting that the same director who cast me as Sabrina wanted me to play Neetu. They’re like the North and South pole. As little as I spoke in No One, that much more in this film.  Even in terms of the colours; Sabrina was so stayed, as Plain Jane as Plain Jane gets. And this is a woman who is dressed like a Christmas tree most of the time. I’ve realised that his humour and drama are derived from real situations, real people and that’s what I find most exciting. When he came to me with this, he said she’s a real person, someone who doesn’t know much about fashion but who goes by what she sees in fashion magazines. After The Dirty Picture, when I gained weight, I’d just started exercising to get rid of the weight. But he came to me and said, if you hadn’t put on weight for this film, I’d have asked you to put it on. Don’t lose it. He said he’s not going to shoot me like a heroine, that the clothes may not be flattering. Because it is a real person. If The Dirty Picture challenged my vanity, I think this film has destroyed it. But I’ve enjoyed playing her. I saw the film a week ago and I understand now more than ever why he made me do what he did. I see a completely different person, which is so interesting. Initially, my costume designer had a problem because she did my costumes in Parineeta and said, how can I do this to you? But Raj said you’re not doing that to Vidya, you’re dressing up Neetu. There are fur nightsuits, which aren’t flattering. Some of the prints are too much. It isn’t me at all, but that’s the fun and joy of it. When I see that people and don’t recognize her. It’s another high.

On Bangalore:
I love Bangalore. My sister used to live here in Cox Town and I used to come here in any given opportunity. I have lovely memories and there’s good weather through the year! It’s beautiful to just drive by. We used to have coffee at Indian Coffee House for four bucks. It’s just so airy and bright and cheerful.

How's married life treating you?
Married life is treating me very well. This is our first film together after married life and so it’s even more special for us. But he and I don’t discuss Ghanchakkar at all. He was asked whether Vidya’s anything like Neetu and he replied, ‘definitely not her dressing’. But I think he likes it.

Jun 9, 2013

Interview: The Twilight Players

Ammo, Sinbad and Jimi
They’ve hijacked a stage, performed at all the big music festivals worldwide and can best be remembered by Indians for their groovy moves in Anurag Kashyap’s ‘Dev D’ in songs like ‘Pardesi’ and ‘Saali Khushi’. British-Punjabis brought up in Hertfordshire, ‘The Twilight Players’, as they call themselves, have an interesting story to tell.

After all, it isn’t everyday that three brothers decide to dance for a living. Their common love began when the eldest — Gurpal Singh Phgura, who goes by ‘Sinbad’  — was introduced to ‘Open Hand’, a precursor to hip hop and breakdance incorporating elements of funk and bop jazz, after which the other two followed suit.

“The thing about the dance is that because we’ve been doing it for so long, it’s more than just the dance. It allows us to play and move to music that we love. It’s about the music as much as the movement,” says Sinbad, adding, “For the last few years, we’ve actually been treated more like a band because of the way we put ourselves forward.”

Middle brother Amrik aka ‘Ammo’ emphasises their love for rhythm. “These days, a lot of rhythmical moves are being lost to trick moves and gimmicks. We stay away from that. Our dance comes from California, where back in the 70s, it was a rhythmic format. We stay true to that and that’s our discipline.”

“It’s the discipline to fall back on but the rock ‘n roll is the ska, Latin jazz and electro swing that’s throwing the disciplines away and leaving you with the raw energy on stage. The two elements — the disciple and the feel — work well. The music is cinematic and our shows are always a mad sporadic journey!” elaborates Sinbad.

The chemistry between them is tangible both on and off stage. “Jimi’s the youngest, most talented and most handsome,” jokes Ammo, too which Sinbad points out, “Ammo and I have to get noticed; Jimi doesn’t even talk but he’s the image of the trio. There are three different personalities coming together that complement each other. When we go on stage, it’s like entering another world of ‘The Twilight Players’. It’s like a cartoon!”

Sukjeevan aka ‘Jimi’ speaks little. But when he does, he chooses ‘Dev D’ as the preferred topic. “It was an amazing experience. We heard the music while in England and when Anurag contacted us, it was all quite organic. We didn’t know what we were going to be doing and initially, we didn’t understand the music. But after listening to it some more, the byproduct was what the audience saw,” he explains.

Sinbad adds, “We knew ‘Dev D’ was a game changer. We’ve also done Rohan Sipply’s ‘Love and All That Jazz’ and again, that was cutting edge. We pick things that turn us on. As artistes, we have to be in a setting that we’ve chosen with the right-minded people.”

Though the three have had many great shows, the one they recall best is the one they hijacked. “It was a few years back in London. The stage was empty at one point and there was a massive crowd. We gave the DJ the CD, asked him to put it on and hijacked the stage! It’s about that rock ‘n roll mindset and it was definitely a high point for us because it was a revolutionary move,” recalls Sinbad.

Bangalore, for them, is still unexplored and a relatively new City compared to Mumbai or New Delhi. But, as Ammo wraps up, “we’ll be back soon enough”!

(The interview was published in Metrolife, Deccan Herald on June 10, 2013)

Full text

On Bangalore:

Ammo: Me and Jimi used to come to Bangalore a few years ago to visit an ashram. So we’ve never really seen the real scene. But we’ll be back soon enough.

Sinbad: It’s the first time we’re performing in Bangalore – we’ve performed in Bombay and Delhi quite a few times. We’ve always wanted to come and people have been asking us and mailing. I’m glad that we could come now.

Jimi: I haven’t seen the city yet but the film city is quite something!

On what drives them to dance: 

Sinbad: The thing about the dance is that because we’ve been doing it for so long and how we do it, it’s really more than the dance. We’ve always kind of stayed out of the mainstream because it allows us to play and move to music that we love. It’s about the music as much as the movement. For the last few years, we’ve actually been treated more like a group, like a band. It’s the way we put ourselves forward. We’ve done six Glastonburys, all the biggest festivals and even there, we’re not a part of a dance show – it’s always been with bands. Our thing was to bring rock n’ roll to what we’re about through stage and personality. Above and beyond that, we can’t stop yet because there’s so much more to do. If we had stopped, then we wouldn’t be in Bangalore now. We kind of pick and choose the things we do but the right people always come to us, connect with us. That’s the reason we do what we do.

Ammo: We love rhythm and dance. And in today’s dance scene, a lot of rhythmical moves are being lost to trick moves and gimmicks. We stay away from that. Our lineage goes back to California, where our dance comes from. Originally, back in the 70s, it was a rhythmic format and we stay true to that – that’s our discipline right there.

Sinbad: That’s the discipline but the rock ‘n roll is the ska, Latin jazz, electro swing, which is basically throwing the disciplines away and you’re just left with the raw energy on stage. The two elements work well – there’s the disciple and the feel. We’re unique because of who we are – we’re Punjabi brothers born in England and having spent time in USA, India and other places too. The music is more cinematic – we try and take people on a journey. The show is always a mad sporadic journey of one kind.

On the club versus arena experience:

Sinbad: There’s no difference really. Our main thing is to always have a good time on stage – that’s what it’s all about. and when we go on stage, we actually enter another world of the The Twilight Players – it’s like a cartoon! So whether the stage is a small intimate one or a big festival’s, the mindset and intention are always the same. If you’re having fun on stage, people see that and enjoy watching the show. I wish I was a musician because then, I could express myself differently.

How is the chemistry between the three brothers: 

Ammo: (about Jimi) He’s the youngest, most talented and most handsome one. We have to get noticed – he doesn’t even need to talk. Jimi the Quiff is the image of The Twilight Players to a large degree. We can pretty much go unnoticed at various times but when we’re three of us, especially in India, you’d be surprised how many people spot us. Ammo and I can kind of blend in but Jimi the Quiff stands out!

Jimi: (out of context) “The hairstyle and look I had in 2008 for Dev D – it’s stayed put since then. Right now, I’m going for a Rajasthani moustache too!”

Sinbad: We’re all different. I’m the oldest and probably the most erratic, craziest in a sense. I let them look after me now because I’ve done the revolutionary stuff and now I’m sitting back. There are three different personalities that complement each other. If you see Twilight Players, it’s an umbrella of lifestyle forms – automobiles, photography, dance, music.  It fits different things and so we end up doing different things.

On Dev D and Bollywood being a space for such collaborations in the future:

Jimi: Dev D was an amazing experience. We heard the music while we were in England and when Anurag and Abhay and all contacted us, the whole thing was quite organic. We didn’t know what we were going to be doing and initially, we didn’t understand the music. I remember saying ‘what the hell are we going to do with this’? After listening to it some more and getting an understanding of it, the byproduct was what you saw in ‘Pardesi’ and ‘Sali Khushi’ and the rest of it.

Sinbad: It was unique because the music styles, instruments were organic. When you put these things together, something new comes out of it and I love that. That’s why I love to work with different artistes and it always makes us act differently. Bollywood’s getting better but Dev D was a game changer and we knew that. That’s why we waited a while and then did it. And to be honest, we’ve not done anything since. We’ve done a musical called ‘Love and all that jazz’ with Rohan Sippy and again, that was cutting edge and different. It has to be something that has to turn us on – as an artiste, you have to be true to yourself. And the Twilight Players are all about our truths. Everything that we ever do - the timeline connects. We’re the same people in different settings and it always works. But we have to be in a setting that we’ve chosen with the right-minded people and people we love.

Most memorable show:

Sinbad: There was one a few years back when we hijacked the stage in London at Brookson Academy___. We were going to do a piece and then things got out of hand. The stage was empty at one point and there was a crowd of a 100 thousand people. We thought this is ridiculous, gave the DJ the CD and asked him to put it on and hijacked the stage! And you know, it’s about that- it’s that rock n roll mindset. It was the best part of the evening and people still talk about that to this day. It was definitely a high point for us because it was a revolutionary move. After that, we actually left that hip hop dance scene towards different musical styles thinking they’d appreciate our dance. Especially in places where they’ve never seen dance before – like the first Glastonbury that we did – it’s not known for dance troupes. Going there with the crowd not knowing you was a challenge. We’re never complacent – we never sit there. It’s about entertaining youself and having fun.