Today I saw The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. A lovely, moving film, based on a short story by James Thurber. It touches many topics, directly and indirectly. Millions of people spend their lives behind a desk, never striking out on their own, never taking a risk, living lives of soul-crushing anonymity. But that’s not the issue I’m talking about. No ma’am. The movie shows the death the printed version of Life magazine. From Life in paper, it becomes Life dot com. Behind that not-so-smooth transition, many lives (pun unintended) are turned upside down by the heartless, relentless march of technology. It takes many people to make a magazine, or for that matter, any published material. Most people never understand the pain, handwork and joy that go into creating something, especially something that will be printed. Because print has an air of finality. It can’t be coded to make a correction later. There is no option to upload a new file. Written in ink equals written in stone.
Because of print’s highly demanding nature, there are many different people, each a vital performer, involved in the art of printing and publishing. Did you ever guess that there is someone like Walter Mitty, sitting in his dark room of negatives, sifting through hundreds of little images? He knows them like old friends. There is someone who colour corrects, sharpens and touches up every single image you see in any publication worth its ink. There is someone who composes the pages for print on the offset machine. Each of these people are small cogs in the larger machine. Individuals with expert, specialised knowledge. Unless you work directly with them, there is no access to that amazing tradition and well of knowledge. They never get much credit. The magazine always stands between them and the viewer, like a wall.
I’m not bemoaning the rise of digital media, far from it. I love the internet, and all the information, entertainment and cat videos it houses. I’m only wondering if we are losing a entire generation of people, and with them, the knowledge and skill they had, for all time. That knowledge is of no use to us, for sure, but their stories deserve to be told. Walter Mitty tells us one such story. You can see Life online, with more photographs than ever before. But if you hold a Life magazine in your hands, you will see so much more. Behind each image, you can see a quiet person, staring at photographs for hours, checking their quality, so that you gasp wow!, and turn the page.
Jaipur is one of India's most historic cities. Amer Fort is a fabulous place to visit, and the old Pink City is fascinating. There are so many forts and palaces of India that leave one speechless. One can imagine what a rich country India must have been, not just financially, but artistically. It's a pity most modern urban architecture has lost these artistic sensibilities, and also the very useful practice of using materials that work for the climate, instead of against it.
At Amer Fort one can walk, ride on an elephant, or drive up to the fort itself. I highly recommend walking, as it gives you a chance to truly admire the place. Watch out for elephants showering you with their sneezes!
Now I've never been a hard-core Tarantino fan. I've seen Pulp Fiction, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I've watched bits and pieces of both Kill Bills, wincing as blood flew. But his last two movies have been wonderful, perfect movie-watching experiences. The one that really made me a fan is of course, that glorious piece of film-making called Inglorious Basterds. From the opening scene, it gets you in it's grip, and it doesn't let you go. It's story is perfect, and more importantly, it's perfectly told. QT knows what to tell you, what to show you, and when to show it to you.
Many people don't like Tarantino films because of their graphic violence. Indeed, they are not for the faint-hearted. If bullets and blood flying, people getting their genitals blown to bits, and dogs tearing people apart is not your cup of tea, don't venture into this territory. You've been warned. I'm not a fan of extreme violence. But I didn't seem to mind it in these movies. It's the tale of revenge, the story of how the oppressed rises up one day, and gives it back to the oppressor, it's the underdog becoming top-dog, and it leaves the audience cheering for more.
The best part is, it's not the scenes of violence that really stay with you. It's the other, far more subtle things that get stuck in your head. One of the best scenes in Inglorious Basterds is when Shoshanna, meets Colonel Hans Landa in the Nazi officers club, for the first time since he shot her family to pieces. Inglorious Basterds unfolds like a book, slowly, revealing a complex plot. At the end of the movie you are left wishing something like that really happened in World War 2.
Django Unchained is set in America before the civil war. Unlike Inglorious Basterds, it's plot and story is very simple and straightforward. Perhaps for this reason, some people may not like it, but this is it's chief charm. Django may have a simple story, but it makes up in the richness of its characters. They are endlessly entertaining. They are human, there is something that breaks each of them at different points. There are some traumatic scenes of violence such as a horrendous wrestling match, dogs tearing a slave to pieces, and other such scenes. But there are some remarkable moments. One is when Django's wife is brought out of the hot-box, where she has been kept as punishment for trying to run away. You will rarely see a film showing a naked, shamed woman, without showing nakedness or shame. Somehow, QT masters it. There is the terrible moment when the hot-box is opened, water is thrown on her, and several white men pull her out, and literally man-handle her. This could have been a very ugly scene, but it is heart-wrenching without being explicit. It shows the cruelty, but it handles it sensitively.
Another fantastic moment comes towards the end. Dr Shultz (Christof Waltz) is haunted by the scenes of the slave being torn to pieces by dogs. Until there he has maintained his strength, but suddenly, one senses the cracks appearing in his calm state of mind. He seems a character who can absorb many disturbing things, and he himself kills people without qualms, but this experience shatters something deep within him, and unravels him. If there is that one moment in life when someone can't take something anymore, this is it for him. It's a very telling moment. The audience knows that something in him has changed, and he is going to do something extreme, or crazy, but you just don't know what.
It's easy to underestimate the acting talent of Jamie Foxx, because he is a man of few words in this film. But as you watch the entire film, he communicates volumes without words. Experiences have toughed him up, but they haven't made him inhuman. He's a simple man, with a simple mission. His greatest strength is he learns fast. His greatest weakness is his love for Hildi, his wife. He can bear anything, but Hildi is his Achilles' heel. Leonardo DiCaprio is perfect, charming, funny, kind but with a hard, cruel, hypocritical and almost psychotic core. His character is unveiled beautifully. Initially, you like him. He charms. Slowly, you fear and dread him. His unpredictability leaves one on the edge of the seat. Samuel L Jackson is brilliant as the faithful slave, serving a family since generations. He is so identified with his role of the servant, that he cannot believe that any black person can be anything else. He is the most annoying, cloying, racist person in the movie.
Of course, Christof Waltz takes the cake, as he does in Inglorious Basterds. In both these movies he is a ruthless killer, who is delightfully cheerful and practical about his work. But in Django, he is a softer, more interesting, more nuanced character. He is the most likeable, pragmatic, person, who takes life with a pinch of salt. If one wanted a traveling companion, one really couldn't ask for a better one. He is honest, brutal, and takes things as they come. Most enjoyable, even strangely touching, is the way he takes Django under his wing. Theirs seems like an unlikely partnership. But it's the best there is. It broke my heart when they killed him. I think I could have accepted Django' death easier than his. But it was a good ending.
Most amazingly well shown is the attitude that QT exposes, through the dialogues, the brilliant screenplay. The attitude that any oppressor has, he feels justified in his actions. He genuinely believes it is his birthright to oppress, to rule, to own. This belief is so strong, that even the oppressed believe it blindly. They deeply resent anyone who upsets this balance. Samuel L Jackson brings this to life. Black slaves resent a black man who is free, and who rides a horse alongside the white men.
Marie Antoinette famously told her subjects, "If you can't buy bread eat cake." Little did she know of three fabulous bakeries, whose bread and cake are so good, they are truly interchangeable. No, this isn't any fancy Parisian patisserie, or over-priced 5-star hotel. These are 3 humble, Irani-owned bakeries in Pune, India. They are the stuff of legend. People come from far and wide to sample their fare, and often pack suitcases full of the stuff to take back home, where relatives, cousins and friends devour it.
The three bakeries are within walking distance from one another. On East Street is Kayani Bakery. The Kayanian dynasty was one of the most powerful royal ruling families of Iran in ancient times, and these guys, true to their name are still churning out stuff fit for kings. Their chocolate icing cake is famous. Its large, circular, and coated with the hardest, brownest layer of sugary chocolate, with white zig-zag lines and two pink roses with fluorescent green creamy leaves. Inside it is the soft sponge again, but with a generous sprinkling of red and green sweet little squishy things we like to call tutty-fruities. My family had nicknamed it 'Goo-cake', and it provided the ultimate sugar rush.
But the king and queen of Kayani Bakery are the Ginger and Shewsburry biscuits. The former is a brown round cookie, with a delicious gingery spiciness, which no one can replicate. The queen of Kayani, the Shewsburry, is the fairer cousin of the ginger. Off-white and just packed with oodles of butter, it melts in your mouth, as your heart also melts with pure love and goodness. A few find the butteriness too much, and prefer the kidney shaped hazelnut biscuit. This is probably one of the few times you can taste real hazelnuts. There are also the round coconut biscuits, with frilly edges. For those with a preference for salty goods, there are cheese biscuits, soup sticks, and other such delicacies. Most of the biscuits are made in the same moulds and have an imprint of a smiling baker with 'Kayani Bakery' written around his head like a halo.
And truly, their bakers are a gift from higher powers. Not at all angelic in appearance, some are big and burly, with arms like young tree trunks, perfect for rolling and punching the dough. Others are sullen, but their magic and angelicness is apparent in the kitchen. The bakery only cooks on wooden ovens, and despite some environmental concerns, once you taste any of their products, you are a slave to them, and ready to sacrifice any number of trees for their noble cause.
The bakery itself is large, but the front counter is always as crowded as a railway station. A series of challenges stands between you and your cakes. You have to first wrestle to get to the counter top, which is very high, and then peer over it. You then have to get the attention of one of the staff, no easy task, as each one would be already occupied with some other customer. And the staff is in no rush. By this time you better have two lists in mind, one of your first preference of items, and a second list of back-ups. Often items of your choice are over, or they are only baked in the morning or evening. The place is simple, and the only forms of interior decoration are a large picture of the Prophet Zoraster, and a large, plain calendar with red and blue digits.
The other bakery is Royal Bakery. Contrary to its name, it is a small, rustic joint, with pista green shutters. While Kayani Bakery has more expertise in biscuits, Royal Bakery is best in breads. These bakers look like they have just landed from the steppes of Iran. They have lined and weathered faces, with the mysterious light-eyed look of the Middle-Eastern nomad. It is impossible to guess their ages, but their grey hair is testimony to all their hard work, and do they work hard! One can see straight past the counter, just a few feet away, into the dark depths of their kitchen. There is a long table, and on either side are more weathered men wearing dirty vests, sweating, as they wrestle and cuddle huge masses of dough. One of Royal Bakeries legacies is the gutli pao. This is a large round bread, with an outer crust that is brown, thick and hard. Inside, it is soft, white, snowy bread, with a spongy, airy texture, that is like nothing on earth. It can be had with anything, dal, curry, jam, but it tastes best with lumps of hard butter. The bread symbolically resembles its creators, formidable to behold, but concealing pure goodness within.
Another legendary creation of Royal Bakery is their milk bread. Here they are one up on Kayani Bakery. If Marie Antoinette had tasted this bread, she would have said,"Dam the cake, just eat bread." And her subjects wouldn't have objected in the least. This bread comes wrapped in a smooth, creamy paper. On it is printed in red a smiling baker, and the very apt sentence "The bread that stays for a 100 days and keeps you fit for a 100 years."
A gorgeous creation from Royal is their batasa. These are little round crunchy biscuits, with a faint flavour of jeera. To truly appreciate their beauty, they need to be dunked in a cup of hot tea. The outer layers become soft, and melt in the mouth, while the centre stays crispy and crunchy.
Almost opposite Royal Bakery is the last, but not the least, City Bakery. All the bakeries have their share of crazy staff. One could never tell if they are joking or serious, and sometimes they are downright rude, but no one really cared. The Iranis are famous for their 'crazy streak' and City Bakery really takes the cake, or shall we say, the bread. This baker refers to everything in his shop in dollars. How much was the bread? Twenty dollars. The chocolate biscuits? Forty dollars. The total? Sixty dollars. He persists in this behavior with a perfectly straight face. A customer once complimented him on the quality of his stuff, saying such delicacies would not be available even in the best bakeries of Paris. He replied, "Madam, you obviously don't appear to have visited Paris." Of course, this just left the lady cackling with laughter as she carried off her bag of goodies. Their crowning glory is the Fan biscuit. Probably mastered from some Danish baker, this is a glorious creation, shaped like an elongated heart, delicately layered, and coated with crunchy sugar. It could melt the hardest heart.
These shops are as simple and unadorned as their owners. If there is a Nobel Prize in food, they have excellent chances of winning it. They belong to the rare species who bakes with pure love, and it is apparent in every bite. Their service to humanity is beyond measure. As you take a bite of any bread, biscuit or cake, its goodness and richness slowly spreads on your tongue, filling you with warm delight, and you finally know what it is to eat like a king.
There is an age-old debate, especially in design schools about art vs design. There is a strong need to differentiate design from the arts, especially the visual arts. Many a time, designers have reacted strongly when they are referred to as artists, with a vehement 'No we are NOT artists' kind of reaction. There is a need for design to be recognized in India as a stand-alone profession, without any of the old bedfellows.
'Art and design' is a term in itself, coined over time. Many colleges and courses refer to themselves as 'Art and Design' schools. My under-graduate programme in Sophia Polytechnic, Mumbai was an Art and Design programme. Applied Art is another term commonly used to describe Graphic Design in particular. It stems from the older days of the profession. It was art, that was applied for commercial purpose. Prior to Independence India did not have any 'design schools' per se. The closest thing to design were the art schools, with their Fine Art and Commercial/Applied Art and perhaps Architecture Departments. So art and design seemed like natural partners. Post-Independence India saw the rise of D-schools. In the West too, Bauhaus and Ulm were the real forerunners and pioneers of pure design, unallied with any other profession.
Still, it's a bit perplexing when designers recoil from art. Design and art can feed each other in a healthy manner, instead of being kept strictly apart. Reminds one of the old days of Convent education when boys and girls were not to interact with one another under any circumstance. In the same way, its unnatural to keep art and design at arm's length from one another. It is like trying to separate maths and science. Each can be studied in isolation, but they share certain core principles and at the basic level it helps to study both. Visual communication would gain immensely from a little more hobnobbing with art. An exercise in the various print-making techniques would help students in understanding of colour, form, and composition among other things. Great artists, though not designers, have design sense. And great design is as beautiful as any piece of art.