Book Review, Humour, Satire

A Case of Exploding Mangoes written by Mohammed Hanif

81437 The subcontinent’s answer to Catch 22!!! and Slaughter House V!!

This book is one of the best dark political comic thriller that I have read in a long time..this is bitingly satirical and at times cuts you like a knife while making you split on the other side with laughter.

And for anyone who knows Pakistan’s troubled political landscape even passingly, this book is a realization that the best way to express themselves is by humour – the savagely comical variety. The truth which would be depressing in a factual format suddenly becomes something that can be laughed at and laughed with. You understand the anguish much better when you have shed a few tears of laughter…

The book is based loosely around the assassination of General Zia-ul-Haq, who died with almost his full military brass and the American ambassador in a plane crash in 1988.

But the story becomes a sort of “Murder on Orient Express”, with everyone trying to do the killing – the generals, trade unions and our hero and narrator,  Under Officer Ali Shigri, who seeks revenge for the death of his father, a decorated officer but who is ultimately haunted  by his actions.

The book is dark and funny at the same time. The events happening are dark but the narrative and the characterisation makes it humorous. There is intense lampooning of General Zia and other military top brass, which cuts them down to size and makes you almost feel sorry for them at-times. In fact Zia comes across as a dangerously deluded avuncular character who has got worms in his ass, who is browbeaten by his wife and uses the Koran as a daily horoscope.

That the author makes the country almost devoid of civilian in the hanif-book narrative is deliberate. It heightens the sense that the military are living in their own lie. And the occasional glimpses of the people only results in them abusing the ‘uniforms’, much to the soldiers’ amazement, who thought they were idolized…

The book alternates, in its chapters, between Ali and Zia, with our narrator stumbling from one hole to another (sometimes, quite literally), meeting quite interesting characters on the way especially the ‘Secretary General of the All Pakistan Sweepers Union’. Zia, on the other hand moves from one paranoia to another, convinced that someone is out to kill him (he was not wrong of course!!). The two characters converge in the closing part of the book, when Zia is killed in more ways than one!!!

What makes this book stand out is that the material it deals with is dark yet the author manages to bring out the laugh out of you almost every page. You feel like a phantom floating above a comic opera. And that is the best vantage point from which to see the panorama. At times what Zia and Co is doing almost seems unreal, but then you realize that we have been fed too many boring news reels!!! And seeing them bumbling around makes you almost closer to them and produces better laughs!!!

20050715001104902 And boy, is this book racy. I finished it in one sitting and its 364 pages long! It just keeps you on the edge, not only with the humour but also because you can see the plot thickening!!! And yes, the political satire is mature, which makes it even more enjoyable!!!

One of the best reads of the year for me definitely, if not one of the best of all times!!!


Russians are coming russians are coming
Classics, Comedy, English Movies, Satire

‘The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming’ directed by Norman Jewison

russians-are-coming-dvdcover This is a movie that you will not hear of easily and after watching it, you would wonder why…

This is about as good a political comic satire as you would get. True, the acting is woody and over the top at times but the storyline is funny and the over the top action seems appropriate for the mood of the movie.

A Russian sub runs aground off the coast of America, on a small New England island town, when the commander of the sub tries to get a closer look of his ‘enemy land’. Not wanting to create an international incident, a nine man contingent is sent to the island in order to secure a motorboat to help draw out the sub.

And that is when the fun starts…in spite of the best efforts (may I say comical) of the Russians to make themselves blend in, suddenly the island is in the throes of an irrepressible rumour – The Russians haverussiansposter invaded!!!

The movie panders to stereotypes, both of Russian and American, in order to bring out the humour but it works quite well. As is quite obvious, the story is about how rumour feeds off itself and how panic spreads by the mere repetition of the rumour. The sight of the hapless and bewildered Russians trying to make sense of it all in face of them being branded as the steamrolling invading force is incredibly funny. The American gung-ho style of meeting the invader head on becomes funny when they actually start to search all over the island for the enemy who were supposedly all over the place…

russians4 There is obviously a message in the movie, if you care to look for it – as to how stereotyping and propaganda creates caricatures of people whom who we consider as enemy. But the message is so obvious that you sit back and enjoy the comical satire and you wonder how the poor Russian are ever going to get out of this one!!!

Alan Arkin is the best character in the movie – the over-confident second in command who feels his English is top notch (the scene where he teaches emergency words to his colleagues is simply hilarious). He is the translator and the coolest brain in the sub.

I think that the thing to be considered is that when the movie was top10warcomedies_10 released, in 1966, the cold war was at its absolute peak, the time when Dylan was singing “Let me die in my footsteps” (about the government generated scare of Russian annihilation). This movie is about how senseless all the propaganda is and that, to me, is a brave statement to make. And the best way to make a statement like that is by humour.

That, this movie does brilliantly…




Drama, English Movies, Satire

Igby Goes Down directed by Burr Steers

20070423064402191 If ever you wanted to see Holden Caufield on the screen, this movie is it…

Some purists feel horrified at the fact that someone has taken the classic and turned into a modern story. I, however, feel that art must renew itself periodically, otherwise it atrophies. Especially when the portrayal is as beautiful and sensitive as this one…

Igby (Keiran Culkin) inhabits a world where he sees hypocrisy and duplicity everywhere. He is close to his father who now lives in a mental asylum and he hates everything else…Its a world that is coming of age but is already repelled by what he sees is the result of coming of age…

The story follows Igby as he stumbles from one relation to another, all the while keeping his humour and sarcasm up while he is gettingigby goes down SPLASH scarred…and his sarcasm really makes you go splits most of the times!!!

The movie is populated by memorable characters, from his elder  brother Ollie (Ryan Phillippe), a manipulative smooth talker, Mimi (Susan Sarandon), their mother who is a complex book all by herself, Rachel (Amanda Peet), the vulnerable mistress of his godfather D.H. Banes (Jeff Goldblum), who in turn is the classical alpha-male and Sookie Sapperstein (Claire Danes), the hippie love interest, who in a fit of conformity betrays Igby.

08542-1 The acting by Culkin, however, to me, is nothing short of a masterpiece. It is his character and his acting that holds the fibre of the story together. He is someone who is sensitive and highly vulnerable but who hides it all behind a mask of sarcasm and callousness. The times when his vulnerability comes forth makes for some of the most memorable moments in the movie. His leave-taking was one of the most poignant parts of the movie, especially the scene with his father…

A quirky, sensitive movie about people who are branded outsiders, by themselves and by others. As I said, Holden Caulfield in modern day New York…

Watch this and you would take away memorable characters, great acting and a wonderful bittersweet feeling…



Classics, Comedy, English Movies, Popular

Modern Times directed by Charlie Chaplin

mo There are some movies that you can enjoy immensely as a child and then realize how much more there is to enjoy in the same movie, years down the line…

Perhaps that is why movies of Chaplin are ageless. You laugh and cry with him as a child and as a ‘grown up’, but as the latter, you realize the true genius of the man.

Art without commentary on things around it is worse than useless, a mere trinket, soon forgotten. This movie proves that the medium can provide entertainment and make a profound political statement as well, while never becoming preachy or descending into propaganda.

And the best way to make a statement, especially a political one, is to make it through a satire. And this is what this movie does brilliantly…

The very first scene gives a clear indication of what is to follow – a herd of sheep morphs into people coming out of a factory while the  voice over narrates the joy of pursuit of happiness via modern capitalism.

Chaplin is a worker in a factory, a place where literally everything ischaplin modern_times_2 controlled and the worker is no better than another cog. The boss is a like Big Brother, appearing on TV screens (even in the bathroom) and commanding the work to be speeded up (all the while himself doing nothing except work on jigsaw puzzles). There are many memorable scenes in the factory sequences – that of Chaplin trying to keep up with his work of screwing nuts, being force-fed by a feeding machine which is supposed to increase productivity (by cutting down on lunchtimes) and of course of Chaplin having a nervous breakdown.

This was made at the time of the Great Depression and Chaplin proves his genius by weaving into the story all the tensions, the helplessness, the dehumanisations that the common man went through in trying to chaplin_moderntimes_01 maintain his dignity. Right from trade-unions to robbers trying not to starve, to street-smart yet vulnerable gamins trying to get by, Chaplin brings in every aspect of society at that time – all the while, never losing his comic touch. He pairs up with an doughty orphaned  gamine girl (Paulette Goddard) – making a team of two, a team that is determined to survive at all costs.

Amidst all the gloom of the times, the two are refreshing in their innocence and their unwillingness to let go of their small dreams. The scene where the two dream of a home together is hilarious as it is touching.

The film ends with them walking towards the horizon, not giving in to failure. The last lines of the movie pretty much sums it all up –

Gamine: What's the use of trying?
Chaplin: Buck up – never say die. We'll get along.


As simple as that…

When it ends, you realize that you have laughed with abandon at the all of the crazy scenes (the waiter scene, Chaplin’s nonsense song, the roller skating scene among many many others) and have also been touched profoundly.

It is a movie that makes as much sense today as it did seventy years ago. Except the superficial looks, nothing much has changed really…

A movie not to be missed. Chaplin and film-making at its absolute best…



Book Review, Science fiction

The Eyre affair written by Jasper Fforde

the_eyre_affair I could find only one word to describe this book – rollicking. Its one hell of a ride as you read the book. You need to suspend belief and historical knowledge to really enjoy this immersive world where there are literary detectives, thieves who steal characters right from novels, cops who travel through time and the Crimean war is still on, with ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ playing a major role in the narrative and a world where mobs owing allegiance to different literary characters fight it out with guns blazing

When you look back after you have finished with the novel, you realize that it’s a mish-mash of many genres – fantasy, satire, science fiction, detective, crime, romance and some elements that you cannot quite define, a mish-mash that surprisingly works brilliantly.

You are entertained right from the start, right from when the unbelievable world becomes accessible from the very first page. Its got dollops of humour, crisp dialogues and even crisper action and not for one minute do you get bored. Revelations about this strange but entertaining world come every chapter, keeping you literally turning the pages asking for more. What’s more – the core of the story, which is the detective part is based on a solid structure.

And keeping you company all along the way is the quirky, eccentric, lovable Tuesday Next, who as the blurb informs you is without equal, fear or boyfriend!!! She is the literary detective who can swing a mean gun as well when needed. It is her adventure story and she stumbles from one into the next with amazing regularity and each more entertaining than the next, as she unravels and solves a crime that threatens to engulf the world.

Saying more would spoil the fun…just go ahead and read the book. As for me, I am going to hunt for the other Tuesday Next books…


English Movies, Popular, Satire

Wag the Dog directed by Barry Levinson

wag_the_dog_ver3 A delightful movie about spin doctors and how they can be shaping our reality right as we breathe. And it is so funny and mind boggling that you fear that its true!!!For isn’t truth stranger than movies?

This movie is a cult-classic. And you soon see why…

The first lines of this movie sets the tone for what you realize is going to be quite a different movie – Why does a dog wag its tail? Because a dog is smarter than its tail. What if the tail is smarter than the dog? It would be the tail wagging the dog!!!

The American president’s re-election campaign has run into serious trouble with a sexual misconduct allegation that is just about to burst the dam. So what would you do? You would call the spin doctors of course. And what would they do? Obviously create a world-shaking crisis that would over-shadow everything else and induce a panic-stricken population to rally behind its hero president (if you create it, you can defuse it – especially if its a fake event)

And the man behind the creation of the event – Robert De Niro. Who 66279-004-C54F3A8Ebetter to portray a man who is amoralistic and who does his spin doctoring as an everyday job. But since this is a truly magnificent event, who would he employ? Hollywood of course!!! in the shape of Dustin Hoffman. Its a world of people untroubled by the ethical  dilemma of any sorts – the only worry is of logistics. Truth and justice are words that would be met with quizzical stares by people here – people who run our world of policies and information.

So a war is manufactured and sleeper cells in news agencies are activated and modern information democracy does what it does best – create a blinkered dictatorship of news.

Problems arise and are solved and with each solution, you begin to gain more insight into how the world might really be working!!!

007418_25 Its funny but not hilarious. Its funny in a very terrifying sort of way, a combination of words that can be understood only when you are through watching the movie. And the feeling only grows towards the end…

But there are these moments when you realize that the movie makers are really telling a stark truth couched in a satire. You see shades of the American administration strategies over the years (The Bush years especially are pre-empted by this movie). And then something that was the coup-de-tat for me – the two spinners (De Niro and Hoffman) talking about arranging the Nobel Peace Prize for the President. I did a literal double take. Well, Obama’s advisors sure see the movies!!!!

A movie like few other. A movie that needs to be seen to be believed.

One thing is for sure. You will not be unaffected by this one.


Fantasy, Satire, World Cinema

District 9 directed by Neill Blomkamp

district9 One of the best science fiction movies that I have seen. The reason I loved it was because it had the same philosophy as the best tales of science fiction. Peel away the surface and you find a story that speaks not of tomorrow, but of today. The science fiction genre is just a tool to tell an attention grabbing, engaging story.

The movie is told partly in the form of a documentary that seems to talk about some event in the near past (something extraordinary happened, we understand, something not ‘approved’). And partly, the movie is told in real time. The premise is that an alien mother ship got stranded over the top of Johannesburg. The human expectations of finding something exciting (either salvation or doom) in the event (haven’t we all hoped for witnessing contact with extra-terrestrials?) is soon dashed when they find malnourished and ETs, decidedly disgusting in appearance on the ship who seem to be disoriented and directionless. They are ‘rehabilitated’ in refugee camps that soon becomes a cordoned off area, an apartheid zone – as clashes increase between humans and ETs. Zones become earmarked as ‘ETs not allowed’ or ‘humans only’ that does not take too much of an imagination to realize as being a spin off from the apartheid signs of ‘Whites only’ and so on.

As the ETs begin to try and get rights for themselves, protests are triggered all over the city with calls for removing the settlement. That is when a private MNC (MNU) comes to the scene to ostensibly help in removal of the ETs and plan their rehabilitation on the outskirts. However they have an ulterior motive, which soon becomes apparent and forms the core of the story. As the rehabilitation drive begins, our district_ninestory begins…

It’s a rollercoaster of a movie that can be seen as a action thriller at one level. For me, it never flagged in its pace. Till the end, you keep on guessing how it can end and if it can end happily. I loved the ending by the way. Lets the movie end with a yearning.

But what is really great about this movie is that it raises a lot of issues –  political and social without ever becoming in the least bit preachy. There are no speeches or highly aware individual. That most of are really pawns and can only do and understand so much is what the movie brings out. Small things shown in the movie make a big difference in the whole viewing experience – like the discrimination against the ETs that comes so naturally, the derogatory nicknaming of the ETs by the humans as ‘prawns’ based on their appearance, the involvement of private armies of large corporations (makes you think of Iraq), the dilemma of acceptance of people (in this case – species) who look and act differently, the unlikely brotherhood that can develop between people when they finally understand each other. All things that you can relate to easily.

district9-440x486 And because the ETs and the humans differ so markedly in appearance and language makes the ‘message’ of the movie even more apparent. And when the ETs show traits like love, sorrow and loyalty, which ironically ‘humanizes’ them, well, you understand what the movie is all about

It’s a movie that people who love a good story told differently will enjoy. It has a certain grim humour about it that goes with the mood of the movie. I love the movie for what it said but I loved it more for the way it said it.