Tuesday, December 16, 2014

My tryst with Pete

It wasn’t ordinary, was never meant to be.

But the buildup paled in comparison.  This was a congregation of the gladiators of tennis and yet the marketing of IPTL ended up being similar to that of a Vividh Bharati song request show.  

It didn’t matter to me though. Getting to see Pete Sampras justifying his moniker ‘Pistol Pete’, with that delicious pause just before tossing for the serve, I knew, was clearly going to be special. It was that posture of his that ran past my eyes when I doubted if these tickets tagged with a five-figure sum are going to be worth it.

“ Let’s pack those bags. ” my tennis elbow screamed.

After all, Sampras occupied a lion’s share of the tennis coverage that came my way while growing up. Nirmal Shekhar and Rohit Brijnath waxed lyrical on the pages of Sportstar and Hindu about his brand of tennis. It was sometimes about his imperious one-handed backhand, and sometimes about his pistol-cork of a serve. On other occasions it was about his serve and volley game and then on days when they got bored of it all, they talked about his leaping overhead smash. The worst they ever said about him was about his personality- boring, they said. No sex appeal apparently.
But his tennis was above board, exquisite and charming.

So there I was cheering his entry as his name got announced at the stadium. The crowd knew their tennis and gave him a rousing welcome. He hadn’t even picked up his trusted Wilson and yet I somehow felt I had got my monies worth already. Hunched, casual, and walking about that rectangular arena that defined his life, he still looked like he meant business.

By the time he got ready to serve against Pat Rafter, I was salivating.  There was significance here, this was a big rivalry back then and Pete had rolled over Pat on most of their meetings. Not this time though, as Pete struggled for most of the set and lost 6-2. It was some lovely tennis by Rafter that settled it and Pete just couldn’t get going on all cylinders. He did get a couple of clean aces and just about brought back memories of yore. In the meanwhile, in my thoughts, I had already raced ahead to the next day’s game- Sampras versus Ivanisevic.

While I read about their matches in school, I never imagined I would see them both on a tennis court. Back then as a student, you only think about these players living in a different world. They’re supposed to make headlines in sports pages and you’re only supposed to be reading them and wonder how good they would be. No other relationship is possible. It’s a distant galaxy they inhabit.

In 2001, I read about the giant Croat’s miraculous achievement in the papers of winning the Wimbledon in his fourth attempt as a wild card.

In 2014, I was looking right at him getting ready to receive a serve from Sampras. All I needed now was a dogfight between their racquets.

But there had to be a twist in this surreal world of mine and it came quick. Sampras was down 4-1 in less than 15 minutes.  His next two plays got him to 0-30 down. His serve betrayed him. Worse, his next serve at that score, was a fault.

Sampras’ team captain called a timeout. It was a new format after all. His team circled around and we could see Fabrice Santoro the coach, talking animatedly. By the end of that huddle Sampras placed his racket slowly over by the courtside player bench. He quietly wore his track jacket while Fabrice came on-court as a substitute to replace Sampras.

Sampras had just got substituted because he wasn’t good enough. On a tennis court.  

I couldn’t take my eyes off him for the next ten minutes. Sampras mildly cheered for his teammate in a typical nonchalant manner from the bench. He was trying to fit in as an audience. I was trying to come to terms with it. He was better off with those leaping smashes. I was better off reading about them. 

That evening I was to meet him at a dinner, thanks to a friend who offered to organize it. I didn’t feel like it. I am sure, he didn’t either.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

When words failed

I am writing again after more than a year. Such was the mind-numbing sight that I wanted to get rid of.  To transport or even merely tuck it, perhaps in all futility, to a world of words, remains the only resort.

At PUMA, twice a year, we go through our seasonal product launches in a small town in Southern Germany. In a room that resembles a big badass IMAX theater, close to a 1,000 people assemble, as the key product highlights are unveiled. This season wasn’t meant to be any different except that less than a couple of minutes into the presentation, we were told that Lothar Matthaus is attending this too, seated on the first row.

Well, he calmly stood up and gave us that nice, polite ‘Hey, I-know-I-am-famous and-you-know-it-too’ wave.  Now, for people of my generation who were less than 10 years old when 1990 happened, Matthaus was God. Period.  And he was a captain- one who led like a rock, with a solid wall of defence that couldn’t be breached by a whole bunch of mischievous (and bratty) Argentinians including that guy Diego. Of course, with the rise of attacking players like Klinsmann and Ballack, Matthaus relegated from popular public memory but this was someone who had appeared in “more” World Cup games than any other player in the most popular sport in the world. That’s big, right. So hey, I already had my time’s worth. I mean, I could call my uncle and Dad right then and tell them I was in the same room as Lothar Matthaus. They’d easily remember. How cool was that? Instantly, he became the most famous man I have ever shared a room with. That’s a BIG one, right? Yes it is.

And then appeared Usain-fucking-Bolt on stage. Casually, walking up to extend his PUMA contract with our CEO. Now, if Matthaus was Christ, Bolt was resurrection.  Forget the people, every single strand of hair in that room, stood up to give this man an ovation that would’ve rung even in the ears of Beethoven. Matthaus and Bolt in one room? This is madness (or Sparta). Some talk ensued and appropriately so but all the eyes in the room were glued to the motions of this one man. How tall, how bloody perfect, how fast must he be, will he run to his chair to sit, will he get there before we blink? Let’s keep those eyes open for as long as he is in the room. It’s ridiculous, did we just share the room with him? Yes we did.

And then walked in Boris Becker. That irascible, unrelenting chap who won everything there was to win in the face of McEnroe, Connors, Lendl and Sampras. Is this is a scam? This is getting hard to digest. Someone shove this down my brain to fathom the sheer audacity of talent that’s gathered here. Oh wait, take some pictures right now. Who is going to ever believe this was happening in an IMAX theater? Pinch. 

But this was just halftime as Linford Christie jogged his way in. That world-record holder who kept winning sprints as easily as we chewed gum, all the way till he was 33. At which point Bolt stood up from his seat, to the sound of ear-splitting roars from the audience, nodding negatively, swaying his head, gesturing that Becker and Christie were not fast any longer and that he was the fastest. So here we are, not even scraping the skin of the enormity of what is unfolding and this man wants to joke about? Someone call an ambulance, this is a cardiac arrest. 

And it wouldn’t stop there. In walked a man called Thierry Henry who once happily worked on the principle of “Have-ball-will-score”.  And then this man, who led the charge for his team for so many years including the only season in over a 120 years of top class football, that a club didn’t lose a single game, started dribbling on-stage.

And then there was a break and I went to relieve myself from all the mayhem. And in came Boris, right next to me, doing what men do in between breaks- take a fucking leak. Off he goes and near the hand wash section I say, "After you, Mr. Becker".

Fuck it. I can’t even write anymore.

After the break they all split onto a small soccer field into teams. And they played a game. Henry’s team won 4-3. I really can’t write this anymore. This writing thing proved to be as nerve-wracking as that afternoon.

I have firmly believed that almost every great experience you go through in food, travel, women, sports, movies, plays, it eventually dawns to you, was over-rated. You thought it was superb at one point of time and then something better drew you or you just forgot what it was anyway. Part of this sentiment is echoed well by Woody Allen. He often describes life as a grim and depressing affair that we all go through, and that sometimes all the happiness you experience is a thinly veiled delusion that takes you away from the suffering that life is.  

And as far those thinly veiled delusions go, this was not bad.  

Monday, September 17, 2012

#278: Barfi

Its quite evident that over the last five years or so Indian filmmakers have pushed themselves to make movies that they wouldn't have the courage to dream of in let's say the 90s. For somewhere in the creative filmdom of present day Bollywood fueled by the Dibakars and the Kashyaps,  a bunch of writers decided for themselves that they'll not stick to norms of the song-and-dance, college romance, poor-boy-meets-rich girl formulae and think of new stories. Thus came a Vikramaditya Motwane with an Udaan, a Zoya Akhtar with a Luck by Chance and an Imtiaz Ali with a Jab We Met. They were of course the big names but strugglers like Rajat Kapoor, Pankaj Advani, Onir also mushroomed. And what happened collectively was that the taste of the average Indian audience elevated itself. And it is this slightly more evolved taste that a film like Barfi caters to.

Its leading cast could walk any international ramp and look good but the filmmaker doesn't let you see that side of his actors in the film. You could've walked out of the theater for lack of the usual pyar mohabbat rhetoric dialogue but you don't. Words are rendered meaningless as Anurag Basu takes that one courageous leap to make a movie without dialogue for most parts. He fills it with a few slapstick gags,  uses a murder of all things as a plot device to move the story forward in a love triangle, sets it in 1970s with no foreign locales, shoots no steamy scenes and yet puts everything together to leave you with a generous smile at the end of the film.

Its as eclectic a Hindi film has got in recent times. It borrows a bit from the Chaplin-Buster Keaton style of cinema and works with some fabulous (and original sounding) music from Pritam to connect with the audience and it works. Ranbir Kapoor brings his pedigree of acting education to the party like in no other movie before and Priyanka matches him frame for frame. She could've so easily overdone it but she doesn't and her last scene with Ranbir will linger in public memory for a long time. Add to it the innocence of the other leading lady Ileana and a superb down-on-his-luck cop act by Saurabh Shukla and you have a perfect score on acting for the movie. Anurag also goes a step beyond and works meticulously on the look of the film, transporting us back to the 70s and bringing us back to present day  effortlessly thanks to some incredible work by cinematographer Ravi Varman. If there's anything that doesn't work for the film, its a drag of a first half as the characters are getting set. Anurag takes a lot more time to work this part of the film out and overall the film could've easily have been shorter by 10-15 minutes.

Not everything about Barfi is perfect, It got me twitching my thumbs restlessly on my Blackberry in the first half with its snail-like pace but then something about it asked me to stay put for the second half. I am glad, I did.  Come to think of it, its as rewarding a Hindi film about romance can get ever.

Well done, Anurag, You've made up for your sin of ripping The Apartment into a 15 minute story.

Rating: 7.1/10

P.S: Its another matter though as I am writing this Disco Deewane from SOTY is reminding me that each of the cliched formulae mentioned above is also alive and kicking. Sigh... 

Monday, September 03, 2012

#277: Expendables 2

Compared to most recent action movies, Expendables 2 stands out with all the acton it has to offer. Compared to its first instalment, Expendables 2 screams out as a classic. Its got that cool quotient that the original tried so hard to infuse that it somewhere got lost on the way.

This one also shows ever so subtly the difference that a good director can make to a normal slam-bang action movie. Simon West of Con Air and Lara Croft:Tomb Raider fame handles this heavyweight cast with ease and ensures there's something in it for all those big names. He of course reserves his best for ringleader Stallone who leads a pack of killers on a mission. Statham, Schwazi, Willis, Norris, Van Damme all have their own moments that can make action lovers go weak in their knees. Replete with an equally carefree soundtrack, Expendables 2 keeps you rooted to your seats with some pretty good fights, humor and class. And one can even say- all in equal measure for it leaves you with that 'just right' vibe.

I had somewhere read that Expendables was meant to be a homage to those action flicks of the 80s. Somehow the first one relied solely on the names of the opening credits to see it through but this one more than makes up for it. In fact this is a lesson on how a homage ought to be paid.

Take a bow, Mr. West. This is a winner all the way !

Rating: 7.4/10

Saturday, September 01, 2012

#276: Sleepers

Sleepers is about friends. Its also about crime. Its about injustice or justice depending upon how one looks at it. Its about moral dilemmas. Its about a true incident or story and characters that did exist at some point. It is about the good 'bad guys' as well and the bad 'good guys'.

But one thing its not about is the big names that roll in the opening credits. Because every star in here plays a role antithetical to what we've seen them as. Brad Pitt is a regular joe lawyer. De Niro is a priest and Hoffman- a slurring druggy alcoholic barely in control of his words. And that's why this movie is so different from any other crime thriller you would've seen. And thankfully so. Spanning a period of 15 years, Sleepers is one movie I would pay to watch with my friends because it celebrates friendship like very few movies have in history.  A good old American classic and one of the finest works of a very fine director - Barry Levinson..

Rating: 7.6/10

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

#275: Players

Bollywood remakes ! Ugh...

And that's not all. It has Bobby Deol. Ugh-er.

Rating: .3/10

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

#274: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is the story of Maggie (Liz Taylor) and Brick (Paul Newman) - a couple whose marriage is on the rocks. The husband has a preconceived notion of what transpired between his wife and his close friend and since the time of the incident he has refused to forget or forgive the incident. The wife on the other hand tries and tries hard to explain and win the affection of her husband back but its all in vain.

The story unfolds on the night Brick's father Big Daddy returns home from the hospital with the good news that he has recovered from what was considered to a fatal breakdown for Big Daddy (Paul Ives).  But even amidst the happy dinner on the occasion of Big Daddy's return, Maggie and Brick still can't put aside their differences. In fact, they escalate.

Adapted from a Tennessee Williams play, the film has all the trappings of a family drama. Sensitive elders, bickering daughters-in-law and the stereotypical sons - one a good-for-nothing drunkard and the other doing well for himself. Yet what works for the film is the relentlessly devoted character of Maggie who just wants the love of her husband back. Even as the plot unfolds and secrets spill one identifies with Maggie's pursuit because one sees that the love she has for Brick is limitless. Paul Newman in his first Oscar-nominated role does enough to convey the drunk loser he is meant to be though his act in The Verdict was far better. While the story veers around the family, the film is all about two strong points of view led by Paul and Liz and it is their story that has us rapt with attention. Paul Ives turns in a strong support act without being melodramatic at any point.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof felt like it needed to watched more to be fully appreciated. With its serious undertones of fidelity and father-son relationships, it is a film that isn't the easiest to get through.                                                                                                                    And while the film might be a bit anachronistic if released today, Newman and Taylor ensure that it becomes memorable for anyone who puts in the 108 minutes of the runtime of the film. This is vintage acting wrapped in a good story with a nifty climax for you to savor. No complaints !                                                    

Rating: 6.8/10