Month: October 2015

On Air With AIB

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

In the year 2013, Cyrus Broacha, one time MTV video jockey and presently, host of the satire news show, The Week That Wasn’t, took on the topic of our current Chief Minister. The episode revolved around her barring Sri Lankan cricketers from playing in the IPL matches in Chennai, and given that it was a news satire show, many jokes were made and it was an entertaining episode overall. Unfortunately for the show’s writers, and for Cyrus, the CM wasn’t amused, and soon enough, they found themselves facing a lawsuit for Criminal Defamation Charges from the Tamil Nadu State Government.
The show’s writers and Cyrus apologised profusely, of course and the case disappeared, but this isn’t the first time that legal action is being taken against remarks that have been made on television. We are a nation that thrives on outrage, to the point where I can actually picture outraging being introduced as an elective in colleges, or as a professional course. While we enjoy laughing at other’s, we seem incapable of laughing at ourselves.
In the other end of the world, John Oliver hosts a show called The Last Week Tonight on HBO, which is now popular all around the world for the carefully researched, (mostly) political insights that he delivers with razor sharp humour. Oliver leaves no stone unturned in the pursuit of the perfect political joke – anything and everything that can be made fun of, is, and no politician or any important figure for that matter, is too big to mess with. Every time I watch that show I wonder, when will India get the John Oliver that it deserves? After all, the politics in our country has enough and more material for satire (if not actually resembling satire), but every time I do, I remember television hosts and writers being sued for their opinions, and consequently I get my answer.
If you’ve also been having the same question as I’ve been the last couple of years, then I am here to tell you that all hope is not lost! All India Bakchod, the stand up comedy outfit which was started by four of India’s leading comedians – Tanmay Bhat, Gursimran Khamba, Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya (who was incidentally, one of the writers on that The Week That Wasn’t episode), have come out with On Air With AIB, a comedy meets news show which airs in two languages, Hindi and English, and over two mediums – online, and on air. The first episode titled “Why Be Good” released this Thursday.
Running for about twenty five minutes, “Why Be Good”, doused in the clever humour that AIB famous for, discusses the difficulties of being a whistleblower in India, and reveals the shocking safety measures and complete lack of witness protection in our country. A second watch (yes, I watched it twice) reveals the careful research that has gone in to presenting the programme. As corny as this sounds, the episode made me think almost as hard as it made me laugh. There were also a few extra segments, like “International News”, which talked about Benjamin Netanyahu’s comment on how it was a Palestine leader, Al-Husseini who was responsible for the sparking the idea of the Holocaust to Hitler, after which the German Chancellor Angela Merkel released a statement saying that Germany accepted this crime against humanity as their very own. “Germany, just reminded a Jew to be sensitive about the holocaust!” quips Rohan Joshi as the audience bursts into laughter.
I thoroughly enjoyed the show, and I cannot wait for the next nine episodes of this season to come out. Is On Air With AIB, India’s answer to The Last Week Tonight? I can’t say, but it sure as hell is a good start.

{On Air With AIB is presently telecast on Star World. Alternatively, you can watch it online on HotStar}

Well Trained

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

There’s a scene in the second episode of Quantico where the recruits at the FBI Training Academy are made to solve a crime scene, a crime scene which was dummy to begin with, and it is Priyanka Chopra’s character, Alex Parrish, who isn’t just the first among her peers, but the first in the history of the Academy to solve it. If someone were to have narrated this scene to me, I’d have rolled my eyes and made a mental note to never watch this show, but when I saw it unfold on the screen, I bought it. In fact, I bought all of it, and I am here to finally come out and say that Quantico is well worth your time.

I had watched the first eight minutes of the show when it leaked online, and yes, I found it entertaining but I still had many apprehensions – with the hype around the show, it seemed like it would be one that was poised to become the television event that I would love to hate. I’d already had half a column written in my head which had the words “wasted potential”, and “Priyanka Chopra should have stayed in Bollywood”, but now, 4 episodes into the show, I’ll eat my words. Quantico is tremendously entertaining, and Priyanka Chopra is not merely good, but entirely believable as Alex Parrish, the intelligent, bold, and tough FBI Agent who is wrongly accused of being a terrorist.

The screenplay of Quantico is fast and furious – it shifts back and forth from the past, where Alex Parrish is training in the Academy and the present, where she is accused of being the prime suspect in the bombing of New York’s Grand Central Station, and transition is seamless. Alex gets to know that it is one of her classmates from the Academy, who is responsible for the bombing and is framing her for the it, and must find out who it is before it’s too late. Could it be Shelby Wyatt (Johanna Brady), the pageant queen who nurses a secret vengeance? Or is it Simon Asher (Tate Ellington), the Jewish guy with a murky past?

Every character has a back story that deserves it’s own television show (the Nimah Amin story, in particular), and the writing is such that it’s impossible to judge any of them as “good” or “bad” upon first glance. There are also lots of little surprises about the characters which keep popping up during the course of the show, surprises which really pull you into watching, and ensure that you’ll be waiting for the next episode.

Finally, I feel like I have to talk about Priyanka Chopra’s accent in the show, despite the fact that there’s an entire library of material on the topic. It is not American, yes, but so what? The show has an explanation for it, even – After a traumatising incident which happens in the family (her father is shot dead), Alex is sent to India for ten years to finish her schooling, out of which her mother only knows where she had been for nine. And just like that, her accent becomes a part of the story. Truth be told, I’ve heard far worse accents from family and friends who have spent brief time in the US – drawls that suddenly appear like colourful underwear in a hastily packed suitcase, so Priyanka’s is really not bad.

There is still some room for improvement in the show – some of the dialogues are really cheesy, and the show does get over the top from time to time, but it’s an action soap opera, so that’s expected. What was unexpected for me, though, was how much I enjoyed watching Priyanka Chopra play Alex Parrish. I suppose it’s time now we stop focussing on her accent, and instead start writing about how she’s well on her way to becoming a legitimate star on American Television.

{Quantico is presently running on Star World}

Epic Television

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

I’m not one to call anything a phenomenon very lightly, least of all, something on airs on screen, but the Mahabharata, is a legitimate television phenomenon. I have been watching the story unfold on television for as long as I can remember watching television. The version which I can remember most clearly, and the one that has left maximum impact on me is BR Chopra’s version of the epic. Yes, the sets were gaudy, the effects, comical, and the acting got a little too dramatic at times, but the writing and the way the episodes were paced ensured that the series was ahead of its time. There was no compromise with regard to story in the Mahabharata of the nineties, for no relationship or character from the original epic was left behind. One would think that taking on all the subplots would make the series translate unfavourably for television, but the writers managed to juggle them all on screen with consummate ease. BR Chopra’s Mahabharata, revolutionised Indian television of the nineties. I have heard many stories of empty streets during the telecast, and about folks with television sets “hosting” people and children from their neighbourhood to watch the show together.

mahabharata, mahabharat, mahabharat star plus

The second version I remember, was animated – it was called “Pandavas”, and it aired on a channel called Splash, one of the few exclusive to children channels back in the nineties, and by god it was awful. It was 3D animation, and the technology was new at that time, but the execution was just terrible (even by the standards that were prevalent at that time). I must confess though – I didn’t miss a single episode. Two new versions of the Mahabharata has been airing over the last couple of years – one produced by Sun Networks, and the other by Star. I prefer Star’s version – it has with better special effects and modern casting (the hairy paunched Pandavas have been traded in for ones that have flat, muscular abs). Both productions, however, have got people hooked on to their television sets again, and that just proves that the draw of a good story, no matter how many times it has been retold, is undeniable.

Given the wealth of stories we are blessed with in our country, though, I’m disappointed that Indian television isn’t experimenting enough with the “epic” genre of television. When you think about it, the Mahabharata has enough cloak-and-dagger activities, evil lords, kingdoms, creatures and dysfunctional relationships to make Game of Thrones look like an amateur western spin off, and remember that this is a story that has been handed down from a thousand years ago! I would love to see a bold, raw version of it, a version which doesn’t pander to family audiences (and a version, I’m sure, which will never see the light of day).

Apart from experimenting, there is also a great lack of variety in this genre. I’ve seen bits and pieces of series that have covered Hanuman, Shiva, the Ramayana, and I can also vaguely remember one that focused on Krishna. This is again, disappointing, because we are country of stories! There is plenty of material, hundreds and thousands of myths and legends, warriors and princesses, that are waiting to be showcased. Why, for example, isn’t anyone doing a Karna series? Or an “Adventures of Lava and Kusha”? Why isn’t anyone exploring a Vaanara based story line from the Ramayana? And why, oh why isn’t anyone coming up with an original mythological hero or heroine? Because that, would be epic.

One More Time

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

Watching television shows is my way of relaxing, and I have a long list of TV shows to catch up on right now, and yet, on the days when I truly just want to kick back and let some steam out, I almost never reach for a new episode of a show I’m watching, or even a new show. I take my trusty hard disk out and watch reruns of either Friends, Gossip Girl or Sex And The City.

When I watch a rerun, I know exactly where the episode is heading. I know that Phoebe does find her soulmate, and that Chandler and Monica do end up having kids. I know that Blair will finally be with Chuck, and I don’t have to waste time thinking about who Gossip Girl really is. Most importantly, I know that Mr.Big comes back. I suppose reruns are like the visual equivalent of comfort food – they don’t require too much effort to watch, and yes, they are predictable, but deliciously so, and it is this predictability which keeps me coming back.

sex and the city, satc

I had watched each of these shows at a different point in time, and they each represent a different kind of nostalgia for me. Friends, I watched during high school. Gossip Girl was through my CA articleship and study holidays. Sex And The City, I binge watched as I stepped into my twenties, although it was well done and dusted by then. The relationships that I had formed in my head with the show’s characters, as well as the way I had associated myself with them when I’d watched the show initially, was a reflection of my identity, and what was going on with me at that time. In fact, I would decide that I was a particular character from the show, and even went on to match my friends with their show personalities. (Full disclosure – I was convinced that I was a total and complete Rachel from Friends, Blair from Gossip Girl, and Charlotte from Sex And The City).

When I watch a show today, I am so caught up in keeping up with the story line, that I don’t have the time or energy to really delve into a show and go to the extent of forming a relationship with a character. When I watch these reruns however, it’s different, because they take me back to the time I watched them for the first time, and the naiveté of my own youth when I’d thought that it was possible to lead lives similar to the characters I was so enamoured with. When I watch Sex And The City now, for example, I think – Don’t the lot of you have jobs? How do you keep meeting each other? How do you buy a new pair of six hundred dollar shoes every month with a journalist’s, no, columnist’s income?

Although the shows I have grown up with and loved are dubious in many ways, the primary storyline, and it’s characters have never stopped being charming to me. Every time I question a certain plot line’s logic, or a character’s choices, or even understand a joke that I previously didn’t (this happens all the time) it is actually a sign of how I’ve changed and grown, after all, the show hasn’t.There was an article in The Scientific American a couple of years ago on the same topic, and how reruns “spark personal growth”. They had ended the article with a quote by the Greek Philosopher Heraclitus, a quote, that I thought summed everything that I’ve ever felt about watching a beloved show over and over. “You never cross the same river twice—it’s not the same river, and it’s not the same you”

{Friends is presently running on Romedy NOW}

Domo Arigato

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

While the idea of hacking has been something that has always fascinated me, its portrayal in film and television has been mostly rubbish – the “hacker” is either a really skinny, or grossly overweight guy who wears a pair of chunky glasses, brings in words like “bypass”, “security protocol”, “router” and “access” to conversation and is the one to crack a few jokes every time the rest of the group gets serious. All we know about the hacker is that he’s the guy who can solve any problem in minutes by furiously typing on his keyboard.

Mr.Robot is a series that revolves around hacking, and one that takes its technology very seriously. Unlike most film or television portrayals where it’s only the hacker’s keyboard that’s seen, here we’re shown his computer screen. There are no special visual effects to make the hacking seem cool – they’re probably the most genuine looking processes I’ve seen on screen. What makes the hacking exciting, are the characters, and their personal stories. The show follows the perspective of Elliot (Rami Malek), a computer programmer with anti-social disorder. We are audience to his everything that goes on in his head (there is one episode where we can even see his drug induced dreams). When he says that he has reprogrammed his mind to hear “Evil Corp” instead of “E Corp”, we only hear Evil Corp throughout.

mr.robot, rami malek

Elliot is a vigilante hacker by night, which means that he gets into the computers of people he has suspicions about, and tips the police if he finds anything incriminating. In the very first episode, he hacks into a coffee shop owner’s computer because the internet speeds at the coffee shop were unlike any other’s, and because “good doesn’t come without condition”. As it would turn out, the owner managed a child pornography website, and thanks to Elliot’s tip, gets arrested.

It isn’t long before Elliot is recruited into FSociety, a group of hackers led by “Mr. Robot” (Christian Slater). Mr. Robot, and FSociety, are on a mission to bring about a revolution by destroying big conglomerates and rendering them powerless, a mission, to which Elliot is key. While the idea of throwing a spanner in the works is enticing, it also comes with terrible consequences. The rest of the season follows Elliot, his choices, and the consequences which occur when you set in motion something you don’t have complete control on.

The reason I love Mr.Robot is that although there is a lot of technical computer terms that thrown around (in the very first episode, the show thrusts words like “DDOS Attacks” and “RUDY Attacks” at us), there is no secondary character explaining them in layman terms. The show trusts the audience to be smart enough to figure what is going on. Rami Malek is spectacular as Elliot, the wide eyed, socially neurotic hacker with a past, as is Christian Slater, who plays the bordering on insane, yet strangely likeable Mr. Robot.

What really hit home for me while watching the show was the massive amount of information that the Internet has about the rest of us, no, the massive amount of information that we have been feeding it. With every status update we post, every tweet, every Instagram post, with every thought that we type out loud, we give the Internet greater control on us. Given how active I am on social media, these aren’t things I really think about, but watching Elliot scroll through hacked inboxes, Twitter and Facebook profiles to determine a person’s nature, was terrifying.

The all pervasive theme of Mr Robot, is vulnerability. The vulnerability of systems, the vulnerability of networks, and the vulnerability of people. Mr Robot isn’t a show about hacking computers. It’s a show about hacking people.

(Mr Robot is presently running on Colors Infinity)