Month: November 2015

The Snow On the Wall

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

It would seem that George RR Martin, the writer behind the epic books and TV series, Game of Thrones, has a rather curious penchant for killing his characters, more specifically, the good, the brave and the honest characters. Martin, who confesses to have been “killing characters his entire career”, has talked about how he wants his audience to be “afraid to turn the page” when his character is in danger. When you watch the first season of Game of Thrones (based on the book, A Song of Fire and Ice), the narration begins with Eddard Stark, an honourable lord who we are led to believe is one of the key protagonists in the series. He faces death, but given his importance in the scheme of things, you think that there’s really no way that they could kill him, after all, where would the story go without him? The executioner brings his sword to his neck, and you still think, no, a miracle will happen – maybe the evil people will change their minds! Maybe he’ll escape from his shackles and put up a fight! Maybe the executioner is his man! But none of that happens, and Eddard Stark dies a painful death, and it is that death which not only sets the coldblooded tone of the show, but also tells you that Martin was very serious about what he had said about making his audience fear for their favourite characters.

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Game of Thrones, for those who are still unaware, is the television event of this decade. An epic medieval fantasy which has reduced fully grown adults into discussing dragons and dwarves, Game of Thrones cannot be compared to any other show on television right now. Five seasons have passed thus far, and the sixth is due around April next year. The sixth season is the most awaited season yet, simply because no one has any idea of what is about to happen. The past five seasons have followed the books, but the sixth and seventh books are yet to be completed by Martin, which means that no one, apart from the show’s creators, really know what is about to happen next.

The fifth season ended with the death of the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Jon Snow. Characters dying in the show is now routine, and many of my own favourites (Oberyn Martell in particular) have all died gruesome, bloody deaths. Every time Martin killed someone I was rooting for, I remember telling myself that the time has come for me to give up on the show and stop watching it altogether, but the very next week I’ve found myself glued to the screen again.

Now Snow, who had become the audience favourite over the years because of his upright, brave, and stoic character (and also because almost every other character in the show worth rooting for, was brutally killed through the course of the five seasons), was stabbed in the back by his own men. Since there’s really no knowing what happens next, fans quickly recovered from the shock and horror to theorise about a possible resurrection, and a hundred other ways through which Snow could possibly defy death. After six months of heavy speculation, fans rejoiced last week as HBO released the poster for the sixth season, featuring Snow, alive, albeit with a bit of blood on his face. Is he going to be resurrected by the Red Priestess, Melisandre? Or is his Dragon blood going to pull him through? Apart from Snow’s “resurrection”, there is still mystery surrounding the other characters in the series as well. Whatever happened to Sansa Stark and Theon Greyjoy when they jumped off the castle wall? Did Stannis really die? Is Arya going to be blind forever?
Knowing the show, I would take the worst case scenario for every character, but Jon Snow’s rebirth has given me something that I never thought I would ever associate with Game of Thrones – Hope.

{Game of Thrones presently airs on HBO}

Master of Some

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

I’ve never been impressed by Aziz Ansari’s stand up comedy routines – I watched a few before I began to watch his new show, Master of None, and it was underwhelming. My immediate reaction was that I knew stand up comedians from Chennai who could do better, which, if you know stand up comedy scene in Chennai, isn’t the greatest of compliments. However, I proceeded to watch Master of None anyway because I knew that he had written the show, and was playing a character of Tamil descent, and if there’s one thing I like more than supporting talent who I share roots with, it’s nitpicking.

Master of None lies in uncharted territory which feels familiar. Aziz Ansari plays Dev Shah, a first generation immigrant Indian, who is trying to make it as an actor in New York City. The show deals with Dev’s various life experiences which fall under a broader topic. The episode “Indians on TV”, for example isn’t just about a casting problem that Dev faces, but is also about the rampant stereotyping of Indians as cab drivers, 7-11 owners, philosophical middle aged men or IT guys. Other episodes deal with feminism, old people, parents, and so on.

Every time Dev faces a problem, or comes across something he feels strongly about, he talks it out, and it is conversation that forms the solid foundation of Master of None. Whether he’s talking about feminism with his girlfriend Rachel (Noel Wells), or about what it takes to get a hot ticket date with his group of best friends Brian (Kelvin Yu), Denise (Lena Waithe), and Arnold (Eric Wareheim), or even if he’s talking about what it means to be an immigrant in the United States with his parents, Ramesh (Shoukath Ansari) and Nisha (Fatima Ansari), it is the conversation which guides the direction of the episode. All the characters, for whatever limited time they appear on screen have very vibrant, distinct, and real personalities, which shines through the dialogue, and makes for very fun viewing.

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Currently, Master of None is soaring high up on the television rankings in the US, and for good reason, but I have a bone to pick with the show, and it is with Ansari’s own character – Dev Shah. I’ll even forgive the terrible pronunciation of his own name (he calls himself “Dev”, as in development), but what I can’t wrap my head around is that for a character who identifies himself as Tamil, and whose parents are from Thirunelveli (spelled Thiranalveli in the show, another problem I had), why would he choose a last name like Shah? A Shah is as authentic to Thirunelveli as Jalebi is. For someone who not only had an entire episode dedicated to Indian stereotypes, but is also Tamil, the poor research was just glaring. It is also to be noted that Ansari’s own parents play his parents on the show which I found incredibly sweet on his part, but I have to say this – they’re terrible actors. The rest of the cast though, especially Lena Waithe as Denise, are excellent. The chemistry between Dev, and Rachel is also something that should be written about – their moments together play like parts of a romantic comedy that you’d actually be interested in watching. There are also some great special appearances in the show, with the likes of Claire Danes and Colin Salmon joining the cast.

Over all, Master of None is something I haven’t ever seen before. It’s fresh, it’s funny, it’s relevant, and it proves that Aziz Ansari is in fact, a Jack of All.

{Season 1 of Master of None is currently streaming on Netflix}

Sense and Censurability

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

I hardly watch television shows on television these days – blame it on the internet, but it just doesn’t make sense to follow a show on television when you’re as impatient as I am. It so happened that sometime during the last week, I was watching a rerun of The New Girl on TV, when I noticed that the subtitles for the show had censored the word “period”. My sister was quick to inform me that when she had been watching a film recently, the channel had censored the word “menopause”. Since when have normal bodily functions been offensive?

Channels have been censoring their content for a while now – cuss and swear words get starred en masse, or replaced without any regard to context (for example, one channel substitutes for the word “shit”, is jerk, resulting in subtitles to the tune of “that piece of jerk”).

The subtitle censoring is barely the tip of the iceberg, though – I have also noticed cleavage (both on people as well as statues) being blurred, which is hilarious because the big blurry patches on screen only draws more attention to the area. Entire scenes of episodes have been taken down for want of apparent decency, which makes me wonder if anyone would be able to even follow shows like Game of Thrones if they were to watch it on Indian television.

The censoring across channels is inconsistent as well, which is probably because each channel has its own team which takes care of cuts, and decides what is offensive, what isn’t, and what could be potentially substituted for all that is offensive. If you are going to censor killing in a show about a serial killer, what is left for the viewer at the other end? More importantly, what is left of the show?

While rampant cuts are being made on international television shows in order to ensure that the channel doesn’t get banned off air (a valid concern, definitely), regional television continues to churn out content which is high in cliche, chauvinism, values which date back to the stone age, and hypocrisy. Pick out any regional drama today, there is sure to be at least one or more evil mothers-in-law, or abusive husbands, or rich women who are diabolic because they have no hobbies.

While I don’t expect regional television content to become hip and urban overnight, it really is disconcerting to see that regulators think it’s perfectly alright to broadcast a scene where a woman gets slapped by her husband (to “set her right”) or decides to stay with her horrendously abusive in-laws because that is a married woman’s place, and the family’s honour is more vital than her own sanity or self respect.

For the longest time, I had been of the opinion that censoring was reserved for all things “western”, but that changed a couple of weeks ago, when I was watching the last hour or so of the Kamal Hassan hit film, Nayakan on TV – there had been scenes cut from the film, more specifically, scenes that involved caste. This incident confirmed that we were indeed, a nation of professional offence takers. After all, Nayakan, has been telecast, repeatedly, in its full glory for the last twenty years or so. Where is this sudden conscience coming from?

Stephen Fry once famously claimed that people who took offence, or said “I am offended by that” were just whining, and that the phrase had no purpose. He also noted that there was only one appropriate response to people who used that phrase. Unfortunately, it has been censored.

Lies & Prejudice

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

A few weeks ago, I had been talking a friend, Nandita, when the topic of this column came up. You should watch The Affair, she told me. It’s the only show I watch, and I love it. Now Nandita, is someone who works close to 14 hours a day and has a really active preschooler at home as well, so if she was making time for a show, I knew that it was going to be a good one.

The Affair, as the name suggests deals with the murky aftermath of an extramarital affair between a teacher (and writer), and a diner waitress. Noah Halloway (Dominic West), to the rest of the world, has a perfect life – he has been married for the last twenty years to his college sweetheart, Helen, has four children and lives in a beautiful mansion in an upmarket area in New York City (so what if it’s been paid for by his wealthy father-in-law?). Unfortunately, Noah is unhappy. Something about his life feels incomplete, and fate introduces him to Alison Lockhart (Ruth Wilson), a beautiful waitress with a mysterious past. What happens next, of course, is all too predictable.
What isn’t predictable, is the way the story has been translated on screen.

The story shifts between the past and the present. In the Emmy Award winning first season, the past storyline was about how Noah and Alison met, and how the affair sparked off, and the present, showed an ongoing police investigation for a crime which we don’t know the details of yet, and a crime for which Noah is a prime suspect. The season ends with Noah’s arrest, and the second season (which is presently on air) picks up from where the first left off. We see the Halloway couple going through divorce proceedings in the past, as well as Noah’s trial in the present. All evidence for the crime, a hit-and-run murder, points to Noah, while he claims to be innocent.

What makes the screenplay really interesting, enigmatic even, is the fact that each episode, has “parts”, where events unfold from one character’s perspective, complete with their own memory biases. It’s what they remember from that day, and those events. As a viewer, you really have no idea of what is true, and what is not, because there is no objectivity anywhere. In the parts where it’s Noah’s recollection of events, Alison seems cold while he comes across as a struggling writer, dripping with love, who’s trying to get his life together. In Alison’s, he’s mostly a selfish idiot. Similarly, Helen comes across as an Upper East side brat from Noah’s perspective, but when the story takes a different turn when you see hers.

There is bias everywhere, and the characters are much more than what meets the eye – one minute you think you’ve figured them out, and the next, you’re proven wrong about them. It’s completely engrossing, and at times, consuming. The Affair is one show you’re going to want to be in a relationship with.

{Season 2 of The Affair is presently being telecast on FX India}